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May 28, 2018
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Spengler on mass culture

Opinion

May 28, 2018

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When Spengler was writing his book the ‘Decline of the West’, published in 1918, he had plenty of material at his disposal. Archaeologists had excavated ancient civilisations and decoded the cuneiform and hieroglyph writing scripts of Mesopotamia and Egypt respectively. This provided enough material on civilisations which had till then remained hidden.

Spengler surveyed eight civilisations from their origin to their rise and fall. According to him, the duration of each of them was 1,000 years. As far as the Western civilisation was concerned, he was fascinated by the medieval period, when knights observed the rules of chivalry and the Church rescued common people from day-to-day problems and assured them peace and prosperity in the afterlife – although Renaissance scholars referred to the Middle Ages as dark and as an era that had nothing to teach them. Romantic scholars challenged this concept and visualised the Middle Ages as historically ideal. Spengler was also among scholars who admired and romanticised the Middle Ages.

According to Spengler, the Western civilisation was at its height in the 19th century. He formulated his views on the basis of the perspective of Germany. At that time, Germany was not a united country and contained nearly 300 small states, which were reduced to 30 after Napoleon’s conquest in 1806. These states were then independently ruled by princes who had their own capital city which consisted of royal palaces, churches, public buildings and gardens.

Each state had its own protocols, manners and social customs. The aristocracy developed and refined a sophisticated culture, whereas rulers patronised artists, writers, musicians, architects and sculptors. These artistes became the pride of each state. During this period, Germany produced giants such as Goethe, Beethoven, Kant, Hegel, Herder and Fichte. Arts, literature and music reached excellence. This was the period when German culture and language matured, and German philosophy and history-writing reached their peak.

The situation in Europe changed after a spate of revolutionary activities. In 1830, the French monarchy became constitutional. In 1848, there were revolutions in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Eastern Europe. There were demands of constitutional monarchy and democracy. In 1871, Germany was united under Bismarck and democratic institutions were introduced. But to Spengler this was a disaster and the beginning of the decline of the Western civilisation because the feudal age and the age of independent princes was over. The institutions that patronised artists, musicians and writers were no more in a position to provide any financial assistance.

In the new political and social structure, the common people were empowered and political parties sensitised people on raising their voice to achieve their rights. Consequently, a mass culture appeared which replaced the high culture of the elite classes. Writers started to publish cheap, romantic literature and detective novels for the consumption of the common people. Popular music emerged, and artists started painting landscapes to use for decoration purposes or copied old masters’ paintings to sell on cheap prices. Elegant styles of dance disappeared and a new dance form in which the body violently shook on loud music became popular. The new architecture was based more on practicality, rather than aestheticism. The age of Goethe and Beethoven was over and a cheap and shallow culture of entertainment developed.

The press played an important role in misguiding people and providing news and features favouring political parties. Stage-dramas also deteriorated and lost all seriousness in their themes. Moreover, democratic institutions, traders and merchants destroyed the values, customs and manners of the high class.

Spengler predicted the decline of the Western civilisation and believed that since death was inevitable, the civilisation should be prepared to die like a Greek hero. In 1914, World War I proved a disaster for Europe and the idea of progress also came to an end.

When Spengler compared the high values of the 19th century Europe with the new mass culture of the modern period, he observed that the Western society was on a decline.

His book, when published in 1918, created a grim environment among intellectuals because his language and style were so forceful that the book impressed everyone. Therefore, an attempt was made to analyse his views and find out ways to rescue the Western civilisation from the final disaster. Historian Toynbee was one of the scholars who responded to Spengler’s observation in his book ‘A study of history’. The next article will discuss Toynbee’s response.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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