Literature / The Decline of the West
The Decline of the West
is a philosophical book by German philosopher
Oswald Spengler. While the title suggests being mainly about the fate of western civilization, it actually covers a lot of topics - the history of the other great cultures (Chinese, Indian, Aztecs, Classical, Babylonian, Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Russian); the development of arts, science and religions; also, that of politics, economy, technics and war; and finally, tying everything together with "morphology", i.e. comparing the shapes of different cultures and find the equivalents of, let's say, Napoleon Bonaparte
, in them note
. Yes, Spengler was a bit of a Renaissance Man
The book influenced people from Henry Kissinger to Joseph Campbell
, and even a thinker critical of Spengler as Adorno conceded that Spengler's insights were often more profound than those of his more liberal contemporaries, and his predictions more far-reaching.
Spengler's works are in the public domain (at least in Germany), and you can read them on the internet for free. Here are links to Part 1
and Part 2
(both in English).
Provides examples / considers the topics of:
- America Saves the Day: Spengler criticized the Germans for being Genre Blind to this trope, and being completely ignorant of the US army's achievements (creating a million man army from scratch, using battleships and machine guns, amazing logistics) during The American Civil War.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: While Spengler also was pretty critical of democracy (see below), he had no illusions that medieval life was all like Arcadia. As he wrote: "Hatred wells up out of the villages, contempt flashes back from the castles."
- Awesome McCool Name: "Magians" for the Jews (and Muslims, and Greek-Orthodox Christians... generally, everyone from the Middle East following a religion which originated there around 0-1000 AD).
- Awful Truth: "Optimism is cowardice."
- Big Screwed-Up Family: He did not like "unfruitful" people, but mentioned that these families also exist. "The hate for the brother is always bigger than the hate for the stranger."
- Black and White Morality: The Magian (Middle Eastern) religions and sects (Greek Orthodox Christianity, Talmudic Judaism, Islam, Mandaeans, Manichaeans, Nestorianism, Monophysitism) share this.
- Both Sides Have a Point: As said, Spengler was relativist and wrote about the wordly and the spiritual side having a point - of course, not without mentioning that both think they're right.
- Burn the Witch!: He writes how during the medieval ages, many women even turned themselves in because they feared they might be possessed.
- Christianity Is Catholic: Protestantism was described by Spengler as a poor version of Christianity that abandoned all the appealing stuff (adorned churches) and, which he saw as most important, confession. Also note that he saw Catholic Christianity as something very different from Jesus' (or St Paul's) Christianity, which have mostly superficial things in common. (Although many people will become outraged at that suggestion.)
- Conflicting Loyalty: Do you want a worldly life (represented by government, firms, the military, the judges, farms, general real work, technics, and/or founding a family) or escape it (science, arts, religion, philosophy, ideologies, spirituality, love, sex, drugs)?
- Corrupt Church: Spengler separates religion (which is about a higher truth that is not from this world) and churches (which are by necessity worldly organizations, and which leaders are Not So Different from purely worldly rulers)
- Creative Sterility: When a culture has explored all possible art forms (first the aesthetic ones, later the offensive ones), they end up reviving old styles or copying exotic cultures (or mixing both).
- Culture Clash: Every major culture is seen as alien from the POV of most other major cultures. The Byzantine Empire e.g. was surprisingly free from racism; an Irishman and a black African woman had no problem marrying - as long as they had the same religion. If however a Monophysite man had wanted a Nestorian woman from the same Syrian village, things likely would have ended like Romeo and Juliet, and by that we mean: Bad.
- Culture Police: Spengler suspected that in Ancient China, Confucianist thinkers destroyed all sources of the old Chinese religion. While this is hard to impossible to prove, it makes sense that Confucianism didn't just emerge finished and polished from nothing.
- Cute Kitten: "A peacock is indubitably speaking when he spreads his tail, but a kitten playing with a cotton-reel also speaks to us, unconsciously, through the quaint charm of its movements." Yes, this book really covers a lot of topics.
- Defector from Decadence: It's probably a safe bet that Spengler saw himself as this.
- Democracy Is Bad: Spengler describes democracy as a tool of money and materialism, and a stage in the decay of a civilization, which will be followed by The Empire.
- Distaff Counterpart / Spear Counterpart: Interestingly, he wrote that life has two sides: The "sword side", everything that's traditionally considered business for men, like politics, war and the big economy; and the "spindle side", essentially raising families. Not spear and distaff, but close.
- Doorstopper: The German version has more than 1000 pages, in small print.
- The Empire: What every culture/civilization will end in.
- The Fatalist: Spengler thought that the western world had to create an empire - or perish. "Fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling."
