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Ed Driscoll

Breathe Deep, the Spenglerian Doom

July 29th, 2013 - 12:12 am

“Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy” is explored in depth in a read-the-whole-thing essay by Robert W. Merry in the National Interest. Originally published at the start of the year, Power Line linked to Merry’s article on Sunday, and it’s definitely worth revisiting. ”A question haunts America: Is it in decline on the world scene?” Merry writes, before noting that “an analysis of Western decline must lead to Oswald Spengler.”

Spengler’s The Decline of the West was published in 1918; but Spengler* wrote it assuming that Germany would win World War I, and thus rule over of an increasingly exhausted and nihilistic Europe. Well, he got it half right — and when Germany lost the war, the title and thesis of his book was taken as a prophetic, and it became hugely influential in his native country. Spengler lived in the era that was post-Nietzsche and the rest of the 19th century “bearded God killers,” as religious scholar Martin E. Marty memorably dubbed them, but died in 1936, before seeing World War II, and the Allies’ victory over National Socialism, followed by their Cold War struggle against International Socialism. (Or as the EU has taken to calling World War II, in a phrase that would likely cause both Spengler and George Orwell to roll their eyes, the “European Civil War.”)

After laying out wide swatches of Spengler’s thesis, Merry writes:

As for Western science, it wasn’t accidental that the telescope was a Western invention or that human flight first occurred in the West. Likewise, with drama, particularly tragedy, the West developed a penetrating “biographical” approach, as opposed to the Greeks’ “anecdotal” outlook. One deals with the entirety of a life, the other with a single moment. Asks Spengler, “What relation . . . has the entire inward past of Oedipus or Orestes to the shattering event that suddenly meets him on his way?” On the other hand, “There is not the smallest trait in the past existence of Othello—that masterpiece of psychological analysis—that has not some bearing on the catastrophe.” Western artistic expression probed deeply into the psychology of life and ultimately found its way to a preoccupation with the individual—the dawning of that personality idea that later was to create the sacrament of contrition and personal absolution.

Spengler writes:

If, in fine, we look at the whole picture—the expansion of the Copernican world into that aspect of stellar space that we possess today; the development of Columbus’s discovery into a worldwide command of the earth’s surface by the West; the perspective of oil-painting and the theatre; the passion of our Civilization for swift transit, the conquest of the air, the exploration of the Polar regions and the climbing of almost impossible mountain-peaks—we see, emerging everywhere, the prime symbol of the Faustian soul, Limitless Space. And those specially Western creations of the soul-myth called “Will,” “Force,” and “Deed” must be regarded as derivatives of this prime symbol.

But, concluded Spengler, all that yearning, probing, exploration and artistic expression was finished in the West of a century ago. Signs of the new civilizational phase, he wrote, were evident in the new pseudoartistic expression that no longer celebrated the West’s fundamental cultural ideas but rather assaulted them; in the rise of impersonal world-cities whose cosmopolitanism overwhelmed the folk traditions of old; in the preoccupation with the money culture; in declining birthrates and the rise of the Ibsen woman who belongs to herself; and finally in the death struggle that had emerged between the democratic state of England with its ethic of success and the socialist state of Germany with its ethic of duty.

Flash-forward to the present day. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was photographed by (and I so very much want to type “for,” given how interlinked Obama and the MSM were and are) the New York Times prominently holding a copy of Time-Warner-CNN-HBO talking head and wannabe Obama advisor Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. In a similarly Spenglarian vignette, earlier this month the Washington Examiner noted that “Obamacare is a 19th-century answer to a 21st-century question”:

Simply put, the digitization of social interaction, economic transaction, the political process and everything in between is decentralizing the world, moving it in the opposite direction of the massive centralization of Obamacare. But nobody needs a federal bureaucrat to tell him what health insurance to buy when anybody with an Internet connection can simultaneously solicit bids from dozens of competing providers, pay the winner via electronic fund transfer, manage the claims process with a laptop, consult with physicians and other medical specialists via email, and even be operated on remotely by surgeons on the other side of the globe. Rather than imposing a top-down, command-economy, welfare-state health care model with roots in Otto von Bismarck‘s Germany of 1881, a 21st century government would ask what is needed to apply to health care access the Internet’s boundless capacity to empower individual choice.

