Topmenu Calendar Archive Links Faculty and staff Publications Research projects Sitemap Main page

Artiklens URL:
This is the electronic edition of Jan Ifversen: "The Meaning of European Civilization - A Historical-Conceptual Approach". Working Paper no. 51-97, Centre for Cultural Resarch, University of Aarhus, 1997.

The pagination of the printed edition is indicated by red numbers marking the beginning of the page.

ISBN: 87-7725-234-9

Electronically published: February 18, 1998

©1997 Jan Ifversen. All rights reserved. This text may be copied freely and distributed either electronically or in printed form under the following conditions. You may not copy or distribute it in any other fashion without express written permission from me. Otherwise I encourage you to share this work widely and to link freely to it. 


You keep this copyright notice and list of conditions with any copy you make of the text. 

You keep the preface and all chapters intact. 

You do not charge money for the text or for access to reading or copying it. 

That is, you may not include it in any collection, compendium, database, ftp site, CD ROM, etc. which requires payment or any world wide web site which requires payment or registration.You may not charge money for shipping the text or distributing it. If you give it away, these conditions must be intact.

For permission to copy or distribute in any other fashion, contact

Jan Ifversen

The Meaning of European Civilization - A Historical-Conceptual Approach*

My interest in the concept of civilization was triggered by Samuel Huntington's now famous article "The Clash of Civilizations" from 1993. I have been working on different discursive settings of European self-consciousness for some times . The idea of Europe as an entitity or even a quality has a rather long history in Europe. In the 15th century the concept of Europe (which, previously, mainly had been attached to geographical representations of a tripartite world composed of Europe, Asia and Africa/Libya) was formed within a religious discourse which equated Europe with (western) Christianity. Christianity became the core value of "Europe". Christianity contained a trans-national - to use an anachronistic term - reference and even a global pretension, while "Europe" marked a limit to a non-European world. Connecting "Europe" and "Christianity" served both to strengthen the idea of an intra-European coherence and a borderline to a non-European and, therefore, also non-Christian world. Historically, this connection took shape in an anti-Islamic crusader discourse in which the Ottoman Empire was made to represent the negative qualities of non-Europe.

The growing rationalisation of the European states influenced the meaning of "Europe". The 16th century witnessed a growing use of the concept of Europe in an international political context. A state discourse replaced the religious discourse. States began to "speak" to each other on a formalised scene which was referred to as "Europe". "Europe" was less a religious value and more a system of criss-crossing relations (military, economic ,diplomatic and even legal relations - hat were contained within ideas of international law). The Europe-as-a-system concept focused on state rationalism (raison d'état). But this value was accompanied by an idea of Europe as a cultural value. Instead of Christianity the concept of "Europe" was combined with "civilization". This concept can be seen as a secularised parallel to Christianity. It took form in - what we might broadly call - an imperialist discourse used in the encounters with the New World. In their representations of the Indians (as they were named) the Europeans placed themselves and their continent in a superior, position which was related to civilization.  


Let me briefly return to Huntington. I will try to show that he reintroduces this concept of civilization into the debate on world order. He does this, it seems, in order to criticise the dominating paradigm of globalization. Globalization stresses the growing interdependence and interpenetration of existing social orders (the national societies), the increasing homogenisation of different spheres of social life (economy, culture, politics), and the creation of a global discourse within which different actors in the world speak. In Roland Robertson's formulation[1]:    

    "...globalization involves something like a global culture (...) in the sense of a general mode of discourse about the world and its variety." (p.135).

    "The discourse of globality is thus a vital component of contemporary global culture. It consists largely in the shifting and contested terms in which the world as a whole is 'defined'.Images of world order (and disorder) (...) are at the center of global culture. (...) global culture itself is partly created in terms of specific interactions between national societies." (pp.113-114).

Global discourse is made up of these different images of the world. For Robertson globalization is not solely a question of interdependence and homogenisation. There is room for differences - different responses to interdependence and homogenisation. But his point is that these responses are framed within a global language and not in some traditional language. The responses are thus part of a global discourse.

