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Decline and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936)

Oswald Spengler

Oswald Spengler

Spengler was a German academic who studied math, science, history and philosophy. He is best known as the author of The Decline of the West, first published in 1918 and popular in Germany, where, in the wake of defeat in war, people thought the world was going to hell. Spengler's book is about cultural decline, not decline as a result of war necessarily, or economic decline, or birth rates.

He included in his cultural decline the most modern methodology of historians. How does one describe cultural decline without one's own cranky opinions? Spengler was not interested in objectivity. He saw himself at a cultural high point. He tried explaining history by imagination fired by spirit – penetrating recognition, he called it. History as it was being written by others, he complained, was just facts. "Our eye for history, our faculty of writing history, is a revealing sign that our path lies downward."  

Talcott Parsons, who was studying at Heidelberg University in 1927, said that Spengler at that time "didn't give the West more than 50 years of continuing vitality."

Spengler wrote that each civilization was an isolated entity animated by a dominant idea, or world view (weltanschauung). Each civilization, he claimed, had its "soul," a style of art and thought that grows and decays. For Spengler essence was an important part of his philosophy. Connections between his conceived cultural high points and conceived declines remain only vaguely explained. He wrote: "Every Culture [is] ... unmistakable in its tendency." He included in the 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 entertained a great man theory of history. Mustering his understanding of civilizations and cultural development he voted for Hitler in 1932 – despite Nazi derisions for those they called "reactionaries." Spengler was about as reactionary as one could get. But the Nazis had their contradictions, and their own view of spirit, will, and a glorious past, and they liked his attack on democracy, liberalism and his description of German socialism that was different from Marxist socialism. Spengler saw democracy as "decadent." He looked with approval upon the spirit of "Prussianism" and praised the "kind of commanding that makes obedience a proud, free and noble habit."

Like the old rural owners of estates, Spengler derided 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. 

Spengler was invited by Goebbels to make speeches, but he declined. He had a falling out with Hitler, having met Hitler after Hitler became chancellor. He found him insufficiently cultured and inadequate as a great man. His Nazi followers and Nazi philosophers were not good representatives of high culture. 

Spengler's pessimism extended to the Third Reich. He saw another great war approaching and complained that the Nazis were not sufficiently watchful of the powerful hostile forces outside the country that would mobilize to destroy them and Germany. He wrote that Hitler's National Socialists "believe that they can afford to ignore the world or oppose it, and build their castles-in-the-air without creating a possibly silent, but very palpable reaction from abroad."

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.

It is written in Wikipedia that communal readings of The Decline Of The West

...held great influence over the founding members of the Beat Generation. Spengler's vision of the cyclical nature of civilization and the contemporeneity [sic] of the end of the Western European cycle led William Seward Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to look for the seeds of the next cycle in the vibrant, marginalized communities of which they were a part.  

Copyright © 2006-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.