Decline of the West, Vols 1-2


It has to be stated up front that I read TDOTW in its abridged format—and while Werner and Helps did as well as they could have under their space restrictions, this book is still a stunted patchwork of Herr Spengler's full-form thought. I've been referencing my unabridged PDF copy alongside this handsomely bound patient; and at times the surgery has been severe, the amputation close to the joint. If you have neither the money nor the time to do Spengler the justice of imbibing the entirety of his intellectual offering, then in such a pinch the abridgement will certainly do: but I would recommend searching out the two volumes in order to experience to the full the magisterial effort that the author has made in presenting his complex theory to the public.

The literal translation of Der Untergang des Abendlandes could be read as something like The Sunset of the Evening Lands or The Setting of the Twilight Realms, either of which nicely convey the lyrical touch that Spengler has liberally applied to his great work of poetic historical philosophy. It's a text rich with erudition across a broad field of disciplines, rife with the dense structural elements of an organic Culture that is born, lives, and dies in a fashion both comparable and comprehensible to the human beings who constitute it. It is a work that proceeded from a burgeoning conception of the requirement for a combinatory application of the empirical and the intuitional, of the gaze both within and without, of the extended-material with the soul-spiritual, the organic with the inorganic, the dead with the living, time with space, magnitude with function, the become with the becoming—the unification of a bifurcation—if the essential truth—that is, the depth—of what constitutes History was ever to be understood. It is at once both a difficult and a delightful read, wildly overreaching and conceptually sound, profoundly insightful and intelligent and peppered with controversial claims and interpretations. It should be read if for no other reason than the stimulation it provides, for it is difficult to imagine that there exists a reader who would not emerge at the end having found himself been given much to reflect upon—even those predisposed to flatly disagree—or take issue—with Spengler's conclusions.

Proceeding in a somewhat Hegelian fashion, Spengler posits an interpretation of history that has eluded all others, principally due to their being hampered by the conditions of the Civilization they live within. For the author, many years of study and reflection had lead him to the conclusion that History, of necessity linked with the direction and destiny of what we—lacking a better word—call Time (Becoming, Potentiality), has revealed itself within our world through the Higher Cultures: Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, Indian, Classical (Graeco-Roman), Magian (Arabian), Mexican, and Faustian (Modern Western). Of these eight, one—the Mexican—had been extirpated; another—the Magian—was a pseudomorphical, or stunted Culture; and one more—the Russian, also pseudomorphical—at the time of the book's publication had the possibility of achieving High Cultural status of its own. Each of these Cultures was organic, with a life cycle of waxing and waning stages comparable to the lives of the human beings who lived within it, stages in which similar periods of flowering or morphologies in the fields of art, politics, religion, mathematics, philosophy, engineering, etc. would occur; and each of which would— irrevocably, once the Culture had fully become and all of its potentialities or possibilities had been actualized—wither away, becoming Civilizations, inorganic, mechanical, existent fully in the material world of causality and measurement, effectively dead to the spirituality of History and dominated by the vast, sprawling Megalopolises that had arisen and from which the decline—at varying speeds and over varying intervals—would occur. These processes are inseparably engendered within History, in Destiny, and, whilst realized and carried out by the masses of individual humans whose blood and souls are attuned to that particular Culture, the Culture itself is also an organic unit, necessary within Time as we experience it and only capable of developing and actualizing as it actually does. The Culture enables and drives forward its human members; these same humans realize the Culture and allow it to blossom, and all the while proceeding from a state of Becoming in active Time to one of Become, dead (actualized) within the extended, material world. It's a system of cyclical history that is inexorable and finite.