Huntington acknowledges the growing interdependence. But he does not see any global discourse. In his view discourses (or rather, actions) are formed by and from cultural entities. He sees the world as divided in different cultural entities. The - apparently - new approach in his view is to divide the world into civilizations. A civilization is cultural entity on a higher level:

    "A civilization is the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species".[2]  


One might object that this a way of transferring the 19th century nationalist identity scheme (culture equals nation) onto a larger scale - a kind of model of concentric circles with civilization on the outer circle. In fact, Huntigton does think in this way when he speaks of "levels of identity". It is less this rather simple approach to the question of identity construction that I want to take up than the similarities between Huntington's use of the concept of civilization today and earlier European formulations of civilization. I shall try to show that the idea of a European or Western (as it is in Huntingtons use) civilization as a cultural entity - a way of conceptualising a European self-consciousness - can be traced in a semantic history of civilization. This becomes even clearer when Huntington makes religion the center of these cultural entities. Western civilization is thus formed by Western Christianity (which, conveniently, seals it off from Eastern Christianity).

Huntington claims furthermore that "civilizations are dynamic; they rise and fall". Even though he does not really explain this dynamic - rise and fall only has to do with existence or non-existence - he attaches civilization to an idea of history and development. Civilizations work in time. This can be understood in different ways: firstly, that civilizations are formed by their history (Huntington talks constantly of historic boundaries and mentions historical events such as the battle between "the Arabs" (as he calls them) and the Christians in 732). Civilization is thus an accumulation of common history. Secondly, that civilization means an increasing self-consciousness. In this Hegelian way of thinking history is not only a reservoir of accumulated history, but also a process of increasing awareness or consciousness of the final aim of a civilization. History is not mainly events or tradition, but awareness of direction. Both these two temporal conceptions of civilization have their antecedents in the European concept of civilization.

Thus equipped with religion and history Huntington can divide the world into seven or eight civilizations. What he does is to locate civilization in a geographical space. Though he does not state it directly, he seems to claim a relation between a spatial configuration and a civilization (where it is possible to draw maps - which he actually does). This spatial configuration has been another very important aspect in the European concept of civilization. As I suggested just before, "civilization" has played a major role in filling out the cartographic notion of "Europe". Huntington constructs (or rather, in his own view, uncovers) a Western civilization located between the West Coast of the USA and a line somewhere in the former Eastern Europe. This civilization is a cultural entity with its history and religion (and its values of democracy and liberalism - but how does this fit in with Christianity?).  


As a modernisation thinker Huntington has to confront civilizations with a general, even global modernisation of the societies in the world. He does this by seeing "the increasing civilization consciousness" as a response to this development. This consciousness takes the form of "a revival of religion", of ethnic identities and of an increasingly anti-western attitude. A phenomena such as fundamentalism can thus be interpreted as a return to civilization. But, in a way, this also goes for Western values. They return (or should, in Huntingtons normative view) to the West. The Westerners should acknowledge that it is in their interest not to universalise their own values, but rather keep them for themselves. (The shift from culture to interest in Huntington's text indicates that his aim is to see civilization as an element in international politics.)

Huntington runs into several theoretical problems when he makes use of modernisation and globalization to revive civilizations. Firstly, it is not clear where modernisation comes from when changes in the world are formed by the different civilizations. This can, of course, be solved by making one civilization stronger and more powerful than the others, so that modernisation is related to a dominating civilization, such as the West. Huntington declines this solution, or rather he inverts it, so that Western civilization is in a situation where it risks to be dominated by other civilizations. Secondly, he leaves out the whole problem of a global discourse. It might be possible that fundamentalism is not a return to civilization, but something new that makes use of a traditional language or way it pointed to as being traditional. It might even be possible to see fundamentalism as part of a global discourse using concepts that have become detached from their historical foundations.

Other objections could be made from an opposite point of view. Said'ians would probably point to the relation between the concept of civilization and an imperialist discourse, where the concept is part of the European construction of the non-European in a silent, objectified position. This is certainly part of the history of this concept. But it is not the whole story. The concept has also played a role in making Europe.

