Oswald Spengler: An Introduction


Constantly described as a “prophet of decline,” Oswald Spengler deserves to be read today before all as the author of a deeply original philosophy of history, which perhaps doesn't permit us to automatically predict the future (how would that be possible?) but which, by helping to better understand the past, also clarifies our present. From the introduction to issue number 59 of the magazine Nouvelle Ecole.

In 1925, André Fauconnet could write: “Since the end of the world war, no philosophical work has had, in central Europe, a resonance comparable to the work of Spengler1.” The quote is hardly exaggerated. The publication of the first volume of The Decline of the West, in April 1918, a few months before the end of the First World War, had the impact of a thunder strike2. The echo encountered in Germany in particular was phenomenal, as the number of books and brochures published in turn to respond to it, comment on it, praise it, or criticize it testify. One of the reasons for this success, as Ernst Cassirer, remarked, was incontestably the title of the book, which had been inspired by a work by Otto Seeck published at the end of the 19th century3.

Violently criticized by Heinrich Rickert and Otto Neurath4, described as a “trivial swine” (triviale Sauhund) by Walter Benjamin and as the “Karl May of philosophy” by Kurt Tucholsky, Spengler was on the contrary hailed by Georg Simmel, to whom he sent a copy of his book, as the author of the “most important philosophy of history since Hegel,” which was not a flimsy compliment5. The work also made a large impression on Ludwig Wittgenstein, who approved Spengler's pessimism, in addition to the major points of his method, and on the economist Werner Sombart, as well as on the historian Eduard Meyer who, after a five hour discussion with the author of The Decline of the West, became his friend and admirer6. Max Weber was less impressed, but he nevertheless invited Spengler to take the podium in the context of his sociology seminar at the University of Munich in December 1919. As for Heidegger, who often cites Spengler, but who never devoted an exhaustive study to him, he gave a conference on The Decline of the West in Wiesbaden in April 19207.

The central idea of the work, which inscribes itself both in the tradition of German Kulturkritik and in the tradition of “cultural pessimism”, is that humanity has no pre-established objective, guiding idea, organizing plan, any more than “the orchid or butterfly has.” Humanity is “a zoological concept, or otherwise a word devoid of meaning.” (“Die Menschheit hat kein Ziel, keine Idee, kein Plan, so wenig wie die Gattung der Schmetterlinge oder der Orchideen en Ziel hat. “Die Menschheit” ist ein zoologischer Begriff oder ein leeres Wort”)8. That's why Spengler nearly always speaks of Weltgeschichte (“world history”) and not of Universalgeschichte (“universal history”). So there is no “history of humanity” in the sense of a homogeneous process. There are only separate histories corresponding to diverse cultures, whose development and decline obey the same laws. “For him,” as Lucian Blaga wrote, “a culture is a real organism, endowed with a specific 'soul', which is radically distinguished from the individual soul of each of the men constituting the collective”9.

In a famous page from The Decline of the West, Spengler compares himself to Copernicus. As the latter made us abandon the geocentric position in favor of heliocentrism, he proposes abandoning the Eurocentrism which had predominated until then.

So he distinguishes eight great human cultures, including the Arab (or “Magian”) culture, which he claimed to have discovered. The soul of Greek Antiquity is defined as “Apollonian,” that of Western culture as “Faustian.” The Faustian soul has the infinite tri-dimensional space as a symbol; the Apollonian soul, the isolated body (limited space); Russian culture, the boundless plain; Chinese, the path in nature, and Arab culture, the vaulted space10.

In 1919 Paul Valéry declared: “Us other civilizations, we now know we are mortal”11. That's also what Spengler strongly affirmed. Rejecting the conventional division Antiquity – Middle Ages – modernity, he distinguishes three major periods in the life of cultures, corresponding to birth, historical development, and old age followed by death. Like plants or animal species, great cultures thus have a morphology that goes in tandem with an internal development that always follows the same steps: birth, maturity, old age, and death. The repetition of these cycles has nothing to do with the Eternal Return of which Nietzsche spoke; rather it's a memento finis going in the direction of an inevitable immanence of the end: “There is a growing and an aging of cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, countrysides, as there is with oaks, pines, flowers, branches, leaves, the young, and the old […] Every culture has its possibilities of new expression that germinate, mature, wither, and disappear without return”12. Cultures attain their highest stage when the soul that they carry gives them (and becomes itself) a form. A nation defines itself as a people bearing the style of a culture: “Völker im Stil einer Kultur nenne ich Nationen.

