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Spengler, Durkheim and Weber

Oswald Spengler, Spirit and Decline | The Sociologists Durkheim and Weber

Oswald Spengler, Spirit and Decline

Another German describing the world and what should be done about it was Oswald Spengler. He had studied math, science, history and philosophy, and he wrote The Decline of the West, first published in 1918. It was popular in Germany. There, in the wake of defeat in the Great War, people thought the world was going to hell.

Spengler did some old-fashioned idea spinning. He called it "penetrating recognition." He complained that history written by others was just facts. His approach was old-fashioned too in his adherence to the concept of "essence." He tried employing his penetrating recognition to grasp the essence of civilizations other than his own. He came up with the grand conclusion that each civilization was an isolated entity animated by a dominant idea or world view (weltanschauung). Each civilization, he claimed, had its "soul," or "spirit," a style of art and thought that grows and decays.

He wrote: "Every Culture [is] ... unmistakable in its tendency." He included in this tendency "dark metaphysical relations" and a "soul-myth called Will, Force and Deed." He wrote vaguely of a culture having "ripened to its limit," of "life symbols," and a "high plane of contemplation." He wrote that "great events of history were not really achieved by peoples; they [the events] themselves created the peoples."

Spengler noted that the way history was being written by others was a revealing sign "that our path is downward" – in other words in a phase of cultural decline.

In addition to other historians as villains, he added urban growth.  He wrote:

Long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.

... In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman and especially that highest form of countryman, the country gentleman.

It is the Late city that first defies the land, contradicts Nature in the lines of its silhouette, denies all Nature. It wants to be something different from and higher than Nature. 

As a man of culture, Spengler included in his writings sprinklings of Hegel, Goethe, Nietzsche, and others, building, he suggested, on what passed as wisdom from the old greats. Hegel's belief that history was a journey of spirit was compatible with Spengler's view of history.

Spengler entertained a great man theory of history. He saw great men as embodying a spirit quality that elevated a civilization. Mustering his power at penetrating recognition and understanding great men, Spengler voted for Hitler in 1932.

Spengler saw democracy as "decadent, and with his "penetrating recognition" he looked with approval upon the spirit of "Prussianism" – a militaristic authoritarianism. He praised the "kind of commanding that makes obedience a proud, free and noble habit."

But Spengler became disappointed with Hitler. He met Hitler after Hitler became chancellor, and he found him insufficiently cultured and therefore inadequate as a Great Man. Also he thought that Hitler was not mobilizing Germany's strength adequately enough to meet the challenges of Germany's enemies.

Spengler died in 1936, not long after writing that Man is,

... too shallow and cowardly to endure the fact of the mortality of everything living. He wraps it up in rose-colored progress-optimism, he heaps upon it the flowers of literature, he crawls behind the shelter of ideals so as not to see anything.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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