There's a mordant irony in the fact that a society as fixated on the future as ours is should have so much trouble thinking clearly about it. Partly, to be sure, that difficulty unfolds from the sheer speed of social and technological change in the age of cheap abundant energy that’s now coming to an end, but there’s more to it than that.
In the civil religions of the modern world, the future functions as a surrogate for heaven and hell alike, the place where the wicked will finally get the walloping they deserve and the good will be granted the promised benefits that the present never quite gets around to providing them. What Nietzsche called the death of God—in less colorful language, the fading out of living religious belief as a significant force in public life—left people across the Western world flailing for something to backstop the sense of moral order in the cosmos they once derived from religious faith. Over the course of the nineteenth century, a great many of them found what they wanted in one or another civil religion that projected some version of utopia onto the future.
It’s crucial not to underestimate the emotional force of the resulting beliefs. The future of perpetual betterment promised by the faith in progress, and the utopia on the far side of cataclysm promised with equal fervor by the faith in apocalypse, are no less important to their believers than heaven is to the ordinary Christian, and for exactly the same reason. Every human society has its own conception of the order of the cosmos; the distinctive concept of cosmic order that became central to the societies of Europe and the European diaspora envisioned a moral order that could be understood, down to the fine details, by human beings. Since everyday life pretty clearly fails to follow such an order, there had to be some offstage location where everything would balance out, whether that location took the form of heaven, humanity’s future among the stars, a future society of equality and justice, or what have you. Discard that imagined place and, for a great many people in the Western world, the cosmos ceases to have any order or meaning at all.
It was precisely against this sense of moral order, though, that Nietzsche declared war. Like any good general, he sent his forces into action along several routes at once; the assault relevant to our theme was aimed at the belief that the arithmetic of morality would finally add up in some other place or time. He rejected the idea of a utopian world of past or future just as forcefully as he did the concept of heaven itself. That’s one of the things his doctrine of eternal return was intended to do: by revisioning the past and the future as endless repetition, Nietzsche did his level best to block any attempt to make the past or the future fill the role once filled by heaven.
Here, though, he overplayed his hand. Strictly speaking, a cycle of eternal return is just as imaginary as any golden age in the distant past, or for that matter the glorious future come the Revolution when we will all eat strawberries and cream. In a philosophy that presents itself as a Yes-saying to life exactly as it is, his reliance on a theory of time just as unprovable as those he assaulted was a massive problem. Nietzsche’s madness, and the resolute effort on the part of most European intellectuals of the time not to think about any of the issues he tried to raise, left this point among many others hanging in the air. Decades passed before another German thinker tackled the same challenge with better results. His name, as I think most of my regular readers have guessed by now, was Oswald Spengler.
Spengler was in his own way as eccentric a figure as Nietzsche, though it was a more stereotypically German eccentricity than Nietzsche’s fey Dionysian aestheticism. A cold, methodical, solitary man, he spent his entire working life as a schoolteacher, and all his spare time—he never married—with his nose in a polymath’s banquet of books from every corner of scholarship. Old Kingdom Egyptian theology, traditional Chinese landscape design, the history of the medieval Russian church, the philosophical schools of ancient India, the latest discoveries in early twentieth century physics: all these and more were grist for his highly adaptable mill. In 1914, as the impending fall of the British empire was sweeping Europe into a vortex of war, he started work on the first volume of The Decline of the West; it appeared in 1918, and the second volume followed it in 1922.
The books became immediate bestsellers in German and several other languages—this despite a world-class collective temper tantrum on the part of professional historians. Logos, one of the most prestigious German scholarly journals of the time, ran an entire special issue on him, in which historians engaged in a frenzy of nitpicking about Spengler’s historical claims. (Spengler, unperturbed, read the issue, doublechecked his facts, released a new edition of his book with corrections, and pointed out that none of the nitpicking addressed any of the major points of his book; he was right, too.) One study of the furore around Spengler noted more than 400 publications, most of them hostile, discussing The Decline of the West in the decade of the 1920s alone.
Interest in Spengler’s work peaked in the 1920s and 1930s and faded out after the Second World War; some of the leading figures of the "Beat generation" used to sit around a table reading The Decline of the West out loud, and a few other figures of the 1950s drew on his ideas, but thereafter silence closed in. There’s an ironic contrast here to Nietzsche, who provided Spengler with so many of his basic insights; Nietzsche’s work was almost completely unknown during his life and became a massive cultural presence after his death; with Spengler, the sequence ran the other way around.
