The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered

The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered

Mini Teaser: Today, looking back, The Decline of the West can be seen to stand at the gate whereby entered such pervasive intellectual fashions as postmodernist relativism, multiculturalism, and hostile suspicion of dead white European males.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

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.

Today, looking back, The Decline of the West can be seen to stand at the gate whereby entered such pervasive intellectual fashions as postmodernist relativism, multiculturalism, and hostile suspicion of dead white European males. It inspired more than fashions, however. Spengler's Decline led directly to a new would-be science, the comparative sociology of civilizations, and it animated the twentieth century's avid passion for philosophies of history, which everyone affects to disdain but which, observed Raymond Aron, "nevertheless exercise an influence on the historical conscience of our day." Above all, it inspired a mood, a feeling, a pathos: that of living uneasily through the end of an old, tired, dying culture.

Yet by mid-century it had been written off. In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy W.H. Dray said it had enjoyed "instant but short-lived fame" in the 1920s, and if it was discussed again after the second war that was because of Arnold Toynbee's similar labors and not because of a belated recognition of Spengler's merits. Erich Heller maintained that Spengler "performed one of the most curious feats in the history of modern thought: in a remarkably short time he has achieved a kind of highly topical oblivion." After being "passionately debated" at the time of publication, "his work is by general consent utterly out of date." I shall show that this was, and still is, far from true.

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was an obscure nobody of prodigious erudition and romantic imagination. Born in the Harz mountains to modest circumstances, he took a doctorate at Halle in 1904 and was teaching mathematics in a Munich high school in 1911 when a small inheritance enabled him to retire to his study and work on his magnum opus. He never married; a sister kept house for him. He had fully planned his book when war began in 1914 and he composed it under trying wartime conditions; one sister committed suicide in 1917, another lost her husband at the front, and Spengler was often cold and hungry, writing by candlelight. His two-volume masterpiece came out in 1918 and 1922 and was an enormous success, selling 100,000 copies in a few years. Apart from misunderstandings engendered by the title, its appeal to Germans humiliated by defeat and wracked by revolution and inflation was the message that a similar fate awaited the arrogant victors, including that so-called "young" nation, America. Western culture was dying, and the way cultures die is by deteriorating into urbanized, machine-dominated civilizations, rent by warring states, anarchic democracies, until a Caesar rose to dominate them all. Cold comfort for Germans, but no one was promising better--certainly not Weimar's feeble democracy.

There were even hints in the book of a thought Spengler went on to make explicit in a series of partisan tracts and pamphlets, namely that in this twilight era of uncultured civilization there could be a special role for Germany, provided she was no longer "the people of poets and thinkers" but became the land of engineers, industrialists, technicians--and ruthless, anti-democratic, socialist dictators. Culture was finished, passŽ; the last centuries of Western civilization were to be the time of ruthless realists. (Incidentally, that is the background to a notorious remark, wrongly attributed to Hermann Goering but which actually belongs to the character Thiemann in Hanns Johst's 1933 play Schlageter: "When I hear the word culture . . . I undo the safety-catch of my Browning.") As early as 1921 Spengler wrote, "We Germans will never bring forth another Goethe, but a Caesar, yes." The foundation stone of his extraordinary reputation as a prophet was laid.

Those later political pamphlets (which are acutely analyzed by Rolf Peter Sieferle in Die Konservative Revolution, Frankfurt, 1995) are said by some critics to reveal the secret meaning of The Decline, but if so that was not what fascinated so many readers, especially outside Germany. Spengler's political career was actually rather pathetic, as so often is the case when an unsophisticated scholar gets taken up by men of power. A Dutch researcher has lately discovered that, made famous by his big book, Spengler became adviser to a conspiratorial network of Ruhr industrialists and political and paramilitary activists in Berlin and Bavaria, and thus found himself on the fringes of a national-conservative plot to overthrow the Weimar Republic. He wisely retreated to his study, but despite being still ambivalent about Nazism, let himself be wheeled in several times to see Hitler. He decided Hitler was a Dummkopf who had nothing of the coming Caesar. He found the Nazis' racism stupid, their economic policies shortsighted, and their "socialism" far removed from the old-fashioned Prussian state-capitalism Spengler intended by that name. Although Ernst Junger tried to claim him for the movement, dedicating Der Arbeiter (1932) to him, the Nazis saw that he was too reactionary for them, and his big book was banned. So Spengler was caught in a crossfire: Theodor Adorno said, "In Germany he was ostracized as a pessimist and a reactionary. . . . Abroad he was considered one of those ideologically responsible for the relapse into barbarism."

