All good things, they say, must come to an end. The history of our planet is about a lot of beginnings, endings and new beginnings. Living things are mortal. Are societies living things? Must they too come to a natural end? Human history has in fact been about a lot of beginnings, endings and new beginnings. Civilizations came and went. And now we are part of a civilization that encircles the world. It’s by far the grandest thing human beings have created. Will it last?
The great majority of people do not think this civilization will end in their lifetime but we are nonetheless concerned about a lot of issues that define life for a steadily growing number of people. We invest a lot of time and money into mitigating risks. The twenty-first century brought us a new department of government: Homeland Security, or Emergency Management as it is often called at the state level. It came out of global terrorism but also embraces natural disasters like extreme weather, floods, droughts and fires, earthquakes and such. It includes global warming and sea-level rise. It also embraces potential human-caused disasters such as nuclear power plants and chemical spills. It acknowledges the increasing risk and instability of modern civilization. It seeks to mitigate the effects if not identifying and fixing the root causes.
The US insurance industry is worth over a trillion dollars. US health care spending is in the range of $3.5 trillion. Do we need to think about an insurance policy on our children’s and our community’s future?
Over the last century a lot of sages have tried to understand the future. Some were science fiction writers, others university professors, some journalists. Many, but by no means all, were optimistic. At the root of doubtful writers you usually find Oswald Spengler.
A century ago, Oswald Spengler painted a depressing vision of the future of western civilization. His best seller, Decline of the West, came out at the end of World War I (1918). That war certainly had an effect on Spengler’s popularity. The then called Great War had been a horror. Nearly 16 million had died, nearly half civilians. It decimated the youth of Europe. The war was driven by industry: Battleships, airplanes, tanks, massive artillery, machine guns, poison gas. This war made it clear that industry could produce horrific destructive power. As the war came to an end, a flu epidemic took the lives of another 20 million people.
The massive slaughter of that conflict deeply affected a generation of writers and their readers. A revised and expanded (two volumes) edition of Spengler’s book was published in English in 1926. In 1929 came the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression. Then came World War II – industrial war on steroids. It produced jet airplanes, the atomic bomb and long-range rockets. Following World War II, the Cold War cast a deep shadow of doubt about the future. An abridged edition of Spengler’s book was published in 1959. Spengler has been widely read and while often criticized remains a classic for those trying to understand our future prospects
A century has passed since Spengler first published his classic book and history continues to progress, indeed at a breathtaking rate. I believe continued interest in Spengler is because there is more to his massive work than merely an apocalypse. Spengler was more of a philosopher than historian. He sought to understand essential patterns in history. After Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), historians became acutely interested in the fact that civilizations rise and fall. They began to speculate about the cause of the decline of great cultures. A dark mood lay over Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century with the curious name “fin de siecle” – suggesting an ending: A worldview of despair and exhaustion. It was Spengler’s time. It shaped the gloomy existentialist philosophy, developed largely in France, and the post-modernist view that continues to influence both Europe and America. It’s a cynical, despairing and often a barbaric philosophy. Its influence lingers.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were unprecedented in the course of history. The rapid, accelerating and overwhelming changes in industry and technology created mounting anxiety. Darwin, Marx and Freud did not paint encouraging pictures of human nature. Neither did Nietzsche. Novels took on a dark and troubling cast. Modern art and music grated the senses. The war merely confirmed that something was amiss with modern civilization.
The apocalyptic tone also appeals to the millennial Christian movements that sprung up during the mid-nineteenth century and that movement has a strong following today. The Bible, The Revelation of St. John, predicts the inevitable end of times.
For all this gloom, Spengler’s classic has had an enduring influence in many different academic fields and among the lay public for a variety of reasons. That the book, in one (abridged) or two volumes, continues to attract readers is in no small measure due to the depth of the anxiety that haunts the world in the twenty-first century. The list of seemingly irresoluble problems just keeps growing.
