Monday, September 24, 2018

Pompeii has fallen

“Man and Technics” is a short work by Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), the pessimistic German philosopher of history mostly known for his monumental two-volume work “The Decline of the West”. While I find the cyclical and pessimistic perspective interesting, I admit that I'm not a big fan of Spengler himself. The man's reactionary, elitist and quasi-aristocratic perspective on things is downright suffocating, and so is his strange blend of cynicism and fatalism. The decline of the Western (or is it Great German) Imperium is said to be inevitable, but we are nevertheless called upon to defend it while it lasts. (The cover of this edition shows the Roman soldier at Pompeii who remained on his post when Vesuvius erupted.) You have to wade through a lot of undrained swamp of this type to (perhaps) find something useful in Spengler's works.

I've never read “Untergang des Abendlandes” in its entirety (who has?), but from what I gleaned of the work, “Man and Technics” is a kind of super-abridgement of the larger opus. The main difference seems to be that Spengler ventures into prehistory in this work, while “The Decline of the West” was mostly about “real” civilizations. True to form, Spengler paints a picture of early man as a predator. He (yes, in this version, Man does seem to be a he!) is vicious, violent, domineering and solitary. He is a direct descendant of predatory animals, who according to Spengler have a dynamism and will to power lacking in their herbivorous and cowardly prey, etc etc. It's interesting to note that the predator mostly mentioned by Spengler is the falcon, rather than the more relevant chimpanzee (or some other great ape – I'm not sure how evolutionary science stood at the time Spengler wrote this work). Nor does he mention the wolf, which is surprising at first sight (surely a pessimistic reactionary knows that “man is wolf to man”?), but becomes understandable once we realize his obsession with the idea that primal man was a heroic solitary killer. I think it's obvious that Spengler is simply projecting his aristocratic-fascist ideal onto prehistory. He may even be projecting Western “Faustian” man, which is surprising given his relativist take on world cultures. His description of birds of prey sounds “Faustian” somehow.

The biggest surprise in the book is the last section, where Spengler discusses the decline of the West from a technological perspective. While he mentions the ecological crisis, he explicitly says that the West won't fall due to it. He seems to believe in “resource substitution”: as long as scientists and inventors stay on top of things, these geniuses will surely be able to find a substitute for oil or coal. The decline and eventual collapse of the West happens in large part because the genial elite *doesn't* stay on top of things, instead gradually succumbing to hedonism and nihilism, a process Spengler viewed as inevitable. Another factor in the decline is the spread of technology to the colored races, to which Spengler (at least in this book) counts both non-Whites and Russians. Due to globalization, the colored races outcompete and undermine the Western nations, using their own technology against them. However, since colored people aren't “Faustian”, they can't really develop technology further. Stagnation therefore sets in and eventually the entire modern world crumbles. Spengler holds out the possibility that perhaps East Asia (Japan? Or is it China?) and/or Russia might do something positive with our technics, but apparently we shouldn't hold our breath! No solution exists to this predicament, except remaining at our posts and go under with the banner flying…

As you might imagine, I have all kinds of problems with the above, but what struck me most when reading “Man and Technics” was Spengler's strong faith in technology. I had expected him to take the opposite view, but perhaps his early training as an engineer got the better of him here? Like a true believer in Progress, Spengler paints scientists, inventors and the captains of productive industry as larger than life geniuses and heroes, heckling both ivory tower intellectuals and socialist activists in the process. (Ayn Rand had a similar attitude and she, of course, was a true believer in eternal Progress.) While Spengler does mention the negative impact of the machine on humans (it makes them a small cog in an anonymous machinery or turns them into lazy socialists who think the machines will do the work for them), he nevertheless seems to believe that technology itself isn't to blame for the fall of modern civilization.

I did expect a few insightful words even from this bête noire, and since I'm disappointed, I will only give this work two stars!

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