Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Age of Memory

Oswald Spengler, whose shade I have evoked several times already in these essays, is not the kind of philosopher that most intellectuals today find appealing. He had rather too much of the old-fashioned schoolmaster in him: precise, didactic, unsympathetic, dry. Worst of all, he had no patience with the fashionable logic that sees the present generation – or any other – as destiny’s darlings, to whom the lessons of history no longer apply. It’s no wonder that so few people read his books nowadays.

Still, these unendearing habits are among the reasons I find Spengler so useful as a guide just now. There are certainly times when the cultural pendulum has swung too far in the direction of logical rigor and cold analysis, when the disciplines of intellect need to be relaxed to make room for the life of the feelings and the play of the imagination. Still, I’m far from convinced that this is one of those times. Rather, it seems to me, we’ve approached the other end of the pendulum’s swing, the point when the world needs a reminder that a belief’s emotional appeal is no argument for its validity, and when what nineteenth-century writers liked to call “the heaving passions” – a phrase that seems rather too appropriate these days – have drowned out nearly everything else.

Now of course there are plenty of people these days leading the charge to flog what remains of reason out of our collective discourse about the future; it’s one of the finer ironies of cultural history that most of the people who think they’re rebelling against their culture are simply pushing its agenda a little further and faster than most of their contemporaries. This, again, is why I find Spengler so congenial. He matched up the twists and dodges of modern thought with their equivalents in the lives of half a dozen dead civilizations, and showed how those cultural factors most often claimed as evidence of progress nowadays are simply phases in a life cycle that is beginning to close in on its end. Like the poetry of Robinson Jeffers or the ethics of Epictetus, he has no time for our self-importance, and reading him clears the mind the way a bitter aperitif clears the palate.

Among his least popular arguments is the suggestion that modern Western culture – Faustian culture, as he called it – finished its creative age in the nineteenth century. Of course this is a generalization, as any statement about history must be; as generalizations go, however, it has quite a bit going for it. Take the arts as a test case: those that have their roots in the Faustian world, if they are still practiced at all, have either fossilized into repetitions of old forms, like classical music; turned for inspiration to the arts of other cultures, like popular music, which draws heavily from African music by way of the influence of blues on rock and jazz on nearly every contemporary genre; or become the self-referential concern of a narrowing circle of cognoscenti, like today’s avant-garde art music.

Similar patterns can be traced straight across the spectrum of the Western world’s cultural forms. Political thought across the industrial world, for example, is spinning its wheels in ruts laid down decades ago; a central reason why politics has degenerated into struggles over personalities and petty issues across the political mainstream, and into Utopian fantasies out on the fringes, is that nothing even approximating a new idea has entered the Western world’s political discourse since well before World War Two. (This applies to alternative culture as much as to the mainstream; nearly all of the ideas now being put forward as cutting-edge, avant-garde, New Age political ideas were already creaking with age when they were last recycled in the 1920s.) True to form, Spengler does not even give us the comfort of a good ringing denunciation of decadence. instead, he suggests that it is the natural fate of the cultural life form that sprouted in western Europe around 900, burst into flower at the beginning of the Renaissance, and has now gone to seed.

The botanical metaphor is one that Spengler himself would have appreciated, but I mean it in a slightly different way than he did. Spengler’s view of what he called civilization – the second half of a culture’s life cycle, when its creative possibilities have all been worked out – was largely negative. The ancient Egyptians, among others, would have disagreed strenuously; from their viewpoint, geared as it was to cultural stability and the preservation of traditional forms, what a Faustian mind necessarily sees as a creative period becomes a matter of blind groping in the dark, and what a Faustian mind sees as stagnation is the healthy balance of a successful society. Nor can the Egyptian viewpoint be dismissed out of hand; maintaining cultural continuity, a rich and tolerant religious life, and stunningly beautiful art and architecture as living traditions for more than three thousand years is not a small achievement.

Even within a Faustian perspective, the completion of the Western world’s cultural trajectory has potentials that need to be recognized. To return to an example I have used several times before in these essays, the sorting process that picked Aristotle’s Organon out from among scores of other Greek works on logic, and spread it throughout the Mediterranean world, happened long after the creative age of Greek philosophy was over. As culture gives way to civilization, a ruthless winnowing of cultural heritage typically begins, and those creative works and techniques that survive the process become basic to the arts, crafts, and sciences of the mature society. From there, they move past the periphery of the civilization and become part of the common cultural heritage of humankind.

