CULTURE

Prophecy of doom for Western civilization

When guided by Goethe and Nietzsche you are likely to be misled – but the journey is bound to be an exciting one. Goethe gave Oswald Spengler his organic understanding of history and Nietzsche his idea of eternal recurrence – and beautiful prose. The end product is arresting, if profoundly melancholic. At the same time, Spenger’s formula is perhaps the most criticized in the philosophy of history. In «The Decline of the West,» Spengler’s magnum opus that is now available in Greek in a brilliant translation by Lefteris Anagnostou, the German philosopher rejects the linear conception of history in favor of one grounded in the cyclical rise and decline of civilizations. Cultures, Spengler says, are like living organisms and follow the same life pattern: They are born, they grow, mature, decay and die. The Western one is no exception – we can even identify its position on the life-death trajectory. «Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return,» Spengler writes. Spengler discerns eight higher cultures: The Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Indian, the Chinese, the Greco-Roman, the Arabian, the Western and the Mexican. From each one of these, Spengler distills a distinctive style or soul which leaves its mark on all of culture’s manifestations – art, politics, mathematics, science, philosophy, music, poetry and drama. The prime mover of Western culture, he claims, is the Faustian soul – a restless drive toward the infinite reflected in things like Gothic architecture (vertical lines reaching toward the sky) or the use of perspective in painting. Cultures are not united by some common thread but unfold in unrelated but parallel cycles, each of which lasts roughly one millennium. This means that we can discern similarities and analogies between cultures which are in corresponding phases. More crucially, we can diagnose their future. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Spengler uses the analogy of seasons. Cultures are propelled into being thanks to a religious movement. That is the spring of a culture. The summer, or zenith, of a culture is when its identity takes on its clearest and most lucid shape. The summer period witnesses the production of the most enduring accomplishments and monuments of a culture. The culture now becomes all the more confident in itself and turns inward to fathom its own being – hence the rise of philosophy and history. By autumn time – what Spengler calls «the civilization phase»- a culture is a worn-down soul, a soul that has lost its desire to be. Paradoxically, the decline comes hand-in-hand with a tremendous rise in technical culture. Other symptoms of a dying civilization are the rule of money, the overwhelming influence of the mass media, the growth of mega-cities and imperialism. The bad news is that Western civilization is in its autumn phase. Like Nietzsche before him, Spengler saw himself in a world where gods are dead. Unlike Hegel, Marx or Christians, who give history a transcendent meaning or higher purpose, Spengler sees none. Cultures come to life, they flourish, and perish – end of story. He thinks no culture can escape its destiny. There is nothing that we, late moderns, can do to save ourselves from decadence. «We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.» But from someone who snubbed historical teleologies as a hangover from metaphysics, such determinism sounds uncomfortably metaphysical. «The Decline of the West: Outline of a Morphology of World History,» published by Typothito – Giorgos Dardanos, 2003, translated and annotated by Lefteris Anagnostou (Vol. 1,597 pages, Vol. 2,666 pages).