Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Scheduled Death of God

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.

139 comments:

Leo said...

The reactions to this should be interesting, it's a different way of looking at things.

Was thinking about anacyclosis, which is visually represented by a circle and revolutions. A revolution simply means to go around a circle. So in a sense to have a revolution is to simply go around the circle of anacyclosis.

Thinking about the Russian and French revolutions, that may have some merit.

Tom Bannister said...

Good Post. Correct me if I'm wrong or have the wrong idea but is the final phase of Spengler's narrative something like the resurgence in religious/spiritual traditions happening all over the west, with the phase before that (radical skepticism) being akin to the post-modern movement? Just a thought I had.

Its an interesting predicament especially if you are a member of generation Y (like myself). On one hand, we are bombarded with post-modern media/ideas (the Simpsons/ South Park etc) on the other we are expected to fulfill the 'modernist' ideal of going out and having a full time carrier with the aim of 'getting ahead' and progressing in society. Its a tricky situation to be in I can tell you. Many of us don't know what to believe any more. So we do our jobs/study half arsed (sorry was that too rude?). Some of us though, increasing I think do accept the 'circular/timeless' philosophy discussed in last weeks post. But yeh, Like you said, these are very emotionally charged issues its difficult to talk about the wider scheme of things. I am trying my best though to bring it up with members of my generation (with some success). Anyway, cheers for the post

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, good. I don't think that Polybius would see revolution as the whole cycle of anacyclosis, just as the transition from one phase to another -- the American revolution, for example, replaced monarchy with oligarchy.

Tom, excellent! Yes, postmodernism is the current version of the sort of radical skepticism that cancels itself out, and ends the whole trajectory of rationalism -- there were parallel movements in every past civilization that had a developed philosophical tradition. Next comes the emergence of ethical philosophies that focus on how to live when you can't know the objective truth, which appeal to intellectuals, and the first stirrings of what Spengler calls the Second Religiosity, the rebirth of popular religion, which appeals to the masses.

Avery said...

JMG,

Another cliffhanger! And even better than the last one.

I began down my current path, three years ago, trying to confront Spengler's powerful metaphysical claim:

"‘Mankind’, however, has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids."

Whatever people might think about Spengler's attempt at universal history, that single sentence wakes us from our comfortable, oil-fueled dreams of a sci-fi push to the stars which you so expertly summarized back in 2011. It reveals that the sci-fi stories we've been telling ourselves are just stories; and as they have already proven impossible, mankind will exhaust the Western story and move on to something else.

But the course Spengler set for the West was not clear to me then. He predicted a Second Religiousness -- but what would happen to all the grand rationalism people are proclaiming these days? He proclaimed that the West could only proceed into an ahistorical state -- but how could anyone voluntarily do that, when we moderns obsess so deeply over our impact on the future?

In the last paragraph of this post, you seem to sneak in the answer I eventually figured out to those questions. I expect you'll elaborate on that next week, and I am thinking as well of the questions that raises: What is mankind's next intellectual project, then? Does it begin from a blank slate? Will we be forced to lose the collective knowledge we possess?

As I've said before, the conclusion I came to about these bigger questions is based on Guénon's metaphysics. My reading convinces me that the persistence of modernity is not just about oil; and that the final chapter of the West will be dragged out many long, hard years after the modern way of life becomes materially unappealing. But as always, I look forward to seeing how you take on this subject.

Avery

Mr O. said...

I can't fault any of what you have said over the past few weeks. However I do hope that after this relentless dissolution of illusions you will be coagulating something more solid to replace them, or will we just be left staring into the abyss...

Quos Ego said...

Spengler has been on my reading list for quite some time and you certainly give sound arguments for me to take the plunge.

It has occurred to me that the disturbing trend I've been observing of late in the Peak Oil Sphere, that is NTE coupled with a fierce disgust of and hatred for mankind (which is probably the most farcical outcome of the age of abundance), stems not from Peak Oil and climate mayhem themselves, but from some hard to define post-modern spleen that is consistent with what you've been describing in the last series of posts.

By the way, do you have any plan to tackle the "we are all guilty as a species, we are harmful, we are cancer, we deserve to die" side of the environmentalist movement?

Leo said...

I was thinking along those lines. The Russian revolution had expanding democracy that was cut short when the Czar Alexander II, who emancipated the serfs, was killed on the day he as to form the Duma. Later on the revolution put Stalin, a true dictator if there ever was, in power.

Thought you'd appreciate this bit of fiction.
http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-1185

For some reason when I put stuff into HTML tags, it doesn't show up. using (a href="") with ( as <.

Tom Bannister said...

And then the phase after the Second Religiosity can potentially (for example was when the roman empire collapsed?) be the return of religious dogma? Unless of course there is enough sense of the broader arc of history for people to keep the present moment in perspective. But as you have consistently stated, this is exactly what is sorely lacking in western society.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Hi JMG,

Your description of continual expansion and contraction of societies fits quite well with Hollings' Adaptive Cycle -

1.growth or exploitation (r)
2.conservation (K)
3.collapse or release (omega)
4.reorganization (alpha)

Surely ecology trumps philosophy, just like Peak Oilers know geology trumps economics...?

Paul Milne said...

Maybe we need to get an earth-centred religion in position to lead the vanguard. If we're going to have a second religiosity, let it be one that puts nature first. Some sort of Druidic Simplicitarianism, perhaps?

Nils said...

Very good, as always, John. I would add though that the lead from pessimism to utopianism is course a familiar one. This was of course the central point of Fritz Sterns's classic The Politics of Cultural Despair - that a sense of impending doom and decline can be used to channel not just stoicism but extremist "solutionism" (to borrow from Evgeny Morozov).

As the global ecological crisis, the possibility that political entrepreneurs with this mindframe will rise up to challenge fate (or what they see as fatalism) seems to me nontrivial.

Jo said...

Tim Flannery has an interesting view which he puts forward in his book The Future Eaters - that human societies tend to use up whatever resources are at their disposal, then either implode from their over-reaching(Romans, Mayans) or survive by the skin of their teeth (blessed remnant/survivalist theory you put forward in your recent posts) and learn to live within their ecological limits, often substituting a rich spiritual heritage for technological gain (native Americans, Australian Aboriginals etc). There seems to be archeological evidence that supports the thesis that before these cultures achieved a sustainable balance they created environmental chaos when first chancing upon empty continents with great natural riches..
Of course, with the technological advantages of our own culture, we have been able to trash the earth on an unprecedented scale, which will require unprecedented scaling back of resource-grabbing.
The native Americans and Australian Aboriginal story had a happy ending (until Europeans came and repeated the resource-grabbing beginning of the cycle). The Romans and Mayans didn't. Who knows how this current cycle will end..

permaliv said...

I still think that our civilization is the most extreme form by now in history. F.ex. you can't find a complete break with any former form-language as in modernism:

http://solidarityhall.org/modernism-as-a-cultural-discontinuity-an-architectural-comment-2/

The fear of Beauty and God, as expressed in our culture, is extreme, it's never seen before.

You might find it off-topic and delete my quota from Alexander, but that's ok as I've access to other Norwegian and international blogs on which I hope to write an essay on this topic someday:

"Later, Katalin Bende, also working on the project in our office, asked me to explain what I meant by this true liking and about people's fear of it, and why anyone could be afraid of true beauty. "What kind of beauty could go so deep that a person would be afraid of creating it?" she asked.

I told her that, in my view, a difficulty we modern people encounter can sometimes go something like this: When centers are properly distributed in a truly beautiful structure, one cannot avoid seeing the I (what a religious person might also call God). In the 20th century there has been something almost like a taboo, against seeing the I, or true beauty, or God. Hence the discomfort. This discomfort that modern people feel with real beauty – especially that architects and designers feel – is almost legendary. Working with architects, I have experienced it again and again. Many traditional shapes, especially the most profound shapes with deep and serious centers in them, for some reason trouble modern architects profoundly. Even when an architect does want to borrow a traditional shape for a building (as postmodernists sometimes do), he often feels he has to make the shape "modern" in order to feel comfortable with it. So, for many decades, architects of the 20th century felt that they had to take a traditional form and distort it, so that they could demonstrate that they had possessed it, and so that their colleagues would not laugh at them for being archaic.

Let me put it another way. The history of the 20th century has been one in which people do not want to see God nor, therefore, true beauty either. The role religion has, for many become uncomfortable. Many people want no part of it. They do not want, even, to get near it. And for that reason, they also do not (cannot) want, in their lives, any kind of true beauty. True beauty is the quality of being in touch with the I. A structure with true beauty – the beauty which brings something in touch with the I – is, in effect, something we cannot avoid, in some part, seeing God. For this reason, the underlying design vocabulary of the 20th century, almost throughout the century, asserted that designers should create structures which are "interesting", "pleasing", "fantastic", "exhilarating", "with elan", and so on – anything but beautiful – indeed never truly beautiful. That word has unalterable meaning, cannot be contaminated, and during the temporary insanity of the 20th century, struck a nerve which people could not tolerate." – Christopher Alexander, The Luminous Ground, page 295-296

shrama said...

Dear JMG,

Thanks for a profound insight into Spengler. I wonder in what ways are the late stage ethical philosophies of intellectuals "enduring." I can see how the resurgent folk religions of the masses would provide the raw material for the next round of civilization but whether ethical philosophy makes any difference or not, would depend on how the interregnum shapes up, not least because the transit of any intellectual resource through trying times is so fraught with uncertainties. Are there any specific examples from history that you think illuminate this point, specifically about ethical philosophy?

kristofv said...

I have to admit that I had never heard of Spengler and this post was a good excuse to go for the obligatory wikipedia skimming.

I was surprised by his cold analytical observation or prediction "that democracy is simply the political weapon of money, and the media is the means through which money operates a democratic political system. The thorough penetration of money's power throughout a society is yet another marker of the shift from Culture to Civilization."

One reason he might have fallen out of fashion after WWII, is that people might have felt as if with the defeat of Hitler they also defeated and stopped the age of the Caeser, Spengler predicted.

I wonder how you feel about new social media such as twitter and blogs, that are always heralded as (besides being unique in history) the necessary counterbalance to traditional media and the thing that will finally enable true democracy. I guess sceptical :).

Odin's Raven said...

The whole notion of cycles of time seems to go back to the Megalithic era, along with the concept of cosmic order and diffferent deities ruling successive eras. Their great achievement seems to have been to codify the harmonic movements of the planets and derive standards of measure of length and time and music from them.

If interested in the literal mathematical shapes associated with time you might like the works of the brothers Richard and Robin Heath, such as 'Precessional Time and the Evolution of Consciousness' or 'Sun Moon and Earth'.

Richard Heath

Robin Heath

Sixbears said...

The study of History can be a powerful tool. With a clear idea of where we are and where we might go, we can then make decisions on how we want to live.

While we can't step outside of the times we live in, we can decide how to live in them. If nothing else it gives a person the chance to put his energies in places where they'll most likely bear fruit. Beats the heck out of investing one's life in doomed enterprises.

Of course, 50 years one way or the other is nothing in historical time. In a person's life, it makes all the difference in the world.

At the individual level I try and live a life that's satisfying today, yet is robust enough to survive probable historical trends. Often that comes down to figuring out how to live on a lot less money and energy than the average American. (and live well!)

As I jokingly (not really joking) tell people that I got into poverty before it was cool. Now I'm good at it. I'm the king of the Hobos.

Odin's Raven said...

It seems that the influence of Peak Oil and environmentalist catastropic thinking has even infiltrated the British Ministry of Defence.

MOD,

Maybe you can get a grant to teach them how to 'manage decline'!

Andy Brown said...

Fascinating post. Being at least partly a creature of my time, I've been sympathetic to the fashion for treating historical trajectories of different times and places in their own terms. Mostly that was a reaction against the problem that peoples, nations, civilizations were shoe-horned into various over-arching stories (progress, Race, colonialism) which we were telling ourselves. So the effort was to set aside those convenient and (for us) resonant contexts and see a place or people as it really was, with its own inherent logicks. I'm sure if I'd been asked to read Spengler, I'd have lumped him with the other suspects. Maybe I'll have to take a peek in there to see if there's any baby in that bathwater.

Robo said...

I usually come away from reading the Archdruid Report with a renewed awareness of the shallowness of my liberal arts education. Oswald Spengler and his work are news to me.

He was clearly onto something, and those of us who were born in the mid twentieth century are at once privileged and burdened by the experience of having lived on both sides of our own historical peak.

CGP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hal said...

Outstanding. I already had on my list of things to do from previous posts to put some time into studying Spengler. Don't think I can put it off any longer.

Something someone said last week, in describing the Augustinian view as a U-shaped curve and it's inversion, a model based on the biological life cycle, got me thinking that if you put those models together, you get something like a sine-wave. And, of course, a sine-wave is nothing but a graphical representation of the model that has been brought forth by a number of your readers, the circle.

Twilight said...