Huntington's text is part of a European civilization discourse. It refers to the central meanings of civilization developed in Europe from the 18th century. These are:

- civilization as a cultural entity (based on religion)

- civilization as a universal process and a final aim (history)

- civilization as a space in time (from this follows the potential existence of several civilizations)

- the existence of a European/Western civilization  



I now want to go back to the 18th century and give examples of how the concept of civilization developed in Europe. This can, of course, only be a sketchy overview. I shall refer to some central texts in which civilization is framed.

Civilization played a major role in two different configurations of Europe. Firstly, Europe as a cultural entity (comprising the different states) - as a spatial figuration - was shaped in different texts dealing with encounters with the non-European. These encounters were seen as a relation between either other civilizations or uncivilised people. Civilization made the difference. Secondly, Civilization was seen as a difference in development. Civilization became a process operating in time - a temporal figuration - that involved an idea of historical or even universal progress. As can be seen from the first occurrence of the word "civilization", the universal perspective was attached to its meaning. It first appeared, in a rather vague sense, in a text by the French physiocrat, Mirabeau the Elder, in 1756. In 1768, in a Treaty on Civilization, he gave it a more precise meaning. I quote here (in French) a passage from this text:

    "Si je demandois à la plupart, en quoy faites-vous consister la civilisation? on me répondrait, la civilisation d'un peuple est l'adoucissement de ses moeurs, l'urbanité, la politesse et les connaissances répandues de manière que les bienséances y soient observées et y tiennent lieu de loix de détail; tout cela ne me présente que le masque de la vertu et non son visage, et la civilisation ne fait rien pour la société si elle ne luy donne le fonds et la forme de la vertu. C'est du sein des sociétés adoucies par tous les ingrédients qu'on vient de citer qu'est née la corruption de l'humanité."[3]

A rough semantic field can be deduced from this passage. One pole of this field consists of manners (moeurs), politesse (politeness or polished), civility or urbanity (urbanité). These qualifications are all attached to people. We can then draw a line between manners, etc. and people. But this pole is characterised as a mask by Mirabeau. Behind the mask is the true meaning of civilization; that is, virtue or rather the process within which virtue is produced or secured. To be civilised is thus to be virtuous. The opposite of virtue is corruption, which means destruction  


of social life. Consequently, virtue is the quality needed to uphold society. This quality is human or universal. We can therefore draw a line between humanity and virtue which delineates the other pole:

We can observe a tension between a universal pole (virtue-humanity) and a particular/cultural pole (people-manners). Mirabeau tries to solve this tension by turning the cultural pole into a distortion of the true meaning of civilization. The distortion will lead to corruption while only virtue will carry with true civilization.

Furthermore, Mirabeau attaches an active role to civilization (and corruption). It can do something for society. It is a driving force in maintaining and developing society. In that sense, civilization and corruption are at once processes, driving forces within this process, and positive or negative end results of this process.



For Mirabeau the important thing is to place the concept of civilization in a relation between the universal and the particular. But, indirectly, he also situates it in a space-time relation. Civilization is located in man, and at the same time it is a process by which man discovers virtue and creates society. Surely, Mirabeau has a very abstract idea of the space of civilization (man as such). The reason for this is that he wants to stress the universal dimension: civilization is an inherent quality of human society. But in the 18th century this idea met with a much more precise idea of where civilization could be found, namely in Europe.

Europe as civilization.

This idea was mainly worked out in specific type of texts that treated European encounters with a non-European world. In both fictional and non-fictional texts about travels to and encounters with a non-European world, Europe was attached to an idea of civilization. Travel literature, ethnographic studies and the like became extremely popular in Europe from the end of the 17th century. This genre staged a relation between Europe and non-Europe as an encounter between civilization and non-civilization. Travel can be seen as the discursive instrument that made this comparison understandable. All travel literature is composed from a very simple narrative scheme consisting of the two poles, home and outside: 