In 2005, Lee Congdon, professor emeritus of history at James Madison University, explored the culture war inspired by pioneering Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and advanced in America by the Frankfurt School:

Following Gramsci, Leftists know that Christianity remains the greatest obstacle to their total victory in the culture war. “The civilized world had been thoroughly saturated with Christianity for 2000 years,” the Italian had written; something, he insisted, had to be done about that, and something has. The de-Christianizing of America and the West that he advocated is by now well underway. Inspired by the anti-Christian French Revolutionary calendar, publishers now insist upon the secular “B.C.E.” (Before the “Common Era”-whatever that means) rather than “B.C.” and “C.E.” (the Common Era) rather than “A.D.” Booksellers, popular magazines, and television treat with respect anti-Christian screeds such as The DaVinci Code. Courts, including the Supreme Court, declare most displays of the Decalogue to be “unconstitutional.” The media repeat the mantra according to which Islam is “the religion of peace” (daily evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), find nothing to criticize in Buddhism, and remain “non-judgmental” concerning scientology and other cults, while at the same time they portray Christianity as the religion of “crusaders,” bigots, and yahoos. Members of the Christian clergy have themselves joined in the relentless attack on orthodox Christianity.

Few thoughtful people deny that we are living in a time of decline. Judge Bork entitled one of his books Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. Pat Buchanan recently published The Death of the West. The only question that remains is: Is the decline reversible? There are a few signs of hope, including the much commented upon challenge to the “mainstream” media presented by talk radio, bloggers, and Fox News. That is something, but not enough. Gramsci counseled his side to begin a “long march through the institutions,” by which he meant the capture of the cinema, theater, schools, universities, seminaries, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and courts. It is past time to begin a long march in a new and better direction.

Are we experiencing the Decline of the West as Spengler predicted? As in Spenger’s era, our leftwing elites are certainly doing their damndest to advance the cause.

Related: “It’s a problem when the people who are supposed to be the curators of your culture fundamentally don’t like it.” Indeed.™

*Not to be confused with David P. Goldman, who writes here at PJM and elsewhere, and who originally established himself as Spengler’s 21st century namesake via his online pseudonym. Not to mention of course another namesake, Egon Spengler.

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Top Rated Comments   
Part 2:


Having said all that, one of the ultimate lessons of Judeo-Christian belief is that man is inherently sinful. I have seen it argued that such was the concept behind the Constitution’s use of checks and balances. However, merely a century after the founding of this nation, progressives the world over held the exact opposite belief. In my view, that is the essence – or at least, should be, the essence – of what divides our political parties. A true conservative, in my view, believes that anytime power is taken, it will never be returned, and anytime a handout is given, it will again be expected. Those of us who belief such are often accused of being callous, but whenever I see the phrase “decline of Western civilization” I think of the word “decadence.” Far be it for me to judge, but I shudder to think that most people who are currently on government assistance can generally still can afford to own multiple cars, cell-phones, televisions, and take-out meals. For those who have lived a life of luxury, that may not be enough, but for those who have had worse, that is decadence.

Jefferson once said that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” However, in this nation’s lifetime we have only once seen this country torn asunder – and even then, we still cannot agree as to what it was about. That said, war or no, we have seen the federal government become ever so bloated that it seemingly knows our every word. Even the presidency has reached a point to where it, for some reason or another, demands the respect once reserved for kings. We even use them as signposts of American “progress” from Washington to Jackson, to Lincoln, to TR, to Wilson, to FDR, to LBJ, to Obama. That is not a promising trend.

Perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic (and for that I apologize) but I cannot help but see the “decline of Western civilization” as inevitable. Spengler viewed the decline as an orgasmic moment where, having overtaken every challenge available, the West turned violently inward. While I disagree with ArtGhost over the length of the founders’ success, our conclusions seem to be rather the same. Here, the origin of the decline occurred much earlier, when God was first pushed away. It didn’t happen here, at first, but we foolishly thought ourselves as apart from Europe. However, we have long learned that Europe is nothing more than an early example of the decay that is inevitable here. The West may be falling, but at least we won’t be the first down the drain.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Fear of decline is the first element of civilization, the second seems to be the race to make it happen. Wealth brings decay. We all know this is true and yet we continue to measure our worth - as a society and as individuals - in relation to material goods. The people who began our country tried to bring about an equality between material success and spiritual piety and it worked for a relatively long period of time. Twentieth century technology brought us speed, communications and time to be self-indulgent. It also made us less dependent upon the guiding principles of religion - the darkness was gone, we thought. We were wrong, of course. Electric light can't take away the darkness of a world without God.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What's more monotonous than the claims by the enviro-left that, in spite of all evidence, the world is precipitously warming?

The claims by the fringe Right that, in spite of all evidence, the West is going to collapse just any day now! Just wait! Just another week! (Or century, or...)

Aid and comfort.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (26)
All Comments   (26)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
WITHOUT a scintilla of a doubt, the hammer blows given to the decline of the west, since the Radical-in-Chief took office, have become patently obvious. The plan has been in place for decades, but Obama Inc is giving it its last rites. Prof Paul Eidelberg expounds - http://adinakutnicki.com/2012/12/12/the-coming-collapse-of-the-u-s-house-via-who-foresaw-its-crumbling-addendum-to/

If anyone believes that the Repubs will save the Republic, well, pigs do fly too!

Adina Kutnicki, Israel http://adinakutnicki.com/about/
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Fear of decline is the first element of civilization, the second seems to be the race to make it happen. Wealth brings decay. We all know this is true and yet we continue to measure our worth - as a society and as individuals - in relation to material goods. The people who began our country tried to bring about an equality between material success and spiritual piety and it worked for a relatively long period of time. Twentieth century technology brought us speed, communications and time to be self-indulgent. It also made us less dependent upon the guiding principles of religion - the darkness was gone, we thought. We were wrong, of course. Electric light can't take away the darkness of a world without God.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Part 2:


Having said all that, one of the ultimate lessons of Judeo-Christian belief is that man is inherently sinful. I have seen it argued that such was the concept behind the Constitution’s use of checks and balances. However, merely a century after the founding of this nation, progressives the world over held the exact opposite belief. In my view, that is the essence – or at least, should be, the essence – of what divides our political parties. A true conservative, in my view, believes that anytime power is taken, it will never be returned, and anytime a handout is given, it will again be expected. Those of us who belief such are often accused of being callous, but whenever I see the phrase “decline of Western civilization” I think of the word “decadence.” Far be it for me to judge, but I shudder to think that most people who are currently on government assistance can generally still can afford to own multiple cars, cell-phones, televisions, and take-out meals. For those who have lived a life of luxury, that may not be enough, but for those who have had worse, that is decadence.

Jefferson once said that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” However, in this nation’s lifetime we have only once seen this country torn asunder – and even then, we still cannot agree as to what it was about. That said, war or no, we have seen the federal government become ever so bloated that it seemingly knows our every word. Even the presidency has reached a point to where it, for some reason or another, demands the respect once reserved for kings. We even use them as signposts of American “progress” from Washington to Jackson, to Lincoln, to TR, to Wilson, to FDR, to LBJ, to Obama. That is not a promising trend.

Perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic (and for that I apologize) but I cannot help but see the “decline of Western civilization” as inevitable. Spengler viewed the decline as an orgasmic moment where, having overtaken every challenge available, the West turned violently inward. While I disagree with ArtGhost over the length of the founders’ success, our conclusions seem to be rather the same. Here, the origin of the decline occurred much earlier, when God was first pushed away. It didn’t happen here, at first, but we foolishly thought ourselves as apart from Europe. However, we have long learned that Europe is nothing more than an early example of the decay that is inevitable here. The West may be falling, but at least we won’t be the first down the drain.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Forgive me for the length of this post but I feel inadequate to cutting it short.

