SHORTLY BEFORE the end of the First World War, in the summer of 1918, a sizable volume appeared in bookstores throughout Germany. Bearing the title Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), and written by an unknown former schoolmaster, the work in a short period of time found a wide audience. The initial printing was completely sold out in a period of six months, and a second and third printing followed. Though primarily read in the nation of Germany, the ominous title and original scholarship that the book presented caused it to spread gradually throughout the Western world. Within the course of two years, the name of Oswald Spengler was on the lips of many, both intellectual and unlearned.
Although both the Decline and its author are little-known today, for nearly two decades after its publishing the historical thought contained within the pages of Spengler's first work was included in most discussions of historical thinking, as well as discussions of possible future events. What, then, was the unique nature of The Decline of the West, and why has interest in the work so faded in the intervening time? Further, who was this unknown Oswald Spengler, and how did he originate the highly inventive ideas that made this work so greatly debated? These are the questions that I will attempt to illumine in this essay, in conjunction with some brief discussions of Spengler's more minor works. I will also attempt to define Spengler's influence on later historical thinkers, something I think is important for a true understanding of the author's legacy.
Biographical Sketch of Spengler's Early Life
ITHINK IT NECESSARY to inform the reader that it is a difficult if not hopeless task to uncover much information about Oswald Spengler's personal life. In searching a library of almost six million items, as well as various other resources, I was only able to find one book in English with any significant biographical information on Spengler -- Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate by H. Stuart Hughes. Even that one book was very limited in its information, and yet it was that same work that served as reference not only for the Encyclopedia Britannica, but also for other references that included discussions of Spengler. These facts serve to prompt again the question asked earlier: Why has knowledge of Spengler faded so far from contemporary thinking? I will address that question later in this paper.
Born in the summer of 1880 in the small town of Blankenburg, Germany, Spengler was raised by parents of reasonable means. His father was a former mining technician who had become a postal worker, and from him the author of the Decline seems to have received the scientific and mathematical gifts he would later develop. After graduating from a classical high school in Halle, Germany, he followed the typical German practice of attending several universities in turn -- Munich, Berlin, and finally Halle. He returned to Halle in 1901 to complete his doctoral degree. He studied in mathematics and natural sciences, and chose as his thesis topic the fragments of Heraclitus, a somewhat obscure pre-Socratic philosopher, and completed the degree in 1904.
Spengler was interested in education, and passed the state teaching examination shortly after completing his doctoral degree. He initially took a position at Saarbrücken, and he taught subsequently in Düsseldorf and Hamburg. After moving up to the Hamburg Realgymnasium (practical high school), Spengler was asked to teach a variety of subjects, from German to history and geography. He was remembered as a fine instructor, with a insightful teaching style, and was well-liked by his students as well as his fellow professors. This was to be his last teaching position, however, as the climate of Hamburg aggravated the severe headaches that he often suffered from.
At this point Spengler moved to Munich and there took up residence as a private scholar, living austerely on a small income that he received from inheritance. His financial condition degenerated even further before the outbreak of World War I, as most of the funds in his inheritance were in foreign bonds, and these no longer brought in any interest. He was not called for military service, due to his headaches and an inner-ear ailment, and spent most of the war years living in a dingy slum apartment, eating poorly, and writing down by candlelight many of the concepts that would later appear in the Decline. Spengler was sustained during this time by the conviction that within him the seed of a powerful idea was developing, and that it was only a matter of time before that idea would come to his fruition.
The Genesis of The Decline of the West
IT WAS DURING THIS TIME in Munich, where Spengler seemed to have reached such a desperate point in his own life's history, that he abruptly formed a new and striking vision of the world's history.
At that time the World-War appeared to me both as imminent and also as the inevitable outward manifestation of the historical crisis, and my endeavor was to comprehend it from an examination of the spirit of the preceding centuries -- not years... Thereafter I saw the present -- the approaching World-War -- in a quite other light... I [saw] world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms.
Spengler's natural affinity for science and the natural world led him to form a highly original philosophy of history -- namely, that the existence of a culture mirrors that of a biological organism. Birth, growth, apogee, decay, and death were features that were present in both phenomena, and the rhythms of nature could be found as the underpinnings in the development of individual human cultures. Spengler called this concept "the cyclical morphology of culture" and presented the metaphysical grounds for such a theory in the preface to his Decline of the West, which I will discuss later.
Spengler initially wrote what would become the first volume of the Decline in the form of long aphorisms that were essentially detailed reflections on one central concept. He felt that this rather unsystematic way of approaching the investigation would lead to more intuitive and vital understanding. As Spengler wrote in the introduction to the Decline,
[My writing] is intuitive and depictive through and through, written in a language which seeks to present objects and relations illustratively instead of offering an army of ranked concepts."
Although critics maintain that this technique makes the work fragmentary and uneven in nature, Spengler felt the aphoristic style, which he had adopted from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, was the most powerful way to reach organic ideas that could not be systematically analyzed. Nietzsche was not the only thinker who had affected Spengler's manner of interpretation, as I will show in the following section.
