Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (29 May 1880 – 8 May 1936) was a German historian, philosopher and political writer, most famous for his Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), the first volume of which was published in the summer of 1918 and by 1926 had gone through thirty printings.
Prussianism and Socialism (1919)
Prussianism and Socialism 1919, translated by Donald O. White
It is the heritage of anguished centuries, and it distinguishes us from all other people—us, the youngest and last people of our culture. ...
At the end of the [eighteenth] century Spain had long ceased to be a great power, and France was on the way to following her example. Both were old and exhausted nations, proud but weary, looking towards the past, but lacking the true ambition—which is to be strictly differentiated from jealousy—to continue to play a creative part in the future. [The end of the eighteenth century is the time of the French Revolution, which was all about equal rights.] ... "Equal rights" are contrary to nature, are an indication of the departure from type of ageing societies, are the beginning of their irrevocable decline. It is a piece of intellectual stupidity to want to substitute something else for the social structure that has grown up through the centuries and is fortified by tradition. There is no substituting anything else for Life. After Life there is only Death.
And that, at bottom, is the intention. We do not seek to alter and improve, but to destroy. In every society degenerate elements sink constantly to the bottom: exhausted families, downfallen members of generations of high breed, spiritual and physical failures and inferiors. ...
- There is but one end to all the conflict, and that is death—the death of individuals, of peoples, of cultures. Our own death still lies far ahead of us in the murky darkness of the next thousand years. We Germans, situated as we are in this century, bound by our inborn instincts to the destiny of Faustian civilization, have within ourselves rich and untapped resources, but immense obligations as well. ... The true International is imperialism, domination of Faustian civilization, i.e., of the whole earth, by a single formative principle, not by appeasement and compromise but by conquest and annihilation.
To the new International that is now in the irreversible process of preparation we can contribute the ideas of worldwide organization and the world state; the English can suggest the idea of worldwide exploitation and trusts; the French can offer nothing. ...
- Thus we find two great economic principles opposed to each other in the modern world. The Viking has become a free-tradesman; the Teutonic knight is now an administrative official. There can be no reconciliation. Each of these principles is proclaimed by a German people, Faustian men par excellence. Neither can accept a restriction of its will, and neither can be satisfied until the whole world has succumbed to its particular idea. This being the case, war will be waged until one side gains final victory. Is world economy to be worldwide exploitation, or worldwide organization? Are the Caesars of the coming empire to be billionaires or universal administrators? Shall the population of the earth, so long as this empire of Faustian civilization holds together, be subjected to cartels and trusts, or to men such as those envisioned in the closing pages of Goethe’s Faust, Part II? Truly, the destiny of the world is at stake. ...
This brings us to the political aspects of the English-Prussian antithesis. Politics is the highest and most powerful dimension of all historical existence. World history is the history of states; the history of states is the history of wars. Ideas, when they press for decisions, assume the form of political units: countries, peoples, or parties. They must be fought over not with words but with weapons. Economic warfare becomes military warfare between countries or within countries. Religious associations such as Jewry and Islam, Huguenots and Mormons, constitute themselves as countries when it becomes a matter of their continued existence or their success. Everything that proceeds from the innermost soul to become flesh or fleshly creation demands a sacrifice of flesh in return. Ideas that have become blood demand blood. War is the eternal pattern of higher human existence, and countries exist for war’s sake; they are signs of readiness for war. And even if a tired and blood-drained humanity desired to do away with war, like the citizens of the Classical world during its final centuries, like the Indians and Chinese of today, it would merely exchange its role of war-wager for that of the object about and with which others would wage war. Even if a Faustian universal harmony could be attained, masterful types on the order of late Roman, late Chinese, or late Egyptian Caesars would battle each other for this Empire—for the possession of it, if its final form were capitalistic; or for the highest rank in it, if it should become socialistic.
The concepts "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat" reflect the typically English preference for business rather than manual work. (But of course not over mental work. Just as the English intellectual was by choice either a Tory or a Whig, he has had to choose between the two new economic parties. Being a "gentleman", he has naturally opted for big business.) The former is a blessing, the latter a calamity; the one is noble, the other base. But with their hatred the misfortunate ones say, "Business is the evil occupation, manual labor the good." This is the explanation for the mental attitude which gave rise to Marx's social criticism and which has made him so catastrophic for true socialism. He knew the nature of work only from the English viewpoint, as a means of getting rich, as a means lacking in all moral depth. Only success and money, the visible and tangible signs of God’s grace, were of ethical import. The Englishman has no inkling of the dignity of hard work. For him, work is a debasing thing, an ugly necessity. Pity the poor soul who has nothing but work, who owns nothing without more and more work, but who above all will never have wealth in the future! Had Marx understood the meaning of Prussian work, of activity for its own sake, of service in the name of the totality, for "all together" and not for oneself, of duty that ennobles regardless of the kind of work performed—had he been able to comprehend these things, his Manifesto would probably never have been written.