Getting back to Spengler's one important work, it was (according to the title he first proposed to his publisher) a "morphology of world history", that is, an account of the successive, meaningless, unconnected rises and falls that constitute what is improperly (because monistically) called the history of humanity. Such cyclical theories are as old as the Greeks and Romans, but what was original to Spengler was his suggestion about what it was that rose and fell: a culture. For him that meant an ideal or a style that characterized a whole group of societies over a long period, and which was expressed in or symbolized by everything they did, from music to mathematics, from economy to architecture. According to Spengler, there had been eight or nine such cultures in history, and the two he paid most attention to were the Apollonian, which arose in the heroic age of Greece and died in the Roman Empire, and the Faustian, which arose in Western Europe a thousand years before and was now in its declining stage.

That stage told the same tragic story in each case, and Spengler called it by a familiar German pejorative, "civilization"--the age of the big city, war, democracy, and finally, Caesarism. When it culminated, that culture was dead, and for a time men lived without history, until one day, one could not know when or where, a new soul or ideal would be born and find expression in a new culture. That culture would flower and flourish in its turn and then decline and die. The cultures were external to each other, neither influencing nor inheriting; in fact, they could not understand each other and their relations consisted of deliberate misunderstanding. So, of course, their succession had no cumulative sense, no meaning. This, then, was not a philosophy of history so much as a science of civilizations; not a positive science, though, because its method was intuition, feeling, and analogy.

Northrop Frye said that every single element of this construction ("one of the world's great Romantic poems") has been utterly refuted a dozen times, and yet that its leading ideas are "as much part of our mental outlook today as the electron or the dinosaur, and in that sense we are all Spenglerians." We can test that proposition by separating out the leading ideas from the profusion of learning, poesy, mysticism, and oracle that is The Decline of the West. They are two: the conviction that the West is doomed and that its sun is already setting; and the assertion that culture comes in totalities, monads that are not connected by any bridges that could escape cultural relativism.

Prophet of Doom

The doomsaying was what most readers got out of the book. Said Charles and Mary Beard, in The American Spirit (1942), "Whatever meaning the arbitrary and fanciful divisions into epochs may have carried in the author's brain, 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." The rest of the book was taken as "evidence" for that proposition; only historians and scholars with special interests could cope with the mass of learned allusions, artistic judgments, and stunning analogies in the sections on past cultures. For the rest of us, Spengler was saying that all past cultures eventually fell into the state of civilization and then collapsed. We have been in such a state since Napoleon, so our end is nigh, meaning within the next century or so.

Decline and fall had been a familiar and portentous theme ever since the history of the collapse of the Roman Empire was pieced together, but the suggestion that modern societies could go the same way was little more than a rhetorical or poetic flourish, and one not taken seriously by the confident and optimistic nineteenth century. Nietzsche sought to shake that confidence, and Georges Sorel mocked it in Les Illusions du progrs (1908), but as Erich Kahler said in The Meaning of History (1965), "Those ideas, at the time . . . went almost unnoticed by the broad public. The world-shaking and value-shaking catastrophe of the First World War was needed to prepare the ground for their thriving and widespread influence. The man of the hour was Spengler." It was in April 1919 that Paul Valary said, famously, "Nous autres civilisations, nous savons maintenant que nous sommes mortelles." Spengler claimed to show why, insisting that, unlike anyone before him, he was not talking about the decline of nations or states or empires but of a whole culture, including its youngest offshoots in the New World. America, he specified, was the epitome of civilization and thus "had no future."