This is the phase toward which Spengler saw the Western world advancing. Whether his scheme makes sense of the broader phenomenon of historical change he hoped to clarify, it provides a perspective crucial to our own time. The end of the age of cheap energy has many implications, but one of the most important – and most daunting – is that it marks the end of the road for nearly all the cultural trends that have guided the industrial world since the paired industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century. Those trends pursued greater size, greater speed, greater power; the replacement of human capacities with ever more intricate machines, demanding ever more abundant energy and resource inputs; an escape from the interdependence of living nature into an artificial world transparent to the human mind and obedient to the human will.

That way to the future is no longer open. The nations of the industrial world could pursue it as far as they did only because abundant reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources were available to power Faustian culture along its trajectory. The waning of those reserves and, more broadly, the collision between the pursuit of unlimited economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, marks the end of those dreams. It may also mark the beginning of a time in which we can sort through the results of the last three centuries, discard the ones that worked poorly or demand conditions that no longer exist, and keep what still has value.

One useful way to talk about this process, it seems to me, is to borrow a common habit of talking about history and put it to work in a new way. Not that long ago it was common to describe the medieval period in the Western world as the Age of Faith, and to contrast it smugly with an Age of Reason that was held to have dawned with the first stirrings of the scientific revolution, and come into its own with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Oversimplified though these categories are, they point up certain important distinctions between the phases of our cultural trajectory that were primarily guided by religious thought and those guided by the expansive Enlightenment belief in the limitless power of human reason.

That latter belief is on its last legs just now, because the effort to direct human behavior solely according to reason simply didn’t live up to its advance billing; the inevitable reaction is following. Thus the faith that unchecked rationality is a ticket to Utopia, or the only hope of the human future, or whatever other set of religious ideas might be assigned to it, is wearing very thin these days, and the decline of today’s technological infrastructure in the wake of peak oil may just put paid to it. Reason will doubtless retain an active role in our collective life, just as faith has done, but other forces will likely take the lead in the decades and centuries ahead of us.

Thus it may not be inappropriate to suggest that in a very real sense, the Age of Reason is ending. If Spengler is right, what will follow it is an Age of Memory, where the collective imagination of the West turns back to contemplate its own past and extract the most useful elements from a thousand years of innovation. The cultural conserver concept, which I introduced in an earlier post here, represents one workable response to that possibility. I plan on discussing that in more detail, and in more practical terms, in the weeks and months ahead – subject to the usual interruptions, of course.


Robert Magill said...

Your description of New Age being anything but new, struck home with me. The writer, Philip Wylie, who died in 1971 described the 60's (and I'll paraphrase a bit here) as "a rerun of a notorious flop", meaning the Roaring 20's.
It's hard for me to believe the current era will not come to be so labeled when compared with the last century.

Mrs. Jarvie said...

Hello John Micheal,

First, some housekeeping. The fifth paragraph (last sentence, first word) begins with an i that needs to grow into an I.

Now, you've created here a strong momentum for discussing the Age of Memory and the post ended all too soon!

Is this the subject of your next book?

Lloyd Morcom said...

In an age of decline, one can imagine many islands of dogma, each fighting to maintain whatever they think of as the true faith—the true legacy of the civilisation—continually attempting to hold back the tide of change and then being overwhelmed by it as their mindset proves to be too brittle and unresponsive to the changing conditions around them, all the while persecuting the mystics who forever trumpet the value of direct experience and interaction with reality over dogma controlled by intellectual hierarchies.

Both Christianity and Islam have exhibited this type of dynamic over many centuries and one can see something like it in the academic world of today, especially in pseudosciences such as economics, psychology and philosophy.

One would hope that whatever intellectual freedoms we currently enjoy could be preserved for the bulk of our descendants: sadly, the prospects for this in the long term are not good except in a few lucky and intermittent instances.

So whatever knowledge survives will once again be governed largely by random chance. Perhaps some loose organization of mystics analogous to the Sufis or Zen Buddhists might arise in the next centuries and manage to preserve rather more of what has been the best than was the case in earlier ages.

One can perhaps only hope!

Arthur Vibert said...