Spengler was born in 1880 in northern Germany to a comfortable middle class family. His father was a minor public official. His mother inherited a considerable fortune. Young Oswald was frail and withdrawn and given to daydreaming about German armies gaining victory throughout the world. Germany’s empire was at its apex and its industry and science unexcelled. German universities were a mecca to scholars, particularly American’s, who brought home the idea of the German research university. Oswald did well in Latin and Greek and excelled in mathematics. He loved poetry, music and drama. He developed a great interest in Goethe and Nietzsche. He developed a strong aversion to orthodox Christianity.
At university, Spengler studied Greece, Rome, mathematics and the physical sciences and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher. Heraclitus is famous for the line: “War is the creator of all things.” Heraclitus developed a metaphysics based on the fundamental unity of all nature with fire as the primary substance, an idea that deeply influenced Spengler.
After receiving his degree, Spengler taught mathematics and physical sciences in high schools. He added history and German literature to his teaching subjects. He is reputed to have been a good teacher but was rather humorless. His mother died in 1910 and left him moderately independent. He decided to move to Munich the following year and pursue a career as a writer. Drawn by the heightening tensions in Europe, he became immersed in the fields of politics and history. By 1911 he was already convinced Europe was on the road to a global war.
Spengler was twice passed over for military service because of his health. Despite considerable privation during the war he worked steadily on the first volume of The Decline. Following publication he quickly gained fame. Some 100,000 copies were sold before the release of the second volume. While he received widespread public acclaim, he was rejected by academia. Spengler was an independent scholar (albeit he lacked nothing in terms of scholarly credentials) and an amateur historian. As such he was intensely criticized by university scholars but in final analysis his reputation and work far outlived most of his critics.
Hit by disastrous inflation in 1923 the German people embraced Spengler’s prophecy of doom. They found parallels between the disaster of the war for Germany and the thesis of the general decline of western civilization. They took some satisfaction from the fact that in defeat they were really in no worse shape than much of humanity. In 1927 Spengler suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. He continued to write and speak on political and historical issues. He refused to join the Nazi Party and strongly criticized them. They in turn forbid the mention of Spengler’s name in the public media. Spengler died on May 14, 1936 of a heart attack.
The Rise of Civilizations
Human civilization emerged some 5,000 years ago in places like Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. It was an outgrowth of the development of agriculture. Early farmers settled into villages and villages eventually became city-states.
The first civilizations are now dusty heaps of ruins. Others followed, also now in ruins. The two-dozen major cultures (and hundreds of lesser ones) came and went. While some had disastrous endings, the others more or less followed Spengler’s pattern into inevitable decline.
For the West, the foundation of our culture is ancient Greece and Rome. Alexander created a vast Greek empire. Rome swallowed Greece and dominated the Mediterranean world for a millennium. With the fall of Rome came the so-called Dark Ages and then modern European civilization emerged. Now it has become a global phenomenon.
Society as an Organism
Spengler’s main thesis is that civilizations, like biological organisms, are born, grow, decay and die and that they do so within a fixed and predictable life cycle. Spengler, in brief, pointed out that civilizations, like all living entities, must come to an end. The decline of our present civilization is natural and inevitable. Spengler wasn’t alone in his prediction. Historian Arnold Toynbee in his A Study of History, while having his own theory about the rise and fall of civilizations, documented two-dozen now extinct civilizations. He lamented the poor state of our current one. Lewis Mumford wrote an extensive critique of modern urban society. Ralph Borsodi wrote This Ugly Civilization (1929) and other books critical of urban-industrial society. He promoted an alternate, more humane, culture. Today bestselling writers such as Joseph Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988) and Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005) echo this pessimism.
Spengler’s historic social process involves two major phases. First is Culture, the creative period during which “a great soul awakens.” This is the creative, spiritual, phase of the society. Eventual Culture declines into Civilization during which genuine creativity disappears and it subsides into “cold, abstract reason.” He did not divide history into epochs, i.e. Ancient, Medieval and Modern, but rather into eight separate High Cultures: Babylonian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian, Mayan-Aztec, Classical Greece and Rome and Classical and now Western European.