The central reason why Spengler was so fiercely if inconclusively attacked by historians in his own time, and so comprehensively ignored since then, is the same reason why he’s relevant to the present theme. At the core of his work stood the same habit of morphological thinking I discussed in an earlier post in this sequence. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who launched the study of comparative morphology in the life sciences in the eighteenth century, remained a massive cultural presence in the Germany of Spengler’s time, and so it came naturally to Spengler to line up the great civilizations of history side by side and compare their histories, in the same way that a biologist might compare a dolphin’s flipper to a bat’s wing, to see the common patterns of deep structure that underlie the surface differences.
Such comparisons are surprisingly unfashionable in modern historical studies. Most other fields of study rely on comparisons as a matter of course: the astronomer compares one nebula to another, just as the literary critic compares one experimental novel to another, and in both fields it’s widely accepted that such comparisons are the most important way to get past irrelevancies to an understanding of what’s really going on. There are historical works that compare, say, one revolution to others, or one feudal system to another, but these days they’re in the minority. More often, historians consider the events of some period in the past by themselves, without placing them in the context of comparable periods or events, and either restrict themselves to storytelling or propose assorted theories about the causes of those events—theories that can never be put to the test, because it’s all but impossible to test a hypothesis when you’re limited to a sample size of one.
The difficulty with a morphological approach to history is precisely that a sample size of more than one turns up patterns that next to nobody in the modern industrial world wants to think about. By placing past civilizations side by side with that of the modern industrial West, Spengler found that all the great historical changes that our society sees as uniquely its own have exact equivalents in older societies. Each society emerges out of chaos as a decentralized feudal society, with a warrior aristocracy and an epic poetry so similar that an enterprising bard could have recited the Babylonian tale of Gilgamesh in an Anglo-Saxon meadhall without anyone present sensing the least incongruity. Each then experiences corresponding shifts in social organization: the meadhalls and their equivalents give way to castles, the castles to fortified towns, the towns to cities, and then a few of the cities outgrow all the others and become the centers in which the last stages of the society’s creative life are worked out.
Meanwhile, in the political sphere, feudal aristocrats become subject to kings, who are displaced by oligarchies of the urban rich, and these latter eventually fall before what Spengler calls Caesarism, the emergence of charismatic leaders who attract a following from the urban masses and use that strength to seize power from the corrupt institutions of an oligarchic state. Traditional religions rich in myth give way to rationalist philosophies as each society settles on the intellectual projects that will define its legacy to the future—for example, logical method in the classical world, and natural science in ours. Out of the diverse background of folk crafts and performances, each culture selects the set of art forms that will become the focus of its creative life, and these evolve in ever more distinctive ways; Gilgamesh and Beowulf could just as well have swapped swords and fought each other’s monsters, for example, but the briefest glance at plays from ancient Greece, India, China, and the Western world shows a wholly different dramatic and aesthetic language at work in each.
All this might have been forgiven Spengler, but the next step in the comparison passes into territory that makes most people in the modern West acutely uncomfortable. Spengler argued that the creative potential of every culture is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything worth bothering with that can be done with Greek sculpture, Chinese porcelain, Western oil painting, or any other creative art has been done; sooner or later, the same exhaustion occurs in every other dimension of a culture’s life—its philosophies, its political forms, you name it. At that point, in the terms that Spengler used, a culture turns into a civilization, and its focus shifts from creating new forms to sorting through the products of its creative centuries, choosing a selection of political, intellectual, religious, artistic, and social patterns that will be sustainable over the long term, and repeating those thereafter in much the same way that a classical orchestra in the modern West picks and chooses out of the same repertoire of standard composers and works.
As that last example suggests, furthermore, Spengler didn’t place the transition from Western culture to its subsequent civilization at some conveniently far point in the future. According to his chronology, that transition began in the nineteenth century and would be complete by 2100 or so. The traditional art forms of the Western world would reach the end of the line, devolving into empty formalism or staying on in mummified form, the way classical music is preserved today; political ideologies would turn into empty slogans providing an increasingly sparse wardrobe to cover the naked quest for power; Western science, having long since exhausted the low-hanging fruit in every field, would wind down into a repetition of existing knowledge, and most forms of technology would stagnate, while a few technological fields capable of yielding grandiose prestige projects would continue to be developed for a while; rationalism would be preserved in intellectual circles, while popular religious movements riddled with superstition would rule the mental life of the bulk of the population. Progress in any Western sense of the word would be over forever, for future cultures would choose their own directions in which to develop, as different from ours as ours is from the traditional Chinese or the Mayans.
