Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (“Decline of the West”) is one of the most fascinating books I’ve come across. To modern ears he sounds both extremely mystical and extremely traditionalist. This is a weird combination for most, and an intriguing one for explorers of alternative ideas.
In a recent post I dissed the current obsession for simplicity and digestibility in online writing. Spengler is the opposite — not only is every paragraph of his a jewel reflecting a whole galaxy of novel thinking, the book is also extremely long. (I haven’t yet read it cover to cover — maybe some time in the next two decades.)
Let’s just dive right in, and I’ll explain Spengler’s worldview and thought processes as we go. The following is all drawn from the last chapter in the book:
Very different is the Faustian technics, which with all its passion of the third dimension, and from earliest Gothic days, thrusts itself upon Nature, with the firm resolve to be its master. Here, and only here, is the connexion of insight and utilization a matter of course. Theory is working hypothesis from the outset. The Classical investigator “contemplated” like Aristotle’s deity, the Arabian sought as alchemist for magical means (such as the Philosophers’ Stone) whereby to possess himself of Nature’s treasures without effort,’ but the Western strives to direct the world according to his will.
‘Faustian’ is Spengler’s term for contemporary Western civilisation. He’s contrasting its approach to technology to the Classical (i.e., Greek and Roman) and Arabian (i.e., anything in the Middle East from about 500 AD) civilisations. Unlike other writers, Spengler does not see modern Western civilisation as a continuation of Classical civilisation — although the former originated in the ruins of the latter, it’s a distinct creature with a distinct soul.
The reference to the “third dimension” is Spengler’s idea that a key part of the soul of every culture is a unique conception of space — for Western culture, this is infinite three-dimensional space. The Classical spatial motif is the perfect circle, whereas the Arabian one is an enclosed sphere (or dome, or cave), with light shining in.
The Faustian inventor and discoverer is a unique type. The primitive force of his will, the brilliance of his visions, the steely energy of his practical ponderings, must appear queer and incomprehensible to anyone at the standpoint of another Culture, but for us they are in the blood. Our whole Culture has a discoverer’s soul. To dis-cover that which is not seen, to draw it into the light-world of the inner eye so as to master it — that was its stubborn passion from the first days on. All its great inventions slowly ripened in the deeps, to emerge at last with the necessity of a Destiny. All of them were very nearly approached by the high-hearted, happy research of the early Gothic monks. Here, if anywhere, the religious origins of all technical thought are manifested. These meditative discoverers in their cells, who with prayers and fastings wrung God’s secret out of him, felt that they were serving God thereby. Here is the Faust-figure, the grand symbol of a true discovering Culture. The Scientia ixperimenfalis, as Roger Bacon was the first to call nature-research, the insistent questioning of Nature with levers and screws, began that of which the issue lies under our eyes as a countryside sprouting factory-chimneys and conveyor- towers. But for all of them, too, there was the truly Faustian danger of the Devil’s having a hand in the game, the risk that he was leading them in spirit to that mountain on which he promises all the power of the earth. This is the significance of the perpetuum mobile dreamed of by those strange Dominicans like Petrus Peregrinus, which would wrest the almightiness from God. Again and again they succumbed to this ambition; they forced this secret out of God in order themselves to be God. They listened for the laws of the cosmic impulse in order to overpower it. And so they created the idea of the machine as a small cosmos obeying the will of man alone. But with that they overpassed the slender border-line whereat the reverent piety of others saw the beginning of sin, and on it, from Roger Bacon to Giordano Bruno, they came to grief. Ever and ever again, true belief has regarded the machine as of the Devil.
The “early Gothic monks” are mentioned here because, in Spengler’s model, they belong in the early springtime of Western civilisation, and he discerns in their thoughts and actions the same impulse as that of later Western scientists and inventors. All the “slowly ripened in the deeps” and “necessity of a Destiny” relate to Spengler’s idea that civilisations are essentially organic entities, which grow and unfold according to their cosmic destiny.
(If I’ve lost you here, you can appreciate Spengler’s insights while discarding most of his metaphysical ponderings. He’s basically looking for common patterns in the development, rise, and fall of civilisations. These commonalities indeed exist, and for similar reasons to those which cause dolphins to look a lot like sharks — although unrelated, they are shaped by the same environmental pressures. Both also have unique characteristics, which lead to further unique developments — warm-blooded dolphins need to consume more food but also can support larger brains, and so on.
The idea of reading someone like Spengler is not to accept or reject their views wholesale, but to translate their thoughts into your own conceptual terms and see if that generates insights.)
I should also mention that Spengler refers to the organic phase of a civilisation as a Culture, and sees civilisations as the frozen end product of a Culture: the winter-time period after which no fundamental changes occur. (Germans of Spengler’s time often saw themselves representing a romantic young Kultur against decadent Anglo-French civilisation). I’m using the two terms interchangeably.
