Heralding the decline and fall of the west, apparently

The other day I found a tweet by Stephen Fry linking to a Texan college video in which students working to become lawyers, psychologists, and so on, didn’t know who’d won the US Civil War. Or who their Vice President was.

Fry wondered if it was evidence of Spengler’s The Decline and Fall of the West.

Oswald Spengler. Public domain, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R06610, via Wikipedia.
Oswald Spengler. Public domain, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R06610, via Wikipedia.

I’m not sure how many people got the real dimension of that joke. Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (1880-1936) was neither the first nor last thinker to argue that the west would decline and fall, but he was certainly the most bizarre. I analysed his 1918-22 treatise The Decline And Fall of the West as part of a post-grad paper, years ago – I used the English edition, though I’m not sure how much was lost in that translation (the original title used untergang – ‘downfall’ – rather than rückgang ‘decline’).

At any rate, it was hilarious, though not intentionally. At the time, middle-European thinking was trying to reduce the whole world, including the complexities of human society, to a few basic principles and immutable ‘laws’, like Newtonian physics. They did so as impenetrably as they could manage, via highly convoluted language that made iconoclastic uses of everyday words, to which they assigned new meanings.

Spengler rejected all of this, instead insisting that the whole world operated via a few basic principles and immutable ‘laws’, like Newtonian physics, which he expressed via highly convoluted language, including iconoclastic uses of everyday words to which he assigned new meanings.

Human society, Spengler decided, was actually a plant. Not like a plant. Actually a plant. It went through cycles – inevitable pre-determined patterns; a springtime of vigorous expansion, summer of maturity, autumn of decline and then winter that brought death. Spengler went through history to look at eight ‘high’ cultures, as he called them, to show how they fitted the pattern.

It was a case of making the evidence fit the theory, but Spengler launched into it with a kind of brave didacticism that was unadorned by references, comprehensibility or even sense. It never occurred to Spengler that his premise – that human socio-economic and political development was subject to rules as inevitable as gravity – might be faulty.

To Spengler, the logical outcome was that western society was going to fall when its pre-determined thousand-year span was up. However, although the theory briefly gained traction (even an echo, from Arnold Toynbee), it was soon recognised for its profound silliness, and duly swept aside, except for a brief revival in A E Van Vogt’s Voyage Of The Space Beagle.

I suppose I shouldn’t ridicule Spengler too much. He was a man of his time, a period when middle-European thinking – particularly – was built around determinism. And we can’t fault him for the effort he put in. Personally, I would fault Spengler for voting for Hitler in 1932, but on the other hand, a lot of Germans did.

The reality, as we know it today, is that history never repeats, exactly – but the human condition driving it does, which is why we identify similar behaviours through the past and across cultures. And why do cultures and civilisations change in ways we call a ‘fall’, like ancient Rome? There’s no rule in the Spenglerian sense. But societies seem to succumb, in the end, to various things – all of which, one way or another, relate to that human condition.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


3 thoughts on “Heralding the decline and fall of the west, apparently

  1. I have no idea how you’ve managed to summarize Spengler’s work, provide a brief history of the context in which he wrote it, and apply it to the larger questions of culture and the human condition in one blog post. But you’ve done it — and with style! Beautifully written, Matthew.

    I haven’t actually read Spengler (though now I desperately want to!) so I can’t comment on his theories. But I do think it’s an immutable law of nature that civilizations must inevitably decline, because — as George Harrison put it — “all things must pass.”

    Anyway, thank you for another of your characteristically thought-provoking posts. Bravo!

      1. I must be unwell, Matthew, because there are few things that delight me more than wading through the molasses of strained academic prose. 🙂 Thank you for the link!

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