Reading Spengler ‘between literature and prophecy’.
By JAMES GALLANT.
OSWALD SPENGLER’S The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) — oddly scholarly, very long, often dreadfully tedious — would have seemed an unlikely candidate for popular success when its first volume appeared in 1918. But by only eight years later, the first and second volumes had sold a hundred thousand copies.
The first volume of The Decline of the West appeared just as World War I was ending. A lot had gone amiss in Germany, in addition to the war: a declining birthrate, irreligion, depopulation of rural areas, and class conflict associated with the emergence of a sizable urban proletariat. Spengler’s description of “inebriated” crowds enchanted by “theatrical promises and amateur appeals and theories” of “clever businessmen” posing as statesmen resonates in the Trump era. To make matters worse, the postwar parliamentarian Weimar Republic government had proven incapable of meeting the austere demands levied by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles for reparations to nations damaged by German aggression.
The best explanation for Spengler’s success seemed to be that his pessimistic, deterministic outlook squared so well with the mood in Germany after the war. Sven Hedin wrote of The Decline of the West in a 1922 letter to Spengler, “When everything is collapsing and when one is surrounded on all sides by innumerable problems, it is a comfort to read a book where one at least receives an explanation of all these strange phenomena.”
Literary scholar Joseph Frank once observed that after Germany’s defeat in the Great War, the country had been “inundated by a flood of [pessimistic] doctrines and attitudes exemplified by such names as Spengler, Ludwig Klages, Bachofen, Ernst Junger, Stefan George…,” all of whom stressed “the impotence of spirit and reason and, by contrast, the powers of the lower regions, the dynamic of passion, the irrational, the unconscious.”1
“It is not our fault that we are living in the early winter of a completed civilization,” Spengler declared. His vision of a fatal Destiny operative in world cultures (whatever might be said of it philosophically) provided an account of the trials he and his fellows were experiencing.
While the Decline is dense, clumsy and scholarly, many of its early German readers saw it as essentially a personal production. Hermann von Keyserling in a letter to Spengler had expressed a desire to meet the author personally, sensing that in the Decline there was “more between the lines than in them.” Anton Koktenek, in an introduction to Spengler’s collected letters,2 remarks, “Observe how many subjective feelings are expressed in his writings!” The author “himself is there in every line he writes. In every one of his books he is himself once again, his nature expressed in words.”
Ad hominem considerations seem pertinent, and Spengler’s personal life, as described in Koktenek’s biography, Ursprung und Urangst (Origin and Original Anxiety), might well have encouraged meditations on decline. The emotional tone of his small-town birth family had apparently been chilly. Oswald’s father, a petty civil servant, was hostile to his son’s literary interests. Melancholy from youth, always feeling misunderstood, Oswald suffered from extreme nervousness and insomnia. His migraine headaches had been intense enough later in life to cause short-term memory loss. For a few years after schooling (Ph.D., University of Halle, 1904), he made his living teaching in German high schools whose students found him a good classroom teacher, though reclusive personally. Spengler never married. A modest inheritance received after his Jewish mother’s death in 1910 had enabled him to leave teaching and settle in a Munich slum apartment where he began working on the Decline in earnest.
INTEREST IN THE Decline of the West has never faded entirely. Koktenek remarked in 1966 that it had, in fact, “increased throughout the world”; and the post-millennial era has seen the republication of some Spengler texts, and new scholarly books and articles. A number of the signs of societal collapse Spengler described are common experience for us: evisceration of rural areas and concentrations of atomized populations in great cities, gross economic disparities among classes, Caesar-like politicians with mass followings, propaganda disguised as political discourse, political parties serving as stooges for money interests, international military and political blundering, declining birth rates (associated by Spengler with feminism), effete intellectualism, bogus revivals of primitive religiosity, and decadent entertainment.
Detailed summaries of Spengler’s philosophy of world cultures are readily available online and elsewhere. I will settle here for a brief summary of the Decline’s main points, and criticisms often leveled against them.
