Before we begin, it is first
necessary to give special meaning to three words which Spengler used in
particular ways throughout his work. It may well be that some of the
need for special definitions arises from the fact that the original
work was written in his native German, and the translator lacked the
resources in the English language to convey the necessary meanings.
Whatever the truth is, the fact remains that you cannot understand the
true meaning of Spengler's thesis without first acclimating your mind
to these somewhat unusual definitions of words which we now use to mean
The word "contemporary" usually means people or things which existed at the same point in time. Spengler uses that same word to mean people or things which existed at the same point in the development of a Culture or a Civilization. Accordingly, in the sense in which Spengler meant the word "contemporary" to be used, he asserts that Alexander the Great and Napoleon are "contemporaries" because each of them flourished at the same phase of development of their respective Cultures. In the sense which Spengler means "contemporary," this is true in spite of the fact that Alexander died over twenty centuries before Napoleon.
Why does Spengler make such an assertion? Because he wants the reader to focus on the purpose which such an individual serves in the overall pattern of the development of a particular civilization. Napoleon is also frequently compared with Julius Cæsar, but Spengler asserts that this comparison is obviously incorrect, once the proper world view is adopted. Cæsar lived three centuries after Alexander, and if Napoleon and Alexander are "contemporaries" in the Spenglerian sense, then we have yet to see our Cæsar.4
The other two words which Spengler used in a special sense are the words "Culture" and "Civilization." Modern usage is to use these words as meaning practically the same thing. Spengler used them in a very distinct sense: Culture precedes Civilization in the same way that Birth precedes Death.
Spengler envisioned Culture as the "soul" of a people and Civilization as the "intellect" of that same people. In Spengler's world-view, Culture leads axiomatically to Civilization. When the "soul" dies, and "intellect" arises, Civilization is born. Beginning on page 31 of Volume I, Spengler explains:
"For every Culture has its own Civilization. In this work, for the first time the two words, hitherto used to express an indefinite, more or less ethical, distinction, are used in a periodic sense, to express a strict and necessary organic succession. The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture, and in this principle we obtain the viewpoint from which the deepest and gravest problems of historical morphology become capable of solution. 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.
"So, for the first time, we are enabled to understand the Romans as the successors of the Greeks, and light is projected into the deepest secrets of the late-Classical period. What, but this, can be the meaning of the fact - which can only be disputed by vain phrases - that the Romans were barbarians who did not precede but closed a great development? Unspiritual, unphilosophical, devoid of art, clannish to the point of brutality, aiming relentlessly at tangible successes, they stand between the Hellenic Culture and nothingness. An imagination directed purely to practical objects - they had religious laws governing godward relations as they had other laws governing human relations, but there was no specifically Roman saga of gods - was something which was not found at all in Athens. In a word, Greek soul - Roman intellect; and this antithesis is the differentia between Culture and Civilization."
definitions in mind, Spengler went on to assert that Classical Culture
transitioned to Classical Civilization in the 4th century b. c.,
while Western Culture transitioned to Western Civilization around 1800.
Since the inevitable result of achieving Civilization is the decline to
death (although it may take many centuries to accomplish), he titled
his work "The Decline of the West" to denote the current
position of Western Civilization in its overall development. My own
title for my companion book is thus derived from this same proposition:
"The West Still Declines." However, while Spengler asserts that mankind is incapable of diverting the flow, I assert otherwise.
For any who have studied the stock market for at least the last four decades of the 20th century, you would note the periodic popularity of various cyclical theories of the stock market. But it seems that, as soon as one theory gained a wide popularity, the predictability of that cycle disappeared! This is a behavior which sociologists would be better at describing than I would. However, even though Spengler did gain some popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, his views were promptly suppressed after Spengler announced he was a follower of Hitler and tried to adopt his world-view to the Nazi cause.5 Also, Spengler's basic thesis is antagonistic to Christianity, and particularly to the fundamentalist sort of Christianity which has arisen now in the 20th century. Accordingly, Spengler's views never gained enough popularity for a long enough time to change the course of history in the same way that a stock market cycle predictor would change the course of the stock market. In essence, my other book should give the views of Spengler a new currency, without the tinge of his dealings with the Nazis,6 and with the objective of now causing the alteration of the path of world history which his book should have caused had it stayed in wide use back when it was first written. In other words, I present a message of hope for all mankind: it is possible for us to break out of the cyclical path which Spengler described, if enough of us will band together to do so.
If Spengler had been more motivated to use symbols from Oriental philosophy, he might have seen his Culture and Civilization as yin and yang.7 But defining a system of only two forces virtually demands an ongoing struggle between them. As Will and Ariel Durant point out about Hegel, thesis and antithesis frequently lead to synthesis. Thus, the end result of the Cold War is not a victory of either Capitalism or Communism, but instead a synthesis of those two extremes into some form of Ethical Socialism (which Spengler also foresaw as the end state for Western Civilization), incorporating the "best" features of both previously competing economic and political systems.
What I perceive as the end product of all of these cycles of Culture and Civilization is the synthesis of a final human Philosophy. In other words, I believe that Spengler erred by presuming that there was no other path but the one which creates a nearly endless cycle of Cultures followed by Civilizations. That view denies the fact that there has clearly been a steady progress by mankind as we have passed down through the ages. But that is all a subject which is addressed in my other book, referred to above.
Having explored the special definitions of the three key concepts of Spengler's world-view, "Contemporary," "Culture," and "Civilization," it is now possible to explore the overall operation of the cycles for a number of specific Civilizations.
