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Campbell and Oswald Spengler

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    Few people, including even the most devoted of Joseph Campbell aficionados, have attempted to wade through Spengler’s thick prose, densely packed as it is with rich mythic and cultural associations. I’m no slouch in the intellect department, and yet I find myself re-reading the same sentence, puzzling over the same paragraph, circling or underlining significant passages and concepts, penciling notes into the margin, and referring to related authors (Campbell, Jung, Schopenhauer, Barzun, Toynbee, etc.) to flesh out and catch the depth and import of Spengler’s ideas

    (though, truth be told, I love to wallow in it – that’s the type of reading I prefer, an author who challenges me, someone who spins the brain: as with Campbell and Jung, I can read a passage in Spengler I’ve read three times before and still be blown away by some previously unperceived insight, some concealed inspiration that stirs the imagination and enriches understanding).

    I was able to zip through the Da Vinci Code in the time it took me to read ten pages of Spengler – and I imagine that most people who venture beyond the frontispiece find The Decline of the West similarly daunting.

    I find, though, that every time I turn to Spengler, my understanding of Campbell increases . . . and no wonder: Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West was, for Campbell, a destiny book.

    Destiny – as Stephen and Robin Larsen describe in their Campbell bio, A Fire in the Mind:


    Another event of lasting significance for Campbell happened during this time. As he was browsing in the Carmel library one day, his hand moved, as if by itself, he said, to a copy of Oswald Spengler’s monumental Decline of the West, only recently published in America. ‘It was in two volumes. I brought it down and [started to read voraciously] …this book was thunder for me, it was just terrific. I was tremendously impressed by it….’


    It’s impossible to overestimate Spengler’s influence on Campbell who, after that fateful day in 1932, read both volumes of Decline of the West cover-to-cover six more times (!!) over the course of his life. The Larsens characterize Spengler and Jung as “Campbell’s major prophets” (Leo Frobenius and Heinrich Zimmer should be included in that list, as well as Schopenhauer). In fact, it’s hard to read any chapter of a Campbell work without seeing Spengler’s influence peeking through – even when Spengler isn’t directly referenced.

    Spengler’s key contribution to Campbell is the concept that civilization isn’t something “unnatural,” constructed by man, but is in fact a living organism itself – a natural outgrowth of the human psyche. At the time, this was a new way of imagining civilization and culture (one shared by Frobenius, another major influence on Campbell).

    The same year Campbell discovered Spengler, he and Ed Ricketts were trawling up the Pacific coast to Alaska studying the ecology of tide pools. While reading and discussing Spengler, Joe and Ed couldn’t help but notice parallels between the intricate tidal communities emerging out of the relations and interactions of the unique organisms and species inhabiting the tide pools, and the intricate human communities and cultures forged from the human psyche.

    What intrigues me is how so many who criticize Spengler miss his primary percept (that’s not a misspelling), concentrating instead on assumed parallels to Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as if Spengler weren’t painting in broad strokes but instead pinpoints exactly where we are in the lifespan of our culture, and predicts how many years we have left until western civilization collapses entirely, as if dealing with scientific rather than poetic models. (Like science could do that – sort of like expecting one’s doctor to specify the date of one’s death; however, that doesn’t mean a doctor – or an artist, or a housewife – can’t tell the difference between an adolescent and a mature adult, just from observing temperament, physique, and various other personal traits).

    On the other hand, Spengler’s vision of where western civilization is headed, an observation formed prior to the First World War, often demonstrates an eerie, uncanny resemblance to the reality we experience today – as in his prediction of the explosion of careers involving money, and law, as well as an expected public obsession with spectator sports . . .

    The unfortunate coincidence of titles, however, inevitably links Spengler and Gibbons in the minds of many who have read neither. I prefer the subtle poetry in the German title – Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Untergang – literally, a “going-under” that can be translated either as “sinking” or “setting” (e.g., of the sun or moon),  which has an inner resonance with the German word translated “West” – Abendlandes is literally “the Evening Land,” and so could be somewhat loosely translated as “land of the setting sun”.

