Monday, March 30, 2015

The Decline of the West

Upon reading Spengler's magnum opus The Decline of the West for the third time (in three days this time, because I have no life), and feeling as though this was the first time I more or less completely understood it, it behooves us to draft a brief tribute to the text, which truly is one of the most important narratives of the 20th Century.

Perhaps Spengler's greatest quality consists in his scathing polemic against the myopic, atomized, causal, linear perspective of modernist history that ruled with particular dominance in the rationalistic 17th and 18th centuries. He had determined that this was a superficial reading of history that accounted merely for circumstantial, incidental happenings, and failed to take stock of what was really going on: 'there can be no question of taking spiritual-political events, such as they become visible day by day on the surface, at their face value, and arranging them in a series of "causes" or "effects" and following them up in the obvious and intellectually easy directions. Such a "pragmatic" handling of history would be nothing but a piece of "natural science" in disguise... (The Decline of the West, p. 6).'

As a counter-attack to this elementary outlook, Spengler proceeds with an intuition into Destiny and Time, into history conceived not merely as a chain of events related only by their causal connections, but as ideas and events that are expressive of greater, deeper cosmic motions that subsist beneath human social activity. Spengler suggests that Cultures are not the arbitrary results of disparate communities, but their own organisms, their own individuals with a certain constitution not fundamentally unlike any other living thing; he peers into the cyclic nature of reality wherein organisms are born, thrive into manhood, linger into old age, and finally die. Spengler argues that Cultures/Civilizations are not specially fixed to progress indefinitely, immune to the biological decay every life form faces, but are uniquely shaped by their own inner identities and therefore subject to their own higher telos:

'I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one's eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the facts, 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.... Here the Cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, landscapes bloom and age as the oaks and pines, the blossoms, twigs and leaves - but there is no aging "Mankind". Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return.... These Cultures, sublimated life-essences, grow with the same superb aimlessness as the flowers of the field. They belong, like the plants and the animals, to the living nature of Goethe, and not to the dead Nature of Newton. I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms. The professional historian, on the contrary, sees it as a sort of tapeworm industriously adding onto itself one epoch after another.' (Decline, pp. 17-8)

The Decline of the West comprehensively answers all of the major questions of the Faustian soul, and unveils who we are as Westerners, as a distinct Culture (or presently a Civilization, as all Cultures must become as they are petrified into something increasingly lifeless). To provide one of many possible examples, whereas the Classical man is preoccupied with the community, with how man relates to the world at large (hence their conception of the persona, the mask we present ourselves in to face our fellows), Faustian man is singularly concerned with himself,  with how he relates to the cosmos beyond, to Infinity and the impossible loneliness therein: 'here infinite solitude is felt as the home of the Faustian soul. Siegfried, Parzifal, Tristan, Hamlet, Faust, are the loneliest heroes in all the Cultures. Read the wondrous awakening of the inner life in Wolfram's Parzifal. The love of wild nature, the mysterious compassion, the ineffable sense of forsakenness - it is all Faustian and only Faustian' (Decline, p. 99).

Spengler is equally keen in his insights into who we will become, even from the unsettled vantage of a century ago. While emerging sooner than he anticipated, Spengler's idea of 'Caesarism' became manifest even in his lifetime with the ascent of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Franco's Spain, etc. The masses were congealed beneath a great personality, a masterful dictator who mustered all the historical energy peculiar to his time and threw it upon Civilization as was his destiny. Spengler is able to envision this because he is not limited to a narrow mindset which sees history purely as sequences of cause and effect, but as a manifestation of something much deeper, the very soul of a Culture, the inner fountainhead of what that Culture brings forth. By studying and juxtaposing one Culture upon another, patterns become present, patterns which can even be used to forecast the future insofar as the future will necessarily correspond in some analogical way to a different Culture, to the model of how Cultures develop and recede. This is precisely what linear, modernistic historical thought fails to do because it is concerned not with the essential, but with the accidental, and treats a Culture not as an organism unto itself, but rather as another step in an arbitrary ladder reaching up into nowhere:

