Few terms today are more contested than “Western civilization.” For some, the moniker captures the intellectual legacy bequeathed by Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, and countless others—a chronicle of human beings’ struggle to grasp the world in its elemental principles, a world which found itself profoundly transfigured by the rise of Christianity. For others, the phrase stirs thoughts of technology, prosperity, and scientific progress, a project of ever-expanding knowledge driving out the darkness of superstition. And for a growing number, the phrase evokes centuries of technocratic oppression of other peoples, whether in the name of God or capital.
The shadow of this question looms large in recent intellectual debates over the relationship between traditional religious faith and contemporary politics. At one pole has emerged an increasingly vocal contingent of Roman Catholic writers and theologians, all seeking to revive a vigorous “political Catholicism” over against the fragmentation of modern culture; at the other are the heirs of Enlightenment liberalism, who would push theological claims further and further to the margins of public debate. And yet the gulf between them may not be so wide as it appears. Despite their mutual acrimony, many of these thinkers are united by a common underlying conviction: that the destiny of the West is, truly, the destiny of civilization as a whole.
From the “secular” perspective, this claim is straightforward enough: values like democracy, equality, and universal human rights (never mind about their metaphysical grounding) have their roots in the Western tradition, and societies around the world will embrace them as they inevitably modernize. And while failed efforts at exporting Western norms around the globe have undoubtedly set the project back, among secular classical liberals, these general principles have still not lost their luster as normative—or, perhaps, regulative—ideals.
Right-wing critics of liberalism have long rejected that premise, though they are little read today. Writers like Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) and Julius Evola (1888-1974) do not appear on university syllabi, nor do modern scholars bother to confront their arguments even in passing. Indeed, those willing to academically engage this anti-modern thought have quickly found that the topic is radioactive. At the University of Toronto, graduate student Michael Millerman faced pervasive departmental blowback over his work on German existentialist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and contemporary Russian geopolitical philosopher Alexander Dugin (b. 1960). And recently, student editors of law journals have requested that scholars excise even footnote references to controversial jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985)—a merciless critic of liberal proceduralism who, notoriously, collaborated with the Nazi regime. In the minds of their critics, theorists like Dugin and Schmitt present arguments too radical, too incendiary, for a modern liberal-democratic society to countenance at all. And indeed, that concern makes a certain amount of sense because very little common ground for engagement exists.
But for all the efforts of the mainstream to suppress them, versions of anti-liberal thinking refuse to die. In its Calvinist iteration, this current of thought looks like the theonomy of Rousas Rushdoony (1916-2001) and Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995), who argued for applying Old Testament laws directly to modern civilization. In its Catholic form, it looks like efforts to resuscitate the arguments of Enlightenment critics like Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), Joseph de Maistre (1752-1821), and Juan Donoso Cortes (1809-1853), among others. And on the contemporary internet, it manifests in the Nietzschean musings of a pseudonymous figure who goes by the moniker “Bronze Age Pervert.”
Those altogether unsympathetic to this anti-liberal mood often lump all these thinkers into an undifferentiated reactionary mass which can then be assigned various names like “the Far Right” or “Christian nationalism.” But this, of course, occludes profound theoretical differences: besides their rejection of modern liberal dogmas, what exactly do these thinkers have in common? Schmitt would have had no patience for Calvinist appeals to the authority of written biblical texts; de Maistre would never have countenanced the contempt of the “Bronze Age Pervert” for institutional religion and so forth. How, then, is one to assess these critiques of contemporary life?
One possible dividing line, naturally, is overt theological commitment, or rather the lack thereof. In A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right, scholar Matthew Rose considers a cross-section of the twentieth century’s anti-modern thinkers—namely Spengler, Evola, Francis Parker Yockey (1917-1960), Alain de Benoist (b. 1943), and Sam Francis (1947-2005)—who in Rose’s account are united principally by their formal rejection of any Christian affiliation. Rose’s slender volume is structured similarly to Helen Andrews’s Boomers and Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread, examining a broad intellectual phenomenon through biographical sketches of notable thinkers. Whether there is such a unitary trend, of course, is the critical question, and on that front Rose’s selections are somewhat surprising. Yockey is a fairly marginal figure to include; the pantheistic Hindu fascist Savitri Devi, while largely unknown, would have at least been a more philosophically interesting subject. And the French Sufi mystic René Guénon, whose writings have inspired esoteric right-wing thought for generations, is an odd omission from the list of key players (though Rose has more recently sought to address him). Principally, the book is an extended development of a 2018 First Things article entitled “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right,” in which Rose characterized this “post-Christian” intellectual right as, principally, committed to the claim that “Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West.” While that characterization is perhaps an overstatement, it is certainly true that none of Rose’s subjects appear to have held conventionally Christian beliefs.
