Spengler's Distinction Between Culture and Civilization

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Hughes H. Stuart:

"There is the distinction between “culture” and “civilization” — originally invented by Nietzsche and later popularized by Thomas Mann in his influential First World War tract, Reflections of an Unpolitical Man. The former is the period of creative activity in a society, the latter the era of theoretical elaboration and material comfort. In the former, the “soul” of the countryside predominates, in the latter the “intellect” of the city. The former comprises the spring, summer, and autumn of a society, the latter its winter. Most civilizations continue hundreds, even thousands of years after their creativity is spent; China offers the classic example. Alone among recorded civilizations, the Roman world succumbed to outside pressure “in the moment of full splendour.”

So long as the culture phase lasts, the leading figures in a society manifest a sure sense of artistic “style” and of personal “form.” Indeed, the breakdown of style and form most clearly marks the transition from culture to civilization.

These cultures are mutually incomprehensible. The members of one culture cannot understand the basic ideas of another, and when they think they are doing so, they are actually translating totally alien concepts into concepts they have developed on their own. Nor do cultures “influence” each other in any of the usual senses of the term. What look like borrowings are simply the outer forms of art or public activity, into which the borrowing culture has poured a new content. Obviously, Spengler is unable to maintain this principle of water-tight compartments with absolute rigor. To do so would be to deny the possibility of making any significant statement about a culture other than one’s own. Spengler gets around this difficulty by implying—though never in unequivocal terms—that for a handful of rare intuitive spirits like himself, such comprehension is not totally unattainable. And since cultures follow parallel courses, it is both possible and profitable to draw comparisons among them. In particular, the historian may single out the comparable phenomena that appear at comparable stages in the development of different cultures. Using an old term in a new sense, he may quite properly refer to them as “contemporaneous.”