Random Notes on Spengler’s “Decline of the West”

Sir Barken Hyena writes:

happy happy joy joy

Like a snake slowly digesting a fat rabbit, I’ve been working my way through this massive and challenging work for the last 4 or 5 years. While I’m not ready to write the Cliff Notes version, I do feel like I’m getting a grasp on it all. But a concise summary eludes me, partly because Spengler had no intention of erecting a “system”, he was too trailblazing for that. But by highlighting some general points, we can get started.

A little background. Published in 1918, “Decline of the West” was a surprise best seller. With Europe smoldering from the Great War, notions of the end of civilization were on everyone’s mind. Not a work of history, but rather of the philosophy of history, “Decline” begins by rejecting out of hand the notion of ancient, medieval, and modern periods, as we all still learn it today. World history was not a unity, not a slow but unified climb to a higher state, and could not be seen in its true light until this notion was abandoned.

  • Two important terms are Culture and Civilization, capitalized. For Spengler, these are phases of development. Culture is the early growth, and is characterized by deep creativity and spirituality. It is flexible, organic, intuitive, mystical and religious, restless and searching. Civilization is the late fulfilled senescence of the earlier Culture, and so it has opposite qualities. It is rigid, materialistic, rule based, logical, and sterile, the remains of a once living thing, and as such can last for a very long time like bones in the earth or the great hulk of a dead oak in the forest.
  • Viewed properly, we see cultures being born, growing to maturity and finally dissolving in senility in a plant-like pattern of growth. These cultures interact, yes, but are in the end complete worlds of their own that do not admit a true understanding to outsiders. Spengler was the first, and by far the truest multiculturalist; what goes by that name today is actually syncretic universalism, a perfect opposite to Spengler’s notions.
  • Primitive men had no Culture, there was no directional tendency in their societies, but rather a vegetative stasis. Though constantly in flux in its myths and practices, it stays in the same place. This is the background soil out of which Culture emerges.
  • As population rose and agriculture began, political complexity emerged and a priesthood with it that had leisure to contemplate existence. Joseph Campbell, a confirmed Spenglerist, calls this the Age of Wonder, it’s when the old primitive myths lose force and a crisis of belief forces a new conception to emerge. An example from the ancient Middle East: attention to astronomy began to reveal deep patterns of time in the movement of the stars that had been unsuspected by primitive men. This was a great shock, the universe is suddenly seen to be profoundly different than ever thought.
  • Fear of the absolute otherness of the new found reality demanded an answer to show man’s place in this strange universe, in particular, to the vastly expanded sense of time which underscores man’s tiny place in the world and his impending lonely death and oblivion. The response is a new feeling of time and space. It is the flowering of this “seed idea” that creates a new Culture.
  • A Culture lasts about 1,000 years, but the Civilization stage can continue indefinitely. China and India, for example, have been in that stage since 400 B.C. or so. Though Cultures evolve independently, they follow the same phases of growth as individuals of the same species do though the details are particular to each.

Spengler variously lists what he considers to be Cultures but generally they are:

  • Egypt
  • India
  • China
  • Babylonia
  • Classical Antiquity
  • Aztec/MesoAmerica
  • Inca
  • Western Europe (Faustian)
  • Arabia (Magian)
  • Russia

Spengler is not a predictor of collapse or some kind of impending apocalypse. His “decline” is a decline of creative powers into an ossified condition, but it is in the Civilization stage that huge populations arise.

Well, that’s enough to chew on I guess. There’s more, much more trust me. “Decline of the West” is out of print and hard to find; I’ve been reading Kindle versions, of which David Payne’s translation is the best. I think the time is ripe for a revival of this most unusual of philosophers, one who from the remove of a century has uncannily seen so much of what we’ve become today.

About Sir Barken Hyena

IT professional and veteran of start ups. Life long musician and songwriter. Voracious reader of dead white guys. Lover of food and women.
This entry was posted in History, Philosophy and Religion and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Random Notes on Spengler’s “Decline of the West”

  1. Ron Pavellas says:

    Thanks for the digest. It’ll make the book easier to digest. I have the abridged edition (Arthur Phelps) of the English translation by Charles Francis Atkinson.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Callowman says:

    A slightly different angle on culture and civilization that I ran across this morning. Yes, he has read Spengler and cites him in the article.

    “Civilization is fundamentally a cultural infrastructure of information and knowledge that serves survival and continuity. What distinguishes a civilization from a culture is that this infrastructure, having reached a critical level of complexity, becomes autonomous from constituent cities, nations, and empires. In ordinary cultures, the passing of information and knowledge may depend upon imitation or oral communication; in civilizations, this cultural memory, etched into clay or drawn into papyrus, takes on a life of its own.” (Andrew Bosworth, “The Genetics of Civilization: An Empirical Classification of Civilizations Based on Writing Systems, Comparative Civilizations Review, 2003, 49:9).


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just read this excellent passage on the “seed-idea” from Joseph Campbell’s “Oriental Mythology”:

    “Spengler in his Decline of the West has pointed to the problem, little treated by historians, of the sudden appearance of such culture styles at certain critical moments within limited horizons and their persistence, then, for centuries, through many phases of development and variation…And we shall be forced to recognize similar moments both in India and in the Far East – moments when, as it would seem, the character of the culture became established. They were the moments in which a new reading of the universe became socially operative. And they first took form, not through a great broad field, but in specific, limited foci, which then became centers of force, shaping first an elite then gradually a more broadly shared and carried structure of civilization – the folk, meanwhile, remaining essentially on the pre-literate, neolithic level, rather as objects and raw matter than as the subjects and creative reality of the higher history.”


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