horizontal rule

O S W A L D   S P E N G L E R

horizontal rule


Oswald Spengler expressed a decidedly cyclical view of human history in his controversial work, The Decline of the West. I'm not going to try to review that entire work; what matters to this discussion is Spengler's notion that human societies were functionally similar to both terrestrial seasons and the human lifespan.

The Biological Metaphor

Both of these processes seemed to Spengler (and, it should be noted, plenty of other historians) to be composed of specific kinds of events in a definite sequence. In terms of life: youth, maturity, decline, and death; in terms of seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The biological pattern is persuasive as a metaphor for existence: new life comes into being; it matures into fullness and settles into a preferred form; it conserves its resources by refining the chosen form to its highest level; and it grows weak and dies.

Spengler adapted this biological metaphor to describe civilizations. First, a culture is born out of a critical mass of sufficiently similar-minded individuals. This culture "wins" over other nearby challengers for local resources; when this happens, the social customs and innovations developed to promote survival crystallize into institutions. At this point, the culture becomes a "civilization." It then spends the next phase of its existence refining its habits without really changing them; merely doing the same old things better. Finally, no longer able to respond to an environment that has continued to change, it disintegrates and its remaining resources are absorbed by new cultures.

The End of the Road

For all its limitations as an explanation for why civilizations perish, there is something appealing about this model of what has come to be known as "cultural morphology," or the forms civilizations take. Perhaps we find this explanation so plausible for the same reason our model of the solar system looked the way it did for so long: we like to think of ourselves at the center of the universe. "The proper measure of everything is Man," to paraphrase an old saying.

But this may be mere vanity. Not only is it perhaps too appealing, it leads to intense pessimism because it implies that civilizations, like life, are doomed to eventual extinction no matter what their worth might be. If the end of all effort is extinction, the study of history is worthless--after all, the point of studying history is to learn what directions lead nowhere. But why bother, if all roads are dead ends?


Even the title of Spengler's opus insinuated that Western civilization was already descending toward an inevitable demise. It is a testament to the power of Spengler's expression of this view that universities today are filled with academics--historians and otherwise--who echo the Spenglerian lament of hopelessness with pessimism, cynicism, and anomie.

The Chart

Over a period of fifteen years, the British science fiction author James Blish wrote a series of four novels which were published together in the omnibus volumed titled "Cities in Flight." These works, which chronicled some 2000 years of future human history, were to some degree inspired by concepts found in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.

Around 1968, the Riverside Quarterly published an analysis by Dr. Richard D. Mullen of the Spenglerian aspects of Blish's "Cities in Flight" novels. In his analysis, Dr. Mullen included a chart he derived from Spengler. This chart provides an excellent at-a-glance comparison of three civilizations (and Blish's imaginary future civilization). I have adapted elements of that chart, which you can see below.

