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Cover of Volume II, first edition, 1922
|Original title||Der Untergang des Abendlandes|
|Translator||Charles Francis Atkinson|
|Subject||Philosophy of history|
|1918 (Vol.I); 1922 (Vol.II)|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
The Decline of the West (German: Der Untergang des Abendlandes), or The Downfall of the Occident, is a two-volume work by Oswald Spengler, the first volume of which was published in the summer of 1918. Spengler revised this volume in 1922 and published the second volume, subtitled Perspectives of World History, in 1923.
Spengler introduces his book as a "Copernican overturning" involving the rejection of the Eurocentric view of history, especially the division of history into the linear "ancient-medieval-modern" rubric. According to Spengler, the meaningful units for history are not epochs but whole cultures which evolve as organisms. He recognizes at least eight high cultures: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican (Mayan/Aztec), Classical (Greek/Roman), Arabian, and Western or European. Cultures have a lifespan of about a thousand years of flourishing, and a thousand years of decline. The final stage of each culture is, in his word use, a "civilization".
Spengler also presents the idea of Muslims, Jews and Christians, as well as their Persian and Semitic forebears, being 'Magian'; Mediterranean cultures of the antiquity such as Ancient Greece and Rome being 'Apollonian'; and the modern Westerners being 'Faustian'.
According to Spengler, the Western world is ending and we are witnessing the last season--"winter time"--of Faustian Civilization. In Spengler's depiction, Western Man is a proud but tragic figure because, while he strives and creates, he secretly knows the actual goal will never be reached.
Spengler relates that he conceived the book sometime in 1911 and spent three years to finish the first draft. At the start of World War I, he began revising it and completed the first volume in 1917. It was published the following year when Spengler was 38 and was his first work, apart from his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus. The second volume was published in 1922. The first volume is subtitled Form and Actuality; the second volume is Perspectives of World-history. Spengler's own view of the aims and intentions of the work are sketched in the Prefaces and occasionally at other places.[clarification needed]
The book received unfavorable reviews from most interested scholars even before the release of the second volume. Spengler veered toward right-wing views in the second volume, and the stream of criticisms continued for decades. Nevertheless, in Germany the book enjoyed popular success: by 1926 some 100,000 copies were sold.
A 1928 Time review of the second volume of Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler's ideas enjoyed in the 1920s: "When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so."
Spengler's world-historical outlook was informed by many philosophers, including Goethe and to some degree Nietzsche. He would later further explain the significance of these two German philosophers and their influence on his worldview in his lecture Nietzsche and His Century. His analytical approach is "Analogy. By these means we are enabled to distinguish polarity and periodicity in the world."
Morphology is a key part of Spengler's philosophy of history, using a methodology which approached history and historical comparisons on the basis of civilizational forms and structure, without regard to function.
In a footnote, Spengler describes the essential core of his philosophical approach toward history, culture, and civilization:
Plato and Goethe stand for the philosophy of Becoming, Aristotle and Kant the philosophy of Being... Goethe's notes and verse... must be regarded as the expression of a perfectly definite metaphysical doctrine. I would not have a single word changed of this: "The Godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and therefore, similarly, the reason is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and the understanding only to make use of the become and the set-fast.(Letter to Eckermann)" This sentence comprises my entire philosophy.
Scholars now agree that the word "decline" more accurately renders the intended meaning of Spengler's original German word "Untergang" (often translated as the more emphatic "downfall"; "Unter" being "under" and "gang" being "going", it is also accurately rendered in English as the "going under" of the West). Spengler explained that he did not mean to describe a catastrophic occurrence, but rather a protracted fall—a twilight or sunset (Sonnenuntergang is German for sunset, and Abendland, his word for the West, literally means the "evening land"). Writing in 1921 Spengler observed that he might have used in his title the word Vollendung (which means 'fulfillment' or 'consummation') and saved a great deal of misunderstanding. Nevertheless, "Untergang" can be interpreted in both ways, and after World War II, some critics and scholars chose to read it in the cataclysmic sense.