Spengler recognized that the modern European personality emerged during the Classical period. With the Greeks, biography (ego) begins to appear for the first time and with it a sense of history. The Hellenic dramatic hero struggled with alien forces, forces so great he is often defeated by them. This is fate. Ultimately, in Western Europe, the Faustian personality emerged where we find a soul possessed of a limitless will-to-power. We begin to think that we can determine our own fate.
Where Classical civilization is static and bounded by a narrow horizon, modern society is dynamic, innovative and boundless. It opened the world to exploration. It produced the calculus, a mathematics of motion and of functions rather than concrete numbers. It produced non-Euclidian geometry – culminating in multi-dimensional space and the theory of Relativity. Its architecture was defined by the gothic, the great cathedrals, which viewed from within expressing a straining, a thrusting upward towards the light, given an ethereal, otherworldly quality by stained glass. Its music is also uplifting, stirring and inspiring. Faustian empires spread across the globe.
Faust and the West
The archetype character Spengler used to define Western civilization and the modern era was Goethe’s Faust. Goethe’s story (as is Shakespeare’s Macbeth) is tragic. Faustian (wo)man is lead to destruction not by fate, as with the classics, but by his/her own deeds, by the pursuit of the will-to-power. Faustian Man emerges independent of the church, but in Goethe’s rendition, falls victim to Satan, or Mephistopheles (actually a German folk demon). Faust made a deal with the Mephistopheles, sold his soul, to extend his knowledge and power.
Our Faustian Culture emerged about 900 CE. The monarchal nation states began to emerge then. As Faustian Culture begins, two estates form, the nobility and the priesthood. The former are doers and warriors acting from instinct. The latter are rationalizers and systematizers. These two estates continually struggled with each other. At the base of society is the peasantry who lead a plant-like existence with close ties to the soil and cycles of the seasons, of birth and death.
After a millennium, Faustian culture has run its course. The priests created an intellectual culture, the height of which is Aquinas’ Summa Theologia (1485), a system of exacting rules for the salvation of the soul. This rigid order was briefly broken by the Protestant Reformation, which seeks to return religion to its original roots. The Protestants displayed a joyless and humorless “Hell on earth” attitude. But they were earnest and sober and soon, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, produced science – a new dogma based upon the Laws of Nature. As the scientists, the new fact men, replaced the priests, the nobles are replaced by the business entrepreneur and by professional military leaders. The industrial revolution emerged in the late eighteenth century and with it the philosophy of Hume and Smith and the idea of the power of money. At this stage, the end is coming.
According to Spengler, “Caesars” would emerge out of the era of contending states, reaching their Faustian apogee with the wars of the twentieth century. Spengler was not, however, impressed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin. The despots of the twentieth century didn’t make the grade Spengler defined as Caesars. It is clear that Spengler, while impressed by the potential of America and Russia, had a limited understanding of the future of these two great powers, let alone the Cold War. They created a dynamic during the twentieth century that shaped our history in ways Spengler perhaps did not anticipate.
In the later stages, Spengler wrote, great cities emerge that dominate society. That has happened. The inhabitant of the megalopolis is “rootless, atheistic, and thoroughly materialistic.” They are busy but show relatively little in the way of original creativity. The vigor of the people declines and stoicism sets in as the dominant philosophy. The family declines. A new, superficial, spirituality emerges. History comes to an end. The entire civilization collapses into the state of the “Fellaheen” mass of people “without vitality, direction or destiny.”
Much of Spengler is, without question, personal biases. His influence is more in terms of his literary imagination than history but that does not diminish his importance. It rather adds to it. If he awakens something in our imagination he is speaking to that in us that is like the demon that haunted him. As we journey through our own bewildering world we must become acutely sensitive to the signs it offers us – for we are part of it and it is part of us. We have learned that there are patterns even in chaos and that our most disturbing dreams are redolent with unexpressed ideas and feelings.