Spengler wrote, “A culture dies when the soul has realized the entire sum of its possibilities13”, thus proposing an entelechic vision of history. Every real tradition carries its own end within itself: the immanence of the end is the condition sine qua non of history. It's also the foundation of the tragic conception of life. When tradition and the “soul” lose their power, the hour of civilization sounds, which is also the sound of decline. In civilization, social life is concentrated in the big cities, within which anonymous crowds no longer have any possibility of “being in form,” (In-Form sein)14. The deracinated city dweller in the epoch of global cities (“Weltgeschichte ist Stadtgeschichte”) defines himself as a new nomad. As with Klages, abstract intelligence essentially proves itself to be destructive of life15. Another trait of dying civilizations is precisely that they have a fear of death before all: “Death is better than slavery, old Frisian peasants say. Reverse this aphorism and you will have the formula of all late civilizations16.” The passage from the stage of culture to that of civilization took place in the 4th century for the Greco-Latin world, and in the 19th century for Western culture. Europe actually started its decline at the very moment where the ideology of progress and optimist philosophies (Comte, Spencer, Marx) reached their fullest strength. In the West, civilization is identified sociologically with the domination of the bourgeoisie, politically with the victory of parliamentarianism and parties, economically with the predominance of money. The “decline of the West” coincides with what Walter Rathenau called “the mechanization of the world” and Kurt Breyzig, “the mechanization of the soul.” Then comes the epoch of “Caesarism” - illustrated as much by Lenin as Mussolini – which is also the epoch of imperialism, materialism, the supremacy of technology, technocracy, manipulations by the press. The West extends its domination over the entire world, but it's no longer its culture that it exports. It's its civilization.

Oswald Spengler was evidently subjected to the influence of authors such as Herder, Bachofen, Burkhardt, Schopenhauer, Haeckel, Vaihinger, Bergson, Dilthey and Karl Lamprecht. We must doubtlessly add Vico, although he never cites him, and especially Leo Frobenius, whose theory of “cultural circles” visibly nurtured his ideas on the “soul” of cultures. But the two most determinant influences on him where those of Goethe and Nietzsche. In his foreword to the second volume of The Decline of the West, Spengler summarizes that he took his method from the first, and his questioning from the second.

It's in this second volume that Nietzsche's influence most manifestly appears, notably when Spengler distinguishes between “facts” and “truths,” the latter only being theoretical constructions without relation to life according to him. Spengler also reiterated the opposition addressed by Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) between “master morality” and “slave morality,” the latter likened to a “morality of utility” founded upon the spirit of vengeance and resentment. He approves this statement of Nietzsche: “Good and bad are distinctions of a noble, good and evil distinctions of a priest,” commenting in these terms, “the worst is without honor, the supreme good without sin17.” He also shares with Nietzsche the idea that life is always superior to the intellect, that it knows neither system, nor program, nor reason- and also the idea that there is no absolute truth. Consequently, he often borrows from the Nietzschean critique of morality to stigmatize the Weimar Republic or to denounce nihilism, but he also takes takes his distances sometimes (for example, he was hardly convinced by the figure of Zarathustra)18.

Furthermore through the organicist and morphological perspective that he opened on history, Spengler pursued a direction of thought inaugurated by Goethe. The study of history is, in his eyes, antipodal to the study of nature. It doesn't use the same method. History, dominated by a irreversible fate, should be understood in a “physiognomic” manner, which is the only way that permits one to observe that the history of a culture is comparable to the spatio-temporal development of an organism. Thus Spengler contrasted “physiognomy” with causality, as civilization, subject to the reign of causality, no longer has a history; he contrasts the logic of destiny to the logic of causality. “The consideration of history – what I call physiognomic tact – is the decision of blood, the knowledge of men extending from the past to the future, the inner sense of persons and situations, of what is happening, what is necessary, what should be, and not only a scientific critique and a knowledge of dates.” The character of a culture, in other terms, cannot be understood as a static construction, but as a process of dynamic interaction with both internal and external factors. To use the famous distinction of Dilthey, Spengler doesn't seek to explain, but to understand history. That's why he restores analogy, especially organic analogy 19– which was greatly used in Antiquity - to its former nobility. Like Hegel before him, opposing “lived experience” (erleben) to abstract knowledge (erkennen), he warns against the application of quantitativist methods, whether it be “racial theory” or scientific epistemology, to living things. And of course it's the “physiognomic” study of other cultures, who have already completed their cycle, that allowed him to prophesy about the future of the West.

The future of the West, and not Europe. Oswald Spengler actually rejects this latter term: “East and West are notions that possess a real historical substance. Europe is only an empty word,” he explains at the start of the first volume of The Decline of the West. Elsewhere he most often wrote “Europe” in quotes, further holding that Europe had ceased to be a geographic concept after the transformations that Peter the Great subjected Russia to in the 18th century. This choice can seem surprising, in the measure where the “West” seems to associate Europe and the United States under the same title (which has also lost its geographic signification). But we must remember that at the time, the word Abendland, “West,” was used in Catholic and conservative millieus, while Europa was especially used by socialists and liberals.

As for the word “decline,” it should be appreciated in its proper understanding. In German, Untergang has the meaning “twilight”, but also “maturation” or “accomplishment” (Vollendung). Spengler himself said that Untergang doesn't evoke the image of a shipwrecked ocean liner for him, but rather that of a vast and grandiose sunset, an apt comparison because etymologically, the West is the land of the setting sun20.

