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Oswald Spengler: Pessimism’s Prophet

Perhaps this disciple of Nietzsche can teach us a bit of the right sort of pessimism.

Everyone instinctively knows which parts of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work must be played down or rendered harmless—and there are many. The results went on display a while back in the Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, or as I like to call it, Honey I Shrunk Zarathustra! Even that “God is dead” business, which was none too scandalous in 1882, is now teachable only with a nervous eye on the frowners in class. (He only said “God,” kids, he said nothing about Allah!) The man himself would not have been surprised by the turn things have taken. If he were still up in the Alps, he would be nodding grimly down at the many atheists, feminists, and homosexuals who welcome the growing presence of a religion that reviles them. This was what Nietzsche meant by decadence: a readiness to act against one’s own obvious interests. But we may now use that word only with a smile, when the dessert comes out.

Harder to render campus-friendly is Nietzsche’s more straightforward disciple Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), who was buried with a copy of Zarathustra. The good news is that he refused to serve the Nazis. The bad news? They were too left-wing for his liking. That’s not quite as awful as it sounds. As far as he was concerned, all ideologies catering to the human herd, from communism and Hitlerism to liberal democracy, were on the left and beneath contempt. What he wanted was a German Caesar and a meritocratic elite of true individuals with—to quote a Nietzschean pop song—no time for losers. This still makes him a fascist in the catch-all sense now current.

If there were no more to Spengler than that, he would be discussed more often, if only in mocking terms. Awkwardly enough, however, he was an early espouser of many views that now count as progressive. He rejected the West-centric view of world history, believed that animals, in their own way, were as intelligent as humans, and asserted that deforestation had already set devastating climate change in motion. To Orwell and his ilk, that was “candles-and-sandals” stuff. Spengler also warned against off-shoring and the importation of Gastarbeiter at a time when most conservatives saw only the economic advantages. Everywhere around him he saw the decadence of which Nietzsche had spoken.   

No wonder that despite a minor revival in Europe, this prescient Kulturpessimist remains obscure—by which I mean that it is still considered acceptable to dismiss his work without reading it. References to his alleged fatness and ugliness abound. Some detractors go so far as to crow over the self-loathing remarks in his diary, a low thing to do even to a dead man.

It comes as a nice surprise, therefore, to see that Arktos, a European publishing house, has brought out a new English translation of Spengler’s Man and Technics. Too thin to justify a book on its own, the essay comes with a preface by Lars Holger Holm—a profound understander of the philosopher’s life-work—that makes the paperback a very good value. I only hope this does not become anyone’s introduction to someone whose ideas should be read in chronological order. Newcomers would do better to plunge right into The Decline of the West (1918–1922), which doesn’t feel as long as it looks.

In that work the world’s great cultures are described as tree-like organisms, each animated with its own soul, yet destined to run through a cycle of growth and senescence before dying out altogether. People and  works of art from very different times can therefore be seen as mutually “contemporary” if they are in the same stage. The correspondences Spengler found between ages and continents—between Minoan art and American architecture, say—make the book entertaining and informative even in small doses. Of course, it was the declines and falls that interested him most. Like other great cultures before it, the West, as he saw it, had passed the peak of its creativity and fertility and entered the final stage of mere civilization, thus making it the Abendland, or “land of the setting sun,” in more ways than one.

No section of the book communicates a sense of the method and message of the whole quite like “The Soul of the City,” the highlight of the second volume. An excerpt:

Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies. … Primitive folk can loosen themselves from the soil and wander, but the intellectual nomad never. … Home is for him any one of these giant cities, but even the nearest village is alien territory. … Even disgust at this pretentiousness, weariness of the thousand-hued glitter, the taedium vitae that in the end overcomes many, does not set them free. They take the City with them into the mountains or on the sea. They have lost the country within themselves and will never regain it outside.

I needn’t point out why this is more obviously true than it was a hundred years ago, when it must have struck many people as overwrought. But one can disagree with Spengler and still marvel at the great verve and lyricism of his prose. Thomas Mann called The Decline of the West the greatest literary work of its era. Our own Henry Miller, of all people, was just as impressed.

