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100 Years after The Decline of the West

One hundred years after the initial publication in German, the recent appearance of a Dutch translation of The Decline of the West [Der Untergang des Abendlandes] has attracted nationwide attention for this controversial work. The author, historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler, tracks the rise and fall of other cultures in history, in order to diagnose his own culture: the Western civilization is in decline. Although Spengler’s analysis has remained famous throughout the 20th century, one wonders how such a pessimistic view of our age could be attractive. Yet, on the evening of March 5th, Radboud Reflects hosted a lecture on The Decline of the West, in a lecture hall packed with people who wanted to know more about this intriguing book. Philosophers René ten Bos and Hub Zwart interpreted and criticized Spengler’s thought, in order to determine what we should or should not learn from this book.

Organic Growth and Decline

René ten Bos – professor of philosophy at Radboud University and Thinker Laureate of The Netherlands since April 2017 – read The Decline as a young student. Back then, he admired the bombastic style and sweeping statements of Spengler and was convinced that his analysis was the truth, the hard truth. Every culture in the world, according to Spengler, develops like an organism. It is conceived as something small, it grows, blooms and strengthens itself, overtakes the world and finally enters a stage of decline and irrevocably withers away. Spengler recognizes this organic and deterministic process in several cultures around the world and throughout history. The Western world has subsequently known the classic ‘Apollonian’ culture, the Christian ‘Magical’ culture and is now living in the technological ‘Faustian’ era. However, Spengler’s diagnosis positions his own age at the end of the organic process: the stage of decline.

Fatalism

Ten Bos explains that Spengler was not the only one in his time to be obsessed by cultural decline. The sentiment of the interbellum was characterized by pessimism and disillusion towards the former ideal of endless progress. Moreover, neither is the foundational logic of the analysis in The Decline specific to Spengler. This logic, which Ten Bos calls the logic of ‘Ernstfall’ [emergency], can similarly be recognized in the thought of Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. According to the logic of Ernstfall, the exceptional state (war, death, catastrophe) is the state from the perspective of which we should grasp the regular, everyday situation. Spengler understands every culture, including his own, in light of its inevitable downfall. Ten Bos asserts that this way of thinking has profoundly shaped our own worldview. Even if we don’t appreciate Spengler’s analysis, we tend to agree with his logic of rise and decline. But precisely on this point, Ten Bos disagrees with his younger self, the one who accepted Spengler’s pessimistic vision: the book’s analysis pretends it is inevitable that our culture declines, no matter what we do about it. Rather, René ten Bos sticks with the vision that German writer Thomas Mann has given on The Decline: Spengler’s perspective ultimately evokes a fatalistic stance towards history and politics, while we are actually in the position to act.

Faustian Culture

The progression of cultures is in The Decline illustrated by several symbols. Hub Zwart – professor of philosophy in the field of life sciences at Radboud University – took the audience on a tour from the ‘Dionysian’ to the ‘post-Faustian’ era, by showing how Spengler describes each culture with help of these symbols. The classical culture of the Greeks and Romans – Spengler gives it the name ‘Apollonian’ – is characterized by order, by perfect mathematical forms like the sphere, the invention of mathematics, Platonic philosophy and the spherical architecture of the Pantheon in Rome. The decline of the Apollonian culture, materialized in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, is intertwined with the rise of the ‘magical’ culture. This culture, manifest in Christianity, then overtakes the Western world and is characterized by alchemy, churches and the dominance of religion. The decline of the magical culture coincides with the rise of Spengler’s (and our?) ‘Faustian’ culture. Zwart explains the Faustian culture by making references to advancements of the modern age: technology, inventions, exploration, massive constructions. This culture is characterized by measurement, experimentation and control.

Post-Faustian Culture

Spengler did not give a hint of what the next culture might look like, when the Faustian era has disappeared. However, Hub Zwart tried to conceive of a possible future culture, the shape of which Spengler couldn’t have imagined yet. Zwart mentioned the rapid technological advancement of today, which is no longer opposed to nature, but actually intertwined with biological and ecological processes. Along with the fuse of the techno- and biosphere, other spheres will blend as well in the new age. The differences between human sciences and natural sciences will disappear, just like the spheres of religion, science and art will no longer be opposed but will coincide. For Hub Zwart, this possible future might be symbolized by the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the cathedral of which the design is inspired by organic forms. Although this vision of the Post-Faustian culture looks attractive, would the transition from the Faustian age be so easy?

Spengler and the Ecological Crisis

In the discussion after both their lectures, Hub Zwart and René ten Bos thought about the similarities and differences between Spengler’s conception of the Faustian decline and the contemporary issue of the ecological crisis caused by mankind. Do we recognize the pessimistic sentiment in The Decline because we have diagnosed ourselves to be living in the Anthropocene, the age in which human behavior decisively influences the global ecosystem? Does our exponential technological advancement encounter its own limits, just like Spengler has foreseen? René ten Bos was skeptical of this identification. The ecological crisis should be taken seriously, but to understand it as the inevitable apocalyptic catastrophe at the end of our Faustian culture is to fall in the trap of fatalism. Spengler only gives a diagnosis and no therapy. Moreover, Spengler’s analysis is just one possible interpretation of history and should not be regarded as the absolute truth. Hub Zwart was more sympathetic to Spengler’s analysis, if only for the insights into cultural processes. However, Spengler’s analysis should not be taken for granted. What we should learn from Spengler, according to Zwart, is not his pessimistic outlook on the Western World, but the insight that we can analyze our own age. The task of philosophy should indeed be to give a diagnosis of contemporary culture, in order to open up space for a possible therapy.

Door Ariën Voogt