I've been thinking about such a circular/cyclical “shape of time” since you brought it to my attention quite some time ago now, and it has become something that is simply natural and comfortable. The cycles of human history seem pretty obvious, even here in North America where physical relics of past civilizations are harder to see (but still there) – not that anything repeats in exact duplication, but in a general sense.

One of the outcomes of this way of thinking that I have come to appreciate is that I don't make much of a value judgment on the rise or fall as being good or bad, any more than I do on the passing of the seasons. Sure, winter can be tough, but it has its beauties and benefits. All the seasons have their difficulties but they are not good or bad, they just are.

From what I can tell people suffer in periods of rapid transition, either on a civilization's way up or way down, but other than those transitions a person can live a life in any phase and find things of benefit to living then. I know there are difficult times coming, but that is only because of the pace of the change, not because this particular civilization is ending.

wildwoodchapel said...

This second religiosity, I assume, will probably take some other form than evangelical fundamentalism, which seems to be losing its grip. What form do you think it will take? Mainline protestantism and "progressive" (ha!) Christianity (which in its current form mostly embraces acience and critical Biblical scholarship) or something else entirely?

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

Ave

The difference between heaven and hell is about which end of the pitchfork you're on...

Keith Hackwood said...

A tangent, I know, but in view of this theme of post-Nietzschean decline and Spenglerific sphericities I wonder what you make of the works of, for instance, Henri Corbin? He was variously described as the last of the German Romantics and the great orientalist of mundus imaginalis, and he said of himself "A philosopher’s campaign must be led simultaneously on many fronts…. The philosopher’s investigations should encompass a wide enough field that the visionary philosophies of a Jacob Boehme, of an Ibn ‘Arabi, of a Swedenborg etc……Otherwise philosophia no longer has anything to do with Sophia. My education is originally philosophical, which is why, to all intents and purposes, I am neither a Germanist nor an Orientalist, but a Philosopher pursuing his Quest wherever the Spirit guides him. If it has guided me towards Freiburg, towards Teheran, towards Ispahan, for me the latter remain essentially “emblematic cities”, the symbols of a permanent voyage."

His influence extends also into essences such as the Archetypal school of post-Jungian psychology (after James Hillman), and the transpersonal field of enquiry in general (AH Almaas, springs to mind)

There's a great essay, 'From Heidegger to Suhrwardi' here: http://philosophiaperennisetuniversalis.blogspot.nl/2013/05/from-heidegger-to-suhrawardi-part-1.html#more

I'm interested in your take on this aspect of the profundity, even at the time of a culture's turning and demise.

Georgi Marinov said...

While I do agree in principle with the general ideas, all such exercises of deriving repeated historical patterns suffer from one fundamental, and ultimately fatal flaw, and it is that they extrapolate from the last 5000 or so years and then project onto the future.

But history did not start a few thousand years ago with the first cities and states, it started billions of years ago. Those patterns describe well the behavior of groups of certain size of Homo sapiens under a certain set of relatively constant environmental conditions. One is well advised to study those idea and as long as those conditions persist those will be extremely valuable lessons. But there is no reason to think it will be the same ad infinitum. To begin with, the appearance of cities, states and civilizations was itself a major discontinuity, and the pattern only begin repeating after it. Another discontinuity of similar or even greater magnitude will quite certainly happen again.

Freebooter said...

Oh dear, it's all a bit worrying isn't it, one does like to have a firm grasp of the future when buying the milk.

Well done Tom with the insight into post modernism, been mulling over the nature of how technology is perhaps extending western culture/civilistaion over the globe and does this extend or shorten the cycles of decline? Obviously this surge of influence is being resisted in older and different cultures, but it does seem to be sweeping all before it?

JMG are you a harbinger of the resurgent folk religion, what with the wandering about in woods? I expect to see t-shirts and posters proliferating over the next few years with your likeness and a snappy masses friendly slogan.

Again - post-modernism, that's what it's for. Duh, slaps head goes to make tea....

SLClaire said...

I'll put Spengler on my reading list for winter.

Will you be discussing the new ethical philosophies and the rebirth of popular religion that you mentioned in your comment to Tom in upcoming posts? I'm quite curious about both. And do these represent a first stirring of the next civilization to come, in theme at least?

Greg Knepp said...

JMG,

As you state, the influence of African music is undeniable. But Africans also influenced Western art, architecture and design. In 1905 Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque - young second-tier painters at the time - happened upon an exhibition of African tribal artifacts at a Paris museum. The stark beauty of the masks, shields and sculptures therein so amazed the duo that they b-lined back to their respective studios and attempted to incorporate what they had seen into their paintings...Cubism was born.

As Impressionism - European painting's supernova - had pretty much run its course, Cubism caught on in the vacuum and spread like wildfire. It helped give birth to the nascent architectural movement aptly named The International Style and various minor design styles in it's wake. [was the autobahn a manifestation of International Style perception? If God is indeed dead, then why not nature, why not art, and, Arnold Shoenberg seems to ask, why not music?]

Of course, Cubism's most obvious offspring was Abstract Expressionism. I knew a few notable Abstract Expressionist artists personally, and, believe me, these dudes were out to lunch!

I'll not go into the devastating consequences of Cubism and the International Style (and its bedfellows) on the look and feel of Western culture, such consequences being obvious. Nor can I blame the African artisans whose work was stolen from them by European "explorers" so many years ago. Their work, introduced into a dying culture, simply took root and spread - in mutated forms that is - in much the same way that a plant or animal, innocuous enough in its native environment, might reek ecological havoc when introduced into a vulnerable foreign landscape.

Picasso's sin, if any, was his recognition of the superior quality of the African art he viewed at the museum that day, as compared to the vapid fare hanging in the salons of Europe at the time. Decades later, Andy Warhol took a page from Picasso's book and upset the convention of Abstract Expressionism by introducing the far better crafted and resolved forms of contemporary popular art into the otherwise stagnant fine arts scene of the 1960's. Warhol, like Picasso, recognized a superior aesthetic when he saw it.

Andrew said...

Mr. Greer,

I only recently stumbled upon your blog so this is my first post to the comment section, please be gentle. As an educator who teaches a course that essentially amounts to the rise and fall of human civilizations, I am fascinated by your critique of our own time.

It seems to me that Spengler’s assessment of the cyclical nature of human societies, brilliant and innovative as it was, may overlook a concept that has only recently been explored by the study of modern biology. Human societies and their popular belief systems (religions) are subject to many of the same evolutionary forces that affect individual organisms. First, if modern biology is correct, and I think that it is, evolution has no terminal goal. It is simply an ecstasy of fumbling that selects certain traits, brought about by random mutations that are advantageous to the particular environment in which the organism or society finds itself in. All life on this planet is in competition for energy, the more energy an organism or society harnesses, the more complex it becomes, and usually that complexity allows it to dominate it’s rivals until that complexity becomes it’s undoing.

The fact that human societies tend to follow similar patterns of rise and fall is tied to the physical laws that govern our biology and social organization. Increased energy input is subject to diminishing returns; each period of human history has limits on complexity, often defined as progress. Progress is restricted by the ability to harness a larger portion of the energy of the universe. Each phase of human organization over the past 10,000 years has been dependent on a new, more energy dense resource. Our current predicament is simply that our era is locked into the energy produced by fossil fuels and we are in the process of hitting the wall of diminishing returns of that energy source. If we are unable to overcome this limitation we will inevitably decline as all other civilizations have done in the past, only to be replaced, or not, by another civilization that is able to harness a more energy dense resource. If humans are unable to realize this goal we will almost certainly be relegated to the dustbin of evolutionary history. The primary point here is that our “religious” belief in progress is nothing more than an evolutionary strategy that may allow us to overcome the limitations of our age. Without this prevailing belief system, we will never be able to escape our fragile planetary ecosystem and be doomed to extinction without ever escaping it. Our and every other species on the planets goal is survival through genetic dispersion. The more places you are, the less likely you are to go extinct when, not if, your environment becomes inhospitable to you. We are the first species that has the ability, however limited to escape the confines of our planet. We are only able to do this through harnessing the power of ancient stored sunlight. Our current “extravagant” use of energy and our belief in progress, are nothing more than evolutionary strategies that may or may not doom us to failure as a species.

Forgive me if this post is a little long, rambling and off topic. It is my first.

Thank you,
Andrew

hybridelephant said...

the "god" that is dying isn't really the "god" we have to worry about, because the "god" that is dying isn't really "god"...

the God we have to worry about is the God who is capable of being both alive and dead at the same time, without contradiction.

which, actually, sounds a lot like Siva, the Lord of Transformation. ;-)

Phil Knight said...

I think it's generally unappreciated how rollickingly funny Spengler can be. I find it impossible not to cackle when he's kicking to death one of our culture's sacred cows. For example, he's plainly enjoying himself when he refers to contemporary artists as "weightlifters lifting cardboard dumb-bells".

Gurdjieff is equally funny, and for much the same reasons.

Michael Petro said...

Quick hit:

"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."

It's a feature. Fixating on the future - more often than not a projection that is incompletely informed by the facts - is a great way to avoid competent action in the present.

Now off to read the rest of the post, which I anticipate (speaking of the future) to be as informative and thought-provoking as usual...

Michael Petro said...

...and I was not disappointed.

Thanks for forcing me to continually reevaluate my prejudices.

ed boyle said...

I noticed once reading a Roman history the similarity of the religious devotedness at say the beginning of theri time with vestal virgins an death sentences and the early puritanical era of the novel "Scarlet letter". I was just thing that the one took place in 700 BC and thge other ca. 1650. So until the high point of Roman civilization it took 700 years and of North American civilization it took 350 years. Perhaps fossil fuels speeded the process up or practice in making civilizations? The curve is same but shrotened time wise so we could expect total collapse not in 400 years as in Rome but in 200 or less years.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

One of the significant points I took from reading Spengler is how those morphological patterns repeat in subtle ways. On example that comes to mind is how modern paganistic religions create their mythology and world view from recent literary interpretations of history, not history itself.

For example, when I see books purporting to expound on early Greek religion and the form the worship of their Gods took, I am reminded that Varro himself had little idea of actual practices of his great grandfathers, instead leaning on the literature that reinterpreted life according to the mythological thinking of his present.

In a similar way, I see the neopagan view of the history of goddess-worship as heavily influenced by Murry, with the mythology of prehistoric matriarchal societies taking the place of Eden in some branches of Augustinian narrative. I find that the influence extends far beyond paganism into the wider culture, seeing people react angrily and storm out of a talk when the historical examples did not include one that reinforced their favored cultural myth.

I question if the lack of historical perspective is a good or a bad thing; while not learning from the past can lead to repetitive pratfalls, our preconceived notions of what time is does limit our responses to the challenges that our infinite present affords us.

Roger said...

A long time ago I visited the country of my ancestors. And there I met two old men. One was my own grandfather. The other was my cousin's grandfather. Both had lived through the front lines of WW1, both had stared into the "abyss" if you want to call it that, and, if you want to further intellectualize it, witnessed up close and personal that first stage of Europe's collective suicide.

But they evidently hadn't suffered enough because they then both saw the second stage: the rise of communism and fascism and WW2. By this time both men were deemed too old for military service and so dedicated themselves instead to seeing that their families survived.

My grandfather, for his part, having had a lot of experience in digging trenches, did what he knew best. He dug a trench. He fortified the top and sides with timber and covered it with earth. There the family sheltered with some neighbours praying to survive the next five minutes and then the next and on and on for days while explosives rained down. Somehow they made it through. And then tanks and soldiers came and evicted them all. And so they went on the run as refugees, from one farm to another, seeing beastly things along the way, congregating with people in their situation wherever relative safety might be found. They survived that ordeal also.

Both men came away from these experiences scarred and changed but with different perspectives. For though he had no time for the traditional Judeo-Christian god or the preaching of the village priest, at a dinner table discussion my grandfather said never mind, he was convinced that there is "something" out there but what it was he couldn't say. Like an unseen hand, at work. And so this isn't all for nothing.

My cousin's grandfather scoffed saying there's no "paradise" if that's what you hope for. He said the only "paradise" is to be found in the plate in front of you. He believed in no god or unseen hand or force for "good" at all. Maybe for my grandfather this alternative was just too awful to contemplate. I'll never know. I never got to know him well and he died soon after.

Both of these men were illiterate peasants. They had about three years of formal schooling between them. They knew nothing of Spengler or Neitzsche. For that matter, what I know of Spengler and Nietzsche I just learned from your post. So thank you for that.

I know what scholars are trying to do. They try to discern the broader picture and see the larger themes. But in getting out of the weeds of individual experience I think I you can get too far out of the weeds. Personal recounting, like that of these two old men, does illuminate. There's the history of great men and great events. And there's the history of people trying to live for another five minutes.

I think that speaking to those that were there as events unfolded and who played some part and who were changed by them puts a face to textbook accounts. Because I think that history can be just as much a matter of the fear and sweat and blood and guts of ordinary people as it is a matter of sterile scholarly abstraction even if it is intelligent and perceptive.

