Oswald Spengler

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By Annie Pfeifer


Spengler’s Context and Milieu

Oswald Spengler, the German historian and author of the seminal, two-volume work, Decline of the West or Der Untergang des Abendlandes, was born in 1880 to a conservative, petit bourgeois German family. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1904, after having initially failed his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus because of insufficient references.[1] As his editor Arthur Helps suggests, Spengler’s pessimism was inflected by his own frustrated professional ambitions and meager economic means.[2] By 1911, Spengler foresaw war and hoped for an imperial future for Germany, which he feared might deteriorate like Rome after the Punic Wars.[3] Although he voted for Hitler in 1932, by the time of his death in 1936, his books were banned by the Nazis after he criticized their policies of anti-Semitism and publicly opposed their biological ideology.

The publication of Decline of the West in 1918 met with resounding success in Germany; it seemed to assuage the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles by rationalizing the German downfall as part of a larger world-historical process. The book was successful outside of Germany as well, and by 1919, it had been translated into several languages. In part, his book was so popular because it tapped into the pervasive feeling of decline that dominated the modern psyche, particularly after WWI.[4] Spengler’s defense of authoritarianism and hostility toward the “leveling” in mass society appealed to conservative revolutionaries in the Weimar Republic.[5] 

Although he is typically regarded as a pessimistic, conservative, and even anti-modern thinker, I will propose that his historical framework takes on a peculiarly modernist tenor in its emphasis on historical relativism and his dramatic, self-proclaimed break with and rejection of the typical linear historical narrative. In doing so, he employs the very terms that modernists used to position themselves in relation to their past. For a historian like Spengler, who studied the past, this was a particularly radical gesture, as it signaled the rejection of an entire disciplinary ethos. As I will conclude, it also bears the seeds for the contradictions in Spengler’s project; his role as a historian complicates his efforts to portray cultures as organisms in flux, just as his desire to represent a holistic perspective of world history undermines both his self-described position of cultural relativism as well as his refusal of Western claims to universality.

Historical Framework

More than simply a pessimistic eulogy to the West, Decline of the West begins by establishing a historical framework in opposition to the “current West European scheme of history, in which the great Cultures are made to follow orbits round us as the presumed centre of all world-happenings, is the Ptolemaic system of history” (13).[6] In its place, Spengler introduces the idea of world-history, which widens the scope of historical inquiry beyond the “Western European scheme” that is predicated on an arbitrary lineage from ancient Greece to the European Enlightenment. This new system “admits no sort of privileged position to the Classical or the Western Culture as against the Cultures of India, Babylon, China, Egypt, the Arabs, Mexico—separate worlds of dynamic being which in point of mass count for just as much in the general picture of history as the Classical, while frequently surpassing it in point of spiritual greatness and soaring power” (14). He humbly calls this non-centered form of history the “Copernican discovery in the historical sphere,” through its radical departure from existing historical schemas.

Spengler articulates the “problem of Civilization” as the primary focus of his inquiry because it crystallizes the decline, death, and posthumous extension of world cultures. He differentiates between culture and civilization, suggesting,

“Civilization is the ultimate destiny of the Culture… Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion… petrifying world-city following mother-earth and the spiritual childhood” (24).

The distinction between civilization and culture is analogous to the difference between the Greek soul and the Roman intellect (25). Civilization represents “petrified” or reified culture, divorced from the “soul” and process of becoming, and ultimately signifying the swansong rather than the apex of a culture’s development. For Spengler, the German poet Goethe best epitomizes the dynamic “philosophy of Becoming” through his emphasis on development and growth in his works Wilhelm Meister and Poetry and Truth, in contrast to the static “philosophy of Being” represented by Aristotle and Kant (38). Goethe’s concept of “living nature” emphasizes this “thing-becoming” and opposes the “world-as-organism, dead nature to living nature, law to form,” which is propagated and expressed by civilization (20).[7]

