Way back when, I harboured delusions of being a teacher. Didn’t happen – but I read a lot and am preternaturally curious. I’m especially curious about why people are having fewer and fewer children. What changed in modern times that has caused a half-century birth dearth?
Many reasons are cited: loss of religious faith, collapse of traditional morality, urbanization, birth control, economics (can’t afford children), and that we are crowding each other out. These are all contributing factors. But what gave rise to them?
A century ago, a German polymath may – or may not – have figured it out. He was Oswald Spengler, an early 20th century intellectual giant, to put it mildly. His ideas are worth considering.
In a nutshell, Spengler thought that cultures were organic, and had stages — childhood, youth, manhood and old age. One of his more uncanny predictions was that around the turn of the millennium, Western Civilization would enter a severe crisis that would lead to the rise of Caesarism lasting for an extended period before a final collapse. The man was not an optimist. In fact, one of Spengler’s better-known quotes is “Optimism is cowardice.”
Spengler’s magnum opus, The Decline of the West, is a tome like no other. The first volume was published in 1918. Volume II came along in 1922. In chapter IV of volume II, in a section entitled “The Soul of the City,” Spengler expounds about culture growing into civilization. In his view, a culture hardens into a civilization, bringing a transformation of spirit and new outlook on life. Part and parcel of this was the rise of major cities that developed “higher culture,” intellectualism and a cosmopolitan ethos completely estranged from the peasantry out of which they arose:
A handful of gigantic places in each civilization disfranchises and disvalues the entire motherland of its own culture under the contemptuous name of “the provinces.” …. There are… only cosmopolitans and provincials.
The Culture-man whom the land has spiritually formed is seized and possessed by his own creation, the City, and is made into its creature, its executive organ, and finally its victim.
…the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.
Spengler saw the peasantry as living closer to nature, “planted” to the land, an “intimacy of man and soil.” Mother Nature determined everything, so work was to be done and people were fertile. Children came naturally, and they came in handy down on the farm. Meanwhile, in the big city, where seasons didn’t matter nearly as much, the conceited belief grew that nature had been mastered.
The mass movement of people into large urban areas picked up steam with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated like nobody’s business in the 20th century. Without fail large cities are more liberal, trendy, atomized and cocksure about their sophistication. Amenities, political power and “high culture” reign in cities. Urbanites come to view small-town and country folk as rubes who are just not “with it”.
Spengler’s concern about the effects of cities was shared by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “The mobs of the great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the human body … I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.” Jefferson advocated an agrarian society where people were close to nature. Bankers, tradesmen and budding industrialists had other ideas.
In Spengler’s view when the civilization overtakes the culture, the intellect rather than the heart rules the course of life, giving rise to consumerism, materialism, family planning and less “need” for children:
And then …there suddenly emerges into the bright light of history a phenomenon that has long been preparing itself underground… — the sterility of civilized man… That which strikes the true peasant with a deep and inexplicable fear, the notion that the family and the name may be extinguished, has now lost its meaning.…
Children do not happen, not because children have become impossible, but principally because intelligence at the peak of intensity can no longer find any reason for their existence… When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard “having children” as a question of pro’s and con’s, the great turning point has come. For Nature knows nothing of pro and con…. When reasons have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable. At that point begins prudent limitation of the number of births… The father of many children is for the great city a subject for caricature….
At this level all Civilizations enter upon a stage, which lasts for centuries, of appalling depopulation. The whole pyramid of cultural man vanishes. It crumbles from the summit, first the world-cities, then the provincial forms, and finally the land itself, whose best blood has incontinently poured into the towns, merely to bolster them up for a while.
Is that a dark picture or what? Does today’s precipitously falling fertility affirm Spengler?
Regarding cosmopolitans versus provincials, today’s mass media, education, entertainment, and the internet have cosmopolitanized most everyone in their path, from the farm to the megalopolis. Has universal cosmopolitanism consumed the modern world, thus causing fertility to fall? Has our intellect failed us, and are prosperity and technology slowly killing off the species?
That is the gist of The Decline of the West. Oswald Spengler said that modern civilization is in its dotage, and falling fertility is the final act.
I hope not.
Note: Both volumes of The Decline of the West can be downloaded free of charge and in various formats from the Internet Archive (click here).