Decline of the west (1918)

Historical theory of German writer Oswald Spengler (1880-1936).

A version of cyclical theory which presents civilizations as having ‘seasons’, and Western Europe as entering its ‘winter’ in the 20th century, with predictions of war and despotic leadership.

Source:
David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

General context

Spengler relates that he conceived the book sometime in 1911[5] and spent three years to finish the first draft. At the start of World War I, he began revising it and completed the first volume in 1917. It was published the following year when Spengler was 38 and was his first work, apart from his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus. The second volume was published in 1922. The first volume is subtitled Form and Actuality; the second volume is Perspectives of World-history. Spengler’s own view of the aims and intentions of the work are sketched in the Prefaces and occasionally at other places.[clarification needed]

The book received unfavorable reviews from most interested scholars even before the release of the second volume.[6] Spengler veered toward right-wing views in the second volume, and the stream of criticisms continued for decades.[7] Nevertheless, in Germany the book enjoyed popular success: by 1926 some 100,000 copies were sold.[8]

A 1928 Time review of the second volume of Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler’s ideas enjoyed in the 1920s: “When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so.”[9]

Overview

Spengler’s world-historical outlook was informed by many philosophers, including Goethe and to some degree Nietzsche. He would later further explain the significance of these two German philosophers and their influence on his worldview in his lecture Nietzsche and His Century.[10] His analytical approach is “Analogy. By these means we are enabled to distinguish polarity and periodicity in the world.”

Morphology is a key part of Spengler’s philosophy of history, using a methodology which approached history and historical comparisons on the basis of civilizational forms and structure, without regard to function.

In a footnote,[11] Spengler describes the essential core of his philosophical approach toward history, culture, and civilization:

Plato and Goethe stand for the philosophy of Becoming, Aristotle and Kant the philosophy of Being… Goethe’s notes and verse… must be regarded as the expression of a perfectly definite metaphysical doctrine. I would not have a single word changed of this: “The Godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and therefore, similarly, the reason is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and the understanding only to make use of the become and the set-fast.(Letter to Eckermann)” This sentence comprises my entire philosophy.

Scholars now agree that the word “decline” more accurately renders the intended meaning of Spengler’s original German word “Untergang” (often translated as the more emphatic “downfall”; “Unter” being “under” and “gang” being “going”, it is also accurately rendered in English as the “going under” of the West). Spengler explained that he did not mean to describe a catastrophic occurrence, but rather a protracted fall—a twilight or sunset (Sonnenuntergang is German for sunset, and Abendland, his word for the West, literally means the “evening land”). Writing in 1921 Spengler observed that he might have used in his title the word Vollendung (which means ‘fulfillment’ or ‘consummation’) and saved a great deal of misunderstanding.[12] Nevertheless, “Untergang” can be interpreted in both ways, and after World War II, some critics and scholars chose to read it in the cataclysmic sense.[citation needed]

Spenglerian terms

Spengler invests certain terms with unusual meanings not commonly encountered in everyday discourse.

Culture/Civilization

Spengler uses the two terms in a specific manner,[13] loading them with particular values. For him, Civilization is what a Culture becomes once its creative impulses wane and become overwhelmed by critical impulses. Culture is the becoming, Civilization is the thing become. Rousseau, Socrates, and Buddha each mark the point where their Cultures transformed into Civilization. They each buried centuries of spiritual depth by presenting the world in rational terms—the intellect comes to rule once the soul has abdicated.

Apollonian/Magian/Faustian

These are Spengler’s terms for Classical, Arabian and Western Cultures respectively.

Apollonian

Culture and Civilization is focused around Ancient Greece and Rome. Spengler saw its world view as being characterized by appreciation for the beauty of the human body, and a preference for the local and the present moment. The Apollonian world sense is ahistorical, it is why Herodotus claimed in his Histories that nothing of importance had happened before him. Spengler claims that the Classical Culture did not feel the same anxiety as the Faustian when confronted with an undocumented event.

