Culture vs Civilization In Spengler’s Decline Of The West


For the sake of those who may need to reference Spengler’s Decline Of The West, I thought I should start what I hope to be me final post on Spengler by briefly describing his idiosyncratic distinction between “Culture” and “Civilization.” I wouldn’t bother, but Spengler’s book is filled cover-to-cover with this not-very-helpful distinction. (Oh, I should also mention that Spengler calls Western Civilization “Faustian” and sometimes calls the Classical Civilization, the “Apollonian.” Both labels touchback to two his heroes (Goethe and Nietzsche). I haven’t been using these terms, but one who wishes to know his Spengler must be aware of them.)

In my other posts, I have stayed away from delving into the whole Culture versus Civilization complication. But for the record…

Spengler divides-up what I would just call a Civilization into two parts: the early, developing part he calls “Culture,” and the latter, mostly developed part, he calls “Civilization.” A matured Culture gives birth to a Civilization.

My problem in dealing with Spengler is that I can not think of a good, non-silly term to connote the entire arc from the first days of the Cultural period through the last days of the Civilizational period. Today, I’ll use the made-up term, “Culture-Civilization” to mean the entire thing. But I’m not very satisfied with that term.

Spengler more-or-less considers a Culture to be the vigorous youth of a Culture-Civilization, and a Civilization to be the decaying old-age of a Culture-Civilization. Seems to me that Spengler has an overly romantic view of the Cultural phase, and an overly pessimistic one of the Civilizational phase. For instance, he describes a Culture as “virile,” “intense,” and “marvelous in its ease and self-confidence.” Whereas a Civilization is “death following life, rigidity following expansion.”

Spengler describes the transition from Culture to Civilization as follows… Once the Culture has actuated all of its ideas it… “suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes CIVILIZATION.” The Soul [see previous post for why Spengler thinks each Culture-Civilization possesses a “Soul”] which gave rise to the Culture-Civilization grows “weary, reluctant, cold” and “loses its desire to be.” It wishes itself “back into the darkness of proto-mysticism, into the womb of the mother, into the grave.”

Once a Culture has descended into Civilization, many changes occur, and Spengler enjoys describing them…

Soul gives way to Intellect. The Cultural phase of a Culture-Civilization is chop-full of creativity. During this period, people have a feeling for the “organism” of pure history. Life is “intuitively seen, inwardly experienced, grasped as a Form or Symbol, and finally rendered in poetical and artistic conceptions.” However, the Civilizational phase is a decline into intellectualization. Inspiration and genius are replaced by mere mechanical cogitation. A “tyranny of Reason” begins its reign, establishing a “cult of exact sciences.” Great ideas are “dissected into laws and equations and finally reduced to a system.” And for Spengler, “nothing is simpler than to make good a poverty of ideas by founding a system.”

The noble “deeds” of Culture downwardly transmogrify into the mundane “work” of Civilization. “Ideas” are replaced by “Aims.” Creative impetus is replaced by “agitation.” Great minds are supplanted by “the small and shrewd.” “Building” takes the place of “begetting.”

Spengler notes that, “to the Culture belong gymnastics, the tournament” […] “and to Civilization belongs Sport.” And in fact, “Art, itself, becomes a sport,” one that is “played before a highly intelligent audience of connoisseurs and buyers.”

World-Cities Appear. During a Culture-Civilization’s “Civilization” period, the Megalopolis, which Spengler often also calls the “World-City,” achieves dominancy. Three or four of these World-Cities will become central to the Civilization, taking the reins and directing the Civilizations’ remaining historical development. The entire rest of the society becomes “merely provincial.”

Writes Spengler…

“In place of a world, there is a City, a Point, in which the whole life of broad regions is collecting while the rest dries up. In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parastical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman.”

“To the World-City,” summarizes Spengler, “belongs not a folk, but a mass.”

The “unanchored Late Man of the Megalopolis” possesses “matter-of-fact feeling and mechanizing thought” and a “keen and cold intelligence.” He accosts the world with an “uncomprehending hostility to all the traditions representative of the Culture (nobility, church, privileges, dynasties, convention in art, and limits of knowledge in science)” which have preceded the Civilization.

