This site is supported by Nobility Studios.

The Concept of Decline of the West


10 posts in this topic

Posted

I'm interested in history as a narrative by philosophers of history, such as Hegel and Spengler. In this post I'll go over the observations of two twentieth century thinkers: Oswald Spengler and E.M. Cioran.

In the mature work, Cioran warned against the temptation of falling prey to the carousel of appearances. Given that, history is a territory of evil, a necessarily painful period that induces a fatal self-destruction, a remorseless force that subjects everything to the inexorable corrosion of time, speeding up the pace towards the end. The theme of destiny is prominent in Cioran's French work, which continues the thread of Spengler's World as History thesis.

In Cioran's first French work, A Short History of Decay, the section "faces of decadence" is heavily influenced by Spengler's descriptions of a culture that is on the verge of decline. Cioran starts with Spengler's observations: in contrast with the unconscious individual of his cultural periods, the declined individual institutes a "reign of lucidity." (pp. 115) The myths of the creative periods of Spengler are replaced by the concepts.

This degradation enforces the abdication of exhausted instincts and a tyranny of reason, which inhibits the natural spontaneity of emotions: "Decadence is merely instinct gone impure under the action of consciousness." (pp. 116) Religious fermentation is replaced by the inability of belief, leading to the decline of divinity. Man kills his gods in order to be free, but at the cost of his creativity. "...for man is free - and sterile - only in the interval when the gods die; slave - and creative - only in the interval when, as tyrants, they flourish."

Spengler on the other hand, interprets decline differently. He saw a formula in civilization the culture adopts once it reached its end, without the end questioning the survival of the entire species, and without intending a general twilight, denying the possibility for new cultures to emerge, a universal decline. Cioran chose an alternative vision that contradicted the cyclic perspective of Spengler's morphology of culture, one that saw in the symptomatology of decadence either preparing for an apocalyptic extinction of the entire human race, or proof of a permanent decline.

Instead of the circularity of the model of Spengler, Cioran has a reckless, dangerous path towards catastrophe that results in either the final annihilation of the species or a post-historical condition that is inevitably resigned to a regression towards a race of the sub-human.

Cioran appropriates Spengler's diagnosis of decline, but in a unitary vision of history that rejects discontinuity and abandons the structural homologies that were intended for studying major culture:

"we are the great invalids, overwhelmed by old dreams, forever incapable of utopia, technicians of lassitude, gravediggers of the future, horrified by the avatars of the Old Adam. The Tree of Life will no longer have spring as one of its seasons: so much dry wood; out of it will be made coffins for our bones, our dreams, and our griefs."
(ASHoD, pp. 124)
1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

“...the monstrous thing is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that, for some reason or other, they should want roses. For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured- disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui- in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable. And all the while a meter is running inside and there is no hand that can reach in there and shut it off.” -- Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

How well do you think these narratives stand up empirically? Perhaps it's easier to propose these kinds of stories because civilisations are relatively few and also such a large unit of analysis that all kinds of stories can be told.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

How well do you think these narratives stand up empirically? Perhaps it's easier to propose these kinds of stories because civilisations are relatively few and also such a large unit of analysis that all kinds of stories can be told.

I come from the Hayden White school of thought when it comes to history, or more appropriately, historical methodology and the consciousness of historians. If history is conceived as a narrative, as a literary genre, then the claims of truth and objectivity in historical work is called under question. If historical narratives are verbal fictions, then their contents are as much invented as found, and their forms have more in common with literature than they do with the sciences.

Yes, historical narratives do proceed from empirically validated facts (existence of locations and persons and things) and events (chronology), they always require imaginative steps to place them in a coherent story. All history is always only a selection of a number of historical events, therefore, truth is compromised from the get-go.