Spengler had studied (or, put more accurately, had read other people’s studies of) eight major world cultures: Egyptian, Chinese, Babylonian, Greco-Roman, Indian, Arabic, Aztec and “Western.” H. Stuart Hughes remarks in Oswald Spengler (1952) that no human being could possibly have studied all these cultures with any degree of thoroughness, and Spengler’s dependence on secondary sources was obvious, if rarely acknowledged. He argued that each of the eight cultures had been the scene of a unique, indigenous “root feeling of living existence”—one expression of the conviction widely held during the heyday of nationalism that nations, like individuals, had unique souls and destinies. (Nietzsche spoke of a “mighty society held together not by external rites and laws, but by a fundamental idea…the fundamental idea of culture itself, in so far as culture places before each of us only one [collective] task.”) Charismatic personalities like Jesus or Napoleon embodied, and fostered the development of, a culture’s dominant theme that, according to Spengler, was to be perceived “physiognomically” (i.e., on the surfaces of life) by historians gifted with eyes to see.
Any single aspect of a culture’s life was, for Spengler, “not only a fact for the understanding, but also an expression of the spiritual, not only an object but a symbol as well, be it…religion or art or a mere trifle of everyday life.” So, for example, a history of musical instruments should deal not simply with modifications in sound production by various means in various times and places, but with the “deep spiritual bases of tone color and tonal effects aimed at” in a given culture. Contemplating historical phenomena in this way, Spengler traced the modern European concern with outer space as far back as the soaring medieval cathedrals, and contrasted it with it the classical Greco-Roman sense of space as simply alien unreality.
The dominant theme in German culture was the Volk: the idea of an organic, peaceful pastoral society with harmonious relations among social classes. Spengler, no fan of democracy, longed for the emergence of an enlightened despot, a Führer (leader or guide) who could rescue Volk from the demons of capitalism, liberalism, urbanism, irreligion, and the postwar parliamentarism of the Weimar Republic. Hitler, whom Spengler once met in person and thought an idiot, was not the man for the job, though; and when invited by Joseph Goebbels to join the National Socialist team, Spengler responded that propaganda wasn’t his thing. A number of Spengler’s acquaintances who shared his contempt for the National Socialists came to bad ends. Spengler might have, too, had he not died in 1936 at the age of fifty-six.
IN SPENGLER’S VISION of universal history, the “alien powers that loom…behind the screen of sense phenomena” dictate that a culture will proceed through time from a high-energy “springtime” beginning (a period of vigorous creativity and expansion) through phases of fruition and harvest, to a dull, frozen wintry end.
As an alternative to his seasonal metaphor, he sometimes invoked the life cycles of plants. In either case, a must factor operated in the lives of cultures dictating that “great creations and forms in religion, art, politics, social life, economy and science will appear, fulfill themselves [realize the potential inherent in their governing ideas] and die down.” For Spengler, as for another twentieth-century student of universal history, Arnold Toynbee, author of the multi-volume A Study of History, the death throes of a culture were associated with huge cities, empire, and “Caesarism,” decadent Rome being the archetypal case. In the last phase, attempts to revert to earlier stages amounted to “pageantry.” (One can imagine how Spengler would have responded to the Trumpian blarney about “making America great again.”)
In a 1926 letter to Hans Stier, Spengler wrote that while his philosophy of history derived from his studies in the fields of “mathematics, the history of art, and recent politics, each for itself,” scholarly diligence alone would never have produced it. “Physiognomic” intuition was the essential. “Historical contemplation, which I call [awareness of] physiognomic time-beat,” Spengler wrote, “is…human knowledge expanded over the past and future, the born [capacity for] insight into persons and situations, into events, into what was necessary, into what had to be.”3 “Physiognomic” savvy, as characterized in Decline, is “a nearly indescribable sensitive faculty constantly labile [i.e. capable of shifts] enabling comprehension of the “fleeting form world.”
Contemplating the rises and falls of civilizations produced by Destiny, Spengler saw no evidence of linear development, just repeated cyclical ups and downs, like those in the natural world. Adam Gopnik, who discussed The Decline of the West in a September, 2011, New Yorker piece, titled his article, “Decline, Fail, Rinse, Repeat.”
Dubious as Spengler’s grandiose philosophy of history may have been, twentieth century realities were to bear out much in his dire vision of the Western future. John Farrenkopf listed these realities in a 1991 article: “the alarming fragmentation of the social fabric, the onset of the Great Depression, the horrors of totalitarianism and genocide, the outbreak of two colossal wars, to say nothing of the more recent…global ecological crisis,”4 (Spengler had thought the massive consumption of raw materials by industrial societies would end badly. Already in his lifetime great forests had been leveled for the manufacture of daily newspapers, a process that obviously could not continue indefinitely.)
