The great summit of declinism — the peak from which all subsequent declinism has declined — was established in 1918, in the book that gave decline its good name in publishing: the German historian Oswald Spengler’s best-selling, thousand-page work “The Decline of the West.” Spengler has by now been reduced to an adjective; news-magazine writers back in the nineteen-seventies always used to refer to Henry Kissinger as “Spenglerian,” meaning farsighted in his pessimism and trying to manage the decline of liberalism in the face of the inexorable spread of totalitarian societies. Yet Spengler turns out to be a more idiosyncratic writer than his reputation suggests. A German pedant whom other German pedants found too humorless, but who lived long enough to flirt with the Nazis and resist them, he wasn’t so much “pessimistic” as biological in his approach. His thesis was that each culture-civilization has its own organic pattern of development, and none can escape its foreordained cycle of growth, blossoming, and wilting, any more than a single rose can. We don’t fall, as empires are supposed to, from sin; we wilt, as flowers do, from sun and time alone.
Spengler struggled to reconcile two truths: first, that all art tends to follow a path from initial strivings to perfect utterance and on to ornamental luxuriance, whether the move is from eighth-century-B.C. geometric art to Hellenistic twistings, or from Bach to Berlioz, or, I suppose, from “Love Me Do” to “The Long and Winding Road.” And yet things from the same cultural epoch, however much they alter in outward form, always resemble one another more than they resemble other, exterior things that they may be imitating. A 1907 Picasso looks more like a Rembrandt portrait than like an African mask — its concern is likeness and the individual, not the spirit and the ritual. The Beatles sound like the Beatles, no matter how many sitars they strum.
Spengler reconciles the two by saying that all civilizations share the same seasons but have different seeds. There have been three distinct seedbeds within Western civilization, each with a set of forms and themes unique to it: the Classical, the Magian (meaning, essentially, early Christian and Byzantine, under the influence of the Near East), and our own, “Faustian” moment. The Classical was linear, with lines drawn around verse forms and atoms alike; Magian culture is mysterious and glittering, like its Magi; ours is, above all, spatial, with atmospheric perspective in our paintings and sea voyages of discovery in our dreams. Spengler has a long reach: there are comparative sections on Chinese and Islamic civilizations; “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell” is a typical chapter heading. But his main point is that the “West” whose decline we may fret over — the West that conquered the Aztecs and discovered science and built empires and made democracy — is already so far fallen as to be hardly worth mourning. We peaked sometime around 1300, with Chartres and then Giotto, and it’s been straight downhill to cosmopolitan cities and Old Masters and democracy ever since. Spengler has particular contempt for the idea that civilizations compete, a view that he sees as crudely “Darwinian” and “Materialist.” Cultures coexist, and go to hell in their own ways; “civilization” is just the name we give to the decline.
Like all big system-makers, Spengler is most interesting when he is least systematic, in the cracks in his system. He makes the sharp observation that in times of cultural fullness high stories and low dramas coincide; the plots of “King Lear” and “Macbeth,” like those of the Iliad, could be played in a village or a court. He also shrewdly notes that classical civilization, despite its mystery cults, assumed that the essentials of its world picture and logic were available to any educated citizen; in our Faustian culture, despite its “democratic” pretenses, these things are accessible only to a small body of experts. Democritus’ atomism was argued in the agora, whereas atomic theory is understood by a handful of physicists; everyone had an opinion on Praxiteles, but you master a code to crack Picasso. Spengler is also eerily prescient at times, predicting that a new style of “meaningless, empty, artificial, pretentious architecture,” heavy on ornament and historical reference, and filled with “imitation of archaic and exotic motives,” would appear in Europe and America around the year 2000. He was off by only a couple of decades.
But Spengler’s real superiority over this century’s declinists is that he isn’t writing public policy, just watching the wheels go round and looking for patterns in the roll. What Spengler contributed to history was not pessimism but a form of relativism — the insistence that each culture should be respected as a whole and not viewed as a debased version of another. Kissinger was truly “Spenglerian” not in the belief that all one could do was manage American decline but in the belief that each nation would have to find its own road to, and through, modernity — that Chinese democracy would be more Confucian than Jeffersonian, and that freedom in Russia would look more Russian than free.
Today’s declinists have absorbed Spengler, if mostly in unconscious ways. First, there’s his insistence on seeing one’s culture decline in terms of similar patterns elsewhere. This isn’t a self-evident idea; Gibbon, as he charts the fall of the Roman Empire, barely glances at the contemporaneous Persian one. And then there’s Spengler’s rule-seeking abstraction. After Spengler, it isn’t enough to say that the past two decades have been rough in Japan, or that the recession has been hard on Americans, or that the war in Iraq was a folly; the mistakes and the follies have to be shown to be part of some big, hitherto invisible pattern of decline — and made more vivid by contrast with the patterns of some other, as yet undeclined society. The simpler, saner idea that things were good and now they’re bad, and that they could get either better or worse, depending on what happens next, gets dismissed as intellectually disreputable. His imprint is left in the idea that a big wheel must be turning in the night sky of history, and only the author of the book has managed to notice it.