If the objective reconstruction of the past is the intent, then history will always fail, because the process involved in writing history is a literary one with interpretative narrative, instead of objective empiricism or social theory. The rhetorical and metaphorical and ideological strategies of explanations of all historians are the crux of the issue. Narratives explain why such and such took place, but they're embedded within the assumptions the historian holds about the forces that influence the appearance of causation. These forces are a combination of the following elements: race, gender, class, culture, weather, coincidence, geography, region, politicians with blunderbuss rhetoric, etc., etc. While individual statements may be true or false, narrative as a collection of individual statements exceeds their sum.

2 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Thanks - I assumed you would say that. What is your assessment of Spengler's and/or Cioran's ideological strategies?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

...If historical narratives are verbal fictions, then their contents are as much invented as found, and their forms have more in common with literature than they do with the sciences.

Yes, historical narratives do proceed from empirically validated facts (existence of locations and persons and things) and events (chronology), they always require imaginative steps to place them in a coherent story. All history is always only a selection of a number of historical events, therefore, truth is compromised from the get-go...

Re your comparison of history with "the sciences" - isn't science itself a set of historical accounts of observations made and rationalizations therefrom (theories)? Of course, the theories work. Or if they don't, we replace them with new ones. But when we say the theories work, we mean we have technologies that work and whose working is explained by scientific theory. The theory gives us confidence to try out untested variations on technology; confidence coming from the fact that the theory says the variations will work. If they do work, we tell ourselves that the theory is correct and if they don't, we look around for a new theory. Either way, it's technology that works (or not). Scientific theory is the "myth" that drives us to try out one type of imaginable innovation rather than another. In that sense, scientific theories are what drives history.

3 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Spengler's mode of emplotment is satirical, where individuals are prisoners of history. His mode of argument seems mechanistic, where his World as History is about laws that govern the operations of human activities. Spengler's ideology seems conservative, because according to him history evolves, but change occurs slowly as part of a "natural" rhythm. He prefigures the writing of history with the particular trope or deep poetic structure of synecdoche, where the part represents the whole.

Cioran, on the other hand, uses irony as a trope in order to provide oxymoronic examples or absurd expressions in a negational manner. His ideology is anarchic, because the West is corrupt and must be destroyed, and a new community must begin. Cioran's mode of argumentation is clearly contextualist, where events are explained by their relationships to other events and they can be traced back to origins - the origins of self-consciousness in Paradise. For Cioran, like Spengler, history is satirical throughout.

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited)

I must admit being uneasy with both the question "How well do you think these narratives stand up empirically?" and the subsequent answer. On the question, what do we mean by "empirical"? Following on what Peter says, the sciences have varying 'empirical' methods ( I know you know this, Paul - bear with me) so the question to me is really asking "How do you judge this narrative?" To be true, false, or somewhere in between? What is the 'data' used to confirm it? To make my point clear, think of a more concrete historical problem - the effect of segregation in America. It seems we can judge its effects without of any sort of natural scientific pretense ( we look at the laws, testimony of individuals, identify places, locations, living conditions, events ) but at the same time, how different is affirming or denying whatever effects there are from a grand narrative concerning the decline of the West? Which seems more nebulous but not necessarily more ideologically driven.

On the response "If the objective reconstruction of the past is the intent, then history will always fail, because the process involved in writing history is a literary one with interpretative narrative, instead of objective empiricism or social theory." Part of the reason I was uneasy with the question is just this: what determines the 'truth' of history may justly be different from how we reason in the natural sciences. "Objectivity" then maybe formally similar across disciplines, but not in how it is determined. At first blush "objective reconstruction" seems to imply a sort of de-contextualized 'reconstruction' which should be impossible not only for the reasons stated but because it is history, where we're dealing with the utterances and actions of social beings. Whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon and what, if anything, it means is irrelevant to Physics which describes the crossing, the bodies, the movements of all creatures with the same formula. Gravity, for example, is operative regardless if Caesar crossed or didn't cross. Physics pays no attention to individual context. But history does so any "objective reconstruction" must be a narrative and judged according to how this narrative stands up to whatever scrutiny we put it. Here, I'm not sure that narratives can't be true or false. I'd rather say they can be true and false in some respects to capture the perspectival nature of history. Even with all its prejudices I think there is 'truth' to history but certainly not in an atomic sense. Much of what takes on historical significance is 'invented' as you say because it has to happen before we can properly understand or appreciate it - take the fascinating battles and stories we all read concerning wars. Even though, say, the storming of Normandy, might be significant to the actual participants only later do many smaller battles "get their due" as some sport of turning point. Physics can tell us what will happen if a body falls from a ten story building. History tells us who and what if anything it could mean. Therefore, I think any "reconstruction" that tries to eschew narrative could not be "objective." That is, not just because the natural sciences dictate objectivity but that objectivity for history involves more than natural science.