- Foreign Culture Fetish: Spengler stated that westerners essentially had this, for the classical Greco-Roman civilization, which is more different from us than many of us think. Our theater actors don't wear buskins and masks, and there's usually no Greek Chorus either, Deus ex Machina looks too much like Ass Pull to us, and our countries aren't governed by two consuls sharing the powernote , and there aren't annual elections for them either. (Thank God!)
- Friedrich Nietzsche: Spengler was a big fan of Nietzsche. However, he criticized that Nietzsche was only speaking clearly when he protested the decadence of his time - while being very vague about what to replace it with (the ‹bermensch thing).
- Full-Circle Revolution: He commented on the Russian revolution that there were only two possibilities: Either the factory workers would learn how to run a society (in which case nothing would really change) or not (in which case, everything would break down). As we know, reality was a mixture of 1 and 2.
- Gratuitous Foreign Language: Oh so much. There are Gratuitous Hebrew, Gratuitous Arab, Gratuitous Russian, Gratuitous Hindi/Sanskrit(?), Gratuitous Chinese, Gratuitous Latin and Gratuitous Old Greek (often, even with Greek letters). Mostly used for concepts which are genuine of one culture and would be misunderstood if a common but incorrect translation was used.
- Hard on Soft Science: Especially on philosophy, starting with Kant. And that's saying something.
- History Repeats: i.e. in every major culture: A culture emerges among the barbarian peoples and fuses them together to create nations. The great myths, art styles and religions develop. At the beginning, strong kings rule, but their power soon is weakened by their noble vassals. A great movement reforms the religion. Meanwhile, in the cities a somewhat-privileged middle class has risen, replacing feudalism economy slowly but steadily by capitalism. By cooperating with them, the crown can weaken nobility and the church, forming an absolutist state. Science and capitalism develop further, and an enlightened philosophy spreads, weakening the hold of religion. Then, the middle class will decide to get rid of the old system, usually in the form of a revolution - which starts civilization. This marks the fall of the culture - wars will get worse and worse (The Napoleonic Wars -> The American Civil War -> World War One -> World War II), art will become more and more offensive, and capitalism runs rampant (not without provoking counter movements). At the end, one state will conquer/control all other states, and one man will rise to the top of this state - voila, The Empire.
- I Have Many Names: He pointed out how people (as in, Germans, Romans, Americans...) can have different names, which makes work difficult for historians. Point: The Germans were called "Allemands" by the French in 1813, "Prussiens" in 1870 and "boches" in 1914. But does that make them three different people?
- Interfaith Smoothie: Syncretism, which appears in every civilization once it has reached the phase of caesarism.
- It's Popular, Now It Sucks: Also said to be typical of the West.
- I Want Grandkids: Spengler gives the justification for this trope: "He does not entirely die who lives on in sons and nephews."
- Jesus: Spengler found that his philosophy still stands out among other religions, and pointed out how Jesus upon the cross inspired many martyrs to die for their cause.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Spengler's other idol, so to speak. Goethe's works about science are often mentioned in this work.
- Just the First Citizen: He wrote that titles like this are typical for revolutionary governments, whether in western Europe ("head of the Committee of Public Safety") or ancient Egypt.
- Language Equals Thought: Subverted - Spengler proposed a theory that different cultures have different world views which also reflect in their language. He e.g. pointed out that the Romans used to say "fecisti" (one word) instead of "I have done" / "ich habe getan" / "j'ai fait" / "ego habeo factum" (three words), which led him to the conclusion that the Romans saw "doing something" more as a concrete action (leading to a world view centered on concrete, rather than abstract, entities), while Western Europeans emphasize that there's a subject actively doing something (leading to a world view emphasizing active work and subjects as centers of power). He also pointed out the difference that in western languages, the word "spirit" / "geist" / "esprit" sounds uplifting (from the speech melody), while the Russian word "Дух" (pronounced "dookh") is rather depressing in comparison. Why a subversion? Because he didn't believe that language formed thoughts, but instead both were shaped by the landscape their creators live in - since Western Europeans, Russians and Romans (and so on) live in very different landscapes respectively, you should expect that they also have very different languages (and philosophies).
- Magnificent Bastard: Like many, Spengler was fascinated by them, and stated that there's barely if anything comparable to the satisfaction than that you feel if all the pieces of a great combination fall into place, Just as Planned.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: Spengler pointed out how (roughly) until 1800, having many children was seen as a great luck (as still described by Goethe in Werther), while afterwards, big families either were a gag for comedies or big drama because the parents can't cope with so many children. Quite a paradigm change.
- Men Act, Women Are: "The man makes history.note The womannote is history."
- Misaimed Fandom: He mentions how the French revolutionaries revered Brutus - who in Real Life lent out money for high interest and was one of the most important speculators in Rome.
