“We cannot help it if we are born as men of the early winter of full Civilization,” writes Oswald Spengler in The Decline Of The West. “We have to reckon with the hard cold facts of LATE life.”
Spengler’s contention is that Western Civilization has entered its final and downward phase. Comparing our Civilization’s trajectory to that ran-through by the Greco-Roman Civilization, he imagines our time to occupy a place approximately parallel to Caesar’s Rome, with the culturally blooming heyday of Pericles’s Athens long behind us.
Western Civilization “has exhausted its inner possibilities,” he laments. “We have nothing more to hope for in anything pertaining to the grand style of life.” The Arts have already become mere animated corpses. “Nothing remains but the mere pressure, the passion yearning to create.” Though the schools still churn out millions of artists each year, the field is dead, the artists no more than automatons going through the motions, producing “the form without the content.”
“Of great painting or great music,” Spengler writes, “there can no longer be, for Western people, any question.” We are done. Game over. The best the Arts can offer now are “extensive” gains– technical improvements, new efficiencies, more production along the same lines– marginal returns, accretions differing in degree, not kind.
Says Spengler… “Today, every art school could be shut down without Art being affected in the slightest.” Instead of great artists, we produce “superfluities.”
“What do we possess today as ‘art’?” he asks. “A faked music, filled with artificial noisiness of massed instruments; a faked painting, full of idiotic, exotic and showcard effects, that every ten years or so concocts out of the form-wealth of millenia some new ‘style’ which is in fact no style at all since everyone does as he pleases.” Never again will Western Civilization produce the great “artist as man of destiny.”
Spengler asserts the harsh facts stand as follows… “After Lysippus no great sculptor” … “after the Impressionists no painter, and after Wagner no musician.”
The West, creatively speaking, is “standing before an exhausted quarry.” Though there is still an “incredible total of intellect and power” directed toward the arts, this is energy “squandered in false directions.” Better for everyone would be the re-channeling of the intelligence and labor wasted in derivative artistic efforts into more truly productive areas. “I can only hope,” Spengler opines, “that men of the new generation may be moved by this book to devote themselves to technics instead of lyrics, the sea instead of the paintbrush, and politics instead of epistemology.” He holds that “in the shareholders’ meeting of any limited company, or in the technical staff of any first-rate engineering works there are is more intelligence, taste, character, and capacity than in the whole music and painting of present-day Europe.”
Reviewing Spengler’s tirade against modern art, I find myself extremely sympathetic, and do indeed share his belief that the old artistic fields (poetry foremost, with painting on it heels) are indeed dead, that they are, as he calls them, “exhausted quarries.” However, new artistic fields have arisen which I think represent a true difference in kind, not just degree. I am thinking here of architecture and movie-making especially. Personally, I’ve always found movie-making the greatest of arts, as it gathers unto it all the others, a Wagnerian orgy of spectacle. Spengler makes it sound like whenever we go to the movie-theaters, all that we will find there will be sequels and remakes– oh, wait… that’s already happening, isn’t it?
Spengler is no less dissatisfied with the state of modern philosophy. “The very possibility of a real philosophy of today and tomorrow is in question,” he writes. One is “dismayed and shamed” by the philosophers of today. “They lack weight,” he declares. “How poor their personalities, how commonplace their political and practical outlook!” They are mere “lecture-room philosophers,” completely out-philosophied by the work of the modern Dramatist.
“I look around in vain for an instance in which a modern philosopher has made a name by even one deep or far-seeing pronouncement on an important question of the day,” Spengler tells us, adding that “whenever I take up a work by a modern thinker, I find myself asking: has he any idea whatever of the actualities of world-politics, world-city problems, capitalism, the future of the state, the relation of technics to the course of civilization, Russia, Science?”
The modern “philosopher” strikes Spengler as being, shall we say, under-engaged with the real world, segregated from the real producers and defenders, and basically inconsequential in terms of helping the rest of us to deal with the true problems of the day-to-day. They are, all in all, such a worthless and incompetent bunch that “the mere idea of calling upon one of them to prove his intellectual eminence in government, diplomacy, large-scale organization, or direction of any big colonial, commercial, or transport concern is enough to evoke our pity.” Similar to his feelings concerning the supposedly wasted efforts in the world of Art, Spengler contends that “many an inventor, many a diplomat, many a financier is a sounder philosopher than all those who practice the dull craft of experimental psychology.”
“It were far better,” announces Spengler, “to become a colonist or an engineer, to do something, no matter what, that is true and real, than to chew over once more the old dried-up themes.” Worried he hasn’t yet made his point, he continues… “Truly it is a poor life’s work to restate once more, in slightly different terms, views of a hundred predecessors on the Will or on psycho-physical parallelism.” And then, perhaps most pithy and caustic of all– “This may be a profession, but a philosophy it emphatically is not.”
“In physics as in chemistry, in biology as in mathematics, the Grand Masters are dead.” What we are in fact experiencing in the Sciences is the great “descrescendo” of Western thought. Our universities produce a bountiful crop of “ever smaller, narrower, and more unfruitful investigators.” They collect, they calculate, they weigh, they fine-tune… but they do not do the work of greatness. “Mere industrious measuring for measuring’s sake is not and never has been more than a delight for little minds,” acerbically asserts Spengler. “It was DEEDS of science that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton performed,” he says, “but it is scientific WORK that the modern physicist carries out.”
Somewhat divergent from his mainline denunciation of modern thought, Spengler at one point makes the observation that “the separate sciences –epistemology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy– are approaching one another with acceleration, converging towards a complete identity of results.” As scientists delve deeper and deeper into reality, different disciplines begin overlapping. As Spengler points-out, physics and chemistry are “fusing,” as well as chemistry and physiology– and calculus, the math describing the change in one thing as a function of change in another, is being used by all of it.
I found his conclusion that we are approaching “a fusion of the form-worlds” quite thought-provoking. If we are indeed approaching “the Theory Of Everything,” what will be at its heart? Thermodynamics? Electrical configurations? Or will we find a way to scientifically prove what Kant asserted long ago… that the laws of Nature are not imposed on us, but imposed by us on Nature?
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