Spengler's Ominous Prophecy

January 2, 2013 Topic: HistoryPolitical TheoryReligionSociety Regions: United States

Spengler's Ominous Prophecy

Mini Teaser: An interbellum German intellectual's work is a powerful warning to Americans about the perils of our interventionist foreign-policy trajectory.

by Author(s): Robert W. Merry

THE EIGHT civilizations he identifies are Western, Greco-Roman, Indian, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian and Mexican (Aztec). He focuses most deeply on three—Western (which he calls “Faustian”), Greco-Roman (“Apollinian”) and Arabian (“Magian”). Each of the great cultures was utterly distinctive in its worldview, its philosophical underpinning, its approach to artistic expression, its science and technics, and even its mathematics.

And each possessed its own concept of space, which provided its prime symbols of perception, shaped its identity and guided its every thought. The Egyptian soul, for example, saw itself as moving down a narrow, prescribed “life-path” to come to life’s final judgment. That was its “destiny-idea,” says Spengler, and the entire “form-language” of the culture illustrates this one theme. Thus, the pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty are a rhythmically ordered sequence of spaces—passages, halls, arcaded courts and pillared rooms that grow ever narrower. The Egyptians’ reliefs and paintings appear as rows that lead the beholder in a definite direction. “For the Egyptian,” writes Spengler, “the depth-experience which governed his world-form was so emphatically directional that he comprehended space more or less as a continuous process of actualization.”

Or consider the Chinese prime symbol, guided by the intensely directional principle of the Tao. But, whereas the Egyptian treads a path prescribed with inexorable necessity, the Chinese is conducted to his ancestral tomb not by ravines of stone but by friendly nature herself. “Nowhere else has the landscape become so genuinely the material of the architecture,” writes Spengler. “The temple is not a self-contained building but a layout, in which hills, water, trees, flowers and stones in definite forms and dispositions are just as important as gates, walls, bridges and houses.” He adds that this culture is the only one in which “the art of gardening is a grand religious art.”

The classical, or Apollinian, culture had a far different prime symbol, best described as “body and form”—that which was small, circumscribed, clearly delineated and anchored. Think of the Parthenon. Apollinian architecture, writes Spengler, is characterized by a firm footing and a socket. “The Doric column bores into the ground, the vessels are always thought of from below upward” and “the legs are disproportionately emphasized.” This emphasis on body led to sculpture as classical man’s quintessential art form and polytheism—“the plurality of separate bodies”—as his religious framework. As Hughes puts it, “The free-standing nude statue, with its harmonious contours and untroubled gaze, symbolized in visible form the classical attitude of personal detachment and serene acceptance of an inscrutable destiny.”

To Magian man, the prime symbol is the cavern, into which light shines through and does battle with the darkness. Architecturally, this is characterized by the Magian civilization’s churches, dating back even before Islam, with their heavy walls that shut in the cavern and their utilitarian windows that offered no artistic expression besides bringing the light without to the darkness within. This constant clash defined the Magian spirit, preoccupied with the “persistent and unresolved struggles” between good and evil. In these struggles, the concept of individual wills, says Spengler, “is simply meaningless, for ‘will’ and ‘thought’ in man are not prime, but already effects of the deity upon him.” And this brings us to a fundamental difference between the Magian and Faustian cultures: “In the Magian world . . . the separation of politics and religion is theoretically impossible and nonsensical, whereas in the Faustian Culture the battle of Church and State is inherent in the very conceptions—logical, necessary, unending.”

In this Faustian culture, says Spengler, the guiding form concept is nothing less than “pure, imperceptible, unlimited space.” In other words, “The Faustian strove through all sensuous barriers toward infinity.” Infinity as a concept was utterly alien to classical thinkers, whose mathematical orientation was geometry (form and proportion) and who had no conception of negative numbers or even zero. But Western man, says Spengler, pushed aside Euclidian formulations and moved to entirely new mathematical approaches that incorporated the great new Faustian idea. “In place of the sensuous element of concrete lines and planes . . . there emerged the abstract, spatial, un-Classical element of the point” and “variable relation-values between positions in space.” Thus did Western man conceive Western calculus and Western physics, modes of inquiry inconceivable in any other culture.