Part 1:

It is amazing to me that, in the 150 years since the launch of the first all-metal sea-going vessels, only now are we beginning to realize that metal does not last forever. Wooden ships of great age have lasted remarkably well as museums and tourist attractions, while vessels from WWII – 70 years ago – are eroding faster than they can be repaired. It never occurred to anyone that a wooden vessel would be easier to maintain.

I bring up this point to compare it to our founding fathers. The creation of the US government was a remarkable feat, and the founders are worthy of commendation for attempting to create such a system of checks and balances. And, while the temptation is to say, “Gee, it sure was nice, say, two hundred years ago,” such a statement would be wildly out of context to those who were actually there. The fact is: the power of the federal government – be it the executive branch, the Supreme Court, or the federal government as a whole – ballooned wildly within the founders’ own lifetimes. Even Thomas Jefferson, author of the world-changing Declaration of Independence, became pessimistic about our nation’s prospects long before becoming president.

Tracing a decline from the “bearded God-killers” to today works, I must question where those men came from. Supposedly, Ann Coulter has recently argued that it came from the Enlightenment – I haven’t read her work, but if that is her argument, then I’d say she is on the right track. In my classes I teach the Enlightenment as a rejection of the Reformation. After all, if we were to define the Reformation not as a mere rejection of Catholicism, but a rejection of state-sponsored religion as a whole, a pattern emerges. The American colonies, mainly in the North, were havens for rapidly expanding Christian faiths (thanks to the King James Bible) persecuted for not following the beliefs dictated by the state. When the Revolution occurred in North America, the aftermath was a religious revival; overseas, the effect was opposite. Without religious freedom, an increasingly knowledgeable European public began to turn against religion itself. Deism at first stripped God of the supernatural, then quickly stripped him of his divinity – the growth of atheism in the 19th century was not a huge step forward from there.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Not enough time to counter march through the institutions. However that doesnt mean it shouldnt be tried and plans devised to march around or disempower the institutions, school choice is one prime example. But let's face it, if a Federalist Society member changes his vote in support of Obamacare, then we have serious problems even traditionally marching through institutions.

Do what we can, hold some states, prepare for the coming crash, to step into the void and institute the old order where the Leftwing Brave New World failed. The States and the Churches need to be ready to provide order and leadership.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, I suppose one could say the "anecdotal" is equivalent to today's identity politics as opposed to principle, where what is right today is wrong tomorrow, and largely based on one's social status, race, gender, etc. Flip-flop the racial identities of the Trayvon Martin case and it is invisible.

B.C.E. can be looked at as one of many watershed moments that indicates not only a turning away of the past but a mistrust of it that is actively disdainful. Certainly, political correctness teaches that America is an immoral land with an immoral history, and a good future depends on rejecting the past.

Dance with the one what brung ya isn't exactly Socrates, but it's true enough. The idea that, for example, 2008 is the year zero and success will follow is nuts. Unfortunately, PC commands that the past that brought us to this success is actually a form of failure.

The truth is, the politics of the also-rans of history is driving America right over a cliff. The false comparisons with the old immigrant being the same as the old ignores the fact that is the Third World as well as the fact we have never had a massive influx of people from the Third World.

PC dictates that the children of Mayan Indians and Somalis will create the next generation of fighter jets and innovative uses of fractal geometry, though those same children routinely fail to do so in their own polities. In fact, all men are not created equal. If that were true, global immigration would be evenly distributed throughout the world. Instead, Australia is beating back boats of Muslims and other Asians while their own suicidal laws hamstring them.

The meek, or rather, the now cool also-rans of history, have inherited Western politics and it is one giant wrecking ball.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Remember the Bob Dylan tune...