Thanks for an excellent post. My father considers himself a "Spenglerian" and bought me both volumes of the unabridged "Decline of the West" when I was in my early 20s and living in London in the '70s. I read them a couple of years later and have been haunted by them ever since. Although they are superficially easy to dismiss I am constantly seeing evidence to support Spengler's central thesis about the life spans of cultures and I think you've done an excellent job in identifying some of these as well as suggesting the trajectory our ossified civilization will likely follow as a result. I'm going to forward your blog to my father - I'm sure he'll take great delight in knowing that he is not alone!


hapibeli said...

Thanks once again for an "enlightened" essay on our times. Your observations bring relief from the fears and tensions of the world we travel through.

Lynnet said...

We seem to be seeing a new Age of Faith, when large proportions of the society have turned their backs on Reason in all its forms.

wylde otse said...

If a principle is a precis of a process then a skillfull rendering of the general workings around us into salvageable platitudes or postulates could plausibly extend the life of our "western civilization".
WE might need nothing more than the parable, or simpler, an analogy harnessed to do our intellectual heavy-lifting.

The longevity of a previous civilization,versus a shorter span for a more recent one, may mean that conditions and circumstances have changed within the human mass-mind (joking), or in the planetary support capability (prolongable by more intense but unsustainable exploitation). But does this do anyone any real good.

Tangling up in analogy here; the bristle-cone pine lives longer than the boletus mushroom even if the latter was placed on high-tech life-support. What if there were a natural life-span for any particular civilization type.

It has been observed that keeping a human (say) on extended life support at tremendous cost after most of the flesh has fallen off the bones, well past any reasonable expectation of any kind of funtionability might not serve the patient, or the family unit -especially if the was no hope of "recovery" and a hell of a lot of pain were involved - not to mention the pain of loss of dignity...(and money the family needed to stay solvent).

But, I submit that this massive fraud of some "health" systems (by milking inheritances) is a symptom of the real sickness, which is promulgated by the principles of free-trade, or capitalism , or communism, or some other 'ism'. The self-serving institutions gorge themselves on the blood of the "general public" until everything colapses.

Do I blame anyone? Nope.
Can I fix anything? Nope.
Do I wish to stop thieving corp execs or govt people...why? ...others would merely take their place.
Could we concentrate on the fundamental problem of human overpopulation? Nope, it wouldn't be popular.

Collapse of civilizations is inevitable and natural. All anyone can do is keep out of the way of heaving thrashing dragon
tails...when they die.

And build again.

(by the way, who were the geniuses that built enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world - I sure hope we rewarded them with enough accolades and money)

sv koho said...

Goodness, how many people are thinking about the future of culture and changing philosophical perspectives from the backdrop of waning fossil energy. It's fascinating to consider how civilization has been altered by technology and cheap energy utilization and what the future of philosophy will be in the gloaming.Age of memory seems almost obvious. I would think there will be a long age of analysis on what it all meant. I can see a reason for a fresh look at a forgotten philosopher like Spengler especially in view of a future for us which may include decline and hyperinflation and depression much like what Spengler experienced in Germany in the 20's and 30's. Which work of his do you recommend to follow this thread further? thanks again for another unusual insight and perspective.

iuval said...

I wanted to comment on the previous entry in this blog, but wasn't sure if anyone would read comments to older entries, so now I am trying to find a link to the present topic. The relevant question for me is not whether history as a whole has a direction, but whether the process of getting from our present predicament to a new age that is more suitable for us and the rest of the planet(whether the age of memory or some other age) can be assisted in any way, whether rational, brute force memetic algorithm (many different random attempts/seeds), a combination, or something else? The rational approach would use our understanding of both biological speciation and cultural speciation.

I write more about this on my latest blog entry.

feonixrift said...

I suspect I might call it more an Age of Setting Aside or an Age of Forgetting - setting aside what doesn't fit until what's left can be refined into what does.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, there's a name I haven't heard in too long! Of course Wylie was right; there's nothing new in the New Age.

Mrs. Jarvie, this whole discussion is referenced in The Ecotechnic Future, but it's probably going to be the theme of a book of its own.

Lloyd, some of us are working on it.

Arthur, please do forward this! I've got the same two big black volumes on my shelf next to the ten-volume Toynbee and the gradually expanding Vico collection -- wouldn't be without them.

Hapi, thank you.

Lynnet, I'm not sure it's wise to think of faith as merely the absence or opposite of reason. What Spengler calls "secondary religiosity," the reemergence of religion as a potent social force after a culture's Age of Reason is over, is more memory than faith, a deliberate and labored attempt to regain something lost rather than a direct response to transcendence.