    That internal, organic sense of sunset contained within both German nouns – evoking a rhythmic, natural cycle – is absent from the harsh and negative feel of the English phrase, “decline of the West.”

    Along with his command of cultural history, Spengler does rely to a great extent on his intuitive intelligence, much the same as Zimmer and Campbell. Again, the Larsen’s words, drawn from Campbell’s love of Spengler, describe it better than me:


    At the outset of his opus, Spengler declares that he is preceding not by the painstaking methods of exact science, but by a series of intuitive analogies, often informed by mythological ideas. Some of his categories of cultural styles, such as the Magian, the Apollonian, the Faustian, have achieved historical quasi-respectability as metaphoric terms of reference for the greater patterns of culture which are manifested through time.

    What Spengler offers is not a way of measuring, but of re-imagining, history.

    My formal training is in history – and much as historians might prefer to consider themselves scientists examining the past, what fuels the field is interpretation – the story within history. It’s one thing to gather the facts – but it’s how we string the facts together, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, that reflects our self-image.

    Many non-historians tend to think “history” is something objective and measureable – a concept originating with Leopold von Ranke in the early to mid nineteenth century. Von Ranke’s historicism, as it came to be called, is that history should be wie es eigentlich gewesen ware (“how it actually happened”) … a’ la Jack Webb’s no-nonsense Dragnet” approach (“the facts ma’am, just the facts”). History should consist only of eyewitness reports and “the purest, most immediate documents.”

    History, however – ever a fluid field – has evolved beyond historicism. We realize today that even “objective” eyewitness accounts are often flawed, often colored by unconscious biases and assumptions, and always contain only part of the story.

    And history is not just the dates we memorized in school, but the living, breathing individuals whose drives, desires, personal emotions, and political motivations, engaged and interacting with other individuals operating out of the same drives and functions of the psyche, create history.

    I taught my students that history is more than simply facts and dates. There is little value in knowing that

    “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
    Columbus sailed the ocean blue”

    without some understanding of the motivations – the personal, political, and international pressures – driving Ferdinand and Isabella to support this speculative expedition (noting, for example, that 1492 is the year Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain, draining the kingdom of large pools of wealth and productivity – hence a pressure to find alternate sources of gold and new trade markets),

    or Columbus’s own motivations, or those of his crew . . .

    Any grade school student can, through rote and repetition, memorize dates and facts, but interpreting the evidence – understanding the whys and wherefores, abstracting and extrapolating the patterns in which the facts are embedded – is as much art as science. There is no “objective history” (history as journalism?) and never has been.

    Indeed, the idea of “history” as a separate field is relatively new, having developed only in recent centuries. We think, for example, of Herodotus and Thucydides as early historians – and they are, indeed, precursors – but they trafficked in gossip and myth rather than the stringent collection of raw, objective facts. The chroniclers of the kings of Israel and Judah weave fact and anecdote together in scripture, often demonstrating a preconceived bias – as does the great and self-aggrandizing Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, whose work provides important context for the inter-testament and New Testament periods in Palestine, but relies heavily on hearsay, legend, and myth, as well as inflating Josephus’s own role.

    Despite historians’ flirtation with historicism, we recognize today that there are – and always have been – many ways to tell the story. Every historian “re-imagines” history to fit the frame through which s/he perceives the world:

    Jules Michelet, for example, wrote history as the story of a nation, while Thomas Carlyle approached history as biography – the biography of great men – and the classicist Thomas Macaulay, along with his nephew, George Macaulay Trevalyan, believed history to be a literary art rather than a science; Marx and Engels, along with Charles Beard (though coming at it from different directions) turned to economic interpretations of history; and Jacques Barzun, meanwhile, reveled in cultural history

    . . . and therein too lies Spengler’s value: he makes Barzun possible.