A similar distinction is seen in architecture. While the Ionic hovers, the Gothic soars. It was no accident that Western man invented the flying buttress, enabling him to construct cathedrals reflecting his relentless drive toward space. Or that he developed the window as architecture: “In it can be felt the will to emerge from the interior into the boundless.”

And just as classical architecture led to sculpture as the premier Apollinian art form, Western architecture led inexorably to music. From around 1500 to about 1800, writes Spengler, as Faustian man grappled with his “will to spacial transcendence,” instrumental music emerged as the West’s ruling art form. But first Western man transformed painting, which went through its own “decisive epochal turn” in the sixteenth century. Using light and shadow to burst through space and time, Western painters brought dimension to their work, and background became a symbol of the infinite. Thus was “the depth-experience of the Faustian soul . . . captured in the kinesis of a picture.” This artistic expression reached its fullest flowering with Rembrandt. And it is significant that, as Dutch Baroque painting reached culmination, the West’s cultural momentum was picked up by the soaring new expression of Baroque music.

As for Western science, it wasn’t accidental that the telescope was a Western invention or that human flight first occurred in the West. Likewise, with drama, particularly tragedy, the West developed a penetrating “biographical” approach, as opposed to the Greeks’ “anecdotal” outlook. One deals with the entirety of a life, the other with a single moment. Asks Spengler, “What relation . . . has the entire inward past of Oedipus or Orestes to the shattering event that suddenly meets him on his way?” On the other hand, “There is not the smallest trait in the past existence of Othello—that masterpiece of psychological analysis—that has not some bearing on the catastrophe.” Western artistic expression probed deeply into the psychology of life and ultimately found its way to a preoccupation with the individual—the dawning of that personality idea that later was to create the sacrament of contrition and personal absolution.

Spengler writes:

If, in fine, we look at the whole picture—the expansion of the Copernican world into that aspect of stellar space that we possess today; the development of Columbus’s discovery into a worldwide command of the earth’s surface by the West; the perspective of oil-painting and the theatre; the passion of our Civilization for swift transit, the conquest of the air, the exploration of the Polar regions and the climbing of almost impossible mountain-peaks—we see, emerging everywhere, the prime symbol of the Faustian soul, Limitless Space. And those specially Western creations of the soul-myth called “Will,” “Force,” and “Deed” must be regarded as derivatives of this prime symbol.

But, concluded Spengler, all that yearning, probing, exploration and artistic expression was finished in the West of a century ago. Signs of the new civilizational phase, he wrote, were evident in the new pseudoartistic expression that no longer celebrated the West’s fundamental cultural ideas but rather assaulted them; in the rise of impersonal world-cities whose cosmopolitanism overwhelmed the folk traditions of old; in the preoccupation with the money culture; in declining birthrates and the rise of the Ibsen woman who belongs to herself; and finally in the death struggle that had emerged between the democratic state of England with its ethic of success and the socialist state of Germany with its ethic of duty.

Spengler felt certain that Germany would win this struggle and emerge as “the last nation of the West,” spawning ground for that future Caesar who would lead the West to its final civilizational glory of world dominance. It was all written in the historical analogies he had studied so carefully. But he was wrong about that death struggle, and he died in 1936, too soon to see his native land crushed by the awesome force of the Anglo-Saxon world, led by a surging America, with its focus on liberal democracy, free markets and the control of the individual over his own destiny. He did not die too soon, however, to reject German fascism as an alien force incapable of taking Germany to the intracivilizational triumph he desired—or to be rejected by the early Nazis in turn after they took power in 1933 and banned Spengler’s book. In any event, it was America, not Germany, that emerged as the last nation of the West, that would define Western civilization and determine its fate as it made its way through its civilizational phase.

IN ASSESSING our own time through the Spenglerian prism, a number of perceptions emerge. First, Spengler predicted with uncanny foresight a number of Western developments of the past century, including the rise of world-cities and the money culture, the emergence of a powerful feminism focused on the yearnings of the Ibsen woman, the force of money in politics, declining birthrates and the popular embrace of avant-garde cultural sensibilities, awash in cynicism and cosmopolitanism and bent on destroying the cultural verities of old.

Image: Pullquote: Although the hallowed Idea of Progress has shrouded this truth from Western society, the reality is clear: the Western cultural decline, as understood and predicted by Spengler, is now complete.Essay Types: Essay