Wylde, ours will likely be among the less long-lived civilizations, simply because the core ideology of our culture commits us to infinite expansion; when that ends in a way that can't be ignored any longer, the impact will be shattering. That's one of the reasons why I want to encourage deliberate saving of things that are worthwhile.

Koho, your best bet is to pick up a copy of the one-volume abridgment of "The Decline of the West" -- it's readily available on the used book market, and covers all his core ideas.

Iuval, brute force memetic algorithm is the only option we've got -- our version of rationality is based on the root assumptions of Faustian culture and will faithfully replicate that culture whenever it's used. (Every culture has its own distinctive rationality, yes.)

Feonix, I hope not. Knowledge is very transitory stuff when it's not kept in use; what we set aside will not be there when someone centuries from now goes looking for it.

Emlyn said...

"Age of Memory" has a great ring to it, but does convey something of an air of fondly remembering things now passed. While this may in fact be quite accurate, I'll try and have a shoot for a more optimistic alternative.

One thing which seems to have been markedly missing since the beginning of the industrial revolution, at least in the area of physical technology, is a critical analysis of each new idea to see if it's use really makes the world better, even just using human happiness as a measure.

You indicate that a period after an Age of Reason might be the time to sort though all the previous ideas and find ones that work well, and are currently applicable. To some extent, this seem to me to be an essential process that has been somewhat missing.

So, if I were to imagine a period where the human race began to genuinely consider technological innovations and pick the ones which really improve human happiness, which might result in an interesting selection of ideas spanning the last few centuries at least, perhaps it should be called the Age of Selection, or the Age of Cherry-Picking.

the skald said...

it has been stated that a body politic can expand only as far as its boundaries permit.......the current world body politic cares more for human dominion through contravention of 'natural' growth cycles than allowing continuity for all creatures animate and inanimate.....using the idea of interplanetary travel as an allegory it can be as simple as cleaning one's own doorstep first.
However...the fail safes for this probably fit in parallel with your discussion. When viewed from a anthropomorphic could be argued that the earth will cleanse herself of cyclic aberration....much like any overabundant species starves itself into extinction.

Frank Gifford said...

Thanks JMG for your post. As I understand it, humans have existed on Earth for somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million years. About 50,000 years ago, we left Africa, maybe for the second or third time. But this latest migration was by the ancestors of all humans on Earth, maybe with the exception of the Australian Aborigines, whose ancesters may have left during one of the earlier migrations. For the past 10,000 years, humans have formed a series of "civilizations". This period has coincided with a period of unusually "nice" weather. So if history has no arrow of direction, so to speak, then civilization is only a minor and recently developed human organization. From one perspective, it may be an organization for humans when the species is in ecological overshoot, either in a particular area, or now over much of the Earth. During all other periods, as far as we are able to ascertain, the predominate human organization was in tribal groupings. As David Holmgren points out in "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability" the indigenous culture is the proven sustainable culture of humans. Somehow, those of us in civilization seem to have need to dismiss consideration of this alternative. Maybe it is, as Daniel Quinn would say, "mother culture (civilization) whispering in our ear". Thanks, Frank from EntropyPawsed

Nnonnth said...

So Spengler plays Hari Seldon to JMG's Gandalf, with Bateson as the new Aristotle? I like it! :)

In general I think the only difficulty might be avoiding slipping into a 'gotterdammerism' which sometimes hangs over such ideas as Spengler's. If we reject the exuberance of an ever-youthful society as emotionally skewed, well then the idea of sunsets and tombs for societies is equally so.

I've been reading a bit of Milton Erickson recently, a great friend of Bateson's. One of his specialties was realizing how much of our less salutory behaviour stems from not actually realizing what our own *personal* time and stage of life is. To acclimatize oneself to the here and now, to the changes in role and behaviour required of us as we age and enter new states, is a great part of sanity.

When Epictetus instructed us not to wish for things to be other than as they are, he partly had this kind of thing in mind.

Society is far too fragmented now for a single Ericksonian metaphor to encompass the change required as a unitary thing, nevertheless I recognize what JMG is doing here as the same job Erickson would have done, but on a societal scale.