- On this matter he was aided by his Jewish instinct, which he himself characterized in his essay on the Jewish question. The curse on physical labor pronounced in the beginning of Genesis, the prohibition against defiling the Sabbath by work—these things made him receptive to the Old Testament pathos of the English sensibility. Hence his hatred of those who do not need to work. The socialism of a Fichte would accuse such people of sloth, it would brand them as irresponsible, dispensable shirkers and parasites. But Marxian instinct envies them. They are too well-off, and therefore they should be revolted against. Marx has inoculated his proletariat with a contempt for work. His fanatical disciples wish to destroy all culture in order to decrease the amount of indispensable work.
- Work was for him a commodity, not an obligation. That is the core of his political economics. His ethics were the ethics of big business. Not that business is unethical; but we can read between the lines his opinion that the laborer is a fool not to engage in it. And laborers have understood him. The battle for higher wages became a kind of investment speculation: the worker was now a merchant selling his product, work. The trick about Marx's famous "surplus value" thesis is that it was considered as spoils to be carried off by the successful merchant from the opponent's stores. It was not to be presented to him for nothing. Class egoism thus became a universal principle. The laborer not only wanted to do business, he wanted to corner the whole market. The true Marxist is hostile to the state, and for the very same reason as the Whig: it hinders him in the ruthless exercise of his private business interests. Marxism is the capitalism of the working class.
Marx wished to deprive capital of the right to private profit, but the only thing he could think of as a substitute was the worker's right to private profit. That is unsocialistic, but it is typically English. Marx became an Englishman on one other score as well: in his mind the state does not exist. He thought statelessly, in terms of "society". Like parliamentary practice in England, his economic world functions as a two-party system with nothing above the parties. Within his scheme there can be only combat and no arbitration, only victory or defeat, only the dictatorship of one of the two parties. The Communist Manifesto calls for a dictatorship of the "good" proletarian party over the "evil" capitalist party. Marx saw no alternatives.
- The Prussian socialist state exists beyond this "good" and "evil". It is the whole people, and in the face of its absolute authority the two Marxian parties are simply parties—minorities that serve the general weal. From a strictly technical viewpoint, socialism is the principle of public service. In the final analysis every worker has the status not of a businessman, but of a public servant, as does every employer. There are public servants of industry, commerce, traffic, and the military. This system was realized in the grandest style in Egyptian culture and again, though quite differently, in China.
- The meaning of socialism is that life is dominated not by the contrast of rich and poor but by rank as determined by achievement and ability.
- Socialism means power, power, and more power. Thoughts and schemes are nothing without power. The path to power has already been mapped: the valuable elements of German labor in union with the best representatives of the Old Prussian state idea, both groups determined to build a strictly socialist state to democratize our nation in the Prussian manner; both forged into a unit by the same sense of duty, by the awareness of a great obligation, by the will to obey in order to rule, to die in order to win, by the strength to make immense sacrifices in order to accomplish what we were born for, what we are, what could not be without us.
- We are socialists. Let us hope that it will not have been in vain.
Der Untergang des Abendlandes
Gestalt und Wirklichkeit (1918)
Volume I. Gestalt and Actuality
- The philosophy of this book I owe to the philosophy of Goethe, which is practically unknown to-day, and also (but in a far less degree) to that of Nietzsche. The position of Goethe in West-European metaphysics is still not understood in the least; when philosophy is being discussed he is not even named. For unfortunately he did not set down his doctrines in a rigid system, and so the systematic philosophy has overlooked him. Nevertheless he was a philosopher. His place vis-à-vis Kant is the same as that of Plato—who similarly eludes the would-be-systematizer—vis-à-vis Aristotle. Plato and Goethe stand for the philosophy of Becoming, Aristotle and Kant the philosophy of Being. Here we have intuition opposed to analysis. Something that it is practically impossible to convey by the methods of reason is found in individual sayings and poems of Goethe, e.g., in the Orphische Urworte, and stanzas like "Wenn im Unendlichen" and "Sagt es Niemand," which must be regarded as the expression of a perfectly definite metaphysical doctrine. I would not have one single word changed in this: "The Godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and therefore, similarly, the reason (Vernunft) is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and the understanding (Verstand) only to make use of the become and the set-fast" (to Eckermann). This sentence comprises my entire philosophy.