Apologies for the digression. As to the OP, just as you argue, I tend to have a more literary reaction to these sort of narratives often viewing them in moral terms - as declarations or dissatisfaction about the state of the present and an attempted explanation -historically- of why it is so. This maybe scandalous but they appear true or false depending on mood, or more precisely, the type of investigation I engage in. I tend to hone in on the ideologies or moral we're supposed to learn and don't take them as 'objective' re-tellings.

Edited by mosaic
2 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

I tend to have a more literary reaction to these sort of narratives often viewing them in moral terms - as declarations or dissatisfaction about the state of the present and an attempted explanation -historically- of why it is so. This maybe scandalous but they appear true or false depending on mood, or more precisely, the type of investigation I engage in. I tend to hone in on the ideologies or moral we're supposed to learn and don't take them as 'objective' re-tellings.

Stories (or narratives, if that is the preferred term) are most interesting when they yield to multiple perspectives and, hence, broader morals or deeper interpretations. In stories, multiple perspectives can only be thought and presented serially, but, ideally, after the multiple interpretations are presented, we manage to keep them all in mind concurrently and with full awareness that even the order in which we encounter the differing perspectives can bias our own thoughts. We can attempt to counteract or minimize biasing effects by re-ordering the perspectives, and by increasing the number of perspectives we can come to a fuller picture - a fuller picture often being more useful and valuable than any allegedly objective view.

Recently, when I was perusing a book stall at the Cochin airport to speed time along, I noticed a book (I think it was titled, Ravana) which intended to present the Ramayana from the viewpoint of that story's antagonist. Not being familiar with the Ramayana myself, and toting some already heavy enough luggage, I did not buy the book, but I did appreciate what I imagined might well be the authorial intent: not to deny the perspective or lessons of the Ramayana but, instead, to add another viewpoint to that story.

Michael

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

DeadCanDance tweeted that in Modernity the only rational inference one could draw is that the West is fervently, inexorably suicidal.

My response was to query him whether Spengler's cyclical theory of World as History made any difference. He claimed that it was wrong to conflate the necessity of downfall with civilization suicide, instead of the slow divorce from a civilization's original grounding symbols.

If Spengler is correct that each culture degenerates into civilization, that each culture is vibrant and a living monument until it goes bankrupt and dies out, but civilization continues until the decline is complete, then it stands to reason that the West is dying because it has already entered the final phase of civilization where culture has stagnated and is dying within the megalopolis.

Where DeadCanDance thinks the West can “wake up” from some disastrous “occultish dive into the arm of Thanatos,” Spengler thinks history is already deterministic, where Western culture has already exhausted its original “world feeling” that gave it impetus and logic and direction. People in the West are incapable of choosing their destiny, because it simply exists as an immutable force of history.

Spengler identifies the Western Culture as “Faustian,” a spirit oriented towards infinity. Faust sought the immortal and the infinite and the beauty of youth in the youthful Margarita. That represents the open ended future – the “world feeling” of the West.

Now, since Napoleon, Western culture has exhausted the development of its logic and is playing out its “destiny” in the 20th and 21st century as a decadent civilization, although still powerful and dangerous in its global crusade to dominate all other cultures.

Contra DCD, the political theories of governments are irrelevant, not as important to people than what actually occurs. Destiny determines the future, not our self-aware choices. :shakehead:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now