The lastingness of Ancient Egypt is precisely down to that unitariness (with enormous diversity too, but *unified* diversity), all stories breathing together. Equally, this is what is needed for health in the individual.

(As JMG well knows I'm sure, late in life it is good to practice tai chi! That's what Egyptian culture as a whole was doing.)

I think the message of this blog all along has been that the appropriate metaphor for the moment enables a human system to meet anything with dignity and ingenuity. Perhaps there's a corollary: the lack of an appropriate one means indignity and stagnation.

[NB to JMG: I typed a different response before but I don't think it got through. Even if it did, just publish this one lol, the two together would be superfluous. Hope you are well. And delete this bit. ^_^]

pkscottx said...

Hi, I followed a link down a link to get here. Great blog!
So many blogs dealing with finances and peak oil boil down to a repetition of dogma.
You make a strong argument that neither technology or magical thinking are going to save our society from its inevitable fate. I think you are dead on the mark when you talk about diversity and adaptability as the most likely hope for the future.

TheDave said...

LLoyd has a good image here, with the "islands of dogma." However, I think before there are islands, there will be a monolith, a return to the Age of Faith, if you will.

The basis for a New Age of Faith is already in place in the United States in the form of the very vocal and effective Christian Right. This group will rapidly rise in power by taking advantage of the numerous dispossessed and discouraged souls looking for some stability in the low-energy future. However, the "brittle and unresponsive" (again borrow from Lloyd) systems put in place will provide only the next, brief, step of stability on our way down the stairs of collapse.

I think the 'islands of dogma' might be a few steps further down.

John Michael Greer said...

Emlyn, before we can select we have to remember -- and the cultivation of cultural amnesia in today's Western societies has reached fever pitch. Thus my choice of a term.

Skald, it's less a matter of cleansing, from my perspective, than the ordinary workings of homeostatic balance in a functioning ecosystem. I doubt lemmings enjoy the downslope of population cycles any more than we will, but it's business as usual.

Frank, there have been hunter-gatherer cultures that wrecked their ecosystems, and farming cultures that have proven to be sustainable over millennia. There ain't no easy answer.

Nnonth, I can't edit comments -- all I can do is put 'em through or delete 'em! Still, thank you -- and I do practice t'ai chi; in fact, I'm in the process of becoming certified to teach.

Scott, thank you.

Dave, don't let yourself be fooled by current rhetoric. The political fundamentalism of the last few decades is a spent force; the big megachurches are losing members in droves, largely because it's become clear to the laity that their leadership has cashed in their ideals for scraps from the tables of power. Watch the fringes if you want to see the next major religious movements taking shape.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

enjoyed your interview on Peak Moment:

wondering why my previous comment was excluded, was it "hammering a point already addressed" ?

John Michael Greer said...

Jacques, I didn't receive a previous comment from you for this post -- it may have gone milky in space-3 or something. You're nowhere close to the Dead Horse Award yet, so you'd have to work very hard at it.

Sleepless (offlist), on the other hand, I can guarantee you that flamebaiting an ironic comment will get your comment deleted. Please try again, with less attitude.

Nnonnth said...

JMG: Nnonnth, I can't edit comments -- all I can do is put 'em through or delete 'em!

Oops! Well could've been worse...

Still, thank you -- and I do practice t'ai chi; in fact, I'm in the process of becoming certified to teach.

Yes I remember you do a quite recherche Yang style. And you you also practice nei gong according to your wikipedia page... I've always wondered whose?

I meant before to say that the Egyptian culture as a whole (not individual Egyptians) survived in its twilight by 'doing tai chi' - that is, by repeating steady, co-ordinated actionss aimed at preserving a kind of spiritual balance.

Totally impossible for us of course! We always lived in preparation for death and when the preparation fails we just deny death will happen... some 'rationality'!

Still: let's keep balance by studying how cultures are born as well as how they die.

