Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), German universal historian, was born in Blankenburg, in the Harz mountains. Of Protestant parentage, he was descended on his father’s side from a line of mining engineers; his mother’s family was artistically inclined. Both inheritances came together in Spengler—in his scientific interests on the one hand and his stylistic ability and talent for bold, intuitive theoretical formulations on the other.
After attending a humanist Gymnasium in Halle, he studied mathematics and the natural sciences at the universities of Munich, Berlin, and Halle. He obtained his doctor’s degree at Halle with a dissertation on Heraclitus. Spengler’s preoccupation with this pre-Socratic Greek philosopher foreshadowed some of the main ideas of his major work: he was to translate “everything flows” into historical relativism and “war, the father of all things” into a self-consciously tough, “heroic” world view. Spengler was a lone wolf—a bachelor, and also an outsider to the German world of learning. Having taught at a number of schools, the last a Hamburg Realgymnasium, he moved to Munich as a private scholar in 1911, at which time he conceived the idea for the work which was to stir up the entire historical profession.
The Decline of the West (1918-1922) was revolutionary less in its basic ideas than in the impressive breadth of its canvas—a feature for which it was readily attacked by professional scholars— and in its elaborate systematization of cultural and historical pessimism. Spengler’s immediate inspiration was his perception that the civilization of the West since the late nineteenth century was exhibiting the same symptoms as ancient civilization in its decline. He acknowledged the influences primarily of Goethe and Nietzsche; to them he owed “practically everything.” From Goethe he derived his “method,” particularly his way of relating scientific insights to cultural phenomena, and his latent historical relativism. From Nietzsche he acquired the “questioning faculty,” his approach to cultural criticism.
In the work of Edward Gibbon, decline had been a historical theme closely circumscribed by time and space; for Spengler it became a metaphysical one. While Gibbon had seen decline in a broader context of the long-range history of human progress, Spengler used it as an argument against the existence of progress. This difference is a measure of Spengler’s dramatic break with the premises of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. His historicism and antirationalism carried the tradition of German romanticism to its ultimate conclusions; he called his work a “German philosophy.” His ponderousness and lack of humor in fact took him far afield from both Goethe and Nietzsche. Thus the blue flower of German romanticism blossomed for the last time in an icy, apocalyptic twentieth-century setting.
The Decline of the West is described in the subtitle as a “morphology of history.” History is not the study of a coherent evolution (Spengler contra Hegel); it is a comparative study of cultures. Spengler dismissed with vehemence the traditional periodization of world history in terms of ancient, medieval, and modern. Instead he concentrated on eight separate cultures: those of Egypt, India, Babylon, China, classical antiquity, Islam, the West (Faustian culture), and Mexico. Each one of these “powerful cultures” imprints upon mankind its own form, has its own idea, passions, life, and death (Spengler’s historical relativism). Each one, like a plant, goes through the appointed course of youth, maturity, and decline (Spengler’s determinism). Each “culture,” in Spengler’s terms, produces its “civilization,” the latter representing a late, declining phase of that culture: a civilization is “a conclusion, the thing become succeeding to the thing becoming, rigidity following expansion,” intellect replacing the soul. For the linear view of history Spengler thus substituted a cyclical theory such as had last been elaborated in the West by Vico in the early eighteenth century (though one had been propounded in the nineteenth century by the Russian writer Nikolai I. Danilevskii).
According to this theory, historical events are symbolic of the “metaphysical structure of historical mankind.” There is a “morphological relationship” between diverse expressions of human activity—between differential calculus and the dynastic state of the time of Louis xiv, for instance, or between the ancient polis and Euclidean geometry. Furthermore, Spengler saw “contemporaneity” in phenomena widely separated in time—in the Trojan war and the crusades, in Homer and the song of the Nibelungs, and so forth. Napoleon was not a pupil of Alexander the Great but his alter ego. Altogether, historical data, instead of being subject to the law of cause and effect, follow a compelling “fate.” Spengler called his work grandiloquently a “philosophy of fate.” In effect, while he could hardly pass for a philosopher, he was one of the twentieth century’s outstanding visionaries.
Applied to twentieth-century Western civilization, Spengler’s theories opened up impressive social perspectives. His insights into atomized life in the big city (the “megalopolis”), into an age of masses, money, and a new Caesarism are penetrating. For all his mystical vision, Spengler actually raised the very issues that agitate contemporary sociologists. And what is more, many of his predictions have come true.
