“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.
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.
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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.