Professor for Roman History, Université libre de Bruxelles
was Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Karl-Franzens-University Graz
is on long-term leave as Professor of General and International Business at Worms University of Applied Sciences
Oswald Spengler wrote his most famous work, the Decline of the West (Vol. I), during lonely years in Munich with World War I raging. Although he thoroughly disliked writing, Spengler saw it as a higher calling. He was convinced that Decline would become a Copernican turn in historiography, sweeping away the old triad of antiquity, middle ages and modern times and replace it with a perspective that would judge every culture by its own inner logic, in accordance with predetermined impulses and sensibilities. Spengler viewed art, warfare, economics, science and religion, along with other customs, as functional expressions of specific cultures. With this approach, Spengler was a predecessor of modern sociobiology and evolutionary anthropology.
Although, with a few notable exceptions, the book was scorned by most academic specialists, The Decline of the West was highly influential in the interwar years in Germany and beyond. In the United States, it influenced Paul Nitze, Henry Kissinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as renowned mythologist John Campbell (advisor to George Lucas on Star Wars), who in 1970 wrote that “it has been somewhat of a life journey to see all of Spengler’s prediction turn into reality.” To this day Spengler´s magnum opus fascinates and inspires readers and scholars and, by the sheer audacity of its claims and breadth of history, still provokes reactions ranging from utter rejection to almost religious reverence and ecstatic revelation.
The merit of a work of art or thought should be judged by its depth, originality and relevance. Biographies can but color some of the backdrop to that work. They might provide some shades nonetheless.
Oswald Spengler was born in Blankenburg, Halle, in 1880 into an unhappy family and depressing childhood. His father was a duty-bound, humor- and spirit-less postal official in the Prussian state, his mother a matron who tyrannized the household. One of his aunts, a renowned dancer, died before Spengler could meet her.
Already at the age of three, the hypersensitive child had visions and states of anxiety. The family moved from the Harz mountains to the town of Soest in Westphalia. Later, the family moved to Halle, where Spengler attended the strictly pietistic Franckesche Stiftungen. He often stole away in the afternoons and became a voracious reader in the university library, devouring books on history, antiquity, science and biology. The library became his refuge from the family apartment, where the mother kept most of the rooms closed and Oswald and his younger sisters spent the days in one room.
At age 15, Spengler filled whole booklets with visions and detailed sketches of two fictitious empires, down to administrative procedures and economic statistics. At 17, he wrote a stage play about Moctezuma, probing the encounter of two alien cultures. That briefly resurfaced in Decline of the West, in which he compared the Aztec civilization to a flower carelessly beheaded by a passer-by. Spengler send the drama to an uncle who was a theater director in Kassel and was warmly received and hosted there, but nothing became of the play.
He passed his Abitur (University entrance level exams) in Halle in 1899 and was exempted from military service due to a heart defect. After studying mathematics, science and philosophy in Halle, Munich and Berlin, he experienced a great disappointment: his dissertation on Heraklit was initially rejected due to a lack of quoted literature. In 1904 he passed his Ph.D. exams. He also passed a state exam for the teachers profession with a thesis on the development of the eye in various species.
In 1905, Spengler began his preparatory year in teaching but despised the school setting, suffered a nervous breakdown when he saw his first school and left. Spengler was back to teaching in 1906. As a teacher, Spengler was liked by his students. Always well-dressed, he was eager to project the image of a gentleman. A small inheritance from his mother allowed him to quit school in 1911 and move to Munich. Title and idea for Der Untergang des Abendlandes were ready as early as 1912, but it took six distressful and lonely years with long nights, terrible food and cold winters to finish the first volume. Yet he prevailed. During the same period he wrote two (unpublished) memoranda, one to the emperor, and one to German nobility, as well as the autobiographical sketches that were later published in Eis Heauton.
His book finally was published in September 1918, a few weeks before the end of World War I. With its provocative thesis and illustrative though often misunderstood title, the book catapulted to bestseller status quickly and brought his author national recognition. The quintessential bachelor Spengler was finally able to live the life of a gentleman of financial independence, if not wealth. His overnight fame gave him access to influential figures and industrialists. Between 1919 and 1924, Spengler sought to promote a conservative revolution by assembling an elite network of industrialists, intellectuals and a German conservative press cartel. After 1924 and the Hitler-putsch – Spengler despised the National Socialists for their proletarian demeanor – Spengler withdrew from active networking to again live the life of a very private scholar.
He devoted the last 10 years of his life to early and pre-history and metaphysics, applying approaches and asking questions that later were to morph into evolutionary epistemology. The fields of archeology and prehistory, in Spengler´s time, were young and fresh and made rapid progress. Spengler saw these as worthy challenges to write a “world history from the beginning” (of humanity). A stroke in the late 1920s affected Spengler’s health. Although he recovered, his productivity declined. During his final decade, Spengler produced the anthropological treatise Der Mensch und die Technik (Man and Technics) in 1931 as well as a few articles on early history. Two volumes of notes and thoughts about early history (Frühzeit der Weltgeschichte) and metaphysics (Urfragen) were published posthumously in the 1960s. Der Mensch und die Technik is currently undergoing a reassessment. Though Spengler erred on many matters, many of his insights from this period proved prescient, as was much of The Decline of the West.
Spengler has been called the "thinker-poet," and, given that he considered the greatest influences on him to have been Goethe and Nietzsche, one can see why. "From Goethe, I have the method, from Nietzsche the questions," he once wrote. More specifically this means: from Goethe, the wholistic observation of forms and processes (almost "Gestalt-theory"); from Nietzsche, the relativistic questioning of the function of morals. His thoughts, as his biographer Anton Mirko Koktanek once wrote, circle a certain topic from all sides, providing brilliant insights and new perspectives, rarely the ultimate "proof". The "research program" is set for the followers. Spengler is more systematic than Nietzsche, yet revels in powerful language and challenges conventional wisdom without always providing the final proof.
Spengler has occasionally been called a precursor to Nazism. As much as he hoped for a German resurgence, he didn’t like National Socialism, in part because he considered it much too proletarian. His writings are replete with derogatory quotes about National Socialism and its ideology. One short conversation with Hitler in July 1933 led to nothing. Here, Spengler erred: "I have the impression that all of this man is quite common." Spengler massively underestimated the destructive potential of Hitler - as did many of his contemporaries. After 1933, he quicky grew disillusioned with National Socialism.In 1933, Spengler wrote Jahre der Entscheidung (Hour of Decision), also a prophetic book in which he foresaw another world war, the environmental catastrophe (as probably the first environmental thinker) and the dissolution of all colonial empires and the rise of a new caliphate. Jahre der Entscheidung was also seen as a manifesto of the conservative opposition against Hitler and became a bestseller.
Spengler declined two University professorships offered to him in the Third Reich. During the "Röhm-Putsch," one of Spengler’s friends, music critic Willi Schmid, was killed by the Nazis because he had been confused with journalist Paul Schmitt. Gregor Straßer, with whom Spengler was in contact, was also murdered. The Nazis started an anti-Spengler campaign, but quickly switched to ignoring him. In 1935, Spengler quit his board position in the Nietzsche-Archive because he did not want to agree with the Archive's support of national socialism.
Spengler published a few articles on early history in Hans Erich Stiers History Journal (Die Welt als Geschichte) but otherwise slipped into obscurity. He burned his notes for the second volume of "Years of Decision" because he was not willing to write for confiscation. In 1936, one of the most far-ranging minds of the twentieth century left this planet. Oswald Spengler is buried on the Northern Cemetery in Munich. His gravestone, designed after his wishes, is a final signpost to the future.
Spengler’s general approach is based on two main assumptions. The first one is the idea that there are certain types of societies, labelled ‘cultures’ (Kulturen), whose historical development stands out from the general framework of human history, as it forms a specific dynamic pattern. Spengler differentiates a total of eight (or nine) ‘cultures’ in human history: Pharaonic Egypt, Ancient Mesopotamia, pre-imperial China, Vedic India, Classical Antiquity, the ‘Arabian’ Culture, pre-Columbian America, Europe and – possibly – Russia, out of which only the two latter are still considered as extent, though the history of Europe slowly approaches its end. The second assumption is the hypothesis of historical biologism, a specific form of determinism supposing that collective entities follow the same evolutionary patterns as biological bodies. Thus, for Spengler, each culture follows a pre-determined cycle of evolution assimilated to the different stages of life or to the four seasons, living through spring and youth, summer and adult age, autumn and old age and, finally, winter and death:
‘Kulturen sind Organismen. Weltgeschichte ist ihre Gesamtbiographie. Die ungeheure Geschichte der chinesischen oder antiken Kultur ist morphologisch das genaue Seitenstück zur Kleingeschichte des einzelnen Menschen, eines Tieres, eines Baumes oder einer Blume.’ ‘Jede Kultur […] hat ihre Kindheit, ihre Jugend, ihre Männlichkeit und ihr Greisentum.’ ‘Eine Kultur stirbt, wenn diese Seele die volle Summe ihrer Möglichkeiten in der Gestalt von Völkern, Sprachen, Glaubenslehren, Künsten, Staaten, Wissenschaften verwirklicht hat und damit wieder ins Urseelentum zurückkehrt. […] Ist das Ziel erreicht und die Idee, die ganze Fülle innerer Möglichkeiten verwirklicht, so erstarrt die Kultur plötzlich, sie stirbt ab, ihr Blut gerinnt, ihre Kräfte brechen – sie wird zur Zivilisation.’ (UdA 140-144)
For Spengler, every culture first emerges from pre-cultural primitivism and enters a phase of roughly thousand years of genuine cultural evolution, during which it gradually transforms into what he calls a ‘civilisation’, before finally petrifying and declining into a post-historic state of stagnation and sterility. From this perspective, all possible differences between spiritual, political and artistic life disappear, all human creations becoming a mere symbol or symptom of the same underlying and implacable historical dynamism, leading from the dark ages of humble, yet soulful beginnings through an early critical and urban stage to the zenith of creativity and enlightenment, only in order to gradually decline into a megalopolitan, materialistic, technological and imperialistic civilisation, whose dwindling creative forces can only lead to the establishment of a decadent world-state where archaic and atavistic features become again more and more prominent before it crumbles either from the within or from the outside.
'Auf dieser Stufe beginnt in allen Zivilisationen das mehrhundertjährige Stadium einer entsetzlichen Entvölkerung. Die ganze Pyramide des kulturfähigen Menschentums verschwindet. Sie wird von der Spitze herab abgebaut, zuerst die Weltstädte, dann die Provinzstädte, endlich das Land, das durch die über alles Maß anwachsende Landflucht seiner besten Bevölkerung eine Zeitlang das Leerwerden der Städte verzögert. Nur das primitive Blut bleibt zuletzt übrig, aber seiner starken und zukunftreichen Elemente beraubt. Es entsteht der Typus des Fellachen.' (UdA 681)
Several additional features make Spengler’s theory even more intriguing and controversial. Thus, Spengler, contrarily to Hegel for example, refuses to anchor his vision of history in a broader metaphysical framework: as follower of the philosophy of vitalism, Spengler attributes no teleological or ethic sense to the history of mankind in general and of the ‘high cultures’ in particular; as for Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Dilthey, human history is, at most, an aesthetic phenomenon, and nothing more:
"[...] Die Menschheit“ hat kein Ziel, keine Idee, keinen Plan, so wenig wie die Gattung der Schmetterlinge oder der Orchideen ein Ziel hat. „Die Menschheit“ ist ein zoologischer Begriff oder ein leeres Wort. Man lasse dies Phantom aus dem Umkreis der historischen Formprobleme schwinden und man wird einen überraschenden Reichtum wirklicher Formen auftauchen sehen. Hier ist eine unermeßliche Fülle, Tiefe und Bewegtheit des Lebendigen, die bis jetzt durch ein Schlagwort, durch ein dürres Schema, durch persönliche „Ideale“ verdeckt wurde. Ich sehe statt jenes öden Bildes einer linienförmigen Weltgeschichte, das man nur aufrecht erhält, wenn man vor der überwiegenden Menge der Tatsachen das Auge schließt, das Schauspiel einer Vielzahl mächtiger Kulturen, die mit urweltlicher Kraft aus dem Schoß einer mütterlichen Landschaft, an die jede von ihnen im ganzen Verlauf ihres Daseins streng gebunden ist, aufblühen, von denen jede ihrem Stoff, dem Menschtum, ihre eigne Form aufgeprägt hat, von denen jede ihre eigne Idee, ihre eignen Leidenschaften, ihr eignes Leben, Wollen, Fühlen, ihren eignen Tod hat.' (UdA 28-29)
Furthermore, Spengler categorically denies the possibility that a culture can actually influence another culture: Phenomena of cultural reception always stem from an erroneous re-interpretation of other cultures through the lens of one’s own vision and interest:
‚Man kann daraufhin alle Kulturen durchsuchen, man wird überall bestätigt finden, daß statt der scheinbaren Fortdauer der früheren Schöpfung in der späteren es immer das jüngere Wesen war, das eine ganz geringe Anzahl von Beziehungen zu älteren Wesen angeknüpft hat, und zwar ohne die ursprüngliche Bedeutung dessen zu beachten, was es damit für sich erwarb. Wie steht es denn mit den „ewigen Errungenschaften" in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft? Wir müssen immer wieder hören, wieviel von der griechischen Philosophie noch heute fortlebt. Aber das bleibt eine Redensart ohne eine gründliche Aufstellung dessen, was erst der magische und dann der faustische Mensch mit der tiefen Weisheit ungebrochener Instinkte abgelehnt, nicht bemerkt oder unter Beibehaltung der Formeln planmäßig anders verstanden hat.‘ (UdA 621)
This specific outlook on reality is, following to Spengler, deeply affected by what he calls the ‘soul’ (Seele) of a culture, a subconscious archetype determining how each culture sees and interprets the world around it, and which can never be truly shared with anyone not belonging to the respective culture:
'Ein Seelenbild ist immer nur das Bild einer ganz bestimmten Seele. Kein Beobachter wird je aus den Bedingungen seiner Zeit und seines Kreises heraustreten, und was er auch „erkennen“ möge, jede dieser Erkenntnisse ist bereits ein Ausdruck seiner eignen Seele, nach Auswahl, Richtung und innerer Form.' (UdA 387)
Finally, Spengler’s determinism is, contrarily to Toynbee’s theory of challenge and response, unrelenting and monistic. Once the evolution of a culture starts, nothing can stop it from living through all predetermined phases - until the bitter end. Thus, everyone wanting to serve the interests of his own culture (or, at the 'present' stage, civilisation), has better to take this situation into account and conform his plans and visions to reality, as bitter it might seem:
'Ich betrachte diese Lehre als eine Wohltat für die kommenden Generationen, weil sie ihnen zeigt, was möglich und also notwendig ist und was nicht zu den innern Möglichkeiten der Zeit gehört. [...] Hier endlich hat die Arbeit von Jahrhunderten ihm die Möglichkeit gegeben, die Lage seines Lebens im Zusammenhang mit der Gesamtkultur zu übersehen und zu prüfen, was er kann und soll. Wenn unter dem Eindruck dieses Buches sich Menschen der neuen Generation der Technik statt der Lyrik, der Marine statt der Malerei, der Politik statt der Erkenntniskritik zuwenden, so tun sie, was ich wünsche, und man kann ihnen nichts Besseres wünschen.' (UdA 61-62)