Ferguson and Spengler on Imperialism

Oswald Spengler was certainly eccentric, and some of his ideas were legitimately dangerous.  But in straying far from the beaten path, he occasionally stops you dead in your tracks.

I think he does this with his thoughts on imperialism.

Niall Ferguson represents the traditional view of imperialism as it relates to the overall health of the West in his excellent ” The War of the World.”  For Ferguson, Western Civilization peaks just before World War I.  At this point the West ruled close to half the globe in some way, shape, or form.  Their massive overseas expansion was therefore a sign of health.

This should not surprise us.  Expansion requires

  • Abundance of energy and drive
  • The necessary resources to carry out one’s will
  • A great degree of power relative to those you encounter

All this backs up Ferguson’s position.

But Spengler comes at the question in an entirely different way.  For him, the expansion on the scale Europe indulged in ca. 1850-1914 meant the end of the West was nigh, and I think that came from his psychological approach.

For Spengler, a civilization is healthy when it possesses a vibrant ‘inner-life’ and is at peace with their place in the world.  When a civilization exhausts its inner life, the only thing left is to extend the possibilities of the self outwardly.  So — expansion is sign of boredom, of weakness, a lack of vitality.  Just as we would think that a person who needed constant variety would be bored, so too civilizations.

The picture continues if we apply this idea to a 50 year old man in ‘mid-life crisis.’  What does he do?  He buys a sports car and obtains a trophy wife.  Suddenly he is very tan.  Many admire his “vigor,” and he convinces himself that youth has been restored.

But we know that he deludes himself.  His “expansion” of “energy” comes from profound inward unease.  Rather than deal with it, he paints over it through activity.

I find Spengler’s lens of viewing civilizations as organic, not material, entities compelling.  But this is a great Rubicon to cross, and has many implications. . .