Spengler: A Conservative Soothsayer
by The Editor
Jonathan Guinness critiques Oswald Spengler's metahistory in his Decline of the West (1918-1922)
Spengler: A Conservative Soothsayer
By Jonathan Guinness
There are few greater impertinences than to recommend the necessity of reading a long, weighty and unfashionable book. It is as if the Ancient Mariner were too languid to do more than refer the wedding guest to the nearest public library. Nevertheless I am going to do this to David Levy, and to all--this must apply to most of us--who were interested in both his articles in the last two issues of the Monday World. His subjects were first “For what are we fighting?” and secondly the problem of the present decay in the arts (“The Arts and Mass Society”): and my suggestion is that neither of these questions can be satisfactorily tackled in our time unless one has read Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. For that great panorama of world history both explains what that Western culture is for which David Levy believes we are fighting, and places into context the current decline of the arts within that culture. Whether or not one agrees with all Spengler’s conclusions, the vocabulary and concepts that he developed are, in these matters, indispensable.
In “For what are we fighting?” David Levy begins by pointing out that ideals like “democracy,” “freedom,” and so on, are so imprecise that their continual use as propaganda weapons has succeeded in rendering them meaningless; and that the idea of “order,” as such, is shown to be inadequate by the fact that the place where it exists most clearly is in the Soviet empire. He then raises the possibility of supporting a return to religion but concludes that this would confine our appeal to a minority because the opinion-formers of the Western World no longer believe in religious truth. However, for his own definition he can do no better than “variety,” or “heterogeneity.” Surely this will not do either. Variety is a negative characteristic, telling us what our traditions do not exclude rather than what they typically consist of. Spengler does say what the culture is, but the story is a complex one, requiring a wealth of careful description and documentation, and the attempt I make here to indicate what Spengler says will inevitably seem thin.
The Spenglerian culture, as such, is too all-embracing for us to be able to say unequivocally that we are defending it. The Nazis claimed to be defending it, and their claim had enough truth in it for many good Europeans of their time to take them seriously. Why their claim was only half-true was that they rejected as “decadence” an important part of the culture, namely the Anglo-Saxon political tradition, which is at least as time-honoured a part of Western culture as their own idealistic authoritarianism; but our assumption that the Anglo-Saxon type of order is the only kind worthy of the name of Western is just as untrue, if less disastrous in practice, and can lead to equally gross misunderstandings of other European countries (e.g. Spain) where our democratic tradition happens not to be at home. The culture is also too devoid of scope for further regeneration to be, again as such, worth defending. Notably, the disappearance of inspiration in the arts noted by David Levy in “The Arts and Mass Society” means that the fecundity of our culture in these fields is only convincing as a reason to fight for it if one confines one’s attention to the past. David Levy attributes this deterioration to the popular press, but Spengler points out in detail how similar general failures of inspiration marked the equivalent phases in other cultures--the Hellenistic period of Greco-Roman culture is an example--which had not the benefit of Press Lords. Spengler regards the beginning of the end of natural style in the arts to have come about the time of the French Revolution, owing to a general intellectualisation of standards that had hitherto been instinctive. The arts then divide between a desire to spurn style in favour of primitive emotions and energies (romanticism) and a nostalgic clinging to a style no longer truly felt (classicism.) Spengler sees figures like Wagner as trying a vain artificial respiration through sheer size and false vigour, and would have counted Cecil B. de Mille and Stanley Kubrick as his natural successors; he regards the Impressionists as substituting for true creation and arid preoccupation with problems of perception. As for pop art, random music and all the rest of the nonsense, and modern architecture’s oscillations between the imitative, the pompous and the inane, he would certainly regard all this as the final proof of his point.