- Vol. I, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926, p. 49
- The stone statue and the scientific system deny life. Mathematical number, the formal principle of an extension-world of which the phenomenal existence is only the derivative and servant of waking human consciousness, bears the hall-mark of causal necessity and so is linked with death as chronological number is with becoming, with life, with the necessity of destiny. This connexion of strict mathematical form with the end of organic being, with the phenomenon of its organic remainder the corpse, we shall see more and more clearly to be the origin of all great art. We have already noticed the development of early ornament on funerary equipments and receptacles. Numbers are symhols of the mortal. Stiff forms are the negation of life, formulas and laws spread rigidity over the face of nature, numbers make dead …
- Vol. I, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926, p. 70
- The interlaced borders of the "Late-Roman" mosaic pavements and sarcophagus-edges, and even geometrical plane-patterns are introduced, and finally, throughout the Persian-Anatolian world, mobility and bizarrerie culminate in the Arabesque. This is the genuine Magian motive—anti-plastic to the last degree, hostile to the pictorial and to the bodily alike. Itself bodiless, it disembodies the object over which its endless richness of web is drawn.
- Vol. I, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926, p. 215
- What the myth of Götterdämmerung signified of old, the irreligious form of it, the theory of Entropy, signifies to-day—world's end as completion of an inwardly necessary evolution.
- Vol. I, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926, pp. 423–24
Welthistorische Perspektiven (1922)
Volume II. World-historical Perspectives
- And then, when being is sufficiently uprooted and waking-being sufficiently strained, there suddenly emerges into the bright light of history a phenomenon that has long been preparing itself underground and now steps forward to make an end of the drama—the sterility of civilized man. This is not something that can be grasped as a plain matter of causality (as modern science naturally enough has tried to grasp it); it is to be understood as an essentially metaphysical turn towards death. The last man of the world-city no longer wants to live—he may cling to life as an individual, but as a type, as an aggregate, no, for it is a characteristic of this collective existence that it eliminates the terror of death. That which strikes the true peasant with a deep and inexplicable fear, the notion that the family and the name may be extinguished, has now lost its meaning. The continuance of the blood-relation in the visible world is no longer a duty of the blood, and the destiny of being the last of the line is no longer felt as a doom. Children do not happen, not because children have become impossible, but principally because intelligence at the peak of intensity can no longer find any reason for their existence.
- Vol. II, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928, pp. 103–04
- Intelligence and sterility are allied in old families, old peoples, and old cultures, not merely because in each microcosm the overstrained and fettered animal-element is eating up the plant element, but also because the waking-consciousness assumes that being is normally regulated by causality. That which the man of intelligence, most significantly and characteristically, labels as "natural impulse" or "life-force", he not only knows, but also values, causally, giving it the place amongst his other needs that his judgment assigns to it. When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard "having children" as a question of pros and cons, the great turning-point has come. For Nature knows nothing of pro and con. Everywhere, wherever life is actual, reigns an inward organic logic, an "it", a drive, that is utterly independent of waking-being, with its causal linkages, and indeed not even observed by it. The abundant proliferation of primitive peoples is a natural phenomenon, which is not even thought about, still less judged as to its utility or the reverse. When reasons have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable. At that point begins prudent limitation of the number of births. In the classical world the practice was deplored by Polybius as the ruin of Greece, and yet even at his date it had long been established in the great cities; in subsequent Roman times it became appallingly general. At first explained by the economic misery of the times, very soon it ceased to explain itself at all. And at that point, too, in Buddhist India as in Babylon, in Rome as in our own cities, a man's choice of the woman who is to be, not mother of his children as amongst peasants and primitives, but his own "companion for life", becomes a problem of mentalities. The Ibsen marriage appears, the "higher spiritual affinity" in which both parties are "free"—free, that is, as intelligences, free from the plantlike urge of the blood to continue itself, and it becomes possible for a Shaw to say "that unless Woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself." The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of "mutual understanding". ...
