The German writer Oswald Spengler was born at Blankenburg, Germany. Spengler is known almost entirely for his contribution to philosophy of history. After studying at the universities of Munich, Berlin, and Halle—chiefly natural science and mathematics, although he also read widely in history, literature, and philosophy—Spengler obtained a doctorate in 1904, with a thesis on Heraclitus, and embarked upon a career as a high school teacher.
In 1911 he abandoned teaching to take up the penurious life of a private scholar in Munich, where the first volume of his only considerable work, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), gradually took shape. This volume was published in 1918 at the moment of his country’s defeat in World War I. Its pessimistic conclusions so exactly suited the prevailing mood that its author rocketed to instant but short-lived fame.
An ardent nationalist, Spengler has sometimes been accused, especially because of his reactionary and quite undistinguished political writings after 1923, of having helped to prepare the way intellectually for fascism.
He actually opposed Adolf Hitler’s rise, but chiefly on the ground (as he put it) that what Germany needed was a hero, not a heroic tenor. He died in Munich in 1936, bitterly resentful of the drastic decline his reputation had suffered.
It is doubtful that Spengler would have been greatly mollified by the revival of interest in his work that followed World War II, for this was due as much to the general stimulus given to speculation about history by Arnold Toynbee’s popular A Study of History as to any belated recognition of the independent merits of Spengler’s views.
History as Comparative Morphology
The Decline of the West, although fascinating in stretches, is an unsystematic, repetitive, obscurely written book. Its style is oracular rather than analytical; it offers more “insights” than arguments. Yet its major claims are reasonably clear.
From the outset it calls for a “Copernican revolution” in our way of viewing human history that will at once undermine both the traditional ancient–medieval–modern framework generally employed by empirical historians (a framework that Spengler finds provincial) and the prevailing linear interpretation of most Western philosophers of history, whether progressive or regressive (which he finds naive).
According to Spengler, history, steadily and objectively regarded, will be seen to be without center or ultimate point of reference. It is the story of an indefinite number of cultural configurations, of which western Europe is only one, that “grow with the same superb aimlessness as the flowers of the field.”
The careers of such cultures, he contends, constitute the only meaning to be found in the course of history as a whole; they are pockets of unconnected significance in a wilderness of human life, most of which is “historyless.”
All that philosophical study of history can attempt is a “comparative morphology of cultures”—an inquiry into the typical form of their life, their rhythms, and possibly their laws—aimed at giving categories and an interpretative framework to empirical historiography. In outline at least, this is the aim of Spengler’s two massive volumes.
But what exactly are the cultures that provide subject matter for the morphological approach to history? In view of the common complaint that Spengler “biologizes” history, it should be noted that he represents cultures as spiritual phenomena, although rooted in a definite “natural landscape.”
A culture is the spiritual orientation of a group of people who have achieved some unitary conception of their world that informs all their activities—their art, religion, and philosophy, their politics and economics, even their warfare—and which is expressible in a distinctive concept of the space in which they are to live and act. This concept of space functions as the culture’s “prime symbol” and is the key to the understanding of its history.
The concept shows itself equally in such things as the circumscribed political life of the city-state and the practice of burning rather than burying the dead, as if the idea of eternity could not be squarely faced. By contrast, modern Western man conceives of himself as living in a space of boundless extent, his whole culture expressing a Faustian urge to reach out and fill it with his activity.
Thus, the spires of Gothic cathedrals soar skyward, Western painting develops distant perspectives, music produces the expansive form of the fugue. Also typically Faustian are long-distance sailing and longrange weapons, the conquest of space by telephone, and the insatiable ambitions of Western statesmen (for whom, like Cecil Rhodes, “expansion is everything”).
Other cultures each have their characteristic space concept. The ancient Egyptians saw their world in one dimension, and their architecture, which assumed the basic form of a corridor enclosed in masonry, expressed the notion of “moving down a narrow and inexorably prescribed life-path.”
The Russians, whom Spengler classifies as non-Western, have a “flat plane” culture, which, when free to do so, expresses itself in low-lying buildings and an ethics of undiscriminating brotherhood. The Arabian culture of the Middle East, which Spengler calls Magian, views the world mysteriously, as a cavern in which “light … battles against the darkness.”
Its architecture is consequently interior-oriented; its religion, magical and dualistic. Altogether, Spengler claims to identify nine (possibly ten) such cultures, which have emerged at various times from “the proto-spirituality of everchildish humanity.” But he does not rule out the possibility of others being discovered.
Spengler’s concept of human cultures has some affinity with G. W. F. Hegel’s concept of the state. Both envisage an organic unity of human attitudes and activities that express a definite form of the human spirit.
Spengler never wrote the promised metaphysical work that might have made clearer the general status of “spirit” in his philosophy of history. But his concept of it certainly differs from Hegel’s, for he denies that the spirituality of successive historical units taken together reveals the developing nature of spirit itself.