Spengler drew examples from six different Civilizations to show how each had more or less followed a common path of birth, adolescence, adulthood, maturity, old age, and death. The six Civilizations from which Spengler drew his examples were the Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Classical (Greco-Roman), Arabian, and Western Civilizations. Spengler's main thesis is that each of these had exhibited a similar pattern of development over a "lifetime" of about 1000 to 2000 years.8
Spengler did not use an entirely consistent set of terminology when referring to the various activities that occurred in each stage of development. Spengler illustrated his facts with three charts, displaying "contemporary" Spiritual, Cultural, and Political epochs for each of four (out of six) civilizations. For the Cultural and Political epochs, the divisions were into a pre-cultural period, followed by a Culture period (further broken into an "early" and a "late" Culture period), followed by a period of Civilization. The chart used to illustrate the Spiritual epochs was divided differently, with three of the four seasons (Spring, Summer, and Autumn) representing the Pre-Culture and Culture periods, while the fourth season (Winter) represented the Civilization period.
It is from these charts, appearing at the end of Volume I, that the most fascinating list of juxtapositions of "contemporary" figures may be drawn. For example, Mohammed is seen as a "contemporary" of English Puritans, each responsible for an impoverishment of the religious ideals with which each was raised.
Similarly, Napoleon is juxtaposed with Alexander, each representing the break-up of old state forms and the victory of "the people" over the privileged few who had previously ruled through so-called "divine right."
In Spengler's view:
"Cultures are organisms, and world-history is their collective biography. Morphologically, the immense history of the Chinese or the Classical Culture is the exact equivalent of the petty history of the individual man, or of the animal, or the tree, or the flower."
Thus, it should not be surprising to see Spengler present an almost Oriental vision of the birth, life, and death of a Culture:9
"A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirituality of ever-childish humanity, and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. It blooms on the soil of an exactly-definable landscape, to which plant-wise it remains bound. It dies when the soul has actualized the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul. But its living existence, that sequence of great epochs which define and display the stages of fulfillment, is an inner passionate struggle to maintain the Idea against the powers of Chaos without and the unconscious muttering deep-down within. It is not only the artist who struggles against the resistance of the material and the stifling of the idea within him. Every Culture stands in a deeply-symbolical, almost in a mystical, relation to the Extended, the space, in which and through which it strives to actualize itself. The aim once attained - the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual - the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization, the thing which we feel and understand in the words Egyptianism, Byzantinism, Mandarinism. As such they may, like a worn-out giant of the primeval forest, thrust their decaying branches towards the sky for hundreds or thousands of years, as we see in China, in India, in the Islamic world. It was thus that the Classical Civilization rose gigantic, in the Imperial age, with a false semblance of youth and strength and fullness, and robbed the young Arabian Culture of the East of light and air.
"This - the inward and outward fulfillment, the finality, that awaits every living Culture - is the purport of all the historic `declines,' amongst them that decline of the Classical world which we know so well and fully, and another decline, entirely comparable to it in course and duration, which will occupy the first centuries of the coming millennium but is heralded already and sensible in and around us to-day - the decline of the West. Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. . . . ."
From the above paragraph was taken the title of Spengler's work: "The Decline of the West."
This is a direct consequence of Spengler's underlying thesis that, once
a Culture dies and Civilization is born in its place, that Civilization
immediately begins the process of decline, decay, and eventual death.
Throughout all of recorded history, lasting six to eight millennia, Culture after Culture has been born, and Civilization after Civilization has died as a result. As is illustrated in much more detail in my other book, the process Spengler envisioned as also occurring for our own Western Civilization has, in fact, continued to occur over the several intervening decades since Spengler boldly wrote out his predictions.
4 Although, most certainly, one obvious candidate for this "job" would be Newt Gingrich. He is most certainly on the path to fulfilling the function of Julius Cæsar for America. Whether or not he becomes so truly well known that he will fulfill that function for the entirety of Western Civilization is yet to be determined.
5 There would be at least an inference that Hitler's prediction of a Reich lasting "a thousand years" would be in some way derived from Spengler's assertion that a Culture and its Civilization last about a thousand years. Spengler was never accepted by the Nazi hierarchy, who lacked the vision necessary to make use of his great intellect. But that did not stop others from destroying Spengler's image.
6 It must be noted, for the record, that the Second Edition of "The Decline of the West," in German (which edition is the basis for the English translation), was completed in 1922, well before the Nazis were much of a movement in Germany. The Nazi party arose after World War I, when there was widespread political unrest in Germany. While Hitler was elected as President of the party in 1921, he did not make many national headlines until the abortive Munich beer hall putsch in 1923. There is no reason at all to believe that Spengler was in any way influenced by the Nazis before the publication of the Second Edition of "The Decline of the West."
7 The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines "yin and yang" as "(in Chinese philosophy and religion) two principles, one negative, dark, and feminine (yin), and one positive, bright, and masculine (yang), whose interaction influences the destinies of creatures and things."
8 Spengler wrote that, as 70 years was the lifetime of a man, 1000 years appeared to be the lifetime of a civilization. Unfortunately, the data from even the few civilizations he studied does not lend itself to so precise a measurement. For example, the Egyptian life-cycle appears to break down into about 1250 years of Culture, followed by about 550 years of Civilization. For the Arabian life-cycle, these same numbers are about 800 years and about 450 years, respectively. Western Civilization appears to have enjoyed about 900 years of Culture, and we are now about 200 years into Civilization. A simple ratio extrapolation of these numbers would yield about 300 years left for Western Civilization, but most scholars would agree that the pace of our Civilization has accelerated considerably over what others have experienced, and thus another 100 years would appear to me to be optimistic.
9 Some Oriental religions hold there is no "god," as Westerners would view God, but instead a "great soul," from which a piece separates to animate an individual human. A soul seeks to re-join the "great soul" after death, as opposed to reincarnation into a new organism.
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