Magian

Culture and Civilization includes the Jews from about 400 BC, early Christians and various Arabian religions up to and including Islam. Its world feeling revolved around the concept of world as cavern, epitomized by the domed Mosque, and a preoccupation with essence. Spengler saw the development of this Culture as being distorted by a too influential presence of older Civilizations, the initial vigorous expansionary impulses of Islam being in part a reaction against this.[clarification needed]

Faustian

Culture began in Western Europe around the 10th century and according to Spengler such has been its expansionary power that by the 20th century it was covering the entire earth, with only a few Regions where Islam provides an alternative world view. The world feeling of Faustian Culture is inspired by the concept of infinitely wide and profound space, the yearning towards distance and infinity.[clarification needed] Faustian is a reference to Goethe’s Faust (Goethe produced a massive effect on Spengler) in which a dissatisfied Intellectual is willing to make a pact with the Devil in return for unlimited knowledge. Spengler believed that this represents the Western Man’s limitless metaphysic, his unrestricted thirst for knowledge, and his constant confrontation with the Infinite.

Pseudomorphosis[14]

The concept of pseudomorphosis is one that Spengler borrows from mineralogy and a concept that he introduces as a way of explaining what are in his eyes half-developed or only partially manifested Cultures. Specifically pseudomorphosis entails an older Culture or Civilization so deeply ingrained in a land that a young Culture cannot find its own form and full expression of itself. This leads to the young soul being cast in the old molds, in Spengler’s words. Young feelings then stiffen in senile practices, and instead of expanding creatively, it fosters hate toward the other older Culture.

Spengler believes that the Magian pseudomorphosis began with the Battle of Actium. Here the gestating Arabian Culture lost to the Classical Civilization. He asserts that it should have been Mark Antony who won. The battle was not the struggle of Rome and Greece—that struggle had been fought out at Cannae and Zama, where it was Hannibal who stood as champion for Hellenism. Antony’s victory would have freed the Magian Culture, but his defeat imposed Roman Civilization on it.

In Russia, Spengler sees a young, undeveloped Culture laboring under the Faustian (Petrine) form. Peter the Great distorted the tsarism of Russia to the dynastic form of Western Europe. The burning of Moscow, as Napoleon was set to invade, he sees as a primitive expression of hatred toward the foreigner. This was soon followed by the entry of Alexander I into Paris, the Holy Alliance and the Concert of Europe. Here Russia was forced into an artificial history before its culture was ready or capable of understanding its burden. This would result in a hatred toward Europe, a hatred which Spengler argues poisoned the womb of emerging new Culture in Russia. While he does not name the Culture, he claims that Tolstoy is its past and Dostoyevsky is its future.

Becoming/Being

For Spengler becoming is the basic element and being is static and secondary, not the other way around. He advises that his philosophy in a nutshell is contained in these lines from Goethe: “the God-head is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and therefore, similarly the intuition is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and logic only to make use of the become and the set-fast”.

Blood

Spengler describes blood as the only power strong enough to overthrow money, which he saw as the dominant power of his age. Blood is commonly understood to mean race-feeling, and this is partially true but misleading. Spengler’s idea of race has nothing to do with ethnic identity, indeed he was hostile to racists in that sense. The book talks about a population becoming a race when it is united in outlook. Possibly diverse ethnic origins are not a concern. Crucially, Spengler talks about the final struggle with money also being a battle between capitalism and socialism, but again socialism in a special sense: “the will to call into life a mighty politico-economic order that transcends all class interests, a system of lofty thoughtfulness and duty sense.” He also writes “A power can be overthrown only by another power, not by a principle, and only one power that can confront money is left. Money is overthrown and abolished by blood. Life is alpha and omega … It is the fact of facts … Before the irresistible rhythm on the generation-sequence, everything built up by the waking–consciousness in its intellectual world vanishes at the last.” Therefore, if we wanted to replace blood by a single word it would be more correct to use “life-force” rather than “race-feeling”.

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