The Declines of the West

3 min

Now barely a century ago the unclassifiable German thinker Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was revising the first volume of The decline of the West published in 1918, and was in the midst of writing the second, which appeared in 1923. This long and dense essay, now almost forgotten, was probably the most influential of the first half of the 20th century. By 1921 Europe had left behind the unprecedented ravages of World War I, as well as the deadly influenza of 1918. People needed an answer, or at least a clue, to help them digest the immense disaster, and the word decadence is very inviting. It is exactly the same today, even though the inviting concepts have changed. A hundred years ago, Spengler presented the history of the great civilisations in the context of a kind of life cycle that went from the emergence to death, passing through an inevitable cycle of decadence. With that bombastic and always a bit muddled style of the Nietzscheans, Spengler considered that the key to the decadence of the West lay in the decline of the Faustian spirit, that is, of the transgression of limits, of going beyond natural impositions. Wanting is part of this Faustian spirit, but, as the myth of Icarus explains so well, it can have fatal consequences. In fact, one of the first uses of airplanes at the beginning of the twentieth century was bombing.

At a political level, he believed that the main political consequence of the decadence of the Faustian spirit had been the enthronement of the masses as the new political subject. More than an animosity against the foundational idea of democracy, the epoch to which we are referring held a suspicion towards that new collective subject. Like Nietzsche, it denounced the illusion of freedom in a modern sense. According to Spengler, the masses of the early twentieth century did not realise that the real weapon of the press, for example, was not what it said but precisely what it failed to say. The masses of 1921, to round off the chronological reference, frightened most intellectuals. Right-wing or left-wing totalitarianisms had not yet hatched, but it is clear that the serpent's egg had already been laid in the midst of those faceless, magmatic mobs that filled the streets with any excuse and looked for a guide at any cost.

Just a century later, and with a different language, we are still preoccupied with both the Faustian idea of transgression and that of decadence. There are few things more transgressive than transplanting a heart or irrigating the desert, but we only want to highlight the negative consequences of this going beyond the limits imposed by nature. Thus, changing Spengler's thesis of a hundred years ago, we consider that the cause of our decadence, that of the 21st century, lies precisely in the fact of persisting in that spirit. Just a few days ago, I read an article by the writer Elvira Lindo that said "Among all the possible denialisms [...] this was about denying any relationship between the pandemic and the way in which man has violated spaces and species to the point of favouring the spread of viruses for which our immune system is not prepared. Isn't this ridiculous - they said -, since we have also suffered the plague or the Spanish flu, to relate the coronavirus with deforestation?" By means of a rhetorical quibble as old as the hills - anticipating a clear and unanswerable objection and thus preventing the interlocutor from using it so as not to repeat himself - Lindo reproduced an idea lacking in fundamentals, but as inviting as the one used a hundred years ago, bringing this Spenglerian circle we are commenting on to a close.

Inviting concepts are irresistible. They are like a chocolate egg with a little prize inside. The nuances, on the other hand, are like unsalted chard: not only are they not attractive, but they generate rejection. I don't think there is any minimally reasonable and decent person who considers the extermination of endangered animals or the pollution of the seas to be positive. But when it comes to the nuances - for the simple fact of being a transformative process, human activity also has undesirable consequences - the conceptual tidbit loses its charm. It's either black or white. I would like to think that this kind of simplifications are politically innocuous, that is, that they do not generate a mental framework based on primary dichotomies. In fact, and bearing in mind that we are referring to the twenties of the last century in relation to today, I would like to think that, despite the symmetries, history does not repeat itself

Ferran Sáez Mateu is a philosopher