For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they, they are a-changin'

The losers now are the winners and the winners write history...ergo all the demonization of White Europeans that is the current zeitgeist.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What's more monotonous than the claims by the enviro-left that, in spite of all evidence, the world is precipitously warming?

The claims by the fringe Right that, in spite of all evidence, the West is going to collapse just any day now! Just wait! Just another week! (Or century, or...)

Aid and comfort.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Roman Empire muddled on for a few of centuries, until the Mohammadeans put paid to rest.

History repeats itself.

And accelerates. So we arent looking at a few dwindling centuries, but rather a faster fall, like the British imperial collapse post WW2.



1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That (the British Empire) didn't really collapse. They handed the car keys to us and retired to their rocker on the porch.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
If the only history you know is a mythical retelling of the Roman empire, your statement might seem reasonable.

If you aren't so historically ignorant, and you have more than one single past culture to which you can compare the present day, you recognize how insipid the monotonous repetition of the "fall of the Roman empire" is among conservatives.

Sorry, just cause you saw this comparison made on a dozen other blogs, doesn't make it an apt one.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
Our political class, and some academics, holywood, and corporate crony types who support them are definitely in decline, but not the whole nation. The decline is centered on our political leadership, exemplified by Obama. If we manage to get enough of the dem rascals out, along with a few rhinos, any decline can be reversed, by the underlying greatness that still exists in america. My only real fear is if the dems get us so mired in dependency and corruption that our people are not willing to change from our current corrupt political leadership. If that ever happens, then the decline could well become permanent.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Ric, things have evolved the way they are for a reason. Governance of the country is not the mess it is solely because politicians we sent to Washington are scoundrels, though you will get no argument from me that at least some are.

If you could send five hundred Rand Pauls, Paul Ryans, Ted Cruzes (my choice) to Washington tomorrow, they would still have to deal with the more or less permanent political and media infrastructure.

The lobbyists, who are quite good at what they do, would begin an immediate assault on their commitment to good government. The media and the grievance groups would begin assaults from different directions. Wall Street would deploy it famous connections. The reformers would be ridiculed and pilloried in the NY Times every day, and on the networks every evening. In short, the permanent government would set about making them into what the old guard has been for the last 100 years or so, and I would wager that in five years, ten at most, we would be right back here we started.

The culture and belief system of the political elites must change before we will see any real improvement. They used to be patriotic, respectful of the idea of limited government and the Constitution, with an outlook not that different from you or me.

The real key to a turn-around will be finding a way to reform K Street, not just the denizens of the Capitol Building. Experience in other countries, once they have abandoned the principles that made them great, is not been encouraging.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Another powerful message from The Man Who Should Be President, Bill Whittle!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I've never read Spengler, that Spengler, the original Spengler. I guess I should, as he seems to have been right on the money - and 1000% wrong. And if he was wrong then, why should he be right now?

Vanity, vanity, saith the preacher, all is vanity, and there is nothing new under the sun. And bull markets climb a wall of worry.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yes, the West is in decline ... but so is everyone else, mein freund. What group right now is showing surpassing dominance over anything? Still the West, really ... China is struggling to keep it's act together and is not really prosperous except in small pockets controlled by the PRC. So the real take is that everyone, West included, is in decline ... Rather than wring your hands over a book published in 1918, take a look at the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, especially his now-classic "After Virtue"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It would be difficult for me to take seriously ANY philosopher who took half his life to realize that Marxism was not humanity's path forward.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Since all things are relative, if the West is in decline, what is in ascendancy?
Anything?
Or, have we attained a plateau that we are just muddling along, trying to sort out one thing or another?
Some of that sorting has to be a way to relegate the nay-say'ers among us to the sidelines where they can gaze at their navels in peace and tranquility.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Breathe deep the Spenglarian gloom,
Watch lights fade for every Choom.
Bedsitter people look back and comment,
Another day's useless politics spent."

(With apologies to the Moody Blues)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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