The National Interest
Robert W. Merry
A QUESTION haunts America: Is it in decline on the world scene? Foreign-policy discourse is filled with commentary declaring that it is. Some—Parag Khanna’s work comes to mind—suggests the decline is the product of forces beyond America’s control. Others—Yale’s Paul Kennedy included—contend that America has fostered, at least partially, its own decline through “imperial overstretch” and other actions born of global ambition. Still others—Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and Stratfor’s George Friedman, for example—dispute that America is in decline at all. But the question is front and center and inescapable.
It may be the wrong question. America is a product of Western civilization—part and parcel of it, inseparable from it. Thus, no serious analysis of America’s fate as a global power can be undertaken without placing it within the context of the West, meaning primarily Europe.
Kagan disputes this. In his influential little book of 2003, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order , he famously suggested Americans are from Mars whereas Europeans are from Venus. “They agree on little and understand one another less and less,” he wrote, adding, “When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.”
Perhaps. But they share the same cultural heritage, and their fates are bound together, whether they like it or not. Think of Greece and Rome, both part and parcel of the classical civilization. They honored the same gods, pursued the same modes of artistic expression and viewed politics in largely the same way during their periods of greatest flowering. And their fates were intertwined—enforced with brutal finality by Roman military potentates Mummius on the ground and Metellus at sea even as the younger Scipio was destroying Carthage in a way the Greeks never experienced because, unlike Carthage, they didn’t represent an alien civilization. Will Durant pegs the end of Greek civilization at ad 325, when Constantine founded Constantinople and Rome took a decisive turn away from its heritage—and that of Greece.
So it is with America and Europe. Hence, an analysis of American decline must lead to questions about Western decline. And an analysis of Western decline must lead to Oswald Spengler, the German intellectual who in 1918 produced the first volume of his bombshell work Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) , followed by the second volume in 1922. Spengler’s thesis forced his readers to look at history through an entirely new prism. They did, and he enjoyed a surge of influence. But the man and his work are in eclipse today, and there’s little evidence that scholars pondering American decline have consulted the dark musings of this German romantic or his overarching theory of history. Robert D. Kaplan, the itinerant scholar of peoples and cultures, describes Spengler as “at once . . . turgid, hypnotic, profound, and, frankly, at times unintelligible in English translation.” He sees far more historical validity in the forces of geography than in Spengler’s ardent musings about the power of culture in directing history.
But it wasn’t always so. As John Farrenkopf points out in his Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics , Spengler’s Decline beguiled numerous prominent men of ideas and action in post–World War II America. They included George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Paul Nitze, Louis Halle, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. Kennan read Spengler in the original language during a stay in Germany in his youth. Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard focused on Spengler, along with Toynbee and Kant, and he once confessed to a “perverse fascination” with the German’s thinking, although Kissinger ultimately rejected the idea of inevitable decline. Nitze left Wall Street as a young man specifically to study Decline at Harvard, while Halle reported receiving poor grades there because of his preoccupation with the book. And yet, as Farrenkopf notes, Spengler’s “place in modern international theory has received relatively little attention” and “his challenging ideas have not been reformulated into a theoretical stance on international relations.” Probably, he suggests, this is because his pessimism is a little too ominous for any but the most theoretical musings.
When Spengler’s book appeared in the wake of the Great War’s carnage, conventional historians attacked it immediately. The scholarly world, suggests H. Stuart Hughes in Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate , “has been embarrassed to know what to do about it.” Though it manifests prodigious study and substantial knowledge, Decline is not considered respectable scholarship. “It is too metaphysical,” writes Hughes, “too dogmatic—in all respects, too extreme. Yet there it sits—a massive stumbling-block in the path of true knowledge.” He seems to be saying that subsequent scholars couldn’t quite dismiss the book but also couldn’t figure out precisely how to incorporate its arguments into their thinking.
THE PURPOSE of this article is to hold up the Spengler thesis as a prism through which we might view the state of the world in AD 2013 and probe the question of American and Western decline. I do so without endorsement but with a conviction that elements of that thesis might enlighten efforts to understand our time. Spengler’s work might be viewed as somewhat akin to a potent medicine that can be beneficial in appropriate doses but dangerous when ingested whole, given its metaphysical, dogmatic and extreme qualities cited by Hughes. Besides, Spengler’s thesis is unyieldingly deterministic, which makes it philosophically suspect as well as psychologically unacceptable, given the human aversion to the amoral essence of determinism and its assault on the concept of salvation, whether divine or temporal.
But two elements of Spengler’s thinking merit particular attention. One is his rejection of the “Idea of Progress,” that hoary Western notion that mankind has advanced over the centuries through quickening stages of development, from primitiveness and barbarism to enlightenment and civilization—and that mankind will continue to advance through the human experience on earth. The Idea of Progress has animated the thinking of nearly all significant Western philosophy since its first stirrings in the thirteenth century. As writer and philosopher Robert Nisbet put it, “No single idea has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.”
In our own time, the Idea of Progress serves as progenitor of the concepts of Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism. It was the underpinning of Francis Fukuyama’s famous “End of History” perception that Western democratic capitalism represents the culmination of human civic development. It fuels today’s foreign-policy belief, so prevalent across the political spectrum, that America’s world role is to remake other societies and cultures in the Western image.
Spengler, by contrast, embraced a view of history as the story of various discrete civilizations, each with its own distinct culture, that emerged, developed, flowered and then declined. This cyclical view subsumes certain underlying perceptions. First, since civilizations and cultures are distinct, there can be no universal culture. No body of thought emanating from one culture can be imposed upon another, either peacefully or through force. And civilizational decline is an immutable rule that applies to all civilizations, including the West.
