According to Oswald Spengler, what really sets Western Civilization apart from most other Civilizations, is the West’s view of the world, and of itself, as progressing. Closely related to this worldview is the Westerner’s belief in his own power to improve his situation. Unlike for those members of, say, the Greco-Roman world, society for the Western man is not static. Neither is history cyclical… Westerners feel empowered to rebel, to make improvements… to progress.
History is a river. And the individual is perceived as so powerful in this world of the Westerner that he can change the course of this river of History. He is, to a large extent, in charge of this world, its care-taker or destroyer, its improver or demolisher. The world presents us problems of force and matter, which we may overcome with the proper application of other force and matter.
“The overcoming of resistances,” writes Spengler, is in fact “the typical impulse of the Western soul.” The Westerner is all about “activity [vs passivity], determination, self-control.” These are his postulates.
Spengler contrasts this Western view with the view of the Classicals– the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The gods of the Classicals, for example, were– unlike the God of the West– subordinated to necessity. “Zeus takes up the Scales Of Destiny,” he writes, “not to settle, but to learn the fate of Hector.” And unlike the Civilization coming between the Classical and the Western– that of the Middle-Eastern, which Spengler labels the “Magian” Civilization– the Classicals did not see the gods as engaged in a battle of Good versus Evil to determine the fate of the world, and humans are not obliged to take sides. Instead, the Classical world view was a “static” one– their great goal in appeasing the gods was merely to keep the troublesome and powerful coterie of them “at peace and in harmony with one another.” Their world was about balance. We Westerners tend to throw all our weight to one side, as if shoving open a door. For the Greco-Roman, unlike for the Magian, there is no approaching, metaphysical cliff-edge that the world is approaching, winner take all. Life goes on, balanced and continually moving, like an eternally spinning wheel.
Spengler writes that the Greek asked, “what is the essence of visible being?” Those belonging to Western Civilization want to know, instead, how they can master the invisible forces behind the manifest activities of the world. The Classical world endured the “inevitable,” but the Westerner makes “battle-plans for the outmaneuvering of Destiny.” The Classical ideal was to be indifferent to world events, to “be”… but for the Western man, “every movement means to WIN.”
With the Westerner’s faith in his own powers comes great freedom– but also great responsibility. The Western morality is chopful of Shalls and Shall-nots. In contrast, Spengler asserts that none of the other Civilizations (Indian, Classical, etc.) have been similarly so full of hang-ups. “Buddha, for instance, gives a pattern to take or leave,” he writes, “and Epicurus offers counsel.”
This difference in ethics is directly behind the Western tendency to proselytize and crusade. “The Stoic takes the world as he finds it,” says Spengler, whereas the Western crusader “wants to organize and recast it in form and substance, to fill it with his own spirit.” A bit oddly, Spengler decides to broaden the definition of “Socialist” so that it includes all “world-improvers.” Therefore, Spengler can assert that all members of the Western Civilization are basically “Socialists”– that all us, to one degree or another, want to change the world, that we are involved in some form of Fight or Reform, participating at some level in “construction, reconstruction, or destruction”-– a form of life Spengler finds “as un-Classical as it is un-Indian.“
Another example of how the Classicals differ from the modern Civilization of the West can be seen in the philosophy of Protagoras. He was so bold as to assert that man is the measure of all things– but notice, he does not imply that man is the creator of things. Contrariwise, the Westerner believes, to a large extent anyway, that he creates his own destiny, that his fate is in his own hands.
The Western worldview is taken to its extreme and culminating application by Immanual Kant who, Spengler writes, felt the human Ego to be the “center of a transcendent sphere of effect.” In other words, the human spirit has direct power over the material world. In contrast, Classicals did not feel so much that man acted upon the world, as that the world acted upon him. For Plato, men are the “recipients of light from the common Sun,” whereas for those of Kant’s Civilization, men come near to seeing “themselves suns which irradiate the Universe.”
According to Spengler, when Western Civilization produced the philosophy of Kant — in which even Space and Time, Cause and Effect, become human-created phenomena– it achieved its consummation. From the time of Kant onward, the Sun begins setting on Western Civilization; afternoon arrives in the West. Western Civilization is no longer arriving, it has arrived– no longer becoming, but become.
“The conception of mankind as active, fighting, progressing whole,” Spengler writes, is “so necessary an idea for us that we find it hard indeed to realize that it is an exclusively Western hypothesis, living and valid only for a season.”
Spengler pushes this a bit too far, I think, when he contends that it is an exclusively Western notion that “everything is motion with an aim.” He forgets the teleological world postulated by Aristotle, a world in which form is dependent upon function, and function on purpose or end.
That said, Spengler’s general contention that there is an unusually strong and confident will-to-power embodied in Western Civilization seems basically correct. And it goes a long way in explaining why, within five or six hundred years, the peoples of northwestern Europe were able to rise from being the backward people who fought the more advanced “Magian” Culture during the Crusades to become the pre-eminent world culture dominating the Earth. The West’s lens-making and gunpowder and such are merely symbols and results– the underlying reason for the rise of the West lies in its worldview.
Spengler brings up an interesting point which I, too, have noticed about old stories versus the stories of modernity. The old stories, unless of very short duration, are usually merely a series of anecdotes. They don’t have that overarching sense of development and unity that modern stories have. Spenser wants to use this difference in style to support his differences-in-Civilizations agenda, but in reality, this anecdotal quality of stories persisted until quite recently. Even an author as late as Cervantes has still only half-emerged from this way of writing, and Rabelais was certainly still spinning tales in the old-fashioned way. But Spengler is nevertheless correct that Classical stories did not really convey “the sense of a whole life” in their characters.
Interestingly, Spengler makes a connection between the anecdotal nature of Classical stories and Classical science which, according to him, saw no general laws in the Cosmos. Events arbitrarily and unconnectedly befall characters in Classical stories just as the phenomena of Nature appear to be acting each with its own separate sources and forces.
In a literary example which I find intriguing, Spengler points-out that Shakespeare’s King Lear is slowly becomes mad due his experiences as the story is being told, wheras the Ajax of Sophocles is simply at once made mad by the goddess Athene before the drama begins.
But Spengler again goes too far when he asserts that the Classical man did not value the power of personality in the world. He ignores the fact that it was the Classicals who, after all, invented the phrase that “Character is destiny.” And I disagree with Spengler’s assertion that the overarching Oedipus story is, unlike the story of Lear, not a “character” drama.
However, it is true that in Classical tales, Destiny tends to strike, as Spengler says, “like a flash of lightning” which could have just as easily as hit one man as another. Whereas in Western stories, Destiny “interweaves itself with the course of life,” producing outcomes symbolic of inner development. A Western tragedy is almost always a “tragedy of character”– not as Lemony Snicket might say, “a series of unfortunate events.” On the other hand, in Classical tragedies, psychological antecedents “play no part.”
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