Spengler's Ominous Prophecy
A QUESTION haunts America: Is it in decline on the world scene? Foreign-policy discourse is filled with commentary declaring that it is. Some—Parag Khanna’s work comes to mind—suggests the decline is the product of forces beyond America’s control. Others—Yale’s Paul Kennedy included—contend that America has fostered, at least partially, its own decline through “imperial overstretch” and other actions born of global ambition. Still others—Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and Stratfor’s George Friedman, for example—dispute that America is in decline at all. But the question is front and center and inescapable.
It may be the wrong question. America is a product of Western civilization—part and parcel of it, inseparable from it. Thus, no serious analysis of America’s fate as a global power can be undertaken without placing it within the context of the West, meaning primarily Europe.
Kagan disputes this. In his influential little book of 2003, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, he famously suggested Americans are from Mars whereas Europeans are from Venus. “They agree on little and understand one another less and less,” he wrote, adding, “When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.”
Perhaps. But they share the same cultural heritage, and their fates are bound together, whether they like it or not. Think of Greece and Rome, both part and parcel of the classical civilization. They honored the same gods, pursued the same modes of artistic expression and viewed politics in largely the same way during their periods of greatest flowering. And their fates were intertwined—enforced with brutal finality by Roman military potentates Mummius on the ground and Metellus at sea even as the younger Scipio was destroying Carthage in a way the Greeks never experienced because, unlike Carthage, they didn’t represent an alien civilization. Will Durant pegs the end of Greek civilization at ad 325, when Constantine founded Constantinople and Rome took a decisive turn away from its heritage—and that of Greece.
So it is with America and Europe. Hence, an analysis of American decline must lead to questions about Western decline. And an analysis of Western decline must lead to Oswald Spengler, the German intellectual who in 1918 produced the first volume of his bombshell work Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), followed by the second volume in 1922. Spengler’s thesis forced his readers to look at history through an entirely new prism. They did, and he enjoyed a surge of influence. But the man and his work are in eclipse today, and there’s little evidence that scholars pondering American decline have consulted the dark musings of this German romantic or his overarching theory of history. Robert D. Kaplan, the itinerant scholar of peoples and cultures, describes Spengler as “at once . . . turgid, hypnotic, profound, and, frankly, at times unintelligible in English translation.” He sees far more historical validity in the forces of geography than in Spengler’s ardent musings about the power of culture in directing history.
But it wasn’t always so. As John Farrenkopf points out in his Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, Spengler’s Decline beguiled numerous prominent men of ideas and action in post–World War II America. They included George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Paul Nitze, Louis Halle, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. Kennan read Spengler in the original language during a stay in Germany in his youth. Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard focused on Spengler, along with Toynbee and Kant, and he once confessed to a “perverse fascination” with the German’s thinking, although Kissinger ultimately rejected the idea of inevitable decline. Nitze left Wall Street as a young man specifically to study Decline at Harvard, while Halle reported receiving poor grades there because of his preoccupation with the book. And yet, as Farrenkopf notes, Spengler’s “place in modern international theory has received relatively little attention” and “his challenging ideas have not been reformulated into a theoretical stance on international relations.” Probably, he suggests, this is because his pessimism is a little too ominous for any but the most theoretical musings.
When Spengler’s book appeared in the wake of the Great War’s carnage, conventional historians attacked it immediately. The scholarly world, suggests H. Stuart Hughes in Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate, “has been embarrassed to know what to do about it.” Though it manifests prodigious study and substantial knowledge, Decline is not considered respectable scholarship. “It is too metaphysical,” writes Hughes, “too dogmatic—in all respects, too extreme. Yet there it sits—a massive stumbling-block in the path of true knowledge.” He seems to be saying that subsequent scholars couldn’t quite dismiss the book but also couldn’t figure out precisely how to incorporate its arguments into their thinking.