There are, of course, a lot of possibilities for variation: how is home described? What are the motives for leaving home? How long does the journey take? How are the others encountered? From my point of view , only the last question is of interest. Generally, encounters can be either positive (the other can be friendly, even wonderful, cp. Stephen Greenblatt's "marvellous possession"), or negative (the other is dangerous and barbarous). Whether a positive or a negative image is produced of the other has a lot to do with the construction of the self-image. To schematise we have two main types of other-self image construction:  


1) A civilised European meets a uncivilised other (categorised as savage)

2) A civilised European meets a civilised other

The first type is normally seen in European encounters with the New World. The second type forms accounts of encounters with the East/The Orient. It is possible to make a graphic illustration of howthese two non-European spaces are constructed differently: 

The radical difference is symbolised by the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The Ocean was the mythological frontier between the known and the unknown world before the age of Discovery. The Orient was not marked by a clear borderline. Different Eastern spaces (The Ottoman Empire, Persia, India, China, Japan ) could qualify as Oriental. The Orient was seen as a long, almost infinite space that began in Europe (cp. the concept of Eastern Europe). Two famous texts can illustrate how the two main types fit the two different spaces: Daniel Defoes Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes (1721).

In Robinson Crusoe the other is first presented metaphorically as an island. The radical difference is here between a civilised European (from England being the center of civilization) and emptiness which is, of course, the most radical way of posing an opposite. Here the joirney works as an expulsion from the civilised world (ending with Robinson being cast ashore on what seems to be a deserted island). The island is not only empty, it is wild and therefore threatening. Robinson represents civilization (the word is not used by Defoe - but the meaning of civilization is present in other words). The island gives a double meaning to the antithesis of civilization: emptiness and savagery. Robinson represents civilization because he can civilise. Civilization is both an inherent quality (that he discovers in himself) and a process within which the island is transformed into ...civilization.  


The result of this process is the creation of civilization en miniature, a copy of home. The civilization process is first of all connected with work and with the taking into possession of the island; work and possession then being the fundamental values in European civilization. Note how Robinson describes the island in the following passage:

    "I descended a little on the Side of that delicious Vale, surveying it with a secret Kind of Pleasure (...) to think that this was all my own, that I was King and Lord of all this Country indefeasibly, and had a Right of Possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in Inheritance, as compleatly as any Lord of a Mannor in England." [4]

Possession and work are the two sides of the same coin. There is a third dimension in the civilization process: religion. But, in a way, religion is also work and possession, working and possessing the minds. The island is transformed or civilised by Robinson. This does not even change when Robinson sees the first human beings, the cannibals. The cannibals or the savages play the same role as the island; they represent both savagery and a point zero of civilization. From this point zero they can be tamed (in Robinson's own words) and turned into a copy of European civilization. This process is represented by the transformation of Friday from a cannibal to a copy of a European. Even Friday's speech is copied: "You do great deal much good, says he, you teach wild mans be good sober tarn mans; you tell them know God, pray God and live new life". [5]Note that he refers to himself as a wild man becoming a tarn man. When he speaks he does it within a copied European discourse. He, in a way, apes the civilization process. Friday is attached to Robinson (as a servant and a child), but they never become equal. The reason for this is that civilization is located in Robinson. Only he can be the subject of this narrative of civilization.  


In this scheme there is only room for one civilization, the European. The civilization process must therefore be the taking into possession of metaphorically empty spaces.

In Montesquieu's Persian Letters we are presented with another scheme and another space. The novel (consisting mainly of letters written by the two Persian princes Rica and Usbek duringtheir stay in France) is composed through inverting the traditional travel narrative: subjects are the two Persian princes travelling from Persia to Paris. The first person in the novel is an Oriental observing and describing Europeans. Montesquieu plays with the positions by constructing the European self as the Other's other. This enables him both to stage an encounter between two different civilizations (the Orientals being a civilised and learned observer of European manners), and to posit a non-possesive relation. The Orientals encounter the Europeans in discussions where they are on equal terms.