To make the case for his impressively deep philosophy, Spengler draws upon a wide field of studies and knowledge, displaying a frightful erudition and forcefully, logically, compellingly producing his examples, making his analogies, drawing his conclusions, at all times aware of the reader and leading him through an encompassing vision that Spengler believes must, in the end, prove irrefutable. It is written in a poetic and baritone text, serious, beautiful, dense, and sprinkled with a mordant wit, blasts of caustic irony. It makes for a mesmerizing read, one that requires a slow and methodic pace if the reader is to absorb the seemingly endless barrage of details; but it is a wonderful, a fascinating, a compulsively readable journey. It is impossible to convey the breadth of information imparted by the book in the space of a Goodreads review, but several parts in especial stood out for me: his proposition of a Faustian mathematics that embraced the infinite through functions and spatial abstractions—abandoning purely magnitudinous calculations—and an art that sought the same through the usage of brush strokes, atmospheric colors, prolific and contrapuntal instrumentation, soaring architectures and blossoming spaces, that endeavored to capture the sum of a person's—and hence a Culture's—soul in a maturing era that accepted no limits or boundaries. There is also the interpretation of the Faustian God as coterminous with Destiny, with Time, with Becoming—in other word's, God as Eternal-Potentiality-Eternally-Realized—and its juxtaposition with the Apollinian and Magian godheads that, for me, proved very enlightening; and his composition of the Magian world-view, its purview of existence as within a vaulted and glittering cavern, and his original outline of the conception and development of both the principal monotheisms and their pre- and post-birth offshoots, is first rate. His chapters, so brilliantly done, on the Soul-Image and Life-Feeling and Nature-Knowledge would, really, be worth the price of the book in and of themselves. Furthermore, when he speaks of a Civilizational Stage's Dead Art, an art completely overwhelmed by the critical faculty, in thrall to overriding causality and the promotional whim, the solo genius of the individual untethered from the wings of an onrushing or soaring Cultural Destiny, the reader cannot help but cast glances at such entities as portions of modern literature, philosophy, theory, psychology and psychoanalysis, and the variegated offerings of modern art—the manner in which everything has been progressively compartmentalized and broken down and dissected into minute portions, such that the wonder or beauty or inspiration or meaning of the original, of life, of the magical creative power itself, seems to have become lost, replaced by sterile minutiae and plastic posing and semantic games—to feel that Spengler might actually have been on to something.

Anticipating that the majority of the attacks upon his work would come from the analytic school, at the outset of Decline Spengler cautions that an over-reliance upon a materialistic and mechanistic system of causality is what both has blinded modern man to the Historical Destiny unfolding about him and is a principal symptom of the Culture that has Become and, consequentially, is already in a process of decline and decay. In such a work there will inevitably be inaccuracies and forced analogies and manipulations of historical fact undertaken by the author, if for no other reason than the sheer size, the audacity of the task he has endeavored to carry out, the timeline depth and the events like grains of sand—some were apparent to me as I read along, others I only discovered when I went online, after particularly rousing chapters, to investigate the response to Spengler's postulations. But really, this far removed from the period of its publication and with all the societal and cultural changes that have occurred, readers will almost surely have preconceived positions going into the tome, and it is unlikely - not impossible, but unlikely - that they will emerge at the end swayed in their opinion. Spengler is not just concocting a historical analysis here—he is engaging in philosophy, in establishing an ontology, dancing with metaphysics, in an effort to mentally place the reader into a position where the chain of events and interpretations that follow will seem of a plausibility that would elevate them to veracity. If the reader does not fully embrace Spengler's depiction of being, of the unprovable claim of an organic Destiny that, functioning as History's will, moves these cultures into the birth canal and ensures their fulfillment, then the entire affair cannot, in the end, hold together.