Decline of the West is also based partly on Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, particularly Thus Spake Zarathustra, where, according to Spengler, he “brilliantly and theatrically formulates… the creative will-to-life” (34). For Spengler, Goethe and Nietzsche form the two great pillars of German intellectual life, representing the apotheosis and decline of Western culture respectively.[8] Unlike Goethe who was able to “understand and solve the great [formal] problems of his time as a recognized member of his society,” Nietzsche’s nihilism “shatters the ideals” of his own culture and “protests passionately against everything contemporary, if he was to rescue anything his forebears had bequeathed to him as a cultural heritage.”[9] Nietzsche’s concept of the “transvaluation of all values,” or the affirmation of new values of life and pleasure over Christian suffering and chastity, epitomizes a dynamic “philosophy of Becoming,” much like Goethe’s idea of “living nature.”[10] Nietzsche also bequeaths to Spengler the tools to issue his diagnosis of decline, such as the idea that a civilization in its death throes “begets no more, but only reinterprets… it assumes that the genuine act of creation has already occurred, and merely enters upon an inheritance of big actualities” (181).[11] Nietzsche’s concept of the “Will to Power,” or the primary driving force of man, manifests itself in the “creative, destructive Will in history” that Spengler seeks to chronicle. Thus, in a way, Nietzsche also provides Spengler with a life-affirming emphasis on dynamism and individualism that uneasily coexists with his fatalistic pessimism.[12]

Spengler’s Modernist Inheritance

Although he saw modernist art, such as atonal music and abstract painting, as manifestations of cultural decay, Spengler himself was influenced by the principles of modernism. Like John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot, and other modernists, he attacked the “immense optical illusion” that pervaded an existing world order and people’s attendant “unshakeable belief in the efficacy of… such orders” (176).[13] His insistence on writing non-linear history while decentering the dominant, Eurocentric scheme of history echoes the alternative narrative approaches of Marcel ProustVirginia Woolf, and James Joyce Like other modernist writers who rejected the conventional narrative techniques and experimented with narrative chronology, Spengler breaks with his predecessors to reject the linear narrative of history. Spengler and modernist writers altered existing representations of through historical and literary means respectively—conceptions that seemed to be corroborated by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which espoused that the measurement of time and space is dependent on the position and velocity of the observer. Spengler’s scathing critique of historiography, specifically the subdivision of history into “ancient, medieval, and modern,” creates a radical break with the practice of history. He consciously breaks with the “professional historian,” who sees history “as a sort of tapeworm industriously adding onto itself one epoch after another” (18). The false, parasitical linearity of the professional historian’s approach mirrors civilization’s stifling influence on culture and “things-becoming.”

In his emphasis on “becoming” instead of “being,” Spengler’s philosophy of history has a curiously modernist tenor; he is keenly aware of the radical instability and flux of life that cannot be captured through static forms. He recalls Henri Bergson's concept of duration, which can only be grasped through simple intuition of the imagination rather than objective science or logical analysis.[14] Spengler writes: “I see, in place of the empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of fact, the drama of mighty Cultures” (17). For Bergson, no two moments can be the same; for Spengler, no two cultures or cultural moments can be the same. He writes, “Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return” (17). Underscoring the ephemeral, inimitable nature of each culture, Spengler’s view of history and temporality is colored by a profound sense of unrecoverable loss, much like Eliot's “The Waste Land.”[15]

Perhaps at his most modern, Spengler privileges cultural relativity and renounces the Eurocentric vantage point of other historians in a way that strongly resonates with his contemporary reader. Spengler criticizes Western philosophers, such as Nietzsche, for failing to consider vantage points outside of a narrow linear frame of Western history, suggesting: “It is this that is lacking to the Western thinker, the very thinker in whom we might have expected to find it—insight into the historically relative character of his data, which are expressions of one specific existence and one only” (18). Ironically, Spengler seems to have inherited this idea from Nietzsche’s concept of perspectivism, which holds that there is no absolute, “God's eye” standpoint from which one can survey everything that is.[16] In a way, Spengler outdoes Nietzsche in his own relativism. Paradoxically, the thinker who has often been co-opted by the right berates Nietzsche for his lack of historical and cultural relativity.

Conservative appropriations of Spengler’s ideas have often prompted historians to overlook Spengler’s opposition to imperialism and biological definitions of race. Implicit in Spengler’s analysis of civilization is a critique of imperialism, “which is civilization unadulterated” because it petrifies and disseminates a dying or dead culture to all parts of the globe (28). An empire disregards the historically contingent and individual status of world-history by blindly imposing its own forms onto other cultures. Empires, such as the Roman, Egyptian, and Chinese, become phantom civilizations or “dead bodies” that live on for hundreds of years after their deaths through their imperial domains (28).[17]

Spengler dismisses 19th century ideas of race as a biological phenomenon as well as pseudo-anthropological claims about the phrenology of cultures. Instead, he suggests that the idea of race derives largely from a geographic location and that “race-expression is completely transformed” in the migration and movement of peoples (254).

“…'race' in this connexion must not be interpreted in the present-day Darwinian sense of the word. It cannot be accepted, surely, that a people were ever held together by the mere unity of physical origin, or, if it were, could maintain that unity for ten generations. It cannot be too often reiterated that this physiological provenance has no existence except for science—never for folk-consciousness—and that no people was ever stirred to enthusiasm by this ideal of blood purity… It is the incoordination of this (wholly metaphysical) beat which produces race hatred” (265).