Spengler’s immediate impact on Germany was electrifying. Although accused of charlatanism by most professional scholars, he became one of the most widely read and discussed authors in the 1920s. At the same time, a number of pamphlets that he wrote after the war, while serving as sketches for and elaborations of his general work, drew him deeper and deeper into the bitter political struggles of the Weimar Republic. Preussentum und Sozialismus (1920) was particularly influential, orphic but compelling. It exhorted the Germans to live up to a type that Spengler, in The Decline of the West, had called the “last race”: strong, heroic, Prussian. Spengler’s politics added up to a violent rejection of liberalism, democracy, and the West, and they contributed vitally to the undermining of the young German republic, which was to him nothing but a “business enterprise.” While Spengler is considered by some to have paved the way for National Socialism, he disagreed with the Nazis on various basic issues (such as race) and many times repudiated the movement (Neubau des Deutschen Retches 1924; The Hour of Decision 1933b). The Nazis, however, used him as one of their ideological fathers, although after Hitler’s seizure of power they dismissed him harshly as a magician of decline, a sadist, and so forth. In the end Spengler died a lonely, almost forgotten man.
After World War n The Decline of the West, its prophecies seemingly borne out by events, came into its own, especially in the United States. Arnold Toynbee’s universal history—which conquered America in the late 1940s—was really something of a Spenglerian heresy, Spengler tempered by British empiricism. Spengler, indeed, left a lasting imprint upon modern “metahistorians” like Toynbee, sociologists like Sorokin, and anthropologists like Kroeber. Finally, a pessimistic mid-twentieth century saw itself reflected in Spengler’s grand scheme.
Klemens von Klemperer
WORKS BY SPENGLER
(1918-1922) 1926-1928 The Decline of the West. 2 vols. Authorized translation with notes by Charles F. Atkinson. New York: Knopf. → Volume 1: Form and Actuality. Volume 2: Perspectives of World History. First published as Der Untergang des Abendlandes.
(1920) 1942 Preussentum und Sozialismus. Munich: Beck. → Reprinted in Spengler (1933a).
1924 Der Neubau des Deutschen Reiches. Munich: Beck. → Reprinted in Spengler (1933a).
(1931) 1932 Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life. New York: Knopf. → First published as Der Mensch und die Technik: Beitrag zu einer Philosophic des Lebens.
1933a Politische Schriften. Munich: Beck.
(1933b) 1934 The Hour of Decision. New York: Knopf. → First published as Jahre der Entscheidung.
Reden und Aufsdtze. 3d ed. Munich: Beck, 1951. → Published posthumously. Contains Heraklit and other writings first published between 1904 and 1936.
Letters, 1913-1936. Translated and edited by Arthur Helps. New York: Knopf, 1966. → First published in German.
Adorno, T. W. 1950 Spengler nach dem Untergang. Der Monat 2, no. 20:115-128.
Heller, Erich (1952) 1959 The Disinherited Mind. New York: Meridian.
Hughes, H. Stuart 1952 Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate. New York: Scribner.
Meinecke, B’Hiedrich (1923)1959 Über Spenglers Geschichtsbetrachtung. Pages 181-195 in Friedrich Meinecke, Werke. Volume 4: Zur Theorie und Philosophie der Geschichte. Munich: Oldenbourg.
Schroeter, Manfred 1922 Der Streit um Spengler: Kritik seiner Kritiker. Munich: Beck.
Schroeter, Manfred 1949 Metaphysik des Untergangs: Fine kulturkritische Studie Uber Oswald Spengler. Munich: Leibniz.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. (1950) 1963 Modern Historical and Social Philosophies. New York: Dover. → First published as Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis.
Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) was born in Blankenburg, Germany, on May 29, and attended the universities of Munich, Berlin, and Halle, where he studied mathematics and the natural sciences, which led to his becoming a secondary school teacher of mathematics in Hamburg. He abandoned teaching in 1911 to work on his magnum opus—The Decline of the West (1918–1922)—which he did steadily during the World War I. He intentionally published the first volume to coincide with the German military defeat and industrial collapse of 1918, and the second four years later. From this time until his death in Munich on May 8, he wrote other, shorter books and pamphlets on social and political subjects, including Man and Technics (1931).
Despite his marginal status in the German academic world and the controversy with which his ideas were greeted, Spengler's influence on social science was far greater than that of those who tried furiously to refute him. His impact derives from the fact that in examining the nature of Western Europe and North America he makes predictions about its future, drawing inferences based on a metaphysical reading of history during a period of serious crisis.
The key to Spengler's philosophical anthropology and accompanying philosophy of history is his use of the Faustian legend in popular German literature to interpret modern technology. According to him, humans are the only predators able to select and design weapons for attacking nature and each other. At some point around the tenth century this ability developed to such an extent in Western European culture that humans seized for themselves the prerogatives of domination over nature. This inexorable destiny is a radical break with earlier periods of thought, in which humans saw themselves as subject to nature; yet it was a destiny made possible by nature, when nature gave human beings both mental superiority and hands. The hands are fundamentally weapons. More than a tool of tool, as described by Aristotle, the hand perfects itself in conflict more than manufacture. Indeed just as Spengler interprets the plough as a weapon against plant life, so he sees instruments of worship as arms against the devil. But Spengler does not confuse technology with tools or technological objects. Technology is a set of procedures or practical means for producing a particular end in view. In Spengler's words, technology is the tactics of living, a conception that goes beyond human life. Following Friedrich Nietzsche, he identifies life with struggle, a fierce and merciless struggle that springs from the will to power, with the machine being the subtlest of all possible weapons.
Having placed the origin of Faustian culture in the Nordic countries, Spengler interprets the Enlightenment as the moment when the machine replaced the Creator. The machine became a god, with factories for temples and engineers for priests, whose mysteries were the esoteric features of mechanization. Nineteenth-century machine age industrialization imposed itself on nature with standardized, inert forms that are hostile to the natural world and the precursors of decline. But in order to feed the technological-machinist army Western Europe and North America furthered the destruction of nature across the globe, creating an untameable monster that threatens to conquer humans themselves and lead culture to a grandiose suicide. The tragedy of humanity lies in humans raising their hands against their own mother—nature. All the great cultures defeats. The struggle against nature is a struggle without hope, even though people pursue it to the end.
Contrary to the views of Enlightenment theorists such as Henri de Saint-Simon or Auguste Comte, the domination of nature by Faustian technology does not seek human emancipation, but is the manifestation of a blind will to power over the infinite. As Hermínio Martins (1998) argues, Spengler rejects the rationality of technological history. The history of Western European and North American technology is simply human tragedy because the infinite is always greater than efforts to tame it. Inspired also by Nietzsche's cyclic vision of history, Spengler sees culture, rooted in the soil, being replaced by civilization, in which the intellect prevails, decaying again eventually into culture.
The significance that Spengler attributes to technology, his defense of science-as-technology, his cultural pessimism, and his hostility to liberal, democratic values and institutions were commented on by Max Weber, and influenced thinking during the Nazi regime, despite the fact that he rejected national socialism completely in 1934. Many of his insights and expressions regarding the essentially non-transferable character of Western European and North American technological culture as a destiny, the will to power as the foundation of technology, and the conceptual and ontological dependency of science on technology are further echoed in Martin Heidegger and Ernst Jünger, as well as in some members of the first generation of the Frankfurt school.
JOSÉ LUÍS GARCIA
SEE ALSO Faust; German Perspectives.
Hughes, H. Stuart. (1952). Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Martins, Hermínio. (1998). "Technology, Modernity, Politics". In The Politics of Postmodernity, eds. James Good, and Irving Velody. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Spengler, Oswald. (1918 ). Der Untergang des Abendlandes [The Decline of the West], 2 vols. Munich: C. H. Beck. English translation by Charles Francis Atkinson (London: George Allen & Unwin [1926/1928]).
Spengler, Oswald. (1931). Der Mensch und die Technik: Beitrag zu einer Philosophie des Lebens [The Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life]. Munich: C. H. Beck. English translation by Charles Francis Atkinson (London: George Allen & Unwin ).
The German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) is famous for his Decline of the West. He held that civilizations, like biological organisms, pass through a determinable life cycle and that the modern West was approaching the end of such a cycle.
Oswald Spengler was born at Blankenburg am Harz on May 29, 1880, the son of a postal official. Although mathematics and natural science were his major subjects at the University of Halle, he received his doctorate for a dissertation on Heraclitus in 1904. After recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1905-1906, Spengler taught in secondary schools until a small inheritance from his mother allowed him in 1911 to move to Munich as a private scholar. Spengler never married.
Exempted from military service because of poor health, Spengler wrote the major part of The Decline of the West during the war years under conditions of great economic hardship. The first volume appeared in 1918, the second in 1922.
The Decline of the West is an impassioned attack against the values of modern post-Enlightenment civilization—of intellect, social equality, peace, and urban culture. Borrowing from the anti-intellectualist tradition of German conservative thought, he rejects the possibility of scientific history. History is never "correct" or "erroneous" but only "deep" or "shallow." Human history as such has no meaning. In place of the traditional Europeocentric conception of a linear history of human civilization, Spengler offers a "Copernican" view of history in which Western (or Faustian) civilization since A.D. 1000 constitutes merely one of eight historic cultures. Each culture has a wholly individual way of looking at the world which permeates all its cultural expressions, even its mathematics and science. No understanding is possible between men of different cultures. Nevertheless, the similarity of the life processes of birth, growth, and decay makes possible a "comparative morphology of history." A culture is born out of the historyless mass of humanity the moment "a great soul awakens."
All cultures in their beginning are aristocratic, dominated by the heroic estates of the warrior noble and priest. The maturation of a culture is a process of intellectualization, urbanization, social leveling, and the growing domination of money. In this process the creative essence of the culture is progressively lost until the culture, now become shallow, gives way to a soulless megalopolitan "civilization." In the West this transformation occurred in the 19th century. Democracy, behind which hides the dictatorship of money, then opens the path to Caesarism and the dissolution of the culture into total formlessness. Democracy, parliamentarism, egalitarianism, proletarian socialism, pacifism, humanitarianism, and attempts at "world improvement" and social reform, Spengler concluded, were all symptoms of a decadent civilization. The moral to be learned from world history is that "ever in History it is life and life only—race quality, the triumph of the will to power" which counts.
The Decline of the West catapulted Spengler to fame. He became a political prophet for disillusioned German national conservatives stunned by defeat in World War I. Beginning with his essay "Prussianism and Socialism" (1920), in which he sought to lay the basis for a new revolutionary conservatism which identified socialism with service to the state, Spengler devoted himself to free-lance political writings against the Weimar Republic, which he detested. Despite his strident opposition to democracy, his idealization of authoritarian and military values, and his almost paranoid racism, he regarded the Nazis with mistrust. As an elitist, he was repelled by their demagogic appeal.
The Nazis regarded Spengler as one of their intellectual forerunners. Adolf Hitler received him in 1933. Nevertheless the critical tone of his Hour of Decision (1933) resulted in the condemnation of the book and the man by the Nazis. Spengler died on May 8, 1936.
The best English-language introduction to Spengler's thought is H. Stuart Hughes, Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate (1952). Other books include E. H. Goddard and P. A. Gibbons, Civilisation or Civilisations: An Essay on the Spenglerian Philosophy of History (1926), and William Harlan Hale, Challenge to Defeat: Modern Man in Goethe's World and Spengler's Century (1932). An extensive discussion of Spengler is in Pitirim A. Sorokin, Modern Historical and Social Philosophies (1963; first published in 1950 as Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis), and a brief chapter on him is in Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (1952).
Fischer, Klaus P., History and prophecy: Oswald Spengler and The decline of the West, Durham, N.C.: Moore Pub. Co., 1977.
Hughes, H. Stuart (Henry Stuart), Oswald Spengler, New Brunswick, U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1992. □
German philosopher of history; b. Blankenburg (Harz), May 29, 1880; d. Munich, May 8, 1936. Spengler studied mathematics and philosophy at Halle, Munich, and Berlin. His main work, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (2 v. Munich 1918–22; tr. C. F. Atkinson, New York 1926–28), is an all–inclusive, cyclical philosophy of history that is presented also as the authentic philosophy of the West. In Spengler's view, the prime forms of history are the great cultures, each lasting 1,000 years. Cultures are organisms that have their childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. The destiny idea governs every phase of a culture with absolute necessity; there is no freedom but the "freedom" to affirm the inevitable. Cultural phenomena, including philosophy and religion, are relative expressions of the basic idea, or soul, of a culture. There are no eternal truths. A comparative morphology of great cultures lays bare the primitive culture form that underlies them all.
Spengler writes with prophetic power, reminiscent of F. W. nietzsche. Brilliant insights occur amid dubious generalizations. His cyclical theory is naturalistic, relativistic, and fatalistic; but it compels reflection on the inadequacies of rationalistic or positivistic views of history.
Bibliography: a. hilckman, Enciclopedia filosofica 4:865–867. h. s. hughes, Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate (rev. ed. New York 1962). r. t. flewelling, The Survival of Western Culture (New York 1943). g. mÜller, "Oswald Spenglers Bedeutung für die Geschichtswissenschaft," Saeculum 13 (1962) 380–393.
[p. l. hug]