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49 of 53 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A flawed gem, 17 Sep 2003
This review is from: The Decline of the West (Oxford Paperbacks) (Paperback)
Despite its many and obvious flaws, Decline of the West is still a book to cherish, for the poetry of the prose as much as for the dazzling array of ideas served up here. I would love to be able to give this marvellous work a full five stars but I just do not think that, in full conscience, I could do so. The principal flaw, and the crucial one since it really undermines the whole work, is his over reliance on organic metaphors which lead to the whole work being overdetermined. It is palpably obvious that different civilisations have suffered different fates and though certain parallels can be drawn between them at this level they simply cannot be sustained. There is little room here for the accidental and contingent and the idea that a civilisation should die simply of old age, given that its basic substance, man, is perpetually self regenerating. Also he deals with civilisations with exceptional independence except where there interrelations have been especially disastrous as in Mexico.
The contrast between the modern West and classical antiquity can be highly instructive, Spengler is not the first to see analogies between the Atlantic and the Adriatic, but he takes it too far. One can perhaps see Adolf Hitler as the archetype of Caesarism and the current Pax Americana as the universal state of the Augustan age. Despite these superficial similarities the differences are still innumerable not least that America remains a republic, its incipient plutocracy still falls far short of dictatorship. His equation of Alexander with Napoleon is pure fantasy and where are the Classical equivalents of the Reformation and Renaissance? And ultimately how can a civilisation in such serious decline have been able to the greatest technological, economic and social, if not cultural, achievements in all of human history.
So how does it deserve four stars? Well even if its ultimate conclusions are fallacious many of his incidental observations and expositions are fascinating, especially those dealing with the pre-Islamic Middle East. The complicated yet hugely significant millennium that elapsed between Alexander the Great and Mohammed is so often ignored that to have it dealt with at all is highly refreshing. Spengler's analysis of these developments certainly ring a lot truer then do those of the supposed empiricist, Toynbee. When dealing with the past at all, as most of the book does, Spengler's prose is not only beautiful but sparkles with insight and intellectual verve. It is only when he turns prophet that he begins to lose tack a little, as is always the fate of the futurist.
Decline of the West is more a work of metaphysics then it is of history and if it does not belong directly to the school of German idealism then it is certainly heir to it, I was amazed that Hegel only gets one outside mention though Nietzsche fares considerably better. His principal tool of approach is that of culture which is approached metaphysically as its 'Soul'. The soul of the west is described by the neologism Faustian (Spengler now showing his debt to Goethe and the romantics, all in all this is an extremely German book) and has as its defining feature its emphasis on the infinite. This is contrasted with the souls of various different civilisations that have existed from time to time.
This is a rich approach and Spengler mines it for all its worth unearthing many treasures. This is the main business of the book and so much of it is so wonderful and so originally creative that it quite takes the breath away. His take on the Reformation particularly was quite stunningly perceptive.
For all that it ultimately fails to deliver Decline of the West remains an important text and one that provides the reader with a vastly improved mental framework for assessing the current trajectory of our great civilisation. Spengler does make one wonder as well why the West's post war social and economic achievements have so manifestly not been mirrored in the realm of culture and makes one wonder what the secularisation and extreme atomisation that has resulted from increased commercialisation means for the future of our social advancement. The truth is that a certain version of the west, the old Faustian souls perhaps that found refuge in Gothic Cathedrals, is in fact dying, stifled in a world that it has created but cannot find a place within. We live in a time of immense flux on a truly global scale as we try to refashion a global society, a hypercivilisation, out of the detritus of empire. We live in unparalleled times and what the outcome will be no one can possibly tell. Spengler remains an excellent guide to how we got to where we are and in helping make sense of the post modern culture that surrounds us. I just hope he's wrong about the centuries of impending warfare that's all.
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