I sometimes think Spengler didn't necessarily get far enough past 'depression'... meanwhile most people still seem to be stuck at anger, bargaining, da Nile... (sorry)

But 'acceptance' is where both Erickson and Epictetus would agree. Did you know Epictetus recommended NLP-style reframing two millennia ago? (See 'Discourses' IV.4.26). I think he and Erickson would've got on famously.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Everytime I read about Spengler, somehow I imagine him in a dim light apartement reading Gibbon's Decline and fall of the Roman empire, especially Gibbon's evocation of a meditation of Rome's fate while sitting in Forum ruins ( where cows were pastured during the Middle ages ).... His vision about our Civilization fate was clearly modeled by the fate of the Graeco-Roman world he had, and that one was clearly influenced by Gibbon narrative ( that would be fit for a nice soap opera, with very well defined good and bad guys... but that is another issue )

You may or not not agree fully with Spengler way of seeing the Rise and fall of civilizations ( some of his minutae is not that acurate ), but I can't get away of comparing some aspects of the Roman demise with our times. That is not pedantry, mainly because our civilization choosed to follow Rome's footsteps ( not hard to see why: if Roman ruins could still make a XVIII century Gibbon jealous, what effect could it have in any small warlord of the European high Middle ages even the more slightest trace of Roman roads or even the more stripped and pillaged Roman building? ): our codes of laws ( both continental and anglo-saxon, especially the American version )are clearly strongly influenced by Roman jurisprudence ( we still have magisters and ministers, right ? ), the simple idea of not putting all the powers in the same entity is definitely Roman and even our architeture in general is Roman based ( square housing made with concrete when possible and cost effective ... and in some countries, like mine, even the roofing tiles are exactly the same than the ones romans used ).

What is interesting is that we can see Roman fall ( that was a highly industrialized empire ) as a energy crise, not of oil, but of people. The best studies show that the population was declining since 200 AD . The cause of this is still hotly debated, but nobody discusses that, as the Roman empire depended heavily of human energy ( the way they attached the plow to the animals constricted heavily the breath and disalowed heavy animal usage on fields ), that had roughly the same effect in them that a lack of oil would have on us: a clear downsizing of the support ability of that society. In Rome we saw a huge inflation ( less workers = higher wages.... so the temptation of "breaking coin" is quite high ), the governement trying to control more and more the citizens lifes ( to extract more juice out of the orange ), getting to the point to force by law the sons to carry over the father's job, the formation of a uber-rich class that behaved like little kings ( including forcing the states agents out of their lands, especially when the draft agent came ), the rising of religious and religious-like groups to the power ( just see Helioglab and Julian, the Apostate ( this one representing a more "scientific" aproach, that was no less religious than the one of the Helioglab ), not mentioning the whole Mitra and Jesus worship ), with the concominant and gradual fusion between the dominant religious groups and the governement ( with the paralel development of a growing outsider culture that ultimately ended in the monk culture.... a good example is the life of Simeon Stylites, that lived 20 years on the top of a column in the late days of the Empire ), and the gradual outsourcing of the Army to mercenaries, especially foreign ones, leading to both the break of the efficiency and of the loyalty of the army, that proofed disastrous in the long run ( Feel free to compare or not all of this with our days paralels ). The Result was simple: the downsizing of the political power led to a fractionation of the relevant political units , more or less loyal to the central governement ( known as feudalism in our days... not that what we call feudalism appeard right on the end of the empire , but the roots were there ). That reduced both the markets ( reducing even more the big governenments viability ) and the energy ( in form of human work ) avaliable, in a spiral that ultimately took almost a millenium to evolve ( the economical studies show a bumpy decay of the water trade in the Mediterraneum that only stopped near the year 1000 , with the Syrii ( the eastern empire habitants ) merchants disapeeering out of Europe after the Arab triumph and the destruction of the Roman North African bread basket ,by destruction of the highly productive and sustainable system that the Romans had made to use the few rain that drops in the area and the hot climate to get good crops, during the vandal kingdom rise and fall,being very noticeable ) and ended in a very stratified and fragmented societity, that had lost a lot of ( and in some cases even more than ) they had received from the Roman effort ,where a King's worthy bottle would look distastefully crude in a roman's commoner house 2 or 3 centuries before and where even Roman ruins would appear giants compared with the crude huts where most commoners lived with cattle far smaller than the one that lived 3 centuries before.