But Spengler knew the book owed its great commercial success to that eminently discussable title, which was about all the average reader got to the end of. (The obvious parallel is to the little-read blockbusters of our own time, both of which reflect Spengler’s influence: Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History.)

Published in Munich in 1931, Man and Technics was conceived to provide a more concise and easy explanation of one strain of his thought. The English title is therefore unfortunate, the word technics being neither clear nor in common use. Technik should have been rendered throughout as technique instead. The whole point is that this is something in the soul, not a tool or technology.

The format is too short and tight to allow Spengler’s lyricism to unfold. The uncharacteristically flat prose throws the questionability of some of his cocksure assertions into sharp relief. One starts to see why he drove specialists in all fields up the wall. As far from Dickensian as the essay may be, reading the first half is like trying to get through Our Mutual Friend; admiration alternates so often with embarrassment that a kind of dizziness results. I did like the funny if seriously-meant line about how “the Neanderthal type” can be observed “in any public gathering.” Now there’s an example of dilettante intuition beating science to the punch, much like the reference to climate change later on. And whether valid or not, an attempted distinction between the mere activity of animals and the deeds of human beings is at least as profound as the similar points made, with more mumbo-jumbo, by Martin Heidegger. (The Nazi’s superior reputation suggests that Spengler is scorned more for his lucidity than anything else.)

Also persuasive is the proposition that Homo sapiens was something other than truly human until he developed hands adroit enough to use tools. This does not make the claim that we are the only “clever-handed” animals any more tenable. Jane Goodall put paid to all such talk in 1960. I assume zoologists would also reject Spengler’s assertion that nonhuman techniques for getting food or fighting are mere hard-wired instincts, timelessly common to entire genera. We need only think of seagulls getting cars to shell their oysters.

The essay livens up when it moves into recorded history. Our school textbooks are wrong, Spengler says, to present the steam engine as a mind-changing watershed, a radical modernization of our culture. Proceeding from a proper focus on the soul, we must grasp all such inventions as reflections of our culture’s characteristically “Faustian” urge to enslave nature. The problem, he goes on to assert, is that the machine has ended up enslaving us. There’s no point summarizing the evidence given; the irony will seem boringly familiar to anyone who has seen millennials searching frantically for a wall socket.

thisarticleappearsIn fairness to Spengler, he wrote at a time when H.G. Wells and other opinion-makers argued that technology would make man ever more sovereign, creative, and happy. Most intellectuals were still preaching that line decades into the nuclear arms race. In the early 1960s, C.P. Snow, the sort of person Spengler called a “progress-philistine,” enjoyed overwhelming support in his Two Cultures dispute with the prophetic F.R. Leavis. None of this, alas, is going to make Man and Technics any more interesting to today’s readers. Most of the points in it, including the emphasis on the inevitability of our culture’s demise, are made far more eloquently in Holm’s superb preface—which even on its own, I hasten to add, makes the book worth buying.

Only Spengler’s last few paragraphs surprise the reader, and not in a good way.

Optimism is cowardice.

We are born in this time and must bravely follow the path to the desired end … Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue. To hold on like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who died because they forgot to relieve him when Vesuvius erupted. … This honorable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from Man.

Quite apart from the prose style—a rare lapse in taste—the reference to Vesuvius suggests the snuffing-out of Western culture in an imminent cataclysm, something Spengler did not intend to predict. Nor does it make sense to end an essay on man’s uniqueness by praising someone with all the Technik of a tethered ox.

As for that aphorism in the first line: I prefer Spengler’s reference in Hour of Decision (1934) to his German contemporaries’ “almost criminal optimism,” something now ladled out to us by our own political class. His implication—an optimistic one, in its own way—is that the right kind of pessimism can help somehow, if only in postponing the end. Unfortunately, there’s no point looking to a Caesarist for more guidance than that. Wherever we may be on this downward slope, we’re on our own.

B.R. Myers is the author of North Korea’s Juche Myth.