But Hope Still Exists For Founding A New Civilization
It has been nearly eight decades since Oswald Spengler penned his grand view of the cyclical nature of human history.1 When I first became entranced with this vision, in the early 1980s, the two volume set, titled "The Decline of the West," was still in print.2
The essential thoughts I wish to convey in this work are: 1) the
West has continued to decline as those many decades have gone by; and
2) just because the West is declining does not mean that mankind
has no hope at all for a better future. In fact, it would appear that
mankind is on the brink of the possibility of achieving the true
greatness for which all humans have given their lives so far.
It is difficult indeed for anyone with a "contemporary" education to read Spengler. It is even more difficult to contemplate that Spengler was taught in our high schools back in the 1920s and 1930s. To understand what Spengler is writing about takes a breadth of knowledge which our modern educational system has ceased to convey. Only a few of the most intellectually gifted among us will ever gain the requisite understanding needed to critique Spengler in detail. Still, for those who wish to challenge their minds, and also expand their horizons, a trip to "the horse's mouth" is highly recommended.
But most of us (including, admittedly, me) will never have the intellect and patience to sift through nearly a thousand pages of highly boring text. However, the essential thoughts for all of us to grasp are actually quite easy to comprehend. Setting those down again is one goal for this book.
At this point I must insert a vocabulary note about the deliberate distinction which I mean to imply between "Culture" (with a capital "C") and "culture" (without it), and also in the same way, between "Civilization" and "civilization." We have our own natural meanings for those words, and when I mean to imply the natural meaning, I use the word uncapitalized. Spengler had very specific meanings for those two words, and when I mean to imply Spengler's meanings, I use the word with a Capital "C."
Spengler did more than merely recording a history of the past. He also indulged a bit in predicting the future. After over seven decades, it ought to be possible to examine how well he did. Setting down that record is yet another goal. My own conclusion is that, so far as Western Civilization goes, Spengler's predictions continue unabated: the West still declines. In fact, as Spengler asserts, the West began declining centuries ago, and there seems to be nothing anyone alive today can do about it.
As death follows life for all known living organisms, so does the decline and eventual death of the Civilization follow the birth and growth of its Culture.
And this is the main "problem" with Spengler: his thesis leads us to a thoroughly demoralizing conclusion that Western Civilization is going down the drain, and there is just about nothing we can really do about it (other than, perhaps, to delay the inevitable).
This overall view of decline and eventual death for our Civilization has tended to give a hugely morose cast to what would otherwise be an unemotional and scholarly dissertation. The moroseness is inherent in many people as they approach their own death, so it should not be surprising to find it in our civilization as it approaches its own death. In fact, many civilizations develop morose and fatalistic philosophies late in their existence. Western Civilization is certainly not unique in that regard.
But this book is also about hope. In order to understand the source of that hope, I have included a Section which takes apart Alvin Toffler's book "Future Shock." The essence of his thesis is that we are currently going through the greatest change which mankind has ever experienced, and that change can lead to severe psychological disorders. I assert that he was just over half right: we are clearly undergoing a major change in the meaning of what humans are, and uncontrolled change could lead to major psychological problems. But unless those changes are forced upon an unwilling mankind by an outside force, man will naturally accept only such change as is psychologically digestible. Furthermore, the record of the 25 years since Toffler's book was published discloses a clear reversal of several of the trends which he warned against. But his thesis about mankind undergoing a great change remains oh so very true.
For roughly two million years, mankind was little different than the savage beasts. But about ten to thirty thousand years ago, in widely divergent regions of our planet Earth, we began to farm. This was the first great divide in human history. It forced mankind to put down roots and stay in one place. It forced us to plan and scheme to coerce a crop out of the ground, and in our spare time, we commenced to plan and scheme for the greater glory of mankind, or at least the strongest of each little band of humans.
The second great divide in human history is upon us now. It began as something called the "Industrial Revolution," but it now seems clear that label is far too narrow. I would call it the "Technology Revolution," because it is the technology affecting virtually all fields of endeavor, not just "industry," which is now undergoing massive and dramatic changes. Such technology is entirely out of character for a civilization in our current state of decline. It must be true, then, that the technology springs from a much deeper well.
While Spengler developed his dramatic (and essentially accurate) characterization of civilization as a cyclical rise-and-fall, he did not see (or chose to ignore) an underlying incoming tide of technology. As Toffler asserts, change only becomes obvious when it is compared relative to something else. Spengler's own charts clearly show that each successive civilization has moved technological progress forward by some degree.
In our current Twentieth Century, it appears that the technological dam has burst with full force. The rush of new developments is what motivated Toffler to look for some reactions to all of these inrushing changes. Toffler found the tide which Spengler had ignored, but he reached some essentially erroneous conclusions by ignoring the results which Spengler did reach.
This book, then, is an attempt to synthesize together these two views of humanity into a coherent whole. It is also an attempt to create a hopeful path for mankind away from the cyclical doom of Spengler. That can only be accomplished by using the underlying forces of technological change to damp out the cultural cycles of Spengler.
The hope, then, is to use the forces of dramatic change which Toffler identified to break out of the recurring cycles of Culture and Civilization which Spengler identified. Stock market cycles tend to disappear whenever a popular book analyzes them in detail. Thus, I would hope that a wide audience for this book will dampen the current "down" cycle which Spengler clearly saw, and which I still see destroying our civilization today. We should, instead, choose to ride the rising tide of the Technology Revolution, and build a new home for mankind out of an abundance which will flow from a free economy. Accordingly, it is my strong desire that, even considering the immense depth of our current troubles, "this, too, shall pass away."3
RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA; DECEMBER 5, 1995.
1 The author claimed to have it mostly done by 1914, and to have the first edition fully written by 1917, although the first edition of the first volume was not published until July of 1918. The second volume was published in 1922, and an extensively revised Second Edition appeared in 1923. Even measured from this essentially "final" version, it has still been more than seven decades.
2 And it may well STILL be in print. It is not possible for me to keep up with this, but check with the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. My personal copy is dated as published in 1983.
3 Abraham Lincoln, speaking on September 30, 1859 to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society.
Please send us your feedback!