Spengler invests certain terms with unusual meanings not commonly encountered in everyday discourse.
Spengler uses the two terms in a specific manner, loading them with particular values. For him, Civilization is what a Culture becomes once its creative impulses wane and become overwhelmed by critical impulses. Culture is the becoming, Civilization is the thing become. Rousseau, Socrates, and Buddha each mark the point where their Cultures transformed into Civilization. They each buried centuries of spiritual depth by presenting the world in rational terms—the intellect comes to rule once the soul has abdicated.
Culture and Civilization is focused around Ancient Greece and Rome. Spengler saw its world view as being characterized by appreciation for the beauty of the human body, and a preference for the local and the present moment. The Apollonian world sense is ahistorical, it is why Herodotus claimed in his Histories that nothing of importance had happened before him. Spengler claims that the Classical Culture did not feel the same anxiety as the Faustian when confronted with an undocumented event.
"The Classical Soul denies Space and therefore needs no middleman for dealings with it, and so the Classical priesthood disappears in its very beginnings", Decline of the West Vol 2, pg. 341
Culture and Civilization includes the Jews from about 400 BC, early Christians and various Arabian religions up to and including Islam. Its world feeling revolved around the concept of world as cavern, epitomized by the domed Mosque, and a preoccupation with essence. Spengler saw the development of this Culture as being distorted by a too influential presence of older Civilizations, the initial vigorous expansionary impulses of Islam being in part a reaction against this.[clarification needed]
Culture began in Western Europe around the 10th century and according to Spengler such has been its expansionary power that by the 20th century it was covering the entire earth, with only a few Regions where Islam provides an alternative world view. The world feeling of Faustian Culture is inspired by the concept of infinitely wide and profound space, the yearning towards distance and infinity.[clarification needed] Faustian is a reference to Goethe's Faust (Goethe produced a massive effect on Spengler) in which an dissatisfied Intellectual is willing to make a pact with the Devil in return for unlimited knowledge. Spengler believed that this represents the Western Mans limitless metaphysic, his unrestricted thirst for knowledge, and his constant confrontation with the Infinite.
The concept of pseudomorphosis is one that Spengler borrows from mineralogy and a concept that he introduces as a way of explaining what are in his eyes half-developed or only partially manifested Cultures. Specifically pseudomorphosis entails an older Culture or Civilization so deeply ingrained in a land that a young Culture cannot find its own form and full expression of itself. This leads to the young soul being cast in the old molds, in Spengler's words. Young feelings then stiffen in senile practices, and instead of expanding creatively, it fosters hate toward the other older Culture.
Spengler believes that the Magian pseudomorphosis began with the Battle of Actium. Here the gestating Arabian Culture lost to the Classical Civilization. He asserts that it should have been Mark Antony who won. The battle was not the struggle of Rome and Greece--that struggle had been fought out at Cannae and Zama, where it was Hannibal who stood as champion for Hellenism. Antony's victory would have freed the Magian Culture, but his defeat imposed Roman Civilization on it.
In Russia, Spengler sees a young, undeveloped Culture laboring under the Faustian (Petrine) form. Peter the Great distorted the tsarism of Russia to the dynastic form of Western Europe. The burning of Moscow, as Napoleon was set to invade, he sees as a primitive expression of hatred toward the foreigner. This was soon followed by the entry of Alexander I into Paris, the Holy Alliance and the Concert of Europe. Here Russia was forced into an artificial history before its culture was ready or capable of understanding its burden. This would result in a hatred toward Europe, a hatred which Spengler argues poisoned the womb of emerging new Culture in Russia. While he does not name the Culture, he claims that Tolstoy is its past and Dostoyevsky is its future.
For Spengler becoming is the basic element and being is static and secondary, not the other way around. He advises that his philosophy in a nutshell is contained in these lines from Goethe: "the God-head is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and therefore, similarly the intuition is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and logic only to make use of the become and the set-fast".