The idea of Western culture as now understood, and of classifying human history into “Cultures” each following the same general phases of rise, development, maturity and decline, largely stems from Spengler. (In the English-speaking world the most eminent expression of this idea has been in the monumental Study of History by Arnold Toynbee, but he himself freely acknowledges his debt to Spengler in this respect.) The “Culture,” in Spengler, covers everything. In his introduction, he says that its development, “is an expression, a sign, a form put on by a particular spirituality,” The spirituality, the way of looking at things, of a particular culture expresses itself in all human activities. In the case of Western European culture, the “spirituality” is, he says, a tendency to regards relationships as more important than objects and that which is distant, both in space and time as more important than that which is close, each of these inclinations being a manifestation of the primary symbol of the culture; infinite space. Western European culture begins, for Spengler, with the emergence of Gothic architecture, whose arches and vaults seem to strive towards infinity, and Western Christianity, with its infinite God and its pretensions to universal moral hegemony. At this first stage, the “spirituality” is instinctive rather than reasoned. It then works itself out in ever more elaborate and reasoned forms during the subsequent millennium and enters into more and more different fields. Painting develops perspective; statesmen plan long-range dynastic politics: then, with logarithms and the calculus, mathematics starts concerning itself with relations and forces; music develops orchestration and counterpoint. Firearms, printing, radio, aeroplanes, sub-atomic physics and even double-entry bookkeeping come from later, more intellectual stages of the same “spirituality.” Spengler highlights the unity of all these manifestations by contrasting those in other cultures. The Greco-Romans, for instance, look at things differently. Objects in themselves are all-important, relationships and forces can only be seen in terms of the objects they effect. Space is just lack of an object. Therefore, as first architectural style we have not the striving Gothic but the four-square Doric, instead of a universal Church we have a proliferation of local cults and temples, and so on and so forth.
Spengler makes a culture analogous to a living entity, with a lifespan which is the same for each. It begins by being instinctively felt and taking the dual form of a religion and an ideal of chivalry (Arthurian in the West, Homeric for the ancients.) Then as it develops it takes more and more reasoned forms. When, after about a thousand years, all its artistic, political and other manifestations have been realised, it ceases to be capable of further internal development and turns to what he calls civilisation. A civilisation is to its corresponding culture as a shell to the snail that made it. We are now, according to Spengler, in the period of about two centuries which constitutes the death-throes of Western European culture and will end in the civilisation. All other cultures in the world have long reached civilisation, except one, the Russian, which is still in its infancy and which is being disturbed and falsified by Western influences, among which he includes Communism. Otherwise, the civilised state in the sense in which Spengler always uses the word is “what we feel and understand in the words Egyptianism, Brahminism, Mandarinism.” The area controlled by the preceding culture is unified in a single empire, the society during the subsequent generations becomes static, divided into castes, ruled by enlightened civil servants (mandarins), and dominated by soldiers (warlords) and merchants, who plunder a general population that has reverted to a primitive peasant existence inadequately irradiated by a cowardly and superstitious pietism. Spengler call this state “Fellachentum” generalising from the Egyptian Fellahin. In a grim passage, Spengler tells us what is in store for us under the world empire that will result from the triumph of the coming Western equivalent to Caesar when the descendants of John and Yoko have finally converted the masses to non-resistance: “World peace is always a one-sided decision. The pax Romana had only one practical meaning for the later military emperors and Germanic warrior kings, which was to make an amorphous populations of a hundred million helpless at the will of small bands of fighting men. This ‘peace‘ caused the peaceful populations casualties compared to which those at the battle of Cannae had been negligible---An effective leader who collects ten thousand adventurers can do as he likes. If the whole world were a single empire, it would simply be the largest possible arena for the exploits of such conquerors.” It is hard to deny, either that previous civilisations have ended in this state, or that much of the political thinking of today is tending in this direction.