This you can read in the books of medieval history, where names of Alaric, Constantin, Clovis, Attila ... appear. But the story I wanted to really see written ( probably the one that would help us more in this days ) is the story of the Roman commoners efforts to ditch this tide and why they were ultimately unsucessful. Unknown Romans (re)invented the watermill and the windmill and have invented farming methods that ,far later, proppeled European society to the level of Roman life by multiplying the ammount of energy avaliable. Roman sailors got to the Canary islands and it is a certainty that Roman could had made the intercontinental jump that Europe gave a millenium after, opening new commerce lanes that would had surely helped the moribund Roman economy. Nobody knows why the Empire didn't implemented those solutions, but my personal guess is that they were too energy ( read people here ) constricted to implement those solutions in a global scale ( a point you already adressed in earlier posts regarding our times ), too small shiny appeal of the small scale solutions for the big political sharks ( that prefer always big scale solutions ) and too convinced that their lifestyle ( read Empire in here ) would never cease to exist ( The panic feeling that evaporates from reading St Augustine narration of his reaction to the sack of Rome by Alaric is still palpable 16 centuries after ) to even thinking on trying a thing like that....

To not make a comment bigger than your own text, I'll end by summarize my idea: in 5 or 6 centuries, if we follow Rome's trajectory like Spengler beleived we would ( in that I have to agree with him: I'm quite skeptic to the idea that following Rome's example would not lead us to the Roman's fate )and enter in Age of junk-yark scrapping ( both in physical and "spiritual" meaning ) we can be in a rag of fiefdoms more or less tied to a central governement ( that most likely will be inoperant and so far away in real terms that it will simply be as it didn't existed ... or simply will be a pompous title with nothing substantial behind, like CharleMagne pretension that he was the western Roman Emperor ) and living a lifestyle that would look like misery to our beggars. But the ones that will save us from there ( or dare I say , the only ones that can save us of getting there )will be the persons that now work in ways of getting alternate and sustainable sources of energy ( like the anomym romans that invented the watermill and the windmill ) or the ones sacrifice they well being to save knowledge and the habit of thinking ( like monks did, by living a life miserable even for the medieval standarts to be able to save what they could from the Roman knowledge and to preserve the Graeco-Roman way of thinking, even if for theological uses ). Probably this people will do decisions that will be regretted by the futures ( anyone today would trade a million pages of theological comments for a full copy of Aristotle Poetica or for the full works of Sophocles, but that was not the decision those anomym monks did, when they saw themselfes with the decision of what to copy in that new sheet ... the fact is that we don't know what the futures will want or need and our "keep this or that" decisions will be always somewhat less than ideal ), but in the end those that try to save a little are the ones that have the best chance ( and most likely far after their life's end ) of saving the whole. A windmill here and a book there.....

yooper said...

I can agree more with your thoughts about, "The Age of Memory", John.

I don't like bringing such controversial thoughts to the table here and want to be sensitive to your readership so....

Concerning the last chapter, "The Machine" quoted from Spengler, vol II p.501-502,

"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. 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 ixperimcntalis, 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 conveyortowers. 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 pulse 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."

After reading this, I found this to be "fantastic", however, after reading about Roger Bacon ("the first scientist"), I can see where Spengler has drawn these conclusions, as fantastic as they may seem .....This is the first, I've come across such notions.....This borders on being unbelievable, as to what Spengler is suggesting almost partaking of the fruit from the tree of knowledge, correct? (This is bringing to surface some unpleasant memories of my childhood education.... hate that, when that happens....)

What are your thoughts on this matter, John?

Thanks, yooper

Ric said...

"If Spengler is right, what will follow it is an Age of Memory, where the collective imagination of the West turns back to contemplate its own past and extract the most useful elements from a thousand years of innovation."

This is similar to Jean Gebser's assertion that the next age would be, in his phrase, "integrative," in that we would synthesize -- in a new way, not simply as a reprise -- all of the previous ages of humanity. If one is an optimist, that means putting together the best of what has come before. The alternative is that we might also just go nuts, repeating all the mistakes of the past.

We live in interesting times.

Bill said...


You point out how reason will retain an active role in our collective life in the years and decades and centuries ahead, but that other forces will rise to the fore. Contemplating the successes and mistakes of our past will indeed be instrumental for our growth and cultural conservation is a helpful concept. Inherent in the act of contemplation (and all of the myriad forms of meditation) is the cultivation of intuition, the right-brain activity that provides needed balance to the preponderance of left-brain thinking that has wreaked such imbalances in the world. When we quiet our minds and allow spontaneous intuitive promptings to bubble up, we gain access to many of the glories of our foreparents which are just waiting inside each of us to manifest, and with a clear gaze we come to understand our human foibles as well.

Jacques, many thanks for referencing JMG’s interview on youtube in your comment. It was fun to put a voice and a face with these wonderful writings which have been so illuminating for me and so many.