Wyndham Lewis said ironically in Time and Western Man (1927), "This thesis is, in itself and apart from anything else, such an immensely popular one that the book was assured an immediate and overwhelming success everywhere, from Moscow to Johannesburg." Doom has gone on being popular ever since, and Francis Fukuyama pointed out that the really successful universal histories written in this century were those, like Spengler's and Toynbee's, that predicted "the decline and decay of Western values and institutions." Frye noticed that the very fact that we talk about "Western culture" is part of this doom-mongering; it is common to go on and say it is "old", that it puts one in mind of latter-day Rome, that things have gone wrong since about Napoleon's day. All such views, he added, "have a more or less muddled version of Spengler's vision as their basis. . . . If we do not acquire our knowledge of Spengler's vision from Spengler we have to get it out of the air, but get it we will; we have no choice in the matter." Ernst Cassirer was no doubt speaking for Germans when he said in The Myth of the State that between the First and Second World Wars, Spengler's very title was enough to inflame imaginations: "At this time many, if not most of us, had realized that something was rotten in the state of our highly prized Western civilization. Spengler's book expressed in a sharp and trenchant way this general uneasiness." But the mood persisted and spread. As late as 1969, Matthew Melko observed that all those systems, whether proposed by Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin, or Kroeber, that involved "the conception of a number of exclusive, durable, mortal macrocultures" have met considerable interest, which "derives, no doubt, from a feeling that our own civilization might be facing the possibility of coming to an end, of 'dying' if you will, as others apparently have in the past."

Whether or not such forebodings were genuine, they served wonderfully as a pretext for a facile pathos, a self-pitying world weariness. The poseur who is the hero of AndrŽ Malraux's La Tentation de l'Occident (1926) tells his Chinese friend that "Europeans are weary of themselves, of their crumbling individualism, of their exaltation"; their art is "an abandoned palace attacked by winter winds, the wall of intellect is gradually falling into ruin. . . ." He reproduces exactly Spengler's view of contemporary art when he says it leaves "an impression of a kind of insanity, an insanity both self-conscious and self-satisfied."

Unfortunately for the case he is making, some of the most insane of that art is an endorsement of Spengler, as in William Butler Yeats' book, The Vision (1925, revised 1938). Yeats explained that in 1918, soon after his marriage, he discovered that his wife was given to automatic writing at the dictation of unseen powers whom he calls "instructors" and who were somehow related to Oswald Spengler. Even though The Decline was not yet published, Mrs. Yeats in a trance wrote out the Spenglerian philosophy, using the identical metaphors and symbols. When the book came out in English, Yeats said, "I found there a correspondence too great for coincidence between most of his essential dates and those I had received [from "the instructors"] before the publication of his first German edition." A friendly critic thinks Yeats was being whimsical but he was in earnest. The book raises the question whether Yeats was sometimes slightly mad; it is dedicated to Ezra Pound who surely was.

The Spenglerian pathos was not always so unsettling. A feeling for the fragility of imperial power and the vulnerability of high culture is no bad thing. Sound and humane policy is more likely made to the tune of Kipling's Recessional, which reminds us we will soon be "one with Nineveh and Tyre", than to the sound of Land of Hope and Glory, with its bombast about setting imperial bounds wider still. Even so, it is a mood that can lead to some fatalistic compromises. Hans Robert Jauss, the literary theorist who pioneered the study of reader-reception, tells us that when he joined the Waffen SS in October 1939, "my reading of Spengler's Decline of the West, a book banned by the Nazis, had made me skeptical about the Hitlerian empire." He could not believe in the thousand-year reich, thanks to Spengler, but he could still join the Waffen SS. Nearer to us is the case of Henry Kissinger, of whom Stanley Hoffmann has said, "Henry, in his melancholy, seems to walk with the spirit of Spengler at his side."

Kissinger himself has said that he conducted policy "with a premonition of catastrophe." He has admitted to "a perverse fascination" with Spengler's historic pessimism, but says he rejected Spengler's notion of the inevitability of decay; indeed, he had said as much in his 1950 Harvard thesis. Nevertheless, critics have claimed to detect a fatalistic defeatism in his policies, something which flowed from a belief that American civilization had passed its high point, like so many before it, and had to accommodate the rising forces represented by the USSR, "Sparta to our Athens." This became, briefly, a political issue in the 1970s, when retired Admiral Elmo Zumwalt said Kissinger had told him such things; Ronald Reagan declared that the Sparta/Athens = USSR/USA analogy was a lapse of faith that was making Kissinger too keen to cut a deal with Moscow. Kissinger said his views were being distorted and misrepresented, and from what we know of his sympathy with the Kantian idea of moral freedom, we can believe him. But at least one of his biographers maintains there is a "kernel of truth" in the suggestion that the former Secretary of State was a case of Spenglerian pessimism.