BEFORE LAUNCHING INTO A DISCUSSION (or a reading) of the Decline, it is beneficial to have a general frame of the author's major sources for inspiration and insight. Although Spengler is an extremely intuitive historian, often leaving the reader somewhat baffled by broad jumps in thought that he makes in the Decline, he is not without method or precedent. His work is, in some ways, a manifestation of certain intellectual trends that had been present (primarily in German philosophy) for some time. G.W.F. Hegel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich Nietzsche are often mentioned specifically by Spengler throughout his works as predecessors in thought, and there are a great number of others that are alluded to. Furthermore, there are a number of historical scholars that preceded Spengler in certain ways but were unknown to him. I will only be presenting the former here, as the latter can only be helpful in a critical estimation of Spengler in an overall historical context, not in understanding his individual works.
Spengler counted among his forerunners three of the most creative minds that Germany has ever produced. What is the content of their work, and how does it relate to Spengler's efforts in the Decline? Obviously, a full treatment of such a question is not possible or desired here, but I will attempt to lay down some general principles each originated which informed the author's work. It is important to see what Spengler derived from these men, for as he notes in his explanatory essay of 1921 "Pessimism?",
...Goethe's observations on nature, and Hegel's lectures on world history were all written in clear view of factual reality -- something that cannot be said [of systematic philosophers].... I construe the relationships between reality and speculative thought in a manner wholly different from the systematic philosophers. For them reality is lifeless matter from which laws can be derived. For me, reality presents examples that illuminate an experienced thought...
Spengler in many ways opposes the trend in the thought of his time (and of ours) to offer up as valid only thought that can be proved through the rigors of logic and reason. He justifies this strong anti-rationalist tendency in his thinking by referring primarily to these three great German philosophers. They too, in Spengler's mind, held great reverence for fact over idea, a principle that Spengler brings to the fore in The Decline of the West. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a 19th-century German philosopher who held professorships at a number of German universities, most notably Heidelberg, Berlin, and Jena. Although he wrote on a host of philosophical topics, it is Hegel's Philosophy of History that surely had the most powerful effect on Spengler, as in it Hegel makes a forcible attempt to unify seemingly disparate cultural and historical phenomena into a single process. Although Hegel's central thesis is radically different than Spengler's -- namely, that world history is a rational, gradual unfolding of the spirit of freedom within the minds and hearts of men over time -- Hegel attempts in a way not dissimilar to Spengler's to analogize stages in the development of each culture. Hegel presents concrete examples that he believes illustrate deep relationships between the political manifestation of each people and their understanding of what it means to be a human being. Spengler owes a debt to Hegel, since "Hegel was the last great thinker to take political realities as his point of departure without letting his thought be entirely smothered with abstractions." Hegel did not theorize without continual reference to concrete examples, and Spengler claims to have made the same attempt in The Decline of the West.
While there are occasional references to Hegel in Spengler's writings, it is an unlikely pair of thinkers, Johann von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche, that Spengler holds before him in his chief work. Spengler makes in plain from the outset of The Decline of the West that he intends to write with certain principles learned from these two philosophers constantly in mind. This pair is particularly unusual to be discussed in unison, as their world-views are strikingly different, but Spengler merges the elements that he considers most central to his endeavor into an unusual fusion. In the "Introduction" to the Decline, there is a crucial footnote in which is contained the following statement by Goethe:
The Godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and therefore, the reason is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and the understanding only to make use of the become and the set-fast.
This rather unique and difficult quote summarizes, in Spengler's words, "my entire philosophy." Basically, Spengler seems to maintain that it is only while beings are changing and evolving toward something that they are truly alive and vital. One author notes, "...everything transitory is only a metaphor", the final chorus of Goethe's Faust rang out again and again in the Decline. "All things human ... were only passing reflections of great hidden truths." This position holds the germ of Spengler's "morphology of culture" within it, as it opens the door wide for many valid interpretations of the world made by many different human beings, while simultaneously presuming a deeper, more ultimate process in the world, unknown to those beings.
As already noted, Spengler had borrowed the aphoristic style that initiated the Decline from Nietzsche, and his debt does not end there. Spengler believed that the German philosopher was the first to uncover clearly the changing nature of morality and metaphysics over history that Goethe had postulated. Take for example this quote from Nietzsche's Daybreak:
How the overall moral judgments have shifted! The great men of antique morality, Epictetus for instance, knew nothing of the now normal glorification of thinking of others, of living for others; in the light of our moral fashion they would have to be called downright immoral, for they strove with all their might for their ego and against feelings with others.
Spengler thought that even though Nietzsche did not have a sense for the underlying system that gave rise to these disparate notions of ethics, he took the first step that Goethe had hinted at. Nietzsche, the author of the Untimely Meditations was also "a man out of season" as Spengler claimed to be in the Decline -- a prophet of things coming into being, but not presently existing.
