One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be—though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain—because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone. –Oswald Spengler
Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) was one of the last great voices of literary history. Like Gibbon and Michelet, he had no formal training, but he had passion, a gift for turning a phrase, and a modest income, which afforded him time for study and reflection. And, like Gibbon and Michelet, he was the voice of an age. To understand him, we must say a few words about that age, for at the time he wrote (1919), The Decline of the West was not so much a poetic book title, but a visible and obvious fact.
From the time of its formation under Bismarck in 1871, to the armistice that ended the Great War in 1918, the German Empire was by far the strongest power in Europe. Germans were justly proud of their country, not simply for its military strength, but also for its booming economy, its magnificent music and literature, and its world-class scientists. Germans felt that they were in the vanguard of European commerce, culture, and power, and this was more or less correct. It was in this spirit that Germany went to war in 1914. After a dreadful struggle of four years, which Germany came very near to winning, the allies imposed a humiliating peace at Versailles (1919).
All right-thinking Europeans had been shocked to their cores by the ferocity of the war. Unlike the last major war—the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, which was short, glorious, and relatively bloodless—the Great War had dragged on for years. It had killed millions of people—mostly civilians—had seen the use of frightful new weapons like poison gas, flame throwers, and submarines, and had been characterized not simply by the futility of trench warfare, but by staggering casualties. It was not uncommon for a quarter-million men to perish in a single battle, which invariably accomplished nothing. After the carnage, the top generals would be fired, new generals brought in, fresh sacrifices called for, and the same bloody failure would be repeated a few months later. We would have to go all the way back to the Wars of Religions, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to find anything comparable to the sheer scale and relentlessness of the brutality. All together, about ten million people died, and in the end it was difficult to see what for.
Europe’s sense of itself, as a land of civilization and progress, where certain things “just are not done,” was a wistful memory in 1918. Everything that could be done, had been—no matter how cruel or vile—and it had been done by everyone. It was the end of one age and the beginning of another. In the new age—the age of Auschwitz, the Gulag, mutually assured destruction—there would be no room for such illusions. We look back and call the Victorians naïve. If they could have looked forward, they would have called us savages.
If an attitude of resignation and disgust settled in among the winners, consider the utter despair in Germany. The people who had been the masters of Europe a few short years earlier had been beaten despite heroic sacrifices, saddled with a humiliating and vengeful peace, and blamed before the tribunal of the world for everything. These were the despairing people who made Oswald Spengler a household name, and his book a best-seller. He was, briefly, the national poet of Germany, much as T.S. Elliot was of Britain.
What, then, did he have to say? Spengler began with the traditional historicist division between the life and the mechanical sciences. Newton’s laws were well and good for physics, and Boyle’s for chemistry, but the subject of history was living people, and their thoughts and passions could not be reduced to a formula. Where the mechanical sciences have rigid laws for their governing principle, the life sciences have life cycles—birth, youth, maturity, old age, death, and then rebirth, and on and on forever. And just as people are living things, so too are societies, and they too have their natural life cycle. It is therefore the historian’s business to understand that cycle, for it is the essence of history. However, according to Spengler (and much social thought near the turn of the century), the Enlightenment emphasis on the rational, autonomous individual as the basic unit of civilization was a mistake. It is not individuals who create society, but society that creates individuals. From the standpoint of the social organism—a superorganism—they are just so many cells, more or less alike, and interchangeable. It makes no more difference to Germany if Hans or Helga dies tomorrow then it does to you or I if a little skin rubs off our pinkie. What matters is the health of the organism, not of the individual, for the individual can have no health apart from that of the organism.
Spengler therefore seeks to understand, not the growth and death of individuals, but that of social organisms. And just as we would seek to understand the individual by inquiring about their background, their beliefs, their life experiences, and so on, we need to understand the social organism in the same way. We need to look at its origins in geography and language, we need to understand its art, music, architecture, religion, and political life, and we need to see how it changes and grows over time. By examining these changes, we can see what is essential, and what is ephemeral, to that organism. After we remove the dross of the merely circumstantial, what is left over is a hard core of attitudes, or a characteristic way of looking at life, that remains more or less constant across generations. Think of the American ethos of individualism, for instance, the French passion for logic and order, the Chinese reverence for tradition, and so on. Once we grasp that, everything else about the life and habits of the social organism follows of necessity. It’s whole existence is revealed to us, including it’s present and it’s future, if it is still living.
Although each living thing is uniquely itself, and has its own characteristic form of life, they all live and die according to the life cycle of the social organism, which Spengler named, poetically, after the seasons. Spring is characterized by the “birth of a myth of the grand style, expressing a new God-Feeling, world-fear, world-longing.” People living in such an age are emotional, spontaneous, authentic, unreflective, and in short, given to action rather than to thought, and the great and powerful live according to the aristocratic ethic that Nietzsche found so sadly wanting his contemporaries. They don’t fear the future, they grab it by the throat, and if they lose everything in the quest for glory, they don’t waste their time agonizing about how things might have been. That’s a modern vice. Similarly, these people don’t have philosophy, they have poetry, myth, and ritual, and though these will seem childish to future generations, they are the soul of the people, for they give them sacred stories to live by, and ideals to treasure, and a common web of meaning that binds them together into a community. In this time, life is overwhelmingly rural and politics is characterized by a mass of warring, disorganized statelets, each struggling to expand, and to survive, at the expense of the others.
As Spring passes into Summer, towns begin to grow, and with towns larger states, commerce, and learning. Then the raw energy and exuberance of the earlier age begins to give way to organization, logistics, and procedure, for there are simply too many moving parts for inspiration alone to manage. The “great spring-time forms” are written down, and the first stirrings of mathematics, philosophy, science, and mysticism are felt. This is an age of great system builders in philosophy and religion, when skeptics begin to think critically about the stories of their ancestors, and invariably, the suspicion takes hold that they are nonsense. On the other hand, believers delve even deeper into those stories, certain that they contain the secrets of the cosmos. Skepticism transforms the skeptics into isolated individuals, cut off from the life spirit of the community, while mysticism and puritanism turn the believers into fanatics who divide the myths of their forefathers into warring creeds.
Then comes Autumn, when towns grow into cities, which transform the simple but happy souls of an earlier era into rootless, anonymous, discontented masses. Small states are devoured by mighty kingdoms, and all merely local authorities feel the heavy hand of central control. Philosophy reaches its zenith, and the arts decline into sterile imitation, for the wisdom of old age means the end of youth’s passion. Then arises “belief in the almightiness of reason, cult of nature, [and] rational religion,” accompanied by technical triumphs such as higher mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. In short, power grows at the expense of spirit.
Finally, Autumn passes into Winter—the cities merge into great metropolises, the kingdoms are absorbed into world-empire under the rule of a dictator, an absolute monarch, or a god-king. Philosophy degenerates into pointless, lifeless speculation, the mythic spirit is completely extinguished, and an amoral, mercenary “cult of science, utility, and prosperity” becomes the wisdom of the age. “Life itself becomes problematical,” and genuine artistic achievement becomes, needless to say, impossible. Even mere technical skills begin to degenerate. Death is near, for the world-empire, despite all its power, slowly rots from within, and its people have become weak, timid, crafty cowards who know neither how to enjoy, nor how to defend, their riches. Then it is only a matter of time before some younger, stronger people shoves them aside, and Winter passes once more into Spring….
On this analysis, Western civilization had just about run its course: a dictator and a world-empire could be expected presently, and after that, the end, and a new beginning. Spengler’s appeal, then and now, is that he stands traditional ideas about order and progress on their head. Where these are usually presented to us as things that will make our lives better, he assures us, as we must often suspect, that they in fact extinguish life—that they rob it of all that makes it worth living. Creativity, individuality, and a sense of adventure are all crushed beneath the gears of a brutal world-mechanism, and in exchange for the death of spirit, we receive the miserable benefits of efficiency. Anyone who has ever shaken their fist at the mindlessness of bureaucracy, or silently cursed his fellow men for their lack of vision, will find a friend in Spengler. He shakes his fist, and he curses, with us.
We need to be on our guard against facile analogies, in history no less than in other disciplines, and it would be more than a little misguided to read him as telling the literal truth about history. But it would also be misguided to mistake the literal truth for the whole truth, for, as he reminds us, we do more than just think: we feel, we live, and we struggle. Today, almost a century after Spengler wrote, the proper histories of his time are almost all forgotten, and the academics who shook their heads and tut-tutted at his flights of fancy have been forgotten with them. But Spengler lives, for his triumph was the triumph of all great art: to speak, not just for his own time, but for all time.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.