It must be more than ten years since I first read Spengler’s The Decline of the West. My recollection was that I found it a little tedious and that I skimmed through some parts while broadly agreeing with the ideas for which the book is most famous, almost all of which are, as the title of the book suggests, critiques of the current state of western society and culture. Most of those critiques have only become more perspicacious in recent times.
At the end of last year, I realised I needed to read Spengler again, mostly to work through a hypothesis that occurred to me while writing my Unconscious Empire series, which was that the modern West has been undergoing what seemed to me like a Magian pseudomorphosis. This idea contradicts one of the key components of Spengler’s own analysis which is that what is really going on in the West is that we are entering the Civilisation phase of the cycle, the final transformation before “death”.
So, I used the Christmas break to re-read Spengler and in this series of posts I want to address some of the major themes that occurred to me, including the idea that we are in a Magian pseudomorphosis (spoiler alert: it’s complicated). By coincidence, 2023 is also the 100-year anniversary of the publication of the combined edition of The Decline of the West (originally published in 1923). So, what better time to re-evaluate one of the great works of historical analysis.
From a personal point of view, the big change in mindset I have gone through since first reading the book is exactly the one which Spengler describes in the introduction and which forms the core of his critique of modern history as a discipline and the new method of history which he proposes. I have been calling this mindset symbolic or archetypal thinking but Spengler refers to it as morphological analysis. We can distinguish this approach from the default mindset of our culture known to all and sundry as simply “science”. Science looks for cause-and-effect relationships while the morphological approach looks for structure and pattern.
Long-term readers of the blog would know that it was corona which really got me into archetypal-thinking especially through the works of Carl Jung and then Jean Gebser. So, in this sense, reading Spengler for the second time has been far more intense and also far more rewarding as I’ve been able to compare the paradigm I have been using against Spengler’s. I now have a far more precise picture of where I agree and disagree with Spengler and I’ll be sketching that out in later posts.
In any case, the tools of the job are the same whether you’re doing Spenglerian, Gebserian or Jungian analysis. We summarise them as follows using Spengler’s vocabulary:-
|Cause and Effect||Form/pattern, Morphological Analysis, Archetypes (Urphänomene)|
|Logic/Cognition||Intuition, Comparison, Empathy, Instinct|
|Space, Matter, Life||Time, Destiny, Death|
|“Hard Science”||“Humanities” (“soft science”)|
|Pretty much everybody else||Goethe, Spengler, Gebser, Jung, Nietzsche (sort of), Gregory Bateson, Systems Thinking (esp. Weinberg)|
When Spengler criticises the historians of his time (as well as the psychologists) he is accusing them of the category error of applying the methods of the hard sciences where they don’t belong. Corona provided us with a perfect example of this exact error and so we can use it as a way to elucidate the distinction between the two ways of thinking.
It is the Destiny of all living things to die. The pattern, or morphology, that this takes for a person is so obvious that we never need to spell it out. But let’s do so here for the sake of argument: you’re born, you come of age, go through middle age into old age and eventually die. That is the archetypal pattern in a stable society, although obviously death can come earlier for a variety of reasons. This pattern or archetypal way of thinking about death leads us to statements of the obvious like the older you get, the more likely you are to die. Nevertheless, over the last 3 years, such statements of the obvious were completely disregarded in favour of “science”.
Science wants to know about causes and so the cause of death becomes the primary bit of information. But what is the meaning of cause of death when the person dying has 5 co-morbidities and is 85 years old? According to the “science” way of thinking, the cause is all important. Somebody was alive, caught a cold and then died. Ergo, the cold is the cause of death. According to the morphological way of thinking, the cold is irrelevant. The person is at the end of their archetypal life-journey and something is going to do them in. If it’s not a cold, it will be something else.
In a world where causal, “scientific” thinking dominates while archetypal or morphological thinking is no longer acceptable, these most basic facts of life and death are ignored. That’s what we saw during corona. Ironically, even the broader facts of “science” have become irrelevant.
Consider this. Over the past 3 years, the median age for somebody in Australia to die “with covid” is about 3 years older than the median from all causes. In other words, on average the people dying with a positive covid test are older than those dying without one. Taking this statistic at face value, we should all want to get covid. We’ll live longer.
How did we end up in a society which commits such basic errors of understanding? The answer to this question can be found in another question: why did morphological or archetypal thinking become verboten in the West? The answer lies with WW2 and is therefore tied up in the Hitler Complex I wrote about last year.
It was the German-speaking countries that were at the forefront of the morphological approach and Spengler is a prime exponent. That approach had roots in German romanticism and it was the language of German romanticism that the Nazis used for their propaganda. Concepts like destiny, race and fatherlands, all discussed in intricate technical detail by Spengler, were used as propaganda by the Nazis. To this day, anybody who gets themselves into the public sphere and so much as hints at these kinds of ideas can count on being smeared with those most terrible of labels “far right” or “fascist”.
Thus, even Spengler, who called the Nazis “idiotic” and foresaw that they would bring disaster to Germany, got tainted by association. So did Nietzsche. Jung was pushed aside for Freud (who was in the “hard science” camp) while Gebser and his milieu were merely forgotten about in the chaos. The result is that we now live in a culture that is in active denial of almost all the elements in the right-hand column of the table above and this denial is present not just in the general culture but even more in academia and among the “elites”.
Of course, we should acknowledge that the thinkers referred to above really did get caught up in German romanticism. Even Spengler, with his hard-nosed scepticism, cannot help but declare his new method to be the last great historical task of Faustian civilisation before it dies a heroic death at the hands of fate. He also projects the archetypal romantic concept of the misunderstood genius onto the “Faustian soul”. Nobody in the future will understand us Faustians. That is the cross we must bear.
