Die Untergang des Abendlandes: The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler
“Die Untergang des Abendlandes”
(The Decline Of The West)
A boundless mass of human Being, flowing in a stream without banks; upstream, a dark past wherein our time-sense loses all powers of definition and restless or uneasy fancy conjures up geological periods to hide away an eternally unsolvable riddle, downstream, a future even so dark and timeless – such is the groundwork of the Faustian picture of human history.
Over the expanse of the water passes the endless uniform wave-train of the generations. Here and there bright shafts of light broaden out, everywhere dancing flashes confuse and disturb the clear mirror, changing, sparkling, vanishing. These are what we call the clans, tribes, peoples, races which unify a series of generations within this or that limited area of the historical surface. As widely as these differ in creative Power, so widely do the images that they create vary in duration and plasticity, and when the creative power dies out, the physiognomic, linguistic and spiritual identification-marks vanish also and the phenomenon subsides again into the ruck of the generations. Aryans, Mongols, Germans, Kelts, Parthians, Franks, Carthaginians, Berbers, Bantu’s are names by which we specify some very heterogeneous images of this order. But over this surface, too, the great Cultures accomplish their majestic wave-cycles. They appear suddenly, swell in splendid lines, lessen again and vanish, and the face of the waters is once more a sleeping waste.
A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto- spirituality of ever-childish humanity, and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. It blooms on the soil of an exactly-definable landscape, to which plant-wise it remains bound. It dies when this soul has actualised the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts> states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul. But its living existence, that sequence of great epochs which define and display the stages of fulfilment, is an inner passionate struggle to maintain the Idea against the powers of Chaos without and the unconscious muttering deep-down within. It is not only the artist who struggles against the resistance of the material and the stifling of the idea within him. Every Culture stands in a deeply-symbolical, almost in a mystical, relation to the Extended, the space, in which and through which it strives to actualise itself. The aim once attained – the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual – the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization, the thing which we feel and understand in the words Egypticism, Byzantinism, Mandarinism. As such they may, like worn-out giant of the primeval forest, thrust their decaying branches towards the sky for hundreds or thousands of years, as we see in China, in India, in the Islamic world.
It was thus that the Classical Civilization rose gigantic, in the Imperial age, with a false semblance of youth and strength and fullness, and robbed the young Arabian Culture of the East of light and air. This – the inward and outward fulfilment, the finality, that awaits every living Culture – is the purport of all the historic ” declines, ” amongst them that decline of the Classical which we know so well and fully, and another decline, entirely comparable to it in course and duration, which will occupy the first centuries of the coming millennium but is heralded already and sensible in and around us today – the decline of the West. Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. It is a young and trembling soul, heavy with misgivings, that reveals itself in the morning of Romanesque and Gothic. It fills the Faustian landscape from the Provence of the troubadours to the Hildesheim cathedral of Bishop Bernward. The spring wind blows over it. ” In the works of the old-German architecture,” says Goethe, ” one sees the blossoming of an extraordinary state. Anyone immediately confronted with such a blossoming can do no more than wonder; but one who can see into the secret inner life of the plant and its rain of forces, who can observe how the bud expands, little by little, sees the thing with quite other eyes and knows what he is seeing.” Childhood speaks to us also – and in the same tones – out of early-Homeric Doric, out of early-Christian (which is really early-Arabian) art and out of the works of the Old Kingdom in Egypt that began with the Fourth Dynasty. There a mythic world-consciousness is fighting like a harassed debtor against all the dark and daemonic in itself and in Nature, while slowly ripening itself for the pure, day-bright expression of the existence that it will at last achieve and know. The more nearly a Culture approaches the noon culmination of its being, the more virile, austere, controlled, intense the form-language it has secured for itself, the more assured its sense of its own power, the clearer its lineaments. In the spring all this had still been dim and confused, tentative, filled with childish yearning and fears – witness the ornament of Romanesque- Gothic church porches of Saxony and southern France, the early-Christian catacombs, the Dipylon vases. But there is now the full consciousness of ripened creative power that we see in the time of the early Middle Kingdom of Egypt, in the Athens of the Pisistratidae, in the age of Justinian, i that of the Counter-Reformation, and we find every individual trait of expression deliberate, strict, measured, marvellous in its ease and self-confidence. And we find, too, that everywhere, at moments, the coming fulfilment suggested itself in such moments were created the head of Amenemhet III (the so-called ” Hyksos Sphinx ” of Tanis), the domes of Hagia Sophia, the paintings of Titian Still later, tender to the point of fragility, fragrant with the sweetness of late October days, come the Cnidian Aphrodite and the Hall of the Maidens in the Erechtheum, the arabesques on Saracen horseshoe-arches, the Zwinger of Dresden, Watteau, Mozart.
At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization the fire in the Soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood; then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of protomysticism in the womb of the mother in the grave. The spell of a “second religiousness” comes upon it, and Late-Classical man turns to the practice of the cults of Mithras, of Isis, of the Sun – those very cults into which a soul just born in the East has been pouring a new wine of dreams and fears and loneliness.
Spengler’s Decline of the West has been out of print but is now available (in England) from the publisher’s representative (the publisher is now Random House):
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Fax: 0162 181 9011
I would like to thank Barb Langer for her help in locating this long-sought work !