The Decline of the West
OSWALD SPENGLER BELIEVED that he stood at the cusp of a new wave of historical thinking. Whereas in the past, historians had been content to gather facts, chart broad cultural movements, and take the flow of time as consisting of events that were causally related, Spengler had a vision that made these circumstances not merely existent, but necessary. The "morphology of culture" that Spengler conceived made history not merely a past, but a destiny, for each culture contained within it an essence that inevitably must reveal itself. As he states in his introduction,
Each Culture has its own possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay, and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, but many. Each is in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained....
Spengler felt that this insight must force historians to approach their work in an entirely different light. For he did not believe that a developing culture borrowed or integrated values or systems from past ones, at least not in their true nature. Each is working out its own unique being, and if, for example, the Greeks borrowed certain mathematical concepts from the Egyptians, it was with an entirely different understanding of what they meant and what they were for. To Spengler, each culture in the world's history had it's own unique "soil" in which to develop and grow. The physical terrain, proximity of neighbors, natural resources, and other factors influence the manner in which the "seed" of the inhabiting people unfolds not only geographically but also socially and economically. This, coupled with the unique temporal period and particular population of each great culture, serves to produce a social organism that is distinct from all others, just as one variety of plant is distinct from the rest.
However, Spengler maintained that the underlying pattern that each followed could be revealed through analysis, especially through studying the art, music, and architecture of each and discovering analogues.
I hope to show that without exception all great creations and forms in religion, art, politics, social life, economy and science appear, fulfill themselves, and die down contemporaneously in all the cultures; that the inner structure of one corresponds strictly with that of all others; that there is not a single phenomenon of deep physiognomic importance in the record of one for which we could not find a counterpart in the record of every other; and that this counterpart is to be found under a characteristic form and in a perfectly definite chronological position.
This is clearly a bold claim, and one that most of Spengler's past critics contend he failed to accomplish. However, there are a few contemporary scholars that are attempting to make good on Spengler's assertion in a nearly scientific way, as I will mention at the end of the paper.
It is important to note which cultures were to be investigated by Spengler in the Decline, and how he categorized them. He specifies eight that are distinct and conspicuous in the annals of world history: the Egyptian, the "Classical" (the sum of Greek and Roman civilization), the "Magian" (a combination of Iranian, Hebrew, and Arabian cultures), the Chinese, the Indian, the Babylonian, the Mexican, and the Western civilization in which we are now living. The bulk of the Decline is concerned with comparisons between the "Classical" civilization and our modern one, the Western or "Faustian." (Spengler uses the term "Faustian" interchangeably because he sees as the essence of Western Civilization the desire for infinity and boundlessness that is personified in Goethe's Faust.) However, the author makes frequent allusions to the remaining cultures, except for the Babylonian and the Mexican, which go virtually unmentioned. Spengler makes little attempt to justify singling out these eight as the best examples of what is defined by culture. He merely maintains them each to be "...separate worlds of dynamic being." Spengler believes that there is no logical basis for selecting these eight, but rather recommends them as displaying the essential feature of a Culture -- the production of a Civilization.
Every Culture has its own Civilization. In this work, for the first time, the two words are used in a periodic sense, to express a strict and necessary organic succession. The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture. Civilizations are the most external and artificial states which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming. They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again.
Spengler's understanding of world-history -- a number of elevated cultures with no linear relationship -- causes him to break radically with other historical thinkers on this point. As he sees each Culture exhibiting an essentially organic nature, it is at the time that a Culture ceases to evolve and grow that it forms a Civilization; the Culture has brought itself into fruition, and in its last phase will maintain the conventions and systems it has brought into being. It has ceased to relate to these ideas in a dynamic way, however, and eventually alienation and decay results.
I have striven thus far to present the general world-picture that Spengler operates out of in The Decline of the West, and now I think it wise to turn to the work itself for some concrete illustrations of the author's interpretation of world history. I here also wish to remark that my interpretation of the work is for all intents and purposes a solitary one. I was able to discover virtually no critical scholarship on the Decline in English anywhere, whether it be in nearby libraries, on the Internet, or elsewhere. Therefore any particular bias or error that results in this exposition is surely mine. I also wish to remark that what follows is not a full treatment of the Decline -- the book runs over a thousand pages over two volumes, and I think it would be impossible to analyze it all here.
Spengler opens the book with a rather interesting discussion of mathematics, a subject that he had great interest in and affinity for throughout his life. He presents a discussion of mathematics first, as he wishes to illustrate that even in this, the most abstract and analytical body of human knowledge, there has been no progress made toward any goal, save those necessitated by each culture. He describes how in each great Culture, mathematics is seen as addressing a unique problem and is not even understood as anything apart from overcoming an obstacle to practical concerns.
