The Decline of the West, Volume I: Form and Actuality
A Blessed Companion Is a Book
by Alfred A. Knopf. 1926. 8vo. xviii + 443 pp, $6.00.. Authorized translation, with notes, by . New York:
IN July 1918, when the quick finale of the Great War already loomed directly ahead, a German Oberlehrer hitherto unknown to the world of thought and letters published the first volume of a work so original and profound, and so revolutionary in theory, that it bids fair to mark an epoch in man’s interpretation of himself in history. It is a monumental work — if not in sheer magnitude, at least in substance and design. That such a book should appear at such a. time from the press of a country exhausted by protracted blockade and warfare; that it should outsell the most popular fiction— to the extent of ninety thousand copies — in defeated and impoverished Germany, and be translated almost at once into the leading Continental languages; and that it should become the subject of a literature so voluminous as to justify already a special volume of bibliography, are facts extraordinary enough to make its thesis a matter of universal interest, if only as a symbol of the age. After a longer delay than occurred in the case of its translation into the other leading languages, — due, it is said, to the rejection of one English version as unsatisfactory, — we now have, correctly rendered into our own tongue, the first of the two volumes in which Spengler has expounded his theories. That volume is complete in itself. It had already established Spengler’s reputation before its successor was published. The second volume, World-historical Perspectives, is largely an application — not without, new and illuminating suggestions of ulterior things — of the doctrine formulated in the first.
What is the secret of this work’s appeal? It is in no sense a war book, and was conceived and thought out in its essentials when Germany was at the height of her imperial peace power. Yet, as the title indicates, more forcibly in German — Untergang des Abendlandes — than in English, it is prophetic and pessimistic. The prospective reader may ask himself, before he essays what is surely no task for mental babes: Does this book contain a substantial element of new truth, or is it simply the ambergris of a sick civilization? Is it an inspiration or a pathological symptom?
To this the answer is that no thinking man can read the book, and comprehend it, without getting an entirely new orientation toward life and history. He will never again see the past, the present, and the future in just the same light as before. He may reject, the major part of the author’s thesis, — indeed, an average American probably will, — but his conception of history will have changed almost as radically as man’s conception of the physical universe changed after Copernicus and Columbus.
To attempt to summarize the argument of such a book in a few sentences is to court misunderstanding. Man records his existence in the world in many forms, such as social and political Systems, economic institutions, art, religion, and so on. These forms at any one time and place are correlated. They are the substance of a culture or a civilization, as the case may be; for Spengler distinguishes between the two as successive stages, analogous respectively to creative youth and rationalizing age. An analysis of these forms and their correlations — and this is where the startling suggestiveness of the book often appears — reveals in history several distinct, partly contemporaneous and partly successive, culture-civilizations, each of which, with the exception of our own, has already completed an identical order of developmental stages, corresponding, for example, to spring, summer, autumn, and winter In the organic world. In each of these culture-civilizations certain repetitional phenomena occur in the same order in all spheres, of man’s activity, from the way he earns his daily bread to his highest artistic and religious inspirations. By a comparison of these repetitiorial phenomena, in extinct, civilizations and in our own, we can judge how far along the latter is in its inexorable progress toward senescence. The ossification and death of ancient civilizations occurred when they concentrated in great cities, as the classical civilization did in Rome and Alexandria, and the Arabic civilization did in Damascus and Bagdad; and when their creative and vital principle, which expressed itself in a living religion, true art, and the higher spiritual manifestations of the mind and soul, had spent its force and was replaced by absorption in material progress. That is the present Stage of our Western civilization, which has now spread over the whole world.
Whether one agrees with this thesis or not — and it is risky to reject it until one has mastered it —the skill and brilliance with which Spengler marshals his analogies, the wealth of pertinent illustration he cites, the thousand new and stimulating vistas of historical relationship he opens up, and the striking strength of the trend already visible toward certain developments that he predicted before the fact — for example, Europe’s drift toward ‘ Cæsarism’ as subsequently manifested in the Fascist movement, to say nothing of the World War itself — make it almost certain that this book will leave a deep imprint upon the thought of the next generation, and perhaps upon all future interpretation of history.
VICTOR S. CLARK