Peter said...

Hello JMG,

good to be back-got caught up in what I call "magnifying-glass blogs" recently-you know, vital and interesting descriptions of society's day to day lurchings, but forgot what a balm it is to step back with you, for a moments contempation...thanks

Last months Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 2008) had a review of what looks like a very interesting new book: Europe Between the Oceans: 9000BC-AD1000 by Barry Cunliffe. Haven't read it yet, but a brief perusal at bookstore whetted my appetite.


DownSouth said...


Just wondering if you are familiar with the work of the French mathametician Benoit Mandelbrot and his formulation he calls "fractals"?

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets deals with the application of his conceptual framework to markets and economics, but he says it can also be applied to other disciplines, such as anthropology, history, muscicology and architecture.

You speak much of the rise and fall of "civilizations." But we could break the rise and fall of "Western civilization" into the rise and fall of smaller subsets--Greek, Roman and Rennaisance (from approx. 1500 to present); then the period 1500 to present into the rise and fall of even smaller subsets--Spanish, Dutch, English and now American; and then the American into the rise and fall of even smaller subsets--geographic expansion, railroads, oil & gas and the automobile, and computers/modern communications; and the last into the rise and fall of even smaller subsets--Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Enron, for example, ad infinitum.

Harold said...

There is so much wrong with Spengler--and with your basically uncritical adoption of his philosophy excised from its historical context--that it's difficult to know where to start. I want to ask, who's next for your blog? T.S. Eliot? Julius Evola? But let's not go there, because there are some ideas that I find so immoral and reprehensible that I am not prepared to waste time engaging them. Instead, let's just focus on one single statement of your post: "Among his least popular arguments is the suggestion that modern Western culture – Faustian culture, as he called it – finished its creative age in the nineteenth century." You mean, all those movements like (I'll just pick some of my favs here) the Russian Futurists, color field abstractionism, rock and roll, New Orleans jazz, psychedelia, folk music, noir film, Orson Welles, historical mystery novels, etc., etc.--they are all the last dribble of piss in the chamberpot of Western Civilization? Instead, we should look back fondly to those halcyon days of yore when poetry used to rhyme and pictures were of things we could recognize ("You call that art? My toddler could do better!")?

There is nothing whatsoever reasoned or rational about such nostalgia. Not least of all, an awareness of history would reveal that such nostalgia is nothing but a repeat of 18th-century Neoclassicist views.

But let's get down to brass tacks. What do you expect to DO about this unpleasantness known as the last what, century and a half? Spengler thought it would be nice to bring back some kind of authoritarianism, preferably focused on nationalism. Would that suit you, assuming, of course, that you would be somewhere near the top of the heap? Because if you are not willing to put your philosophy into action, you should perhaps rethink them and what they actually mean.

If you want to really test a philosophy, try looking at it from the perspective of those whom that philosophy disdains and see how it looks from there. Then you might be able to claim some objectivity of your estimation of its worth. But the very idea that you could do such a thing--that there is value in seeing a phenomenon from multiple perspectives (that scary, awful "relativism" we hear so much about today) came into being at the beginning of the twentieth century and so is forbidden territory for you and for Spengler. So I guess you are just stuck with your views. That is too bad--for you, and for your organization.

Steve said...

Oh, OK, it's that time of year again, is it? I will fetch the tomes off the shelf forthwith...

John Michael Greer said...

DownSouth, an excellent point. I haven't read Mandelbrot in anything like enough detail yet, but you're surely right that historical cycles have a fractal dimension.

Harold, if you'll take the time to read Spengler you'd find that you've basically caricatured his argument here. What differentiates rock music, to take one of your examples -- one I also enjoy, by the way -- from earlier creative forms is not that it's "degenerate" or some such nonsense; it's that it draws its inspiration from outside Faustian culture (from African music by way of blues). But then I said as much in my post.

As for what to do, well, I've talked about that in quite a bit of detail here for nearly three years -- but if you can't take the time to read Spengler, I doubt you'll take the time to go through the archives.

Steve, by all means!

Tigerbaby said...

Thank you once again for the most lucid and gentle Blog. You purvey your opinions in such a simple, unaffected manner. Its like listening to Alistair Cooke's " Letter From America". Thoughtful and stimulating. I love to hear praise for Epictetus, for I have not encountered another like him. He basically summed up the key issues of life for me. thanks again from ireland.

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