Spengler didn’t leave these projections of the future in abstract form; he turned them into detailed predictions about the near future, and those predictions have by and large turned out to be correct. He was wrong in thinking that Germany would become an imperial state that would unite the Western world the way Rome united the classical world, the kingdom of Qin united China, and so on, though it’s fair to say that Germany’s two efforts to fill that role came uncomfortably close to succeeding. Other than that, his aim has proved remarkably good.
He argued, for example, that the only artistic forms that could have any vitality in 20th century Europe and America would take their inspiration from other, non-Western cultures. Popular music, which was dominated by African-derived jazz in the first half of the century and African-derived rock thereafter, is only one of many examples. As for politics, he suggested that the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would be dominated by a struggle pitting charismatic national dictators against a globalized oligarchy of high finance lightly concealed under a mask of democracy, a struggle that the financiers would eventually lose. Though the jury’s still out on the final outcome, the struggle itself is splashed over the news on a daily basis.
All these events took place in other times and places, and will take place in future societies, each in its own way. What distinguishes contemporary Western society from earlier urban civilizations, according to Spengler’s view, is not that it’s "more advanced," "more progressive"—every society goes in a different direction, and proceeds along that route until the same law of diminishing returns cuts in—but simply that it happened to take mastery of physical matter and energy as its special project, and in the process stumbled across the buried carbon we’re burning so extravagantly just now. It’s hard to think of any historical vision less flattering to the inherited egotism of the modern industrial West; it deprives us of our imagined role as the cutting edge of humanity in its grand upward march toward the stars, and plops us back down to earth as just one civilization among many, rising and falling along with the rest.
It’s in this way that Spengler proved to be Nietzsche’s heir. Where Nietzsche tried to challenge the imaginary utopia at the end of history with an equally imaginary vision of eternal return, Spengler offered a vision that was not imaginary, but rather rested on a foundation of historical fact. Where Nietzsche’s abandonment of a moral order to the cosmos left him staring into an abyss in which order and meaning vanished once and for all, Spengler presented an alternative vision of cosmic order in which morality is not a guiding principle, but simply a cultural form, human-invented, that came and went with the tides of history. Life was as much Spengler’s banner as it was Nietzsche’s, life in the full biological sense of the word, unreasoning, demanding, and resistant to change over less than geological time scales; the difference was that Nietzsche saw life as the abyss, while Spengler used it to found his sense of an ordered universe and ultimately his values as well.
It’s among the richest ironies of Spengler’s project that among the things that he relativized and set in a historic context was Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche liked to imagine himself as a figure of destiny, poised at the turning point of the ages—this was admittedly a common occupational disease of nineteenth-century philosophers. Spengler noted his debts to Nietzsche repeatedly in The Decline of the West, but kept a sense of perspective the older man lacked; in the table of historical parallels that finishes the first volume of Spengler’s book, Nietzsche has become one more symptom of the late, "Winter" phase of Western culture, one of many figures participating in the final disintegration of traditional religious thought at the hands of skeptical intellectuals proposing new systems of philosophical ethics.
When Nietzsche announced the death of God, in other words, he was filling a role familiar in other ages, announcing an event that occurs on schedule in the life of each culture. The Greek historian Plutarch had announced the death of Pan some eighteen centuries earlier, around the time that the classical world was settling firmly into the end-state of civilization; the people of ancient Crete, perhaps recalling some similar event even further back, used to scandalize Greek tourists by showing them the grave of Zeus. Every literate urban society, Spengler argued, followed the same trajectory from an original folk religion rich in myths, through the rise of intellectual theology, the birth of rationalism, the gradual dissolution of the religious worldview into rational materialism, and then the gradual disintegration of rational materialism into a radical skepticism that ends by dissolving itself; thereafter ethical philosophies for the intellectuals and resurgent folk religion for the masses provide the enduring themes for the civilization to come.
It’s a stark vision, especially painful to those who have been raised to see the most recent phases of that process in our own culture as the heralds of the bright new era of history presupposed by the Joachimist shape of time, or the initial shockwaves of the imminent apocalypse presupposed by its Augustinian rival. Defenders of these latter viewpoints have accordingly developed standard ways of countering Spengler’s challenge—or, more precisely, defenders of both have settled on the same way of doing so. We’ll discuss their argument, and place it in its own wider context, in next week’s post.