Spengler's Ominous Prophecy

January 2, 2013 Topic: HistoryPolitical TheoryReligionSociety Regions: United States

Spengler's Ominous Prophecy

Mini Teaser: An interbellum German intellectual's work is a powerful warning to Americans about the perils of our interventionist foreign-policy trajectory.

by Author(s): Robert W. Merry

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.

Image: Pullquote: 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.Essay Types: Essay