Oswald Spengler - 'Der Untergang des Abendlandes'

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
Oswald Spengler   

'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.
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.
He proposed a new theory, according to which the lifespan of civilizations is limited and ultimately they decay.
He wrote extensively throughout World War I and the interwar period, and supported German hegemony in Europe.
As a precursor of National Socialism, in 1920 Spengler produced 'Preußentum und Sozialismus' (Prussia and Socialism), which argued for an organic, nationalist version of socialism and authoritarianism.




Biography

Blankenburg
Oswald Spengler
(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.
His father, originally a mining technician, who came from a long line of mine-workers, was a post office bureaucrat.
His childhood home was emotionally reserved, and the young Spengler turned to books and the great cultural personalities for succor.
He had imperfect health, and suffered throughout his life from migraine headaches and from an anxiety complex.
At the age of ten, his family moved to the university city of Halle.
Halle Marktplatz
Here Spengler received a classical education at the local Gymnasium (academically oriented secondary school), studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and sciences.
Here, too, he developed his affinity for the arts - especially poetry, drama, and music - and came under the influence of the ideas of Goethe and Nietzsche.

Nietzsche
After his father's death in 1901 Spengler attended several universities (Munich, Berlin, and Halle) as a private scholar, taking courses in a wide range of subjects. His private studies were undirected.
In 1904 he received his Ph.D.
He briefly served as a teacher in Saarbrücken and then in Düsseldorf.

Realgymnasium - Hamburg
From 1908 to 1911 he worked at a grammar school (Realgymnasium) in Hamburg, where he taught science, German history, and mathematics.
In 1911 he moved to Munich, where he would live until his death in 1936.
He lived as a cloistered scholar, supported by his modest inheritance.
He began work on the first volume of 'Der Untergang des Abendlandes' intending at first to focus on Germany within Europe, but the Agadir Crisis affected him deeply, and he widened the scope of his study.
The book was completed in 1914, but publishing was delayed by World War I.
Due to a congenital heart problem, he was not called up for military service.



'The Decline of the West' is a two-volume work by Oswald Spengler, the first volume of which was published in the summer of 1918.
Spengler revised this volume in 1922 and published the second volume, subtitled 'Perspektiven der Weltgeschichte' - (Perspectives of World History), in 1923.
The book introduces itself as a "Copernican overturning", and rejects the Euro-centric view of history, especially the division of history into the linear "ancient-medieval-modern" rubric.
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'.
The book also presents the idea of Muslims, Jews and Christians, as well as their Persian and Semitic forebears, being Magian; Mediterranean cultures of the antiquity such as Ancient Greece and Rome being Apollonian; and the modern Westerners being Faustian.
According to the theory, the Western world is actually ending and we are witnessing the last season - 'Winterzeit' - (winter time) — of the Faustian 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.

General Context

Spengler relates that he conceived the book sometime in 1911 and spent three years in writing the first draft.
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.
The book received unfavorable reviews from most interested scholars even before the release of the second volume.
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.
A 1928 'Time' magazine review of the second volume of 'Der Untergang des Abendlandes' described the immense influence and controversy Spengler's ideas enjoyed in the 1920s:
"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."
Spengler presented a worldview that resonated with the post-WWI German mood  - a view of democracy as the type of government of the declining civilization.
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.

Overview

Nietzsche
Goethe 
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."
Morphology is a key part of Spengler's philosophy of history, using a methodology which approached history and historical comparisons on the basis of civilizational forms and structure, without regard to function.
In a footnote, Spengler describes the essential core of his philosophical approach toward history, culture, and civilization:

Kant
Plato
'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.

Spengler's Cultures

The "Decline" is largely concerned with comparisons between the Classical and Western cultures, but some examples are taken from the Arabian, Chinese, and Egyptian formations. 
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.
Spengler seems to ignore Southeast Asian and Peruvian (Incan, etc.) cultures, and he thinks the Russian culture is still defining itself.

The Meaning of History

Spengler distinguishes between ahistorical peoples, and peoples caught up in world-history. While he recognizes that all people are a part of history, he argues that only certain cultures imbue a wider sense of historical involvement.
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).
For Spengler, a world-historical view points toward the meaning of history itself, by breaking the historian or observer out of his crude culturally-parochial classifications of history.
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.
For example, Spengler classifies Classical and Indian civilizations as ahistorical, whereas the Egyptian and Western civilizations developed conceptions of historical time.
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.

Culture and Civilization

Spengler adopts an organic conception of culture.
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.
Spengler divides the concepts of culture and civilization, the former focused inward and growing, the latter outward and merely expanding, however, he sees Civilization as the destiny of every Culture.
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'.
Spengler also compares the 'Weltstadt' (world-city) and province, as concepts analogous to civilization and culture respectively.
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.
Spengler has a low opinion of Civilizations, even those that engaged in significant expansion, because that expansion was not actual growth.
Roman 'Weltherrschaft
Roman 'Weltherrschaft' 
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.

Races, Peoples and Cultures

Eine Rasse (a race), writes Spengler, has "roots," just like a plant.
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".
Spengler writes that,
"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."
Closely connected to race is Spengler's definition of a 'ein volk' (people), which he defines as a unit of 'die Seele' (the soul).
"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."
"It is quite often justifiable to align peoples with races.
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).
To Spengler, 'Völker' (peoples) are formed from early prototypes during the Early phase of a Culture.
"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."
In attempts to tie race and culture together, Spengler is echoing ideas similar to those of Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellén.
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.
In his later works, such as 'Mensch und Technik' - (Man and Technics) and 'Die Stunde der Entscheidung' - (The Hour of Decision), Spengler expanded upon his 'geistlichen' - (spiritual) theory of race and tied it to his metaphysical notion of eternal war, and his belief that "Man is a beast of prey."

The State and Caesarism

Spengler sees a leader's responsibility as only to a minority that possesses the proper breeding for statesmanship, and which represents the rest of the nation in its historical struggle. Most states, he argues, have only a single social stratum which, constitutionally or otherwise, leads politically.
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.
Spengler rejects Parliamentarianism as a distinct Civilizational stage, like the absolute Polis and the Baroque State.
Instead it represents a transitional period between the mature Late-Culture period and the age of state formlessness.
The transformation of a Culture into a Civilization he attributes partly to the bourgeoisie.
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.
Decline is also evidenced by a formlessness of political institutions within a state.
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
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.
Spengler predicts that the permanent mass conscription armies will be replaced by smaller professional volunteer armies.
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'.
Caesarism is essentially the death of the spirit that originally animated a nation and its institutions.
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'.
Spengler notes the urge of a nation toward universalism, idealism, and imperialism in the wake of a major geopolitical enemy's defeat.
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.
Despite having fought wars for democracy and rights during the period of Contending States, the populace can no longer be moved to use those rights.
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.


Max Weber
Thomas Mann
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.