Oswald Spengler – an intellectual life

Spengler's philosophy represented a startling synthesis of ideas - they have a pressing relevance today.

Oswald Spengler (Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) *29.05.1880-08.05.1936+Wissenschaftler, Philosoph, Geschichtsphilosoph, DPortrait- 1930
Oswald Spengler (Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) *29.05.1880-08.05.1936+Wissenschaftler, Philosoph, Geschichtsphilosoph, DPortrait- 1930 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Oswald Spengler was one of the most profound pessimists of modern times but at a glance, his legacy appears to have collected decades of dust since his early death in 1936. Considered unessential by historians and troublesome by philosophers, he nonetheless exerted an extraordinary influence over many powerful figures throughout the twentieth century. Wittgenstein said he was one of his chief inspirations; the Jungian theorist Joseph Campbell claimed Spengler’s work was his biggest influence; the philosopher Martin Heidegger was profoundly affected by Spengler’s thinking; and former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, wrote favourably about him in his doctoral thesis ‘The Meaning of History’. Kissinger gifted a one-volume edition of Spengler’s The Decline of the West to President Nixon when he served in his administration to ‘emphasise the manifestation of events’. But who was this man whose thought has shaped modern philosophy and the perception of some of our top policy gurus, and what did he believe?

Oswald Spengler was born in the Duchy of Brunswick in 1880 to Protestant parents. His father’s family were traditionally mining engineers and metallurgical inspectors while his mother, Pauline, from whom Spengler received his irascible temperament, hailed from an artistically inclined lineage of ballet dancers and bohemians. Unlike his ancestors, his father worked as a senior postal secretary and severely chastised any hint of intellectualism in his children, a repulsion that must have conditioned the young Spengler to distrust celebrated thinkers later in his life. It was this inherited mixture of two divergent tendencies – engineering and science with bohemianism and the arts – that afforded Spengler a unique intellectual vantage and prepared him to proffer his special perspective to his readers in the future.

After excelling in Greek, Latin, Mathematics and the Sciences at school, he attended the universities of Munich, Berlin and Halle. In 1903, two years after his father’s death, he initially failed to obtain his PhD but managed to pass a year later via an oral equivalent of the examination. He then qualified as a schoolmaster and led a relatively uneventful life teaching in Saarbrucken, Dusseldorf and Hamburg. When his mother died in 1910, he returned to Munich where he lived on his modest inheritance as a private scholar. It is said he owned no books and suffered from great loneliness rather like a latter-day Nietzsche. But, like Nietzsche, these years proved to be formative. It was around this time that he conceived of writing a book that would challenge common preconceptions of history and its meaning. He began work on The Decline of the West in 1911 and completed a first draft in 1914, but due to the war, he had to wait until 1918 for it to be published. Burdened with a weak heart, he was exempted from military service yet this didn’t mean he had an easy time. With much of his inheritance invested abroad, he was forced to persist in a state of serious poverty until the publication of his work.

When it came out, its success made him an instant celebrity and he finally gained the respect and reputation his talents deserved. His explanation of the war as a ‘historical change of phase’ which was ‘preordained for Germany hundreds of years ago’ consoled Germans who were being blamed in the European press for gratuitously starting the greatest military catastrophe of their time. In the early days of the Weimar Republic, he called himself a Socialist, but not a socialist of any obvious orthodoxy. He rejected Marx, whom he saw as the chief critic of the English capitalism he defined as ‘Get rich, so you don’t have to work anymore’. He believed that the true source of German socialism was not Marx so much as Frederick William I. To succinctly explicate his brand of Prussian Socialism he used the phrase ‘Do your duty, work’.

His Prussian subgenre of Socialism naturally appealed to National Socialists and he became an inspirational figure to some early believers of Nazism. His criticism of the Weimar Republic, of Marxism, pacifism and democracy intellectually aided the Nazis in their ideological advancement to the top of German politics, but once they were in power Spengler famously refused to ‘Heil Hitler’ and was thereafter shunned. He occupied his concluding years by collecting thousands of books and exotic primitive weapons, by reading the comedies of Moliere and Shakespeare and listening to the haunting quartets of his hero, Beethoven. He died three weeks before his fifty-sixth birthday of a sudden heart attack on 8th May, exactly nine years before the bloody fall of the Third Reich.

