07/31/2015 11:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Spengler's Decline of the West Revisited: Religion to Reason and Back


Oswald Spengler (29 May 1880 - 8 May 1936) was neither a religious nor secular historian, a position which in our modern bipolar world would in all probability leave most intellectuals searching for a job or even a room "at the Inn." Yet for thinkers who view culture, politics, AND religion as a "both/and" proposition not an "either/or," history demonstrates a repetitive evolutionary cycle. At first, cultures will hold a unique religious vision, and after a reformation follows, enter a self-critical phase that leads to decline.

Inventor of the philosophy of history, and great influence on Hegel, Giambatisto Vico (1668-1744), referred to these Three Acts of History (my phrase) as "gods, heroes, and humans." "The first age is the age of gods. In this age, poetic wisdom is very strong. Again, there is an aristocracy of fathers who know how to control themselves and others through religion... The second age is the age of heroes. In this age, the famuli transform from being simple slaves to plebeians who want some of the privileges of the rulers. The theological poets transform into heroes... The third age is the age of humans." Culture begins on a desert (or "countryside") and is then brought to the city. Once it takes root, the people find wealth, or in Spengler's term, "materialism." As the prosperity grows so does the scientific stage as with our own Renaissance or Enlightenment.

Parodoxically the rise of critical reason leads to the undermining of cultural unity provided by the presiding native culture. When the society emerges more free and equal, the religious inspiration to work for the common good of that culture is lost. As evidenced by this divide, Spengler explains that society splinters into a "barbarism" where internal wars are fought solely over economic gain. Moreover, political stagecraft capitalizes on our common cause by standing one foot on the backs of each side of the political divide. As a result, religious reactionaries grasp for an antiquated surge of enthusiasm, and secular statists for their political messiahs. As Richard Hofstadter (6 August 1916 - 24 October 1970) writes in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, "since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated-if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals."

According to Spengler, this last grab for times of yore flames the ire to burn down the older civilization, as we hear in the US's rhetoric toward "socialist" Europe pushing society into its next phase. However doom-and-gloom this cyclical view of history seems, certain facts remain stolid, such as: any nation that does not reproduce its population or has lost its youthful creative hopes will die. A people unable to find a core identity or defend the one it had, as was the case in latter Rome, who hired German mercenaries, eventually to find the same enemies "at the gate," is in decline. Without a new Pax Americana, we are left to advocate political revolution or rehash the religious past with transcendent experiences alone, as we see today in Fundamentalism. Mark Noll (1946-) writes, "but in their defense of the supernatural, fundamentalists and their evangelical heirs resemble some cancer patients. In facing a drastic disease, they are willing to undertake a drastic remedy. The treatment of fundamentalism may be said to have succeeded; the patient survived. But at least for the life of the mind, what survived was a patient horribly disfigured by the cure itself."

Spengler concludes the cycle by claiming that a society surviving on the past will eventually sense its own "artificiality" and invite criticisms from academia, which in return will invite apologists from the old religious guard. In return, the traditionalists, forced to pay homage to the elites will become deeply suspicious of science, longing for divine intervention or a return to the "Golden Age." In the end, society is left with one well-to-do group unable to recognize truth outside scholastic walls, while the other group extols revivalism at the cost of the intellect. Many respected historians hold these versions of cyclic theories; they cannot be dismissed as simply leaning left or right of the political spectrum OR by claiming one is religious or non religious. US citizens faced with cultural gridlock must grapple with the ultimate questions: who are we and where do we go next? While pollsters and number crunchers are banking on the bipolar future, the truth is millions of Americans align with Spengler: not completely for or against religion, and do indeed understand disagreement must exist in a free society. Most importantly, if history is prologue to the events of the future, like the Captain on the Titanic ignoring ice warnings, chasing rigid utopian ideals will also cause our demise.

Alvin Toffler, writer and futurist (1928-) offers the "Law of Raspberry Jam," which reads, "the wider any culture is spread, the thinner it gets." For America, it appears that in order to avoid being spread too thinly, we require one last eternal return, or as Yeats warned the culture, before a "rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem," to determine its core, of what remains worth saving, and its contingent, what must be left to past life, to have any chance at surviving history's predictable cycle.