John David Ebert Lecture on Oswald Spengler: a detailed summary of “The Decline of the West”

John David Ebert, “Mythologies of the Evolution of Consciousness: Oswald Spengler” (Astrological Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona, March, 2001)

According to his Wikipedia entry, Oswald Spengler was a German historian and philosopher whose main claim to glory is his book “The Decline of the West”, published in 1918 and 1922, which covers most of the known history of the world and which asserts that civilisations are super-organisms that follow a life-cycle and must eventually die. John David Ebert’s talk on Spengler takes up the theme and frameworks of Spengler’s major work and expands them into an investigation of civilisation and the themes that dominate each major civilisation and how those themes are expressed in the arts and sciences. It’s a very detailed talk that  demands considerable general knowledge on the audience’s part, not to mention reserves of concentration, to follow. The lecture was part of a three-day workshop on Rudolf Steiner, Oswald Spengler and Jean Gebser at the Astrological Institute in Arizona state in early 2001.

The talk follows on from Ebert’s lecture on Rudolf Steiner but it can be heard and treated in its own right. Ebert starts off with a brief  biography of Spengler and the personal circumstances in which Spengler came to write “The Decline of the West”. In the first few pages of “The Decline …”, Spengler mentioned as his major influences the writer Goethe and the philosopher Nietzsche: the latter’s early work “The Birth of Tragedy”, an investigation of ancient Greek drama and its themes and concerns, becomes the focus of Ebert’s explanation of how Nietzsche’s beliefs and writings about how Western civilisation is in decline inform Spengler’s own writing. Ebert shows how Greek drama began essentially as a dialogue between two parties that investigates the relationship and tension between an individual and the collective will of society. Later Greek playwrights like Euripides were to muddy this relationship by introducing analytical elements. Nietzsche saw in this and in the Greek culture of Euripides’ time the beginnings of the downfall of Classical Greece due to an imbalance between the Apollonian (the world of the intellect, questioning and analysis) and Dionysian (subconscious tendencies of the society, spontaneity, spirituality) with an over-emphasis on the intellect. He drew from this that Western civilisation was also in the early stages of its twilight with the Age of Enlightenment and its emphasis on questioning tradition and custom, the products of the intellect and the society that is produced. This becomes the basis for Spengler’s own quest.

From there, for Spengler all civilisations pass through a definite life-cycle of religion passing into an artistic / lyrical phase and then going on into rationalism, politics and war. Ebert then goes through the eight major world civilisations that Spengler regarded as High Cultures and points out what for Spengler were their distinctive characteristics, themes and concepts of space. Spengler singled out Russia as an example of an incomplete civilisation that will become a High Culture. Ebert then treats the themes of Classical culture (the physical body, the polis, individual destinies subject to capricious fate), the Magian culture (Middle Eastern: the sacred text representing the Word of God, the rule of consensus, the concern with fulfilling religious duties and rules that govern one’s life, one’s destiny predetermined by God in advance) and the Faustian culture (Western: quest into infinite space represented by upthrusting spires of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, emphasis on a personal relationship with God, one’s destiny unfolding from within one’s character and personality traits). Each of these High Cultures develops its own mathematics and sciences, its distinctive music and arts and architectures.

Ebert continues with an explanation of how creativity develops during the duration of each High Culture, as manifested in the culture’s arts, literature, music and sciences. He uses examples from Western civilisation to illustrate how its arts and architecture mirror the development and maturation of the culture’s themes as one century passes into the next.

Ebert concludes his lecture with Spengler’s presumption to predict how Western civilisation will decline: politics will revert to what the High Culture began with as political institutions become deadlocked and can only be dealt with by force and war; the intellect recedes, there are fewer scientific and artistic geniuses and innovators, literacy declines and reason is replaced by belief, irrationality, the proliferation of religious cults and a return to spirituality. Populations will decline.

Ebert’s talk requires at least two hearings for most of his summation of Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” to sink in. If the listener will allow for the possibility that the time periods in which a culture’s growth, maturity and decline may vary a great deal – with the period of decline perhaps lasting hundreds of years in comparison with the culture’s youth and maturity which altogether might last less than 100 years – then Spengler’s proposition is easier to accept. Ebert does not say whether the period of decline might be highlighted with brief phases of rejuvenation from within the culture’s own resources or from outside.

Naturally Ebert’s audience seemed a little perturbed and uncomfortable with Spengler’s predictions of downfall for the West. If they were more familiar with Spengler’s work itself, they might also be a bit uncomfortable with the German’s assumptions about human nature and what he may have overlooked. It may be that Spengler was very pessimistic about human psychology and its potential for change. Spengler’s argument that all High Cultures experience a definite life-cycle might be founded on examples he selected merely to bolster his view: Ebert does not spend much time talking about the High Cultures of the Mexicans or of East Asia and if one were to live in Japan or Mexico for considerable lengths of time, one might find how aspects of indigenous cultures in those countries have blended with and been enriched by imported Western culture which in turn has also benefited from contact with other cultures. Indeed, from what I could gather from Ebert’s talk, Spengler seemed to have nothing to say about how some cultures gain the creativity and energy in the first place to grow. Equally there was nothing about how other cultures that start with the same advantages and limitations fail to grow and thrive. Why is it that some Indo-European cultures (Greek, Roman, Germanic) became dominant in Europe while others (Phoenician / Carthaginian, Celtic) didn’t? Couldn’t luck and coincidence have played a role?

For me, Spengler’s arguments can’t be divorced from the social and political context in which he grew up and lived, and the beliefs and assumptions of late 19th-century / early 20th-century German society, with their strong emphasis on race and biological influences on culture, must surely have played a strong part in his assumptions about human cultures. One wonders what he would have said about India under the rule of the British: would he say that Indian civilisation was in decline, due wholly to its internal developments, without knowing the role of the British elites in destroying the Indian economy through trade and other economic restrictions, and how those affected people’s lives?

The fact that Spengler’s book and views have become popular almost immediately after “The Decline …” was first published might suggest that if and when decline does come and deluge follows, they will be self-fulfilled prophecies. If Western civilisation does fall, couldn’t that be partly because certain of our elites were so influenced by Spengler and his followers’ views that the creativity and energy needed to revive this culture ended up being sapped by fatalism and a deterministic outlook?

The value of Ebert’s lecture is as an introduction to Spengler’s work and beliefs. Interested people may investigate further and try to read Spengler; others who just want a basic sketch of what Spengler thought and wrote about can start and stop with Ebert’s lecture.