Elsewhere, too, discussion of Spengler's doomsaying has not been about whether it was plausible or warranted but about the bad moral and political consequences of preaching such doctrines, the encouragement it gave to despair, to anti-cultural and anti-intellectual coarseness, and to callous acceptance of the destruction of our society and its inheritance. Of many such denunciations, Thomas Mann's is most eloquent: "But when I found out that this man wanted his prophecies of death and petrifaction taken in sober earnest; that he was instructing the young not to waste their emotions and passions on culture, art, poetry and such things, but to hold fast to what must inevitably be the future, which they must will in order to will anything at all, to technique and mechanics, administration, perhaps politics; when I perceived that the hand this man held out toward the yearnings and wishes of the human being was actually just the old natural Satanic claw, then I averted my face and put the book out of my sight, lest I find myself admiring so harmful and deadly a work."

Spengler shrugged off these attacks on his fatalism with a Latin tag asserting that, "The fates lead the willing and drag the unwilling", but he did proffer several qualifications. The Untergang he was prophesying did not mean a smash-up: "The idea of catastrophe is not implied in the word." It meant rather fulfillment (Vollendung); as Lewis Mumford said, "The title whispered the soothing words downfall, doom, death." It was not mechanical but organic, like growing old, and it is not fatalism to learn to live your age. There were still choices to be made, as between a plundering Anglo-Saxon capitalism and a Prussian socialism based on blood and honor. But Spengler did not live to proffer the most important qualification of all: the phrase "decline of the West", tinged with defeatism and despair, came to be associated with three outcomes that Spengler never envisaged or believed in. They are the "clash of cultures"; the great power rivalry that pitted another "West" against the USSR; and the Yellow Peril that supposedly threatened the white race.

Misusing Terms

For Spengler, cultures did not clash; they succeeded and misunderstood each other. A culture did not meet its fate accidentally, for example by going down to a rival culture, but inexorably, by aging into a war-torn and degraded civilization. The very different clash-of-cultures theory was represented in his day by the Polish philosopher Feliks Koneczny in his book On the Plurality of Civilizations. Koneczny (1862-1949) dealt with civilizations as "the largest extant fractions of humanity", above states and nations (what Spengler called cultures); and he agreed that "Historically and sociologically there is no such thing as mankind." But he held that cultures inevitably conflict, struggling until one or the other is destroyed. Peaceful interpenetration could lead only to bastardization. ("There are no syntheses only poisonous mixtures. . . . We cannot be civilized in two different ways.") So he dismissed Spengler out of hand: "I do not know of a greater absurdity than the doctrine of the fall of civilizations as a result of old age; the Jewish and Chinese go on."

Samuel Huntington revived these notions in less bellicose form in his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, "The Clash of Civilizations": "Differences do not necessarily mean conflict, and conflict does not necessarily mean violence. Over the centuries, however, differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts." And he believes that we are in for more of it: "It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic [but] cultural", that is, the clash of cultures. Huntington says the West's "civil wars"--two world wars and the Cold War--were not Spenglerian, but in fact they would seem to correspond exactly to Spengler's period of the contending states; and he writes as if the coming clash of cultures were Spenglerian, when we have seen that it is not. It is nothing against Huntington, of course, that he uses terms differently from Spengler, and he could still be correct in his prognostications. But a closer consideration of Spengler's theory would have enabled Huntington to anticipate the main argument of his critics, such as James Kurth in "The Real Clash" (The National Interest, Fall 1994): namely, that the West's real cultural problems arise from internal corruption, and that a similar bastardization is well advanced, thanks to Western influence, in the cultures Huntington fears--which is why they need not be feared.

