Spengler’s Cultural Pessimism Today

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) exerted considerable influence on European conservatism before the Second World War. Although his popularity waned somewhat after the war, his analyses, in the light of the disturbing conditions in the modern polity, again seem to be gaining in popularity. Recent literature dealing with gloomy post¬modernist themes suggests that Spengler’s prophecies of decadence may now be finding supporters on both sides of the political spectrum. The alienating nature of modern technology and the social and moral decay of large cities today lend new credence to Spengler’s vision of the impending collapse of the West. In America and Europe an increasing number of authors perceive in the liberal permissive state a harbinger of “soft” totalitarianism that may lead decisively to social entropy and conclude in the advent of “hard” totalitarianism(1).

Spengler wrote his major work The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) against the background of the anticipated German victory in World War I. When the war ended disastrously for the Germans, his predictions that Germany, together with the rest of Europe, was bent for irreversible decline gained a renewed sense of urgency for scores of cultural pessimists. World War I must have deeply shaken the quasi-religious optimism of those who had earlier prophesied that technological inventions and international economic linkages would pave the way for peace and prosperity. Moreover, the war proved that technological inventions could turn out to be a perfect tool for man’s alienation and, eventually, his physical an¬nihilation. Inadvertently, while attempting to interpret the cycles of world history, Spengler probably best succeeded in spreading the spirit of cultural despair to his own as well as future generations.

Like Gianbattista Vico, who two centuries earlier developed his thesis about the rise and decline of cultures, Spengler tried to project a pattern of cultural growth and cultural decay in a certain scientific form: “the morphology of history”- as he himself and others dub his work – although the term “biology” seems more appropriate considering Spengler’s inclination to view cultures as living organic entities, alternately afflicted with disease and plague or showing signs of vigorous life(2). Undoubtedly, the organic conception of history was, to a great extent, inspired by the popularity of scientific and pseudo¬scientific literature, which, in the early twentieth century, began to focus attention on racial and genetic paradigms in order to explain the patterns of social decay. Spengler, however, prudently avoids racial determinism in his description of decadence, although his exaltation of historical determinism often brings him close to Marx¬ – albeit in a reversed and hopelessly pessimistic direction. In contrast to many egalitarian thinkers, Spengler’s elitism and organicism con¬ceived of human species as of different and opposing peoples, each experiencing its own growth and death, and each struggling for survival. “Mankind,” writes Spengler, should be viewed as either a “zoological concept or an empty word.” If ever this phantom of “mankind” vanishes from the circulation of historical forms, “we shall then notice an astounding affluence of genuine forms.” Appar¬ently, by form (“Gestalt”) Spengler means the resurrection of the classical notion of the nation-state, which, in the early twentieth century, came under fire from the advocates of the globalist and universalist polity. Spengler must be credited, however, with pointing out that the frequently-used concept “world history,” in reality encompasses an impressive array of diverse and opposing cultures without common denominator; each culture displays its own forms, pursues its own passions, and grapples with its own life or death. “There are blossoming and aging cultures,” writes Spengler, “peo¬ples, languages, truths, gods, and landscapes, just as there are young and old oak trees, pines, flowers, boughs and petals – but there is no aging `mankind.’”(3) For Spengler, cultures seem to be growing in sublime futility, with some approaching terminal illness, and others still displaying vigorous signs of life. Before culture emerged, man was an ahistorical creature; but he becomes again ahistorical and, one might add, even hostile to history: “as soon as some civilization has developed its full and final form, thus putting a stop to the living development of culture” (2:58; 2:48).

Similarly, each culture undergoes various cycles or different his¬torical “seasons”: first appears the period of cultural blossoming or the spring-time of culture, followed by the period of maturation, which Spengler alternately calls summer or fall, and finally comes the period of decadence, which in Spengler’s view is synonymous with “civilization.” This “seasonal” flow of history is a predicament of all nations, although the historical timing of their decline varies with the virility of each nation, geographical area, or epoch. In the field of politics and statecraft, the process of decadence is very much the same. Thus, the closing years of the First World War witnessed the passing of the feudal rule of the landed aristocracy and the emergence of budding forms of parliamentary plutocracy – soon to be followed by the rise of rootless mobocracy and the “dictatorship of money” (2:633; 2:506). Undoubtedly Spengler was inspired by the works of Vilfredo Pareto and Gustave le Bon, who had earlier attempted to outline similar patterns of the rise and fall of political elites. In Pareto’s and Le Bon’s scheme, decadence sets in when the power elite no longer follows the established rule of social selection, and fails to identify internal and external enemies(4). Once it becomes emasculated by economic affluence and debilitated by the belief in the boundless goodness of its political opponents, the elite has already signed its own obituary. In similar words, Spengler contends that the rise of Caesarism must be viewed as a natural fulfillment of the money-dictatorship as well as its dialectical removal:

“The sword wins over money; the master-will conquers again the booty-will”. (2:634; 2:506)

Then a new cycle of history will begin, according to Spengler, although he remains silent about the main historical actors, their origins, and their goals.