Rose’s study begins with a lengthy discussion of Spengler, whom Rose describes as the “intellectual godfather of the radical right.” And indeed, despite the presence of overt fascists like Yockey, it is indubitably Spengler who forms the central antagonist of A World After Liberalism. If Rose’s case is to be believed, Spengler was the prophet of a movement that inevitably—despite Spengler’s own intentions—bottoms out in gross racism. And yet a reader familiar with the relevant literature cannot help but notice that Rose’s study does not quite do justice to a thinker whose arguments, at the very least, warrant a more careful treatment. For all the flaws of those who have claimed his mantle, might Spengler himself perhaps have something valuable to add to contemporary conversations about the future of the West?
In the wake of the devastation of World War I, Spengler published the two-volume The Decline of the West, a sprawling, genre-transcending opus that offered a radical reinterpretation of human history and culture. Contra Hegel, in Spengler’s view, human history is not progressing toward an ever-more-perfect realization of the Absolute Spirit; instead it is permanently characterized by inescapable cycles of rise and decline. The proper subjects of rise and decline are not individual political regimes, but Cultures: comprehensive paradigms held together by background metaphysical ideas about the structure of reality. Human beings in developed societies are always products of one or another distinct Culture. Throughout Decline, Spengler refers to nine such cultures—the Babylonian, Egyptian, Mexican, Classical, Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Russian, and Western—but considers only the Classical, Arabian, and Western in close detail.
On Spengler’s account, each Culture’s governing metaphysical idea can be encapsulated in a single “prime symbol,” an abstract pattern or scheme that underpins individuals’ sense of reality and value. In the minds of the ancient Egyptians, the prime symbol was the Way or Path leading to death and eternity; for the Classical Culture, the prime symbol was the formed body extended in space; for the Western Culture, it is infinite space, and the concomitant “feeling of a loosing, Erlösung, solution of the Soul in the Infinite.” According to Spengler, “the prime symbol does not actualize itself; it is operative through the form-sense of every man, every community, age and epoch and dictates the style of every life-expression.” That is to say, art, architecture, worship, mathematics, and science are all subconsciously informed by the prime symbol of a given Culture. So it is no coincidence, for Spengler, that the Western Culture produced elaborate music; music always echoes and resounds throughout the seemingly infinite Gothic halls that exemplify the Western world-feeling.
No Culture, for Spengler, can possibly hope to endure forever. A Culture that has fully exhausted its internal intellectual resources inevitably becomes a “Civilization,” tending toward ossification and collapse in the face of younger, groundbreaking Cultures coming to awareness of themselves. A Civilization’s traces may survive in intellectually moribund form—such as within communities of “fellah-peoples,” those who cling to Civilizational ways of being that the surrounding world has largely moved beyond—but its creative reservoirs will have run dry. And for Spengler, the Western Culture had reached such a stage: the resultant Civilization might have a hundred years or so left in it before its decline would be felt keenly, but the laws of history would inexorably assert themselves. As the final and decidedly authoritarian political stage of this regime draws nigh—as, in Spengler’s words, “the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet, firm step”—Western man now confronts “the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing.”
The remaining four thinkers in Rose’s volume, in his telling, all pressed elements of this broadly Spenglerian vision into the service of specific antidemocratic causes. Writing both before and after World War II, Italian fascist mystic Julius Evola agreed with Spengler’s declinism, but critiqued Spengler for his emphasis on immanence over transcendence—preferring instead, for his part, to seek after a “perennial” philosophical tradition beyond all contingent culture-forms. Evola sketched out an elaborate mytho-history of a “Hyperborean” Aryan civilization originating from the far north, custodians of a primordial Tradition committed to participation in the transcendent through sacral kingship.
Continuing in that vein, American white nationalist Francis Parker Yockey penned the self-consciously Spenglerian tome Imperium as an overtly racialized call to arms. For Yockey, the days of the West were, quite literally, numbered: “Since a Culture is organic, it has a life-span. We observed this life span: it is about thirty-five generations at highest potential, or about forty-five generations from its first stirrings in the landscape until its final subsiding.” The Imperium urged a campaign of “redemptive” violence in the name of Cultural purity: “The soil of Europe…will once again stream with blood until the barbarians and distorters have been driven out.” By “distorters,” Yockey meant the Jewish people.