THE PURPOSE of this article is to hold up the Spengler thesis as a prism through which we might view the state of the world in AD 2013 and probe the question of American and Western decline. I do so without endorsement but with a conviction that elements of that thesis might enlighten efforts to understand our time. Spengler’s work might be viewed as somewhat akin to a potent medicine that can be beneficial in appropriate doses but dangerous when ingested whole, given its metaphysical, dogmatic and extreme qualities cited by Hughes. Besides, Spengler’s thesis is unyieldingly deterministic, which makes it philosophically suspect as well as psychologically unacceptable, given the human aversion to the amoral essence of determinism and its assault on the concept of salvation, whether divine or temporal.
But two elements of Spengler’s thinking merit particular attention. One is his rejection of the “Idea of Progress,” that hoary Western notion that mankind has advanced over the centuries through quickening stages of development, from primitiveness and barbarism to enlightenment and civilization—and that mankind will continue to advance through the human experience on earth. The Idea of Progress has animated the thinking of nearly all significant Western philosophy since its first stirrings in the thirteenth century. As writer and philosopher Robert Nisbet put it, “No single idea has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.”
In our own time, the Idea of Progress serves as progenitor of the concepts of Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism. It was the underpinning of Francis Fukuyama’s famous “End of History” perception that Western democratic capitalism represents the culmination of human civic development. It fuels today’s foreign-policy belief, so prevalent across the political spectrum, that America’s world role is to remake other societies and cultures in the Western image.
Spengler, by contrast, embraced a view of history as the story of various discrete civilizations, each with its own distinct culture, that emerged, developed, flowered and then declined. This cyclical view subsumes certain underlying perceptions. First, since civilizations and cultures are distinct, there can be no universal culture. No body of thought emanating from one culture can be imposed upon another, either peacefully or through force. And civilizational decline is an immutable rule that applies to all civilizations, including the West.
The second noteworthy element of Spengler’s thought is his view, based on his study of eight great civilizations, that the process of decline carries with it a surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism. Hegemonic impulses come to the fore along with forms of dictatorship. As Charles and Mary Beard wrote in The American Spirit, “Spengler’s judgment of history certainly conveyed to American readers the notion that ‘Western civilization’ was doomed and that another Caesar, the conquering man of blood and iron, would bring it to an end.” This phase, which Spengler calls the civilizational phase, can last a couple centuries, and the question Americans face today, looking at the world through the Spenglerian prism, is whether their country, as leader of the West, is in the process of embracing these elements of Spengler’s civilizational phase.
BUT FIRST let’s look at the man and his philosophy. Spengler was born in 1880 in the northern region of the Harz Mountains. His father, austere and distant, was a mining engineer and postal official in the town of Halle. After a classical high school education, young Spengler studied mathematics and science at universities in Berlin, Munich and Halle. Then he experienced probably the greatest disappointment of his life when he failed his oral exams. Though he passed six months later, the lapse barred him from the rarefied life of the German university professor, and he resigned himself to teaching in the Realgymnasium (high school) system. But he soon gave that up and moved to Munich, where he lived quietly on his inheritance.
In 1911, he watched with mounting alarm as his country entered into a tense confrontation with France in what was known as the Second Moroccan Crisis. War was averted when Germany backed down—in humiliation—after Britain threw her weight behind France. But the episode left young Spengler with an indelible fear that war between Germany and the French-British alliance had become inevitable. He saw this looming conflict as a clash of epic proportions with profound consequences for Western civilization.
He set out to write a book predicting this conflagration and exploring the existential rivalry between Great Britain, the trade empire of democratic capitalism, perceived by many Germans as intrinsically decadent; and Germany, a rising socialistic empire widely viewed in Spengler’s country as representing a more hallowed Prussian Kultur. The question was which power would dominate the West during its civilizational phase.
But soon he developed a vision for a wider exploration of the rise and fall of world civilizations, including the culturally spent and sterile West. He plunged into the project, continuing even as the war he had predicted turned into blood-soaked reality. Finally, in 1918 the Viennese house of Wilhelm Braumuller brought out the first volume of Der Untergang des Abendlandes. Anticipating tepid interest and minimal sales, Braumuller printed just 1,500 copies.