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, as I see it (and as Spengler saw it), "mankind" has no projects at all, great or otherwise. Projects belong to individual high cultures. Spengler expected a major new culture to arise in what is now Russia in the centuries ahead, and I have similar thoughts about Latin America; each of them will choose its own project, and go from there in its own direction.

Mr. O, good. You're taking this project seriously. Yes, I'll be offering some suggestions down the road a bit.

Quos Ego, yes, I'm going to have to talk about that, and the self-hatred and hatred of life that drives it.

Leo, thanks for the story!

Tom, every society has dogmas that can't be called into question with impunity; we've got plenty of them in today's industrial world, for example. We just insist that our religion isn't a religion...

Mustard, ecology trumps philosophy, until philosophy gets the common sense to learn from ecology.

Paul, the religious forms of the Second Religiosity evolve out of the half-conscious or unconscious choices of the mass of people -- they can't be predicted, or constructed. As for Druidry, I can think of few things more improbable than my very small, very erudite, highly eccentric tradition taking on any significant historical role at all.

Nils, thanks for the heads up -- I haven't read Sterns, and clearly have to remedy that.

Jo, Flannery's point is a good one. There are civilizations that did a relatively good job of finding a stable relationship to their environment, too -- traditional China is one example out of many -- but there also there were many problems early on, and adaptation took time. This is one of the things that gives me hope for the future.

Permaliv, nah, there have been plenty of other societies in which the fear of beauty and the deliberate pursuit of ugliness have had their day. It rarely lasts long -- it's one of those things that comes at the very end of rationalism -- and the buildings, artworks, etc. that come out of it are hideous enough that they don't survive long.

Shrama, if we follow the usual track, the ethical philosophies that will shape our future haven't been invented yet -- they're the equivalent of Stoicism and Epicureanism in the classical world, relatively late schools that follow the age of high rationalism.

John Michael Greer said...

Kristofv, very sceptical. Social media allow people to vent their feelings without doing anything that might actually trouble the system. If you post a rant denouncing Obama, let's say, what does that actually accomplish, and who needs to care?

Raven, thanks for the links.

Sixbears, good! As I've suggested more than once, early adopters of the deindustrial lifestyle are going to have huge advantages as everyone else stumbles down the same path.

Raven, militaries all over the world are getting ready for the impact of peak oil. It's just the public that's being fed nonsense on that subject.

Andy, the results of any morphological study have to be balanced with a clear sense of what makes any given phenomenon unique. Spengler tries to do that, but he doesn't always succeed -- thus his work, like the work of any scholar, needs to be read with a critical eye.

Robo, Spengler's been all but erased from our collective memory -- as far as I know, the English translation of The Decline of the West has been out of print for decades. Thus it's not surprising that you hadn't heard of him.

CGP, each individual human being is born, grows up, reaches maturity, ages, and dies. The only way to avoid that is to die young, which is hardly an escape! What Spengler is saying is that a similar rhythm shapes the lives of societies. It's not fatalism, except insofar as an awareness of human mortality is fatalistic; it's simply a recognition that there's a framework to our existence that we didn't establish, can't change, and must deal with.

Hal, exactly!

Twilight, excellent -- you get today's gold star. It's only in the imagination of the modern West that life is meaningless and miserable in the absence of limitless progress; in reality, it's possible to have a happy, creative, meaningful life in any historical context, and those of us whose lives are already being shaped by decline might want to learn that in a hurry.

Chapel, heck of a good question. In past examples, it's varied all over the map.

Zed, a fine and sharply pointed aphorism!

John Michael Greer said...

Keith, Corbin's essay on the mundus imaginalis has had a significant influence on my own thinking; I'm less convinced by the perennialist strains in his or anyone else's work, but he's certainly worth reading, studying and confronting.

Georgi, Spengler discussed the discontinuity that gave rise to high cultures. Will some such discontinuity happen in the future? It's entirely possible -- but when you insist that it must happen, you've strayed across the border from reasoned speculation to faith. (And if you're going to claim that such a discontinuity has to happen in time to rescue modern industrial civilization from the downside of Spengler's curve, you've just embraced the apocalypse meme.)

Freebooter, funny. No, as I've commented before, Druidry is probably the least likely candidate on earth for a core theme of our culture's Second Religiosity.

SLClaire, I'll see if I can work that in. As for the next high culture, no, that'll emerge somewhere else, and take its own radically different approach to the world -- that's Spengler's claim, at least.

Greg, thanks for the info! I'm not as familiar with the visual arts as I am with music, so didn't know about the African roots of 20th century painting -- though it doesn't surprise me a bit.

Andrew, Spengler's theory assumes that evolution has no goal, and can be fitted very easily into a Darwinian analysis. As for the whole we-must-go-to-the-stars meme, though, I've addressed that in an earlier post -- the short form is that the space age is ending, and all the millennarian dreams that have been pinned to it are dying with it.

Hybrid, death is no inconvenience to a deity! It's the cultural form created by human beings that goes away, and (maybe) returns later.

Phil, true enough! A very dry, very German sense of humor.

Michael, thank you!

Ed, remember that our current North American civilization is culturally an offshoot of Europe, and the age of Puritanism was well under way by the time the Puritans arrived here. Spengler argues that the time frames are pretty much identical across the board.

Harry, and that's one of the things that marks contemporary Pagan revivals as, by and large, the hobbies of small groups of intellectuals disenchanted by the living religious currents of their time. It's the religions that rely, not on scholarly books, but on the raw lived experience of contact with the transcendent, that reach beyond the limits of the library!

John Michael Greer said...

Roger, many thanks for sharing that story. You're right, of course, that all these theories and predictions are simply a way of talking about -- and trying to anticipate -- forms of lived experience that most of us, in the industrial world, can only imagine just now.

Richard Larson said...

This is a busy time of the year for such serious thoughts. So I'll just put it down as the beginning and the end of civilizations are repeating events. A quick beginning results in a long end, a long beginning results in a quick end. But then is there really a beginning and an end? Ha!

I liked this comment: "The difference between heaven and hell is about which end of the pitchfork you're on..."

Reverse Developer said...

This is, for me, your strongest post. I had, at times, to slow down to let subtle points sink in, while letting zingers like 'empty slogans providing an increasingly sparse wardrobe to cover the naked quest for power' bowl me over.

Another 'symptom of the late, "Winter" phase of Western culture', is the moribund condition of late stage Western Science and technology that you mention. I was discussing with a friend how the advent of global climate science coinciding with the internet and social media “prestige projects” accelerated the undoing of the technical progress religion.

I am not a denier of anthropogenic CO2 loading, and side with proponenets of responsible resource management of greenhouse emissions, but I have always been bothered with the recklessness with which the global warming forecasts and pronouncements have been bandied about by scientists and public figures. Climate is a dynamic system and many of the predictions, sea level rise in particular, are products of compound speculations on how climate subsystems, such as methane hydrates, will respond and interact. While the science cult may have had a fixed social half-life anyway, I was always aware that the hysteria and irresponsible predictions would one day bite the high priests on the ass.

Georgi Marinov said...

Georgi, Spengler discussed the discontinuity that gave rise to high cultures. Will some such discontinuity happen in the future? It's entirely possible -- but when you insist that it must happen, you've strayed across the border from reasoned speculation to faith. (And if you're going to claim that such a discontinuity has to happen in time to rescue modern industrial civilization from the downside of Spengler's curve, you've just embraced the apocalypse meme.)

I haven't actually read the book, I've read about it in the past, and I hope to find time to read it one day, but for now do not hold me responsible for knowing everything he said or he did not.

I most definitely do not claim certain things will happen. We can only talk about the future in terms of probability distributions (and we can argue about their shape). However, one thing I am quite certain, i.e. I ascribed a high probability to is that the next 100,000 years will not consist of a fifty to a hundred repetitions of such a cycle. For the record, I expecting something to save the modern industrial civilization, I am much more concerned about the possibility that the next discontinuity will be human extinction (not in the next 20 years though).

Matthew Sweet said...

This series has been fantastic and the ability to see beyond the cultural and societal fog and view our own particular civilization with an objective eye is a rare skill.
Quick unrelated question: have you got any update on when your latest book will be ready for shipping? I preordered but have not received any notifications since.

Yupped said...

So, basically, every society that goes up must come down, no one is immune, including us. Makes sense to me. And should make sense to anyone who's lived a life and paid attention.

I read some Spengler back in my college days. I graduated 30 years ago this week, so forgive my dusty memory. Back then I studied him in the context of German history primarily, with the final civilizational phase of history likely to feature authoritarian government and curtailed civil liberties, accepted by a cynical softened up by cultural decay. I'm sure he felt some justification in this, dying just before WWII.

Incidentally, here's a fairly recent and interesting article on Spengler in the National Interest that I found worth a read.

http://nationalinterest.org/article/spenglers-ominous-prophecy-7878?page=1

Finally, I'm seeing signs of resurgent folk religion all around at present, even in southern Connecticut, which is saying something. But I'm also deep in the study of herbal medicine at present so it could be the lobelia.

And the captcha is religest closet!

MilesL said...

Haven't read all the comments yet.

JMG - Next comes the emergence of ethical philosophies that focus on how to live when you can't know the objective truth, which appeal to intellectuals

What are some of these?
What would be a good philosophy for the coming future you predict?

If you answered above in the comments or will in a post soon, please let us know.

And yes, I did choose the choice of the two that most appealed to me. :)

libramoon said...

post-Nietzsche


It's not that God is dead:
God is irrelevant.
Some ancient ancestor who dated
your ancestress for a day;
then off, sailing the cosmic stream.
Even if that gleam in your eye,
the quirky way you smile,
were His,
they're yours now.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's a quick link, doing a search on Spengler, and found a Jan 2013 article looking at some of the same questions!
http://nationalinterest.org/print/article/spenglers-ominous-prophecy-7878

The contrast of diminishing returns of "culture" versus diminishing returns of "resources" interests me, since only the second scares me. I admit I'm open to the progressive star trek vision of the future, if we found an energy source to take us there. I'd be a skeptic except to find our last century of progress largely incomprehensible, not something I'd ever predict knowing our humble origins!

I guess my big question - when does satiation hit a culture with newly gained power? And in mind, I might be one of the riff-raff, wanting all limits pushed to see what happens. Climbing a mountain can seem impossible if you must do it in one hop, but if you've got moments to rest, no mountain is big enough to not be disappointed when you rest long enough at the top. So I wonder how does a society choose to say no without trauma?

I remember when I first heard of the movie "The Matrix", I understood it was virtual world and thought perhaps that's where the put all the criminals, so they could express their wild passionate destruction without really wrecking the world. I admit I really don't know - does virtual violence help people understand their aggressions less destructively, or does it strengthen their blindness to conscience and consequences?

Hearing Nate Hagan's analysis of status being so important to people and a finite world, perhaps finine virtual status can really substitute for destroying the world?

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, Spengler would argue that the beginning always happens suddenly, and the end -- well, it can be fast, slow, or in between. Rather like being born, and dying.

Developer, the church of progress would be in deep trouble anyway, but the extent to which scientific opinions can be bought and paid for by a little media attention or the cost of a modest research grant isn't helping any.

Georgi, thanks for the clarification. As a student of evolution, I'm wholly agnostic about whether some new discontinuity will happen -- we simply don't have the knowledge base to judge whether equivalents of the last five thousand years or so of high cultures are, in fact, going to repeat for the next million years or so, or not.

Matthew, I think it'll be out in September. The page proofs are done -- it just depends on how soon the printers get done.

Yupped, thanks for the link! A fascinating article. As for the religious revival, hang on -- my guess is that you ain't seen nothing yet.

Miles, as I mentioned above, they haven't been invented yet. Perhaps you might get to work on one...

Libramoon, as Groucho used to say, it's not irrelevant, it's a hippopotamus!

thecrowandsheep said...

@Greer

No fan of Arvo Pärt?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-J8LNcZgTA

Nano said...

Looks like Google books may have a copy of Spengler's "Decline"

http://books.google.com/books?id=jYjYLoGSsQgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

JP said...

I think that the end of a culture depends on what is happening *outside* of the bounds of any particular civilization. If there are no threats or the threats are not yet strong enough, the civilization continues. If enough raiders get together? Then Rome falls.

The development of a culture, however, is dependent primarily on what is happening *inside* the culture. And it will push *against* any external culture, whether an old calcifying high culture or tribal peoples on the periphery.

And the beginning of the culture happens during one of the standard-issue spiritual awakenings. A Mega-Awakening, so to speak, but still, it is born within a single generation. There is no other way for a high culture to be born.

The various meta-historians over at the Fourth Turning forums are digging through the facts as we speak trying to categorize All History within that framework (which is based on generational troughs and peaks). The conclusion seems to be that the process is essentially fractal, although I'm not sure they use those words.

JMG, are you asserting that the High Culture has already been born in South America? If so, around what geometry/idea has it appeared?

Russia is pretty easy to categorize, since it's framed around the (infinite line) horizon in the distance rather than the reach into infinite space.

sgage said...

@ JMG

"Libramoon, as Groucho used to say, it's not irrelevant, it's a hippopotamus! "

Yes, and outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

He sure had a way with words...

