Historical cycles and Parallels

Through  the study of historical cycles, one can draw parallels between our civilization today and those of the past. This was something our ancestors were well aware of, from the first western states emerging from Rome’s ruin to the great global empires of the 19th century. Until recently, the specter of decline and decadence weighed heavily on the minds of Europe’s thinkers, as they saw the splendor of the ancients and how they came to ruin. The west itself was built among the ruins of the ancient world, and these ever present reminders of former glory resonated with these young nations who sought to emulate the greatness of the ancients while staving off the causes of their decline.

Unfortunately somewhere along the way, westerners seem to have lost the sense of history and place, and while the specter of Rome’s decline weighed heavily on the Englishman or Frenchman or even the American of the last century, it is something forgotten today. This in itself is a parallel to the decline and fall of countless great nations, who at critical times failed to act and by the time their better members saw the writing on the wall, the tide had already turned impossibly against them.

Civilizations, according to Oswald Spengler have a tendency to reach a “critical mass” after which they begin a decline- this can either be a gradual, drawn out affair, or in some cases, cataclysmic. This view corresponds with the traditional view of history which was one of cycles as understood in nearly all historic cultures. Once a society reaches this point, it is no longer capable of innovation or discovery, its era of flowering and new ideas already passed and what is left is the ability to reorganize, recategorize and perhaps find a new way to approach the same subject matter. Today we see this even in the vulgar arena of our own popular culture which today seems to be incapable of producing anything original. Art overall is either incomprehensible or kitsch. The American film industry for example, has been churning out sequels, prequels, remakes, even of films only a few years old, while new original material is sadly lacking. Our music likewise has suffered, with either throwbacks to earlier eras in the form of kitschy, nostalgic revivals of  music as recent as 1980s synth pop to the sampling, not only a line or two but indeed entire choruses or songs. Popular culture was never anything but shallow and crass of course, but like needles in a haystack, flickers of originality did occasionally appear. Even to what limited extent this was the case, it has become ever rarer.

Oswald Spengler, the “philosopher of the 20th century”.

Philosophy too has seen this. Ironically Spengler himself, who Francis Parker Yockey once referred to as the “philosopher of the 20th century” was essentially categorizing and organizing the different aspects of different cultures into a coherent system which determined the course cultures take from their flowering (Spring) to their decline (Winter). Aside from Spengler, what modern philosopher has the influence today that Nieztsche, Vico, Schopenhauer, Machiavelli, Hegel, or any one of the philosophers of the last centuries? What musician today can aspire to reach the perfection of a Bach, a Vivaldi, a Mozart?

Late civilizations’ achievements tend to valued in terms of scale or quantity rather than quality. A comparison can made between the temples of ancient Greece to the gargantuan monuments of the late Hellenic and Roman eras. Today we see this in the form of massive skyscrapers, emphasis on utility, etc.  While the decay may be viewed as lamentable for one attached to his people and nation, just as a human life passes away, so too must cultures and nations.

A culture is a world feeling, an unspoken drive and destiny which moves a people, while a civilization is both the fulfillment of that destiny and its materialization. Hence Rome’s destiny was fulfilled through its imperium but also the seeds of its demise. Roman success brought with it luxury and  complacence on one hand, and social unrest on the other. The luxury of the nobility greatly corrupted them, and the populists like Marius stirred up the rabble. As Horace lamented:

“This age has proved fertile in evil. First it stained the marriage vow, and then the home, And thence pure blood; and from this fouled source burst a river of ruin that has flooded Rome …Pyrrhus, Antiochus, Hannibal – the young Romans who brought such enemies to their kneesAnd dyed the sea with Punic blood – were sprung from parents of a different mould from these.”

Around 1300 years before Horace wrote this passage, the Leiden Papyrus of Egypt records similar circumstances of the dissolution in the kingdom of Egypt.