Rose’s book concludes with a lengthy discussion of what he terms “the Christian question”; namely, the challenge posed to orthodox Christian faith by this “radical right” current of inquiry. Here, Rose principally argues for the universalizing claim of Christianity as a function of divine transcendence, which rules out any crude ethnocentrism; in his telling, the “radical right” errs by “understand[ing] Christianity as something that originates from within a people, as an expression of their identity, rather than something that comes to it from without.” Equally wrongheaded, according to Rose, is “the idea that Christianity is an inheritance a people possesses as its own, rather than a gift they share with others.”
Rose—himself a Catholic—seems to have an uneasy relationship with those contemporary Catholic integralists who would seek a radical “integration from within” and a reorientation of the modern state’s machinery toward premodern ends. (Early on, he promises that a volume examining such ideas is in the works.) Instead, judging from the framing with which his book opens and closes, Rose’s governing theopolitical paradigm hints at a kind of Whig Thomism—one that treats the assumptions of Western liberal politics as largely normative, while acknowledging their vulnerabilities if left unbaptized. He notes that “[l]iberalism aspired to order society around a vision of human beings, abstracted from all attachments, whose fundamental needs are for prosperity, peace, and pleasure… If liberalism is in crisis, it is because this picture of human life has proven to be impoverished.” The point is well taken. So too is Rose’s observation that while “[o]ur loyalties to a nation, culture, or people can . . . become dangerous when severed from truths that transcend them,” such commitments “are not parochial loyalties that need to be exchanged for more cosmopolitan ones” but rather are “essential aspects of every human life”—such that “to ask people to apologize for what they are right to value, and to be ashamed for what they are right to need, is to tempt political catastrophe.”
But a crucial ambiguity—perhaps the crucial ambiguity—haunts Rose’s position: how should the universal claim of Christianity be understood? Does the faith require allegiance to a unitary earthly power instantiated in the Holy See, its development conditioned by the demands of a particular sociocultural history? Or do the boundaries of the Church exceed altogether such limitations? To embrace the former is necessarily to intertwine the destiny of Christianity with the history of the “West” itself—a version of the same historical genealogy that liberalism tells about itself.
Some traditionalists have leaned openly into the difficulty, reconfiguring traditional claims about “Athens and Jerusalem”: why not take the juridical forms and universalizing ambitions of Rome, the historically dominant “Western” regime, as valid for all time? After all, much of Christianity itself survived and grew strong in the womb of that regime. In the words of one prominent “postliberal” writer, “Christianity is, in sum, a transformative synthesis of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans, and we fundamentally distort its meaning if we remove any one of these essential elements . . . . [R]egarding world history, Christianity offers . . . the horizontal pole of (Roman) political history.” On this framing, Christianity qua Christianity is inextricably bound up with the Roman Empire and its legacy. The fight for that legacy, for the West as the West, is thus a battle for the Christian faith itself. Thus a fascinating paradox emerges. Catholic integralists and their fellow-travelers find themselves deadlocked with their philosophical rivals over the direction of the West, but both sides agree that the West must be the fulcrum of the great struggle for Christian truth.
But what if that premise is wrong? Answering that question requires, first and foremost, that some argumentative detritus be cleared away. Rose posits early on that “[Spengler] did not argue that there is no Western civilization without Christianity. He argued that there is no Christianity without Western civilization.” But this claim badly misstates Spengler’s argument. Specifically, Spengler theorized that Christianity first appeared within the “Arabian Culture,” was profoundly impacted by the dominant Classical Civilizational milieu into which it emerged (via a process Spengler terms “pseudomorphosis”), and then was transformed yet again with the rise of the Western Culture. At each stage, Spengler contended, the underlying world-picture changed while the overarching theological grammar remained the same. Early on, while Classical “names and figures and outward forms” were retained, the mystical “feeling” associated with them was quite different—as was the “feeling” of the “Germanic-Catholic Christianity of the West” which came to succeed the first “Jesus-religion,” notwithstanding the fact that “the stock of tenets and observances was taken over in its entirety.” But significantly, this precise pattern was not followed across the entire Christian tradition. For example, “Aramaic-speaking Christendom . . . resisted the pseudomorphosis, so that finally it broke away in the form of the Nestorian Church.”
One can agree or disagree with Spengler’s historical claims here (and no doubt many have disagreed). But strictly speaking, this argument need not be read in the inherently secularizing direction that Rose implies. For the Christian committed to a metaphysics of divine transcendence, it is no scandal that Christian belief emerged out of the Jewish tradition and into a world dominated by the thought-forms of the Classical Civilization. Indeed, through the eyes of faith, such an intervention in the “fullness of time” might even be characterized as positively providential. And while Rose rightly desires to dissociate Christianity from any blood-and-soil identitarianism, he perhaps goes too far in attempting to reject the language of origination and inheritance altogether: to deny the Judaic roots of Christian thought, and to treat the faith as a creed that comes exclusively “from without,” has an unpleasantly supersessionist undertone—a curious blind spot in a volume otherwise sensitive to historical antisemitism.
It is also worth adding that Spengler’s treatment of the divine in The Decline of the West is less of a formal denial of transcendence than simple neglect of the subject. Spengler’s engagement with fundamental metaphysics is cursory at best; while he “with Goethe, distinguish[es] as final elements ‘becoming’ and ‘the become,’” generally absent here is any conception of what Nicholas of Cusa reverently termed “absolute maximumness, to which nothing is opposed and with which the minimum coincides”—the absolute One in which “becoming” and “the become” are reconciled.
The omission is unfortunate because the reality of such a One is implied throughout Spengler’s argument. Indeed, the very recognition of Cultures’ prime symbols as prime symbols is to admit the possibility of analogy between them within a common metaphysical horizon—which is precisely what Christians should expect given a God who reveals Himself in nature. And this would seem to belie the claim that major Cultures are absolutely incommensurable, completely epistemically inaccessible one to another. Rather, such parallels suggest that Cultures are united by their apprehension of, and encounter with, the genuine Absolute—the One God—albeit under different symbolic forms.
In short, while Spengler aims at demythologization, his implicit metaphysic is not so alien that Christian theology cannot make constructive use of it, at least in some fashion. Surely one can find insights similar to these in a host of other sources, though. So why, in the end, are Spengler’s bleak prophecies of Western decline worth engaging in depth?
For one thing, many of Spengler’s core philosophical arguments hit home, whether or not one accepts his bigger-picture view of Cultures as in some sense “organisms.” Spengler-inflected discussions of Civilizational decadence—and the exhaustion of intellectual and artistic possibility—have proliferated in recent years. Writing from the right, one has conservative columnist Ross Douthat’s gloomy meditations on The Decadent Society; writing from the left, there is Marxist novelist Sally Rooney’s dissection of the unending, constantly “rebooting” Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is undoubtedly something to Spengler’s insight that, after a long period of creative fecundity, the expressive wellsprings of a Civilization seem to dry up, and mere repetition of the past takes over.
But more importantly, Spengler’s work gestures in the direction of what, from a Protestant standpoint, might be described as the redemptive possibilities of a history not committed to either the Whiggish view of social progress or to the traditionalist Catholic ideal of a single global ecclesia. Decline, in the end, captures the oddly reassuring insight that no history-bound form of Culture is truly ultimate. Change and becoming are inevitable—and from the vantage point of the transcendent, one might even dare to call such transformations beautiful. A life, after all, is inexhaustibly enriched by encounters with Cultures not its own. Accordingly, one need not languish in nostalgia for medieval Christendom or the Founding generation; those Culture-forms do not (and cannot) demand ultimate allegiance. (Interestingly enough, there is also an antidote here to the racism of writers like Yockey who claimed Spengler as inspiration: recognition of the incoherence of treating any contingent biological grouping as the custodian of final truth.)
Conversely, the grammar of Christian theology—wholly apart from whether it is ever possible to imaginatively reconstruct the past or to psychologically enter into the life-worlds of those who first put doctrines to parchment—echoes across diverse Cultures and Civilizations, from the French churches of Sainte-Chappelle and Chartes to the Nestorian churches of China and the Mar Thoma churches of India. Herein is found a continuity that extends across the shifting historical landscape of world-feelings, over and above the diverse world-pictures that structure the thoughts of individuals. But what, then, is the orienting center of this continuity?
At the heart of Christian thought is a singular individual around whom the world-pictures of the ages swirl, as Ethiopian Lutheran theologian Gudina Tumsa—who witnessed the violent transformation of the Ethiopian social order from premodern feudalism to a Marxist dictatorship—well knew. Gudina reasoned that since, as an ontological matter, “Christ is the living Lord who was raised from death by God the Father”, and “[a] living person cannot be identified with any impersonal system,” no finite instantiation of a given Culture could ever be absolutized. Rather, for Gudina, a Christian “can work in any system, and the living Lord Christ commands us to go out and proclaim his presence, the good news.”