    From my perspective, Oswald Spengler is the pioneer who brings cultural relativism to the table – evident on almost every page of The Decline of the West. Take, for example, the following, a passage I opened to at random:


    In the capacity of experientially living history and the way in which history, particularly the history of personal becoming, is lived, one man differs very greatly from another.

    Every Culture possesses a wholly individual way of looking at and comprehending the world-as-Nature; or (what comes to the same thing) it has its own peculiar “Nature” which no other sort of man can possess in exactly the same form. But in a far greater degree still, every Culture – including the individuals comprising it (who are separated only by minor distinctions) – possesses a specific and peculiar sort of history – and it is in this picture that the general and the personal, the inner and the outer, the world-historical and the biographical becoming, are immediately perceived, felt, and lived. Thus the autobiographical tendency of Western man – revealed even in Gothic times in the symbol of auricular confession – is utterly alien to Classical man; while his historical awareness is in complete contrast to the dreamy unconscious of the Indian. And when Magian man – primitive Christian or ripe scholar of Islam – uses the words “world-history,” what is it that he sees before him?

    But it is difficult enough to form an exact idea even of the “Nature” proper to another kind of man, although in this domain things specifically cognizable are causally ordered and unified in a communicable system. And it is quite impossible for us to penetrate completely a historical world-aspect of “becoming” formed by a soul that is quite differently constituted from our own … All the same, the solution of this problem is the condition-precedent of all really deep understanding of the world. The historical environment of another is a part of his essence, and no such other can be understood without the knowledge of his time-sense, his destiny-idea and the style and degree of acuity of his inner life. In so far therefore as these things are not directly confessed, we have to extract them from the symbolism of the alien Culture. And it is thus and only thus that we can approach the incomprehensible, the style of an alien Culture, and the great time-symbols belonging thereto acquire an immeasurable importance.

    Spengler points out that the individual’s perspective is shaped by his culture, which itself emerges over time from the interactions of individuals sharing a collective perspective (influenced by a variety of factors held in common, from geography and ethnicity to mythology and perceptions of an individual’s role, and so much more). There is, of course, a natural tendency to project onto other peoples and other cultures of other eras our own subjective and interior concerns – judging them in terms of our own world and our own experience – which generally mistakes and misses the essence of these others

    (Spengler applies the term “alien” to other cultures not as a judgment, but simply to recognize that another’s experience of their culture and the world within which s/he was raised differs from – or is “alien to” – one’s own.)

    For example, it’s not unusual to run across those who describe the priest-kings of early city-states in Sumeria as if they were Western leaders, driven by the same personal and political ambitions

    . . .  and yet, as James Frazer was one of the first to point out, the earliest priest-kings of ancient Sumer and Egypt and elsewhere ritualistically submitted themselves for sacrifice to the gods after only eight years on the throne (or twelve, depending on the orbits of either Venus or Jupiter).

    Talk about strict term limits! These rulers, who drink from the same cup as Christ (“not my will, but Thine, be done”) in a ritual regicide practiced as late as the early 19th century in some parts of Africa, can’t possibly share the same world view as a modern nation’s leader – different era, different people, different mythology, and a completely different cultural perspective. An American president or British prime minister, for example, might at times take their people to war, just as sometimes did these ancient, cosmically term-limited priest-kings – and yet the economic, political, and ideological motivations behind the president’s or prime minister’s actions would make as little sense to these ancient rulers as their inner drives and motivations would make to a Joe Biden or Donald Trump.

    Is there no way, then, to connect with an “alien” culture?

    Spengler posits there is – and symbolism (Jung’s and Campbell’s archetypal expression) is the portal through which we pass. Like Campbell, he embraces Goethe’s adage – “Alles Verganglich ist nur ein Gleichnis” (which can be loosely translated as “Everything temporal is but a metaphor”) . . . so, for Spengler, every part of a culture, from architecture to mathematics to mythology to concepts of time and space to an individual’s experience of her/his inner world, is a metaphor for the whole, and vice versa (very much in tune with the holographic model of the cosmos adopted by quantum physicists like David Bohm – but that’s another post).