The force of European civilization is not linked to its power to transform, but rather to a certain seducing force. The Persian Princes become more and more attracted to Europe. In this process they loose their own magic or sense of belonging to another civilization. One of them, Rica, says it clearly: "...mon esprit perd insensiblement tout ce qui lui reste d'asiatique, et se plie sans effort aux moeurs européennes". [6]The other, Usbek, reacts by turning more and more towards the - from the point of view of Europe - negative sides of the Orient, the despotism which for Montesquieu is the antithesis of civilization. For both of them the end of their journey means being rooted in a specific culture. Civilization is not directly  


linked with Europe. It is something we might detect from Europe when analysing European manners. In this analysis we have to compare with other cultures in order to cut away the negative sides of culture. In Montesquieu's text this process of cutting away is represented as a critique or lampoon of European institutions and manners. In the following passage the idea of a Christian mission in the New World is lampooned: "Cela est aussi ridicule, que si on voyait les Européens travailler, en faveur de la nature humaine à blanchir le visage des Africains"[7]. This is actually a critique of the way civilization is understood in Robinson Crusoe. The seductive side of Europe, on the other hand, is represented by the growing self-criticism of one of the two princes (which is spurred on by his increasing contact with the autonomous French women - Montesquieu here as elsewhere turns traditional opinions upside-downs the Oriental women normally symbolising the power of sexual attraction) .

Instead of regarding civilization as a conquering and copying process Montesquieu treats it as a double process of detachment and fascination. Here the journey is a metaphor for the intellectual detachment that enables the observer to see the universal dimensions in European manners. Instead of Robinson's island we have here two 'neutral' observers through whom Montesquieu reveals the civilization in Europe. Here Civilization is not the power to transform, but the "inner principles" (as he calls it) such as justice and freedom underlying European life. We are not presented with a confrontation between the civilised and the uncivilised, but between two cultures, the European being more fascinating, more seductive, and, therefore, closer to universal civilization.

Civilization in a temporal perspective

From the middle of the 18th century focus turned from a spatial to a temporal configuration of civilization. Civilization became the structuring principle of world history, both its driving force and its end result - what Adam Ferguson called civil society (in his famous book An Essay on the History of Civil Society from 1767, which introduced the word civilization into the English language). The spatial meaning of civilization is not left out, but has to be placed within a temporal configuration. This is what Ferguson does when he places the so-called rude nations on a lower stage than civil society. As he says it: "They [humans] will be forever seperated into bands, and form a plurality of nations" and "The globe itself is traversed by degrees, and the history of every age, when past, is an accession of  


knowledge to those who succeed"[8]. Even though rude nations can be found in the present they must be compared to stages overcome by the European societies. A simple model can illustrate this:

Progress is measured by the level of commercial and political refinement. Civil society at the end of the time line is located in the polished and commercial nations. The driving forces that lead to civil society are on the one hand knowledge (in Ferguson's words: Arts), on the other hand, virtue or the spirit of community. Here virtue is attached in a Machievellian way directly to the community (the nation) and not to humanity as according to Mirabeau . So, in a way, what we have here is a spatialization of social theory (through a language of community) that foreshadows later ideas of cultural roots.

Ferguson postulates a necessary relation between the two driving forces. Without arts there can be no progress. But without virtue progress can take a negative turn and instead become corruption. Virtue is necessary to avoid an atomisation of society (along the lines of Adam Smith). Virtue can be found in every nation, but the rude nations were mainly based on virtue, while the polished and commercial nations also have "arts". But leaning to much on "arts" create risk of a false civilization where refinement is superficial. The loss of virtue (or of masculinity) leads to what Ferguson calls effiminization (commerce turns into the quest for luxury) or to despotism (political rule without virtue empties the rule paving the way for dictatorship). Like Montesquieu, Ferguson constructs a position from where Europe can be critiqued. But this position is now placed within the historical development as a risk of negative civilization or corruption. The East or  


the Orient functions as a sort of mirror where the risk can be seen. Spatially, Europe (or the West) is placed between the rude nations ("the wilds of America") and the despotic Orient. Both play a role as mirror for Europe. America as pure virtue without "arts" and the Orient as "arts" without virtue.