At this level all civilizations enter upon a stage, which lasts for centuries, of appalling depopulation. The whole pyramid of cultural man vanishes. It crumbles from the summit, first the world-cities, then the provincial forms, and finally the land itself, whose best blood has incontinently poured into the towns, merely to bolster them up awhile. At the last, only the primitive blood remains, alive, but robbed of its strongest and most promising elements. This residue is the fellah type.
If anything has demonstrated the fact that causality has nothing to do with history, it is the familiar "decline" of the classical, which accomplished itself long before the irruption of Germanic migrants. The Imperium enjoyed the completest peace; it was rich and highly developed; it was well organized; and it possessed in its emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius a series of rulers such as the Caesarism of no other civilization can show. And yet the population dwindled, quickly and wholesale. The desperate marriage-and-children laws of Augustus—amongst them the Lex de maritandis ordinibus, which dismayed Roman society more than the destruction of Varus's legions—the wholesale adoptions, the incessant plantation of soldiers of barbarian origin to fill the depleted country-side, the immense food-charities of Nerva and Trajan for the children of poor parents—nothing availed to check the process.
- Vol. II, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928, pp. 104–06
- If by "democracy" we mean the form which the Third Estate as such wishes to impart to public life as a whole, it must be concluded that democracy and plutocracy are the same thing under the two aspects of wish and actuality, theory and practice, knowing and doing. It is the tragic comedy of the world‑improvers' and freedom‑teachers' desperate fight against money that they are ipso facto assisting money to be effective. Respect for the big number—expressed in the principles of equality for all, natural rights, and universal suffrage—is just as much a class‑ideal of the unclassed as freedom of public opinion (and more particularly freedom of the press) is so. These are ideals, but in actuality the freedom of public opinion involves the preparation of public opinion, which costs money; and the freedom of the press brings with it the question of possession of the press, which again is a matter of money; and with the franchise comes electioneering, in which he who pays the piper calls the tune. The representatives of the ideas look at one side only, while the representatives of money operate with the other. The concepts of Liberalism and Socialism are set in effective motion only by money. … the Jacobins had destroyed the old obligations of the blood and so had emancipated money; now it stepped forward as lord of the land. There is no proletarian, not even a Communist movement, that has not operated in the interests of money, in the directions indicated by money, and for the time being permitted by money—and that without the idealists among its leaders having the slightest suspicion of the fact. The great movement which makes use of the catchwords of Marx has not delivered the entrepreneur into the power of the worker, but both into that of the Bourse.
- Vol. II, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928, pp. 401–02
- To-day we live so cowed under the bombardment of this intellectual artillery that hardly anyone can attain to the inward detachment that is required for a clear view of the monstrous drama. The will-to-power operating under a pure democratic disguise has finished off its masterpiece so well that the object's sense of freedom is actually flattered by the most thorough-going enslavement that has ever existed.
- Vol. II, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928, p. 461
- The press to-day is an army with carefully organized arms and branches, with journalists as officers, and readers as soldiers. But here, as in every army, the soldier obeys blindly, and war-aims and operation-plans change without his knowledge. The reader neither knows, nor is allowed to know, the purposes for which he is used, nor even the role that he is to play. A more appalling caricature of freedom of thought cannot be imagined. Formerly a man did not dare to think freely. Now he dares, but cannot; his will to think is only a willingness to think to order, and this is what he feels as his liberty.
- Vol. II, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928, p. 462
On the German National Character (1924)
First published in Deutsches Adelsblatt, XLII (1924).
- And now to the decisive factor: our boundless urge to follow and serve, to worship anyone or anything, to believe blindly and with doglike loyalty, all advice to the contrary notwithstanding.
Man and Technics (1931)
- Optimism is cowardice.
The Hour of Decision (1933)
The Hour of Decision 19 August 1933
The principle of inorganic equality was for them crucial. Men of the stamp of Jahn and Arndt had no notion that it was Equality that had first sounded the cry of "Vive la nation" in the September massacres of 1792.