A different misuse of Spenglerian terms characterized the late Cold War. When Hans Morgenthau wrote "The Decline of the West" in Partisan Review in 1975, when David Ormsby-Gore (Lord Harlech) wrote Must the West Decline (1966), or when a score of publicists similarly echoed Spengler, they were thinking of a different "West" (usually NATO ) and were concerned with matters of strategy and Great Power rivalry far removed from Spengler's concerns. And when Paul Kennedy studied The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers from an unprofitably narrow economic angle, he was the anti-Spengler in his indifference to the soul and style of cultures. To their credit, neither Spengler nor Toynbee ever mistook the Soviet Union for a culture or a civilization. (Nor, added Spengler, had Japan ever had a culture.) Toynbee called Russia a Western deviant or sport, while Spengler dubbed it a pseudomorphosis, a stunted cultural offshoot inside another, as the Magian (Arab) culture had been inside Hellenism. As early as 1922, Spengler predicted that the Soviet Union would be expansionist and aggressive, and he doubted the Slav's attachment to Western scientific culture; but he never saw that as a possible cause of a decline of the West. The application of his rhetoric to the strategic case brought the familiar fatalist temptation, as Owen Harries noted: "The decline thesis also has an operational purpose. . . . The policy prescription attached to the analysis is not that the country should strive to arrest and reverse the decline, but that it should adjust to it."

Finally, Spengler was invoked by those who took "the West" to mean "the white race", and its decline to consist in eclipse by some other race, be the peril yellow, black, brown, or brindle. There is not a word of this in The Decline of the West. True, Faustian man seems very Germanic, but Spengler had an unflattering opinion of other "whites", notably Russians, Italians, and Spaniards; while in the political tracts, the enemy is England. He warned of the danger to Western manufacturing industry from cheap Asian labor, in terms similar to those Sir James Goldsmith uses today. But none of this was part of his scenario for decline; and it would have contradicted his theory of the meaningless succession of cultures for him to pretend to predict where the next one would arise, for that was Incident, not Destiny. That did not prevent Arturo Labriola from claiming that he was following Spengler in his Le CrŽpuscule de la civilisation: l'Occident et les peuples de couleur, where he made the apocalyptic prediction that a struggle between colored races and European imperialism was about to destroy civilization. Labriola was closer to Koneczny in his view that cultures are necessarily aggressive and destructive; to be sure, his undated book seems to have been written in 1936, when the world looked that way.

More significantly, Labriola admits that his ideas "coincide with Lothrop Stoddard's book." Stoddard is a name seldom heard today, though it crops up in an unexpected place, The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Maxwell Perkins (The Letters, pp. 289-90), "I read [Spengler] the same summer I was writing The Great Gatsby and I don't think I ever quite recovered from him. He and Marx are the only modern philosophers that still make sense in this horrible mess." He went on to quote Spengler's description of the brutal, ruthless, uncultured realism of late civilized man, and it is possible that Fitzgerald was thinking of this when he depicted the "monied thugs" of his novels, especially Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. But Richard D. Lehan went much further and decided that Spengler's "influence on [Fitzgerald's] work is so great that it is amazing that it has so long been overlooked." He developed a Spenglerian interpretation of the three principal novels: Dick Driver's career in Tender is the Night parallels the decline of the West; Faustian man fights it out with the new Caesar in The Last Tycoon; and Gatsby is the last Faustian, the man of infinite desire. There is even the preposterous suggestion that the narrator's reflection that Gatsby and the characters around him "were all Westerners" refers not to their status in East Coast society but to Spengler's declining West.
What we know for sure is that the villain of The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, urges people to read a book called "The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard." There is no such book but Fitzgerald gives us a clue when a drunk pulls a book at random off Gatsby's shelves and it is "the Stoddard lectures." So the reference is to Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, an archetypal yellow peril potboiler. The narrator later calls it "stale ideas" and thinks it revealing that Buchanan would be obsessed by such stuff. So Fitzgerald knew his Spengler well enough to conclude that the prophecy that Western culture would be swamped by the colored races was an idea fit for roughnecks.

None of the foregoing reactions to the decline thesis constitutes an answer to Spengler's prophecy, but of course such answers were not lacking. The first and most often advanced was that science and technology have put Western culture into a different case from all preceding cultures, thus postponing the doomed collapse, breaking the cycle of the civilizations, and converting Western culture into world culture. R.G. Collingwood, in his 1927 review of Spengler in Antiquity, ruled that there is no longer "a mere plurality of cultures, but a unity of that plurality, a unity which is the present culture, the heir of all the past."