The passion of discovery declares itself as early as the Gothic architecture — compare with this the deliberate form-poverty of the Doric ! — and is manifest throughout our music. Book-printing appeared, and the long-range weapon. On the heels of Columbus and Copernicus come the telescope, the microscope, the chemical elements, and lastly the immense technological corpus of the early Baroque.
Then followed, however, simultaneously with Rationalism, the discovery of the steam-engine, which upset everything and transformed economic life from the foundations up. Till then nature had rendered services, but now she was tied to the yoke as a slave, and her work was as though in contempt measured by a standard of horse-power. We advanced from the muscle-force of the Negro, which was set to work in organized routines, to the organic reserves of the Earth’s crust, where the life-forces of millennia lay stored as coal; and to-day we cast our eyes on inorganic nature, where water-forces are already being brought in to supplement coal. As the horse-powers run to millions and milliards, the numbers of the population increase and increase, on a scale that no other Culture ever thought possible. This growth is a product of the Machine, which insists on being used and directed, and to that end centuples the forces of each individual. For the sake of the machine, human life becomes precious. Work becomes the great word of ethical thinking; in the eighteenth century it loses its derogatory implication in all languages. The machine works and forces the man to co-operate. The entire Culture reaches a degree of activity such that the earth trembles under it.
This section’s pretty straightforward, but I wanted to highlight the following: “Work becomes the great word of ethical thinking; in the eighteenth century it loses its derogatory implication in all languages. The machine works and forces the man to co-operate.”
And what now develops, in the space of hardly a century, is a drama of such greatness that the men of a future Culture, with other soul and other passions, will hardly be able to resist the conviction that “in those days” nature herself was tottering. The politics stride over cities and peoples; even the economics, deeply as they bite into the destinies of the plant and animal worlds, merely touch the fringe of life and efface themselves. But this technique will leave traces of its heyday behind it when all else is lost and forgotten. For this Faustian passion has altered the Face of the Earth.
This is the outward- and upward-straining life-feeling — true descendant, therefore, of the Gothic — as expressed in Goethe’s Faust monologue when the steam-engine was yet young. The intoxicated soul wills to fly above space and Time. An ineffable longing tempts him to indefinable horizons. Man would free himself from the earth, rise into the infinite, leave the bonds of the body, and circle in the universe of space amongst the stars. That which the glowing and soaring inwardness of St. Bernard sought at the beginning, that which Griinewald and Rembrandt conceived in their backgrounds, and Beethoven in the trans-earthly tones of his last quartets, comes back now in the intellectual intoxication of the inventions that crowd one upon another. Hence the fantastic traffic that crosses the continents in a few days, that puts itself across oceans in floating cities, that bores through mountains, rushes about in subterranean labyrinths, uses the steam-engine till its last possibilities have been exhausted, and then passes on to the gas-engine, and finally raises itself above the roads and railways and flies in the air; hence it is that the spoken word is sent in one moment over all the oceans; hence comes the ambition to break all records and beat all dimensions, to build giant halls for giant machines, vast ships and bridge-spans, buildings that deliriously scrape the clouds, fabulous forces pressed together to a focus to obey the hand of a child, stamping and quivering and droning works of steel and glass in which tiny man moves as , unlimited monarch and, at the last, feels nature as beneath him.
And these machines become in their forms less and ever less human, more ascetic, mystic, esoteric. They weave the earth over with an infinite web of subtle forces, currents, and tensions. Their bodies become ever more and more immaterial, ever less noisy. The wheels, rollers, and levers arc vocal no more. All that matters withdraws itself into the interior. Man has felt the machine to be devilish, and rightly. It signifies in the eyes of the believer the depo- sition of God. It delivers sacred Causality over to man and by him, with a sort of foreseeing omniscience is set in motion, silent and irresistible.
Machines becoming “ever more and more immaterial”, “ever less noisy” might seem prescient, since Spengler had no idea of the post-industrial age with its electronic devices, fibre-optic cables, satellites and so on. Actually, in his time electricity and radio waves were beginning to be harnessed, so that particular trend was already apparent. Spengler isn’t in the business of making precise technological predictions: instead, he sees the emerging technological world as reflecting the spirit of Western culture, and makes forecasts based on that.
Never save here has a microcosm felt itself superior to its macrocosm, but here the little life-units have by the sheer force of their intellect made the un-living dependent upon themselves. It is a triumph, so far as we can see, un-paralleled. Only this our Culture has achieved it, and perhaps only for a few centuries.
He mentions the “machine as microcosm” idea again — machines as precise little worlds, obeying the rule of their (human) creators.