Following Enlightenment thought Ferguson had to place Europe within a universal history. With the break up of this paradigm in the 19th century it became possible to give European civilization its own history. This is very clear in François Guizot's work Histoire générale de la civilisation en Europe from 1828. Guizot is writing in what we could call a Herderian paradigm in which cultures are seen as the foundation of the human community. Instead of having time frame nations as does Ferguson we now have cultures or spaces framing time or history. Culture is universal while history is particular, every history having its proper roots. Guizot is approaching Europe and civilization from two sides, both from a Fergusonian one where civilization is a universal principle, and from a Herderian one where the only universal principle is that every human is formed by his specific culture. In his words "...civilization is a sort of ocean, constituting the wealth of a people, and on whose bosom all the elements of the life of that people, all the powers supporting its existence, assemble and unite"[9]. But it is also possible to locate a specific European civilization: " is evident that there is an European civilisation; that a certain unity pervades the civilization of the various European states..." . [10]

Guizot is not interested in the general concept of civilization. He only uses it to produce a progressive movement in history. What he wants to work out is a specific European civilization that stems from its specific history and its division into specific nations. Europe is "an aggregate civilization". Thus the specificity does not stop with Europe. Europe consists of nations that have their own proper interpretation of their Europeanness. This gives us a sort of three layer definition of civilization: a universal civilization related to progress in time; a European civilization related to the common roots of Europe; and finally national levels (Guizot talks about French and English  



The incorporation of the European level into the universal is formulated within a paradigm of universal history (where it is possible to speak of civilization as such). On the other hand, the interesting point for Guizot is not to detect a universal civilization, but to show Europe's quest for universal meaning. European history becomes such a quest or search. This search goes through different epochs that are the same for all the nations. Each epoch is at the same time a step towards the final truth where Europe realises its universal potentials. The universal driving forces here are not arts and virtue, but politics and religion or morals that materialise in different European institutions (church, cities, states) and ideas (Christianity and political freedom). (Like Huntington, Guizot gives an important role to Christianity). The approachment of truth is seen as a process of unity both in Europe as such and in the different European states. Guizot locates European civilization directly in history. There is no room for any alternative developments as was the case with Ferguson.

After Guizot we can observe a strong weakening of the idea of both a European and a universal civilization. Instead of civilization we have the total dominance of nations. For a historian like the German Leopold von Ranke, Europe is only the environment of the nations, and there is certainly no talk of a universal level. We saw that for Guizot there was a sort of dialectical play between the universal, the European and the national dimension. The only universal principle in the historicist paradigm that dominates 19th century European thinking is that every nation is formed by its own history. The nation becomes both the driving force and the final aim of history.

European civilization comes to play a new and powerful role in the imperialist discourse of late 19th century. But in this discourse there is no exchange between a universal and a European level. Rather, it is taken for granted that Europe is the  


civilization, or in more racial forms that civilization is white. In another, more intra-European discourse civilization popped up as a negative term contrasted to culture. Oswald Spengler used this contrast - in his famous work The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918 and 1922) - to construct a monumental scheme for perceiving world history as an organic development from culture to civilization.

Spengler's approach to civilization is a highly interesting case for several reasons. Firstly, it is a synthesis of the different approaches I have sketched here. He combines an idea of a decadent or corrupted civilization with a Herderian-like cultural paradigm which makes it possible to operate with different independent civilizations. Secondly, there is a direct link between Spengler and Huntington with regard to the civilizational outlook on history.

But while Huntington is working within a more traditional theoretical framework, Spengler constructs a very original, even bizarre, theory on his civilizations. Civilization is only the last phase in the development of cultures. Culture is the only organic form within which history is formed. History is not the proper word. In Spengler's 'organic' language cultures form "a destiny" as a life cycle with different stages of (birth, youth, maturity, old age, senility and finally death). Civilization is the last stage approaching death.