The units have no rational connection with one another, Spengler maintains, denying categorically that one culture can ever really understand, learn from, or (strictly speaking) be influenced by another. The divergence of his approach from Hegel’s is even greater in his account of the typical career of a culture.
|G. W. F. Hegel|
Whereas Hegel attempted to represent not only the succession of historical units, but also the succession of stages within each unit, as a rationally (that is, dialectically) ordered sequence, Spengler finds, instead, a pattern analogous to the life cycle of a plant or animal. Like biological organisms, cultures grow old. The qualitative changes that accompany the “aging” will be as apparent, to a historian possessing “physiognomic tact,” as is a culture’s original orientation.
Spengler often speaks of the aging of cultures in terms of the succession of the four seasons. They have their spring in an early heroic period when life is rural, agricultural, and feudal. In the Apollinian culture this was the Homeric period; in the Faustian it was the high Middle Ages.
This is a time of seminal myths, of inspiring epic and saga, and of powerful mystical religion. With summer comes the rise of towns not yet alienated from the countryside, an aristocracy of manners growing up beside an older, lustier leadership, and great individual artists succeeding their anonymous predecessors.
In the Apollinian culture this was the period of the early city-states; in the Faustian it was the time of the Renaissance, of William Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and of the Galilean triumphs of the uncorrupted intellect.
Autumn witnesses the full ripening of the culture’s spiritual resources and the first hints of possible exhaustion; it is a time of growing cities, spreading commerce, and centralizing monarchies, with religion being challenged by philosophy and tradition undermined by “enlightenment.”
In the classical world this was the age of the Sophists, of Socrates and Plato; in the West it was the eighteenth century, which reached the apogee of creative maturity in the music of Mozart, the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Transition to winter is characterized by the appearance of the megalopolis, the world city, with its rootless proletariat, plutocracy, esoteric art, and growing skepticism and materialism.
It is an age, furthermore, of imperialism, of increasing political tyranny, and of almost constant warfare, as political adventurers skirmish for world empire. In general, culture loses its soul and hardens into mere “civilization,” the highest works of which are feats of administration and the application of science to industry.
Faustian culture is, according to Spengler, currently well into its autumn period, at a point roughly equivalent to 200 BCE in the Apollinian culture. An early sign of our advanced cultural age is the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is morphologically contemporary with Alexander the Great; our Julius Caesar is yet to come. The moral is plain.
We are civilized, not Gothic or Rococo, people; we have to reckon with the hard cold facts of late life, to which the parallel is to be found not in Pericles’ Athens but in Caesar’s Rome. Of great painting or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question.... Only extensive possibilities are open to them.
|Johann Wolfgang von Goethe|
Young Faustians who wish to play a significant role in the gathering winter should, in other words, either join the army or enroll in a technological institute. Spengler hopes that enough of his countrymen will heed his advice to ensure that the Faustian equivalent of the Roman Empire will be German.
CULTURAL CYCLE AND DETERMINISM. Clearly, Spengler regards comparative morphology as a basis for predicting the future of a culture, given the stage it has reached. Spengler, in fact, represents his study as the first serious attempt to “predetermine history,” and he offers comparative charts in support of his claim that the life cycle of a culture takes about one thousand years to work itself through.
It is nevertheless misleading to call Spengler’s account of history deterministic without qualification. Unlike Toynbee’s, for example, it offers no explanation of the origin of cultures; the sudden rise of a new “world experience” is left a cosmic mystery. Nor do Spengler’s cultures disappear on schedule after reaching the stage of civilization; civilizations may last indefinitely, as the examples of India and China show.
Even while alive, the working out of a culture’s “destiny” leaves open many alternative possibilities; the themes, Spengler says, are given, but not the modulations, which “depend on the character and capacities of individual players.”
Thus, Germany was bound to be united in the nineteenth century; how it would be united depended on what Frederick William IV would do in 1848 and Otto von Bismarck in 1870. Spengler’s historical “laws” are thus not envisaged as determining, but only as limiting, the actions of individuals. This is part of the rationale of his political activism.
The notion, furthermore, of a developing culture’s being a self-determining system is qualified by Spengler’s recognition of two ways in which its normal development may be frustrated.
|Otto von Bismarck|
Thus, he claims that the Mexican culture had perished through external assault, “like a sunflower whose head is struck off by one passing.” Spengler also concedes that a culture can sustain spiritual damage from too close proximity to a stronger one, resulting in what he calls pseudomorphosis.
What originally led him to elaborate this idea was the confused development of the Magian culture, which came to life on the ground of the Apollinian before the older culture had passed away. In such cases, Spengler observes, the younger culture “cannot get its breath, and fails not only to achieve pure and specific expression-forms, but even to develop fully its own self-consciousness.”
The Russian culture—which, according to Spengler, was “prematurely born”—has similarly been deformed by intrusions of the Faustian culture, first in the “reforms” of Peter the Great and again in the Bolshevik Revolution. Since weaker cultures take on only certain outer forms of dominant ones, however, Spengler would deny that the doctrine of pseudomorphosis contradicts his claim that one culture never really influences another.
