Underrated: Oswald Spengler

Saluting the memory of the seer who foresaw many of the factors threatening Western civilisation today


(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, a book was published in Germany that may not have changed the course of history, but which could be said to have succeeded like few others in illuminating it.

The first volume of The Decline of the West came out just as the war was ending. Its author, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), resembles a character from a novel by Thomas Mann: a polymathic private scholar who sometimes worked as a schoolteacher and who suffered from poor health. Now living in Munich, he certainly cared about Germany’s defeat. During the 1920s Spengler would champion the idea of a strongman capable of rescuing his country from humiliation — while always remaining critical of the Nazis and contemptuous of Hitler himself.

But the title of his masterwork, with its obvious echoes of Gibbon, had occurred to him well before the outbreak of war. And while its tone is undoubtedly elegiac, Decline is a requiem neither for the Kaiser’s Germany nor for fin de siècle Europe as a whole, but for the once magnificent yet now slowly-dying culture that Spengler terms “West European-American”.

What are — or were — the main features of this culture? Spengler dismisses the ancient-medieval-modern scheme we find in most histories of the West. A culture does not progress in linear fashion, he argues, but should be thought of rather as a living organism, one that is born, ripens, ages and inevitably decays. What gives rise to a culture in the first place is a unique idea or form that requires expression. For hundreds of years, perhaps longer, this form is then lived out in the art, religion, mathematics, philosophy and so on of that culture — before ossifying and finally dying.

Challenging for many readers of Decline is the name Spengler gives to this last stage: civilisation. This is always marked, he says, by the rise of irreligion on the one hand and the flourishing of the “Megapolis” on the other — vast, inhuman barrack-cities that suck people from far and wide into them “like loose sand into the chinks of stone”. Spengler adds caustically: “Here money and intellect celebrate their greatest and their last triumphs.”

 As far as he is concerned, the West started on its transition from culture to civilisation around 1800. But what he has to say about the coming into being of our culture is even more thought-provoking. Spengler dates this to the year 1000, taking the soaring vaults of the Romanesque cathedral as the emblematic expression of that longing for the infinite which he regards as the essence of the Western soul. Later this would find its way into the fluidity of symphonic music as also into key scientific concepts like “force” and “energy”. But by the early 19th century our cultural lifeform had reached the limits of its development and in a sense we have been living on borrowed time ever since. 

Reading Spengler can be exhilarating in the same way that reading Nietzsche can. It can also be infuriating. As with Nietzsche, one often has the feeling that a recalcitrant fact won’t be allowed to hold back a bravura passage of polemic. This side of Spengler bothered Wittgenstein, who otherwise thought highly of his work. “I don’t trust Spengler about details,” he told a friend. “He is too often inaccurate. I once wrote that if Spengler had had the courage to write a very short book, it could have been a great one.”

On the other hand, sometimes when Spengler indulges himself in imagining the monstrous shape of things to come, his pessimistic predictions turn out to be spot-on. How about this dark warning from a century ago? “I see, long after AD 2000, cities laid out for ten to twenty million inhabitants, spread over enormous areas of countryside, with buildings that will dwarf the biggest of today’s and notions of traffic and communications that we should regard as fantastic to the the point of madness.”

We are living at a time when the future of the West — and even whether it has one — is widely and fiercely debated. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say we’re all decline-ists now. Yet this anniversary of the publication of Spengler’s once-celebrated classic has passed by almost unnoticed. Why?

One reason, I think, is that so much of this debate is couched in economic terms. For Spengler this would be another symptom of our culture’s decay, one that shows up late on in the cycle when “the fire in the soul dies down”.

It is true that, in recent years, anxieties prompted by immigration and the threat posed by radical Islam have resulted in the West undergoing a much more searching bout of introspection — as though this fire may not have gone out entirely.

But Spengler makes uncomfortable reading precisely because he rejects lazy clichés about the West’s Judaeo-Christian heritage or its origins in classical Greece and Rome. Our culture, he maintains, owes much to antecedent ones that have gone through their own cycles of growth and decay. But in crucial respects it is different from them — and if we want to defend the West we would do well to ask ourselves what we think we are defending.