The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler ReconsideredIssue: Summer 1997
Books have their destinies, says the Latin tag, and they can vary as widely as those of human beings--from those that, in David Hume's heartfelt phrase, fall stillborn from the press but later stir to life as beacons of the mind, to those that are the wonder of a year before falling into oblivion.
It is often said that Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West met that second fate, but the truth is rather different. It was the wonder of the years 1918 to 1922 in Germany (and of 1926 in English-speaking countries), achieving sales so incongruously large in relation to its length and density that one is bound to question (as one does in the cases of Michel Foucault's Les Mots et les choses and Stephen Hawkings' A Brief History of Time) how many of those who bought the book actually read it. Subsequently, it ran into a barrage of destructive criticism from the guild of historians, while its author, giddy with fame, dabbled so grossly in right-wing politics that in due course he was granted two interviews with Chancellor Hitler. While it became unseemly in academic circles to cite the work, it continued to exert, if only by way of its title, an influence that must be admitted to be universal.