    That’s Spengler’s thesis in a nutshell – superficially stated, yes, and absent all nuance, but gets the idea across . . .

    Joseph Campbell often cites Adolf Bastian, a 19th century ethnographer and anthropologist who speaks of  Elementargedanken (“elementary ideas,” congruent with Jung’s “archetypes of the collective unconscious” – what some will refer to as “eternal truths”), common to all humanity, in contrast with the Völkergedanken (“folk ideas” – a people’s local expression of these fundamental collective archetypes).

    Spengler sometimes refers to “eternal truths” as belonging only to a specific culture – but when he’s speaking of “eternal truths” that aren’t eternally valid, he is speaking of Bastian’s Völkergedanken. Just because members of a specific culture or historical era might posit certain “ethnic ideas” (or Völkergedanken) as “eternal truths” doesn’t make it so.

    For example, an “eternal truth” that has served as the foundation of western culture for almost seventeen hundred years is that Jesus Christ is literally the Son of God, who died for our sins, was resurrected, and will come again. However, this specific articulation was not considered an eternal truth three thousand years ago, and maybe won’t be considered an eternal truth three thousand years from now.

    Nevertheless, the archetypal idea underlying this belief – one of Bastian’s Elementargedanken – that of the central figure of the cosmos as the dead-and-resurrected saviour (“God sacrificed to God”) is the recurrent pattern of which Osiris, Attar, Dionysus, Jesus, the bear cult of the Ainu, and even perhaps the cave bear sanctuaries of the trans-alpine Neanderthal, are but expressions.

    Campbell did find Spengler speaks more from a political than an aesthetic tone, which in his journal he balances out with Thomas Mann, who closely parallels Spengler’s perspective but has an artist’s eye.

    Not everyone shares Campbell’s enthusiasm for Spengler. Whereas Joe was moved to spend two years studying Spengler’s words in depth (which, in my experience, strikes me as just about right), John Steinbeck – to whom Joe passed the first volume as he was starting the second – suffered tremendous depression and writer’s block after the first few pages. Campbell and Steinbeck had much in common, but they each read Spengler differently, out of their own individual frames of reference.

    I can understand how Spengler can strike intelligent, enlightened individuals differently – and, in my own experience, the first time I tried to read Decline of the West I got caught up in the literal and found myself outraged at the liberties Spengler seemed to be taking

    … but with a few more years under my belt (I’m a slow learner), Spengler makes much more sense, for his words and examples strike a chord in my own experience.

    Nonetheless, I don’t uncritically accept Spengler. As with any author – even, at times, Campbell himself – there are elements in Spengler that don’t ring true, that seem artificial and contrived – which is why we don’t put all our eggs in one basket and read just one author, bet exclusively on just one thinker as the possessor of the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

    Joseph Campbell’s encounters with Oswald Spengler and Leo Frobenius switched his interest from history to myth. In their bio of Campbell, Robin and Stephen Larsen credit these two men with providing Campbell the impetus for his life work.


    The whole notion is that myths – transformations of deep structures into living images – are indeed possessed of power and such tenacity that despite their acceptance or rejection by the dominant culture, they are still found in people’s lives today – in their dreams and visions, their compulsions, their ecstasies and their madness. “With this,” wrote Campbell in his journal, “the emphasis of my studies shifted from the historical to the mythological. I began to read, with fresh understanding, the novels of Thomas Mann and the Ulysses of James Joyce. The role of the artist I now understood as that of revealing through the world-surfaces the implicit forms of the soul, and the great agent to assist the artist in this work was the myth.”

    So long as man’s character remains, Western man need not struggle to “find himself” – he will be unable to do otherwise; Campbell hypothesized penetratingly: “Himself will be only too present.”