And it was, in fact, this same mysterious person that Spengler himself found oddly compelling in the Christian tradition. “The incomparable thing which lifted the infant Christianity out above all religions of this rich [Arabian] Springtime is the figure of Jesus,” he wrote, stressing that “Christianity is the one religion in the history of the world in which the fate of a man of the immediate present has become the emblem and the central point of the whole creation.” The Christian story, it so happens, is one of eternity embedded within time—not over against it. And if the Christian story is in fact correct, while Civilizations may wither and collapse, the individual who is himself the axis mundi will never fade or perish.
In the end, to take Spengler seriously is to confront the possibility that “Western civilization” does not represent the end of history—a possibility which neither liberals nor Catholic traditionalists are particularly keen to confront. It is a step Rose himself is loath to take. But how else are Christians to live faithfully in a future that has passed beyond this particular paradigm? For the Christian dwelling within a particular Culture, the core question is whether one will acknowledge the transcendence that conditions the very possibility of their existence, and that relativizes any particular Cultural order’s claim to finality—as well as the inbreaking of that transcendence into the cycles of historical time in the person of Christ.
If Spengler’s predictions prove accurate, “a world after liberalism” is simply an inevitability; precisely what kind of world it will be, though, remains to be seen. It will, however, still be God’s.
John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington D.C. His work has appeared in American Affairs, Public Discourse, and the Claremont Review of Books. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and Yale Law School.
- Joseph Brean, “Naive Philosopher or Far-Right Propagandist? U of T Awards PhD to Translator of Sanctioned Russian Neo-Fascist,” National Post, November 2, 2018, https://nationalpost.com/news/toronto/university-of-toronto-controversially-awards-doctorate-translator-of-sanctioned-russian-neo-fascist. ↑
- Joseph Weiler, “Cancelling Carl Schmitt?,” EJIL:Talk!, August 13 2021, https://www.ejiltalk.org/cancelling-carl-schmitt/. ↑
- Matthew Rose, “The Imagined Citadel,” First Things, March 2022, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/03/the-imagined-citadel. ↑
- Matthew Rose, “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right,” First Things, March 2018, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/03/the-anti-christian-alt-right. ↑
- Matthew Rose, A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021), 11. ↑
- Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 1—Form & Actuality (London: Arktos, 2021), 235. ↑
- Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, 231. ↑
- Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2—Perspectives of World-History (London: Arktos, 2021), 648. ↑
- Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1995), 7–11, 190–92. ↑
Francis Parker Yockey, Imperium (Wentzville, MO: Invictus Books, 2011), 23. ↑
Yockey, Imperium, 567. ↑
- Rose, A World After Liberalism, 148. ↑
Rose, A World After Liberalism, 148. ↑
- Rose, A World After Liberalism, 154. ↑
- Rose, A World After Liberalism, 155. ↑
- D.C. Schindler, The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism (Steubenville, OH: New Polity Press, 2021), 11–12 (emphasis mine). ↑
- Rose, A World After Liberalism, 33. ↑
Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2, 294. ↑
- Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2, 287. ↑
- Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, 69. ↑
Nicholas of Cusa, “On Learned Ignorance,” in Selected Spiritual Writings, trans. H. Lawrence Bond (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997), 92. ↑
- The tension between the confidence with which Spengler writes and the inevitable “situatedness” of his own set of historical claims is a tension at the very heart of The Decline of the West—a paradox not lost on commentators. See, e.g., Gregory Morgan Swer, “Timely Meditations?: Oswald Spengler’s Philosophy of History Reconsidered,” Prolegomena 17 no. 2 (2018): 138–39. ↑
- To name one example, the idea of the incommensurability of competing intellectual paradigms echoes through later works as diverse as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. As MacIntyre wrote of modern moral philosophy, “[f]rom our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion.” This is a version of the same claim as Spengler’s argument for the general difficulty in translating, across different Cultures, ideas grounded in fundamental metaphysical intuitions. See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 8. ↑
- See Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020). ↑
- Sally Rooney, “Sally Rooney on Superheroes and the Myths of American Power,” Literary Hub, May 27, 2016, https://lithub.com/on-superheroes-and-the-myths-of-american-power/. ↑
- Gudina Tumsa, “The Role of a Christian in a Given Society,” in The Life, Works, and Witness of Tsehay Tolessa and Gudina Tumsa, the Ethiopian Bonhoeffer, eds. Samuel Yonas Deressa and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 127. ↑
- Gudina, “The Role of a Christian in a Given Society,” 127. ↑
- Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2, 264–65. ↑