The second noteworthy element of Spengler’s thought is his view, based on his study of eight great civilizations, that the process of decline carries with it a surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism. Hegemonic impulses come to the fore along with forms of dictatorship. As Charles and Mary Beard wrote in The American Spirit , “Spengler’s judgment of history certainly conveyed to American readers the notion that ‘Western civilization’ was doomed and that another Caesar, the conquering man of blood and iron, would bring it to an end.” This phase, which Spengler calls the civilizational phase, can last a couple centuries, and the question Americans face today, looking at the world through the Spenglerian prism, is whether their country, as leader of the West, is in the process of embracing these elements of Spengler’s civilizational phase.
BUT FIRST let’s look at the man and his philosophy. Spengler was born in 1880 in the northern region of the Harz Mountains. His father, austere and distant, was a mining engineer and postal official in the town of Halle. After a classical high school education, young Spengler studied mathematics and science at universities in Berlin, Munich and Halle. Then he experienced probably the greatest disappointment of his life when he failed his oral exams. Though he passed six months later, the lapse barred him from the rarefied life of the German university professor, and he resigned himself to teaching in the Realgymnasium (high school) system. But he soon gave that up and moved to Munich, where he lived quietly on his inheritance.
In 1911, he watched with mounting alarm as his country entered into a tense confrontation with France in what was known as the Second Moroccan Crisis. War was averted when Germany backed down—in humiliation—after Britain threw her weight behind France. But the episode left young Spengler with an indelible fear that war between Germany and the French-British alliance had become inevitable. He saw this looming conflict as a clash of epic proportions with profound consequences for Western civilization.
He set out to write a book predicting this conflagration and exploring the existential rivalry between Great Britain, the trade empire of democratic capitalism, perceived by many Germans as intrinsically decadent; and Germany, a rising socialistic empire widely viewed in Spengler’s country as representing a more hallowed Prussian Kultur . The question was which power would dominate the West during its civilizational phase.
But soon he developed a vision for a wider exploration of the rise and fall of world civilizations, including the culturally spent and sterile West. He plunged into the project, continuing even as the war he had predicted turned into blood-soaked reality. Finally, in 1918 the Viennese house of Wilhelm Braumuller brought out the first volume of Der Untergang des Abendlandes . Anticipating tepid interest and minimal sales, Braumuller printed just 1,500 copies.
The book hit the German consciousness like a boulder tossed upon an anthill. As one scholar wrote a few years later, “Never had a thick philosophical work had such a success—and in all reading circles, learned and uneducated, serious and snobbish.” Sales hit a hundred thousand within eight years, and the book was translated into numerous languages. As Hughes noted, Spengler became “the philosopher of the hour.” Readers were beguiled by his sheer audacity. He didn’t paint with little brushstrokes but attacked the canvas with wide swings of his arms, painting over whole strands of Western philosophy.
We shall break down the Spengler thesis into its component parts, beginning with his rejection of the idea that history becomes discernible through a kind of natural-science search for root causes explaining unfolding events. No, says Spengler, history can be understood only through an appreciation of the mystery of destiny, “the essence and kernel of all history,” which is “unapproachable through the cognition-forms which the Critique of Pure Reason [of Kant] investigates.” Hence, Spengler rejects the aim of studying the past through scientific methods and opts instead for an analytical framework focused on a rigorous pursuit of historical analogy. This may seem mystical, but Spengler’s rejection of scientific methods in probing the rise and fall of civilizations may be a kind of forerunner to today’s intellectual movement called “complex adaptive systems.” This nascent analytical framework rejects linear scientific methods in explaining fundamental principles of organization, evolution and behavior within the animate universe and instead explores nonlinear interactivity among “agents” within a “system,” whether living cells, immune systems, organisms, human communities or national economies.
Second, Spengler rejects the notion of a unified mankind whose exploits on earth can be traced through historical inquiry. “‘Mankind,’” he writes, “has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids.” He posits instead his thesis of distinct living cultures:
Here, Spengler’s outlook turns more mystical as he pictures the great cultures as essentially organic entities whose phases of emergence, development and decline are remarkably similar from culture to culture. “Cultures are organisms,” he writes. “If we disentangle their shapes we may find the primitive Culture-form that underlies all individual Cultures and is reflected in their various manifestations.” That’s why, says Spengler, the pursuit of historical analogy is so critical to understanding the “Cycles of History”: by studying the patterns of past civilizations we can better understand our own, including its current state of cultural health or decline.
Each of these civilizations, says Spengler, is born when a people in a particular region rather suddenly develops a distinctive way of looking at the world. This world outlook is entirely fresh, unencumbered by influences from other cultures. And as this new culture emerges it develops a sense of its own mortality, which stirs powerful longings for fulfillment, which in turn unleash a passion for creative expression, new methods of inquiry and new modes of knowledge—all conforming to the distinctive “soul” of the new culture.
The passion for creative expression and new strains of culture knowledge runs on for centuries, generally a thousand years or more unless interrupted by external forces. But eventually it peters out. Then begins that civilizational phase, characterized by the deterioration of the folk traditions and innocent enthusiasms of the culture. Its cultural essence, once of the soil and spread throughout the “mother-region” in town, village and city, now becomes the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture.
Thus, Spengler draws a sharp distinction between culture and civilization. The former is the phase of creative energy, the “soul” of the countryside; the latter is a time of material preoccupation, the “intellect” of the city. As Hughes elaborates, “So long as the culture phase lasts, the leading figures in a society manifest a sure sense of artistic ‘style’ and personal ‘form.’ Indeed, the breakdown of style and form most clearly marks the transition from culture to civilization.”