This brings us to the dynamical mystery of civilizations, their apparent rise and decline, and the misleading way in which a postmodern perspective has become a version of declinism. Modernity is barely underway, and yet a version of leftist or religious ideology has declared the ‘age of modernity’ to be finished. It is significant that the term ‘postmodern’ appears, before its appropriation by a cultic wing of the modern left, in the historian Toynbee. And next to Toynbee we have the figure of Spengler whose ‘postmodernism before the fact’ defines very clearly the genesis of the postmodern reaction to modernism. This in turn shows the clear influence of the philosopher Nietzsche whose attack on modern liberal civilization is one of the pivot points of the anti-modern reaction. The thinking of Toynbee and Spengler has proven strangely influential despite the many critical exposés of the limitations of their historical models.
The idea of the ‘civilization’ is central to the thinking of Toynbee and Spengler whose works constructed a kind of botanical classification of the various specimens of such, and the result has been a rigidification of the concept as some kind of dynamical entity, or even as an expression of the organismic. And this in turn leads to some notion of the lifespan of a civilization, resulting in the predictable onset of its decline. The great exemplar is the ‘decline and fall of the Roman Empire’, which becomes by analogy the misleading template for editorializing the fall of modernity. And this declinism has become the warning cry of many ‘spenglerians in spite of themselves’ who are nervous that the ‘modern civilization’ is about to enter the final stages of Rome’s later empire. There is something amiss in this reasoning. The modern world is a mere centuries from its dramatic initials incidents, such as the Enlightenment. It would seem a desperate shortening of a potential future for this to be already in decline. Between the onset of the Roman Republic and the final decline of its empire is an interval of a thousand years.
Toynbee seems to wish for a new manifestation of traditionalism, Spengler a renewed barbarism in the aesthetics of Nietzsche. There is something confused about this legacy of Toynbee and Spengler, and it becomes important to try and come to an understanding of the limits of their analyses of world history, with their concealed cyclical perspective. The rise and fall of civilizations is not a difficult concept to document, up to a point, in the chronicle of civilization, but something is awry in the methodology of these two thinkers. We can see the problem perhaps in the way Spengler concocts a ‘Faustian civilization’ for the West, beginning in the year 1000, and now reaching its final stages. Can this be right? The arbitrary start at the moment of the first millennium, the depiction of the rise of the modern period and the Enlightenment as somehow the approaching decline, and the final ‘decline of the West’ trumpeted at the beginning of the twentieth century leaves one to ask if the concept of ‘civilization’ is really the right one for the study of the historical dynamics of the modern ‘west’. The civilization, as a rubric is directly intuitive as a descriptive device, but the moment we begin to make assumptions about its ‘evolution’ in some fashion, we seem to be on less certain grounds. There is a much simpler pattern of civilizations than that of their rise and fall. We see a progression of eras beginning with the rise of higher civilization in a system that transcends civilizations and seems to generate Civilization, in a process of localization and globalization.
The gloom of Spengler is in one way understandable, composing the elements of his immense tome against the backdrop of the First World War whose unexpected savagery left the idea of progress shattered in the minds of a whole generation. It seemed as if the hopes and expectations of modernity had been betrayed by a regression. And there was worse to come. The unimaginable, like a cusp in history, was soon to emerge in the convulsion of Nazism and the Holocaust. It was, and is, hard for many to even consider the idea of progress again after such an unprecedented outbreak of the demonic. And yet the very tone of Spengler’s perspective, with its implicit Nietzschean embrace of wars to come and to be unparalleled in their virulence, is itself the self-destructive omen, the curious prophecy of the psychosis that seemed to overtake the ‘West’.
And yet the intervening years did not really show the decline of the West. Perhaps it has demonstrated globalization beyond the vehicles of the early modern, or the limits of imperialism in these incipient champions of the modern. But this might be progress, not decline. From the First to the even more cataclysmic Second World War and beyond the fate of this ‘west’ was one of triumph and recovery, and a second act of the realization of modernity. And the very notion of the ‘West’ began to yield to the globalization of its idea, and the creation of a new and larger oikoumene. For the idea of the modern competes with the idea of the civilization, as a term of periodization, and has no geographical or cultural bounds. We become suspicious that the idea of some ‘western civilization’, with its inherent Eurocentrism, has missed the point. There is a flaw therefore in the idea of the ‘civilization’ as the basic unit of analysis, in some organismic metaphor of its life. For the larger direction of history has shown the supposed civilization of the ‘west’ to be an appropriate stepping stone toward a larger sphere of modernity, which is more than a civilization.
The American Empire? The theme of leftist critique of American imperialism has recently seen a revival of the declinist genre applied to the United States of America. In Nemesis, for example, the author sees the analog of the lost of the Roman Republic in the American democratic system. This is a somewhat more relevant comparison than to the fall of the Roman Empire, but the very nature of this periodization could be misleading. In any case, the challenge to imperialism is not the same as the decline and fall of a civilization.
The study of history would seem to require a larger concept than that of the civilization. The issue appears to be not the lifetime of a culture, but the interval of transition to a new era, and the spread by diffusion of its idea, in the creation of an oikoumene. Once we adopt this altered perspective, many examples come to light. The lifespan of Greek civilization is very long, stretching from almost the Neolithic to modernity, and undergoes many changes in the form of its culture. But this is not necessarily the right concept of its history. Rather we see that this stream of historical culture has given birth to a whole series of significant moments, of lesser duration. The great classical era of Greece, which produced a turning point in world history, was merely an interval of short duration, several centuries, in a mysterious flowering of culture, one that, just as with modernity, produced by diffusion a new and larger oikoumene in a process of incipient globalization.
The brief era of the flowering of Classical Greece is one of the most remarkable in world history, and behind a disguise closely resembles the rise of the modern. It is in fact the birthplace, however inchoate, of the secular. The remarkable thing about this was the speed, and brevity, of the transformation. Between the eighth and fourth century BCE the entire spectacle of the Classical Greeks opens and closes, leaving behind an achievement whose immensity remains with us to this day as one of the foundational moments of Western, we should say, world civilization. We cast about for some means to explain this apparition in world history, but are left with an absence of clues of the sociological variety. We assign causes to antecedents, but if we examine early Greece emerging from its Dark Age we are left empty-handed as to causal explanation. What sociological factors could we list that might explicate this spectacular phenomenon? Probably none. We need a new perspective altogether.
In our search for the causes of the Greek achievement, sometimes called the ‘Greek Miracle’, we are left with the impression of something uncaused in its suddenness of emergence, and also with the unsettling data of synchronous phenomena in several places at the same time. Even as the Greeks in a strange spontaneity emerged from their Archaic period to a moment of greatness, nearby, and in a strange simultaneity, the drama of the Israelites was playing itself out, as the epic of a Canaanite people, again almost a frontier culture, who inexplicably entered the world stage with the creation of a new monotheistic conception of religion, and a great literature, parallel to the Greek, documenting the stages of the emergence of this challenge to polytheism, and the religious heritage of civilization, outstanding since the Neolithic. We are coming to one of the most significant discoveries of modern historiography, that of the Axial Age.