The book hit the German consciousness like a boulder tossed upon an anthill. As one scholar wrote a few years later, “Never had a thick philosophical work had such a success—and in all reading circles, learned and uneducated, serious and snobbish.” Sales hit a hundred thousand within eight years, and the book was translated into numerous languages. As Hughes noted, Spengler became “the philosopher of the hour.” Readers were beguiled by his sheer audacity. He didn’t paint with little brushstrokes but attacked the canvas with wide swings of his arms, painting over whole strands of Western philosophy.
We shall break down the Spengler thesis into its component parts, beginning with his rejection of the idea that history becomes discernible through a kind of natural-science search for root causes explaining unfolding events. No, says Spengler, history can be understood only through an appreciation of the mystery of destiny, “the essence and kernel of all history,” which is “unapproachable through the cognition-forms which the Critique of Pure Reason [of Kant] investigates.” Hence, Spengler rejects the aim of studying the past through scientific methods and opts instead for an analytical framework focused on a rigorous pursuit of historical analogy. This may seem mystical, but Spengler’s rejection of scientific methods in probing the rise and fall of civilizations may be a kind of forerunner to today’s intellectual movement called “complex adaptive systems.” This nascent analytical framework rejects linear scientific methods in explaining fundamental principles of organization, evolution and behavior within the animate universe and instead explores nonlinear interactivity among “agents” within a “system,” whether living cells, immune systems, organisms, human communities or national economies.
Second, Spengler rejects the notion of a unified mankind whose exploits on earth can be traced through historical inquiry. “‘Mankind,’” he writes, “has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids.” He posits instead his thesis of distinct living cultures:
I see, . . . the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death.
Third, if “mankind” is a meaningless abstraction and history is the story of distinct civilizations, then it is fatuous to suggest the West holds center stage in world history. Spengler dismisses this Eurocentric view as the “Ptolemaic system of history” and posits his own “Copernican discovery in the historical sphere,” with no special position for the classical or Western civilizations relative to other great civilizations. Those others, he writes, are “separate worlds of dynamic being which . . . count for just as much in the general picture of history” as the classical or Western experience, and in some ways surpass them in “spiritual greatness and soaring power.”
Here, Spengler’s outlook turns more mystical as he pictures the great cultures as essentially organic entities whose phases of emergence, development and decline are remarkably similar from culture to culture. “Cultures are organisms,” he writes. “If we disentangle their shapes we may find the primitive Culture-form that underlies all individual Cultures and is reflected in their various manifestations.” That’s why, says Spengler, the pursuit of historical analogy is so critical to understanding the “Cycles of History”: by studying the patterns of past civilizations we can better understand our own, including its current state of cultural health or decline.
Each of these civilizations, says Spengler, is born when a people in a particular region rather suddenly develops a distinctive way of looking at the world. This world outlook is entirely fresh, unencumbered by influences from other cultures. And as this new culture emerges it develops a sense of its own mortality, which stirs powerful longings for fulfillment, which in turn unleash a passion for creative expression, new methods of inquiry and new modes of knowledge—all conforming to the distinctive “soul” of the new culture.
The passion for creative expression and new strains of culture knowledge runs on for centuries, generally a thousand years or more unless interrupted by external forces. But eventually it peters out. Then begins that civilizational phase, characterized by the deterioration of the folk traditions and innocent enthusiasms of the culture. Its cultural essence, once of the soil and spread throughout the “mother-region” in town, village and city, now becomes the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture.
Thus, Spengler draws a sharp distinction between culture and civilization. The former is the phase of creative energy, the “soul” of the countryside; the latter is a time of material preoccupation, the “intellect” of the city. As Hughes elaborates, “So long as the culture phase lasts, the leading figures in a society manifest a sure sense of artistic ‘style’ and personal ‘form.’ Indeed, the breakdown of style and form most clearly marks the transition from culture to civilization.”