Spengler was convinced, however, that the dynamics of decadence could be fairly well predicted, provided that exact historical data were available. Just as the biology of human beings generates a well¬-defined life span, resulting ultimately in biological death, so does each culture possess its own aging “data,” normally lasting no longer than a thousand years – a period, separating its spring from its eventual historical antithesis, the winter, or civilization. The estimate of a thousand years before the decline of culture sets in, corresponds to Spengler’s certitude that, after that period, each society has to face self-destruction. For example, after the fall of Rome, the rebirth of European culture started anew in the ninth century with the Carolingian dynasty. After the painful process of growth, self-asser¬tiveness, and maturation, one thousand years later, in the twentieth century, cultural life in Europe is coming to its definite historical close.
As Spengler and his contemporary successors see it, Western culture now has transformed itself into a decadent civilization fraught with an advanced form of social, moral, and political decay. The first signs of this decay appeared shortly after the Industrial Revolution, when the machine began to replace man, when feelings gave way to ratio. Ever since that ominous event, new forms of social and political conduct have been surfacing in the West – marked by a wide-spread obsession with endless economic growth and irreversible human betterment – fueled by the belief that the burden of history can finally be removed. The new plutocratic elites, that have now replaced organic aristocracy, have imposed material gain as the only principle worth pursuing, reducing the entire human interaction to an immense economic transaction. And since the masses can never be fully satisfied, argues Spengler, it is understandable that they will seek change in their existing polities even if change may spell the loss of liberty. One might add that this craving for economic affluence will be translated into an incessant decline of the sense of public responsibility and an emerging sense of uprootedness and social anomie, which will ultimately and inevitably lead to the advent of totalitarianism. It would appear, therefore, that the process of de¬cadence can be forestalled, ironically, only by resorting to salutary hard-line regimes.

Using Spengler’s apocalyptic predictions, one is tempted to draw a parallel with the modern Western polity, which likewise seems to be undergoing the period of decay and decadence. John Lukacs, who bears the unmistakable imprint of Spenglerian pessimism, views the permissive nature of modern liberal society, as embodied in America, as the first step toward social disintegration. Like Spengler, Lukacs asserts that excessive individualism and rampant materialism increas¬ingly paralyze and render obsolete the sense of civic responsibility. One should probably agree with Lukacs that neither the lifting of censorship, nor the increasing unpopularity of traditional values, nor the curtailing of state authority in contemporary liberal states, seems to have led to a more peaceful environment; instead, a growing sense of despair seems to have triggered a form of neo-barbarism and social vulgarity. “Already richness and poverty, elegance and slea¬ziness, sophistication and savagery live together more and more,” writes Lukacs(5). Indeed, who could have predicted that a society capable of launching rockets to the moon or curing diseases that once ravaged the world could also become a civilization plagued by social atomization, crime, and addiction to escapism? With his apoc¬alyptic predictions, Lukacs, similar to Spengler, writes: “This most crowded of streets of the greatest civilization: this is now the hell¬hole of the world.”

Interestingly, neither Spengler nor Lukacs nor other cultural pes¬simists seems to pay much attention to the obsessive appetite for equality, which seems to play, as several contemporary authors point out, an important role in decadence and the resulting sense of cultural despair. One is inclined to think that the process of decadence in the contemporary West is the result of egalitarian doctrines which promise much but deliver little, creating thus an endless feeling of emptiness and frustration among the masses of economic-minded and rootless citizens. Moreover, elevated to the status of modern secular religions, egalitarianism and economism inevitably follow their own dynamics of growth, which is likely to conclude, as Claude Polin notes, in the “terror of all against all” and the ugly resurgence of democratic totalitarianism. Polin writes: “Undifferentiated man is par excellence a quantitative man; a man who accidentally differs from his neighbors by the quantity of economic goods in his pos¬session; a man subject to statistics; a man who spontaneously reacts in accordance to statistics”(6). Conceivably, liberal society, if it ever gets gripped by economic duress and hit by vanishing opportunities, will have no option but to tame and harness the restless masses in a Spenglerian “muscled regime.”
Spengler and other cultural pessimists seem to be right in pointing out that democratic forms of polity, in their final stage, will be marred by moral and social convulsions, political scandals, and cor¬ruption on all social levels. On top of it, as Spengler predicts, the cult of money will reign supreme, because “through money democracy destroys itself, after money has destroyed the spirit” (2:582; 2:464). Judging by the modern development of capitalism, Spengler cannot be accused of far fetched assumptions. This economic civilization founders on a major contradiction: on the one hand its religion of human rights extends its beneficiary legal tenets to everyone, reas-suring every individual of the legitimacy of his earthly appetites; on the other, this same egalitarian civilization fosters a model of economic Darwinism, ruthlessly trampling under its feet those whose interests do not lie in the economic arena.