Every philosophy has hitherto grown up in conjunction with a mathematic belonging to it. Number is the symbol of causal necessity. Like the conception of God, it contains the ultimate meaning of the world-as-nature.
Spengler seems to be saying here that numbers are a deep and unexplainable symbol from which human beings work to give definition to their world. Because a number cannot be shown to rest on some larger, more fundamental concept, its origin (like God's) is a mystery which man attempts to fathom by creating mathematical systems. This first chapter is crucial to establishing Spengler's hypothesis, for, as I previously mentioned, mathematics is the most abstract (and therefore seemingly the most universal) human endeavor. If he can show that even in this field there is no continuity, he has gone a good way toward demonstrating the reality of his "morphological" principle.
The mathematic of the Classical soul sprouted almost out of nothingness, the historically constituted Western soul, already possessing the Classical science (not inwardly, but outwardly as a thing learnt), had to win its own by apparently altering and perfecting, but in reality destroying the essentially alien Euclidean system.
Spengler attempts to demonstrate that the central theme of the Classical mathematic is the problem of measurement, while the "Faustian" man's is the problem of function related to his desire for infinity. The Western man uses mathematics to break down the spatial world, as in modern calculus. Spengler's arguments are somewhat technical, but for the most part quite convincing.
After his treatment of mathematics, Spengler turns to metaphysics, where he lays out most of the fundamental theory used in The Decline of the West. His initial distinction is one alluded to earlier -- the separation between natural events and historical events. Speaking of history he writes,
Every happening is unique and incapable of being repeated. Becoming lies beyond the domain of cause and effect, law and measurement. But history, as positively treated, is not pure becoming; it is an image radiated from the waking-consciousness of the historian, in which the becoming dominates the become.
Here Spengler does two things: first, he makes history indecipherable by the rational understanding of cause and effect, and second, he asserts that it is still intelligible to men (specifically historians like himself) because we ourselves are in a historical process of becoming as well and therefore are in tune with history instinctively. He goes on to define this historical view: "The Morphology of the organic, of history and life and all that bears the sign of direction and destiny, is called Physiognomic." As I will mention later, it is the related idea of "Physiognomic rhythm" that Spengler believes connects man with history in a powerful way.
Another interesting concept is presented by Spengler in this central section: the idea of Destiny.
The word "destiny" expresses an indescribable inward certainty: causality carries the notion of law. The physiognomic flair, by which it is possible to read a lifetime, a fate, from a face, operates without deliberate effort or any system. It is far removed from cause and effect. Still the inward feeling of certain destiny is the foundation of the recognition of cause and effect, as becoming is to the become.... The idea of destiny governs the world-picture of history, for destiny is the true existence-mode of the prime phenomenon.
In this section Spengler ridicules the notion that events are ruled by the law of causality, for all biological life is bound by necessity in some fashion. Just as it is certain that a seed will grow into a plant, decay, and die and not transmogrify into a worm or continue growing indefinitely, Spengler sees it as certain that history will unfold in a manner that is guided by inexplicable forces. As he comments, "...that which actually ensues subserves a deeper necessity, and for the eye that sweeps over the distant past visibly conforms to a major order." This order lies deep within the essence of the universe, of being itself, and it is not unjustified to consider Spengler something of a mystic in this notion of destiny.
In the following section, Spengler elaborates on principles that guide his method throughout the Decline. He first discusses the relationship between space and death. As was mentioned during the outline of Goethe's influence on the author of the Decline, Spengler takes everything external to the individual (whether it be form, matter, space, etc.) as a symbol from which the human being derives meaning and makes sense of his own existence.
All that is, symbolizes. From this property of being significant nothing is exempt...
In discussing this relationship between spatiality and death Spengler writes,
A deep relation, and one which is early felt, exists between space and death. Man is the only being that knows death.... The child suddenly grasps the lifeless corpse for what it is, something that has become wholly matter, wholly space, and at the same moment it feels itself as an individual being in an alien extended world.
He feels that all higher thought derives from a consideration of death, either directly or indirectly. The individual is a thing becoming, as it changes and develops over time, but it is also something become, as there is a continuity of identity that remains over the course of human life. The external world is a constant reminder of the fixed and unchanging, and thus Spengler sees it as a constant reminder of inertia and death. Therefore, he feels that the manner in which each Culture interprets the external world is the most essential element in determining the course of that Culture. He writes,
A deep identity unites the awakening of the soul, its birth into clear existence in the name of a Culture, with the sudden realization of distance and time, the birth of its outer world through the symbol of extension; and thenceforth this symbol is and remains the prime symbol of that life, imparting to it its specific style and the historical form in which it progressively actualizes its inward possibilities.
Such a statement is rather abstract, so when Spengler goes on to discuss its specific manifestations in the Classical and Faustian cultures, a more concrete idea can be formed of his theory. The Classical man defined his external world as the material, the definite, and the immediately present.
The Classical universe, the Cosmos or well-ordered aggregate of all near and completely viewable things, is concluded by the corporeal vault of heaven. More there is not.
