How A German Historian Predicted The Decline Of Western Civilization 100 Years Ago
The New Modern Man | Spengler’s Decline of the West Series
Is Western Civilization in Decline? This seems to be the topic du jour of the last decade.
There is a lot of discussion these days about America and the other nations comprising Western Civilization being in decline, and there is certainly a lot of evidence to support this claim. Whether it be dying populations among the Caucasian races that created the civilization, unchecked immigration rapidly replacing native populations in Europe and the United States, evidence that America is currently and has been behaving as an imperialistic empire but is now slowly losing its power around the world, a culture that seems to completely disregard the importance of family, the building block of civilization, or a loss of religiousness and sense of purpose, signs that something is wrong are everywhere.
You may be surprised to learn that many of the things that are happening to Western Civilization today were written down in a predictive model of history by German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler nearly 100 years ago. Our High Culture is following the same patterns he saw in the other High Cultures thought to have existed in recorded history. Spengler writes:
I see…the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death.
As a result of Spengler’s study of these historical cycles, he reasoned Western Civilization is coming to a close. See Spengler’s Civilization Model as a chart.
Reaction to Decline of the West
Spengler has his critics, as do many generalists in an age of myopic specialization. Right or wrong, most of the attacks on his civilization model are made by those who cannot see the forest for the trees. Because of this, his work has largely gone unrecognized in modern times.
Historian Robert Merry, an author of books on American history and foreign policy wrote about the reaction to Spengler’s theory after it was published in Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy. It left the academic class with their jaws open:
When Spengler’s book appeared in the wake of the Great War’s carnage, conventional historians attacked it immediately. The scholarly world, suggests H. Stuart Hughes “has been embarrassed to know what it can do about it.” Though it manifests prodigious study and substantial knowledge, Decline is not considered respectable scholarship [by some]. He seems to be saying that subsequent scholars couldn’t quite dismiss the book but also couldn’t figure out precisely how to incorporate its arguments into their thinking.
As with many truths, “In every culture and society there are facts which tend to be suppressed collectively, because of the social and psychological costs of not doing so,” as stated by researcher Peter Dale Scott. A lot of people seem to be turned off by a predictive model of history since the psychological cost of admitting that modern humans are subject to the same cycles in nature as other civilizations is quite high. Whether you agree with Spengler’s ideas or not, they’re intellectually fascinating, and worth a look.
The Four Seasons
Spengler equated the four cycles in human civilizations to the seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. In compiling his work, he studied the 8 High Cultures thought to have existed: Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Mayan/Aztec, Greek/Roman or Classical, Arab and, finally, Faustian, or what we call Western civilization. He believed each of the eight civilizations went through phases, just like the seasons. While some of those cultures are still with us, they have not been dominant cultural forces since their Winter. For example, China was referred to as a Sleeping Giant until it picked up on the vitality of the West.
In Spengler’s model, each culture goes through a formative Culture Stage, followed by a decadent period known as Civilization. The culture period makes up the “organic” Spring and Summer of a civilization, and is when the civilization is inspired by its own art and religion. Autumn and Winter make up the Civilization phase, in which the society becomes inorganic and is based only on the organization created during the Culture phase. The creativity seen in the Culture period slowly fades away. The civilization stiffens, and becomes overpopulated, metropolitan, and uninspired. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on Western Civilization and its expression of the four seasons.
Roughly speaking, each season makes up about 250 years which combined make for a civilizational arc of around 1,000 years. This procession of “seasons” happened to all civilizations Spengler studied. Spengler confidently said that by using his civilization model he could make predictions that were so accurate they would astonish people. Indeed, since 1918 through the present day, his predictions for Western Civilization have been spot on.
Culture: Spring and Summer, Youthful Vigor and Middle Age Refinement
Spengler wrote Western civilization entered its Pre-Culture stage before 1000 AD. During that time, there is what he describes as “Chaos of primitive expression forms. Mystical symbolism and naive imitation.” As with other civilizations coming into being, in Faustian civilization there is apocalyptic imagery in this period and a fascination with death. This fascination with death ultimately leads to the establishment of the civilization’s Prime Symbol and resulting Will, Force, and Deed. During this time, a collective, cultural search for the infinite and a tragic striving for an ultimate, unattainable goal become the basis of Western Culture and Civilization. The Prime Symbol of Infinity and resulting Will, Force, and Deed become overwhelming urges to change the world for Western man.
Architecturally, the Romanesque cathedrals constructed around this time mark the beginning of the new Faustian culture form. In literature, collective epics like Beowulf and works such as The Song of Roland are published and become the foundations for future literature. Politically, there are “tribes and chiefs. As yet no Politics and no State.”
