Saturday, March 25, 2017

Spengler on classical Greek culture

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936)
I’ve been reading Spengler. Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, a book as capable of arousing controversy today as it was when first published in 1918.

Incidentally the title was not inspired by the First World War. Spengler had already started work on the book, and chosen the title, as early as 1912.

Whether or not one accepts Spengler’s theory in its entirety (and I haven’t read enough even to contemplate making such a judgment yet) there’s no question that he throws out some striking and provocative ideas along the way.

One of the most interesting such provocative ideas so far is his view of the Classical Greek world. Spengler sees the Classical Greek culture as being entirely alien, to the point that any kind of understanding of that culture is quite challenging. Spengler claims that the Greeks lived entirely in the “pure present” and had no real sense of either past or future. For the Greeks of the Classical era the past hardly existed and to the extent that it did exist it was hopelessly confused with myth. The idea of organising past events into an ordered linear sequence did not occur to them, although it had certainly occurred to both the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The idea of the future held no interest for them either. It’s a way of looking at life that is so different from the later western outlook that there is virtually no common ground.

According to Spengler the fact that the Greek lived and thought totally in the here-and-now explains a great deal of their art and their philosophy, and even their mathematics. The Greeks made great progress in in this field but their geometry was always limited to concrete concepts that could be visualised. Their art also reflected their here-and-now approach to life. Greek tragedy for example bears no resemblance whatsoever to Elizabethan tragedy. Even Greek sculpture bears a characteristic impress to their view of life. 

One very interesting point he makes is that we use many words (such as democracy and republic and freedom) and concepts borrowed from the Classical culture and this misleads us into believing that the thought processes of Greeks of the fifth century BC were pretty similar to our own. Nothing could be further from the truth. We also need to be aware that to the Greeks words such as democracy and republic and freedom had very different and to us very alien meanings.

Of course it’s obvious enough that different cultures have different ways of seeing and understanding the world but in the West we tend to assume that the worldview of the Classical Greeks was very similar to our own. In fact we assume that Classical culture was the bedrock on which our own culture was built. Spengler argues that this is entirely false. In his view the Renaissance was in no sense a revival or rediscovery of Classical Culture. Classical Culture has actually had no real influence on western culture. 

Of course there’s a great deal more to Spengler than this. His theory of world-history is vast and complex and at times fiendishly impenetrable. I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about Spengler when I’ve finished the book. It’s very heavy going indeed, but worth the effort. You plough through page after page of esoteric philosophical-mystical theorising and just as you’re about to give up he suddenly comes up with an extraordinary and terrifyingly bold insight that turns all your ideas upside down. 

1 comment:

  1. Quite understandable, living under that sun and with those beaches, that they thought in the present.