Nevertheless the image of the “decline of the West” has ceaselessly been used to criticize Spengler for supporting a doctrine marked with “fatalism” and especially “pessimism”21. Is this criticism well founded? Spengler considered himself a “realist” before all, and the pessimism he advocates is quite another thing than the “cowardly pessimism of little tired souls who fear life and can't bear the sight of reality”22. He explained it at length in a text published in 1921, shortly before the release – on May 20th 1922 – of the second volume of The Decline of the West23.

From the start, Spengler rejects the accusation of pessimism, “an insult of eternal old men chasing every idea destined only for the pioneers of tomorrow.” He certainly said that optimism is cowardice (“Optimismus ist Feigheit”), that there is no redemption to expect, no hope to cultivate: only dreamers believe that an exit exists24. But a true pessimism would imply that there are no longer goals to attain. On the contrary Spengler thought that Western man has so much more to attain but rather it's time that may fail him. Even if it corresponds to the final stage of our culture, that phase we're living in today remains grandiose: “it's the phase that the ancient world experienced in the interval between Cannae and Actium.” So there's no place for despair. It's only necessary that there should be concordance between the efforts we undertake, the goals we set, and possibilities harbored by the historical moment we live in. Doubtlessly Europe's architectonic possibilities are exhausted. There will never be another Goethe, another Shakespeare, another Botticelli, another Wagner. But there will be new Caesars, as an overlooked French author of the 19th century predicted25. What will their role be? Firstly to put an end to partisan politics and the “dictatorship of money” in the same stroke: “The sword will conquer money, the lord's will will subjugate the pirate's will again.” This implies restoring a relationship of force to politics: “One power can only be destroyed by another one, not by a principle, and there is no other power against money but this one.”

Thus Spengler doesn't advocate renunciation, negative ascesis facing the inevitable Kali-Yuga. Nor is he satisfied with desiring to “ride the tiger,” like Evola. He doesn't profess the romantic despair of a Gobineau. To be “pessimistic” because our culture is nearing its end is akin to no longer desiring to live because one day we will die. Moreover, Spengler underlines that if there's a global determinism that weighs on culture, there is no individual determinism. Man always has the possibility of remaining faithful to his own idea. A “vital stance” is always possible. It's what Spengler called “Achille's choice”: “Better a brief life, full of action and radiance, than a prolonged, but empty, existence” (“Lieber ein kurzes Leben voll Tat und Ruhm als ein langes ohne Inhalt”)26. Why must we hope before we act in these conditions? The man of quality doesn't act because he can succeed. He acts because he must act. We know the maxim of Tacitus, and also the beautiful Hanseatic slogan: Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse. Here we must evidently cite the final pages of Man and Technics: “We must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.” Ultimately, ethics will have the last word: “He who is worthy of something will end triumphant.” In its apparent rigidity, the Spenglerian system is thus, at least for strong souls, a remedy to pessimism. That's what Keyserling, who nevertheless didn't appreciate him, observed about this rigidity, stating that “fully satisfying the part of being that demands predestination and irrationality, it only further stimulates his desire for freedom to unfold into action”27. The memento finis which is the basis of Spengler's philosophy of history also constitutes the foundation of a heroic ethic – in the very measure where no project can surpass the limits assigned by history.

Likewise, when he advocates “Prussianism”28, Spengler is firstly referring to a style – the ethics of duty, based on active impersonality and the sense of honor – and not to a historical belonging or birthplace. In this sense he also contrasts “ethical socialism,” of a “Roman – Prussian” (römisch-preußisch) character, to “economic socialism,” that is to say Marxism, which is only a “capitalism from below” (Kapitalismus von unten). The “Prussian Socialism” which he advocated is a socialism of duty, not a socialism of demands. It is not so much an economic doctrine as it is a style of life, based before all on service and conduct, the impersonal style and the spirit of community. For individuals as for peoples, it's about putting oneself “into form” by aligning with a principle. But, internal liberty is only attained in discipline and service: “Such is our freedom: it's what frees us from the yoke of individualism and its arbitrary economics”29. Prussian socialism must be carried by the Faustian soul's will to power, which seeks to shape the masses in order to give them a style. Thus for Spengler Prussia is an ideological “myth” more than a historical reality: there are “Prussians” everywhere. It's on this basis that Spengler denounces liberalism (“the internal England”) and capitalism (“the domination of money”): “Everyone for himself, that's what is English; everyone for all, that's what is Prussian” (“Jeder für sich: das ist english; alle für alle: das ist preußisch”)30. But it's also why certain left wing authors constantly represent “Prussian socialism” as a simple form of imperialism that only attacks finance capitalism in order to preserve the privileges of industrial capitalism, without seeing that the latter is no less exploitative and predatory than the other31. To which Spengler retorts that its Marxism instead that hasn't sufficiently distanced itself from the economistic foundations of liberal capitalism, the proof being that “the great movement which makes use of Marx's phraseology hasn't delivered the entrepreneur into the worker's power, but has delivered both to the power of the Stock Exchange”32.