What follows is an extremely interesting section:
But for that very reason Faustian man has become the slave of his creation. His number, and the arrangement of life as he lives it, have been driven by the machine on to a path where there is no standing still and no turning back. The peasant, the hand-worker, even the merchant, appear suddenly as inessential in comparison with the three great figures that the Machine has bred and trained up in the cause of its development: the entrepreneur, the engineer, and the factory-worker.
Out of a quite small branch of manual work — namely, the preparation-economy — there has grown up (jn this one Culture alone) a mighty tree that casts its shadow over all the other vocations — namely, the economy of the machine-industry. It forces the entrepreneur not less than the workman to obedience. Both become slaves, and not masters, of the machine, that now for the first time develops its devilish and occult power. But although the Socialistic theory of the present day has insisted upon looking only at the latter’s contribution and has claimed the word “work” for him alone, it has all become possible only through the sovereign and decisive achievement of the former. The famous phrase concerning the “strong arm” that bids every wheel cease from running is a piece of wrong-headedness. To stop them — yes ! but it does not need a worker to do that. To keep them running — no ! The centre of this artificial and complicated realm of the Machine is the organizer and manager. The mind, not the hand, holds it together.
But, for that very reason, to preserve the ever endangered structure, one figure is even more important than all the energy of enterprising master-men that make cities to grow out of the ground and alter the picture of the landscape; it is a figure that is apt to be forgotten in this conflict of politics — the engineer, the priest of the machine, the man who knows it. Not merely the importance, but the very existence of the industry depends upon the existence of the hundred thousand talented, rigorously schooled brains that command the technique and develop it onward and onward. The quiet engineer it is who is the machine’s master and destiny. His thought is as possibility what the machine is as actuality.
There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails — this army whose thought-work forms one inward unit with the work of the machine — the industry must flicker out in spite of all that managerial energy and the workers can do. Suppose that, in future generations, the most gifted minds were to find their soul’s health more important than all the powers of this world; suppose that, under the influence of the metaphysic and mysticism that is taking the place of rationalism to-day, the very elite of intellect that is now concerned with the machine comes to be overpowered by a growing sense of its Satanism (it is the step from Roger Bacon to Bernard of Clairvaux) — then nothing can hinder the end of this grand drama that has been a play of intellects, with hands as mere auxiliaries.
Spengler’s identification of the “three great figures” of the industrial age is truly prescient. Of the three, he sees the factory worker as of lesser importance, whereas the remaining two figures should be familiar to anyone in 2015 — the entrepreneur and the engineer. And this was written 97 years ago!
Spengler is mainly concerned with fundamental changes in the ideas and philosophies that drive a culture (which in this case, proves a very effective way of identifying what will become crucial and what will ultimately become irrelevant). Socialism was historically important because the working class became so numerous, but it’s not so important to Spengler, who sees it as merely a squabble over the output of the machine. Anticipating Ayn Rand, he states that “the mind, not the hand” is key to operating the industrial world, and that therefore the entrepreneur will become the more important figure.
But an even more crucial figure is the engineer. This section is worth repeating. “Not merely the importance, but the very existence of the industry depends upon the existence of the hundred thousand talented, rigorously schooled brains that command the technique and develop it onward and onward.” He continues, anticipating future fears of energy shortages and also identifying the real threat: “There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails — this army whose thought-work forms one inward unit with the work of the machine — the industry must flicker out in spite of all that managerial energy and the workers can do.” (Spengler’s point applies equally to oil fields as to coal fields. Oil reserves are calculated based on what can be economically extracted with current technology — improved technology has kept pushing those limits further and further out). “Suppose that, in future generations, the most gifted minds were to find their soul’s health more important than all the powers of this world” — yes, suppose so.
The Western industry has diverted the ancient traditions of the other Cultures. The streams of economic life move towards the seats of King Coal and the great regions of raw material. Nature becomes exhausted, the globe sacrificed to Faustian thinking in energies. The working earth is the Faustian aspect of her, the aspect contemplated by the Faust of Part II, the supreme transfiguration of enterprising work — and contemplating, he dies. Nothing is so utterly antipodal to the motionless satiate being of the Classical Empire. It is the engineer who is remotest from the Classical law-thought, and he will see to it that his economy has its own law, wherein forces and efficiencies will take the place of Person and Thing.
In the next sub-chapter he anticipates another very contemporary struggle:
But titanic, too, is the onslaught of money upon this intellectual force. Industry, too, is earth-bound like the yeoman. It has its station, and its materials stream up out of the earth. Only high finance is wholly free, wholly intangible. Since 1789 the banks, and with them the bourses, have developed themselves on the credit-needs of an industry growing ever more enormous, as a power on their own account, and they will (as money wills in every Civilization) to be the only power. The ancient wrestle between the productive and the ac- quisitive economies intensifies now into a silent gigantomachy of intellects, fought out in the lists of the world-cities. This battle is the despairing struggle of technical thought to maintain its liberty against money-thought.