For myself, I am not in accord with Spengler's philosophy. I cannot accept the removal of contingency, the all-bases-covered necessity involved in accepting such a High Cultural position: it both denies individuals the fullness of the genius they summoned to achieve the heights in their field that they did, and excuses the excesses and savageries committed by those who gave free reign to the baser or sanguinary side of their personalties—by stating that the Culture ensured that there were humans available to undertake the actions that needed to be taken, that what was required to be done would be done, by hook or by crook, provides too much cover for the deplorable and not credit sufficient for the glorious. It could be used to accept injustice or repression or brutality as simply being in and of the Culture under which it occurred. Responsibility and freedom are vital in my conception of humanity. Furthermore, it is an inherently untenable philosophy by his own standards: since he admits that every thinker is inescapably bound by the purview and mindset of his own particular Culture-in-Time, his own World-Image and World-Feeling, then it beggars any standard of truth outside of the Faustian flavor that his limit-seeking-and-testing analysis and perception of the past Cultures, of utterly foreign construction and timber, could be so patently slotted and fitted into a particular cyclical system that coincides with an interpretation aligned to his own Teutonic spirit. For notwithstanding Spengler's assertion that History cannot be measured upon the scales of truth, but rather by its depth, the impressiveness of the latter in the German's conception has actually been achieved, the layers built one upon another through this same Faustian perception, one whose profundity may be exaggerated to readers of the same Cultural milieu. With all of that said, the manner in which he interlocks the events and attitudes of Cultural eras across time is quite impressive and powerful, and the fact that in several of his conclusions and predictions—especially in the realms of religion, technics and politics—he proved chillingly prescient and accurate is but proof of the remarkable sagacity and judgement that filled his historical insight.

Yet he dismisses too readily within his destinal organicity the effects of evolutionary change, of genetic adaptability, of the capacity for the human mind, a sensory input machine beyond our full ken, to process data and adjust the brain's functional abilities over time—even of the manner in which complex societies interact and change, the organizational rules under which they operate, combine and separate, overcome problems and challenges that arise. Of course, this can all be laid upon an overriding Culture whose incorporeal hand is aligning with humanity along Destiny's pathways, wherein there is no stochasticity or circumstance but only purpose and fulfillment; but again that is entering into metaphysics and requires belief or faith to be accepted, neither of which I find myself in possession of. To keep things in perspective, I am not saying that Spengler is wrong—just that I, one small unit of the Faustian Civilization, don't hold with his grand theory—and in the face of the massive and deep learnedness that I am making this declaration, I may not unreasonably be likened to a zoo-kept monkey instinctively and ignorantly flinging poop.

The conclusion? This is a work of unmitigated brilliance, and if I remained unpersuaded by the entirety of Spengler's thought, I was blown away by its magnificence and given much to ponder and consider about the interrelations and possibilities of the analogies he made and the conclusions he reached. He has stirred the cup of my mind in a more vigorous manner than most of the books I have read in the past year or two. Conceived prior to the Great War, completed during its brutal undertaking, published just anterior to its cessation of hostilities, it is a work of Teutonic passion and mordant pessimism, a great celebration of the organic spirit and being, asomber meditation upon the material world, a deep penetration through the constituent tissues of known human cultures and societies, a crushing outline of the money-democracy triumph through enslavement and the looming specter of a blood-soaked Caesar, an ontological imprinting of Time, an Anti-Faustian Faustian tract birthed during the civilizational stage of the latter by a man seemingly forgetful of his own proclamation that his Culture had become and that he was penning not a tract driven by Destiny, but by the pervasive rational cause-and-effect whose suzerainty he mistrusted; that his philosophical thought ran a curious gamut of the infinite and the cyclical, evinced traits of the Magian mindset at work within the Faustian, a curious recession from infinite space to enshrouded cavern, that might help to account for the original and unique interpretation he brought to bear upon the events he recorded; the aethereal agonies of the star-slung and the earthy proskynesis of the entombed, peering into the depths of his conceptional cultures from such a towering, weightless height, such a cramped, crushed, gravitational embrace, that the vision-swept ofttimes blurred or shimmered out of focus and required a series of longing, heart- and soul-driven looks backward, away from the melting horizon, before their image sharpened itself through his complex arrangment of Platonic, Hegelian, Nietzschean, and oversized Goethean lenses set in their durable Spenglerian frames. It is a stunning work of art, a paean to the brilliance of man and his eternal quest to summon answers out of this question-bound cosmos: triumphs, profundities, mars and blemishes all.

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