He discusses the Greek temple as a clear evidence of this understanding, as it is designed to eliminate the feeling of space and gaps. Its curves are so refined as to be indistinguishable, and the whole effect is of centralization and distinctness. Conversely, the Western conception of the external universe is of absolute void, a liberation from all material weight.
...an obligatory consequence of this way of conceiving actuality [is that] the instrumental music of the great eighteenth-century masters should emerge as a master-art -- for it is the only one of the arts whose form-world is inwardly related to the contemplative vision of pure space.
This prime feeling of a loosing, solution, of the Soul in the Infinite, of a liberation from all material weight which the highest moments of our music give, sets free also the energy of depth that is in the Faustian soul....
These disparate interpretations of the external world as a symbol for man's true essence, coupled with his cyclical concept of the "morphology of culture" form the foundation upon which the rest of the Decline is built. Spengler devotes the majority of the work to explaining this movement from the definite to the indefinite, from the finite to the infinite that has taken place since the days of Greece and Rome, and what this shift means for mankind. I will attempt in the remainder of this section to illustrate specific examples that Spengler utilizes to demonstrate this shift in world history.
As was previously stated, for Spengler the architecture of a Culture is a key manifestation of a people's essence in the material world. It is no surprise then that he first investigates this, the most practical of arts, in the Decline. He writes,
...the created expression-space of the Classical arts is equally alien to ours. In no other Culture is the firm footing, the socket, so emphasized. The Doric column bores into the ground, the vessels are always though of from below upward, whereas those of the Renaissance float above their footing.
This fact has been noted by other authors, and reinforces the interpretation of Classical world-view as opposed to the Faustian that was noted earlier. Many of the architectural works that are most emblematic of both cultures are religious structures, and Spengler quickly segues into a discussion of these temples and how they relate to the deities that were imagined to inhabit them.
The plurality of separate bodies which represents Cosmos for the Classical soul, requires a similar pantheon -- hence the unique polytheism. The single world-volume, be it conceived as cavern or as space, demands the single god of Magian or Western Christianity.
The Greeks and Romans were willing to make their deities concrete, depicting them in marble or paint, while for Western man God is infinite and shrouded in dark mystery, as daylight "...gives visual bounds and therefore shapes bodily things." Spengler notes Beethoven's tone-colors, Rembrandt's etchings, and the darkness of Valhalla as specific examples of the truth of this theory.
Following an interesting and supplementary discussion of the plastic arts and music, the "soul-image" of the peoples of the "Apollinian" (Spengler uses this word interchangeably for "Classical," as it evokes the concrete ideal that is characteristic of the Culture) and the Faustian cultures take center stage.
This imaginary soul-body ... is never anything but the exact mirror-image of the form in which the matured culture-man looks on his outer world.... The soul-image like the world-image has its directional depth, its horizon, and its boundedness or its unboundedness.
Spengler concludes that the concept of soul for the Apollinian man is found in the role or mask that is so typical of the Greek tragedy, where the external, public aspect is most significant. The author probes deeper into the Greek tragedy to determine that within that form it is specific moments that are exclusively portrayed, while in the work of a playwright like Shakespeare, the entire lives of the characters are considered and brought to bear on every aspect of the drama. Thus he asserts,
The Greek 'soul' is the 'here and now,' the static, 'fixed point,' being ... our tragedy is precisely the opposite.... It awakens the primary feelings of an energetic human being, the fierceness and the joy of tension, danger, violent need, the triumph of overcoming and destroying....
The Faustian soul is a depicted through directional biography, where the viewers become aware of the inner distance between persons as evidenced by the Shakespearean soliloquy. Spengler continues his exploration of the "soul-image," looking at Buddhism, Stoicism, and Socialism, but much of this portion is rather uninteresting and unoriginal. Spengler seems to be at his best when he remains in the study of the Classical and Western cultures.
He further analyzes these two cultures' conceptions of science or "nature-knowledge," but it is a little too cryptic and lengthy for me to delve into here.
The second volume of the Decline, however, opens with a strikingly poetic section which I feel is important to include summarily.
Regard the flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you -- a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.... The plant is something cosmic; the animal has an additional quality, it is a microcosm in relation to a macrocosm. All that is cosmic bears the trademark of periodicity. It has beat-rhythm.... The word "consciousness" is ambiguous; it contains the meaning Being ("Dasein") and Waking-consciousness (Wachsein). Being possesses beat and direction: waking consciousness is tension and extension. The plant exists without waking-consciousness. The development of theoretical thought within the human waking-consciousness gives rise to a kind of activity that makes inevitable a fresh conflict -- that between Being (existence) and Waking-Being (consciousness).
It is this tension between the quasi-biological unfolding of the individual cultures and the conscious thought and activity of individual men that occupies the majority of the second volume. I will treat it much more briefly than the first, as I have already spoken at length of the "morphology of culture" and it is this concept that dominates the second volume of the Decline.
The "high cultures" (those spoken of earlier) which are assessed in the latter volume are for Spengler
...the waking-being of a single huge organism which makes not only custom, myths, technique and art, but the very peoples and classes incorporated in itself the vessels of one single form-language and one single history.
These "organisms" undergo rapid and fundamental changes that Spengler asserts have no causal basis, but move in epochs that are guided by Destiny. (By "epoch" Spengler means "turning point" or "change" and not a period of time.) He believes that the existence of these unexplainable epochs is self-evident, and that "The origins of the earth, of life, of the free-moving animal, are such epochs, and, therefore, mysteries that we can do no more than accept." Needless to say, such a conclusion is intuitive, not rational, and defies attempts to logical justification.
A broad overview of the eight cultures is then offered, and the author maintains that there can be many comparisons made between their evolution as each undergoes a similar structure of development and lasted for a similar duration. For example, when remarking on the feudal period of the Egyptian Culture, Spengler writes,
...[it] presents so astounding a similarity with the course of events in the Chinese springtime from I-Wang (934-909) and that in the Western from the Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106) that a unified comparative study of all three might well be risked.
He points out numerous general parallels of this kind, and thus attempts to fortify his theory.
At this point the Decline descends from the more macroscopic view of cultures into the discussion of cities and their peoples. Spengler points out in his introduction that as a Culture progresses toward a Civilization that
In place of a world, there is a city, a point, in which the whole life of broad regions collects while the rest dries up.
The city-dweller of today is the hallmark of the decline of civilization, as he is
...a new sort of nomad, traditionless, religionless, clever, and deeply contemptuous of the countryman.
When the variety of peoples that invigorate a Culture migrate to cities and become more homogenous, stagnation and ultimately decay begin to set in as a result of a uniformity of ideas and influences, and the city-dweller looks on the past of the Culture with hostility and alienation. In this section, he also addresses the concept of race, declaring that race and environment belong together, and that "...if in [its] home that race cannot now be found, this means that race has ceased to exist." Language is also examined, and its connection with a people.
The last part of the Decline is unusually prophetic, and the sections on the state and technology yield diverse commentaries on the political situation in Germany during Spengler's time. Spengler states that the present age is undergoing a transformation from Napoleonism (a military, yet popular world-dominion) to Caesarism (individual states governed by a wholly personal power). It is within these dictatorial states that
'Race' springs forth, pure and irresistible -- the strongest win and the residue is their spoil. They seize the management of the world, and the realm of books and problems petrifies or vanishes from memory.
A more chilling foreboding of National Socialism is hard to imagine. Spengler sees Caesarism as arising in the last stages of a Culture, during the stagnant Civilization, as the spirit of the previously-developed systems is gone and all that exists is their outward form. Looking at the Caesar, Spengler sees such a man as virtually unconnected to his people, yet with an instinct for what they require, and with a great ability to command. Spengler sees the final conflict in the Western world as arising between the democratic societies, with their rule of economics, and the Caesarized societies, with their rule of power.
The final section, on technology, is basically a sketch of a later work by Spengler called Man and Technics, which I will mention later, and gives a survey of the effects of machine technology on mankind. Man has become slave to his creation, because
The machine has forcibly increased his numbers and changed his habits in a direction from which there is no return.
This technology allows Caesarism to triumph, and the sword proves victorious over money. This is the end of the Western age. Spengler closes the Decline fatalistically:
We have not the freedom to reach this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.
Fallout from the Decline
As MENTIONED AT THE BEGINNING of this paper, The Decline of the West saw considerable sales in Spengler's native country of Germany, and reasonable levels in the rest of Europe and America. Its provocative title and arcane scholarship made the book fall into a wide variety of hands; both the unlearned and the academics examined it, and its themes were the subject of much debate initially in Germany, and later in the world at large. However, there was a virtually universal scorn heaped upon the book and its author from the intellectual community. Without even addressing the specific contents of the book, many asked: how could a truly universal comprehension of the many societies presented in the Decline possibly be gained in one man's lifetime? Spengler had written the book in a mere four years, and this certainly was not adequate for a real treatment of such a wide scope. Others attacked many inconsistencies in Spengler's method and its lack of logical rigor. They saw these discontinuities as the inevitable result of extrapolating a broad principle like the "morphology of culture" over four thousand years of human activity. Still others saw in Spengler's analyses of many on the cultures in the Decline as virtually identical to those made by the vast majority of historians.
However, very few attacked the work on any but very narrow and erudite grounds, and their objections met with a very small audience. This left the field open for Spengler, who wrote an essay entitled "Pessimism?" three years after the appearance of his opus in which he maintained that his critics had failed to understand the central tenets of the work. He railed against the speculative thinkers that attempted to deconstruct the Decline:
The active person lives in the world of phenomena and with it. He does not require logical proofs, indeed he often cannot understand them. "Physiognomic rhythm" [i.e. the vital connection between individuals and their world] ... gives him deeper insights than any method based on logical proof ever could.... I made assertions in my book which scholarly readers have regarded as completely contradictory. Yet all these are things that have long been felt and cherished privately, though not necessarily consciously, by individuals who are inclined to a life of action.