A complete history of the reception of Spengler's work still remains to be written. We are well informed for Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Romania. A few essays have also been published in Sweden and Latin America33. In the Anglo-Saxon domain, his non-reception prevailed until recently rather34, but we nevertheless know that Spengler exercised a considerable influence on historians like Arnold Toynbee – who often called himself the Spengler of the Second World War – or sociologists like Pitirim Sorokin35. Henry Kissinger has repeatedly declared himself fascinated by Spengler's theses, which were also the subject of his doctoral thesis36.

Beyond the Atlantic, interest in Spengler was relaunched most recently by the debate on the “clash of civilizations” inaugurated by Samuel Huntington in his famous article published in the magazine Foreign Affairs in 1993, which was followed by a successful book three years later. The two authors have since been frequently compared37. This comparison nevertheless reaches its limits very quickly. If it's accurate that Huntington seeks, under the triple patronage of Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler, and Fernand Braudel, to contrast the idea of world plurality with universal civilization, which leads him to distinguish nine great centers of “civilization,” the American author doesn't liken cultures to organisms and doesn't believe for an instant that they are necessarily destined for decline and death. Moreover, like most Anglo-Saxons, he largely ignores the opposition that Spengler made between culture and civilization, even if he utilizes the expression “cultural circles”38.

In France, Spengler is far from unknown. Originally published 1931-1933, the French translation of The Decline of the West, which we owe to Mohand Tazerout39, was regularly reissued by Gallimard, first in 1943, then starting from 1948. Marcel Brion, among others, gave it a laudatory review in Le Monde (October 11th 1949). It was followed over the course of decades by translations of The Hour of Decision (1934), Man and Technics (1958), Historical and Philosophical Writings – Thoughts (1979), Prussianism and Socialism (1986). The majority of his political texts Politische Pflichten der deutschen Jugend, 1924, Neubau des Deutschen Reiches, 1924, Die Wirtschaft, 1924, Der Staat, 1924, Politische Schriften, 1932, etc.) on the other hand remain inaccessible to the non-Germanophone French public, as do his posthumous writings (Urfragen, 1965, Frühzeit der Weltgeschichte, 1966), correspondence (Briefe, 1913–1936) and, of course, unpublished works. As to the rare books dedicated to Spengler in the French language, published by marginal or little known publishers, they've practically never reached the wider public40.

French historians, if they happen to have read his work attentively and commented on it41,,have generally shown themselves to be very reserved regarding Spengler. One of the reasons for this latent hostility is doubtlessly the profoundly Germanic character of Spenglerian categories, which collides head on with a few of the certitudes of the French “liberal” tradition. Nevertheless there are a few exceptions. The fruitfulness of Spengler's thought for the analysis of Arab cultures has been recognized by Hichem Djaït42. Authors such as Julien Freund or Gilbert Durand have in turn reprised certain elements of his political philosophy. And in his Plaidoyer pour une Europe décadente, Raymond Aron didn't hesitate to mention, regarding Spengler and Pareto, the persistence of this school of thought to which he himself didn't subscribe: “On the margins of the dominant ideology, the ideology of progress, another philosophy of history persists in the shadows, burdened with opprobrium, perhaps cursed, the ideology that denounces modern idols, the heralds of decadence...”43.

But the influence of Spengler also exercised itself in a more subtle and indirect manner. We perceive its echo, it seems, in the theory of “epistemic fields” of Michel Foucault, indeed in the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, or further yet in Peter Sloterdijk's theory of “spheres.” In an article published in 1983, Jacques Bouveresse notes this influence regarding structuralist and post-structuralist ideology (Michel Foucault, Paul Veyne, Gilles Deleuze) and draws the conclusion- very displeasing in his view – of a strong relevance for the thought of The Decline of the West's author44.

Among all the criticisms that one can address to Spengler, those that target his “pessimism” are the probably the least well founded: the important thing is not actually to know if his philosophy of history is “hopeless,” which can only highlight a subjective judgment, but if it corresponds to reality. Other criticisms, those that concern his rigid statism, the excessive importance he attributes to great men, his excessive use of analogy, the fashion in which he underestimates the plasticity of human nature, or the manner in which he legitimizes the “hijacking” of nature (“der Mensch ist ein Raubtier,” he wrote in The Hour of Decision, which is reminiscent of the “blonde Bestie” which Nietzsche spoke of), doubtlessly deserve a deeper examination.