A century has passed and we are still here. The twentieth century was a profoundly historical period with unprecedented changes and attention grabbing events. Since 1918 we have had a global economic collapse, an even more horrendous global war that spawned the atomic bomb, the cold war and arms race, and a globalized economy. In the twenty-first century we have political and economic instability, global terrorism, continued rising population, accelerating resource depletion and climate change. For all that, only about one in seven people believe the world will end in their lifetime. (It’s closer to one in five for those below 35.) It is still an age of optimism, albeit an anxious one.
The Spirit of Societies
More than the inevitable cycle of civilizations, what most attracted me to Spengler was his claim that each culture has its own “spirit,” its own way of engaging with its world. That underlying essence defines art, architecture, literature and polity. As Goethe suggested and Jung later described, there is always the dark side to the soul. The West is bound to succumb to the dark side. The Star Wars series seems to take us into this myth.
Spengler elaborated the Faustian model in some detail and used it to describe the emergence of western culture. We are unique in the history of the world. The spirit of our era is defined by the opening of the world, following Columbus and others, and the massive expansion of knowledge with printing and the emergence of science and technology and then the industrial revolution. These events were an expression of the soul of this era – the energy and creativity of Culture. The Columbian era was the peak. We got greedy. Spengler believed that we sold our collective soul for knowledge and dominance of nature, human society and an entire world to play with. As with all civilization, we ran our course and are now in inevitable decline. As noted, a pessimistic philosophy had in fact already taken root in Europe in the late nineteenth century. Nietzsche was its iconic expression. This trend continued into the twentieth century with existentialism and post-modernism. We find it today in movies and the digital media.
Toynbee and prominent Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (below) concurred with this decline motif, albeit both believed a new civilization would form. Throughout history there has always been another people waiting in the wings – waiting for their chance. Now we are a single, all-encompassing, global civilization. We have also consumed the lion’s share of the more readily available nonrenewable resources. Should our current economic system breakdown; it would be incredibly difficult to build another industrial society. There are those who consider industrial history an anomaly, that perhaps agrarian society is our natural form. Followers of Jefferson and Emerson might find that a good idea.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalization of the economy dramatically restructured the way we live. And then came the Internet. Material progress has been astonishing over the last decades. It brought emerging economies into the western cultural arena.
This unrelenting massive change has been a great strain on our collective nervous system. The twenty-first century witnesses a growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, the decay of institutions, confidence in governments and a deepening social malaise. We are increasingly bound by rules and regulations, in effect a hardening of the arteries. It brought what many see as a decline in moral fiber. These are characteristics predicted by cyclical historians that mark the end times.
Did Spengler anticipate the twenty-first century? Metaphorically, I believe he did. While he would not have imagined our digital world, he did anticipate a decline in social vitality, creative energy, the rise of vast cities, the centralization of authority (both political and economic), the depletion of non-renewable resources and human impact on the health of the natural world upon which we depend. That this is a transitional stage of history cannot be doubted. The great majority hopes for continued progress – a Star Trek future – an unending frontier. This is an echo of the Faustian spirit. Nonetheless, it should be noted that we also seem to have lost that compelling vision of an infinite, pioneering, future. We no longer have a collective sense of destiny. For Spengler, “civilization” was but a ghost of the spirit that created the society.
Toynbee and Sorokin
Spengler might have faded from history had it not been for the works of two other cyclical historians who, starting in the 1930s, attracted wide public, and academic, recognition. The first was the renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee who published A Study of History in ten volumes (1934 - 61), along with a host of other books. A two-volume condensed edition was published in 1946. Toynbee was a professional historian and added considerably to the number of civilizations, tripling the number Spengler defined, and developing a much more elaborate theory of historical development.
Somewhat more radical was the four volume Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937 -41) by Russian expatriate, Harvard founding sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin. Sorokin examined the culture and values of civilizations in thin slices of time since the first. He defined two stages of a civilization: 1) Ideational, or the rise, and 2) Sensate, or the decline. An ideational society is vigorous, moral and creative. Sensate is materialist, hedonistic, alienated and unfocused. History is an oscillation between the two states. While this differs somewhat from Spengler’s Culture and Civilization phases, the outcome is much the same. Sensate marks the decline of a once great society.