Moving out of the Pre-Culture period into Spring, there is a “powerful cultural creation from awakening souls, unity and [cultural] abundance. Great creations of the newly-awakened dream-heavy soul. Super-personal unity and fullness.” Spring is the flowering of the culture’s principles, and is a deeply religious and heroic period. The society is inspired by its Prime Symbol, it is organic in nature and “Rural Intuitive.” Some of Faustian Civilization’s expressions of a culture form based around its Prime Symbol of Infinity during Spring are:
- The Holy Grail romances such as Perceval, the Story of the Grail are written.
- Architectural style shifts from Romanesque to high-rise Gothic Cathedrals, the first inclination of a style that later becomes skyscrapers in the Civilization phase, reaching upwards towards infinity.
- Gregorian Chant evolves as a musical form, and polyphony with its infinity-seeking sound becomes the great Western musical form.
- Politically, there is Feudalism and eventually “Victory of money over landed property.”
Transitioning from Spring to Summer, the Culture and its consciousness are rich and ripe. The rural and urban centers have equal influence. However, the civilization begins to move from its rural roots towards an artificial, urban environment.
- Dominant literature shifts from Grail romances to novels such as Don Quixote and Shakespearean plays.
- Architectural forms once again shift from Gothic Cathedrals to soaring, princely palaces.
- Polyphonic musical forms evolve into Baroque, which is the period of the birth of Classical music.
- The Great Masters such as Rembrandt give us the peak of artistic creativity in Summer.
- In politics there are conflicts between religious and political leaders as each struggles for power and influence over the society.
Political Epochs in Spring and Summer
1. Feudalism. Spirit of countryside and countryman. The “City” only a market or stronghold. Chivalric-religious ideals. Struggles of vassals amongst themselves and against overlord. 900-1500 AD.
2. Crisis and dissolution of patriarchal forms. From feudalism to aristocratic State. 900-1500 AD.
3. Fashioning of a world of States of strict form. 1500-1800 AD.
4. Climax of the State-form (“Absolutism”) Unity of town and country (“State” and “Society.” The “three estates”) 1500-1800 AD.
5. Break-up of the State-form (Revolution and Napoleonism). Victory of the city over the countryside (of the “people” over the privileged, of the intelligentsia over tradition, of money over policy.) 1800-2000 AD.
Civilization: Autumn and Winter, Loss of Vitality and Old Age
The West shifts from the Culture to the Civilization phase as Summer transitions into Autumn. The intellect of the civilization, fully developed, begins to sterilize away the culture’s early organic nature, and the center of the culture moves from its rural roots into the growing metropolis. Eventually its founding principles begin to break down. Spengler describes this period as “Intelligence of the City. Peak of strict Intellectual creativeness.” These events happen in Autumn of Western Civilization:
- The Enlightenment occurs, marking a cultural shift from mysticism to rationality.
- Classical music peaks and then declines as an art form. The quantity and quality of creative output between the time of Mozart and Beethoven is representative of the peak and the eventual decline of this musical art form.
- True art dies out in favor of metropolitan “art for the masses.”
- Politically, there are “struggles between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, Revolutions, and Napoleonism.” The American Revolution occurs during Autumn, and represents the victory of theory over tradition and religious leadership, a crucial transition as the society becomes increasingly based on economics and theory rather than its traditional foundations.
- State government form moves from monarchy to republic, which eventually degenerates into a democracy.
The civilization first overpopulates its cities only to eventually begin dying out once Winter arrives. Spengler noted a pattern in every High Culture of demographic decline as a society sterilizes itself by not having children. In effect, Spengler predicted the effects of feminism 50 years before it arose:
The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of “mutual understanding.” It is all the same whether the case against children is the American lady’s who would not miss a season for anything, or the Parisienne’s who fears that her lover would leave her, or an Ibsen heroine’s who “lives for herself” – they all belong to themselves and they are unfruitful.
In late Autumn, Spengler describes the features of civilization like this: “The body of the people, now essentially urban in constitution, dissolves into formless mass. Megalopolis and Provinces. The Fourth Estate, inorganic, cosmopolitan.” The culture, completely uprooted from its rural roots, urban, and composed of “masses” uninspired by their own myths and history, adopts a cosmopolitan, multicultural philosophy.
As Winter sets in, the democracy eventually becomes corrupted by economic powers and disintegrates forcing a return to primitive politics, such as despotism or Caesarism. The city dominates the countryside, and everything rural is disdained. As the peak of the civilization is passed, it is followed by a “fissure in the world-urban civilization; exhaustion of mental organization strength; and irreligiousness rising.”
According to Spengler, Western world has entered Winter and its civilization is ending as it petrifies into its final form. He describes Winter as the “dawn of Megalopolitan Civilization. Extinction of spiritual creative force. Life itself becomes problematical. Ethical-practical tendencies of an irreligious and unmetaphysical cosmopolitanism.” Over the coming decades Spengler expects:
- The intellect of our civilization to fade, people to stop reading and thinking as the civilization as a whole loses interest in thought.
- Art to further devolve into repetitions of past great works and “meaningless subjects of fashion.“
- Government to become tyrannical.