That aside, Spengler's contributions are considerable. His fundamental intuition on the discontinuity of historical time and the irreducibility of human cultures, reveals a great fruitfulness, which seems to justify Tazerout's opinion, according to which this “postulate of non-continuity” constitutes “the only viable hypothesis for a scientific understanding of historical phenomena.” In fact Spengler's great merit is to have radically contested the myth of a unique linear history, the myth of a “history in the singular” that would unfold according to a process governed by the idea of “progress,” towards a necessary end, according to a globally irreversible direction (in both meanings of this term) [Translator's note: referring the meanings of the French sens]. Spengler shows the objectively absurd character of notions of “the progress of humanity,” of a radically “obsolete” past definitively cut off from the present, of a necessarily “radiant” future. At the same time he questions the biblical conception of human history. Consequently, in the measure where he rejects the classical historiography that reduces Western history to the schema Antiquity – Middles Ages – Modern Times, he lays the foundations for an open historical analysis, implying, with the end of historical universalism, the end of ethnocentrism. Henceforth there is no longer any question of judging all questions according to Western criteria. Breaking with “Ptolemaic” thought, Spengler rehabilitates Asiatic and Oriental cultures. He celebrates Arab culture, constantly slandered by a Church in need of reconquista. He underlines the importance and greatness of the cultures of Pre-Columbian America eradicated by Hispanic Catholicism. Furthermore, putting emphasis on “the soul of peoples,” on the permanence of national temperaments, but also on their pseudomorphoses, insisting on the style that “gives peoples, nations, and cultures form,” on the synchronic aspect of history more than its diachronic aspect, he appears as a precursor of the modern study of structures and mentalities.

A theorist of the German national movement and exemplary representative of the Conservative Revolution, Spengler, as Adorno remarked, was also one of the first to articulate concerns that arise everywhere today. His critique of “civilization” as the terminal phase of culture, which converges with the contrast between society and community made by Ferdinand Tönnies, his analysis of the “global city,” his diatribes against the “mercantile spirit” (Krämergeist) and capitalism, his denunciation of “newspaper editorialism” - the journalistic sub-culture – and the dictatorship of the media, - testifies to his resolute opposition to a society characterized by consumption and spectacle, urban hypertrophy, quantitativism, unrestrained growth, the predominance of mercantile values, and a soulless rationality that, becoming its own end, progressively imposes itself through universal reason.

The future of the West, Spengler said, is organizational thought devouring organic reality, the obsession with profit extinguishing the world, the degradation of the will to self overcoming into frenetic productivism, the extension of egalitarian leveling and the dictatorship of money, the triumph of utilitarianism and individual selfishness, and finally the subservience of opinion and the alienation of consciousness through the diffusion of standards of reference that constantly draw minds towards the most spectacular, the most superficial, and the lowest. The decline of the West, from this point of view, is only another name for decadence – that is to say for this moment where, as he said in Man and Technics, “all living things are dying in the grip of organization,” while “an artificial world penetrates the natural world and poisons it,” and that civilization itself has become a “machine that does or tries to do everything mechanically.”

In the course of his existence, Spengler witnessed three revolutions: the Russian Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the German socialist revolution of 1918-1920, and the National Socialist revolution of 1933. The analysis he made in 1933 in The Hour of Decision reflects this experience. In this book, Spengler endeavors to elucidate the meaning and the significance of two new revolutions that will impact future developments: the “global white revolution” (weiße Weltrevolution) and the “global revolution of peoples of color” (farbige Weltrevolution). The first consists of the uprising of the urbanized masses against the ruling elites. According to him, it will lead to the collapse of all organic structures, of all the old forms of authority, to the benefit, not of new forms, but a generalized disaggregation of the social body. The second, mentioned as early as 1924 in a speech given before the students of Würzburg, consists of the people of color challenging Western hegemony. These two revolutions are destined to become one in the future, as, Spengler affirms, the deracinated proletariat of Western countries could ally with the political masses of the Third World.

Faced with this double movement developing on the global scale, Spengler's opinion is that National-Socialism is incapable of facing it, and furthermore that it is unaware of its stakes. This unawareness comes from the fact that it doesn't have, vis-à-vis historical becoming, this “physiognomic tact” that allows it to understand what stage Western culture finds itself in, and also, from the fact that it continues to reason in an insular manner facing a global revolution. Actually, for Western culture, the time of rebirths is over. It's no longer time for “betterers of the world” (Weltbesserer), for plebeian demagogues, but for cold, impersonal, “Prussian” Caesars. It's the time for “heroic realism,” for the desperate defense of conquered posts.

This analysis is evidently quite ambiguous. Spengler certainly has the merit of predicting an evolution of global relations which, in his time, was far from being obvious. He notes that the rising powers – the United States, Japan, Russia, the Third World – aren't European powers, and he is aware of the resultant consequences. The white peoples, he said, “negotiate today while they commanded yesterday, and they must flatter tomorrow in order to be able to negotiate.” In the United States, he saw a political dinosaur – enormous body, minuscule brain – with a “spiritually primitive” (geistig primitive) ruling class and whose history represents a tragic deviation of the Faustian spirit towards quantitative, utilitarian, and mercantile values: “The Faustian will to power is there, but soulless and mechanical movement is substituted for organic and living development.” Convinced, like Danilevsky, of the radical antinomy between the Western soul and the Slavic soul, he also predicted a great “religious” future for Russia: the Russian empire, if it manages to overcome the “Petrine pseudomorphosis,” could be the initiator of a cultural cycle to come. Starting from the deep affinities that could, beyond what separates them, unite Russia and the United States, he also sees coalitions emerging – what we would call the politics of blocs today – that constitute the worst danger Germany and Europe have to watch out for. He finally predicts the aging of European populations and readily reminds us that natality is also a political factor.