Spengler sees blood as the only power strong enough to overthrow money, currently the dominant power of our age. Blood is commonly understood to mean race-feeling, and this is partially true but misleading. Spengler's idea of race has nothing to do with ethnic identity, indeed he was hostile to racists in that sense. The book talks about a population becoming a race when it is united in outlook. Possibly diverse ethnic origins are not a concern. Crucially, Spengler talks about the final struggle with money also being a battle between capitalism and socialism, but again socialism in a special sense: "the will to call into life a mighty politico-economic order that transcends all class interests, a system of lofty thoughtfulness and duty sense." He also writes "A power can be overthrown only by another power, not by a principle, and only one power that can confront money is left. Money is overthrown and abolished by blood. Life is alpha and omega ... It is the fact of facts ... Before the irresistible rhythm on the generation-sequence, everything built up by the waking-consciousness in its intellectual world vanishes at the last." Therefore, if we wanted to replace blood by a single word it would be more correct to use "life-force" rather than "race-feeling".
Spengler lists eight Hochkulturen or "High Cultures" that have existed:
The "Decline" is largely concerned with comparisons of the Classical and Western Cultures (This largely arises out of the Juxtaposition of the Classical Ahistorical , but some examples are taken from the Arabian, Chinese, and Egyptian Cultures. Each Culture arises within a specific geographical area and is defined by its internal coherence of style in terms of art, religious behavior and psychological perspective. Central to each Culture is its conception of space which is expressed by an "Ursymbol". Although not amenable to a strictly logical examination, Spengler's idea of Culture is, he claims, justifiable through the existence of recurrent patterns of development and decline across the thousand years of each Culture's active lifetime.
Spengler does not classify the Southeast Asian and Peruvian (Incan, etc.) cultures as Hochkulturen. He thinks Russia is, while still defining itself, bringing into being a Hochkultur. The Indus Valley Civilization had not been discovered at the time he was writing, and its relationship with later Indian civilization remained unclear for some time.
Spengler distinguishes between ahistorical peoples and peoples caught up in world history. While recognizing that all people are a part of history, he argues that only certain Cultures imbue a wider sense of historical involvement. Thus some people see themselves as part of a grand historical design or tradition, while others view themselves in a self-contained manner. For the latter, there is no world-historical consciousness.
For Spengler, a world-historical view points to the meaning of history itself, by breaking the historian or observer out of his crude culturally parochial classifications of history. By learning about different courses taken by other civilizations, one can better understand his own culture and identity. Those who still maintain a historical view of the world are the very same who continue to "make" history. Spengler asserts that life and humankind as a whole have an ultimate aim. However, he maintains a distinction between world-historical peoples, and ahistorical peoples—the former will have a historical destiny as part of a High Culture, while the latter will have a merely zoological fate. World-historical man's destiny is self-fulfillment as a part of his Culture. Further, Spengler asserts that not only is pre-cultural man without history, he loses his historical weight as his Culture becomes exhausted and becomes a more and more defined Civilization.
For example, Spengler classifies Classical and Indian civilizations as ahistorical, whereas the Egyptian and Western civilizations developed conceptions of historical time. He sees all Cultures as necessarily placed on equal footing in the study of world-historical development. From this idea flows a kind of historical relativism or dispensationalism. Historical data, in Spengler's mind, are an expression of their historical time, contingent upon and relative to that context. Thus, the insights of one era are not unshakable or valid in another time or Culture—"there are no eternal truths." Each individual has a duty to look beyond one's own Culture to see what individuals of other Cultures have with equal certainty created for themselves. What is significant is not whether the past thinkers' insights are relevant today, but whether they were exceptionally relevant to the great facts of their own time.
Spengler adopts an organic conception of Culture. Primitive Culture is simply a collection, or sum, of its constituent and incoherent parts (individuals, tribes, clans, etc.). Higher Culture, in its maturity and coherence, becomes an organism in its own right, according to Spengler. The Culture is capable of sublimating the various customs, myths, techniques, arts, peoples, and classes into a single strong undiffused historical tendency.