The next step, as Spengler suggests, will be the transition from democracy to salutary Caesarism; substitution of the tyranny of the few for the tyranny of many. The neo-Hobbesian, neo-barbaric state is in the making:

Instead of the pyres emerges big silence. The dictatorship of party bosses is backed up by the dictatorship of the press. With money, an attempt is made to lure swarms of readers and entire peoples away from the enemy’s attention and bring them under one’s own thought control. There, they learn only what they must learn, and a higher will shapes their picture of the world. It is no longer needed-as the baroque princes did-to oblige their subordinates into the armed service. Their minds are whipped up through articles, telegrams, pictures, until they demand weapons and force their leaders to a battle to which these wanted to be forced. (2:463)

The fundamental issue, however, which Spengler and many other cultural pessimists do not seem to address, is whether Caesarism or totalitarianism represents the antithetical remedy to decadence or, rather, the most extreme form of decadence? Current literature on totalitarianism seems to focus on the unpleasant side-effects of the bloated state, the absence of human rights, and the pervasive control of the police. By contrast, if liberal democracy is indeed a highly desirable and the least repressive system of all hitherto known in the West – and if, in addition, this liberal democracy claims to be the best custodian of human dignity – one wonders why it relentlessly causes social uprootedness and cultural despair among an increasing number of people? As Claude Polin notes, chances are that, in the short run, democratic totalitarianism will gain the upper hand since the security it provides is more appealing to the masses than is the vague notion of liberty(7). One might add that the tempo of democratic process in the West leads eventually to chaotic impasse, which ne¬cessitates the imposition of a hard-line regime.
Although Spengler does not provide a satisfying answer to the question of Caesarism vs. decadence, he admits that the decadence of, the West need not signify the collapse of all cultures. Rather, it appears that the terminal illness of the West may be a new lease on life for other cultures; the death of Europe may result in a stronger Africa or Asia. Like many other cultural pessimists, Spengler ac¬knowledges that the West has grown old, unwilling to fight, with its political and cultural inventory depleted; consequently, it is obliged to cede the reigns of history to those nations that are less exposed to debilitating pacifism and the self-flagellating guilt-feelings which, so to speak, have become new trademarks of the modern Western citizen. One could imagine a situation where these new virile and victorious nations will barely heed the democratic niceties of their guilt-ridden former masters, and may likely, at some time in the future, impose their own brand of terror which could eclipse the legacy of the European Auschwitz and the Gulag. In view of the ruthless civil and tribal wars all over the decolonized African and Asian continent, it seems unlikely that power politics and bellicosity will disappear with the “decline of the West.” So far, no proof has been offered that non-European nations can govern more peacefully and generously than their former European masters. “Pacifism will remain an ideal,” Spengler reminds us, “war a fact. If the white races are resolved never to wage a war again, the colored will act differently and be rulers of the world”(8).
In this statement, Spengler clearly indicts the self-hating “homo europeanus” who, having become a victim of his bad conscience, naively thinks that his truths and verities must remain irrefutably valid forever, forgetting that his eternal verities may one day be turned against him. Spengler strongly attacks this Western false sympathy with the deprived ones – a sympathy that Nietzsche once depicted as a twisted form of egoism and slave moral. “This is the reason,” writes Spengler, why this “compassion moral,” in the day-¬to-day sense, “evoked among us with respect, and sometimes strived for by the thinkers, sometimes longed for, has never been realized” (1:449; 1:350).

This form of political masochism could be well studied particularly among those contemporary Western egalitarians who, with the decline of socialist temptations, substituted for the archetype of the European exploited worker, the iconography of the starving African. Nowhere does this change in political symbolics seem more apparent than in the current Western drive to export Western forms of civilization to the antipodes of the world. These Westerners, in the last spasm of a guilt-ridden shame, are probably convinced that their historical repentance might also secure their cultural and political longevity. Spengler was aware of these paralyzing attitudes among Europeans, and he remarks that, if a modern European recognizes his historical vulnerability, he must start thinking beyond his narrow perspective and develop different attitudes toward different political convictions and verities. What do Parsifal or Prometheus have to do with the average Japanese citizen, asks Spengler? “This is exactly what is lacking to the Western thinker,” continues Spengler, “and which precisely should have never lacked to him; insight into historical relativity of his achievements, which themselves are the manifestation of one and unique, and of only one existence” (1:31;1:23). On a somewhat different level, one wonders to what extent the much vaunted dis¬semination of universal human rights can become a valuable principle for non-Western peoples if Western universalism often signifies blatant disrespect for all cultural particularities.

CLIO -A Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History, Vol. 19, No 1, pp. 51-62, fall 1989

End of part one


One thought on “Spengler’s Cultural Pessimism Today

  1. Spengler is over-rated because he focusses on the cyclical part of metaphysics (in the context of history) to the exclusion of the linear part of history (ie progresss development etc). If he included both parts (the cyclical and the linear) in his beliefs then he would have produced a more balanced worldview rather than descending into pessimism, as highlighted in this post:


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