Both remarked on Spengler, both reject much of his romantic drama, but they also suggested scenarios in which western civilization declines and falls, albeit not with the finality of Spengler’s prophecy. Toynbee and Sorokin had a more optimistic sense of the qualities of our human species. A new civilization has always emerged. It is the product of a creative minority and a powerful new idea – a potent new expression of spirit. Can we find evidence of that new spirit in the world today?
The future isn’t what it used to be
It was, not so long ago, popular to predict the future. Science fiction writers, going back to Verne and Wells, had been doing it long before Spengler’s book and a horde of popular writers stayed busy at it during the twentieth century. Futurist brought in statistics to try to make a science of it. It didn’t work. Many things predicted didn’t happen. Many things that happened were totally unpredicted.
A lot of people think that trying to influence the future is futile. Nonetheless we have hopes, dreams, fears and worries. There are certain new trends that are of concern, albeit not universally, like climate change, running out of oil, economic instability. But there is always hope.
I believe that history can be affected by individual or group behavior. Gandhi, Churchill, King, the American Founders, and many others, had an impact on history. We can tell such stories about business from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Gates and Jobs and Musk. They were visionary leaders and had creative associates. They all achieved certain goals. They also made compromises. They experienced setbacks and failures. Every business and nonprofit, many groups and associations, are started with the intent of making a dent in the world. Some do that.
There are a lot of factions, beliefs and biases involved in daily life and politics. We have to learn to realistically understand the dynamics of our stage of history. We need to question our pet assumptions, dogmas and ideology. As Mark Twain once remarked, it isn’t so much what we don’t know that causes our problems, as it is all the things we are certain about that just aren’t true.
Broadly speaking there are three possible future scenarios:
1. A Star Trek future of unlimited progress and potential.
2. A collapse of global civilization and a Spenglerian future.
3. Something in between.
The reality of life on Earth today is that it is highly stressed. Global society is vast and economically interdependent. It is unimaginably complex. The rate of change, already stunning, accelerates. The term “disequilibrium” is used. Call that “chaotic” if you will.
A lot has happened in living memory, since World War II. There was the Great Society period; Civil Rights, student protest on campus, civil unrest and riots in major cities, the war in Vietnam, the Counterculture and Human Potential Movement, continued escalation of the Cold War, the hydrogen bomb and ICBM, landing on the moon. The digital era brought the personal computer, the Internet, cable TV, the cell phone and mobile devices. It brought Google, Facebook, Amazon, Wikipedia and a host of cyber services. Things have changed – for the better or worse. For all its benefits, digital technology has increased the level of complexity by a quantum leap at least.
As the twenty-first century begins to unfold, it has become increasingly clear that we, and this includes our leaders and their institutions, have neither a clear vision nor a plan for the future. Optimists can happily stand on unfounded assumptions. For the gloomy fatalist, there is no future at all worth having.
There is no doubt we are in a high-risk environment. We all feel it. That feeling, Spengler might say, is a loss of spirit, a loss of confidence. It dulls our perception. Anticipation is an important part of our thinking process. We need to look ahead. We need to think about the consequences of our acts. We need a plan.
We know that to achieve a goal we have to constantly adapt to the unexpected. Most of all, we need to have the attitude that we can handle it. Nature, after all, designed the human brain to solve problems. It is more a matter of spirit, of self-confidence, of clarity and certainty that allows us to choose to create a good future. The future is not ten years from now. It is what unfolds in the next minute, hour or day.
Do we have the right to suggest that we might create a new and compelling vision and that the visionaries might work for an alternative future, at least on a limited scale? If all goes well, nothing is lost. If the world goes to hell there might just be islands of hope to guide the next stage of human history. Such islands will be the product of a vision, a spirit, and the will to determine our own destiny.