“The ancient wrestle between the productive and the acquisitive economies” AKA finance vs commerce. Many called the financial crisis a failure of “capitalism” — it wasn’t, it was a failure of finance.
The dictature of money marches on, tending to its material peak, in the Faustian Civilization as in every other. And now something happens that is intelligible only to one who has penetrated to the essence of money. If it were anything tangible, then its existence would be for ever — but, as it is a form of thought, fades out as soon as it has thought its economic world to finality, and has no more material upon which to feed. It thrust into the life of the yeoman’s countryside and set the earth a-moving; its thought transformed every sort of handicraft; to-day it presses victoriously upon industry to make the productive work of entrepreneur and engineer and labourer alike its spoil. The machine with its human retinue, the real queen of this century, is in danger of succumbing to a stronger power. But with this, money, too, is at the end of its success, and the last conflict is at hand in which the Civilization receives its conclusive form — the conflict between money and blood.
For the record, I think Spengler is wrong about money here.
Anyway, money and blood represent one more round in what, for Spengler, is the fundamental conflict. Money vs blood; intellect vs the body; cities vs villages; animals vs plants — Spengler sees all these as manifestions of the conflict between two modes of consciousness, translated in English as “waking-being” vs “Being”, essentially an active animal existence vs a cyclic plant-like existence.
The coming of Caesarism breaks the dictature of money and its political weapon democracy. After a long triumph of world-city economy and its interests over political creative force, the political side of life manifests itself after all as the stronger of the two.
By Caesarism, Spengler is referring to the tendency for late stage civilisations to become ruled by strong, charismatic demagogues, who come to power simply by the force of their personality. (As opposed to early cultures, which tend to be ruled by hereditary kings and aristocrats, and mid-stage cultures which are ruled by enlightened men of principle. Caesars and neither and in Spengler’s world, this means they cannot effect real change).
The sword is victorious over the money, the master-will subdues again the plunderer-will. If we call these money-powers “Capitalism,” then we may designate as Socialism the will to call into life a mighty politico-economic order that transcends all class interests, a system of lofty thoughtfulness and duty-sense that keeps the whole in fine condition for the decisive battle of its history, and this battle is also the battle of money and law. The private powers of the economy want free paths for their acquisition of great resources. No legislation must stand in their way. They want to make the laws themselves, in their interests, and to that end they make use of the tool they have made for themselves, democracy, the subsidized party. Law needs, in order to resist this onslaught, a high tradition and an ambition of strong families that finds its satisfaction not in the heaping-up of riches, but in the tasks of true rulership, above and beyond all money-advantage.
Spengler concludes with a restatement of his philosophy and worldview:
A power can be overthrown only by another power, not by a principle, and no power that can confront money is left but this one. Money is overthrown and abolished only by blood. Life is alpha and omega, the cosmic onflow in microcosmic form. It is the fact of facts within the world-as-history. Before the irresistible rhythm of the generation-sequence, everything built up by the waking-consciousness in its intellectual world vanishes at the last. Ever in History it is life and life only — race-quality, the triumph of the will-to-power — and not the victory of truths, discoveries, or money that signifies. World-history is the world courts and it has ever decided in favour of the stronger, fuller, and more self-assured life — decreed to it, namely, the right to exist, regardless of whether its right would hold before a tribunal of waking-consciousness. Always it has sacrificed truth and justice to might and race, and passed doom of death upon men and peoples in whom truth was more than deeds, and justice than power. And so the drama of a high Culture — that wondrous world of deities, arts, thoughts, battles, cities — closes with the return of the pristine facts of the blood eternal that is one and the same as the ever-circling cosmic flow. The bright imaginative Waking-Being submerges itself into the silent service of Being, as the Chinese and Roman empires tell us. Time triumphs over Space, and it is Time whose inexorable movement embeds the ephemeral incident of the Culture, on this planet, in the incident of Man — a form wherein the incident life flows on for a time, while behind it all the streaming horizons of geological and stellar histories pile up in the light- world of our eyes.
The reference to the “Chinese and Roman empires” is meant to suggest that the end state of a civilisation is an organic, cyclic existence, where empires rise and fall without fundamental changes. For Spengler, if the Roman empire had not been overrun by barbarians, it could have lasted for millenia, with multiple imperial dynasties rising and falling, as happened in China.
Spengler concludes the book on a fatalistic note (one that I don’t share):
For us, however, whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture and at this moment of its development — the moment when money is celebrating its last victories, and the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet, firm step — our direction, willed and obligatory at once, is set for us within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth the living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.
Ducunt Fata volentem nolentem trahunt.
Roughly, “Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling”.