In fairness, Spengler would not shy away from this judgement. He assumes that all “real cultures” are not understandable by other cultures and his invocation of a prime Faustian archetype is not a problem within his framework. Maybe he’s right. But the sceptic in me can’t help but be wary whenever the language of romanticism creeps into a scholarly work.
Unfortunately for Spengler, it is the same language that Hitler would later use and so the challenge can be levelled against Spengler that Dostoevsky, through the character of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, makes against the whole romantic movement; namely, that when a scholar’s words are put into action by a lowly scoundrel like Smerdyakov (who is not at all dissimilar to Hitler) and horrific outcomes ensue, to what extent is the scholar responsible? Looking at the last years of Spengler’s life, I wonder if that thought didn’t cross is mind as he watched the Nazis rise to power. (Spengler died of a heart attack in 1936).
A hundred years later, with a fuller understanding of what happened next and watching the current madness of our own time, I think we should be able to see that Spengler, Nietzsche, Jung and Gebser really were on to something and that what they were onto might be just what we need. Certainly now would be a good time to do that since our society seems to be descending into a similar kind of madness to the Germans of the early 20th century. If the Germans were obsessed with the right hand side of the table, we have arrived at blind worship of the left. Either way, we’re massively out of balance.
To finish, let’s apply the distinction between science and morphological analysis to elucidate the problem of corona and pandemics in general.
There are 3 different disciplines involved in the analysis of a pandemic: virology, epidemiology and medicine.
Virology, in theory, belongs in the “science” camp. I say in theory because science is all about cause-and-effect and the cause-and-effect relationship between a virus and a purported disease has only ever been weakly shown. If we believe the latest research, there is no necessary cause-and-effect relationship between being “infected” and getting sick. At best, it is nothing more than a probability distribution and that probability distribution changes over time both for the individual and the population. Think of it like a game of poker only the cards you hold in your hand are constantly changing so that you never really know with any certainty what the probabilities are.
Interestingly, this was an issue that Spengler noted was creeping into science even during his time. He talks in his book about how the “hard” sciences were becoming more probabilistic. That’s even more true of virology. We really are scraping the bottom of the cause-and-effect barrel.
Medicine is another discipline that would claim to be in the “hard science” camp and yet, especially in relation to nursing and personal patient-doctor relationships, it has always had a strong humanitarian bent. Nevertheless, our technocrat overlords are doing their level best to remove all humanity from medicine and reduce everything to tests and pharmaceutical interventions. Even if they succeed (and God help us if they do), medicine inevitably deals with the human body, one of the most complex systems in existence, and any pretense of “hard science” is just that, pretense.
With epidemiology, things are much clearer. It is definitely not a hard science as it does not deal in cause-and-effect but simply looks for patterns of disease and death. Thus, it falls into the morphological analysis category. Epidemiology is completely reliant on virology to provide it with accurate infection statistics and medicine to provide it with accurate disease and death statistics. If these statistics are wrong or noisy, any patterns that epidemiology finds will be meaningless.
With these considerations in mind, here is how our general culture/official narrative would categorise the 3 disciplines involved in viral disease:-
|Hard Science||Soft Science|
Personally, I would draw it like this:-
|Hard Science||Soft Science|
What this means is the viral disease and pandemics are to be understood using the elements in the right-hand side of our table.
Viral disease and pandemics are a function of Time and Destiny. Any individual’s likelihood of dying from all causes, including respiratory viruses, increases as they get older and/or as their general health deteriorates. All of the copious data collected during corona has done nothing more than affirm these simple statements. The people dying were the elderly and those who were already in poor health. These results are exactly what we would expect from basic intuition and all the data in the world hasn’t added anything to this basic understanding.
What all this amounts to, of course, is common sense. And here we have an important point which Spengler would probably disagree with but which seems true to me. Morphological thinking is founded in our basic intuitions about the world including common sense but also empathy and compassion. All the so-called compassion we have seen during corona has been completely fake. In truth, genuine empathy and compassion has been missing in action.
This is not surprising when we go back to our table and realise that the right-hand column, which includes the concept of empathy, has been systematically removed from our culture. The post-war loss of the humanities and the blind worship of “science” has had the effect of creating the society around us which is more and more lacking in basic empathy and compassion. Hence, the people who wish death on the unvaccinated. Hence, the people who wish death on those who follow a different political party or any of the other craziness we see on an almost daily basis. It’s actually the quite logical outcome of having erased an entire mindset of understanding from the culture.
And so here is another reason to rescue the lessons that Spengler, Jung and Gebser have to teach us: so that we can reconnect with empathy and compassion. This is also why it’s so important to see beyond the language of German romanticism because that language was explicitly masculine with a grandiosity that made it so easy to apply to military adventurism.
The irony is that two of the prime exponents of that language style, Spengler and Nietzsche, were not especially masculine men. They were both sickly recluses, unmarried, living alone on small pensions. Both died young in their mid-50s. In addition, they had both clearly cultivated the (feminine) trait of empathy to an extremely high degree. That is a mandatory requirement to do morphological/archetypal analysis.
Were they simply compensating for lives devoid of what we might call everyday masculinity? Was that what was behind the grandiose, heroic language? Maybe. But it’s also true that both men, and Jung too to a lesser degree, were following the archetypal Faustian man which includes Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and, of course, Faust. It’s what I like to call the Hyper-Masculine. In the next post, we’ll unpack it in more detail.