WHY, IT MIGHT be asked—and has been—did Spengler choose to write “universal” history, rather than the less speculative, sweeping kind generally favored by historians in the twentieth century and since?
Historian H. Stuart Hughes in his 1952 study remarked on Spengler’s “reckless, uncontrolled construction of hypotheses,” his “dogmatism resting on a foundation of pure feeling,” and his bogus claim to a “peculiar source of knowledge of his own.” Reduced at one point to the literary equivalent of sputtering, Hughes wrote that Spengler was just “not writing the sort of history that most of us [professional historians] have been trained to think of as the only possible kind.”
R.G. Collingwood, in Essay on Metaphysics, scoffed at Spengler’s representation of cultures as “constellations of historical facts” in which “everything fit together neatly like jigsaw pieces laid out on a table”; and in Oswald Spengler and the Theory of Historical Cycles (1927) he wrote that Spengler hadn’t really done any history, and needn’t have, since all he had to do was sort through others’ historical studies for what struck him as illustrations of his cyclical theory of cultures. What makes long stretches of the Decline virtually unreadable, is that rather than discussing in detail analogies in the life stages of diverse cultures, Spengler simply piles up the analogies he sees in catalogues, producing the literary equivalent of scenes in junkyards.
For Isaiah Berlin, the trouble with universal history, apart from the fact that actual events so often contradict the patterns the historian tries to impose on them, is its encouragement of freedom-denying fatalism of just the kind one finds in Spengler. Spengler, for his part, adopting the viewpoint ordinarily reserved for God, remarked that the “abrupt, surprising, unforeseeable” consequences that often attend the exercise of free will reveal its subservience to “a deeper necessity…a major order”—the cosmic cycles. Therefore, limiting historiography to scrupulous empirical research only reveals the pygmy stature of the historian. What held Spengler’s attention was the mystery of Destiny, the “one great pulse beat operating through all the detached souls, filling, driving, checking, and often destroying…the deepest of all life’s secrets, the secret that all religious mysteries and all great poems see to penetrate.”
The Decline was the work of an impassioned Stoic with a vision a world in the grip of “strangely constituted necessity” that accounted for the powerlessness and dread he and his contemporaries were experiencing at that moment.
CONSIDERING BOTH THE deficiencies of The Decline of the West, and its enduring appeal and existential cunning, the critical question to ask may be, What is it?
The wisest thing Hughes said about the work was that it is something “between literature and prophecy.” Spengler’s rooting through world history for illustrations of his “patterns,” dubious as this practice might be for a scrupulous historian, strongly resembles the imaginative writer’s quest of historical materials suitable for the expression of a personal vision. The Decline of the West generates the kind of impassioned, sweeping vision based on personal experience and emotion that may enable a book to become a popular success. Fritz Stern in his marvelous study The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961) noted similarities between the popular success of Spengler’s book, and that of Jules Langbehn’s 1890 Rembrandt als Erzieher, a “breathless tirade,” a “rhapsody of irrationalism” that spoke to “the mood of a groping, discontented, and aspiring people.” For a more recent analogy, one might think of Charles A. Reich’s impassioned rhapsodies on the counter-culture in The Greening of America (1970) which sold two million copies.
Spengler, in what seemed a description of his own experience, wrote that the greater the suffering at the hands of the alien powers operative in the world, the more powerful the will “to bind, to bridle, to placate, to know…all, in the last analysis, the same thing.” It is possible, too, that books like his, written out of acute suffering and need, whatever their deficiencies, may tap into the sources of genuine foreknowledge; Spengler’s announcement a century ago that in the first centuries of the millennium to come the West would be entering its death-throes might give one pause.
James Gallant, an independent scholar, is the Fortnightly Review’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and author of Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations, published recently in our Odd Volumes series. His La Leona and Other Guitar Stories, which won the Schaffner Press award for music-in-literature in 2019, is available currently, along with his earlier works of fiction, from booksellers online and off-.
- In “Reaction as Progress: Thomas Mann’s ‘Dr. Faustus,’” Chicago Review 15:2 (1961).
- Letters of Oswald Spengler, 1913-1936, ed. Arthur Helps.
- Quoted by Rudolph Steiner in “Oswald Spengler, Prophet of World Chaos,” from the online Rudolph Steiner Archive & e.Lib.
- “The Challenge of Spenglerian Pessimism, to Ranke and Political Realism”, in Review of International Studies , Vol. 17 , Issue 3, July 1991 , pp. 267 – 284.