WE PAUSE over this thinking to ponder its implications. Recall that Spengler wrote nearly a century ago, when the Western avant-garde movement was merely a tiny knot of artists bent on assaulting the conventional sensibilities of the prevailing culture. As author and critic Lionel Trilling once explained, in Spengler’s time these people weren’t interested in talking to the masses. Their art was rarefied and special, designed exclusively for the avant-garde itself, those inclined to look down on the masses and on conventional thought and culture. Few at that time predicted that this avant-garde cynicism and cultural nihilism eventually would be absorbed into the popular culture itself and be accepted, even embraced, by large numbers of people within the so-called masses—the same masses under assault by the avant-garde. But Spengler saw it coming, as merely the inevitable consequence of any civilization’s transition from its cultural to its civilizational phase.
He also predicted the West’s coming decline in birthrates brought about largely by the advent of feminism, also a feature of Spengler’s civilizational phase. Whereas the advent and success of feminism in the West is heralded in our time as a sign of civic progress, Spengler’s study of other civilizational cycles convinced him that it was just the opposite—a reflection of cultural decline, largely because it curtailed the production of children. As he puts it:
The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of “mutual understanding.” It is all the same whether the case against children is the American lady’s who would not miss a season for anything, or the Parisienne’s who fears that her lover would leave her, or an Ibsen heroine’s who “lives for herself”—they all belong to themselves and they are all unfruitful.
This phenomenon, says Spengler, is seen in every society in transition from the cultural to the civilizational phase, and in all instances it leads to what he calls “appalling depopulation.” Spengler saw a similar phenomenon in the realm of politics. Looking at Athens of 400 bc and Caesar’s Rome, he sees a progressive degradation:
As everywhere, the elections, from being nominations of class-representatives, have become the battle-ground of party candidates, an area ready for the intervention of money, and . . . of ever bigger and bigger money. “The greater became the wealth which was capable of concentration in the hands of individuals, the more the fight for political power developed into a question of money.”
But what most clearly marks the civilizational phase is what he considered the inevitable gravitation toward Caesarism and empire. Spengler’s historical analogies taught him that the transition from culture to civilization unleashes a kind of Will to Power, manifest internally in a drive to consolidate power within the civilization, and externally in a drive to assert dominance over other peoples. “Imperialism,” writes Spengler, “is Civilization unadulterated.” Before pursuing the intriguing questions unleashed by this provocative perception, we must explore first his historical analogies as they apply to the great civilizations of world history.
THE EIGHT civilizations he identifies are Western, Greco-Roman, Indian, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian and Mexican (Aztec). He focuses most deeply on three—Western (which he calls “Faustian”), Greco-Roman (“Apollinian”) and Arabian (“Magian”). Each of the great cultures was utterly distinctive in its worldview, its philosophical underpinning, its approach to artistic expression, its science and technics, and even its mathematics.
And each possessed its own concept of space, which provided its prime symbols of perception, shaped its identity and guided its every thought. The Egyptian soul, for example, saw itself as moving down a narrow, prescribed “life-path” to come to life’s final judgment. That was its “destiny-idea,” says Spengler, and the entire “form-language” of the culture illustrates this one theme. Thus, the pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty are a rhythmically ordered sequence of spaces—passages, halls, arcaded courts and pillared rooms that grow ever narrower. The Egyptians’ reliefs and paintings appear as rows that lead the beholder in a definite direction. “For the Egyptian,” writes Spengler, “the depth-experience which governed his world-form was so emphatically directional that he comprehended space more or less as a continuous process of actualization.”
Or consider the Chinese prime symbol, guided by the intensely directional principle of the Tao. But, whereas the Egyptian treads a path prescribed with inexorable necessity, the Chinese is conducted to his ancestral tomb not by ravines of stone but by friendly nature herself. “Nowhere else has the landscape become so genuinely the material of the architecture,” writes Spengler. “The temple is not a self-contained building but a layout, in which hills, water, trees, flowers and stones in definite forms and dispositions are just as important as gates, walls, bridges and houses.” He adds that this culture is the only one in which “the art of gardening is a grand religious art.”
