The Decline of the West

Fall of Rome

“Optimism is Cowardice” is an oft-quoted statement made by a historian named Oswald Spengler (1880-1936). Yet few books had a greater impact and influence over the course of thinking in inter-war Germany and Austria than his ‘Decline of the West’ published in 3 volumes between 1920 and 1922. It’s appropriate to place this work together with both Otto Weininger’s ‘Sex and Character’ from 1903 and Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s ‘Foundations of the Nineteenth Century’ published in 1899. What dazzles contemporary readers today is the audacity of fin de siècle intellectual dilettantism. It was a period when ideas seemed to come from the depths of human imagination, and from there, elaboration into views of the greater human-question ‘why?’. Even Freud could be accused of the same thing, though his ideas came from combining his knowledge of medicine with observation and extrapolating these into ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’. All of these works – difficult to classify as scientific, philosophical or historic, were nonetheless the products of imagination, which drew creative conclusions from mere human intellect based on observation. There were no peer-reviewed experiments, or massively subsidised research centres – just lonely men mulling over history, life and human interaction. Yet all of these books had extraordinary influence on the thinking of the world that would end with Hitler’s German apocalypse in 1945.

Of all of these thinkers and writers, Spengler is perhaps the most intriguing. His biography is readily available on Wikipedia in English – unusual for such a prominent German cultural figure. As with all great thinkers, he found himself being taken hostage by any number of ideologues though he clearly rejected the lot. He was fêted by the III Reich, but had Jewish ‘blood’; he argued with Rosenberg and refused to speak at functions promoted by Goebbels. He believed Hitler to be a dangerous windbag (or ‘Heldentenor’ as he called him), and none of his books could have made for comfortable reading by the party’s racist dogmatists. Just put the word ‘Juden’ into the search mechanism of his complete works (available as a CD-rom) and one finds a historic treatment that flies profoundly in the face of the racist fantasists of Nazism. He dismembers Chamberlain’s so-called Darwinism point by point. He elaborates markedly on the difference on what is perceived as ‘race’ and what is perceived as ‘nation’ – he bases all of his contemporary reasoning on historic precedence. The rebuttals of anti-Semitism are simply too frequent to elaborate. I begin to copy and paste them, but gave up after collecting some twenty or so profoundly argued positions that unmistakeable contradict the racism of National Socialism. The books are equally unforgiving in their view of Liberalism and unfettered capitalism. He wrote extensively against technology and ‘progress’ and predicted that what was developed would simply be used against Western civilisation by other nations. And here, I take a minor issue with the Wikipedia article, as his differentiation between ‘nation’ and ‘race’ is profound – entire chapters are spent explaining how abstract and misconceived such notions are. His use of ‘race’ is historically anachronistic and in modern translations should be replaced with the more accurate word ‘culture’. He makes the valid point that “within twenty- no indeed ten – generations, there can be no purity of racial stock” – He lays bare the foolishness of there being a historic foundation to the concept of ‘blood’ and ‘territory’ sharing a common identity. Indeed, it is fascinating the way in which he refers to the world’s monotheistic cultures as a progression towards the ‘magical’ and away from the naturalism of earlier religions. He does not appear to add greater credence to one over the other.

Reading the three articles devoted to his ‘Decline of the West’ in the Neue Freie Presse one can start to understand how it was received at its time. Berthold Molden writing in 1920 tries to describe Spengler’s ideas. He notes that Civilisations are organisms that live and die and he notes how Western civilisation has moved from an Apollonian to a Faustian existence. One was bound by the world in which it lived and the other by its depth of questioning. His examination and study of many ancient cultures, his ruminations on their rise and fall – or rather on their birth, decline and death, led him to make some interesting prognosis to which he was even bold enough to set dates. He wrote, for example that from 1900 to 2000, the world would be in the grip of Socialism. From 2000-2200, the world would move into a period of what he calls ‘Caesar-ism’ as the naturalistic organisation of peoples disintegrated into amorphous masses, all sucked together into a huge Empire that will progressively become more primitive and despotic – a period he compares with the Rome from the emperors Sulla to Domitian. From 2200, he foresees paralysis and disintegration of the imperial mechanism, leading to the leadership of younger nations and foreign invaders and a slow return to the conditions of primitive life such as Rome experienced between the emperors Trajan and Aurelian. This explains my illustration with the Fall of Rome to the Barbarian hoards – probably not appropriate, but more colourful than the dreary photos of Spengler and his books.

Make of that what you will. It’s obviously a bit like reading a horoscope and as such, his postulations based on careful thoughts about the ancient world attracted those from both the political Left and Right. Adorno wrote that ‘Spengler belongs to those historians of extreme reaction who showed himself superior in his criticism of progressive Liberalism’. He went on to state that there had hitherto been no critic of Spengler’s nihilistic vision that was of similar statue, adding cryptically ‘forgetting is seen as a means of escape’. His pessimism influenced Wittgenstein and Heidegger, but his mysticism was criticised as he saw the idea of common identity as being bound together with a ‘common metaphysical drive’ rather than such superficial things as ‘race’ and ‘nationality’. The writer of the Wikipedia article makes the point that Spengler influenced Anglo-American culture from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs – even Malcolm X is quoted as agreeing with Spengler’s view that ‘race’ would supplant ‘class’ as the defining issue. Yet reading Spengler’s views on race in his Decline of the West would not have encouraged Malcolm X who probably – if he had read Spengler at all – taken his mistranslation of ‘race’ rather than ‘culture’ at face value. Reading the reviews, and delving into the more than 4700 pages of his works on CD-Rom, one is confronted with perhaps one of the most original thinkers and extrapolators of his age. He certainly has profounder things to say to us than either Weininger or Chamberlain. But it will always be very easy to claim a personal ‘Spengler’ who ‘got it right’. His output is too great, complex and multi-layered to be read and claimed by any single persuasion. He doesn’t make for comfortable reading for anyone and unlike Weininger and Chamberlain, what he has to say is, if not ‘true’ in the absolute sense, at least relevant and certainly provocative and stimulating.