On the other hand, his views concerning the “global revolution of peoples of color,” without falling to the level of a Madison Grant or a Lothrop Stoddard, nevertheless remain rather crude. Spengler already predicted decolonization, but there is no political sympathy for anti-colonialist movements that one finds with Ernst Niekisch, Gregor Strasser, or Ernst Reventlow, or also, among the Jungkonservative, with Karl Hoffmann, director of the archives of the Politische Kolleg45. One can also criticize him for seeing the Third World as a homogeneous entity, which is globally opposed to an equally unitary “West.” This error hasn't truly ceased being committed up to our time by authors of all opinions. The alliance that Spengler describes as probable, if not inevitable, between the Western proletariat and the Third World is far-fetched to say the least – even if, in the epoch of anti-colonial struggles, such a perspective could crystallize here or there. We also note the Spengler entirely leaves aside the problem of relations between Russia and China. Concerning the evolution of Western societies, he didn't predict the rise of reformism nor the “consensual” weakening of the class struggle. He was also fooled when he announced the coming disintegration of the parliamentary and particratic system everywhere in the world: the epoch following the Second World War was not characterized by the decline of parties and the rise of “Caesars”, quite the opposite. In addition there is a certain contradiction between the very keen critique of the “dictatorship” of the media and the fact that he seems to believe in the existence of a power that wouldn't need to rely on it.

Constantly described as a “prophet of decline,” Oswald Spengler deserves to be read today before all as the author of a deeply original philosophy of history, which perhaps doesn't permit us to automatically predict the future (how would that be possible?) but which, by helping to better understand the past, also clarifies our present.

Notes and references

  1. André Fauconnet, Un philosophe allemand contemporain : Oswald Spengler, le prophète du “Déclin de l’Occident”, Félix Alcan, 1925, p. V.

  2. Spengler started working on his books in 1911. When he was drafting the preface to the second volume, in 1917, he still refused to believe in Germany's defeat.

  3. Otto Seeck, Geschichte der Untergang der antiken Welt, Siemenroth u. Worms, Berlin 1895.

  4. Cf. Heinrich Rickert, Das Philosophie des Lebens. Darstellung und Kritik der philosophischen Modeströmungen unserer Zeit, Mohr, Tübingen 1920 ; Otto Neurath, Anti-Spengler, Callway, München 1921.

  5. Cf. Oswald Spengler, Briefe 1913–1936, C.H. Beck, München 1963, pp. 109 and 114. The Decline of the West is probably the last book that Simmel had the time to read before dying. Spengler himself seems display the influence, little remarked, of Simmel. Cf. Galin Tihanov, " Europäische Identität – Simmel, Spengler, Freyer", in Sezession, Albersroda, octobre 2004, pp. 42–45 ; " Ideas of Europe in Twentieth-Century Germany : from Simmel to Spengler and Hans Freyer", in Jerónimo Molina (éd.), “Liber Amicorum” ofrecido a Günter Maschke, n° special edition of the magazine Empresas políticas, Murcia, 10–11, 2008, pp. 135–151. Nevertheless this influence is occasionally denied (cf. Manfred Schröter, Metaphysik des Untergangs, Leibniz, München 1949, p. 87).

  6. Cf. Anton Mirko Kotanek, Oswald Spengler in seiner Zeit, C.H. Beck, München 1968, pp. 72 and 349 ; Eduard Meyer, " Spenglers Untergang des Abendlandes", in Deutsche Literaturzeitung, 1924, pp. 1759–1780 (text of a conference given to the congress of German historians in 1924). Spengler made the acquaintance of Eduard Meyer in 1923. During his death, in 1930, he said that he was perhaps the only one in the world to have truly understood him.

  7. The Heideggerian notion of Ge-Stell seems to bear the imprint of Spenglerian categories of thought. Cf. Ad Verbugge, " Heimkehr des Abendlandes. Nietzsche und die Geschichte des Nihilimus im Denken von Spengler und Heidegger", in Alfred Denker, Marion Heinz, John Sallis et al. (Hg.), Heidegger und Nietzsche, Karl Alber, Freiburg/M. 2005, pp. 222–238. However, on the question of technology, the two authors completely diverge. For Heidegger, technology is only realized metaphysics (the domination and hijacking of the totality of being by human subjectivity), while Spengler, in Man and Technics (1931), makes it a tool which, put in the service of the Faustian soul, would allow it to reconnect with a certain optimism of power.

