Oswald Spengler tells us that Western civilisation is in decline. This doesn’t mean the end is nigh, this doesn’t mean the end of days. We have centuries left, and when civilisation as we (in the West) know it finally comes to an end, by then there will be another living culture to replace it. But what we must not do is imagine that Western civilisation will continue forever. The very fact that Western civilisation imagines that it will continue forever is a symptom of its decline.
Spengler tells us that when a culture is in decline is becomes imperialistic. It seeks to expand. It no longer looks inward as much as it looks outward. Late Western “creative possibilities” are “extensive”, and no longer intensive. Cecil Rhodes is an early example of this late Western man, says Spengler: his ambitions were large and outward looking, he wanted to leave a legacy, he wanted to build grand projects . . . This is all a sign of the decline of a culture: imperialism is always a signal of death. Rhodes was a “brain-man”, a calculator, an opportunist: he’s finished reflecting, peering into his own soul, and found little enough to look at in that direction. Now he calculates how best to make a grand and profitable impact on the world.
“Life is the process of effecting possibilities, and for the brain-man there are only extensive possibilities.” It seems obvious to us in the West that everything must be bigger, faster, and more connected, but in fact (Spengler tells us) this is something specific to our culture in this late stage. It’s the very substance of what it means to us to be creative in our culture. Imperialism doesn’t just mean brutal and bloody wars: it means desiring to build, and to build without end, it means making bolder and faster and brighter creations – even art and philosophical thought is affected by this trend – you need to be “great,” you need to make an “impact” . . .
What is it that we believe we are achieving through this endless expansion? The short answer is: immortality. We no longer believe that our own souls are anything much to look at, we don’t need to look inward for long to take in the sum of metaphysics, and any talk of an immortal soul is nonsensical to us. We’re obsessed now by the fact, as we see it, that each life is doomed to end, and end forever. And so we’re attempting to build our own immortality – a railway to last forever, irrefutable ethical systems to guide us for all time, space colonies expanding outward toward the infinite . . .
As a culture, it’s our obsessions that define us. And our obsession, as our own culture begins to die, is with death itself.
(I’ve been reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, the abridged edition published in 1991, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson.)