“Nature is to be handled scientifically, History poetically.”
— Oswald Spengler
Sometimes there is a work of an art that transcends the intentions of the artist who created it. With Oswald Spengler’s The Decline Of The West, it is almost beside the point that he fails to prove his thesis– that thesis being that every Civilization follows the same pattern of rise and fall, thus making the future predictable.
Spengler contends that… “every Culture, every adolescence and maturing and decay of a Culture, every one of its intrinsically necessary stages and periods, has a definite duration, always the same, always recurring.” Because he believes he has been able to match developments in one Civilization to parallel developments in all other Civilizations he has studied, Spengler thinks he can predict the future: “In this book is attempted for the first time the venture of pre-determining history,” he says. Spengler’s book is thus nothing less than the most ambitious book ever written.
Spengler writes that his approach to history “offers possibilities far beyond the ambitions of all previous research, which has contented itself in the main with arranging the facts of the past.” His goal is to trailblaze a new historical approach, one which will allow coming generations to predict “the spiritual form, duration, rhythm, meaning, and product of the still unaccomplished stages of our Western history.”
As someone, myself, who has attempted to embrace a wide swath of human knowledge in a sprawling, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing opus displayed before the critiquing eyes of the world, I possess great sympathy for Spengler’s ambitions and motivations. And though Spengler does not quite hit the target he aimed for, the magnitude of his achievement leaves me overflowing with awe and appreciation and a renewed sense of humility.
Someone once said that, “he aims too low who aims beneath the stars.” Spengler certainly aimed for the stars with his great work, and though he may not have struck the heavens, the flaming arrow he shot forth will surely illuminate the sky for generations to come.
When Spengler looks back over history, he thinks that he discerns, in the skeletal remains of past Civilizations, the same basic pattern. He compares his historical findings with the researches of paleontologists who discovered that the same underlying design is basic to the skeletal constructions of all vertebrates. “In much the same way as modern paleontology deduces far-reaching and trustworthy conclusions as to the skeletal structure of species from a single unearthed skull-fragment,” he writes, the historian can reconstruct “the organic characters of whole centuries of history.” And because different Civilizations, like different species, share an underlying morphology, the historian can extend such comparisons “to a degree hitherto undreamed of, over the whole field of history.”
In Decline, Spengler attempts to line-up congruently the trajectories of past Civilizations. He most especially attempts to compare the history of the West with that of numerous other Civilizations, including Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian, and Greco-Roman (or “Classical”). However, it is only the latter of these, the Classical Civilization, into which he really delves beyond superficial similarities. The others, he cites when he can in order to support the purported universality of his theory, but they are really tangential to the core of his story… his story being, whether he knows it or not, one which traces the similarities between– not all Civilizations– but between Classical and contemporary Western Civilization.
Spengler contends that each epoch has one dominating or most vigorous Civilization. In the Far Ancient past, three of these pre-eminent Civilizations, rising to the top at different times, were the Egyptian, the Chinese, and the Indian. In the more recent past, such pre-eminent Civilizations included the Classical, the Arabian (though its tenure was cut short by the onset of the Western Civilization), and the Western.
At the beginning of his work, Spengler encourages us to try to a obtain wider view of History than perhaps we normally would. It is an “optical illusion,” he writes, that “distant histories of thousands of years, such as those of China and Egypt, are made to shrink to the dimensions of mere episodes” whereas recent decades loom large. He compares this to how a distant cloud or train only SEEMS to be moving slowly. What is needed by today’s historian is “an act of emancipation from the evident present” –– a revolution in our center of thought which he compares to the revolution in orientation spurred-on by the theories of Copernicus.
Instead of looking back over history in such a way that the oldest Civilizations appear the smallest, Spengler writes that we should “regard the individual Cultures, one’s own included, as one regards the range of mountain peaks along a horizon.” […] “It is true, that the 19th Century AD seems to us infinitely fuller and more important than, say, the 19th Century BC; but the moon, too, seems to us bigger than Jupiter or Saturn.” We should endeavor to regard the present just as we would “something infinitely distant and alien.” No one interval of time should be regarded as more or less significant than the others.
Another thing, besides ourselves, that we need to get over, he writes, is this idea– almost exclusively Western– that history is linear, that it is progressing, moving forward, that it has direction.
He calls the dividing of history into the Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme” which skews our historical thinking and keeps us from perceiving “the true position” of “the little part-world which has developed on West-European soil from the time of the German-Roman Empire.” [Oh, by the way, I should mention that Spengler unconsciously gives us a lesson in the inevitable subjectivity of historical perspective with his frequent allusions to great German individuals and to the great German nation. His most vaunted authorities are inevitably Goethe, Kant, Leibniz, and Wagner– and pretty much in that order].
It is good that Spengler should deride the idea of linear History, for his whole thesis depends upon the notion of a cyclically repeating History. “There is no ageing Mankind,” contends Spengler. Instead, each Civilization is Mankind born anew, with “new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay, and never return.” One Civilization does not follow another along a single, coherent trajectory containing them both. Instead, each Civilization is unique and operates along its own, individualistic lines. “There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics,” he maintains, “but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline.”
This insistence that each Civilization is largely independent and self-contained may at first seem to run counter to Spengler’s main thesis that History repeats. However, Spengler’s cyclical history is broad-stroke; the details of the development of each of Civilization will vary within the general plan, just as different species vary greatly in form and function in spite of sharing the same underlying pattern.
What Spengler is attempting to convey is that, even as we walk with him, combing history for similarities and parallels between epochs, we must never forget just how fundamentally different in worldview– in understanding, in apprehension, in drive– one Civilization can be from another. Even when two different Civilizations are using the same words (or at least, words that appear the same after translation), they are not necessarily talking about the same things.
For instance, Spengler contends that “There is not the slightest inward correlation between the things meant by ‘Republic’, ‘freedom’, ‘property’ “ in Classical Civilization “and the things meant by such words here and now.” Definitions alter over time. Meanings migrate. Changing definitions alter the philosophies containing them, and changing philosophies alter the definitions they contain. “Each of the great Cultures, then,” writes Spengler, “has arrived at a secret language of world-feeling that is only fully comprehensible by him whose soul belongs to that Culture” and “truths are only truths in relation to a particular mankind.”
That said, Spengler must walk the line here, for if he stresses too much the self-contained individualism of each Civilization in an effort to counter the contention that History is a linear development, then he undercuts his own argument. In other words, if Civilizations are too divergent, then there will be no basis for comparison, no chance of lining them up parallel in order to see how their overall patterns match-up.
All I have written above is mostly stage-setting, a summary elucidation of Spengler’s general mindset, his thesis, his approach– including his audacious declaration that the future is scientifically predictable from the past. In the next few posts, I will be writing in more detail about Spencer’s observations, ideas, and conclusions. I will also spend at least one post writing on Spengler’s metaphysics, an understanding of which is essential to achieving a decent comprehension of his work. One would, in fact, probably better categorize Spengler as a philosopher than a historian. Of course, when the scope is large enough, the difference between the two fields dwindles. As Spengler, himself, wrote, “all genuine historical work is philosophy.”
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NOTE: I am using Charles Francis Atkinson’s translation of what is actually merely the first volume (“Form and Actuality”) of The Decline Of The West. Atkinson’s translation was published in 1926, about eight years after the original publication in German. Atkinson’s version was apparently a big hit. My edition is the fifth printing of that same year.
More posts on Spengler’s Philosophy Of History from Hammering Shield: