|© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013|
|‘Preußentum und Sozialismus’|
Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (29 May 1880 – 8 May 1936) was a German historian and philosopher of history whose interests included mathematics, science, and art.
|© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013|
He is best known for his book ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandes’ – (The Decline of the West), published in 1918 and 1922, covering all of world history.
(29 May 1880 – 8 May 1936)
Oswald Spengler was born in 1880 in Blankenburg the eldest of four children, and the only boy.
His family was conservative German of the petite bourgeoisie.
He had imperfect health, and suffered throughout his life from migraine headaches and from an anxiety complex.
Here Spengler received a classical education at the local Gymnasium (academically oriented secondary school), studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and sciences.
|Realgymnasium – Hamburg|
Spengler revised this volume in 1922 and published the second volume, subtitled ‘Perspektiven der Weltgeschichte’ – (Perspectives of World History), in 1923.
According to Spengler, the meaningful units for history are not epochs but whole cultures which evolve as organisms.
He recognizes eight high cultures: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican (Mayan/Aztec), Classical (Greek/Roman), Arabian, Western or “European-American.”
Cultures have a lifespan of about a thousand years.
The final stage of each culture is, in his word use, a ‘civilization’.
In Spengler’s depiction, Western Man is a proud but tragic figure because, while he strives and creates, he secretly knows the actual goal will never be reached.
At the start of World War I he began revising it and completed the first volume in 1917.
It was published the following year when Spengler was 38, and was his first work, apart from his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus.
|Heraclitus of Ephesus|
Heraclitus of Ephesus (Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος—Hērákleitos ho Ephésios; c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, a native of the Greek city Ephesus, Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor.
Heraclitus is famous for his insistence on ever-present change in the universe, as stated in the famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. He believed in the unity of opposites, stating that “the path up and down are one and the same”, all existing entities being characterized by pairs of contrary properties.
The second volume was published in 1922.
The first volume is subtitled ‘Form und Aktualität’ – (Form and Actuality), the second volume is ‘Perspektiven der Weltgeschichte’ – (Perspectives of World-history).
Spengler’s own view of the aims and intentions of the work are sketched in the Prefaces and occasionally at other places.
Spengler’s veering toward right-wing views in the second volume confirmed this reception, and the stream of criticisms continued for decades.
Nevertheless in Germany the book enjoyed popular success: by 1926 some 100,000 copies were sold.
“When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so.”
He argued that democracy is driven by money-breeding, and therefore easily corruptible. Spengler supported the rise of a right wing, authoritarian government as the next phase after the failure of democracy.
Spengler’s world-historical outlook is informed by many philosophers, Goethe and Nietzsche among them, and the former more than the latter.
He would later further explain the significance of these two German philosophers and their influence on his worldview in his lecture Nietzsche and His Century.
His analytical approach is that of “Analogy. By these means we are enabled to distinguish polarity and periodicity in the world.”
‘Plato and Goethe stand for the philosophy of Becoming, – Aristotle and Kant the philosophy of Being… Goethe’s notes and verse.. must be regarded as the expression of a perfectly definite metaphysical doctrine. I would not have a single word changed of this: “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, similarly, 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 sentence comprises my entire philosophy.’
|Sonnenuntergang – Sunset|
Scholars now agree that the word “decline” more accurately renders the intended meaning of Spengler’s original German word “Untergang” (often translated as the more emphatic “downfall“; “Unter” being “under” and “gang” being “going”, it is also accurately rendered in English as the “going under” of the West).
Spengler explained that he did not mean to describe a catastrophic occurrence, but rather a protracted fall – a twilight or sunset. (Sonnenuntergang is German for sunset, and ‘Abendland’, his word for the West, literally means the “evening land“.)
Writing in 1921 Spengler observed that he might have used in his title the word Vollendung (which means ‘fulfillment’ or ‘consummation’) and saved a great deal of misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, “Untergang” can be interpreted in both ways and, after World War II, some critics and scholars chose to read it in the cataclysmic sense.
Each culture arises within a specific geographical area, and is defined by its internal coherence of style in terms of art, religious behaviour and psychological perspective.
Central to each one is its conception of space which is expressed by an “Ursymbol” (primeval symbol).
Although not amenable to a strictly logical examination, Spengler’s idea of the culture is, he claims, justifiable through the existence of recurrent patterns of development and decline across the 1,000 years of each culture’s active lifetime.
Thus some people see themselves as part of a grand historical design or tradition, while others view themselves in a self-contained manner.
For the latter, there is no ‘Welt-Geschichtsbewusstsein’ – (world-historical consciousness).
By learning about different courses taken by other civilizations, one can better understand his own culture and identity.
Those who still maintain a historical view of the world are the very same who continue to “make” history.
Spengler asserts that life and mankind as a whole have an ultimate aim.
However, he maintains a distinction between world-historical peoples, and ahistorical peoples – the former will have a historical destiny as part of a high Culture, the latter will have a merely zoological fate.
World-historical man’s destiny is self-fulfillment as a part of his Culture.
Further, Spengler asserts that not only is pre-Cultural man without history, he loses his historical weight as his Culture becomes exhausted and becomes a more and more defined Civilization.
He sees all cultures as necessarily placed on equal footing in the study of world-historical development.
From this idea flows a kind of historical relativism or dispensationalism.
Historical data, in Spengler’s mind, are an expression of their historical time, contingent upon and relative to that context.
Thus, the insights of one era are not unshakeable or valid in another time or culture – “there are no eternal truths.“
Each man has a duty to look beyond his own Culture to see what men of other Cultures have with equal certainty created for themselves.
What is significant is not whether the past thinkers’ insights are relevant today, but whether they were exceptionally relevant to the great facts of their own time.
Primitive Culture is simply a collection, a sum, of its constituent and incoherent parts (individuals, tribes, clans, etc.).
Higher Culture, in its maturity and coherence, becomes an organism in its own right, according to Spengler.
The Culture is capable of sublimating the various customs, myths, techniques, arts, peoples, and classes into a single strong, undiffused historical tendency.
The transition is not a matter of choice – it is not the conscious will of individuals, classes, or peoples that decides.
Whereas Cultures are ‘Dinge immer’ (things-becoming), Civilizations are the ‘Ding geworden’” (thing-become).
As the conclusion of a Culture’s arc of growth, Civilizations are outwardly focused, and in that sense artificial.
|Practical Roman Civilization|
Civilizations are what Cultures become when they are no longer creative and growing.
For example, Spengler points to the Greeks and Romans, saying that the imaginative Greek culture declined into wholly practical Roman ‘civilization’.
The city draws upon and collects the life of broad surrounding regions.
He contrasts the “true-type” rural born, with the nomadic, traditionless, irreligious, matter-of-fact, clever, unfruitful, and contemptuous-of-the-countryman city dweller.
In the cities he sees only the “mob“, not a ‘Volk’ (people), hostile to the traditions that represent Culture (in Spengler’s view these traditions are: nobility, privileges, dynasties, convention in art, and limits on scientific knowledge).
City dwellers possess cold intelligence that confounds völkisch (peasant) wisdom, a new-fashioned naturalism in attitudes towards sex which are a return to primitive instincts, and a dying inner religiousness.
Further, Spengler sees in urban wage-disputes and a focus on lavish sport expenditures for entertainment the final aspects that signal the closing of Culture and the rise of the Civilization.
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
One of his principal examples is that of Roman ‘Weltherrschaft’ (world domination).
It was not an achievement because the Romans faced no significant resistance to their expansion.
Thus they did not so much conquer their empire, but rather simply took possession of that which lay open to everyone.
Spengler asserts that the Roman Empire did not come into existence because of the kind of Cultural energy that they had displayed in the Punic Wars.
After the Battle of Zama, Spengler believes that the Romans never waged, or even were capable of waging, a war against a competing great military power.
It is connected to a landscape.
“If, in that home, the race cannot be found, this means the race has ceased to exist.
A race does not migrate.
Men migrate, and their successive generations are born in ever-changing landscapes; but the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old and the appearance of the new one.“
However, a race is not exactly like a plant.
“Science has completely failed to note that race is not the same for rooted plants as it is for mobile animals, that with the micro-cosmic side of life a fresh group of characteristics appear and that for the animal world it is decisive.
Nor again has it perceived that a completely different significance must be attached to ‘races’ when the word denotes subdivisions within the integral race ‘Man.’
With its talk of casual concentration it sets up a soulless concentration of superficial characters, and blots out the fact that here the blood and there the power of the land over the blood are expressing themselves – secrets that cannot be inspected and measured, but only livingly experienced from eye to eye.
Nor are scientists at one as to the relative rank of these superficial characters“.
“Comradeship breeds races… Where a race-ideal exists, as it does, supremely, in the Early period of a culture… the yearning of a ruling class towards this ideal, its will to be just so and not otherwise, operates towards actualizing this idea and eventually achieves it.“
He does not believe language is itself sufficient to breed races, and that “the mother tongue” signifies “deep ethical forces” in Late Civilizations rather than Early Cultures, when a race is still developing the language that fits its “race-ideal.”
“The great events of history were not really achieved by peoples; they themselves created the peoples. Every act alters the soul of the doer.“
Such events include migrations and wars.
For example, the American people did not migrate from Europe, but were formed by events such as the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War.
“It is not unity of speech that is decisive.”
What distinguishes a people from a population is “the inwardly lived experience of ‘we’,” which exists so long as a people’s soul lasts.
“The name Roman in Hannibal’s day meant a people, in Trajan’s time nothing more than a population.“
In his view,
“Peoples are neither linguistic nor political, but spiritual units.”
In race (Rasse haben) there is little material, but rather something cosmic and directional, the felt harmony of ‘ein Schicksal’ (a Destiny), the single cadence of the march of ‘geschichtliches Sein’ (historical Being).
“Out of the people-shapes of the Carolingian Empire—the Saxons, Swabians, Franks, Visigoths, Lombards – arise suddenly the Germans.”
These peoples are products of the ‘geistlichen Rasse’ (spiritual race) of the great Cultures, and “people under a spell of a Culture are its products and not its authors.
These shapes in which humanity is seized and moulded possess style and style-history no less than kinds of art or mode of thought.
The people of Athens is a symbol not less than the Doric temple, the Englishman not less than modern physics.
|“Man is a beast of prey.”|
There are peoples of Apollinian, Magian, and Faustian cast… World history is the history of the great Cultures, and peoples are but the symbolic forms and vessels in which the men of these Cultures fulfill their Destinies.”
These ideas, which figure pro-eminently in the second volume of the book, were common throughout ‘Deutsch Kultur’ (German culture) at the time, and would be the most significant elements for the ‘völkischen Denker‘ and the National Socialists.
That class represents the world-historical drive of a State, and within that stratum a skilled and self-contained minority actually holds the reins of power.
Instead it represents a transitional period between the mature Late-Culture period and the age of state formlessness.
At the inflection point, he sees an independent and decisive bourgeois intervention in political affairs.
The bourgeois is hostile (often violently) toward the absolute state, which represents the traditional institutions, aristocrats, and cultural symbols.
As the proper form dissolves, increasingly authoritarian leaders arise, signaling decline.
The first step toward formlessness Spengler designates Napoleonism.
A new leader assumes powers and creates a new state structure without reference to “self-evident” bases for governance.
The new regime is thus accidental rather than traditional and experienced, and relies not on a trained minority but on the chance of an adequate successor.
Spengler argues that those states with continuous traditions of governance have been immensely more successful than those that have rejected tradition.
Spengler posits a two-century or more transitional period between two states of decline: Napoleonism and Caesarism.
Caesarism is a form of political rule that emulates the rule of Roman dictator Julius Caesar over the Roman Republic, in that it is led by a charismatic strongman whose rule is based upon a cult of personality, whose rationale is the need to rule by force, establishing a violent social order, and being a regime involving prominence of the military in the government.
The most famous person who themselves espoused Caesarism, was Napoleon Bonaparte, who admired and emulated Caesar during his rule in France..
The formlessness introduced by the first contributes to the rise of the latter.
Army sizes will drop from millions to hundreds of thousands, however, the professional armies will not be for deterrence, but for waging war.
Spengler states that they will precipitate wars upon which whole continents – India, China, South Africa, Russia, Islam – will be staked.
The great powers will dispose of smaller states, which will come to be viewed merely as means to an end.
This period in Civilizational decline he labels the period of ‘Contending States’.
It is marked by a government which is formless irrespective of its ‘de jure’ constitutional structure.
The antique forms are dead, despite the careful maintenance of the institutions; those institutions now have no meaning or weight.
The only aspect of governance is the personal power exercised by the Caesar.
This is the beginning of the ‘Imperial Age’.
He cites the example of Rome after the defeat of Hannibal – instead of forgoing the annexation of the East, Scipio’s party moved toward outright imperialism, in an attempt to bring their immediate world into one system, and thus prevent further wars.
People cease to take part in elections, and the most-qualified people remove themselves from the political process.
This is the end of great politics.
Only private history, private politics, and private ambitions rule at this point.
The wars are private wars, “more fearful than any State wars because they are formless.”
The imperial peace involves private renunciation of war on the part of the immense majority, but conversely requires submission to that minority which has not renounced war.
The world peace that began in a wish for universal reconciliation, ends in passivity in the face of misfortune, as long as it only affects one’s neighbor.
In personal politics the struggle becomes not for principles but for executive power.
Even popular revolutions are no exception: the methods of governing are not significantly altered, the position of the governed remains the same, and the strong few determined to rule remain over top the rest of humanity.
Oswald Spengler – The Final years
When ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandes’ was published in the summer of 1918 it became a wild success.
|Treaty of Versailles|
|Treaty of Versailles|
The perceived national humiliation of the ‘Treaty of Versailles’ (1919) and later the economic depression around 1923 fueled by hyperinflation seemed to prove Spengler right.
It comforted Germans because it seemingly rationalized their downfall as part of larger world-historical processes.
The book met with wide success outside of Germany as well, and by 1919 had been translated into several other languages.
Spengler rejected a subsequent offer to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Göttingen, saying he needed time to focus on writing.
The book was widely discussed, even by those who had not read it.
Thomas Mann compared reading Spengler’s book to reading Schopenhauer for the first time. Academics gave it a mixed reception.
Max Weber described Spengler as a “very ingenious and learned dilettante”, while Karl Popper, not surprisingly, described the thesis as “pointless“.
In 1931, he published ‘Der Mensch und die Technik’ – (Man and Technics), which warned against the dangers of technology and industrialism to culture.
The principle idea in this work is that many of the Western world’s great achievements may soon become spectacles for our descendants to marvel at, as we do with the pyramids of Egypt or the baths of Rome.
In Spengler’s mind, our culture will be destroyed from within by materialism, and destroyed by others through economic competition and warfare.
|Adolf Hitler and Paul von Hindenburg|
He especially pointed to the tendency of Western technology to spread to hostile “Colored races” which would then use the weapons against the West.
This book contains the well-known Spengler quote ‘Optimismus ist Feigheit’ – (Optimism is cowardice).
Spengler voted for Hitler over Hindenburg in 1932, and met Hitler in 1933, and he became a member of the German Academy in the course of the year.
Spengler spent his final years in Munich, listening to Beethoven, reading Molière and Shakespeare, buying several thousand books, and collecting ancient Turkish, Persian and Hindu weapons.
He made occasional trips to the Harz mountains, and to Italy.
He died of a heart attack on May 8, 1936 in Munich, three weeks before his 56th birthday.