- Never Trust a Title: Spengler wasn't completely happy with the title (which seemed to imply that the western world had to fall, like the Roman empire) and commented that he could've changed the title to "The fulfillment of the West", which would be closer to his intention - i.e. the west transforming to a stable but stagnant empire in the end. The fact that many fans only knew the title and didn't care to actually read the book didn't help.
- One World Order: He thought the western civilization might create this at the end.
- The Plan: Spengler claimed that "the money" was using communist movements for their own interests. Which would probably be the explanation for why they didn't use brute force to suppress communism even if they could.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Spengler commented that some historical events, like the death of Alexander, seem like they were written by a bad author.
- Religion Is Right / Religion Is Wrong: Spengler had a relativist stance and brought the example of Pilate asking "What is Truth?" in contrast with Jesus asking "What is Reality?". As he said, both were right from their POV.
- Sacred Language: Spengler speculated that in the Stone Age, language (as in, speaking) may have been restricted to the priests, just as was the case with writing in some cultures.
- Sham Ceremony: Monarchy in the age of democracy, parliamentarianism in the age of The Empire.
- Silly Reason for War: Spengler pointed out that many wars in Real Life were started like this - more than one, apparently, because some courtier wanted to break up the developing relationship between some general and his wife.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Definitely not at the idealistic end.
- The Social Darwinist: Spengler remarked that one (well, he at least) gets the impression in a forest that all the trees are only standing there because they won the fight for water, sunlight and nutrients against the other trees that died prematurely. So even trees are social darwinists!
- Starving Artist: Spengler himself for some time during World War One
- Strawman News Media:
- Spengler accused Northcliffe having used his press conglomerate to manipulate the readers (and thus, their countries) until they wanted World War One.
- Also, he wrote that journalists... well, suck. How much? Don't read if you're a journalist and easily offended: Spengler wrote that journalists are intellectual whores, who will sell their intellectual abilities to whoever needs them, and support whatever cause he wants.
- Suicidal Pacifism: One of the most horrifying things for Spengler - the preference of slavery over death. As he explained: At the battle of Cannae, 50,000 Roman soldiers died. When the Mongols overran the metropolises of China and the Muslim world, the population didn't want to fight them, and hundreds of thousands of people died. Per metropolis, that is.
- Take That: Spengler spares almost nobody. Particularly notable: How he dismissed racist theories on the "purity of blood".
- Those Wacky Nazis: When Spengler finished the book (1922), the Nazis were still a pretty insignificant political movement and not worth mentioning. The Nazis eventually did try to co-opt Spengler's work; yet Spengler, who met Hitler in 1933, distanced himself from Nazism and said about Hitler that [Germany doesn't need a] "heroic tenor but a real hero." Spengler went on to write another book in 1933, Years of Decision, which contained open criticism of the Nazis, and was later banned; though, still considered as a luminary of the right wing, Spengler was ignored rather than persecuted by the regime. When he died unexpectedly in 1936, he had been preparing another book called Germany in Peril. Spengler did openly admire Mussolini, though.
- True Art Is Ancient: Something very typical of western civilization.
- Vice City: All the metropolises. But there's a glint of hope, so to speak - these cities may disappear and become ruins, as Angkor, Pataliputra (and for some time, Rome) did.
- War Is Glorious: ...but scarcity will destroy everything, and a long peace will ruin people more thoroughly than a long war.
- Weimar Republic: Spengler didn't like it too much and pointed out that a few small altercations would be enough to give one leader unlimited power. And who came to power in 1933? Exactly.
- World Building: Spengler did it in his youth, inventing the country of Afrikasien (Africasia) with its government and going so far to decide how much of an income the ministers should receive.
- World War One: Spengler wrote the book during it. Originally he had expected Imperial Germany to win.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: Relatedly, Spengler stated that while earlier philosophers (Pascal, Descartes, Leibniz) also were great mathematicians, later ones were... not. This explicitly included Nietzsche.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Spengler mentions Swedish king Charles XII, who was a big fan of Alexander the Great, tried to follow his example, thus made war on the Russia of Peter the Great, only to have his army destroyed at the battle of Poltava, which effectively ended Sweden's time as a great power.
- You Keep Using That Word: Spengler used many... original definitions, often giving existing words a very different meaning:
- To Spengler, socialism is very different from Communism/Marxism, but on the other hand somewhat related to the politics of Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I, or Ancient Egypt. In this, Spengler was influenced by the terminology of the 19th century, as prior to the Russian Revolution, "socialism" had carried a much wider spectrum of connotations.
- He used "civilization" for a time of decline and decadence following the real culture, during which art becomes more and more offensive and/or primitive, and politics steered either by the capitalists or the army (in his definition, this time started with The French Revolution).
- Also, his names for cultures (Faustian = Western Europe; Apollinian = Classic civilizations; Magian = Middle Eastern).
- Finally (for now), his definition of "race", which had nothing at all to do with skin colors or the shape of human skulls.