  8. Le déclin de l’Occident, vol. 1, Gallimard, Paris 1948, p. 33.

  9. Lucian Blaga, " Oswald Spengler et la philosophie de l’histoire", in L’être historique, Librairie du Savoir, Paris 1991, p. 183.

  10. For Blaga, which also developed a theory of stylistic fields, the symbol of Romanian culture is the “undulating spiritual space.”

  11. Paul Valéry, Œuvres, vol. 1, Gallimard-Pléiade, Paris 1957, p. 988.

  12. Le déclin de l’Occident, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 33.

  13. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 114.

  14. Cf. Carl E. Schorske, " La ville dans la pensée européenne : de Voltaire à Spengler", in Politiques, 3, Summer 1992, pp. 157–186.

  15. However Ludwig Klages rejected also politics and history as products of the mind, while Spengler held them in high regard associating them with the will to power.

  16. Le déclin de l’Occident, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 33.

  17. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 114.

  18. Cf. John Farrenkopf, " Nietzsche, Spengler, and the Politics of Cultural Despair", in Interpretation, 1992, 2, pp. 165–174 ; Frits Boterman, " Zur Frage der deutschen Kultur. Oswald Spengler und Friedrich Nietzsche", in Hans Ester and Meindert Evers (Eds.), Zur Wirkung Nietzsches, Königshausen u. Neumann, Würzburg 2001, pp. 125–137.

  19. On this taste for analogy Robert Musil would ironically remark that his manner doing so “reminds one of the zoologist who classifies dogs, tables, chairs, and 4th degree equations as quadrupeds” (" Esprit et expérience. Remarques pour des lecteurs réchappés du déclin de l’Occident", in Essais, Seuil, Paris 1984, p. 100). Cf. Also Hans Meyer, Die Funktion der Analogie im Werk Oswald Spenglers, author, Freiburg 1976.

  20. Cf. Peter Logghe, " Ondergang van het Avondland. Het decadentiebegrip bij Spengler en Evola", in TeKos, Wijnegem, 2nd trim. 2004, pp. 3–12.

  21. On Spenglerian pessimism, cf. Michael Pauen, Pessimismus. Geschichtsphilosophie, Metaphysik und Moderne von Nietzsche bis Spengler, Akademie, Berlin 1997, pp. 181–210.

  22. Oswald Spengler, Années décisives, Copernic, Paris 1980, p. 50.

  23. Entitled “Pessimismus?”, this text was firstly published in the Preußischer Jahrbücher (1921, pp. 73–84) directed by the young-conservative Walter Schotte. It was then the object of a separate printing in the form of a pamphlet (Pessimismus ?, Georg Stilke, Berlin, 1921), before being republished in Reden und Aufsätze (C.H. Beck, München 1937, pp. 63–79).

  24. Années décisives, op. cit., p. 179.

  25. M.A. Romieu, L’ère des Césars, 2e éd., Ledoyen, Paris 1850.

  26. L’homme et la technique, Gallimard, Paris 1958.

  27. Hermann von Keyserling, Figures symboliques, Stock Delamain et Boutelleau, Paris 1928.

  28. Oswald Spengler, Preußentum und Sozialismus, C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung Oskar Beck, München 1920.

  29. Prussianité et socialisme, Actes Sud, Arles 1986, p. 52.

  30. The theme of England conceived as “Germany's other” was also developed by many other authors, starting with Werner Sombart (Händler und Helden, Duncker u. Humblot, München-Leipzig 1915) and Max Scheler.

  31. Cf. For example Theodor Schwarz, Irrationalisme et humanisme. Critique d’une idéologie impérialiste, L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne 1993, pp. 30–33.'

  32. Le déclin de l’Occident, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 371. For Spengler, who criticizes Marx for having confined himself to replacing the war of races with the class struggle, Marxism is “eine Abart des Manchestertums, Kapitalismus der Unterklasse, staatsfeindlich und englisch-materialistisch durch und durch” (Politische Schriften, C.H. Beck, München 1932, p. VII).

  33. Cf. Horacio Cagni and Vicente Gonzalo Massot, Spengler, pensador de la decadencia, Temas contemporaneos, Buenos Aires 1978 ; James Cavallie, Spengler i Sverige. Den svenska receptionen av Oswald Spenglers teser om världhistorien och västerlandets undergång, Hjalmarson & Högberg, Stockholm 2008.

  34. Cf. Thomas Kretzschmer, " Der blinde Spiegel – Spenglers unrezipierte Rezeption außerhalb Europas", in Sezession, Albersroda, May 2005, pp. 40–45.