The classical, or Apollinian, culture had a far different prime symbol, best described as “body and form”—that which was small, circumscribed, clearly delineated and anchored. Think of the Parthenon. Apollinian architecture, writes Spengler, is characterized by a firm footing and a socket. “The Doric column bores into the ground, the vessels are always thought of from below upward” and “the legs are disproportionately emphasized.” This emphasis on body led to sculpture as classical man’s quintessential art form and polytheism—“the plurality of separate bodies”—as his religious framework. As Hughes puts it, “The free-standing nude statue, with its harmonious contours and untroubled gaze, symbolized in visible form the classical attitude of personal detachment and serene acceptance of an inscrutable destiny.”
To Magian man, the prime symbol is the cavern, into which light shines through and does battle with the darkness. Architecturally, this is characterized by the Magian civilization’s churches, dating back even before Islam, with their heavy walls that shut in the cavern and their utilitarian windows that offered no artistic expression besides bringing the light without to the darkness within. This constant clash defined the Magian spirit, preoccupied with the “persistent and unresolved struggles” between good and evil. In these struggles, the concept of individual wills, says Spengler, “is simply meaningless, for ‘will’ and ‘thought’ in man are not prime, but already effects of the deity upon him.” And this brings us to a fundamental difference between the Magian and Faustian cultures: “In the Magian world . . . the separation of politics and religion is theoretically impossible and nonsensical, whereas in the Faustian Culture the battle of Church and State is inherent in the very conceptions—logical, necessary, unending.”
In this Faustian culture, says Spengler, the guiding form concept is nothing less than “pure, imperceptible, unlimited space.” In other words, “The Faustian strove through all sensuous barriers toward infinity.” Infinity as a concept was utterly alien to classical thinkers, whose mathematical orientation was geometry (form and proportion) and who had no conception of negative numbers or even zero. But Western man, says Spengler, pushed aside Euclidian formulations and moved to entirely new mathematical approaches that incorporated the great new Faustian idea. “In place of the sensuous element of concrete lines and planes . . . there emerged the abstract, spatial, un-Classical element of the point” and “variable relation-values between positions in space.” Thus did Western man conceive Western calculus and Western physics, modes of inquiry inconceivable in any other culture.
A similar distinction is seen in architecture. While the Ionic hovers, the Gothic soars. It was no accident that Western man invented the flying buttress, enabling him to construct cathedrals reflecting his relentless drive toward space. Or that he developed the window as architecture: “In it can be felt the will to emerge from the interior into the boundless.”
And just as classical architecture led to sculpture as the premier Apollinian art form, Western architecture led inexorably to music. From around 1500 to about 1800, writes Spengler, as Faustian man grappled with his “will to spacial transcendence,” instrumental music emerged as the West’s ruling art form. But first Western man transformed painting, which went through its own “decisive epochal turn” in the sixteenth century. Using light and shadow to burst through space and time, Western painters brought dimension to their work, and background became a symbol of the infinite. Thus was “the depth-experience of the Faustian soul . . . captured in the kinesis of a picture.” This artistic expression reached its fullest flowering with Rembrandt. And it is significant that, as Dutch Baroque painting reached culmination, the West’s cultural momentum was picked up by the soaring new expression of Baroque music.
As for Western science, it wasn’t accidental that the telescope was a Western invention or that human flight first occurred in the West. Likewise, with drama, particularly tragedy, the West developed a penetrating “biographical” approach, as opposed to the Greeks’ “anecdotal” outlook. One deals with the entirety of a life, the other with a single moment. Asks Spengler, “What relation . . . has the entire inward past of Oedipus or Orestes to the shattering event that suddenly meets him on his way?” On the other hand, “There is not the smallest trait in the past existence of Othello—that masterpiece of psychological analysis—that has not some bearing on the catastrophe.” Western artistic expression probed deeply into the psychology of life and ultimately found its way to a preoccupation with the individual—the dawning of that personality idea that later was to create the sacrament of contrition and personal absolution.
If, in fine, we look at the whole picture—the expansion of the Copernican world into that aspect of stellar space that we possess today; the development of Columbus’s discovery into a worldwide command of the earth’s surface by the West; the perspective of oil-painting and the theatre; the passion of our Civilization for swift transit, the conquest of the air, the exploration of the Polar regions and the climbing of almost impossible mountain-peaks—we see, emerging everywhere, the prime symbol of the Faustian soul, Limitless Space. And those specially Western creations of the soul-myth called “Will,” “Force,” and “Deed” must be regarded as derivatives of this prime symbol.
But, concluded Spengler, all that yearning, probing, exploration and artistic expression was finished in the West of a century ago. Signs of the new civilizational phase, he wrote, were evident in the new pseudoartistic expression that no longer celebrated the West’s fundamental cultural ideas but rather assaulted them; in the rise of impersonal world-cities whose cosmopolitanism overwhelmed the folk traditions of old; in the preoccupation with the money culture; in declining birthrates and the rise of the Ibsen woman who belongs to herself; and finally in the death struggle that had emerged between the democratic state of England with its ethic of success and the socialist state of Germany with its ethic of duty.
Spengler felt certain that Germany would win this struggle and emerge as “the last nation of the West,” spawning ground for that future Caesar who would lead the West to its final civilizational glory of world dominance. It was all written in the historical analogies he had studied so carefully. But he was wrong about that death struggle, and he died in 1936, too soon to see his native land crushed by the awesome force of the Anglo-Saxon world, led by a surging America, with its focus on liberal democracy, free markets and the control of the individual over his own destiny. He did not die too soon, however, to reject German fascism as an alien force incapable of taking Germany to the intracivilizational triumph he desired—or to be rejected by the early Nazis in turn after they took power in 1933 and banned Spengler’s book. In any event, it was America, not Germany, that emerged as the last nation of the West, that would define Western civilization and determine its fate as it made its way through its civilizational phase.
IN ASSESSING our own time through the Spenglerian prism, a number of perceptions emerge. First, Spengler predicted with uncanny foresight a number of Western developments of the past century, including the rise of world-cities and the money culture, the emergence of a powerful feminism focused on the yearnings of the Ibsen woman, the force of money in politics, declining birthrates and the popular embrace of avant-garde cultural sensibilities, awash in cynicism and cosmopolitanism and bent on destroying the cultural verities of old.
Second, Spengler makes a powerful point when he says these are not characteristics and developments found in ascendant civilizations. On the contrary, many are signs of cultural and societal decadence and decline. Although the hallowed Idea of Progress has shrouded this truth from Western society, the reality is clear: the Western cultural decline, as understood and predicted by Spengler, is now complete. In our time, the late Jacques Barzun said it well when he wrote that our age
sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.
Third, Spengler’s rejection of the notion of a universal culture provides provocative fodder for Western thinking at a time when that notion is embraced widely as a bedrock of American politics. Some scholars of our era have echoed Spengler’s view on this, most notably the French intellectual Fernand Braudel and, more significantly, Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard professor often heralded as among the greatest of his generation’s political scientists. Citing Spengler, Huntington denounced “the myopic view of history prevailing in the West with its neat division into . . . phases relevant only to the West.” And he rejected the “widespread and parochial conceit that the European civilization of the West is now the universal civilization of the world.” In his famous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington quotes with approval Braudel’s comment that it almost would “be childish” to think that modernization or the “triumph of civilization in the singular” would lead to the end of the plurality of historic cultures developed over centuries.