Like Kant, who rarely left his place of birth and was famously not convivial, Spengler lived an externally anodyne existence while his mental interior shone incandescently with original ideas. He worked in an age of Prussian militarism and German nationalism, of extraordinary revelations and dire events, when the tumultuous tide of uncontrollable circumstances invoked an apocalyptic atmosphere. His thinking therefore can be seen as an illuminating response to the blindness of his time. His magnum opus, The Decline of the West, was a rejection of Eurocentric versions of history and a repudiation of traditional structures of scholarship. He deemed the historical phases of ‘classical, medieval and modern’ as inaccurate, random and unhelpful, as a cracked encasement of human activity. He did not want to appraise the past chronologically and solely link cause to effect. He wanted to examine what was common and unique to cultures across the world, what the nature of mass existence is, and how humans see themselves through history, if at all. He called this new approach a ‘Copernican overturning’. For the study of history, it is as seminal a moment as the Newton’s shift in Physics or Descartes’s dramatic declaration of ‘Cogito ergo sum’ in Western Philosophy. This drastic development he hoped would forever transform humanity’s elemental understanding of history. However, his obscurity seems to have precluded his influence on the public and his theories remain widely unread outside the insular circles of academia. Perhaps the pessimism he espoused makes him appear intellectually unprofitable and therefore unattractive to the merely curious reader.

In The Decline of the West, Spengler’s ‘Copernican overturning’ led him to see past eras as loose biographies of isolated cultures. He applied the seasonal system of spring, summer, autumn and winter to the evolution and undoing of every prosperous society. They rise, flourish, wither and vanish like distinct wild flowers on a windswept heath. Spring naturally represents an awakening when the force of cultural expression is so strong that it sets a precedent for centuries thereafter. Summer signifies a stage of pleasing artistic production and clever imitations when creation becomes a personal activity. Autumn is when the soul of a culture depicts its happiness and attempts to return to nature, and winter means the solidifying of culture into a civilisation, when great art is mostly extinguished and the creative energy that drove a culture on is almost entirely spent.

Although there have been innumerable births of culture, Spengler argued only eight ‘high cultures’ have existed: the Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Sino-Japanese, Mesoamerican, Classical (Greek-Roman), Magian (or Arabian) and our own, the Faustian. Classical man was more concerned by the near and the present, whereas we children of the Faustian age are forever looking into infinity, searching for the ultimate end of our speculative powers. Sadly, he claims that the Faustian age is the most tragic because although we enjoy unprecedented technological discoveries and rapidly strive and create, we know deep down that our goals will always elude us and that our efforts will eventually be proven futile.  To add to the dark tone he used to describe our time, he believed our culture was now in its winter phase. Lawrence Durrell opened his Alexandrian Quartet with the beautiful line ‘in the midst of winter you feel the inventions of spring’. In Spengler, this ‘feeling’ is a remembrance rather than an anticipation. The time of birth and rejuvenation is forever finished, metaphorically speaking. In this present phase, Spengler’s prophesising limns an authoritative ruler or ‘new emperor’ who emerges in response to the disintegration of culture. He called this the Caesarian age. Many Spenglerian commentators have identified the advent of Hitler and Nazism as an example of a Caesarian instance in cultural history and it would be an easy feat to find comparisons in politics today who fit the description of attributes Spengler so eerily expatiates.

Spengler’s approach to the philosophy of history – to how we see history and what meaning we can derive from an appraisal of past events – is informed by a myriad of unorthodox intellectual disciplines. Morphology, the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features, determines his perception of eras and their attributes. Mathematics is used to reveal the rational divergence of different cultures and to prove the sociocultural relativism of subjects that supposedly seek certainty. Art, economics, politics, literature and architecture are each discussed with a rare authority, but his factual errors and historical inaccuracies have galvanised his critics and stunted his appeal. However, Spengler’s holistic discernments distinguishes him from other philosophers of history and raises his status to a laudable level of exceptional intellectual skill. His analytical insight penetrates more deeply and disturbingly than Toynbee and his Nietzschean prose and encyclopaedically varied knowledge rewards his readers with a weird and widened perspective. Like most great thinkers, it is not the bleak conclusions he draws which are compelling. It is the picture he paints of the world and his explanation of how the world fundamentally works. We may yet avoid Spengler’s depressing predictions and reverse the decline he describes. One way of doing that might be to get more people to read his work.


Harry Cluff