Spengler divides the concepts of Culture and Civilization, the former focused inward and growing, the latter outward and merely expanding. However, he sees Civilization as the destiny of every Culture. The transition is not a matter of choice—it is not the conscious will of individuals, classes, or peoples that decides. Whereas Cultures are "things-becoming", Civilizations are the "thing-become". As the conclusion of a Culture's arc of growth, Civilizations are outwardly focused, and in that sense artificial or insincere. Civilizations are what Cultures become when they are no longer creative and growing. For example, Spengler points to the Greeks and Romans, saying that the imaginative Greek Culture declined into wholly practical Roman Civilization.
Spengler also compares the "world-city" and -province as concepts analogous to Civilization and Culture respectively. This argument has elements of Marxist conceptions of a core and periphery.[original research?] The city draws upon and collects the life of broad surrounding regions. He contrasts the "true-type" rural born, with the nomadic, traditionless, irreligious, matter-of-fact, clever, unfruitful, and contemptuous-of-the-countryman city dweller. In the cities he sees only the "mob", not a people, hostile to the traditions that represent Culture (in Spengler's view these traditions are: nobility, church, privileges, dynasties, convention in art, and limits on scientific knowledge). City dwellers possess cold intelligence that confounds peasant wisdom, a new-fashioned naturalism in attitudes towards sex which are a return to primitive instincts, and a dying inner religiousness. Further, Spengler sees in urban wage disputes and a focus on lavish sport expenditures for entertainment the final aspects that signal the closing of Culture and the rise of the Civilization.
Spengler has a low opinion of Civilizations, even those that engaged in significant expansion, because that expansion was not actual growth. One of his principal examples is that of Roman "world domination". It was not an achievement because the Romans faced no significant resistance to their expansion. Thus they did not so much conquer their empire, but rather simply took possession of that which lay open to everyone. Spengler asserts that the Roman Empire did not come into existence because of the kind of Cultural energy that they had displayed in the Punic Wars. After the Battle of Zama, Spengler believes that the Romans never waged, or even were capable of waging, a war against a competing great military power.
A race, writes Spengler, has "roots", like a plant. It is connected to a landscape. "If, in that home, the race cannot be found, this means the race has ceased to exist. A race does not migrate. Men migrate, and their successive generations are born in ever-changing landscapes; but the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old and the appearance of the new one." In this instance, he writes of "race" in the tribal and cultural rather than the biological sense, a 19th-century use of the word still common when Spengler wrote.
For this reason, a race is not exactly like a plant:
Science has completely failed to note that race is not the same for rooted plants as it is for mobile animals, that with the micro-cosmic side of life a fresh group of characteristics appear and that for the animal world it is decisive. Nor again has it perceived that a completely different significance must be attached to 'races' when the word denotes subdivisions within the integral race "Man." With its talk of casual concentration it sets up a soulless concentration of superficial characters, and blots out the fact that here the blood and there the power of the land over the blood are expressing themselves—secrets that cannot be inspected and measured, but only livingly experienced from eye to eye. Nor are scientists at one as to the relative rank of these superficial characters...
Spengler writes that,
"Comradeship breeds races... Where a race-ideal exists, as it does, supremely, in the Early period of a culture... the yearning of a ruling class towards this ideal, its will to be just so and not otherwise, operates (quite independently of the choosing of wives) towards actualizing this idea and eventually achieves it."
He distinguishes this from the sort of pseudo-anthropological notions commonly held when the book was written, and he dismisses the idea of "an Aryan skull and a Semitic skull". He also does not believe language is itself sufficient to breed races, and that "the mother tongue" signifies "deep ethical forces" in Late Civilizations rather than Early Cultures, when a race is still developing the language that fits its "race-ideal".
Closely connected to race, Spengler defines a "people" as a unit of the soul. "The great events of history were not really achieved by peoples; they themselves created the peoples. Every act alters the soul of the doer." Such events include migrations and wars. For example, the American people did not migrate from Europe, but were formed by events such as the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War. "Neither unity of speech nor physical descent is decisive." What distinguishes a people from a population is "the inwardly lived experience of 'we'", which exists so long as a people's soul lasts. "The name Roman in Hannibal's day meant a people, in Trajan's time nothing more than a population." In Spengler's view: "Peoples are neither linguistic nor political nor zoological, but spiritual units."