His ideas about race fundamentally opposed National Socialism, which predicated its policies on a biological distinction between the "Aryan" and Jewish race. Due to his opposition to the racist biology of Nazism, Spengler’s books were eventually banned during the Third Reich. Spengler’s rebuttal of 19th century and Nazi race theories positions him as a modern, if not modernist thinker, who sought to break with the outdated methods of his predecessors and conservative contemporaries by renouncing Western claims to universality and supremacy.

“Organic” View of History

In his self-described “organic” theory of history, Spengler labels “cultures as organisms,” a concept which he derives from Goethe’s idea of “living nature” (71). Living nature encapsulates the “the idea of becoming” from a standpoint of “the phenomenal world in motion,” which is best studied through “erfühlen” or “living into” rather than by dissection (72). He writes, “I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms” (18). Drawing heavily on natural, biological terms, such as “properties of species,” (16) he compares humans to butterflies and orchids, describing the way “cultures spring with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle” (17). By appealing to biological and organic forms, Spengler seeks to naturalize his theory of history in a way that recalls Herbert Spencer’s attempts to extend evolutionary biology into sociology and ethics.

His method of studying history draws heavily on analogy, through which “the form and duration… can be calculated from available precedents” (30). Northrop Frye suggests that Spengler’s analogical method regarding cultures rests “on a further analogy between a culture and an organism.”[18] Curiously, however, one of Spengler’s major critiques of existing historical scholarship is that “History was seen as Nature (in the objective sense of the physicist) and treated accordingly, it is to this that we must ascribe the baneful mistake of applying the principles of causality, of law, of system” (39). Yet, this “baneful mistake” seems to be precisely what Spengler is in danger of committing by uncritically using the organism as an analogy for society, thereby treating history like nature. Paradoxically, as I will later suggest, under Spengler’s microscope, history becomes a study of “things-become,” where even the “things-becoming” are transformed into lifeless forms (70). The discipline of history, like other forms of inquiry, risks killing “things-becoming” in order to classify and analyze them.

Spengler’s organic analogy breaks down when he tries to assert that each culture is “self-contained… like a peculiar blossom or fruit,” a claim which has little basis in reality (17). After all, Spengler himself describes the ways that various cultures impact others through empire and trade, propagating their influence long after their declines. This complex network of influences seems to complicate his naturalistic analogy; a butterfly or orchid does not continue beyond its physical existence in the same way that Plato or Greek philosophy does. At times, Spengler undermines his own argument by forcing historical developments into his “organic” paradigm.[19]

Western Civilization and its Discontents

Ultimately, according to Spengler, Western or “Faustian” culture is characterized by its restless thrust toward the infinite and unattainable, or the “conception of mankind as an active, fighting, progressing whole” (165). The Faustian individual “strives to direct the world according to his will” (410). In architecture, the “infinity-seeking” Faustian tendency is most apparent in the endless vertical thrusts of Gothic cathedrals and the “depth-experience” of paintings, in which parallel lines meet in infinity (125). From its inception around 1000 with the Cluniac reforms, the Faustian civilization marked a radical break with its predecessors, the Apollonian (Classical) culture and the Magian (Judeo-Arabic) culture (98). According to Spengler, the differences between Faustian and Apollonian art are instructive: “The Apollonian form-language reveals only the become, the Faustian shows above all a becoming” (139).

Yet, according to Spengler, after nearly 900 years of dominance, the Faustian era has reached its death throes. He writes, “the future of the West is not limitless tending upwards and onwards for all time… but a single phenomenon of history” (30). Like other modernists, he attacked the positivistic, Enlightenment myth of unending progress based on universal criteria. Harbingers of this cultural decay were, among other things, atonal music, avant-garde art produced for oversensitive connoisseurs, manipulation of the public opinion by mass media, and imperialism. Much like Goethe’s Faust becomes shackled by his insatiable quest for knowledge, “Faustian man has become the slave of his creation,” particularly through the machine which enslaves both the worker and entrepreneur (412). For Spengler, “Caesarism” is another manifestation of this decline, as authority becomes increasingly concentrated in the hand of one person and the modern institutions of the state begin to disintegrate (396). Even modern writers, such as Nietzsche and Ibsen, who “embraced the possibilities of a true philosophy,” also “exhausted them” (35).