The World-City dweller is pre-eminently “unfruitful.” Not only in the biological sense, with less children being born– but in all areas… The unfruitfulness of the population of the Megalopolis manifests itself also “in the extinction of great art, of great courtesy, of great formal thought, of the great style in all things.”

Religion Wanes, Irreligion Gains. “As the essence of every Culture is religion,” writes Spengler, […] “the essence of every Civilization is irreligion.” With the dawn of Civilization comes Atheism– that is, “a spirituality which has accomplished itself and exhausted its religious possibilities.” With the descent into Civilization, when society becomes centered around great cities and becomes less connected with Nature, people begin to think “mechanistically” instead of “organically,” and this manifests itself as a change in religious attitudes. The Romans, Spengler reminds us, had no specific saga of the gods of their own. And what they did have was largely derived from Greek tales.

As a Civilization ages, metaphysical ruminations and revelations are largely replaced by reasoning and/or worldly concerns. Spengler’s path through this area is little curvy, but this is how I understood him on this…

In some Civilizational periods, such as in the Indian and in the Greco-Roman, quasi-religious, ethical-moral systems begin supplanting that old-time religion of the fore-fathers. For India, Hinduism gave birth to Buddhism, a very rational prescription for adopting certain behaviors and mindsets in order to be less miserable in life. For the Greco-Romans, this same drive toward a rational ethics took the form of Stoicism. Buddhism and Stoicism have a surprisingly similar outlook, with both systems suggesting a detached approached to life in which we attempt to remain unperturbed by life’s vacillating fortunes, to reduce or annihilate desires, and to perform our role, or right occupation, unattached to outcomes.

In Western Civilization, the movement away from mysticism and mythology took the form of do-goodism, also known as Humanism. Here, the focus on deity and the afterlife was diverted into attempts to make the world, the here and now, a better place. “The attention the Stoic gave to his own body,” states Spengler, “the Westerner devotes to the Body Social.” Spengler, very oddly in my view, describes all those attempting to change the world as “Socialists.”

Spengler considers all three moral-ethical systems (Buddhism, Stoicism, and “Socialism”) as different manifestations of the same irreligious phenomenon. “In each case,” he maintains, “the ideals of yesterday, the religious and artistic and political forms that have grown-up through the centuries are undone.” Whereas Buddhism and Stoicism are “directed toward individual self-management” […] “without regard to future, past, or neighbor,” the so-called Socialist “is the dynamic treatment of the same theme,” the same worldview directed outward. Interestingly, he considers all three Civilizational systems as being “defensive” in posture. I suppose he means by this that each system attempts to aid its followers in keeping themselves from being so harmed by this cruel, cruel world.

In another section of his book, Spengler describes the Western movement toward non-religiousness as being “nihilist.” Whereas the Stoic of Classical Civilization and the Buddhist of Indian Civilization passively withdrew into themselves, content to practice “individual self-management” and spectate impassively as the society around them continued to “crumble before their eyes,” the Western nihilist actively “shatters” the ideals of the past. Spengler does not go out of his way to explain the co-existence of Socialism and Nihilism in Western Civilization, though he seems to imply that they are two streams originating from the same irreligious river.

The Onset Of Imperialism. “Imperialism is Civilization unadulterated,” writes Spengler. Civilizations reaching the Imperialist stage are driven to extend their physical boundaries. At the same time, “this expansive tendency is a doom.”

Even after the onset of Empire-building (a very late stage of the Culture-Civilization), an Imperialist Civilization may continue to “exist for hundreds or thousands of years.” Nevertheless, Imperialism is “to be taken as the typical symbol of the passing away.” By this phase of development, even as geographical borders extend outward, what remains of the Culture-Civilization is nothing more than the “scrap-material from a great history.” Spengler does not shy away from declaring that this goes for all great empires, naming expressly those of Egypt, China, India, and Rome (the West, I think, is assumed).

