Past and Prospect

Posted: June 19, 2013 in Culture, History, Philosophy
Tags: , ,

I’m about to embark on another longish project in book blogging. A last post on Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary is due before I’m done, so there will be some overlap. That previous project didn’t exactly provoke a lot of interest or commentary, which is understandable if readers of this blog aren’t also reading the book I’ve chosen. The new project will be on Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West in the abridged English translation (Oxford University Press, 1991). Readers preoccupied with grand, sweeping, historical summaries typically recommend (with the strange implication of possession) Toynbee and Tainter, as in “Have you read your Toynbee?” Less typical recommendations go to Gibbon and Diamond. Of those, I’ve read only Diamond. For reasons I can’t explain, I suddenly find myself interested enough in Spengler to pick up his book, which was recommended to me several years ago.

Spengler’s original German work, published in two volumes (1918-1922), lies outside my language skills, and I note that at least one Amazon reviewer claims this edition is warmed-over Spengler, not quite the real deal. That may be, but it’s not especially concerning for me. Having read already its four (!) prefaces and now Spengler’s own introduction, there is some value to be found in our remove from the original publication date as Spengler’s insights can be reassessed in light of what has transpired since.

For instance, in his 1990 preface to the edition I’m reading, H. Stuart Hughes recommends reading Spengler more as poetics and/or philosophy than straight-up historical summary. He also uses the term “private scholar” to describe Spengler, which is a calling almost no one hears of or aspires to anymore, now that time is so thoroughly commodified. What we have instead is careerism rather than erudition and functional savants (if that …) in the professions rather than a roundly educated population. Hughes also introduces (to me at least) a German word that may well become my new favorite $5 term: Zusammenhang, which means “the wider context in which events or expressions alone acquire meaning.”

Spengler sets out his task early on: to describe world-historical forms and uncover the patterns in which they unfold. Like the seasons of nature or the human body, Spengler sees history in terms of growth, maturity, and decline (and perhaps rebirth, but I’m reading in on this last phase). He further indicates that civilizations are built inevitably on cultures and are indeed expressions of a culture’s late stage of maturity, which is to say, its decline:

Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion, intellectual age and the stone-built, petrifying world-city following mother-earth and the spiritual childhood of Doric and Gothic. They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again. [p. 24]

This formation is not so extraordinary by itself, but the manner in which Spengler expresses it (even in English translation) and the evidence he brings to bear are quite interesting. For instance, he characterizes some civilizations has having been quite ahistorical, unaware of themselves as occupying a unique period and therefore unconcerned with preserving themselves or their artifacts:

After the destruction of Athens by the Persians, all the older art-works were thrown on the dustheap (whence we are now extracting them), and we do not hear that anyone in Hellas ever troubled himself about the ruins of Mycenae or Phaistos for the purpose of ascertaining historical facts. In the West, on the contrary, the piety inherent in and peculiar to the Culture manifested itself in Petrarch — the collector of antiquities, coins and manuscripts, the very type of historically sensitive man, viewing the distant past and scanning the distant prospect … living in his time, yet essentially not of it. [pp. 10-11]

Being situated within the flow of time, as opposed to standing outside it, might also be characteristic of childhood, which normally lacks the ability to objectify itself. Adulthood suffers no such failure, as we tend to our personal histories and legacies almost as steadfastly as the lives we’re living. The special case of adult children, or the so-called manchild, who never grows up and keeps his infantile desires intact, may suggest some reflection. However, I will disdain to judge which point of view is superior, as both have their positive and negative attributes. If we had not developed the tools to destroy ourselves and the world several times over, I might recommend the charms of innocence, but that’s not the reality we have. Instead, we have a culture of permanent adolescence, with its tantrums and sense of burgeoning power — a dangerous combination of the worst of both points of view.

These two quoted passages are typical of Spengler’s writing throughout. Most writers today have far less style and authority, even if they have novelty and a compelling thesis. In fact, I’m tempted to quote Spengler again and again, trusting that even short passages are rich in depth and sensitivity that are foreclosed by today’s impossibly hectic pace. So as I proceed glacially through the book, pausing at great length to consider its arguments, don’t be too surprised if this blogging project takes more than two years, as did the previous one on McGilchrist (not yet even complete).

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