This outlook led to Huntington’s famous thesis that the post–Cold War world was moving into a period of civilizational clash in which the cultural passions of distinct civilizations would shape the great geopolitical fault lines of our time. Since Huntington posited his thesis in 1993, unfolding events would seem to have confirmed his provocative perception. And yet his thinking has been largely rejected by foreign-policy intellectuals in favor of the universalist concepts of such intellectuals as Fukuyama, whose End of History formulation has been exposed by subsequent events as little more than an intellectual confection. The fate of the two outlooks in the intellectual arena reflects the power of the prevailing view of Western universalism and its progenitor, the Idea of Progress.
Thus, it isn’t difficult to see why Spengler doesn’t resonate in today’s America or the West more generally, with their embrace of the Idea of Progress and the doctrine of Eurocentrism. Nor is it difficult to see why Spengler’s Cycles of History would spur yawns in societies that have come to revere—and see as progress—all the elements of the civilizational ethos foreseen by Spengler and identified by him as hallmarks of cultural decline.
NONE OF this was lamented by Spengler as he peered into the West’s civilizational future. Nor did he lament the age of Western imperialism and the decline of democratic structures that he also saw on the horizon. These too were simply inevitable consequences of the natural developmental cycles through which the West was passing. Indeed, as a product of the West he thrilled to the idea of its culminating phase of power and glory.
But modern Westerners—and Americans in particular—might want to ponder the implications of Spengler’s prediction that the first nation of the West would lead that civilization into an era of imperialism in corollary with serious erosions in its democratic structures. Is it possible that the mystical German thinker was right about that, just as he was right in so many other predictions regarding Western behavioral and cultural patterns? And isn’t the great foreign-policy debate of our time—whether America should continue its post–Cold War policy of interventionism in the name of American exceptionalism and Western universalism; or whether it should abandon that mission in favor of a more measured exercise of its military and economic power—fundamentally a debate over whether Spengler had it right?
What’s interesting about today’s foreign-policy debates is the disconnection between the country’s national leaders and the populace at large. The Republican Party is dominated by a neoconservative sensibility that favors widespread American involvement in overseas places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran, while the Democratic Party is influenced heavily by a Wilsonian sensibility of moral imperative that often leads to the same interventionist advocacy, though sometimes for different reasons. And yet public-opinion surveys show that the American people harbor strong reservations about such interventionist vigor of either stripe.
Thus, it sometimes seems as if America is on autopilot as it moves haltingly but with seemingly inexorable force toward ever-greater involvement in the world even as discomfort increases within the electorate. But what about Spengler’s corollary prediction that the West’s democratic forms will erode as it fulfills its civilizational push to empire? Certainly, there is no popular sentiment for such a thing. Yet here too we see signs that the country is headed in that direction, reflected in a growing tendency toward arrogation of power on the part of the nation’s executive, at the expense of Congress, and Congress’s supine acquiescence in this trend. It’s seen also in the Federal Reserve’s remarkable power grab of recent years whereby it has circumvented the congressional appropriations process in making funds available to banks to execute its “quantitative easing” policies of loose money. Again, Congress has quietly accepted this incursion into its constitutional domain without so much as a whimper.
And so we come to the truly haunting question that confronts America in these times of growing global instability—whether, as the last nation of the West, America is destined to fulfill Spengler’s vision of hegemonic zeal mixed with a push toward dictatorship. Here’s where the natural aversion to Spengler’s dogmatic determinism will likely come into play. The answer is no, America’s future is in American hands. But Spengler’s audacious work stands as a great warning to Americans bent on protecting the hallowed civic institutions established at the founding of their Republic. The era of Western cultural health is dead, and it died pretty much as Spengler predicted it would. And no doubt his study of previous great civilizations did in fact accurately identify pressures and forces that emerge at particular points in civilizational development and push toward empire and Caesarism. This push can be resisted by a free people dedicated to the protection of their institutions of old. But they won’t be protected if events are placed on autopilot. The American impulse toward imperialism will prevail if it is not rebuffed consciously by the American people and their leaders. And if it prevails it will leave a tattered democratic republic in its wake. Then Oswald Spengler will have the last laugh.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy, including Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition (Simon & Schuster, 2005), from which portions of this article were adapted.
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R06610 / CC-BY-SA.