The content of the essay roughly runs along these lines, as Spengler defends his instinctive analyses against the speculative critics. The essay for the most part accomplished its goal -- it cut away the foundation of his critics' attacks and made his own position even more hard to define. In addition, a noted historian, Eduard Meyer, later addressed the German Historical Congress and presented a highly approving critique of the Decline and endorsed Spengler's major theses.
His position relatively secure, the author embarked on an attempt to involve himself in the political activities of Germany, which he had long held as a desire. For the five years from 1919-1924, Spengler's popularity and his increase in wealth allowed him to move in more influential social circles, and he allied himself with a number of leading conservative political groups. After a time of political upheaval in both Germany and Russia, Spengler gathered together ideas he had been working on for a number of years and reworked them, entitling the lengthy essay Prussianism and Socialism (1920). The public demand for the work was great, as many in Germany wanted to hear Spengler's opinion on such a contemporary issue. In the essay Spengler maintained that true socialism could fulfill its destiny only in the Prussian state, but that such a movement would be entirely alien to the principles laid down by Karl Marx. He attempted to appeal to virtually the whole mass of the German people, and ended up convincing no one. The public was disappointed with the piece and the sheen of Spengler's new fame was tarnished. This did not deter Spengler in his efforts to lead political events, however.
He continued to support a relatively conservative state, but one in which Germans would bring together to satisfy "The soul of the German people," which he believed was "...filled with surprising and dumbfounding capabilities for excellence and failure." Spengler called for the German people to combat their tendency toward lethargy in his 1924 essay On the German National Character:
Difficult to set in motion, having little self-assurance, disinclined to pathos in ourselves ... at times when government and diplomacy are conducted alone strict traditional lines ... such a national character as ours is doomed to prolonged slumber.
Spengler would also make a particularly prophetic comment in the same essay:
All in all, no other people today is more in need of a leader in order simply to have faith in itself. And yet no other people can mean more to a great leader. In the right hands, all of its faults will turn to merits. What the outcome of this might be is impossible to foretell with the customary methods of political prognostication.
It is unfortunate that Spengler did not have the vision to see the outcome and warn his countrymen in advance, for these words would become all too real when National Socialism rose to the fore under Adolf Hitler. But as we will see, while Spengler could not predict the disaster, he argued against the new leader and his party vociferously when they came to power.
Spengler's Condemnation of National Socialism
WHEN SPENGLER PUBLISHED in 1931 his rather rambling metaphysical work Man and Technics, it was met with less enthusiasm than any of his previous efforts. It was extremely fragmentary in a way that was difficult to avoid, and in my brief readings of the work I was completely puzzled. I could find almost no concrete basis for Spengler's assertions, and was a little overwhelmed by his bold and unfounded statements. Nevertheless, within this small book was a unique attack on the technological society and its disturbing possibilities. Spengler felt that the "Faustian" spirit's desire for the infinite, combined with the technology to compress and negate the hindrance of time could lead to political regimes that might dominate the earth in a cruel and extreme way.
Every work of man, is artificial, unnatural.... This is the beginning of man's tragedy -- for Nature is the stronger of the two. The fight against Nature is hopeless and yet -- it will be fought out to the bitter end.
Few among Germany's leaders took any notice of the book, although it contained a number of veiled diatribes against Nazi principles. This book, with its generally poor attempt at anthropology, brought Spengler's reputation to a new low and he remained out of the public view for almost two years.
He was in increasingly poor health and dismayed at the strange amalgam of principles that had been pouring out of Berlin in the form of Nazi propaganda. He felt that the time for the German people to discern their true desire for the nation was imminent, and fittingly titled what was to be his last significant work The Hour of Decision (1933). Although not powerfully anti-Nazi, Spengler views with "misgiving" much of the furor over Hitler and his rise to supremacy. He blasts the "Hitler Youth," accusing them of giving their minds over to the National Socialists, and refers to specific Nazi leaders in a very critical way. He also discusses Italian Fascism, which Spengler saw as a transitional government, held together solely by the powerful, heroic personality of Mussolini. Finally, Spengler addresses the German people, who he calls
...the least exhausted in the white world, and therefore the one on which may be placed the most hope.
He called for a return to traditional values to help preserve the honor of Germany and the peace of Europe.