- Primitive forms of living to slowly return.
The population comprising the civilization will continue dying off as it loses touch with the myths and culture it was founded upon. We are also experiencing the “spread of the Final World Sentiment” of our civilization as the spread of irreligious Socialism. As a corrupt, democratic Socialist government becomes autocratic we can expect a despot or a Caesar to take control of society as “primitive human conditions slowly thrust up into the highly-civilized mode of living.”
Later, our great works and most of our technology will fade and lie in ruins as the population comprising our civilization fades away. First, the countryside and then the cities will depopulate (as seen in the Rust Belt and now cities like Detroit.) Man will return to a more animal-like state as his once great Culture and Civilization wither and die. Spengler expects conquests of our now-exhausted civilization will then occur from “young peoples eager for spoil, or [foreign] conquerors” while the imperial machinery of the State falls apart.
Political Epochs in Autumn and Winter
1. Domination of Money (“Democracy”). Economic powers permeating the political forms and authorities. 1800-2000 AD.
2. Victory of force-politics over money. Increasing primitiveness of political forms. Inward decline of the nations into a formless population, and constitution thereof as an Imperium of gradually-increasing crudity of despotism. 2000-2200 AD.
3. Private and family policies of individual leaders. The world as spoil. Egypticism, Mandarinism, Byzantinism. Historyless stiffening and enfeeblement even of the imperial machinery, against young peoples eager for spoil, or alien conquerors. Primitive human conditions slowly thrust up into the highly-civilized mode of living. After 2200 AD.
The Future, Echoing Roman Civilization
In the Winter of Roman politics there was a shift from the Roman Republic to Caesarism, or government led by a charismatic strongman. Eventually, the idea of representation broke down and there was a shift to bloody “force politics.”
Of course, our current government is modeled on the Roman system. There are even similarities between the two dominant parties. In Rome, the two dominant parties were the Optimates and Populares, the Republicans and Democrats of their day. This form of representative government eventually stops working because the system of checks and balances interfere with each other, causing gridlock. Force politics (killing people) eventually comes along to break the gridlock. (As an aside, some historians say it’s possible we entered this era in 1963 with the assassination of JFK by the military-industrial complex.) Arguably, this predictive model is spot-on with the current situation in the Western world. If Spengler’s model is correct, we are awaiting the rise of a dictator to come along and smash the rotten edifice of democracy sometime this century.
Spengler on Democracy
Spengler believed democracy was the form of government of a civilization in decline, and interestingly the idea of mass democracy arrived in the Winter of Western Civilization. Spengler viewed democracy as a weapon of moneyed interests, who use the media to create the illusion that there is consent from the governed. To him, the notion of democracy is really no different than living under a plutocracy (government by a wealthy elite.) Using the media’s propaganda, money is turned into force and controls people’s lives. Spengler wrote:
With the political press is bound up the need of universal school education, which in the Classical world was completely lacking. In this demand there is an element – quite unconscious – of desiring to shepherd the masses, as the object of party politics, into the newspaper’s power area. The idealist of the early democracy regarded popular education, without arrière pensée, as enlightenment pure and simple, and even today one finds here and there weak heads that become enthusiastic on the Freedom of the Press – but it is precisely this that smooths the path for the coming Caesars of the world press. Those who have learned to read succumb to their power, and the visionary self-determination of Late democracy issues in a thoroughgoing determination of the people by the powers whom the printed word obeys.
The leftist causes that have dominated the last century in the press and in politics, such as equalism, feminism, and Socialism, to Spengler, were only tools used to assist the moneyed powers to be more effective.
These monetary powers permeate the government, eventually destroying it. This is where we currently are on Spengler’s timeline, which leads us to what Spengler expects will happen in the West: people will cease to participate in elections, and the best candidates will remove themselves from politics. Spengler thinks blood is the only force that can conquer the force of money.
A New Spring After the Winter?
As Civilization advances into inexorable decline, Spengler wrote about the mood of the end times, which prophetically describes today’s nihilistic culture of critique very well:
The loss it faces is that of possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.
The liberal ideas of eternal progress have hidden this process until now, when the reality of decline is becoming more evident. Spengler’s predictions of decline, as prescient as they have been over the last century, may leave you feeling a sense of hopelessness after studying his work. However, as one culture and civilization fades away, it’s very likely another will arise as part of this organic cycle.
Jean David Gebser later studied Spengler’s work, and believes a new consciousness will emerge from the ashes of the old civilization. Just as Western civilization was built upon the ashes of Ancient Greece and Rome, a new civilization may well be built on the ashes of our own.
The Decline of the West, published a century ago and largely unknown today, is work that very well could be among the greatest ideas ever conceived by the human mind. It smashes the linear model of history (always moving upward) presented in the public school system, and instead presents the idea that throughout history man and his civilizations go through periods of birth, growth, decline, and death.
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