During the period following World War II a new and transformational vision of human destiny emerged. It was called the Human Potential Movement. Among its leaders was a sense that we had reached the threshold of a new, more enlightened civilization. That didn’t happen but a lot of new ideas were introduced into the general culture about personal wellbeing. That, however, is a mixed blessing. In an important sense, the twenty-first century represents a ripening of Sorokin’s sensate culture. The focus is on the Facebook self. We live in the present moment, eyes fixed to a tiny screen, an attention span of mere seconds. We crave personal affirmation. This is a long way down from the Faustian sense of limitless space, of power.
The Cove Institute was formed (informally) just a few months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The Cove vision, however, had been slowly forming for nearly two decades. It began as the transformational vision of the Human Potential Movement faded. Five leaders in the Human Potential Movement, including the man who named it, mentored this process. They brought nearly 200 years of experience to the table. We did an after-action exercise: What happened? What have we learned? What went wrong? What did we gain from the experience?
The cornerstone of the Cove Institute framework is the question: Can we control our own destiny? By virtue of reason and/or faith we have to decide that we will. Our core principle is that we were formed by nature to solve problems, to adapt, and indeed to improve our lot. We must exercise our natural talents to create a broader understanding of the conditions of the world, to define the root problems that must be addressed in order to change the course of events, and to devise solutions to achieve desired objectives.
In effect this is how we form a business or nonprofit organization: Vision, plan, action. In reality it requires a deep understanding of the world we live in, an ability to grasp complexity, to see the whole picture, to perceive patterns of interaction. And it requires the skill to intervene, to make adjustments, to adapt. These tools are available but rarely part of a university curriculum. We need a new school that teaches the knowledge and skills needed to master our time.
This approach does not propose to save the world. The dynamics, the energy, of the global political and economic system are inconceivable in power and scope. This old order can’t be reformed. History suggests that the old must die so the new can be born. Rebirth is a powerful metaphor. New beginnings often suggest an alternative approach to life. This process is not causal, not passive, but active. It a real sense it requires a reboot of the Faustian vision but we must become aware of where we have been and what needs to be changed. The Faustian spirit has run its course. We must understand what is emerging now and nurture a new spirit.
We must ask at what scale can we affect positive change? The Cove Institute vision started with the idea of resilient learning communities – small communities dedicated to the mission of learning how adapt to what we believe are inevitable challenges. It has been said that we cannot predict the future, but we can create it. From Toynbee to Mead we are told that small groups can change the world. Yes, that takes hard work and a bit of luck but we have the tools to do the job. We know how. We need to will.
We have learned a great deal about how nature works – a great deal about ecosystems. We understand that a community is an ecosystem just as a forest or lake is an ecosystem. Yet our economy does not function as an ecosystem. We have learned a great deal about complex and high-energy systems. Increasing complexity requires increasing energy to maintain order. It’s an uphill struggle. Spengler perhaps knew about entropy – the lost of order in increasingly complex systems. The more energy you pump into a system the more unstable it becomes. The more unstable it becomes, the more energy we pump into it to try to keep it going. The smaller the scale of the system and the better you understand its ecosystem, the better chance you have of managing it. Or more importantly, the better chance you have of forming it into a more resilient organism that can withstand extreme stresses.
Where do we start? A cornerstone of the Cove Institute framework for achieving an alternative future is in my book Self-Reliance: Achieving Personal Resiliency and Independence ( ). We must developing and mobilizing leadership potential. This book is a major step in that process.
Leadership is the foundation of community. Self-Reliance proposes that healthy people are required to form healthy communities. We need people who can comprehend the vast complexity of life. That capacity defines this new leadership. We need people who are attuned to nature and to human nature. In short, we need a new idea of what leadership means. That idea is an expression of the spirit that could define the next phase of our history.
It should be clear that I do not embrace Spengler’s endless dark age. But I do find merit in his speculations about the inevitable and tragic end to modern society. We don’t know if, when or how such an end might come. Whatever happens, we need to work on the problems this era of history mandates us to solve. That could mitigate the impact, turn the course, or give us workable options to adapt to what is going to be the consequences of a rising scale of change. And it could lay the foundation for a new, more humane society.
Transition Centre/Cove Institute