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Decline of the West, a hundred years on

The ‘parasitical, contemptuous city dweller’? We’ve seen him before

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

The first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) was published in 1918, followed by the second volume in 1922. It caused a sensation at the time. Spengler’s thesis is that all great cultures have direction – that is, that they bud and bloom and then die. The image suggested by the word Untergang (‘undergoing’) is of a ship sinking slowly and inexorably beneath the waters. Spengler argued that the decline into moribundity begins when culture is succeeded by civilisation – that is, when the megalopolis, with its commercial, materialistic and anti-religious values, triumphs over the town. He saw the Great War as marking this point for the West. As the centenary of the first appearance of Untergang approaches, it might be worth enquiring as to whether the symptoms of decline may have got worse, the signs more monstrous.

This subject deserves a book of its own; but perhaps we can isolate some features that may cast some light on contemporary issues in Australia. The succession of Greece by Rome was for the Classical culture what the Great War is to the Western. Spengler said about such transitions that:

In place of a world, there is a city, a point, in which the whole life of broad regions is collecting while the rest dries up … [there is] the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman …

I suggest that this might be a useful lens through which to view the dichotomy of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull: the former, the yobbo from beyond the pale, as crudely caricaturised by the usual suspects; the latter, the city man whose will, being that of the megalopolis, has brought him success on its terms. The inner city dweller Elizabeth Farrelly once asked ‘Why do we love the Turnbulls?’ Spengler could enlighten her. I interpret the successions of Barry O’Farrell by Michael Baird, and of Steve Waugh by Michael Clarke in cricket, as manifestations of the same phenomenon. The legendary dust-up between Clarke and Simon Katich in the Australian dressing room in this light has a deeply symbolic import.


Spengler argued that as civilisation succeeds culture, sensibility and intellect triumph over wisdom. Jane Austen, author of Sense and Sensibility, is an Enlightenment figure, of which age A.N. Whitehead said, ‘It was the age of reason, healthy, manly, upstanding reason; but, of one-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth’. I seem to be alone in seeing the revival of interest in Austen as a sinister phenomenon. Hers is the kind of reason to which Jonathan Green referred in a recent tweet: ‘Our best defence is our cultured reason. Our tolerance. Our audacious confidence in the goodness of others. Why do they hate this idea so?’ The answer to his rhetorical question is that some people are wiser than that. I take the vicious antipathy on the part of the usual suspects towards John Howard, and George Brandis in the bookshelves episode, to be expressions of the contempt of city intellect for cultured wisdom.

The American Chronicle of Higher Education tells the story of the Spenglerian end game. The typical university campus in the US, with its safe spaces, no-platforming, and contempt for due process in prosecuting sexual assault allegations, is an extreme expression of modern fragility. Streetwise is what the ‘snowflake’ generation is not. There are danger signs that universities in Australia may be approaching that state: witness the Indigenous safe space at Queensland University of Technology, which led to an incident which is the subject of ongoing legal action. The triumph of sensibility over wisdom is sanctified in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Spengler said of the Romans that they were ‘unspiritual, unphilosophical, devoid of art, clannish to the point of brutality, [and] aiming relentlessly at tangible successes’. The words ‘offend’, ‘insult’, ‘humiliate’ and ‘intimidate’ in s18C are all latinate words, and as such are mere tools, inert and lifeless in themselves, standing in relation to human meaning as a paintbrush does to a masterpiece. Turnbull, Shorten, Gillian Triggs and their kin may be educated in the latinate ways of the law, but the deeper heart of things escapes them.

A favourite aphorism of my mother’s is, ‘You can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl’. This puts Spengler’s attitude to race in a nutshell. I interpret the modern hypersensitivity to questions of race as arising from a horror of the scientistic approach to it, from which the concept of a master race is but a short step. Spengler had a similar horror. He despised Hitler, and Hitler returned the compliment, suppressing him, thankfully, rather than applying the final solution. For Spengler, culture is race: race derives primarily from the landscape, and is expressed through cultural production. Pauline Hanson is undoubtedly a girl of the country, who feels race and culture in her bones. Spengler’s words ring true in relation to her persecutors: ‘To the world-city belongs not a folk but a mob’.

Throughout 2015 there was a screen in the Wentworth food court at Sydney University which read, ‘Why does Tony Abbott hate students?’ On the contrary, the wise person can discern the fate that must be visited upon later generations if the fragility of modern life, which is largely city life, is not addressed.

Spengler said that the Romans stood ‘between the Hellenic culture and nothingness’. His The Decline of the West can help us avoid a similar fate.

Michael Buhagiar is an educator in the higher education and vocational systems


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