Spengler disliked the contemporary trend of fusing a definition of race similar to his with the biological definition. "Of course, it is quite often justifiable to align peoples with races, but 'race' in this connexion must not be interpreted in the present-day Darwinian sense of the word. It cannot be accepted, surely, that a people were ever held together by the mere unity of physical origin, or, if it were, could maintain that unity for ten generations. It cannot be too often reiterated that this physiological provenance has no existence except for science--never for folk-consciousness--and that no people was ever stirred to enthusiasm by this ideal of blood purity. In race (Rasse haben) there is nothing material but something cosmic and directional, the felt harmony of a Destiny, the single cadence of the march of historical Being. It is the incoordination of this (wholly metaphysical) beat which produces race hatred... and it is resonance on this beat that makes the true love--so akin to hate--between man and wife."
To Spengler, peoples are formed from early prototypes during the Early phase of a Culture. "Out of the people-shapes of the Carolingian Empire--the Saxons, Swabians, Franks, Visigoths, Lombards--arise suddenly the Germans, the French, the Spaniards, the Italians." These peoples are products of the spiritual "race" of the great Cultures, and "people under a spell of a Culture are its products and not its authors. These shapes in which humanity is seized and moulded possess style and style-history no less than kinds of art or mode of thought. The people of Athens is a symbol not less than the Doric temple, the Englishman not less than modern physics. There are peoples of Apollinian, Magian, and Faustian cast... World history is the history of the great Cultures, and peoples are but the symbolic forms and vessels in which the men of these Cultures fulfill their Destinies."
In attempts to tie race and culture together, Spengler echoes ideas[clarification needed] similar to those of Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellén. These ideas, which figure prominently in the second volume of the book, were common throughout German culture at the time, and would be the most significant elements for the National Socialists.
In his later works, such as Man and Technics (1931) and The Hour of Decision (1933), Spengler expanded upon his "spiritual" theory of race and tied it to his metaphysical notion of eternal war and his belief that "Man is a beast of prey". The authorities however banned the book.
Spengler differentiates between manifestations of religion that appear within a Civilization's developmental cycle. He sees each Culture as having an initial religious identity. This Religious concept arises out of the fundamental principle of the culture. Religions follow a trajectory that correlate with the trajectory of the Culture. The Religion eventually results in a reformation-like period, after the Culture-Ideal has reached its peak and fulfillment. Spengler views a reformation as representative of a declining factory. The reformation is followed by a period of rationalism, and finally entering a period of second religiousness that correlates with decline. Intellectual creativeness of a Culture's Late period begins after the reformation, usually ushering in new freedoms in science.
The scientific stage associated with post-reformation Puritanism contains the fundamentals of Rationalism. Eventually rationalism spreads throughout the Culture and becomes the dominant school of thought. To Spengler, Culture is synonymous with religious creativeness. Every great Culture begins with a religious trend that arises in the countryside, is carried through to the cultural cities, and ends in materialism in the world-cities.
Spengler described the process by which Enlightenment rationalism undermines and destroys itself, passing from unlimited optimism to unqualified skepticism. The Cartesian self-centered rationalism leads to schools of thought that do not cognize outside of their own constructed worlds, ignoring actual every-day life experience. It applies criticism to its own artificial world until it exhausts itself in meaninglessness. In reaction to the educated elites, the masses give rise to the Second Religiousness, which manifests as deeply suspicious of academia and science.
The Second Religiousness appears as a harbinger of the decline of mature Civilization into an ahistorical state. The Second Religiousness occurs concurrently with Caesarism, the final political constitution of Late Civilization. Caesarism is the rise of an authoritarian ruler, a new 'emperor' akin to Caesar or Augustus, taking the reins in reaction to a decline in creativity, ideology and energy after a culture has reached its high point and become a civilization. Both the Second Religiousness and Caesarism demonstrate the lack of youthful strength or creativity that the Early Culture once possessed. The Second Religiousness is simply a rehashing of the original religious trend of the Culture.