:-)

Phil Knight said...

Pitirim Sorokin's "Social And Cultural Dynamics" is another interesting book on cyclical history for those who are curious. Sorokin's version of the differences between "culture" and "civilisation" is the concept of "ideational" and "sensate" cultures, in which creative ideas give way to every more lurid sensationalism.

As for NTE, and the widespread dislike of humanity, I personally put this down to simple cultural exhaustion, which is one of the aspects of modern life that must not be mentioned.

You can see this in Britain to a remarkable degree. It's an overwhelmingly tired country, which is part of the reason it likes to tell itself that it is somehow "vibrant". I sometimes think that half the reason it allowed its industries to collapse is that it simply didn't have the will or energy to maintain them. In the end it was all too much effort.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG - trenchant and insightful as always.

Your comments about music struck a chord (no pun intended). I recall someone in a comment on an earlier post talking about classical music as a form of mathematics, and I responded that I thought that was an artifact of bad teaching. But it runs rather deeper, doesn't it?

I was chatting with a choir member after a concert this last weekend. They'd sung my Missa Druidica a year ago, and he commented on how it had forced him to stretch his skills, and thanked me for that. But then he made an interesting comment: he told me that if he had turned in the score for a grade from Dr. So-and-so from his past, he'd have gotten it back covered with BVLs. I blinked and asked what he meant by BVL.

"Bad Voice Leading," he said. "Of course, I really enjoyed singing the odd intervals. And if you did everything that Dr. So-and-so thought needed to be done in a piece of choral music, you'd end up with a particularly dull Methodist hymn."

There's one particular progression in the last movement where I gave in to the director, because the intervals were just too hard for his singers: so I exchanged the tenor and bass parts and shifted them into appropriate ranges for Better Voice Leading. But the result is simply wrong. It isn't terrible, but it's musically wrong. I can't cite any rule that tells me why it's wrong. It just is.

This strikes me as exactly, at the microscopic level, what you and Spengler are painting with a broader brush. "Voice leading" is a trick used to make music easier for the singers. It isn't a mark of either good or bad music. But as a Culture becomes a Civilization, the demands of art become the demands of form, and so, while you might be flunked from a composition class or barred from the ranks of professional music for Bad Voice Leading, you will never be expelled for being merely insipid, or ugly.

It's always fascinating to see these very particular personal nits find such a tidy home within a larger perspective.

I find it somewhat encouraging, as well. After all, had I been appropriately concerned with my reputation as a properly-trained musician who knows better than to commit the crime of BVL, I'd been terrified to attempt even a Methodist hymn. Which is perhaps the whole point of the shift to form over art.

It's encouraging in the sense that a degree of inexpertise is an asset, not a liability, when it comes to making art.

Marko Mulej said...

Another Thursday another Archdruid report. And this one was brilliant.

I have often wondered on the possibility of S. America, if left alone, shrugging of westernized political structures and the land distribution heritage of Spanish colonialism. In that environment small viable communities could emerge, that would develop their own natural aristocrats. That could be the start of a feudal society and lead to a new culture. It is a possibility, and in my mind it is more viable then Russia.

This weeks article put a lot of my perceptions into question. It was my opinion, that Peak Oil ment the start of a gradual decline into a new "dark age". Analog to Rome in 403 AD. But according to Spengler's model we are actually at a point where caesarism is realized and a popular political figure backed by military power, analog to Julius Cesar in 41 bc, could plow trough the political crisis and form an actual empire. I would appreciate your views on our placement in time.

Bill Carson said...

A fun little trick I like to play on someone who believes in a Star Trek type future is to ask them what things will be like in 500 years. Usually they'll come up with the usual array of space colonies, powerful artificial intelligence, nanobots, etc. Then I ask what the future will be like 500 years from that point.

"Huh? What? Oh OK." He's a little taken aback by the notion that the future also has a future

He'll then usually proceed to describe an even more perfect world (as the law of progress demands) - total human/technological hybridization, all wants and desires fulfilled in virtual spaces, faster than light travel opening up the entire cosmos.

"And 500 years from then?"

A couple more rounds of this and humans turn into omnipotent beings composed of pure energy. The end result has to be some form of steady state perfection, which sounds a whole lot like the religious idea of heaven to me.

Bozack said...

JMG - thanks for this introduction to somebody who is clearly an important thinker - hopefully I will end up reading more than just the Wikipedia page.

Some things that struck me from your essay: does it make as much sense to talk about "the modern west" as a unit given that we have much immigration, serious demographic transition, complex global trade and financial enmeshedness, cultural cross-pollination e.g. African musical traditions, plus many aspects of our culture are spread worldwide in terms of technology, cultural forms etc.

I am not saying that we are "immune" to Spenglers pattern, I just wonder if the unit is not "The modern West" but something wider like "The modern Westernised world".

I will be interested to find out what the mechanism of decline is in Spengler (hopefully not just cultural) and how if fits with the resource driven ideas presented by people like Jarred Diamond and Ronald Wright. My naive assumption is that the health of "culture" will be driven by other type of health rather than be the driving force: e.g. if a culture is expanding and conquering the world I would expect great music to be made at that time.

I am very interested in the idea of the trajectory of rationalism.... would love to know more about how this has occurred in other past civilisations. I wonder if one way that our intellectuals can resist the pull of post-modernist truth scepticism is by trying to link ethical truths with neurobiology/ evolutionary psychology... don't think it will work but it is at least a new option....

Harry J. Lerwill said...

apparently the work is now in the public domain. You can read online or download a copy in Kindle or nook format here:

http://archive.org/details/Decline-Of-The-West-Oswald-Spengler

permaliv said...

"Permaliv, nah, there have been plenty of other societies in which the fear of beauty and the deliberate pursuit of ugliness have had their day. It rarely lasts long -- it's one of those things that comes at the very end of rationalism -- and the buildings, artworks, etc. that come out of it are hideous enough that they don't survive long."

This is interesting. It should be very useful for me if you could give me some examples. I still don't think you should find something so extreme as today, but to document this relationship between rationalism and ugliness is what interests me.

One of the tools to separate ugliness from beauty is in which amount the 15 properties of wholeness are to be found:

http://peter.baumgartner.name/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/15-properties-leitner.png

Of course, it's still difficult, as these properties in a beautiful structure is intermingled when forming centers, and are difficult for an untrained eye to sort out.

Anyway, the idea that cultures evidently end up in rationalism and ugliness is very interesting, and I should like to have some more information and examples on this subject for my upcoming essay.

John Michael Greer said...

Sheep, how many people have heard of Arvo Pärt, compared to (say) the number of people who heard of Richard Wagner during his career? Western art music, which used to be hugely popular, has dwindled into the exclusive concern of tiny circles of cognoscenti on the cultural fringes.

Nano, good. Thank you.

JP, no, as far as I know Latin America is still waiting for the spark that will ignite a new high culture, and my sense that one will take shape there is purely intuitive.

Sgage, he did indeed.

Phil, fascinating. That makes sense.

Joseph, fascinating! Yes, that's very much the sort of thing that Spengler was talking about -- that and its opposite, which is the deliberate flouting of formal rules for no better reason than to flout formal rules.

Marko, the length of time that a civilization lasts, according to Spengler, is very nearly random -- it may be a long time or a short one, depending on incidental factors. If we didn't have the jaws of resource depletion and environmental destabilization tightening around our civilization's neck, we might well end up with an imperial state over the long term. Instead, we can expect a short-lived empire -- that's America's -- followed by a descent into a dark age. That's my take, at least.

Bill, excellent! You get tonight's gold star, for developing a simple way to show that the myth of progress covertly imagines a future of static perfection.

Bozack, Spengler doesn't discuss mechanisms. He's purely talking about morphology, "what happens" rather than "why does it happen." As for the wider industrial world, a lot of barbarian tribes outside the Roman world had chieftains who wore togas and coined their own money on the Roman model; a successful civilization is usually imitated by surrounding societies. In our case, that covers much of the world.

Harry, thank you.

Permaliv, it can be hard for people from our civilization to recognize deliberate ugliness in others, since canons of beauty are culturally created and thus what looks hideous to people of one culture can be perfectly charming to those from another. You might have a look at late Roman art, though -- that included a cult of garish ugliness that's close enough to our aesthetic that a lot of people can get it.

wiseman said...

JMG,
Spengler also says that falling birth rates and pacifism are signs that the civilization is going through it's final stages.

Would you agree ? The falling birth rates are too obvious but some would argue that we haven't become pacific, it's just that our weapons have become so scary that the alternative is too horrific to comprehend. While I don't deny that logic I think it has more to do with globalization and our fear of seeing the status quo disappear which is just too comfortable for most of the rich and middle class.

team10tim said...

Bill Carson,

That's brilliant. It's simple, elegant, direct, and the 'target' is confronted by the silliness of their own convictions.

team10tim said...

Quos Ego,

RE: "we are all guilty as a species, we are harmful, we are cancer, we deserve to die" side of the environmentalist movement?" side of the environmentalist movement?

I found this comment amusing in two ways. First, stripped of all morals, values, and judgements, exponential growth in a world of finite resources is like a cancer and it will kill most of us. That is, getting oneself killed causes one's death.

Second, guilty, harmful, deserve to die... Those are all value calls. Victim/villain, it depends on your values. The values that we have are causing this problem that we don't like which generates a lot of angst and denial. Where SHOULD the blame go? Well, our values dictate that it should be laid at the root cause of the thing we dislike, which is our values.

Kieran O'Neill said...

I'm being mostly quiet through these posts, as I feel like, far more so than your other writing, you are developing something of a grand thesis, which is not easily conveyed in just one post.

For this week's post, I will say, though, that your reference to Nietsche's famous quote about staring into the abyss was most artful and witty.

Quos Ego said...

team10tim,

it's a different thing to say that exponential growth is cancer than to say that humans are cancer, like it seems a trendy thing to do these days. There is nothing more pathetic and useless than self-hate, I hope you realize that.

If you (in the general sense) hate your species so much, why whine about it? Just kill yourself to show that you really mean it.
But of course self-haters will very rarely do it. Because all their discourse is simply that: talk. They like the feeling of hating their species and wallowing in despair more than the consequences of such a stance.
Then, they write endless screeds about "healing their souls". Great.

As for the blame thing, it is a completely absurd issue, and so terribly Christian (the whole guilt trip). There is no one to blame. Things simply are. And we have to deal with them.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

It warms my heart to see that Spengler is an intellectual hero to you. It is always fascinating to see the source of ideas. It was a particularly clever idea of Spengler to let the critics provide free fact checking services! It made me laugh. Excellent work and I note that you have also used this method between the blog and books.

He's right too, you know, morphological thinking/reasoning is well suited to comparing civilisations. It is just that people don't like the message of such analysis and so dismiss that message.

I spent some of my earlier years travelling through third world countries. I can't explain why I did so, but it was probably because of economic reasons (ie. it was cheap). My peers generally travelled to first world countries and rarely spent any time looking at their own country. Australia is largely a fragile arid land and perhaps they would not be so cavalier with it had they seen other parts of it? Dunno.

Morphological thinking can be applied in these travels to third world contexts, and as a visitor from a first world country it is an uncomfortable thought process indeed!

Thanks for taking the time to lift the veil and peak underneath into the dirt, so to speak.

The climate here has turned strongly Mediterranean in recent years. As the ocean heats up to the north west of the continent, winter rainfall becomes more like summer rainfall. Summer rainfall becomes intermittent and heat is blown here in from the centre of the continent. A couple of days ago, during the dry season they received 140mm to 180mm (5.5 to 7 inches) of rain up in the north west of the continent at Broome. It generally doesn't rain at all in the dry season up there...

Haven't used the generator yet, and the batteries are about 70% full now with a couple of sunny days in the near future.

Pah, the wind turbine has been a total disaster as the wind comes here in waves (gusts). The problem is that the voltage doesn't climb enough on the turbine to push those electrons into the batteries before the wind dies down even though I raised the mast to at least 8m (26ft) off the ground.

I'm in the process of obtaining a DC to DC step up transformer which will enable the smaller more irregular outputs of the wind turbine to be of use to the system.

Still, I can't complain as the water tanks are filling with all of this heavy and unusual winter rain.

PS: I saw the Star Trek movie last week and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was a rollicking good yarn, they pulled characters from the original series and Star Trek 2 Wrath of Khan (1982). Perhaps Spengler is correct in arguing that:

"Spengler argued that the creative potential of every culture is subject to the law of diminishing returns."