Towards the end of volume two, Spengler becomes increasingly bitter and pessimistic in his invective against the decay of modern society, and begins to betray his own principle of historical relativity. As Helps astutely observes, “his claim to observe from a neutral standpoint shows a neglect of the relativity which is his favorite weapon. If the whole of reality is being constantly transformed in a continuum of aspects from perpetually changing viewpoints, it must be impossible to obtain a precise picture.”[20] In spite of his self-proclaimed “non-centered” history, Spengler uses the printing press, Goethe, and Nietzsche—Germanic history—as his primary historical markers. Perhaps stepping out of himself to view his theory against the backdrop of his peculiar world-historical moment, Spengler might suggest that his own historical framework is a reification of the dynamic impulses of German or Western European culture. It is ironic that the thinker who opposed theories as mummified versions of “things-becoming” became best known for a taxonomy of decline that perhaps prematurely petrified his own culture.[21] Perhaps, this contradiction can best be attributed to the tensions between Spengler’s metaphysical aims and his historical project; narrating history necessarily reifies the past as a “thing-become” in order to represent and study it.

  1. H. Stuart Hughes, "Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate," New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952.
  2. Arthur Helps, "Oswald Spengler," The Decline of the West, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, p. viii.
  3. Arthur Helps, "Oswald Spengler," The Decline of the West, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, p. ix.
  4. For instance, in his poem, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” Ezra Pound wrote that a “botched” Western civilization was an “old bitch gone in the teeth.” Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, New York: New Directions, 1957.
  5. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, "The Weimar Republic Sourcebook," Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, p. 355.
  6. Oswald Spengler, "The Decline of the West," New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
  7. Spengler writes, “That which Goethe called Living Nature is exactly that which we are calling here world-history, world-as-history. Goethe, who as artist portrayed always the life and development of his figures, the things becoming and not the thing-become… For him the world-as-mechanism stood opposed to the world-as-organism, dead nature to living nature, law to form” (20).
  8. Oswald Spengler, “Nietzsche And His Century,” Spengler, Reden und Aufsätze, Munich: 1937.
  9. Oswald Spengler, “Nietzsche And His Century,” Spengler, Reden und Aufsätze, Munich: 1937.
  10. Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Gay Science," trans. by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage Books: 1974.
  11. In his address on the occasion of Nietzsche’s eightieth birthday in 1924, Spengler wrote: “His ultimate understanding of real history was that the Will to Power is stronger than all doctrines and principles, and that it has always made and forever will make history... to him the most important thing was the image of active, creative, destructive Will in history.” Oswald Spengler, “Nietzsche And His Century,” Spengler, Reden und Aufsätze, Munich: 1937.
  12. Ultimately, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Übermensch and eternal recurrence combine to inform Spengler's emphasis on individual creative power and its reflection of the absolute patterns of human society, which culminates in a vehement elitism. Kevin McNeilly, “Cultural Morphologies: Yeats, Spengler and Adorno,” Irish University Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 248.
  13. Spengler’s quotation is reminiscent of the opening lines of Keynes’ "Economic Consequences of the Peace": “Very few of us realize with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary nature of the economic organization by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century. We assume some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late advantages as natural, permanent, and to be depended on, and we lay our plans accordingly. On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family.” John Maynard Keynes, "The Economic Consequences of the Peace," New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920, p. 1.
  14. Henri Bergson, “The Creative Mind: An introduction to Metaphysics,” New York: First Carol Publishing Group, 1992, p. 168.
  15. Spengler recalls the sense of decay and disillusion captured in modernist literature: “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,” T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” 1922, http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html
  16. Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/
  17. Curiously, Spengler personally advocated the development of a German empire (Helps ix).
  18. Northrop Frye, “‘The Decline of the West’ by Oswald Spengler,” Daedalus, Vol. 103, No. 1, Twentieth-Century Classics Revisited (Winter, 1974), p. 6.
  19. The modernist German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was deeply influenced by Spengler, similarly emphasized an “organic” mode of building that sought to place his architectural theory into a naturalistic framework. In his educational curriculum, Mies emphasized “dependence on the epoch” and “the obligation to realize the potentialities of organic architecture.” Werner Blaser, "Mies van der Rohe," Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag für Architektur, 1997, p. 75.
  20. Arthur Helps, "Oswald Spengler," The Decline of the West, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, p. xiii.
  21. McNeilly writes, “He demands purity, depth and objectivity but cannot manage to achieve a holistic critical perspective without in some sense betraying the historical organism, the actual ‘becoming’ he wants to describe.” Kevin McNeilly, “Cultural Morphologies: Yeats, Spengler and Adorno,” Irish University Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 245.
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