They forgot, too, one basic fact. The Romanticism of their Volkslieder sang only the heroism of the common soldier, but the inner worth of these armies (at first amateurs in the calling of arms), their spirit, their discipline, and their training, depended upon the quality of the officer‑corps, whose adequacy was due entirely to eighteenth-century traditions. With the Jacobins also a body of soldiers was morally worth precisely as much as its officer, who had trained it by his example. Napoleon confessed at St. Helena that he would not have been beaten had he had for his superb fighting material a corps of officers like the Austrian, a corps in which chivalrous traditions of loyalty, honour, and silent self-discipline still survived. Once the command wavers in its intentions and its attitude—or itself abdicates, as in 1918—the bravest regiment becomes on the spot a cowardly and helpless herd. ...
- All young sects are at bottom hostile to State and property, class and rank, and are attracted to universal equality.
Romanticism is no sign of powerful instincts, but, on the contrary, of a weak, self-detesting intellect. They are all infantile, these Romantics; men who remain children too long (or for ever), without the strength to criticize themselves, but with perpetual inhibitions arising from the obscure awareness of their own personal weakness; who are impelled by the morbid idea of reforming society, which is to them too masculine, too healthy, too sober. ...
And these same everlasting "Youths" are with us again today, immature, destitute of the slightest experience or even real desire for experience, but writing and talking away about politics, fired by uniforms and badges, and clinging fantastically to some theory or other. There is a social Romanticism of sentimental Communists, a political Romanticism which regards election figures and the intoxication of mass-meeting oratory as deeds, and an economic Romanticism which trickles out from behind the gold theories of sick minds that know nothing of the inner forms of modern economics. They can only feel in the mass, where they can deaden the dull sense of their weakness by multiplying themselves. And this they call the Overcoming of Individualism.
Quotes about Spengler
- Alongside the vibrant radical literary culture of Berlin there was another literary world, appealing to the conservative nationalist part of the middle classes, rooted in nostalgia for the lost Bismarckian past and prophesying its return with the longed-for collapse of the Weimar Republic. Particularly popular was Oswald Spengler's The Fall of the West, which divided human history into natural cycles of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and located early twentieth-century Germany in the winter phase, characterized by 'tendencies of an irreligious and unmetaphysical urban cosmopolitanism', in which art had suffered a 'preponderance of foreign art-forms.' In politics, according to Spengler, winter was recognizable by the rule of the inorganic, cosmopolitan masses and the collapse of established state forms. Spengler won many adherents with his new claim that this heralded the beginning of an imminent transition to a new spring, that would be 'agriculture-intuitive' and ruled by an 'organic structure of political existence', leading to the 'mighty creations of an awakening, dream-laden soul'. Other writers gave the coming period of revival to a new name that was soon to be taken up with enthusiasm by the radical right: the Third Reich.
- Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (2004), pp. 120-121
- Today this unquestioned faith in the machine has been severely shaken. The absolute validity of the machine has become a conditioned validity: even Spengler, who has urged the men of his generation to become engineers and men of fact, regards that career as a sort of honorable suicide and looks forward to the period when the monuments of the machine civilization will be tangled masses of rusting iron and empty concrete shells. While for those of us who are more hopeful both of man's destiny and that of the machine, the machine is no longer the paragon of progress and the final expression of our desires: it is merely a series of instruments, which we will use in so far as they are serviceable to life at large, and which we will curtail where they infringe upon it or exist purely to support the adventitious structure of capitalism.
- Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) Ch. VIII "Orientation"
- He has completely mastered ten or fifteen sciences. He has a penetrating judgment on the whole historical process, as far as history reaches. And he also has something which men of today almost never have, a sound eye for the phenomena of decline in the civilizations of the present day. There is a fundamental difference between Spengler and those who do not grasp the nature of the impulses of decline and who try all kinds of arrangements for extracting from the decayed ideas some appearance of upward motion. Were it not heart-rending it might be humorous to see how people with traditional ideas all riddled with decay meet today in conferences and believe that out of decay they can create progress by means of programs. Such a man as Oswald Spengler, who really knows something, does not yield to such a deception. He calculates like a precise mathematician the rapidity of our decline and comes out with the prediction (which is more than a vague prophecy) that by the year 2200 this Occidental culture will have fallen into complete barbarism.
- Rudolf Steiner, On Spengler's Decline of the West, Lecture in Dornach, July 2, 1920
- The Oswald Spengler Collection.
- Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West Vol. I (1926) and vol. II (1928), Alfred A. Knopf
- Works by Spengler, including his books, essays and lectures (in German)
- Berdyaev, Nikolai. The Pre-Death Thoughts of Faust
- Remembering Oswald Spengler (May 29, 1880–May 8, 1936)
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