Regards

Chris

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote
Yupped, thanks for the link! A fascinating article. …
Yes indeed! A cracker!
http://nationalinterest.org/article/spenglers-ominous-prophecy-7878
Was Spengler essentially a determinist? If so, that does seem to be a flaw – ‘simplistic’?
And all that stuff about women not having children – very German and ‘of its day’, but still a common-place in Britain and even in individual families, even now. Powerful magic but is it wrong-headed? I recently googled for fertility rates in India & the different Indian States and a surprising number are at European levels and well-below replacement rate(although not among the 200M+ in the north). Even Bangladesh has changed remarkably over 25 years. Could be a highly adaptive response?
Just having children does not seem such a big deal –those admittedly environmentally constrained HG like San Bushman were known by the Boer as ‘shy breeders’, and looked after their culture and much-loved children with remarkable skill sets. A reasonable and very sensible conjunction of physiology and culture and skill-density and skill-transmission, if I may remark! It at least cuts out the conflation of Progress and Expansion, and Individual breeding Prowess that accompanied our and other cultures’ Big Ideas (civilisation?).
I would like to come back some time to the ‘theory of money’ or ‘Science of Money’ in Zarlenga’s account of ancient civilisation and the USA (quoted recently in IMF Kumhof’s intro to mathematical tests of the ‘Chicago Plan’). Zarlenga is a robust defender of The Republic (the deliberate US re-incarnated version of that unusual cultural form) and sees an ongoing battle depending for success on grabbing the Plutocratic tendency where it hurts by controlling the money supply. Your JMG remark last week concerning Stoic fighter Marcus Aurelius is somehow important.
best
Phil
l

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi permaliv,

The punk movement embraced deliberate ugliness as a core value.

Have you not looked at city buildings or our built environment? They are really ugly places and completely un-human / unnatural in their scale.

Regards

Chris

hawlkeye said...

Yes, that phrase "staring into the abyss" has been lingering in my brain as a theme to all the things we could be confronting in these times.

Sometimes I drive by an Abbey's Pizza franchise, and their sign-board announces, "It's an Abby's day!".

And my brain instantly mis-spells it to become, "It's an Abyss day!

Have a nice stare, everybody! (Smiley face here)

G E Canterbury said...

@sgage
Not to mention, and oddly in line with the theme of the last few posts - that time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana!

"Yes, and outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

ando said...

JMG

It took me thirty years to get my
Bachelor's Degree. I had two or three professors that I enjoyed. You would have been one of them.

I enjoy the essays and your style of "neti neti" (not this not that) delusion dissolution. You told me a while back that we "would have to go deep."

Looking forward to your good suggestions. In the meantime, I will continue read your essays and to follow the updated Zen proverb,

"Before Enlightenment, Hoe Garden, Clean and Caulk, After Enlightenment, Hoe Garden, Clean and Caulk."

Thank you, sir,

mac

onething said...

"the God we have to worry about is the God who is capable of being both alive and dead at the same time, without contradiction."

Why should we worry about God?

sv koho said...

Wow, JMG. Every time I bookmark one of your better posts thinking: "This is the best one yet", I think I am done, but this one was a humdinger. You have moved me to read Spengler in its entirety. So far I have just read bits and pieces but his ideas have been revived in some sectors like the idea of Cliodynamics which I offered to you which bears a close congruency to Spengler. I try to pick holes in your expositions but this post was a beaut and remains unpunctured.

John Michael Greer said...

Wiseman, I can't speak to your experience, but here in America even chest-thumping pseudoconservatives can no longer bear the thought of American soldiers actually, heaven help us, dying in the line of duty. The bodies of soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq were practically smuggled back into the country, with the press forbidden to take pictures of the casket. That's not pacifism in the ethical and philosophical sense, but I think it's what Spengler was talking about.

Kieran, I didn't originally intend this sequence of posts to plunge straight into the core of the worldview and philosophy that underlies the whole Archdruid Report project -- as well as everything else I do -- but that's pretty much where it's turned out to be headed. Hang on tight!

Cherokee, the recycling of old TV shows, comic books, etc. into feature films is to my mind hard proof that the Western world is dead out of new ideas -- and Star Trek was crashingly unoriginal when it first appeared as a TV series!

Phil, does it count as determinism if I point out that neither you nor I will live forever, and are likely to die of old age sometime between our seventieth and one hundredth birthdays? That's basically what Spengler was saying: cultures have lifespans, and though they're free to accomplish all kinds of things in the course of their lives, they're also going to go through a series of age-determined phases, ending in old age and death.

Hawlkeye, funny! Happy Abyss day...

Mac, thank you.

Onething, there's an old saying that runs, "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." It's a utterly unfashionable point to bring up these days, but true nonetheless: it's only when you recognize that the cosmos follows patterns that you didn't make, you can't change, and can squash you like a bug if you ignore them, that you begin to get a clue.

Koho, glad to hear it!

seateta said...

Ecologically, an analogy for the rise, fall and rebirth of culture might be downstream-upstream. The paths of civilization seemed to follow river courses with increasing stages of development and hierarchy on the main, downstream trunks of river systems and less developed, "seed" stages in the upstream branches. A blossoming of culture did happen downstream upon an initial base of abundant resources. When civilizations collapsed the hinterlands offered a refuge for escape or retained a cultural reservoir and of course the biodiversity to continue the hunting and gathering life ways in smaller groups. In this vein, perhaps we need to rethink the Noah mythology. Was Noah escaping a flood on an ark or was he escaping the collapse of flood plain civilization by returning upstream where all the wild beasts and plants in the 2 X 2's were inhabiting the wild earth? And is it not us who are really adrift on this global ark, with our dependence on domesticated nature, fossil fuel, fragmented ecosystems, and ratcheting of technology to keep our heads above water. Are the timbers of this ark to be soon splintered into a million pieces and will there be a refuge for Noah anymore? The ultimate tension may lie between those who would keep this boat afloat at all costs and those who have kept faith in the wild seeds.

William Church said...

I wonder what Spengler would have thought of the 'westernization' of so many other cultures in the world. IOW has globalization made his regional/cultural observations something of a worldwide event? To be sure there are still a lot of distinct and vibrant cultures that could theoretically pick up the banner and emerge as cultural centers.... but there are also a lot of them that have adopted consumerism and our lifestyle without reservation.

Will

hewhocutsdown said...

Once I'm done with Braudel I'm going to move to Spengler; thank you, I had not heard of him before.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's another notion of the shape of time; contours of time cost per distance. The article and its illustrations deal with movement within the Roman empire. As resources deplete and the costs of connectivity increase this idea may be relevant to how our current arrangements fall apart.

Roman time travel

'Geospatial modeling allows us to identify and measure the hidden but ever-present costs of connectivity as a variable in the equations of historical change. The
resultant simulations cannot predict what happened,but they illuminate the constraints within which events unfolded.'

Via Ancient World

mary said...

Thank you for this essay! It makes me sad as I walk around (I am visiting Nevada) and see people who are living through the closing down of their way of life. But I take heart as I do know that there will be communities that muddle on, ready or not.
Your idea that a new culture might arise in S. America reminded me of reports in 2003 that factory workers in Argentina had reopened businesses that capital had abandoned. Culture may arise from unlikely places.

Rita said...

Leaders of imperialist cultures tend to encourage a high birth rate so that there will be plenty of cannon fodder. An article in The Atlantic Monthly (I think) several years ago pointed out that Western democracies with their low family sizes have a very difficult time with accepting war casualties. I suspect that the general safety of everyday life may also contribute. If your son has a choice of lumberjack, miner, railway worker or other dangerous job vs. joining the military, the military may not look like such a bad bargain for parents or offspring. But now that we are down to one or two cherished offspring per family the prospect of sending a child into danger is more difficult to accept. OTOH, we believe we need our military, so we try to fight wars from a safe distance and with reduced forces to reduce the number who die.

S P said...

Regarding discussions on Star Trek above:

I followed TNG religiously when I was growing up. I got less interested as they rolled out Deep Space Nine and Voyager and didn't even bother with Enterprise. The last two TNG films were pathetic.

By the time they got to the new Star Trek reboot movies, I had lost all interest.

I actually refused to pay to watch the new one so we settled for Iron Man 3 which was a disjointed mess.

Hollywood is fresh out of ideas, we're just waiting for somebody to pull the plug.

Phil Harris said...

JMG Wrote

"Phil, does it count as determinism if I point out that neither you nor I will live forever, and are likely to die of old age sometime between our seventieth and one hundredth birthdays? That's basically what Spengler was saying: cultures have lifespans, and though they're free to accomplish all kinds of things in the course of their lives, they're also going to go through a series of age-determined phases, ending in old age and death."

It was RW Merry who in his article strongly emphasised Spengler’s 'determinism' and also I noticed decided Spengler was a ‘romantic’. But Merry took Spengler and his methodology of ‘morphological comparison’ very seriously. I don’t know enough to criticise Spengler.

Your answer kept me thinking hard for an hour or so (and then overnight) about agrarian societies, crop breeding, and about ‘diffusion’ and other theories of agricultural history. And I wonder again about generic ‘facts of life’ for such societies: inter alia the risks, threats & ‘insurance’; the relation between renewable soil fertility & trading; the ratio of big cities to production, and the ‘vegetable-like’ growth of towns and cities (they are not intelligent organisms in our sense). Really big cities were rare in those days. (I must like systematic comparison. I even took a skim via Google at An Ecological History of Agriculture 10,000 BC to AD 10,000’ Daniel E. Vasey, 1992.

Your answer is an analogy. The old generalisations say: ‘like begets like’; ‘nothing succeeds like success’; ‘nothing lasts forever’. All true even as the ‘petroleum rush’ runs its course and the nature of empires changes yet again, but possibly in some respects remains the same. And in the background climate must oscillate with the carbon-cycle however our industrial methodologies reset controls, and hydrology must follow its own rules. Even Ancient (and pre-ancient) Egypt and other river societies with self-renewing agriculture had their ups and downs, leaving aside geopolitics.

Phil Knight comments about very tired Britain. That was the commonplace reaction also after WWII. I think it is more a matter of having lost our way. This seems true of big farming round here. Even before the 2008 financial upheaval my neighbour told me that all his farming life he had known the next move, but no longer. We all must come to the end of our careers, but the new guys can only buy bigger faster more efficient machines – they are marvels – and get round more fields even faster and snatch some planting and harvesting windows when like last year these only amounted to a few days. A sobering thought for us old men. None of the next ideas amount to much and we are long ways from home.

“Abendlandes” says a lot!

I find I must make value judgements about what matters and what has mattered, hard though that can be.

best
Phil

JP said...

JMG, I have another question for you.

Do you have any sense of the conditions that are necessary for the birth of a high culture?

Just as there are simliarities with the cultures themsevles, there must also be similarities with the soil from which they grow.

This may be why you intuit that one will rise from Latin America, which certainly seems quite possible to me, but the question is "what is the tell"?

hapibeli said...

"the first stirrings of what Spengler calls the Second Religiosity, the rebirth of popular religion, which appeals to the masses. "

My sweet and lovely wife follows the Bahá'í as well as Buddhist beliefs. I'm trying to listen without comment, as our beliefs are so important to our existence as humans.
Tom Bannister's post as an excellent example of the "trouble in mind" ♪ ♫ ♫ ♪ brought about when society's order begins to be disorderly.
At least as experienced by my sweetheart, the Bahá'í(s) try, at this stage anyway, to have a governmental system they believe may protect humanity from its excesses. I'm more sanguine about the process of the human experiment.

Phil Knight said...

@Phil Harris

I've been predicting for some time (on my own blog) that the future of Britain is going to be unification with France. You'll have noticed that the two countries have been pursuing combined energy and foreign policies for some time now. This should really have been completed in 1914 as the logical response to the unification of Germany, but I don't think our two knackered old countries can put this off for too much longer.

I've also predicted that the next big imperialists will be the Koreans, who fit Sir John Glubb's criteria for a "pre-breakout" civilisation absolutely perfectly e.g. ethnically homogenous, acclimatised to privation, widely derided by their neighbours, no previous form etc. They've just got to figure out a harmonious way of uniting the productive half of the country with the aggressive half.

The Burmese are worth keeping an eye on as well....

JP said...

"At least as experienced by my sweetheart, the Bahá'í(s) try, at this stage anyway, to have a governmental system they believe may protect humanity from its excesses. I'm more sanguine about the process of the human experiment."

Well, that's one religion I know nothing about.

And by "nothing" I mean I have not met enough or talked to enough members to understand anything of how it's actually practiced in the actual world in which we live.

Declan said...

Just thought I'd note that your (Spengler's) description of the sequence of cultural forms (feudalism, oligarchy, etc.) sounds almost as if it was taken word for word from Plato's Republic (chapter 8, I believe).

So it's a notion that goes way back, and has support from one of the all-time great philosophers.

Since I'm already posting, you should consider making Sufjan Stevens' song, 'Come On, Feel the Illinoise!' (about the World's Columbian Expedition in Chicago in 1893) the theme song for this sequence of posts.

As the song says,

'Oh god of progress /
Have you degraded or forgot us /
Where have your laws gone?'

Michael said...

