Frank Roberts's Reviews > The Decline of the West, Vol 1: Form and Actuality

The Decline of the West, Vol 1 by Oswald Spengler
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Jul 06, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: history, political-science, theology-philosophy
Read in July, 2010

Having enjoyed the columns of the Online writer who goes by the nom de plume of Spengler, I decided to read the original works of the man himself. This is volume one of his masterwork The Decline of the West, and I am moving directly on to volume two.

Spengler's thesis is that a Culture is an organic growth--it comes into being, it flourishes, and eventually it dies. On the way to oblivion it passes through a phase as a Civilization--an organized, ossified construct that is the inheritor of the Living Culture, but has lost its soul and remains only a being of intellect. The Culture is informed by one Idea, and that Idea is reflected in its Arts, its Mathematics, its Religion, and even its Science.

Spengler surveys many world cultures, including the Chinese, Egyptian, and Arabian, but the focus is mostly on the two cultures best known to moderns: our own Western Culture, and the Classical Culture of Greece. Spengler quite convincingly contrasts the two, and illustrates how they are actually in opposition in their fundamental ideas. For the Western civilization the prime idea is Infinite Space, typified by our Calculus, our Symphonic Music, our Landscape painting, and our Deist God.

Spengler also describes the Civilization phase in detail, for this is the phase in which he says the West now is, and I am inclined to agree with his evidence. In the Civilization phase, the Culture has become centered on a small number of "world-cities", or Megalopolises. See Rome and Alexandria for the Classic examples. In our day these would be New York, Los Angeles, London and perhaps Paris, Tokyo and some others. The megalopolis need not even sit in the heart of the old culture: note that neither Alexandria nor Rome was in Greece, and that our world-cities are mostly not in the cradle of our culture, Western Europe, but rather removed to America. Also, the Megalopolitan disdains the "provincials"--the backwards people who do not agree with his "free intellect". See the disdain of our East and West Coasters for us in flyover country. The Civilization phase is also marked by a drastic downturn in fertility: the urge for life, for continuation, is itself brought into question by the mighty intellect, and the Megalopolitans cease to have children. See Western (and that includes Japanese) society today.

Not an easy book to read. Spengler assumes that his reader has a wide and deep knowledge of art and history, casually throwing off references to everything from Attic Greek statuary to Baroque painters, and even more obscure topics. But his thesis and ideas certainly deserve contemplation. It is rather sad to think that the best of Western Culture is behind us, but who can really dispute that no modern art, architecture or music can come close to Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, and the Cathedrals?
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