Surprisingly little modification is necessary of Spengler’s analysis of the present world situation; Erich Heller, who disapproves of him, admits that history since then has been as if a child with clumsy hand filled in the pattern of his predictions. The present “pre-civilisation” period began with the French revolution and will end about the year 2,000 with the establishment of the final empire. In the interim, traditions dissolve, standards decline, the stakes in both politics and war get higher and the ways in which they are conducted more unpleasant. Popular demagogues flourish, there is much talk of popular power and much concentration of actual power in the hands of ever fewer and more ruthless magnates. It is the time of big money; Rockefeller corresponding to Crassus. At the start of the period, the French and American revolutions began to practice the first variety of political rationalism, namely liberal democracy. Like Marx, whom he otherwise despises, Spengler sees liberalism as being the self-assertion of business against traditional authority. Socialism emerges as the answer by the urban proletariat, led by dissident bourgeois, to exploitation by business. Socialist leaders combine a rationalist hatred of tradition with a secularised version of the ethical patterns of the Christian Church. In the 20th century, socialism in one form or another will establish itself as the final moral framework of all politically significant thought. The programme of the ultimate Caesar will certainly be worded in terms of the ideals of ethical socialism, but the crucial question is will he come as a conqueror, from outside the heartland of our culture, or a reformer from within it? Our struggle, surely, must be to ensure that he is “ours” rather than “theirs.”
There is one feature of our culture which really does set it apart from all others, and that is its technology. This technology is solely rooted in Western European thinking, but once it has been developed it can be learned and extended by others. During the period when Europe had a start, this technical superiority expanded the area of dominance of Western culture from its heartland of Europe to cover the whole world, and, during the century and a quarter between the French revolution and the first World War, this became reflected in the world political dominance of the countries of Europe. Then came the double World War, representing two instalments of a gamble by Germany to become top power in Europe, and through Europe, in the world. In assessing the world since 1945 we have to distinguish between the cultural situation, in which Western techniques and political ideas have spread into every important area of the globe, and the political situation, in which the countries of the heartland, Europe, are dwarfed and dominated by Russia and America. Russia is a basically non-Western power which since Peter the Great has become more and more bewitched by our culture while remaining irretrievably primitive in its political habits: it has incorporated the Eastern countries of Europe as slave-colonies. America began as an offshoot from Great Britain and does to a great extent value Western traditions, but it does not identify fully with them; Americans can never feel that a thousand years of Western history are indigenous to their soil. America dominates Western Europe not brutally as Russia rules the east but tactfully; there is simply an understanding that finally America calls the tune (as at Suez). Besides these two giants, a third has arisen now that Western techniques and political thought have awakened China from the dignified somnolence of its old civilisation into a sinister and xenophobic expansionism.
This being the situation, for what are we fighting, as British Conservatives? I suggest it is very simple; we are fighting for the survival, unity and if possible, ultimate supremacy of the heartland of Europe. We want the ultimate Caesar, if Caesar there must be, to be a European rather than a Russian or an American. Remaining firmly rooted in our British loyalties, we accept the other nations of Europe as our partners not simply out of the desire to be big enough to compete with the world powers, but because these nations share with us a thousand years of history in all fields. Our creed is certainly, as David Levy says, tolerant, but it cannot be infinitely so, because we must reject anything which seems to threaten our life as independent peoples. Spengler points out that on final establishment of a civilisation, that group usually wins which has managed most successfully to delay and exclude the ideas of the future fellahin, so as to preserve its military effectiveness. In the case of China, the victorious party burned all the books; we as Europeans, if we are to be true to ourselves, must answer, rather than destroy, the equivalent books, (films, telecasts, etc) in our own day. But how do we answer them? Tradition can only be one side of our beliefs, if only because the ethical spirit of the age is now socialistic. We all feel essentially that society ought to have collective responsibility for its members, that effectiveness and merit, not birth by itself, are the qualifications for membership of the elite; and those who pretend to believe in the virtues of plutocracy or squirearchy undiluted are, really, just indulging in nostalgia. We do believe, however, that our opponents, while right in their assumption of moral equality, are wrong in their futile but damaging pursuit of mathematical equality; we believe that within the elite it is good to have an element who have been trained from birth to a high place in society and impregnated with traditions of independence and service. We do think there should be successors to Winston Churchill--and Stafford Cripps. A possible name for the type of Socialism we represent, if it is true as I believe that “we are all Socialists now,” is chivalric socialism. On this idea one could write another article.
But I hope this one will have encouraged a few people to read Spengler. He really is helpful on these fundamental issues. Also, in German, he is a stylist; the English translation if unfortunately turgid. To the normal academic historians, he is not so much unfashionable, more a red rag to a bull; but he would be poor of spirits who was deterred by their pedantic strictures.