'We know it to be true of every organism that the rhythm, form and duration of its life, and all the expression-details of that life as well, are determined by the properties of its species. No one, looking at the oak, with its millennial life, daresay that at this moment, now, is about to start on its true and proper course.... In the case of higher human history, however, we [i.e., the Gibbon-type historians] take our ideas as to the course of the future with an unbridled optimism that sets at naught all historical, i.e. organic experience, and everyone therefore sets himself to discover in the accidental present terms that he can expand into some striking progression-series, the existence of which rests not on scientific proof but on predilection.' (Decline, pp.16-7)

By peering into the 'platonic idea' of what a Culture is essentially, Spengler can analogically relate one Culture to another, and thereby determine what is particular to that particular Culture, and what is universal to all Culture, i.e., the inherent nature of what a human Culture is as a genus. Just as there are different trees with their own unique qualities, so too are there self-contained Cultures possessing their own unique qualities; but insofar as both are organisms, both are destined to live and die accordingly. By realizing the nature of the species, in other words, Spengler can reveal the nature of the individual organism in an acutely visionary manner that is impossible to attain otherwise.

Spengler is moreover deeply conscious of the falling quality of our Civilization, hence the title of this book. With the fading of Culture, which is itself caused by the fulfilment of more and more of its possibilities and therefore by the exhaustion of its inner energy, first religion, the realm of spirit is distorted into new, hostile forms; Protestantism and puritanism, driven by a specially Faustian rationalism, disturb the old order, and limit the creative impetus and unity of the spiritual dimension. Then art, once subordinated to socio-religious organization, emancipates itself in a new fury of polyphony and counterpoint, of Sturm und Drang, until it too exhausts itself; the life of an artistic tradition, such as that experienced by Beethoven and Weber and Schubert, provides a superfluity of inspired production to artists in this period, but by the time of Wagner it dries up, forcing the artist in his period to work especially hard to achieve anything. In the political realm, grand politics and the organic State soon submit to abstract ideals such as 'human rights', 'world peace', and finally something exclusively economic wherein all that matters is the material: 'Politics sacrifice men for an idea, they fall for an idea; but economy merely wastes them away. In war life is elevated by death, often to that point of irresistible force whose mere existence guarantees victory, but in the economic life hunger awakens the ugly, vulgar and wholly unmetaphysical sort of fearfulness for one's life under which the higher form-world of a Culture miserably collapses and the naked struggle for existence of the human beasts begins' (Decline, p. 400). In all things, where one cultural facet flares up and succeeds gloriously, where all the historical power of a Culture in that instant is concentrated, it is expressive of the Culture's interior character; but these things all must perish, too, and in their decline they open up further possibilities through which the dying Culture gradually reveals itself.

As a Culture goes through its motions. spending its last imaginative impulses before nestling into bleak, urbanized, bloated, mercantile, and mechanical Civilization, it comes closer and closer to its Destiny, to what its purpose was in the cosmos. As it proceeds thus, the Culture is defined less by those specific qualities that once differentiated it from other Cultures and more by those qualities that define every Civilization in steep decline: an orientation around the practical, a 'moral' coldness toward 'the good life', a lapse in true hierarchy, and especially a sovereign interest in business, in manipulating the material world for selfish ends. Spengler claims that all Civilizations in their Winter seasons are characterized by these symptoms, and especially when they are removed from their homeland, citing such examples of the Chinese in California in the 19th Century, the Indian trader in East Africa, and of course the Wandering Jew. This is because these are all ahistorical peoples, ahistorical because they have already accomplished their work in this world - they are essentially dead, having no remaining vital role to play, and doomed to simply subsist amongst other Cultures until they might inseminate the earth with the seed of the next Culture. This is exactly what is happening to the West: we are dying, we approach the fulfilment of our Destiny, and as we die we become closer in spirit (or rather by our mutual lack of spirit) to the Jew to the point where neither of us will be recognizable, because we are both historically extinguished:

'Today this Magian nation, with its ghetto and its religion, itself is in danger of disappearing - not because the metaphysics of the two Cultures come closer to one another, but because the intellectualized upper stratum of each side is ceasing to be metaphysical at all. It has lost every kind of inward cohesion, and what remains is simply a cohesion for practical questions. The lead that this [Jewish / Magian] nation has enjoyed from its long habituation to thinking in business terms becomes ever less and less (vis-a-vis the American, it has almost already gone), and with the loss of it will go the last potent means of keeping up a Consensus that has fallen regionally into parts. In the moment when the civilized methods of the European-American world-cities shall have arrived at full maturity, the destiny of Jewry... will be accomplished.' (Decline, p. 353)

