The German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) is famous for his Decline of the West. He held that civilizations, like biological organisms, pass through a determinable life cycle and that the modern West was approaching the end of such a cycle.
Oswald Spengler was born at Blankenburg am Harz on May 29, 1880, the son of a postal official. Although mathematics and natural science were his major subjects at the University of Halle, he received his doctorate for a dissertation on Heraclitus in 1904. After recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1905-1906, Spengler taught in secondary schools until a small inheritance from his mother allowed him in 1911 to move to Munich as a private scholar. Spengler never married.
Exempted from military service because of poor health, Spengler wrote the major part of The Decline of the West during the war years under conditions of great economic hardship. The first volume appeared in 1918, the second in 1922.
The Decline of the West is an impassioned attack against the values of modern post-Enlightenment civilization—of intellect, social equality, peace, and urban culture. Borrowing from the anti-intellectualist tradition of German conservative thought, he rejects the possibility of scientific history. History is never "correct" or "erroneous" but only "deep" or "shallow." Human history as such has no meaning. In place of the traditional Europeocentric conception of a linear history of human civilization, Spengler offers a "Copernican" view of history in which Western (or Faustian) civilization since A.D. 1000 constitutes merely one of eight historic cultures. Each culture has a wholly individual way of looking at the world which permeates all its cultural expressions, even its mathematics and science. No understanding is possible between men of different cultures. Nevertheless, the similarity of the life processes of birth, growth, and decay makes possible a "comparative morphology of history." A culture is born out of the historyless mass of humanity the moment "a great soul awakens."
All cultures in their beginning are aristocratic, dominated by the heroic estates of the warrior noble and priest. The maturation of a culture is a process of intellectualization, urbanization, social leveling, and the growing domination of money. In this process the creative essence of the culture is progressively lost until the culture, now become shallow, gives way to a soulless megalopolitan "civilization." In the West this transformation occurred in the 19th century. Democracy, behind which hides the dictatorship of money, then opens the path to Caesarism and the dissolution of the culture into total formlessness. Democracy, parliamentarism, egalitarianism, proletarian socialism, pacifism, humanitarianism, and attempts at "world improvement" and social reform, Spengler concluded, were all symptoms of a decadent civilization. The moral to be learned from world history is that "ever in History it is life and life only—race quality, the triumph of the will to power" which counts.
The Decline of the West catapulted Spengler to fame. He became a political prophet for disillusioned German national conservatives stunned by defeat in World War I. Beginning with his essay "Prussianism and Socialism" (1920), in which he sought to lay the basis for a new revolutionary conservatism which identified socialism with service to the state, Spengler devoted himself to free-lance political writings against the Weimar Republic, which he detested. Despite his strident opposition to democracy, his idealization of authoritarian and military values, and his almost paranoid racism, he regarded the Nazis with mistrust. As an elitist, he was repelled by their demagogic appeal.
The Nazis regarded Spengler as one of their intellectual forerunners. Adolf Hitler received him in 1933. Nevertheless the critical tone of his Hour of Decision (1933) resulted in the condemnation of the book and the man by the Nazis. Spengler died on May 8, 1936.
Further Reading on Oswald Spengler
The best English-language introduction to Spengler's thought is H. Stuart Hughes, Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate (1952). Other books include E. H. Goddard and P. A. Gibbons, Civilisation or Civilisations: An Essay on the Spenglerian Philosophy of History (1926), and William Harlan Hale, Challenge to Defeat: Modern Man in Goethe's World and Spengler's Century (1932). An extensive discussion of Spengler is in Pitirim A. Sorokin, Modern Historical and Social Philosophies (1963; first published in 1950 as Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis), and a brief chapter on him is in Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (1952).
Additional Biography Sources
Fischer, Klaus P., History and prophecy: Oswald Spengler and The decline of the West, Durham, N.C.: Moore Pub. Co., 1977.
Hughes, H. Stuart (Henry Stuart), Oswald Spengler, New Brunswick, U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1992.