Difficulties in Spengler’s Theory
Like all large synoptic systems, Spengler’s theory of history has been criticized for rearing its speculative superstructure on too shaky an empirical foundation. Even Toynbee has not escaped this charge, and in breadth of historical knowledge (if not always in perceptiveness) Spengler is vastly the inferior of the two. His knowledge of his cultures is much more uneven; all he really knows well is the Apollinian and Faustian.
More important, what he does say at the detailed level all too often gives the appearance of special pleading. In some cases his morphological judgments are just a bit too ingenious to be convincing, as when he declares that Rembrandt’s brown is the color of Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets.
In other cases dubious value judgments seem to be traceable chiefly to the requirements of the overarching thesis, as when the Roman Empire, being a winter phenomenon, is represented as culturally sterile, in spite of Vergil, Horace, and Ovid.
|Ludwig van Beethoven|
In still other cases critics have suspected Spengler, if not of falsifying, then at least of suppressing, known historical facts, as when he claims that classical man, by contrast with Magian man, was polytheistic, ignoring the almost uniform monotheism of the great Greek philosophers.
Highhanded treatment of the details is made easier by the fact that what passes for empirical verification in Spengler’s work is really only casual exemplification of his general ideas; he makes no attempt to test systematically, and possibly to falsify, a precisely articulated hypothesis about cultural development.
And when the details become intransigent, much can be explained away as pseudomorphosis. Thus, highrise buildings in Russia are called Western-inspired, and Hadrian’s Pantheon (the “first mosque”) is labeled an irruption of the Magian.
Even if Spengler’s actual procedure were scientifically more acceptable, there would remain the basic weakness of any attempt to generalize about the whole of history from a mere eight to ten instances of cultural development, two of which are conceded in any case to be abnormal.
Spengler’s defenders, of course, have often denied the relevance of this sort of criticism. What he attempted, they claim, was not social science, not even philosophy of history in the sense of arguing to general conclusions from philosophical premises in the manner of Kant and Hegel.
It was, rather, a vision of events, whose truth is the truth of poetry. From this standpoint Spengler’s charts and tables are an unfortunate lapse that should not be taken too seriously; part of the value of his work lies in its imaginative imprecision.
|Kant and Hegel|
Certainly, Spengler himself declared that whereas nature should be studied scientifically, history should be studied poetically. As a defense against the empirical objection, however, this will not do. For poetry is not predictive.
Spengler’s theory is distinctive in insisting that the significant features of history are those that are focused by the historian’s aesthetic judgment. But classification and simple induction of the sort characteristic of the underdeveloped sciences is as essential to his final conclusions as is aesthetic insight.
The weakness of Spengler’s inductions might not have been so serious had he not been an uncompromising holist as well. He offers no explanation of the changes his cultures undergo; he makes no attempt to isolate the factors that might throw light on their “mechanism” and that might have afforded reasons for expecting such developments to continue.
In fact, part of the function of the puzzling contrast he draws between the “causality” of nature and the “destiny” of history is to persuade us not to look for this sort of thing. Spengler seems to think of causality rather narrowly as a matter of physical interaction.
His own model for historical development is the biological destiny of a seed, its tendency to grow into a plant of a definite kind, barring accidents and in spite of deformations—it being assumed that this is not explicable mechanistically.
It is ironical that although Spengler himself, in elaborating this concept of explanation, claimed to be resisting inappropriate scientific approaches to history, it is precisely because of this approach that some critics have charged him with scientism.
Idealist philosophers of history, for example, have regarded Spengler as a cryptopositivist because, in searching out the life cycle of cultures without trying to understand in detail and from the inside why the human participants acted as they did, he treats what he originally defined spiritualistically as if it were part of nature. The causation of action by human reason, these critics would say, is central to all explanations of historical change. By ignoring this, Spengler’s theory falls into incompatible parts.
Many critics have held that an even more obvious contradiction vitiates much of what Spengler had to say about specifically historical understanding. According to him, the reason cultures never really influence one another is that they are never able to grasp one another’s prime symbol—a doctrine of cultural isolation that Spengler extended even to such apparently recalcitrant subjects as mathematics (to Apollinians and Faustians, he says, number means entirely different things).
But the notion that we can never understand what is culturally alien to us surely raises barriers to the sort of understanding claimed by Spengler himself; comparative morphology presupposes a correct grasp of what is being compared. Spengler tries to meet this difficulty with the ad hoc claim that a few intuitive geniuses may rise above the barrier of cultural relativism.
Yet the fact that he offered his book to the general public surely betrays confidence in a rather wider distribution of transcultural insight than is strictly compatible with the impossibility of cultures’ learning from one another.
Nor is it helpful to suggest that cultures may learn without being influenced, for the reason for denying influence was the impossibility of understanding. The difficulty is compounded by Spengler’s sometimes also denying that we can understand what is culturally “out of phase” with us, even though it belongs to the past of our own culture.
Thus, we are told that although Tacitus knew of the revolution of Tiberius Gracchus two and a half centuries earlier, he no longer found it meaningful. Together, Spengler’s two limitations on the understanding lead to the conclusion that we can understand only ourselves. This is scarcely a promising position from which to develop a theory of historical inquiry.