With these tremendously valuable contributions that Spengler has produced being mentioned, we are obliged to bring up our complaints with his opus, of which there are two main ones. The first is that which we share with Julius Evola, who lamented the fact that Spengler had no clear comprehension of the 'transcendent' portion of a Culture's identity: 'A sense of the metaphysical dimension or of transcendence, which represents the essence of all true Kultur, was completely lacking in [Spengler]' (Julius Evola, The Path of Cinnabar, p. 179). This is true in that Spengler, for all his concern with the philosophical and intellectual and even spiritual qualities of the man of any which Culture, approaches these questions from a typically modern immanent position; much like C.G. Jung confuses the mythical creations and rituals of primitive man for existing purely in the psyche, Spengler does the same, only he places these higher elements in the psyche of the Culture.

There is no truly transcendent character in Spengler's cultural world-soul, because everything is subordinated to the organic process, to the organism's cyclic existence, to its strictly this-world nature. While Spengler undoubtedly critiques Civilization, he does this in the same way as a doctor would critique a man in old age, that is to say, from a purely relative, immanent perspective. This absence of a true metaphysic leaves Spengler with no other objective criterion with which to judge a Culture, whereas Evola and the other traditionalists offer something more substantial in their suggestion of a 'world of Tradition', which is rigidly organized around a Culture's metaphysical principles (they also suggest its antithesis, the 'modern world', which is not organized at all in the proper sense, and is responsible for the downward, telluric tendencies of a Culture).

The second major complaint consists in our reaction to Spengler's claim that these Cultures are wholly self-contained, that they are perfectly isolated from either previous or succeeding Cultures, and from neighboring Cultures. While still rejecting the idea of a linear historical narrative, it is nevertheless true that prior Cultures play a decisive role in the Becoming of the following Culture. What would Western Culture be, for example, without the twin genii of Plato and Aristotle? the wisdom of the Old Testament? the Hellenic-Hebraic synthesis of the New Testament, the Incarnation of Christ? the materially fading but symbolically supernatural power of the Late Roman Empire? the technical and philosophical gifts of the Arabian? While doubtless these were all uniquely understood in the fashion of Faustian man, these were powerful, virile seeds that were planted by 'Classical' and 'Magian' man even at their waning in the world, and at the very least serve as crucial links between these superior world-souls.

Oswald Spengler possessed a perilous, incendiary insight which mastered the world's attention. He corrected some deeply erroneous methods of the modern historian by supplanting them with a radical new perspective of his own (though we could have done without him mentioning the novelty of his work every so often). His awareness of the morphological structure of history, and especially of the underlying forces that motivate the Cultures that constitute history, breathes new life into modern historical consciousness which has grown stale and placid. His is a relentless polemic that mercilessly scythes down many of our most beloved and most facile notions (his precise, destructive summary of democracy and freedom of the press is unsurpassed), and suggesting instead of an inexorable progress an inevitable death. 'Optimism is cowardice', Spengler famously writes, urging us instead to look at the facts in themselves, even if they incline us to a miserable pessimism. But then, Spengler surprises us once more toward the end of Decline: while the 'powers that be' will fight their wars over the ore and fuel and gold of the mundane, and the Culture at large will present no real value to the discriminating individual, there is nevertheless hope for him, a kind of transcendent peace that was not possible to any of his forefathers, living as they were in a Culture in the throes of Becoming. For this is the peace of Destiny, available to the man who realizes the fulfilment thereof, to the man who sits and contemplates not the misery of the world around him, but the fact that he sits at the peak of an entire historical organism. He dwells at the end of the line, and possesses the special consciousness of having realized the whole of history, of Becoming finally Become:

'With the formed state having finished its course, high history also lays down weary to sleep. Man becomes a plant again, adhering to the soil, dumb and enduring.... And while in high places there is eternal alternance of victory and defeat, those in the depths pray, pray with that mighty piety of the Second Religiousness that has overcome all doubts forever. There, in the souls, world-peace, the peace of God, the bliss of grey-haired monks and hermits, is become actual - and there alone. It has awakened that depth in the endurance of suffering which the historical man in the thousand years of his development has never known. Only with the end of a grand History does holy, still Being reappear.' (Decline, p.381)

1 comment: