Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) was a “reactionary modernist”—one of a loose group of early twentieth-century German historians, philosophers, and cultural critics whose thought was profoundly shaped by the social and political context of the Weimar Republic. Although he never held an academic or political position, Spengler became an immensely popular and influential writer and ideologue whose diagnoses of the decline of Western culture were informed by an ambitious history of human civilization.
Spengler's main work is the two-volume doomsday classic The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) published in 1917 and 1922. Its deep pessimism was gradually moderated in Prussianism and Socialism (Preussentum und Sozialismus, 1919)—which praised a “true socialism” characterized by martial virtues such as discipline and self-sacrifice—and in Man and Technics (Der Mensch und die Technik, 1931), which identified industrial technology as a mode of cultural recovery. Spengler's later work, The Hour of Decision (Jahre die Entscheidung, 1933), was banned by the National Socialists for its criticisms of their racial biological ideology. Various other notebooks and sets of correspondence have since been published.
Spengler was born in 1880 into a conservative family and had a lonely childhood. Despite early immersion in classical cultures, and the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche, Spengler's academic studies were unexceptional and he worked as a private tutor until retiring on a modest inheritance. Like Nietzsche, Spengler's uneventful life was characterized by psychological isolation and intellectual independence that, coupled with his material poverty, confirmed his perception of himself as a neglected prophet. Spengler died in 1936 shortly after making the strikingly prescient prediction that the Third Reich would disappear within ten years.
Spengler's thought was a reaction to the cultural crisis after World War I and the liberal and egalitarian values of the Weimar Republic. Such reactionary sentiments were invested in a romantic nationalism inherited from Goethe and Nietzsche based on an ennobling conception of the German spirit—the Volksgeist. Yet although such stirring affirmations of the supremacy of German culture were welcomed by a disenchanted population with a recent experience of military defeat and political and economic collapse, they generated a problem—namely, how to reconcile these nationalist accounts of Germany's ennobling historical and cultural richness with its obvious state of present crisis.
Spengler responded by articulating the intellectually and historically ambitious “morphology of world-cultures” expressed in Decline of the West. Spengler drew on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's philosophy of history to articulate a cyclical model of the history of human civilizations. Cultures, like organisms, pass through a series of predetermined developmental stages whose transition relies on the presence of isolated visionary figures—like Spengler. Those visionaries begin to reorder society around a “prime symbol”—an object or narrative—which symbolizes its values and identity. For instance, the prime symbol of classical (Greek–Roman) culture was the bold and autonomous individual as represented by the nude statue.
This “morphological” process takes around 1,000 years, which Spengler illustrated using dense descriptions of various “cultural forms” (gestalt)—including the “Hindu,” “Magian,” and “Faustian”—and used this to determine that Western culture was entering into its inevitable stage of decline. The power of this thesis lay in its attribution of German decline to irresistible historical forces that could only be described and resolutely faced with the martial virtues—like courage and discipline—which Spengler praised.
Spengler's pessimistic determinism lost its appeal during the economic and political optimism of the early years of National Socialism. Later works, therefore, become more optimistic and activist as Spengler argues that the proper response to inevitable decline was not fatalism but heroism and martial virtue. Man and Technics urges Germans to become “active, fighting and charged” and to embrace military and industrial technology and manifest their creative and intellectual capacities in defiance of their impending doom. Spengler argued that the history of human cultures was the manifestation of “technics”—a metaphysical force related to Nietzsche's “will-to-power”—and that cultural deliverance was premised on appreciation of the fact that the “soul of man” was identical with the “essence of technics” as an inexhaustibly creative and agonistic force concerned not with utilitarian progress but with dynamic competition and courageous struggle.
Spengler's continuing hostilities toward National Socialist ideology and his refusal to become a state ideologue ensured that his final days were lonely ones spent in reflection on his status as an unheeded prophet. Spengler's pessimistic vision of Western culture influenced both his contemporaries and subsequent thinkers ranging from Martin Heidegger to the Beat Generation counterculture. Few were persuaded by his “morphology of world-cultures,” but the power of Spengler's thought lies not in the clarity of his arguments, nor in the plausibility of his claims, but in his polemical intensity and visionary power.
See also German Political Thought; Heidegger, Martin; Mill, John Stuart; National Socialism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Progress; Schmitt, Carl; Technology and Political Thought; Twentieth-Century Political Thought
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