Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936)
Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the German historian and philosopher, devotes a suite of three chapters (VII, VIII, and IX) in his Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), to what he calls “The Problems of the Arabian Culture.” The third of these chapters, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell,” explores the parallelisms that, in Spengler’s view, and in his use of the word, make these figures “contemporary” with one another. The same chapter also contains Spengler’s analysis of Puritanism, but not strictly in the sense of Calvinist doctrine although he includes Calvinism in his discussion. Spengler views Puritanism as an inevitable phase of religion, one of doctrinal hardening and literalism in which a totalitarian impulse predominates. Puritanism has manifested itself in all the Great Cultures, as Spengler calls them, such as the Chinese, the Classical, and the Gothic. By “The Problems of Arabian Culture” Spengler does not mean to confine himself to a history of Monophysitism or Islam although these come under his three-chapter remit. Spengler subsumes “Arabian Culture” under the larger category of “Magian Culture,” which embraces both Arabia Felix and Arabia Deserta but reaches far beyond them to aspects of the late Persian and Syriac societies, to the Hellenism of Alexandria, and even to the Iconoclastic centuries of Byzantium. The term Magian also reaches back in time to the late stages of Mesopotamian society. For Spengler, St. Augustine shares rather more with Islamic theology than he does, say, with St. Thomas and the Scholastics. For Spengler, the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople anticipates the mosque. To understand the chapter-sequence on “The Problems of Arabian Culture,” however, requires that Spengler’s often shocking and sometimes counter-intuitive pronouncements, like the ones just mentioned, take their place among the over-arching assumptions of The Decline.
Spengler’s opus impresses the first-time reader as a colossal improvisation. Its erudition and seeming formlessness put off many would-be explorers. Spengler’s basic propositions nevertheless lend themselves to summary. Spengler rejects the idea of a universal history. He recognizes no singular history but a number of histories in the plural each one peculiar to its own Great Culture. Thus the Classical or Mediterranean Culture begins with the palace kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece and ends with the Severan Dynasty of the Late Second and Early Third Centuries. Indian Culture begins with the Vedas and ends with Buddhism. Western or “Faustian” Culture has its earliest glimmerings in the Eighth Century but really only leaps into being after the year 1000. Western Culture preserves a profound awareness of Classical Culture but this awareness implies, for Spengler, no actual continuity. Each Great Culture constitutes itself hermetically as an organic whole without debt to adjacent or precursor cultures. Borrowings are never essential, but only ornamental. Spengler emphasizes the organic character of culture. He regards each Great Culture as a living entity, whose mortality impends as soon as it comes to birth. Each Great Culture follows the same seasonal life-course – a vivacious and creative spring, a productive summer, a crisis-afflicted fall, and an increasingly inflexible winter. Spengler also makes a distinction between culture, as such, and civilization. Culture flourishes as the vital phase; civilization takes over as the mechanical phase, becoming more and more rigid until the machine stops.