Decline of The West

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization is Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its “vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization. In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted that all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which most of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy; this is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security.”


History has recorded a number of civilizations that have committed suicide. One of the theories about the collapse of the pre-Columbian Maya, for example, is that they destroyed the forests that surrounded them and also sustained them. When the forests were gone, the people died out or were largely absorbed by other cultures.

Wallace Stegner wrote a most interesting book about his years as a child on the Canada/U.S. border which includes fascinating historical, geological, and geographical information. It also focuses on the plight of the plains Indians who peopled that area for so many years, especially toward the end of the Indian wars when many tribes sought sanctuary in Canada from the avowed American policy of extermination. Despite the fact that the Americans practiced genocide on a grand scale, Stegner makes a good case that the Indians themselves contributed to their own downfall by destroying the environment that sustained them — by killing off the buffalo, for example. Granted, they had considerable assistance in this destruction from buffalo hunters and white “sportsmen.” But native practices such as driving whole herds of buffalo off the edge of cliffs, coupled with such common practices as having each member of a hunting party of the métis killing six or eight buffalo “from which his women would take the tongues and hump ribs and leave the rest, even the hides,” most assuredly helped bring the end to thousands of Indians themselves. As Stegner points out, the men surveying the Canadian/U.S. border witnessed this sort of mindless slaughter and working their way “across the arid cactus plain . . . pushed through the carrion stink of a way of life recklessly destroying itself.” In a word, history repeatedly shows us humans bent on self-destruction, destroying the environment that sustains them. Does this sound familiar? Consider some of the things we have done to ourselves just this past year alone, in a year when the planet experienced record-high temperatures and human populations continued to spiral out of control:

At present 4 out of 10 power plants in this country have no advanced emissions controls despite EPA limits on such emissions.

Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol to protect its burgeoning tar sands oil developments.

Russian government documents revealed that the country spills 5 million tons of oil a year — equivalent to seven Deepwater Horizon disasters annually. Shell Oil, in the meantime, spilled 13,400 gallons of gasoline and drilling fluid into the Gulf of Mexico  and more than 100 times as much oil off the coast of Nigeria. Despite this, the Obama administration approved Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic.

Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide rose by 5.9 percent last year, the largest jump in any year since the start of the industrial revolution.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the United States suffered a record dozen climate disasters causing damages of $1 billion or more each.

Arnold Toynbee, in his remarkable Study of History examined 21 separate civilizations he marked out from the beginnings of recorded history, 16 of which have disappeared. He determined that there are definite rhythms that recur in each of those civilizations and that the disappearance of each followed definite causes — many of them self-inflicted. One of the major causes, according to Toynbee, is the fact that “a challenge arises which the civilization in question fails to meet.”  Toynbee’s own conclusion was that our civilization is showing definite signs of deterioration and it can be saved only by recovering “the use of a spiritual faculty which we have been doing our utmost to sterilize.” Whether or not we agree with Toynbee, it is clear that we currently face innumerable challenges and the failure to meet those challenges can be catastrophic. Meeting them begins with awareness. And this begins by reading history and learning from our past mistakes and the mistakes of past civilizations that have come and gone — in many cases as a result of their own fixation on immediate needs with no thought for tomorrow.