As I read this series, I keep thinking that the East is going to have a greater and greater say in how our global civilization deals with the issue of the shape of history and death of god. I read a philosophical/sociological biography of Makaguchi years ago that rushed back into my mind while read this post. The author, Bethel, posits that (my own summary follows) we seem to be locked into an endless cycle of conflict. The educational system in a Revolutionary society emphasizes the “Moral” (what we must do) with the “Intellectual” (reasonable justifications for why we should do it) placed second and the “Technical” (how to get it done) coming in third. Eventually the revolution becomes established. The educational system in an Established society emphasizes the “Technical” (how to establish the goals or the revolution) with the “Intellectual” placed second (reasonable insights supported only to the extent they further the technical initiatives of the new regime) and the “Moral” coming in a distant third because the moral imperative for revolution has been long since established. Eventually a new group of revolutionaries arise and the establishment, though destined to fail, reacts against them. The educational system in a Reactionary society emphasizes the “Moral” (what to do -- conserve the old ways) with the “Technical” (how can we best destroy the revolution) placed second and the “Intellectual” (reasonable justifications for why we should maintain the status quo) coming in a distant third. A Self-Renewing society would have an educational system which emphasizes the intellectual, then the moral, and lastly the technical. In order for such a breakthrough, the vast majority of people will have to re-prioritize their philosophical outlook so that all religions and social reform movements become subservient to one over-arching concept: Our shared Human ability to pursue reason.

[Reference: Makiguchi the Value Creator, by Dayle M. Bethel ISBN: 0841800057]

It would been great to witness a dialogue between Spengler and Makaguchi.

Phil Harris said...

@hapibell & JP
Bahai?
Just today I contacted for the first time in more than 20 years a community not far from here who drew inspiration from that faith. (Actually my contact was about compost toilets - I am not a Specialist.) But I remembered a talented artist I respected greatly - and here she still is. "By their fruits you shall know them..."
http://www.rosievilliers-stuart.co.uk/currentwork.html
Funny stuff serendipity

best
Phil H

Joy said...

"...the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." It's a utterly unfashionable point to bring up these days, but true nonetheless: it's only when you recognize that the cosmos follows patterns that you didn't make, you can't change, and can squash you like a bug if you ignore them, that you begin to get a clue."

JMG: I fully agree with your answer to Onething. The problem for many people (including me) is the use of the word God, which carries overtones of a superior being floating around somewhere, spiritual or physical, attempting to micromanage earthlings to various degrees, and punishing disobedient ones when necessary. Of course, I have abandoned any belief in such a critter, and have claimed the agnostic tag to the whole idea of "God". However, your description of the cosmos is spot on, and what I have come to recognize thanks to some reading of the Tao Te Ching. There is a natural order within nature/the universe that we are a part of and are subject to its functions. Perhaps I need to listen to others more carefully when they use the word God, as they might not mean what I think they mean. Which points to Chapter one of the Tao Te Ching: The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things.
http://www.taoism.net/ttc/chapters/chap01.htm

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

You're probably right as they are recycling them at a huge rate. Did you read recently that Disney has purchased the Star Wars franchise and they want to pump out a film every two years, plus a spin off film every other year (someone please correct me if I'm wrong on this)?

I've been feeling slightly pretentious, but in recent times I've had to travel to smaller independent cinemas to check out good story telling via films. A lot of good films are still being made, it’s just that they don't get the air time. Trance, Silver linings, and A place beyond the pines, were all good films but I doubt very much whether they made much money and got huge audiences. All of them told compelling and original stories and were exceptionally well acted. A decade ago, these films would have been shown at the bigger cinemas… Now it's 3D this and part 4 that...

I penned a slightly amusing, quirky and off beat short story about the loss of my precious strawberries in the previous season:

The great strawberry heist

Hope you enjoy it! Even if you don't want to read it, the story has some good photos of the interesting wildlife here on the farm here.

Regards

Chris

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@JP--You asked JMG what are the conditions necessary for the birth of a high culture.

Two conditions which I think are necessary are an agricultural surplus that is reliable enough to support a variety of specialists, and the ability to defend their territory from the imposition of foreign rulers for a long time. High cultures require a good deal of elite patronage to develop.

These conditions are necessary but not sufficient. I don't know what else is required.

permaliv said...

@Cherokee Organics

I will look into the punk movement!

As for that I found a VERY interesting quote following one of the links in this discussion thread:

"Indeed, the breakdown of style and form most clearly marks the transition from culture to civilization.

WE PAUSE over this thinking to ponder its implications. Recall that Spengler wrote nearly a century ago, when the Western avant-garde movement was merely a tiny knot of artists bent on assaulting the conventional sensibilities of the prevailing culture. As author and critic Lionel Trilling once explained, in Spengler’s time these people weren’t interested in talking to the masses. Their art was rarefied and special, designed exclusively for the avant-garde itself, those inclined to look down on the masses and on conventional thought and culture. Few at that time predicted that this avant-garde cynicism and cultural nihilism eventually would be absorbed into the popular culture itself and be accepted, even embraced, by large numbers of people within the so-called masses—the same masses under assault by the avant-garde. But Spengler saw it coming, as merely the inevitable consequence of any civilization’s transition from its cultural to its civilizational phase." - Robert W. Merry

See page 3 and 4:

http://nationalinterest.org/article/spenglers-ominous-prophecy-7878


Phil Harris said...

@Phil Knight
Thanks for thought.
I had noticed the recent attempt by UK to merge some defence interests with France - on the grounds of cost effectiveness. Got shot down I think by those defending prior links with USA and proprietary industrial information?
(I note France & UK needed to check US permission for initiatives in the back country round Algeria and now in cock-pit Syria.
JMG has said before that UK will know a world of hurt when America goes down.

Vietnam and Philippines chance their arm just now that US provides security enough if they push their oil & gas territory up against Chinese claims?

Maybe even an old guy like me will see some definitive moves. I am aiming for the upper bound of JMG's predicted age range!

best
Phil

Phil Harris said...

JMG
A quote from the 'Inland Empire' via FT:
As Santana speaks, she fiddles with a glass pendant around her neck, like she would a rosary. Inside are the birthstones of each of her daughters. “If God was not on my side, I would have fallen into depression or drugs,” she says. “I’ve seen that happen often. But I know I will come back stronger.”
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4e857a96-ce40-11e2-a13e-00144feab7de.html#slide0

best
Phil H

laughingbirdfarm said...

JMG,

The English translations of Spengler's works are available on Amazon. I got them for Solstice this past year (along with a dozen other books) but haven't delved into them yet. They just moved up on the list.

Here are the links for the unabridged copies:

http://www.amazon.com/The-decline-West-Oswald-Spengler/dp/1172877408/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370779167&sr=1-2-fkmr0&keywords=decline+of+the+west+unabridged

http://www.amazon.com/The-decline-West-Vol-II/dp/1172427615/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y

the Heretick said...

take all your books and throw them in the trash, they are going out style anyway.
there are only a couple of things that motivates our species, well actually one thing, and that is fear.
fear of falling, a primal instinct hardwired into our brains from when we lived in the trees, which relates to the first great fear, and that is fear of death.
the fear of death is something every organism has, or they are just not here, they don’t survive.
the fear of death drives us to reproduce, to replicate, as that is the only way our corporal existence is extended beyond the single lonely life.
now, as to hierarchies, they were invented to monopolize the food and females, period. end of story.
there is actually a couple concurrent narratives.
the history of superstitions which we invented to assuage our fear of death, the great god in the sky, the all father; and the earth mother, the all wise gaia, both of which are highly anthropomorphic.
the other narrative is science, which in the west started with the greeks slicing and dicing the cosmos into little pieces, which over 2,500 years has taken us to where we are today.
our real problems started with microscopes and brownian motion, atoms and molecules, and the theory of relativity.
we have succeeded as a species to where we have reached the point of diminishing returns, to where we are not evolutionarily adapted to life as it now exists. the methods of control, the economic system, have produced a rapacious population, at least in the west, that is rapidly growing out of control.
social controls only work when the individual can see what they are getting out of the arrangement, and too few really see what is in it for them.
all of our moral strictures were developed for small groups, to help the band survive, they don’t necessarily translate to the modern nation state, so, we have people twisting off, and then we have a heavy handed govt. response.
jesus, what a gloomy, pessimistic post. look at the teevee, watch the ads, it’s all there, how to be more successful than our neighbor, have the shiniest hair to attract a mate, how to extend your potency beyond it’s natural limits, etc. etc.
it’s all very primitive, the suits, the ties, the bright scarfs for the ladies.
don’t know if anyone has noticed, but the collarless suit as seen in old sci-fi movies is coming into style, just among the intelligentsia, a blending of the gender roles, everyone just a cog in the machine, flat, uniform, disposable, equivalent and interchangeable.

hapibeli said...

Methinks I miswrote, to coin a phrase, in my last post. Skeptical as opposed to sanguine in my view of humanity's ability to control our excesses.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

A nicely done post. Although I'm a comparativist by temperament and profession, I must admit that I am inclined to pick at Spengler a bit for his habit of portraying cultures as autonomous, bounded units. Although civilizational cycles are very, very real, and I think Spengler rendered an enormous service by his morphological treatment of the general phenomenon, I also have some sympathy with the historicist perspective that sees every moment as radically unique.

Much of what makes every moment unique is, in fact, the cumulative heritage of the past. The "Battle of the Books" in the late 17th century is instructive. If there is a catastrophic collapse of Western Modernity, its dreams will still be here in texts and oral traditions--like the Mycenaeans in Homer's poetry.

How will their fossilised remnants be understood and utilised? They will certainly not disappear forever from our mental firmament. Likely they will remain, like wisdom teeth or a dorsal ridge, on our collective body. No doubt 800 years from now some new Arnold of Brescia will try to revive the Star Trek civilisational project, hurling it in the face of the reigning socio-political-oneirocracy of his time.

That being said, I think it's important that there be a metabolism between priests and prophets, innovators and traditionalists, people who focus on what is new under the sun and people who focus on what is the same, if we are to have a more adequate picture of the time in which we live in order to respond accordingly. But Western Modernity has gone so far down the path of privileging prophetic innovation above all else, that almost any extremity of counter-corrective cannot fail to be useful.

Wrote a blog post on this topic here:

http://thesacrificinganimal.blogspot.com

The Priestly-Prophetic Metabolism

In which a gigantic nutcracker forms a symbol of future-shock, Heraclitus is mistranslated and misunderstood (again), and I continue to say grumpy things about Parmenidean identity

permaliv said...

@JMG

First thanks for the tip!

You write: "...canons of beauty are culturally created and thus what looks hideous to people of one culture can be perfectly charming to those from another"

This is not entirely correct. Christopher Alexander writes in Katarxis Nº 3, September 2004, in the article SOME SOBER REFLECTIONS ON THE NATURE OF
ARCHITECTURE IN OUR TIME:

http://www.katarxis3.com/Alexander_%20Sober_Relections.htm

An Objective Criterion of Architectural Value:

"The Phenomenon of Life - Book I of The Nature of Order - describes an entirely new, scientific, criterion of architectural value. It is based on twenty seven years of carefully recorded observation.

The basic proposal made in the book is that degree of life is an objective and observable characteristic of buildings and other artifacts, that it depends on the presence or absence of an identifiable structure which may be called "living structure": and that it is the presence or absence of this structure which distinguishes valuable buildings from less valuable, good architecture from bad.

I want to make the observation that this is real science that produces real results, not academic work that only apes the forms of scientific investigation with manner, wording, and presentation. This is real science, in which empirical questions are being investigated, and, in spite of their inherent difficulty, the investigations are beginning to show sharable, empirical, results, which might, within a decade or two, begin to have profound effect on our society. And it is work which has massive implications for all the most basic questions of architectural design and planning." - Christopher Alexander

The objective criterion of architectural value is getting stronger for every year, with new breakthroughs in the science of biophilic design.

It would be nice if you could take your time to read the whole article by Alexander.

latheChuck said...

As I was scrubbing the mildew out of my bathroom shower stall this morning, I observed that the "permanent" epoxy-paint that covered the old ceramic tile was cracked in many places and starting to flake off. "If it were more flexible", I thought, "it would stretch and flex with the structure of the house, and not crack. But if it were of a softer material, it would scratch and abrade away with cleaning. That which is hard shatters, while that which is soft is worn gradually away. What persists? Only that which is actively renewed. It is not the sealing of the shower stall which is permanent, but the desire to seal and re-seal the shower stall as necessary, but only for as long as someone cares about it.

ganv said...

So many threads brought together in this installment.

I am looking forward to your analysis of the critiques of Spengler. In many ways his framework for thinking about the future is so much more solid than his main competitors, that it seems like nitpicking to critique him. But like your critique of Nietzsche, it is critical to grasp what he didn't have right in order to really appreciate his contributions.

In past comments, I have outlined my main critique, which is that the last 500 years of ascendance of 'the west' have seen more than just the discovery of stored fossil energy. And many of the discoveries are not going to be easily lost. We have gone from the first circumnavigation of the globe to doing it in under 2 hours and communication across the globe in milliseconds. We have gone from a patchwork understanding of a little of how nature works to a comprehensive reductionist understanding of how atoms and photons form materials, human beings, and galaxies. One does not have to be a adherent of the religion of progress to observe that the scale of change in what humans do that has occurred in the past few centuries has never occurred in any period of less than a few million years in the history of our planet. The global ecosystem itself is recording the magnitude of the changes we have made. And so analogies with previous societies only go so far. They are a powerful antidote against the notion that we are now omnipotent and will not see current growth rates reverse. But the claim that an agrarian feudal society will follow the age of fossil fuels seems not to be a very reliable prediction.