Spengler asserts that democracy is simply the political weapon of money, and the media are the means through which money operates a democratic political system.[clarification needed] The thorough penetration of money's power throughout a society is yet another marker of the shift from Culture to Civilization.
Democracy and plutocracy are equivalent in Spengler's argument. The "tragic comedy of the world-improvers and freedom-teachers" is that they are simply assisting money to be more effective. The principles of equality, natural rights, universal suffrage, and freedom of the press are all disguises for class war (the bourgeois against the aristocracy). Freedom, to Spengler, is a negative concept, simply entailing the repudiation of any tradition. In reality, freedom of the press requires money, and entails ownership, thus serving money at the end. Suffrage involves electioneering, in which the donations rule the day. The ideologies espoused by candidates, whether Socialism or Liberalism, are set in motion by, and ultimately serve, only money. "Free" press does not spread free opinion—it generates opinion, Spengler maintains.
Spengler admits that in his era money has already won, in the form of democracy. But in destroying the old elements of the Culture, it prepares the way for the rise of a new and overpowering figure: the Caesar. Before such a leader, money collapses, and in the Imperial Age the politics of money fades away.[clarification needed]
Spengler's analysis of democratic systems argues that even the use of one's own constitutional rights requires money, and that voting can only really work as designed in the absence of organized leadership working on the election process. As soon as the election process becomes organized by political leaders, to the extent that money allows, the vote ceases to be truly significant. It is no more than a recorded opinion of the masses on the organizations of government over which they possess no positive influence whatsoever.
Spengler notes that the greater the concentration of wealth in individuals, the more the fight for political power revolves around questions of money. One cannot even call this corruption or degeneracy, because this is in fact the necessary end of mature democratic systems.
On the subject of the press, Spengler is equally contemptuous. Instead of conversations between men, the press and the "electrical news-service keep the waking-consciousness of whole people and continents under a deafening drum-fire of theses, catchwords, standpoints, scenes, feelings, day by day and year by year." Through the media, money is turned into force—the more spent, the more intense its influence.
For the press to function, universal education is necessary. Along with schooling comes a demand for the shepherding of the masses, as an object of party politics. Those that originally believed education to be solely for the enlightenment of each individual prepared the way for the power of the press, and eventually for the rise of the Caesar. There is no longer a need for leaders to impose military service, because the press will stir the public into a frenzy, clamor for weapons, and force their leaders into a conflict.
The only force which can counter money, in Spengler's estimation, is blood. As for Marx, his critique of capitalism is put forth in the same language and on the same assumptions as those of Adam Smith. His protest is more a recognition of capitalism's veracity, than a refutation. The only aim is to "confer upon objects the advantage of being subjects."
In 1950, Theodor W. Adorno published an essay entitled "Spengler after the Downfall" (in German: Spengler nach dem Untergang) to commemorate what would have been Spengler's 70th birthday. Adorno reassessed Spengler's thesis three decades after it had been put forth, in light of the catastrophic destruction of Nazi Germany (although Spengler had not meant "Untergang" in a cataclysmic sense, this was how most authors after WWII interpreted it).
As a member of the Frankfurt School of Marxist critical theory, Adorno's professed project in this essay was to "turn (Spengler's) reactionary ideas toward progressive ends." Thus Adorno conceded that Spengler's insights were often more profound than those of his more liberal contemporaries, and his predictions more far-reaching. Adorno sees the rise of the Nazis as confirmation of Spengler's ideas about "Caesarism" and the triumph of force-politics over the market. Adorno also draws parallels between Spengler's critique of Enlightenment and his own analysis of Enlightenment's self-destructive tendencies. However, Adorno also criticizes Spengler for an overly deterministic view of history, ignoring the unpredictable role that human initiative plays at all times. He quotes the contemporary Austrian poet Georg Trakl: "How sickly seem everything that grows" (from the poem "Heiterer Frühling") to illustrate that decay contains new opportunities for renewal. Adorno also criticizes Spengler's use of language, which overly relies on fetishistic terms like "Soul", "Blood" and "Destiny."