Rat's Nest
Bloggage, rants, and occasional notes of despair

Late Modernity

Whether I’m a Spenglerian who fills in the gaps with Machiavelli, or a Machiavellian who fills in the gaps with Spengler, I’ll leave to the readership to judge.

I do think that Spengler had some insights into metahistory, and its insights into the development of Western culture and civilization, although I do not adhere slavishly to his timescale (and I note that Spengler himself wasn’t totally dogmatic about this; his measure was the generation, a measure whose increments, and translation into absolute years, is always open to dispute). I try to use "culture" and "civilization" with the same technical meanings as he did, although at times I conflate them, to the confusion of anyone trying to make sense of I write. "Culture" is dynamic, developing, and creative; "civilization" is static, dead, and sterile. Too often, perhaps, we point to early civilization as a sort of Golden Age; in fact, it tends to be the stage where a society is completely exhausted, and by virtue of that fact takes a deep breath, gathering up and sorting out the treasures that its predecessor culture has created. They were there all along, but now they’re on display; we can wander through the museum, laid out for us, instead of having to sort throughout newspaper clippings (or potsherds) and exercise judgment.

I consider that Western culture is not quite dead, although it is in its last generation. After a couple of generations of chaos, it will be completely dead, and have been succeeded by Western civilization. We probably wouldn’t like that civilization, and in fact I doubt if its inhabitants will like it much, although they’ll prefer it to the few centuries that preceded it.

I’ll lay out a few definitions here; whilst I don’t expect that everyone will agree with all (or perhaps any) of them, it will enable us to agree as to what we disagree on.

A distinctive Western culture – one in which people actually thought that they had meaningful things to say and do – arose about the ninth and tenth centuries CE. It borrowed some names and forms, and even a few ideas, from the Classical society which had gone before it, and even from its earlier contemporary, Magian/Islamic society (I consider Muhammed to be analogous to Martin Luther; a figure whose importance should be underestimated, but a reformer, not the founder of a new society. I’m also rather more Machiavellian than Spengler in this; I view them as autonomous actors, rather than as marionettes helplessly compelled by mysterious forces) but it was essentially different. The only thing of the essence that it inherited from Classicism was Christianity, which was, contrary to certain Christians, a low-probability victor in the Second Religiousness phase of late Classical civilization.

(Those who like to blame everything on Christianity might contemplate a post-Classical Mediterranean and Europe where "astral piety", that mishmash of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, won out. Secular humanism – which has also come in for more than its fair share of abuse – is not the only alternative. Those who believe that it is also probably believe that history began about 1960).

Culture, like Gaul, can be divided into three phases: early, middle, and late. Middle culture begins when people begin to ask, "Why?". Late culture begins when people no longer accept, "Because that’s way thing have always been" or "Because that’s the way that God made the world" as answers to those questions. By that definition, late or, as many call it, "modern" Western culture began with the Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century.

I’ll insert at this point that I consider references to contemporary culture to somehow be "postmodern" to be complete bullshit. It’s nothing more than an attempt by contemporary cultural icons to appear edgy; as ignorant of the fact as they may be, or as distasteful as they may find it, they are part of a smooth (in the mathematical sense) cultural evolution from Beethoven and Goethe.

Modern culture then not only asks the question "Why?", but also the converse "Why not?". Appeals to the numinous are explicitly rejected. The ignorant and the manipulative like to pretend that this is unique to Western culture; but Hellenism, Mu’tazilitism, and the "Hundred Schools" period of Chinese philosophy are sufficient to refute this claim. We’ve been here before; if humanity doesn’t become extinct, we’ll be here again.

It should be noted that in Spengler’s view most cultures do not successfully make this transition. The intellectuals suffer a crisis of (self-) confidence when faced with the necessity of rejecting the cultural traditions in seeking answers for their questions; their culture remains in a state of arrested development until and unless destroyed by a stronger external culture. Those cultures that do make the transition Spengler identified as "High Cultures" or, in his later writings, as "End Cultures"1.

A "High Culture" is inherently mortal; it will eventually exhaust and destroy itself, leaving behind a "civilization" which, although it might appear to be (and in many ways is) impressive when seen with historical foreshortening, is actually no more than the fossilized evidence of what its predecessor culture had achieved in the past. We might draw an analogy (and it is no more than that) between a pre-pubescent child having to choose between an indefinite life-span as a pre-pubescent, or accepting the transition into adulthood with a life-span than is thereby limited to sixty or seventy years (Larry Niven’s A World out of Time, although not a Spenglerian novel, deals in part with this theme).

FTR, Spengler considered the "High Cultures" to be:

  • Egyptian
  • Babylonian (of the Bronze Age)
  • North Indian
  • Chinese (of the Chou and Han dynasties)
  • Classical
  • Magian (Byzantium, Sassanid Persia, and Islam)
  • Mesoamerican
  • Western

He considered that Mesoamerican High Culture had successfully transitioned from pre-modern to modern culture, but had not yet reached civilization, when it was destroyed by the West. Toynbee (whose metahistorical model is similar to, but much less deterministic than, Spengler’s) identified two complete cultural cycles in China; the Chou-Han, which he called "Sinic", and a cycle culminating in the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, which he called "Far Eastern". Western culture long ago successfully transitioned to modernity, but has not yet died and left a civilization behind it; Spengler writing nearly a hundred years ago, opined that the final death of Western culture would occur late in this (i.e., the 21st) century.

The stock of questions generated by a pre-modern culture is not infinite; this is what guarantees its mortality. Note that for Spengler, these questions and their answers were not strictly philosophical; quantum mechanics, the Eroica, and the League of Nations are all equally valid answers to different (but equally meaningful) questions.

After a time, the stock of questions starts to run dry; modern culture is certainly not unable to formulate new questions, but they are answered more quickly than new ones can be posed. The question "Why?" is supplemented by the question "Grblzk?"; a meaningless question, to which no one wants to know the answer, not the ones who proposed it (they are more interested in the material and psychological kudoi for having come up with an "answer"). The rot sets in in all fields of cultural endeavor; science and mathematics become sterile, turning to a filling in of details rather than bold new advances; art in all its range is divorced from the masses, becoming increasingly self-referential; and politics becomes appeals to naked force, increasingly thinly masked in populism and calls for "direct action".

1In his later writings, Spengler seemed to have been moving away from a strictly "circular" interpretation to a "helical" one; history repeats itself, but each cycle is grander in scope; there is real progress. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke in 1927 which prevented him developing from these ideas on the grand scale of The Decline of the West.

John "Akatsukami" Braue Tuesday, January 20, 2004