The higher officials are displaced, the land robbed of its royalty by a few madmen, and the counsellors of the old state pay their court to upstarts; administration has ceased, documents are destroyed, all social differences abolished, the courts fallen into the hands of the mob. The noble classes go hungry and in rags, their children are battered on the wall, and their mummies torn from the grave. Mean fellows become rich and swagger in the palaces on the strength of the herds and ships that they have taken from their rightful owners. Former slave-girls become insolent and aliens lord it. Robbery and murder rule , cities are laid waste, public buildings burned down. the harvest diminishes, no one thinks now of cleanliness, births are few- and oh, that mankind might cease!”

Today the same symptoms of degeneration can be seen today in western society; the complete dissolution and “leveling” of classes for the sake of a false equality that fosters the worst traits in man, impatience, greed, lust, a crushing cynicism and rootlessness. It encourages conformity and erodes the distinctions between leader and follower, between man and woman, between the young and old.  Most dangerous of all is that the man of today’s society is entirely ignorant of history, entirely unaware of the precariousness of his situation, of how fleeting and temporary his achievements truly are and how easily they can be thrown down. Worse yet, western man has been led to believe that he has emerged from a “dark age” never to return, and that the signs of decay are actually signs of progress to be affirmed and celebrated, accelerating the pace of his own decline.  The Great King Khosrau II, could not have imagined how within a few decades of his accession, nothing would remain of his vast, all conquering empire. By the time the Persians realized the extent of the crisis, like the Romans in the 5th century AD, and Egypt before them, their situation was hopeless. History has no pity and runs its course whether man is prepared or not.

The Present by Thomas Cole is part of a set of paintings along with The Past from the mid 19th century. One can see from many of Cole’s works how the notion of “decline” weighed on men of culture in the west.

The question then must be asked what can the “differentiated man”  as Evola called him, the man with historical awareness do knowing the hopelessness of his station? What are the chances of reversing or saving western civilization, or failing that, what other course is open? The answers in these muddled times cannot be clear cut. Nearly all the outlets of tradition in the west have been demolished or corrupted well beyond hope for revitalization, but even in the end, dying civilizations had their champions whose names still are recorded today; Sempronius Densus, Aetius,  Constantine XI,  as “the Last of the Romans”. These men managed to keep the honor of their nation even in its darkest moments. As Plato recorded in the Apology a man should be in his proper place, not fearing death, only disgrace. So our task today is to conduct ourselves accordingly, so that even in the darkest hour, our names may not be recorded by posterity as having contributed to the decline of our civilization.  For some at the end of historic cycles, it is tempting to embrace stoicism, accepting what comes as inevitable, enduring with resignation.  Whatever flicker of vitality the west has left is only as good as those willing to rebuild and defend what remains of its sacred traditions and order.

Additional link:  The Admonitions of Ipuwer (the Leiden Papyrus)

About Ray Wilson

Ray Wilson is a New York City resident with a degree in history and interests in philosophy, theology and entomology.
  • Septimine

    I think it comes as a result of the ease of getting content.  Once an Idea or a song, or a book is popular, and traced back to an author/creator, it’s hard to hit the same type of notes again, so to be noticed, you must be weirder.  Gaga doesn’t dress like a freak because if she doesn’t, she recedes into the background of thousands of other similar singers.  We can’t have a “traditional” philosophy, as in order for the philosophy to get noticed, it must be radical and different.  A novel, in order to stand out from the thousands upon thousands published in a month, must be radically different from the rest.  You can’t have a traditional fantasy (tolkien) because there are millions of them released every year, and people would go back to the original texts. 

    When communication is harder and books and songs are rarer, people are more traditional.  Because not everyone can get a copy of LOTR, a good story-teller can retell that story and make some changes.  When musical recording is impossible, a new rendition of an old song is more acceptable, as it’s their version of the old standard.

    • Ray Wilson

      This is absolutely true- i was going to mention literacy- while generally today high literacy rates are seen in and of themselves as beneficial to society, high literacy goes hand in hand with a decline in the standards of writing- the informal letter of yesteryear was infinitely more profound, more well written than even most novels and books today. The same is true in almost all fields- the ability to record music, for example, means that advances in technology can make those who would never have had careers back when all music was performed live able to produce records by layering or autotuning or whatnot.