Attempting to justify how he can claim that a weak, decaying Civilization can nevertheless be conquering vast new peoples and territories, Spengler asserts that the situation is not to be viewed as one in which the Imperialist power is strong– but one in which the conquered societies are weak. “Considered in itself, the Roman world-dominion was a negative phenomenon,” he states, “being the result not of a surplus of energy on the one side (that, the Romans had never had since Zama) but of a deficiency of resistance on the other.” […] “After Zama, the Romans never again either waged or were capable of waging a war against a great military power.” […] “We must not be deluded by the appearance of brilliant military successes. With a few ill-trained, ill-led, and sullen legions, Lucullus and Pompey conquered whole realms.”

Internal Unfolding Becomes External Taking-Down. Spengler declares that Civilizations conduct “a progressive taking-down of Forms that have become inorganic or dead.” I’m not at all sure what he means by this, but it does convey the general feeling of decay which Spengler believes suffuses a Civilization (and remember, I am using his specific definition of “Civilization” in this essay). Whereas Cultures are organic, and all about the inward developing outward, Civilizations are “external” and “artificial.

Examples Of Cultures Versus Civilizations… Though Spengler would have us believe that his work applies to all Culture-Civilizations which have existed in history, in truth, he tends to focus on one main Culture-Civilizational comparison: that of the Classical way-of-life versus the modern West.

For the Classical world, he says, the transition from Culture to Civilization happened during the 300s. For the Western world, that event occurred in the 1800s.

HOWEVER, Spengler is ambiguous, if not outright self-contradictory, about these supposed transitions, for one of his biggest pet ideas, permeating the book, is that, in the Classical Culture-Civilization, the Greeks provided the Culture, which the Romans then debased into Civilization. He also states at one point that, for the Classicals, Civilization arrived after Aristotle, and for the Westerners, after Kant. This lines up pretty well with the 1800s time-frame for the Western transition from Culture to Civilization, but moves back the Classical transition to sometime in the late 300s B.C. So, the great man appears a bit ambiguous here.

Whenever the transition is supposed to have occurred, For Spengler, the Romans were “barbarians” who were “unspiritual, unphilosophical, devoid of art, [and] clannish to the point of brutality.” He grants that the Romans had Intellect– but the Greeks had Soul, brother. The Greeks practiced philosophy and science for their own sakes; the Romans were always “aiming relentlessly at tangible successes,” possessing “an imagination directed purely to practical objects.” From his vantage point at least, it appears to Spengler that “the age of Caeserism needed neither Art nor Philosophy.”

Relations Become More Economic, Less Social. Spengler believes that to understand Roman Civilization, one must understand how their economy worked, whereas with Greek Culture, it is much less important. “It is possible to understand the Greeks without mentioning their economic relations,” writes Spengler. “The Romans, on the other hand, can ONLY be understood through these.”

—–    —–     —–

More posts on Spengler’s Philosophy Of History from Hammering Shield:

The Metaphysics Of Spengler

Spengler On Decline In Art & Philosophy

Spengler On The Will To Power

Spengler: Thumbnail Sketch The Last 2,000 Years

Spengler On The Pre-Determination of History


3 thoughts on “Culture vs Civilization In Spengler’s Decline Of The West

  1. Excellent post. I am very interested in the subject of the difference between culture and civilisation. Can you give me some more bibliography?


    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m sorry, but I’m currently drawing a blank on authors for further reading here. My first thought is that you’ll find relevant ideas often appearing under different vocabulary choices, for instance, some might use comparisons like “Government” v “Society”, or “State” v “Nation”, or even “Culture” v “Subculture.” You might then find yourself segueing into the areas of Nationalism and Regionalism, or Anarchism and Libertarianism, or even areas concerning Race or Religion. Sorry I couldn’t be more help… H.S.

      1. Hey Christian, I finally got around to reading Huntington’s Clash Of Civilizations. It’s a thought-provoking read and I think relevant to your expressed interests. Happy reading! H.S.

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