    “What man must strive for is to break past any limitation – to the myth itself,” Campbell wrote. Spengler was a master of styles, it is true, but “inflected through all these styles is the archetypal form of man: the myth is the symbolic statement of the grand lines of that archetype: the modern artist is in a position to lead the way back to an experience of the myth: this experience will re-introduce man to the grand lines of his own nature and will establish him in harmony with his own vast solemn depths: every trait, every problem, every form of his own life and of the life of his culture, and of the life of mankind itself, will be found validated in this experience.”

    Those who work in this field and pursue this great realization, thought Campbell, will pave the way for what Spengler called “the Second Religiousness.” The spiritual impulse now released from its fetters to a specific body of culture forms, Campbell postulated, was in a position to recognize the energy behind all the forms of life, including one’s own character.

    We can see why this realization moved Campbell so powerfully. Gleaned from his endless forays into a bewildering variety of studies – from primeval culture to the Eastern wisdom traditions to modern art and literature – the central insight now seemed to touch all facets of life. It could just be the thing to open the eyes, mind, and heart of mankind to its common heritage. And it might just be worth spending the rest of one’s life exploring and describing.


    Even were I to never get a thing out of Spengler, I’m glad his work triggered that impulse in Campbell …


    Hello ,
    Great topic !!!
    Gotta love a
    Star Spangled Spengler
    “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
    Hath had elsewhere its setting,
    And cometh from afar:”
    One Human’s East is
    Another Human’s West
    Sunrise Moonrise Earthrise
    Be damned
    It’s all just stuff
    Moving through
    Space & Time
    The cycles of nature
    Of seasons
    Of vegetation
    Hold sway no more
    As metaphor as allegory
    In the halls of History
    The halls of Science
    Logic and rational thought
    Shall not succumb to poetic entendre
    Intimidation intimation
    But the Masses Shall
    The great awaken shall come
    The Exodus of intellect shall rise
    From the Top of the unfinished pyramid
    From the Burning Bush of Life
    To provide the Way for Us
    🎶We were born before the wind
    Also younger than the Sun …🎶
    We existed before the Big Bang
    We shall “Be”after the Big Freeze …
    Spengler achieved his Butterfly effect …
    History is now much more engaging through
    Sid Meier …

    I can almost see a Coach With Six Insides … the unfinished pyramids of a tesseract … Dancing …following the trajectory of evolution … of Spengler … dropping its foot through space and time … a Cube falling from on high With the stamp of successive civilization each building on the ruins of the preceding civilization. Roots sucking the marrow reusing recycling the nutrients … to build the bricks of hierarchy …

    In an infinite Universe
    I am sure someone Once said …
    I am a citizen of the the multiverse !!!
    Perhaps a hundred hairless apes thought it … wrote it …
    Or at the very least infinite monkeys typed it …

    Remember way back
    When we were One ???
    Now ?
    Now we communicate spookily at a distance …
    Just two slices of π , spiraling away from the center through the dance of the double helix …
    Two Arcs in the night … Wilson and Penzias
    Crick-ey it’s elemental my dear Watson !!!
    Jus a swim in da Deep Blue !!!
    Y is the cry …
    Of the tears
    That Rusts the keyboard
    Submerges the crystal diode
    That resonates creation …
    From a Diamond Lotus Sutra …
    All hail
    All Carbon Life Forms
    Created under pressure …
    Just follow the cleaving
    Fracture line in the
    Crystalline Matrix …
    For Life , like Hope
    Springs Eternal …
    It has Risen
    He has Risen …
    Like a Blade of grass ^^^
    A Pansy at my feet …
    An Acorn …


    Everyone loves a good Oz story
    Blake’s – Ozymandias
    Oswald Spengler’s – Decline
    Baum’s – Wizard
    Osbourne’s – Crazy Train
    Australia’s – First Nation
    All converge a seer scryer in a poetic commingling
    Of metamodern American English
    The vulgar lingua franca
    Of the great city of
    Outside the walls
    MicroEnkidu spits rap
    To fluid in flux
    for the elders to comprehend
    The cyber fall
    Is at hand
    Disruptive technology
    Shall tweet the decline
    From the ashes
    A metempsychotic
    Musing of Civilization

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