  35. On Arnold Toynbee, cf. notably " Wie ich zu Oswald Spengler kam", followed by " Worin ich mich von Spengler unterscheide", in Hamburger akademische Rundschau, 1949, pp. 309–313 ; Le monde et l’Occident, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1953, preface by Jacques Madaule ; as well as his preface to Feliks Koneczny's book, On the Plurality of Civilizations [1935], London 1962. Cf. also Owen Lattimore, " Spengler and Toynbee", in The Atlantic Monthly, 1948, 4, pp. 104–105 ; Erich Rothacker, " Toynbee und Spengler", in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft, 1950, 3, pp. 389–402 ; Helmut Werner, " Spengler und Toynbee", in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft, 1955, 4, pp. 528–554 ; Georg Henrik von Wright, " Spengler och Toynbee" [1951], in Att förstå sin framtid, Bonniers, Stockholm 1994 ; Ulrich March, " Spengler und Toynbee", in Sezession, Albersroda, May 2005, pp. 34–38. On Spengler and Sorokin, cf. Gert Müller, " Sorokin und Spengler. Die Kritik Pitirim Sorokins am Werke Oswald Spengler", in Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, XIX, I, 110–134.

  36. Henry A. Kissinger, The Meaning of History. Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant, doctoral thesis, Harvard University, Cambridge 1951. In the Anglo-Saxon world, Spengler has also elicited commentaries by “declinists” (Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Random House, New York 1987), as well as commentaries by Hans Morgenthau (" The Decline of the West", in Partisan Review, 1975) or Lord Harlech (David Ormsby-Gore, Must the West Decline ?, Columbia University Press, New York 1966). Cf. also Wyndham Lewis, " The “Chronological” Philosophy of Spengler", in Time and Western Man, ed. by Paul Edwards, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa 1993, pp. 252–288 ; Neil Mcinnes, " The Great Doomsayer. Oswald Spengler Reconsidered", in The National Interest, Summer 1997, pp. 65–76.

  37. Cf. notably Henning Ritter, " Amerikas Spengler ?", in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frankfurt/M., 18 April 1997, p. 41 ; Michael Thöndl, " “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” als “Kampf der Kulturen”? Spengler und Huntington im Vergleich", in Politische Vierteljahresschrift, 1997, pp. 824–830.

  38. In this regard it is significant that his book, entitled The Clash of Civilizations, was translated into German in 1996 under the title Der Kampf der Kulturen (Europaverlag, München).

  39. A translation not exempt from a few misinterpretations, including certain quasi-surrealist ones, like the one that lead Tazerout to translate the German word Akt, meaning here “nude”, as “act” across an entire chapter.

  40. Published in 1925, André Fauconnet's book, op. cit., has long been out of print. Since that date, there has been little to cite except the works of Marie-Elisabeth Parent (Recherches sur les éléments d’une conception esthétique dans l’œuvre d’Oswald Spengler, Peter Lang, Frankfurt/M. 1981) and Gilbert Merlio (Oswald Spengler, témoin de son temps, 2 vol., Hans-Dieter Heinz, Stuttgart 1982).

  41. Henri-Irénée Marrou, who saw Spengler as a “master of dark errors,” qualifies his ideas as “delirious rants” (De la connaissance historique, Seuil, Paris 1954, pp. 65 et 166). Lucien Febvre spoke of “opportunistic thought” (" De Spengler à Toynbee. Quelques philosophies opportunistes de l’histoire", in Revue de métaphysique et de morale, October 1936, pp. 573–602, text republished in Combats pour l’histoire, Armand Colin, Paris 1953, pp. 119–143). Cf. also Fernand Braudel, " L’histoire des civilisations : le passé explique le présent", chap. 5 of the Encyclopédie française, vol. 20, Larousse, Paris 1959 (republished in Ecrits sur l’histoire, Flammarion, Paris 1969, pp. 255–314).

  42. Hichem Djaït, L’Europe et l’Islam, Seuil, Paris 1978 (" Oswald Spengler", pp. 92–108).

  43. Raymond Aron, Plaidoyer pour une Europe décadente, Robert Laffont, Paris 1977.

  44. Jacques Bouveresse, " La vengeance de Spengler", in Le temps de la réflexion, Gallimard, Paris 1983, pp. 371–401. Cf. also Michel Amiot, " Le relativisme culturaliste de Michel Foucault", in Les Temps modernes, Paris, janvier 1967.

  45. Cf. his programmatic book Das Ende des kolonialpolitischen Zeitalters, Grunow, Leipzig 1917. On this subject, cf. also Martin Pabst, " Oswald Spengler und die “farbige Weltrevolution”. Abendländische Reaktionen auf die Emanzipation der Kolonialvölker", in Theo Homann et Gerhard Quast (Hg.), Jahrbuch zur Konservativen Revolution 1994, Anneliese Thomas, Köln 1994, pp. 273–300. We will note that, in The Hour of Decision, Spengler classifies that Russians among “peoples of color,” in the same manner as the Arabs, the Indians, or the Japanese. Finally, Arturo Labriola refers to Spengler again when he wrote his book, Le crépuscule de la civilisation : l’Occident et les peuples de couleur, G. Mignolet et Storz, Paris 1936.


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