The core of a culture is its "soul", or what we might call its inner principle. Every culture has to go through the same life stages. This is the reason why they can be compared, even though they traverse these stages in different historical periods. The driving force of any culture is a growing cultural self-consciousness (note that Huntington also talks about a civilizational self-consciousness). Self-consciousness (Wachsein) means an increasingly reflexive relation to fundamental cultural existence (Dasein). But, at the same time, self-consciousness is followed by an increasing alienation from this basic existence. (In Spengler's pseudo-racist Blut-und-Boden terminology this existence is symbolised by the land, the peasant and the race). Alienation corresponds with civilization.

Following Spengler the rise of specific cultures cannot be explained. This rise is casually, as he states. Only the life cycles can be analysed. Cultures do not mix. Any mix will create false cultures, copies of existing ones. In their development they follow their inner truth, their soul. This strongly relativist position removes civilization from the universal level advocated in the earlier approaches we have been discussing here. World history in Spengler's version gets divided into totally autonomous cultures manifesting their souls and thereby following their destinies. The cultures studied by Spengler are the Egyptian culture, the Classical (Greek  


and Roman) culture, the Chinese culture, the Indian culture, the Arabian culture and, of course his own, Western culture(das Abendland).

But from these cultures can be detected only three different souls: Faustian (in Western culture), Apollinian (in the classical culture) and Magian or Magic (mainly in the Arabic culture). Of these the Faustian one is the one disposed to the most radical (and perverted) form of civilization, because it is the most irreligious. The Faustian soul is portrayed as a "will culture". It is dynamic, individualistic and powerful, or, as Spengler says about the Faustian ethics: " In the ethics of the West everything is direction, claim to power, will to affect the distant" . [11]

Civilization in general is characterised by rigidity, senility, mechanical perceptions, empty abstractions, cosmopolitanism, imperialism, nihilism - all signs of what Spengler calls "a petrified culture". In´Western civilization these signs are manifested in the tyranny of the masses, in democracy, in metropolitan life, in the dictatorship of money and the machine. Spengler makes up an impressive list of the different diseases of this civilization. In doing this he puts together the dominant 19th century critiques such as Marx', Weber's, Nietzsche's and others.

Spengler describes a situation where civilization is on its deathbed. The agony involves a process of catharsis. In its most destructive phase, characterised by dictators manipulating the masses for their own purpose the destructive forces uncover the fundamental existence of the culture. This return to basic existence can lead to a new life cycle. It is in his post-civilization diagnosis that Spengler comes closest to Nazi-like utopias. But he is more critical toward western civilization than the Nazis. This is one reason why he is fascinated by Magian, that is, religious cultures, such as the Arabic one.

What Spengler does in his use of civilization is eliminate the universal, Eurocentrist approach. For him there are several, independent, watertight civilizations. He also portrays a Western culture detached from classical and Christian roots. The real Western take-off phase is, in his view, the Gothic. Finally he depicts European or Western civilization in a very negative way. It is possible to state that Spengler shows the two ways of giving meaning to civilization: one in a relativist perspective leading to an idea of clashes between civilizations; the other in a universally pessimist perspective leading to catastrophes on a global scale.  

Go to top


* Paper given at the Center for West European Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, the 24th of June 1997.

[1] R.Robertson: Globalization - Global Culture and Social Theory. London: Sage 1992

[2] Samuel P. Huntington: The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World order. New York: Simon & Schuster 1996, p.43

[3] Mirabeau: L'amy des femmes ou traité de la civilisation, (manuscript, app. 1768). Here quoted from the article Zivilization, Kultur, in O.Brunne, W.Conze, R.Koselleck (ed.): Geschichtliche Gurndbegriffe, Band VII. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag 1993, pp717

[4] The Shakespeare Head Edition af the Novels and Selected Writings of Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe. Vol. I. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1927, p.114.

[5] Op.cit. vol II, p.13.

[6] Montesquieu: Lettres Persanes. Paris: Gallimard 1973, Lettre LXIII.

[7] Ibid. Lettre LXI.

[8] Adam Ferguson: An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P. 1995, p.26 and 33.

[9] François Guizot: The History of Civilization in Europe. London: Penguin Books 1997, p.13.

[10] Ibid. p.11

[11] Oswald Spengler: The Decline of the West. London: Allen and Unwin 1923, vol I., p.341.

Go to top