The Decline of the West: Philosophy, History, and Not Much Brevity

     Delving into The Decline of the West

     After a week and a half of intensive study, I have finished covering the centerpiece of my project.  (At least for now, that is.)  It feels really rewarding to have studied all 935 pages of The Decline of the West.  Oswald Spengler’s magnum opus is always fascinating, often confusing, and thoroughly dangerous.  It took time to think about his prognostications, but that effort has built a solid foundation for the rest of my research.

     Before I describe the research process up to now, I’d like to discuss Spengler and his work.  Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was a German intellectual, and lived in relative isolation for most of his life.  After initially failing his Doctoral Dissertation, he became a school teacher.  By 1911, he set out to describe the coming sociopolitical catastrophe that he expected to envelop the West.  Although the First World War stalled publication of his writings, Spengler earned international attention for his comparative analysis of world history.

     Published in two volumes, between 1918 and 1922, The Decline of the West is Spengler’s central work.  In it, he argued (unsurprisingly) that Western Culture was on a downward spiral.  He perceived that its spiritual values, its creativity, and its social hierarchy were all in crisis.  However, Spengler never insisted that these trends were reversible, or even capable of being delayed.  Rather, they were the “inevitable” result of “Destiny.”  Every Great Culture is born, develops a firm set of values, decays, and dies.  To Spengler, Western Culture was on the third stage of this cycle.  He called the West “Faustian.”  Like the title character of Goethe’s play, Spengler contended, Western people strive to do and be as great as possible.  But over time, their vital energies will evaporate.  This tragic idea centers Spengler’s definition of the West.

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Fig. 1

     While The Decline of the West is an intriguing piece of intellectual history, it’s not the easiest read.  Spengler had a rigid writing style.  So, it is difficult to make sense of his thesis at times, through the mist of his esoteric language and muddy syntax.  Sometimes, it felt impossible to understand what Spengler’s larger point was in certain sections.  But giving myself the option to stop, think, and organize my thoughts solved this issue.  Allowing time to step back and think has helped my pacing beyond measure.

     The most insightful moments in my research didn’t occur when I had Spengler’s books in front of me, but when I stepped away from it all.  My mind would readjust, and I would think of brand new approaches I could take to the material.  With space to breathe, I could consider what Spengler was saying from many angles, and the broader implications of his ideas.

     This last point is significant, because Spengler used so many words (like “Destiny,” or “totemism”) in distinct ways, to support his thesis.   Creating time to relax, without thinking about Spengler, refreshes my mind.  I can return to the work and think about Spengler’s ideas in difficult sections.  That way, I can digest what he actually means.

     Spengler loved analogies, both historical and metaphysical.  In one instance, his work compares animals and vegetables–they way they perceive and interact with the world.  Hundreds of pages later, the book builds upon this analogy to distinguish the different lifestyles of the social Estates, and to explain why each acts the way they do.  Fascinating, to be sure!  It’s tempting to skim over some of Spengler’s long, drawn-out historical analogies, the largest of which lasts for 72 pages.  But, these sections provide deep insight into the big ideas he’s arguing for.  After all, these analogies are all supposed to relate to similar events in the history of the West.

Fig. 2
Figure 1 – “Faust and Mephistopheles Galloping through the Night of the Witches’ Sabbath” (from Faust I), 1828, by Eugène Delacroix
Figure 2 – “Destruction,” c. 1836, by Thomas Cole