In 1920s it was easier for Spangler to guess that nineteenth century science would go the way of Greek science and mathematics...as groundbreaking insights that were lost for centuries. But in 2013, that argument is pretty hard to sustain. There are too many people who know how to build radios and computers using pretty basic tools for them to ever disappear. And there are too many people who understand the history and structure of the universe for the transformational discovery of our place in the cosmos to be forgotten. So, some foundational insights of modern science are not likely to dissolve as a future society chooses other priorities. Many parts of the religion of scientific progress may disappear. I expect the 'endless frontier' rhetoric of Vannevar Bush that dominated science policy for the last 60 years will be abandoned. So I would say that the course of previous societies gives us our best guidance about human nature in a declining civilization, but the technological options available this time make prediction of the actual course of human economy, technology, standards of living, and ecology on the basis of previous societies' trajectories to be only modestly useful.

Thanks for your stimulating essays.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

You're right. New ideas are astonishingly rare.

Your theory of catabolic collapse being one such is a very insightful observation and I certainly wouldn't have been able to develop it.

Mostly here at the farm, I bring together the work and observations of others. The ideas get tested and if they work in this environment and are worth the effort, they're incorporated otherwise they get discarded. Having no background in farming, I'm not dogmatic about any particular systems, but instead can pick and choose. Most visitors tend to have strong opinions which they are all too happy to share!

The power system here is an ongoing saga. Winter is a real drama as the battery temperature plummets (well probably not to your winter, but still it's cool. The average temperature is probably about 9 degrees Celsius now). As temperature goes down, the batteries have to be recharged at ever higher voltages and the complex system here adjusts for this.

However, the other day I observed that one setting on the controllers didn't adapt to the readings from the temperature probes. This has caused the batteries to be under charge during winter. I changed the setting and then ... 25% extra charging that day. I could seriously kick the controllers and all of the money, time and stress I spent on the recent wind turbine. Plus all of the generator usage in previous years over winter... The technical manual had no word of this unique feature either. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to observe what was going on, knowing that something was a bit off. Grrr! Another household not too far from me is suffering from the same problem and we’ve been discussing it at length.

I cannot underestimate the number of years that it takes to get all of these different systems working optimally. It is virtually impossible to move to a farm and make a successful go of it from day one. It is just not possible. I'm not whingeing, I'm just floored every time I learn something new about the place. No wonder the return to the land movement of the 60’s and 70’s failed.

Regards

Chris

Paul said...

The initial success of Spengler's pessimistic historicism was due to the fact that the West was facing great difficulties at the end of WWI. And its later neglect in the go-go years was understandable. The current resurgence of interest in Spengler signifies something is wrong again in our (western) civilization. As it stands, it cannot defend itself intellectually, precisely because its definitive change-mechanism is piecemeal in nature and adaptive to competing claims under a (more-or-less) democratic framework.

It is interesting to note that (as signified in the recent looking-friendly meeting between the heads of state of US and China), China is trying to join this bandwagon, taking the advantage of the adaptive nature of western civilization, to be asked to join in as an elite member, with an (internally functionally) authoritarian political structure, negotiating with the carrot of economic benefits which is most needed nowadays (for one thing, Hollywood has already bowed its head through re-editing its films for the China market to suit the political taste of the authority [An intellectual at Hollywood would probably say: "I care about selling more films rather than campaigning any "ethical philosophy" to the Chinese people]").

PS: Recently I visited the States and my limited observations told me that obesity is more or a problem there rather than the burgeoning of "folk religions" with superstitious overtones.

Leo said...

I was reading your democracy (consuming, producing and enacting) posts and read this bit:
"those who want to demonstrate that some other system is as effective as democratic process are welcome to use that other system on smaller scales, with voluntary organizations and local communities, and prove that it works."

And then I remembered a bit from my twins book on security.
"First realism emphasizes that the international system is anarchic-there is not an international authority that can enforce agreements or prevent the use of force"

I find it kind of funny that anarchism, which is the most decentralized a system as you can get, is regularly applied only at the highest hierarchical level (states) and biggest group unit, rather than at some lower level like democracy, which is often applied at quite low hierarchical levels and for small groups.

Brian said...

For everyone trying to insert HTML links:

Type this: (a href="www.google.com")Google!(/a)

Now, replace the symbols ( and ) with the symbols < and >, respectively.

Now, you should have this: Google!

It is important to include the (/a) (with the correct symbols) afterward - this lets the page know there's a link contained therein.

Phil Harris said...

@Paul wrote:
As it stands, it [Western Civ] cannot defend itself intellectually, precisely because its definitive change-mechanism is piecemeal in nature and adaptive to competing claims under a (more-or-less) democratic framework.

A touch more than intellectual I guess. The West latterly had 3 big ideas: coal, oil, and absolutely very large global transport of bulk materials. Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is not far behind, and democratic capitalism kept up its winning streak.

What happens on the see-saw as the West goes down, who knows? The guys on the other end could take a shock as well.

Give Spengler his due. His insight pre-dated and predicted WW1. Not so much pessimistic as spot-on!

As an afterthought: Britain's coal production peaked in 1913 (peak of Brit Empire) at about the same per capita tonnage as China produces per capita now - except we exported a third of ours back then. Brits were not using a lot more energy per head by 1952 (the Coronation) , before petroleum’s serious 'take-off’, than they were in 1913 and had about the same per capita purchasing power as the average Chinese now. I have been looking for the next big idea to happen for a while - but I'm afraid it looks more like ‘see-saw’ than a pre-launch party before take-off to the stars.

best
Phil

DeAnander said...

"And there are too many people who understand the history and structure of the universe for the transformational discovery of our place in the cosmos to be forgotten..."

Ummm, at last poll I think something like 70 percent of US public believed in direct angelic intervention in human affairs and almost 50 percent believed in Creationism rather than the theory of evolution. I think we overestimate the degree to which basic scientific knowledge is distributed among the masses :-)

[quick fact check: after googling, looks like 80 percent USian belief in angels, and 55 percent belief in personal protection by guardian angel; 46 percent belief in Creationism (humans created by G-d in their present form, no evolutionary history). my memory for depressing stats turns out not to be too far off.]

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...


@ Cherokee

You've got chickens yeah?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Peacock

Sorted

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@DeAnanader--People who believe in Creationism rather than the theory of evolution are, in my opinion, either ignorant (they haven't had the theory and the evidence for it properly explained to them) or in denial. Creationism is not a theory in the scientific sense since it is not predictive and disregards all evidence that would falsify it.
The evidence for the theory of evolution is copious, physical, and objective. The abilities of the theory of evolution for prediction and analysis of speciation vastly outweigh any competitive explanations.

Belief in angels, or belief in angelic intervention in human affairs, is a different kind of belief. You seem to be holding up those ideas as crass superstition and all people who believe them as scientific nincompoops. I do not think this is the case.

It is possible, though unusual, to be conversant with the scientific method and even to practice it, and to be conversant with current scientific knowledge, without believing that existing methods of scientific investigation can describe and understand everything important about the cosmos. One major area of human inquiry in which science has thus far made little progress is the nature of consciousness. At this moment, we don't know how widely spread consciousness is, whether it is an emergent property of life, or whether it is fundamental in some way to the fabric of reality.

The word angel comes from a root in both Latin and Greek which means messenger. Biblical angels are messengers of God, conceived to be entities which do not ordinarily have physical existence but are capable of taking on physical existence temporarily, and capable of communicating with human beings either through ordinary physical speech or through subjective visions and sensations.

I am not suggesting that there is scientific evidence for the existence of angels or that people ought to take their existence on faith. However, many religions espouse a belief in angels, demigods, tutelary spirits, or some other kind of sometimes embodied, sometimes disembodied intelligent entity that is friendly to human beings and interacts with humanity from time to time. If the majority of Americans believe in angels, that simply means that the majority of Americans have a belief in some form of traditional religion.



Iuval Clejan said...

OK, here is some morphological thinking:
I am interested in analogies between civilizations/cultures and biological entities. One can see similarities in structure and evolution of species and cultures, though there may be differences (e.g. gene transfer in most species is mostly vertical, whereas meme transfer in most cultures is mostly horizontal). Is a civilization like a web of interacting cultures, which is similar to an ecosystem being a web of interacting species? Or is a civilization more like an invasive species that takes over an ecosystem?

There is more to the story of speciation than adaptation. For example it seems like there are two necessary conditions for speciations: reproductive isolation of small populations, and (this is more controversial) mutation of a master gene, which hierarchically regulates many other genes. So by analogy, there might be more to the story of the rise of cultures than adaptation. But Spengler seems to be describing the social equivalent of succession of an ecosystem, not of cultural speciation. Still there might be differences. Whereas ecosystems can reach a stable equilibrium, history suggests that civilizations collapse. Why this difference? Is it necessary or incidental?

John Michael Greer said...

Seateta, that works fairly well.

William, Westernization was a huge factor at the time Spengler wrote, and he discusses it at some length. A successful high culture always inspires imitation, at least on a superficial level, and the sheer material extravagance made possible, however temporarily, by industrial civilization makes that imitation particularly attractive in the present case.

Hewhocutsdown, you're welcome.

Raven, no, that has essentially nothing in common with the shape of time as I've described that concept, though it's a useful quantitative factor to keep in mind.

Mary, you're welcome. It's exactly the process of muddling on, it seems to me, that's the best reason for hope.

Rita, that may be part of it, but I'm by no means certain it's all of it.

S P, running out of ideas is a common fate faced by all creative arts. Hollywood remained creative about as long as, say, jazz, or ancient Greek tragedy.

Phil H., my answer was Spengler's analogy; I'd have used a different one if we were talking about a different writer. Still, your farmer friend makes a good example of what Spengler is talking about. It's not just that he's nearing the end of his life; so is industrial agriculture.

JP, heck of a good question. Every attempt at an explanation I've seen is basically handwaving; it may be that high cultures pop up when and where they pop up, for reasons that don't submit to any sort of ready analysis.

Hapibeli, The Baha'i faith is a good contemporary example of what Spengler called the Magian high culture -- that's the one that emerged in the Middle East around the time the Roman world was winding down, and took the shape of a galaxy of religious communities, with Islam and Rabbinic Judaism the two most famous examples. (Christianity started out as a Magian faith but veered in a different direction.) It's a model that works tolerably well for a community of believers, but doesn't scale up well beyond that -- which is to say, I'm less sanguine about that than you seem to be.

John Michael Greer said...

Declan, Spengler knew his Plato, and also later Greek philosophers such as Polybius, so the resemblance is certainly deliberate!

Michael, well, there was a dialogue between Arnold Toynbee and Daisetsu Ikeda, which is close!

Joy, the meaning of the word "God" is considerably more complex in meaning than the pop Christianity of recent decades makes it seem. On the other hand, if you find an impersonal concept of cosmic law more to your taste, I won't argue!

Cherokee, thanks for the story! Now that would make a good film...

Phil H., many thanks for the link. A fascinating story all round.

Bird, it's good to see at least a photo-reprint; it would be better, to my mind, to get a new edition, but that's probably beyond hope.

Heretick, okay, now perhaps next time you can post something that's relevant to the discussion. By the way, telling an author to throw his books in the trash is considered rude in most circles.

Heraclitus, it's a source of endless wonder to me that so many people never seem to think about the durability of today's information media, or the results of the winnowing process by which today's glut of data will be cut down to a size that can be preserved in the form of texts and oral traditions. I probably should do a post on that again sometime soon, because the chances that the words "star trek" will mean anything at all to some future Arnold of Brescia are remarkably small. More on this soon.

Permaliv, I'll put it on the stack. In the meantime, well, I'd note that "architectural value" is not the same thing as "beauty," which was the term under discussion.

Chuck, a precise metaphor for the declining phases of our civilization.

John Michael Greer said...

Ganv, there were more people alive in Spengler's time who knew how to build a radio from scratch than there are today. As for computers, are you serious? Sure, there are plenty of people who can put together premanufactured power supplies, motherboards, etc., but how many of those people have the least idea how to wind the coils for a power supply transformer, etch a circuit board, etc? Then there are the memory and CPU chips, which can't be made at all in the absence of whole suites of extremely complex and demanding technologies dependent on extravagant energy and resource availability.

My response to your critique remains what it's been: you're ignoring the extreme vulnerability of today's information storage technologies and the consequences of the extreme specialization of the modern economy, both of which make it all too likely that vast amounts of today's knowledge and technology will be lost during the unraveling of industrial society. I've come to believe, in fact, that it's exactly the conviction on the part of most people in the industrial world that our current technologies and knowledge base can't be lost that all but guarantees that they will be lost, because there are too few people willing to take the steps that might succeed in preserving them while there's still time for those steps to have some effect.