Progress theorists have taken the same line ever since, especially in America. James T. Shotwell, for example, agreed in 1929 that science had made our civilization not only different from its predecessors but corrosive of their foundations, of their repetitiveness, of their economic limitations, and of their reduction of intercultural relations to domination, predation, and exploitation. (Shotwell's further deduction that, consequently, there would be no more "disasters, Caesarism and Machtpolitik" was, for 1929, ill-timed.) The same ideas were advanced in 1964 in Kenneth Boulding's The Meaning of the Twentieth Century--The Great Transition: the era of civilizations is at an end because the scientific revolution has inaugurated "a new state of man." Similarly, Frye in his 1974 re-evaluation of The Decline of the West in Daedalus foresaw a shift from Western to world culture: "If science is a universal structure of knowledge, it can help mankind to break out of culture-group barriers. . . . [T]he transition would be to something bigger than another culture."

Without necessarily disagreeing, not everyone was enthusiastic about this promised end of separate civilizations. Ludwig von Bertalanffy said that Spengler had been a true prophet but that his "enormous cycle of history is now accomplished", thanks to "globality and technology which, in a way, explode the cyclic scheme" to introduce "a global technological mass society in which old cultural values and individual creativity are replaced by . . . a Brave New World of affluent mediocrity . . . a post-historical age" (Perspectives on General System Theory, 1975).

Another response to Spengler's doom-saying was, roughly speaking, "What's wrong with a bit of doom? Cultural collapse never hurt anyone!" This idea runs back to Vico, who thought that over-refined, vicious, and "effeminate" societies could be reinvigorated by a relapse (ricorso) to primitive religion and heroic barbarism. It was taken up in our day by that lonely genius, Franz Borkenau, who thought that "Spengler is by no means 'done with'" and that his argument had not been answered. In particular, he averred, the fury directed at the "prophet of doom" sprang from "a mixture of self-deification and a fear of death transposed to society." In fact, said Borkenau, the cycle of cultures had not ended and could not, for "history knows no resting point in this up-and-down pattern." A fall into barbarism was no disaster, and could be revivifying; indeed, "the more profound the barbaric downfall, the more creative the subsequent culture." Taking a cheerful view of the supposedly approaching chaos, Borkenau wrote: "For such is the paradox of human affairs that men, by walking with open eyes towards the disintegration of their own civilization, may yet serve and experience the fulness of life. . . . In times such as these there is only one upright attitude: Amor fati."

Some support for this cheerful attitude toward doom came from the civilization scientists studying the sociology of recurrent social collapse. In The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), Joseph A. Tainter rejected Spengler's organic explanation of collapse as "mystical" and suggested that social collapses are "responses to declining marginal returns on investment in complexity." As such, they are not catastrophes, simply relapses to a lower degree of complexity. So social collapse "is an economising process [and] may be the most appropriate response" to unfavorable historical circumstances.

In a way, both the above responses to Spengler amount to saying the same thing, though in a different tone of voice. Both those who predict a global Westernized civilization that survives the death of the great cultures, and those who predict a comfortable, habitable, post-cultural incoherence (sometimes called "chaos") are assuming that science and technology can henceforth sustain a viable society that lacks any particular cultural underpinning, a post-historical high-tech barbarism. If that is indeed the argument, Spengler would have thought he had anticipated it when he insisted on the unity of a culture, even to the point of claiming that each culture had its own science, which could not outlive its cultural context. If Faustian man dies, his science and technology will die with him.

Cultural Totalities

Since Spengler's doomsaying, and indeed his whole system, depend on this cultural monism, the most effective response is not to compete in prophecy by predicting either an everlasting one-world civilization or a comfortable chaos, but to demonstrate the pluralism of any culture past or present. The more autonomous (though connected) activities one can identify in a culture, the less likely it becomes that all of them were foreordained to climax and decline in unison.

That was the approach taken by Alfred Weber (Max's brother) right from 1921. Weber accepted the Spenglerian morphology of cultures, each with its own soul or set of symbols and all affected by a cycle of productivity and stagnation. But this, said Weber, was only one strand of history, alongside two others, which he called the social process and the civilization process. That tripartite division reappeared in Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), as the three autonomous "axial principles" of contemporary society: the culture, the political order, and the technical.

Essay Types: Book Review