Interestingly enough, Spengler's printer sent Adolf Hitler a complimentary copy, but the Nazis paid the work little notice until its sales had totaled 12,000. There was clearly an audience for Spengler's sentiments and when The Hour of Decision had some 150,000 copies in print, the Nazi party moved to silence him. It took his National Socialist critics some time to form a real attack on the book, as much of what Spengler had written was very nationalist in nature and echoed what Hitler himself was saying, albeit in altered fashion. In some ways, Spengler had helped prepare the German mind for the extreme nationalism espoused by the Nazi regime with his long emphasis on Germany as a nation and a people with a unique and powerful destiny. However, Nazi leaders railed against Spengler's views as a "perversion" of true National Socialist ideals and effectively forced him to cease in his political writings.
Oswald Spengler spent the last three years of his life in work on the "metaphysical treatise" that he had referred to occasionally in The Decline of the West. He was attempting to complete the groundwork for an understanding of the phenomena of "cyclical morphology." The work, titled The World as History, was of a much finer quality than any he had done for many years, and 1935 brought Spengler back into the public view. He would not have a chance to develop more new ideas, unfortunately, as he died from a heart attack in May of 1936.
The last words published during his lifetime are from an isolated response to a question concerning the possibilities for world peace. They crystallize Spengler is a unique way:
"Pacifism will remain an ideal, and war a fact, and if the white peoples are resolved to wage war no more, the colored will do so and will be rulers of the earth."
Nationalist, cynical, and prophetic, these words condense some of Spengler's most prominent features briefly, something rarely found in Spengler's writings. Perhaps he was growing more focused in his old age.
Spengler's Influence on Modern Historians
THERE CAN BE LITTLE CONTENTION with the fact that the author of The Decline of the West died with his legacy in extreme doubt. Although his main work was semi-intellectual currency for many years, the very irregular quality of his writing and his rather bleak depiction of the future did not ensure him any position as an author of consequence. However, Spengler made numerous predictions concerning future events throughout the course of his life and work, and we have lived to see many fulfilled.
Particularly striking were his considerations concerning the nature of the Russian people and his insistence that Russia's history was to be separate from the "Western" peoples. Spengler also maintained that Russia's history had not yet even begun in the 1920's, regardless of the then-recent Bolshevik Revolution. He felt that the Russian people were soon to embark on their own Destiny, and that in all likelihood it would be "...in opposition to the Faustian spirit." In spite of visions like these, continued scholarship of Spengler (what little that seems to remain) is primarily due to the work of other historians.
Spengler clearly anticipated a perspective that was soon to unite with more traditional historical scholarship, with generally strong results. Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History is by all accounts a seminal production in the field of world history, and Toynbee acknowledged that Spengler's work was a "remarkable one" with a great deal of imaginative insight. Toynbee's comparative study of civilizations is considered more even-handed, logical, and less overbearing than his predecessor's, while at the same time demonstrating a higher level of scholarship. It is also incredibly massive, far more so than the Decline, and comprises nine volumes of approximately three-hundred-fifty pages each.
In it Toynbee attempts to address fundamental questions concerning the causes for growth and decay in a culture, something Spengler felt lay inexplicably within each culture's destiny. Toynbee also addresses his study from a spiritual perspective, something that removes the complete relativity present in Spengler's work, as Toynbee sees the Christian faith as a final truth. The excellence of A Study of History led many to read Spengler, and continued to fuel his legacy somewhat.
Social and Cultural Dynamics, a well-considered cyclical history by Russian Pitirim A. Sorokin, also directed some attention to Spengler's work. Several other fair comparative histories have served the same purpose. Nevertheless, I would be wrong to say that Spengler is much-read today, as my attempts to gather information on the man and his work was much like trying to get blood from a turnip. Literature simply does not seem to exist in English, especially concerning Spengler's life. He is a man remembered almost entirely for his work, and that only marginally.
Although I personally enjoyed and found insightful various parts of The Decline of the West and segments of his other writings, I was somewhat disappointed. I had been told of an amazing level of scholarship and erudition that was to be found in the Decline, and only very brief segments of it lived up to that.
One related topic I feel compelled to share, one I found on the Internet but could not utilize here, was a book by the name of Spengler's Future by John J. Reilly. The author takes a program written in BASIC computer code and attempts to predict the next seven centuries (yes, seven) of Western history utilizing the life cycles of four other civilizations as a guide. Some entertaining chapter heads include "At the Court of the Antichrist" and "The World Begins to Crack." The totally inconclusive and fragmented results of the effort only serve to clarify to this writer that without the author's prominent level of study, facility of mind, and intuitive gift, The Decline of the West would likely have ended up as total gibberish instead of the reasonably interesting and sometimes penetrating work that it is.
BibliographyHollingdale, R.J. (Trans.), A Nietzsche Reader(New York: Penguin Books, 1977).
Hughes, H. Stuart, Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952).
Spengler, Oswald, Collected Essays(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).
Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West,abridged (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962).
Spengler, Oswald, Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960).
Spengler, Oswald, Today and Destiny: Vital Excerpts from the Decline of the West(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940).
NOTE by Kins Collins: The original of Stockton's essay above is found at this University of Texas site. I have merely reformatted it. © Donald L. Stockton, 2001.
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