Cherokee, the interesting thing about the catabolic collapse theory is that it's based squarely on The Limits to Growth -- I simply generalized the process of decline sketched out in that study, applied it to the history of earlier collapses, and went from there. I'd be the last person to claim that it was a wholly original notion.

Paul, then perhaps you can explain why Spengler's work was a bestseller in the US during the boom years of the 1920s. As for your final comment, I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what relevance that has to the topic of this post.

Leo, I believe there's a bit of a difference between anarchy as a fact and anarchism as an ideology.

Iuval, excellent! That was one of the things behind my suggestion, in The Ecotechnic Future, that the future history of technic societies might best be understood using succession as a model. The point I'd make is that "collapse" is a very broad term. Until 1911, for example, Chinese civilization had established a climax community that was viable, with ups and downs, for several thousand years; ancient Egypt managed the same thing, until it was disrupted (as China was) by external forces. If industrial civilization turns out to be the first sere in a succession process, the ecotechnic civilizations of the far future may last for thousands of years as well -- though we have a lot of seres to get through before then!

Paul said...

@Phil wrote: What happens on the see-saw as the West goes down, who knows? The guys on the other end could take a shock as well.

That is certainly true, probably folks around here might place (or may have placed) their bets on the stock market, according to their respective predictions. Or perhaps folks like Soros have been getting inspiration through reading these comments (and of course the article too).

Vultures love see-saws.

Pessimistic prediction can be insightful (and can actually save our lives in some situations), it is our cultural bias that puts negative connotation to pessimism...:):)

Paul said...

@JMG wrote: Paul, then perhaps you can explain why Spengler's work was a bestseller in the US during the boom years of the 1920s.

Rich kids (also) love to read horror stories. My point is we can explain (almost) everything....:):)

Matthew Lindquist said...

I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree with you, Mr. Greer, on Star Trek- it almost certainly will survive far into the future, not through any DVDs or what-have-you, but through the young people putting on plays in parks acting out old episodes(and sometimes even new episodes they wrote themselves), which is a practice currently spreading like wildfire throughout American cities.

In Star's Reach, you had "Elwus" entertainers acting as traveling bards distantly descended from Elvis impersonators- preserving that tradition by being willing to perform it for free, and sometimes at significant personal cost. And it seems like that may very well happen with Star Trek. Or rather, at the very least it will if I have anything to say about it- because I've joined "Trek In The Park." As to *why*, that's probably farther off-topic than you wish to veer, Mr. Greer, so I'll save it for some other time.

KL Cooke said...

"Sometimes I drive by an Abbey's Pizza franchise, and their sign-board announces, "It's an Abby's day!".

And my brain instantly mis-spells it to become, "It's an Abyss day!"

That happens to me with "Chesapeake." I always read it "Cheapskate."

John Michael Greer said...

Paul, of course you can come up with ad hoc hypotheses to explain any given set of events. So?

Matthew, let's see if they're still doing it five years from now. I put Elwuses in Star's Reach because Elvis impersonators have been popular since before Presley died. (Well, more to the point, I put them into the novel for satiric reasons, and to help build the sense of cognitive distance between my imagined future and our time, but the pervasive international popularity of Elvis impersonators made it an easy choice.)

KL Cooke, too funny!

onething said...

Hmmm...when I asked why we should worry about God, I was objecting to the insinuation that we should fear this anthropomorphized being of the sort that Joy objects to.

You're correct, JMG, that I dislike that Biblical phrase "Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom" for the above reason; it is used to bludgeon people, but taken the way you put it, is more useful.

JP said...

"JP, heck of a good question. Every attempt at an explanation I've seen is basically handwaving; it may be that high cultures pop up when and where they pop up, for reasons that don't submit to any sort of ready analysis."

The best analogy that I've been able to come up with is that there is some sort of "supersaturated solution" present.

By this I mean that the proto-culture has an enough *something* (the something being whatever is necessary for a high culture to arise) so that when a spiritual awakening happens, it basically crystalizes through the entire proto-culture.

We know that certain things are necessary, but not sufficient, such as fixed agriculture and ability to defend yourself against your neighbors who are "eager for spoil".

I would think that there have to be underlying constants, even if each high culture is a variable.

onething said...

The back to the land movement of the 60s and 70s didn't completely fail - those people are my neighbors and friends.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Paul--you wrote, "Vultures love see-saws."

I read this literally, and it put a very interesting picture in my mind.

(Out to build a playground for some turkey vultures, who are among my favorite California birds.)

Liquid Paradigm said...

I had to share this. My head just exploded. Some folks will muddle through; some, like these folks, are heading at high speeds straight into a very thick brick wall.

"The challenge for the twenty-first century is thus to triple global energy demand, so that the world's poorest can enjoy modern living standards, while reducing our carbon emissions from energy production to zero."

Good lord...

http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/michael-shellenberger-and-ted-nordhaus/its-not-about-the-climate/

KL Cooke said...

"That which is hard shatters, while that which is soft is worn gradually away. What persists? Only that which is actively renewed."

The mildew, for example. It's always there.

wiseman said...

@Paul
Human mind by it's nature seeks things which look beyond reach, in this case the fetish for a doomsday among Hollywood and well to do people in the west.

Movies like that won't sell here, we know what poverty looks like, we don't want more of it in movies and books.

How many poor and destitute people do you see talking about Peak oil or AWG, for them everyday is a struggle. The decline of civilization doesn't bother them.

Mad Steropes said...

So it seems with have JA Tainter predicting collapse due to diminishing energy returns & Spengler predicting the same based on a cycle of diminishing cultural returns. Interesting that he has put a definite date of it occurring before 2100 probably a coincidence, but it does somewhat tie in with the back of the envelope estimates by many of the non cornucopian peak oil observers as well as the fast crash theories such as the Olduvai Theory.

ganv said...

With the first commercial radio broadcast in 1920 and electrical engineering training almost non-existent, I would be quite surprised if there were more people who could build a radio set then compared with now. Most universities have electrical engineering or electronics labs and an AM radio receiver is a standard project. Maybe by 'from scratch' you mean starting on a desert island? Most students start with a diodes, wires, a few resistors/capacitors and a pre-built speaker. They learn to make power supplies, but don't wrap their own transformers (or mine and process their own copper and a lot of other things if you want to be complete). Students also regularly build micro-computers starting with wires and and CPU and memory chips. The silicon fab to make the CPU and memory chips is difficult, but there is going to be good money available to anyone who keeps that skill alive...and if you are willing to work at slower speeds and transistor counts, the technical requirements are not nearly as difficult as making 3GHz chips on 30 cm wafers.

To the main point though, I think you overestimate how complex much of modern technology really is. The really hard part is usually the basic engineering discoveries and the marketing to figure out which of the many things you could make will actually sell. With something so simple and obviously useful as a telephone or a radio or even a computer or cell phone, it is hard to imagine how the ability to build them will be lost. Basic things like agriculture, the wheel, etc were not lost when past civilizations collapsed. It is hard to know which things will be lost in our future. High energy consumption things like air travel are likely to dramatically decrease. But basic electronics is not all that complicated, and is too useful to be easily lost except maybe at the end of a die off of most of the humans.

Phil Harris said...

@Wiseman
I appreciate your comments here and elsewhere.
More than 30 years ago I realised that there was no possibility whatsoever that the majority of the global population would achieve American middle class living standards - purchasing power, command of resources etc. - and not even reach those of the European / British middle class, at the level they were back then.

I guess the same is even truer for India, that the majority of the population even if they can eke out a future urban existence have no prospect of middle class status. Low fertility rates and heterogeneity across India and the recently enlarged Indian middle class cannot change the result.

I see no reason for the 'American' model to be any more successful or have a longer lifespan now that it is appearing in India, than it will in Europe or even back home in USA.

Global trends are going in different directions at the same time just now, but I guess that was only to be expected?

best
Phil H

Iuval Clejan said...

I thought that the climax community according to Spengler is always an empire, and that things cycle after that again? But you are saying something different, that empires are themselves just seres that follow more decentralized seres? Is it possible to have decentralized seres that are NOT succeeded by empires?

Ol' Bab said...

@Liquid Paradigm
Re: michael shellenberger, ted nordhaus

The amazing thing about these two is their impressive scholarship applied to the environmentalists is so totally at odds with their completely uncritical cornucopianism.

We are SO going to just find all that energy, if we can just those pesky greens off our backs!

Ol' Bab

dragonfly said...

slightly off-topic:

ganv said "...so simple and obviously useful as a telephone or a radio or even a computer or cell phone..."

You just jumped through several orders of magnitude in complexity there.

A simple telephone system can be made with no active electronic components at all - witness the earliest telephone exchanges which functioned with no semiconductor or tube-based amplification, and relied on operators to perform circuit switching.

Computers and cell phones ? Not so much. Sure, a cell phone seems simple to the user. Press a few buttons, talk to a friend on the other side of the planet. Wow ! Follow your voice through the cell phone system, however, and you'll find that it's anything but simple. The entire system, from handsets to cell towers to the connective backbone is the very definition of complex, and relies on a multitude of energy-intensive, interdependent and currently affordable technologies.
High-speed DSP, sub-micron feature IC fabrication, nanosecond precise timing systems, antennae and RF waveguide design. Just the IC fab alone requires a cornucopia of metallurgical, materials processing, precision optics, solid-state physics and chemical technologies.

"Basic things like agriculture, the wheel, etc were not lost when past civilizations collapsed." - probably because they were basic !

Raymond Duckling said...

@ganv

I am not going to argue that what you propose is technically possible. The devil is off course in the details, but since the week is almost over let's assume it's possible. But please consider this scenario.

I have a sorts of hybrid education in computer science/electrical engineering, and at some point I was able to build an arithmetic unit by using just logic gates, latches (which can be also built with logic gates) and a clock. I believe given enough supplies, time to practice and documentation, I would be able to produce one rudimentary calculator (not full fledged computer) every other day.

Now, technologies do not exist in a vacuum, but within a social context. My calculator is not going to be pretty or intuitive to use, but since we can expect literacy to crash there might be a market for it. But you know what other not user friendly technology let you, with a bit of practice, do basic arithmetic? That's right, let me introduce you to the abacus!

So, imagine Joe Six-Pack. With a modest investment of time and effort, he can turn his half-a-dozen kids into a semi-skilled, unpaid (and admittedly illegal) assembly line that can churn out abacuses on a per hour basic. The raw materials are also cheaper and more abundant than the humble electronics I'd need for my calculator, so Joe can go to the market a couple of hours per day to offer its more affordable product and be back by noon, ready to open a cold one before I've had a chance to make my first sale.

I am not sure what is the future of computer of electronics in this world, but I do not count on it being used for trivial matters.


artinnature said...

This may have been mentioned here before, indeed in addition to books, I get many film suggestions from places like this.

My wife and I just watched 'Letting Go of God' its classified as "stand-up comedy" but I wouldn't call it that. Julia Sweeney describes her religious (mis)adventures throughout her life. We were rapt for the full two hours.

You don't even need to watch, you can turn off the video display and just listen. Very relevant to this series of posts.

JMG: I cant wait to see where you take us next!

Cheers!

Dave Kimble said...

Another indication of unexpected reasons for electricity to suddenly disappear:
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-04/utility-line-worker-cuts-hobble-emergency-storm-response.html
Utility Line Worker Cuts Hobble Emergency Storm Response
By Jim Polson - Jul 5, 2013

Four days before Hurricane Sandy struck in October, Consolidated Edison Co. (ED) sought 1,800 power-line-repair workers from its fellow utilities to help respond to the massive storm brewing in the Atlantic Ocean.

It got just 32. Three days later, the New York-based utility boosted its request to 2,500. It got 171.

Con Edison’s difficulties getting help from the industry’s mutual aid program, under which U.S. utilities send workers to other regions during emergencies, show how years of cost cuts and regulatory pressure to keep prices low has left them less prepared to restore power from the biggest natural disasters.

“Utilities do not have the required field personnel at hand to effectively respond to large storms,” the Moreland Commission, a panel convened by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to investigate utility storm response and preparation, said in a June 22 report. “National reforms are needed.”

Bigger storms hitting large cities has meant power failures have lingered, drawing the ire of customers, regulators and elected officials. Blackouts lasting more than five minutes cost U.S. power customers about $29 billion annually, according to a 2004 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Sandy caused an estimated $50 billion in damages, according to the National Hurricane Center. Con Edison is seeking to recover about $593 million in costs from its customers, the federal government and insurance. It asked state regulators in January to approve rate increases to help fund $1 billion of new infrastructure spending, including floodwalls to protect equipment.

U.S. utilities employed 61,000 line workers nationwide as of June 2012. That was 4.1 percent less than in 1999, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment had slipped to as low as 54,070 in 2009.

enonzey said...

@JMG

It appears that some mathematicians and other scholars at NASA agree with you and Spengler.

http://warincontext.org/2014/03/17/industrial-society-heading-for-irreversible-collapse/