P = Political
A = Art
R = Religio-Philosophic
M = Mathematical
Tribes and their chiefs; no politics, no State. Chaos of primitive expression forms.
1600 - 1100 B.C. 500 B.C. - 0 A.D. 500 - 900
Mycenean Age Persian-Seleucid Period Frankish Period
"Agamemnon" Post-Alexander Charlemagne
CULTURE: EARLY PERIOD 1100 - 650 0 - 500 900 - 1500
P1. FORMATION OF FEUDAL ORDER 1100 - 750 0 - 400 900 - 1254
R1a. Spiritual Spring: The Priestly Myth Demeter cult Primitive Christianity German Catholicism
R1b. Spiritual Spring: The Military Myth Trojan War Gospels, Apocalypses Siegfried, Arthur
A1. Early forms, rural, unconsciously shaped Doric The cupola Gothic
R2. Mystical-metaphysical shaping of Myth Cosmogonies Patristic literature Scholasticism
P2. BREAKDOWN OF FEUDAL ORDER: THE INTERREGNUM 750 - 650 400 - 500 1254 - 1500
R3. Spiritual Summer: The Reformation Orphism, etc. Monophysitism, etc. Huss-Luther-Loyola
A2. Exhaustion of possibilities in Early forms Late Doric Proto-Arabesque Early Renaissance
CULTURE: LATE PERIOD 630 - 300 500 - 800 1500 - 1815
P3. FORMATION OF A WORLD OF ARISTROCRATIC STATES 650 - 487 500 - 661 1500 - 1660
R4. First purely philosophical world-views Pre-Socratics In Jewish literature Galileo, Bacon
M1. Formation of a new Mathematic Geometry Algebra Analysis
A3. Mature art forms, urban and conscious Ionic Zenith of mosaic art Baroque
R5. Puritanism, opposition to rising absolutism Pythagoras Mohammed Cromwell; the Fronde
Aristocracy held in check by alliance of King (or Tyrant) with Bourgeoisie
487 - 338
Age of Themistocles and Pericles
661 - 750
The Ommaiyad Caliphate
1660 - 1789
The Ancien Regime
R6. Spiritual Autumn: the Englightenment Socrates The Mutazilites Locke, Rousseau
A4. Intellectualism of Mature art forms Myron, Phidias Arabesque Rococo
M2. Zenith of mathematical thought Conic sections Spherical trigonometry Infinitesimals
R7a. The Great Conclusive System: Mystic Plato Alfarabi Goethe, Hegel
R7b. The Great Conclusive System: Scholastic Aristotle Avicenna Kant
Bourgeoisie against alliance of King (or Tyrant) and Aristocracy; victory of Money over Blood
338 - 300
partisans of Philip; Alexander
750 - 800
the Kufans; the first Abbassids
1789 - 1815
Robespierre; Napoleon
A5. Exhaustion and dissolution of Mature forms Corinthian "Moorish" art Romanticism
CIVILIZATION AND SPIRITUAL WINTER 300 B.C. - 0 - A.D. 300 800 - 1400 1815 - ?
the Period of Contending States; dominance of Money ("Democracy")
300 - 100
from Alexanderism to Caesarism
800 - 1050
from Caliphate to Sultanate
1815 - 2000
from Napoleonism to Nanny State
R8. Materialism (science, utility, prosperity) The Cynics Brotherhood of Sincerity Comte, Darwin, Marx
R9. Ethical-social ideals replacing religion Epicurus, Zeno Movements in Islam Schopenhauer, et al.
M3. Mathematics: the concluding thought Archimedes Albiruni Riemann
R10. Spread of final world sentiment Roman Stoicism Practical Fatalism Ethical Socialism (?)
A6. Art problems; craft art Hellenistic art Spanish-Sicilian art "Modern" art
P7. CAESARISM: victory of force-politics over Money; decay of the nations into a formless population, soon made into an imperium of gradually increasing crudity of despotism 100 B.C. - 0 - A.D. 100
Sulla, Caesar Tiberius, up to Domitian
1050 - 1250
The Seljuk Sultanate
2000 - ?
A7. Artificial, archaic, exotic art forms Roman art "Oriental" art ?
R11. (in the masses only) Second Religiousness Syncretism Syncretic Islam ?
P8. THE FINAL POLITICAL FORM: the world as spoil. Gradual enfeeblement of imperial machinery against raiders and conquerors. Primitive human conditions thrusting up into the highly civilized mode of living. 100 - 300
full power of the Empire, then disintegration in the West
1250 - 1400
rise-fall of the Ilkhanate; rise of Ottoman Turks under whom the moribund culture endures to 1920
A8. Final forms, giganticism, imperial display Triumphal arch Gigantic buildings ?
Arabianization in the East
1800 - 1950
Westernization of Arabian lands and entire world

horizontal rule






Art Writing Religion Personality
Music Travel Politics Computers
Genealogy Work History Reasoning
Fiction Games Economics Science

horizontal rule