Oswald Spengler

I outline the life and political thought of the early twentieth century German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880-1936).
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  Oswald Spengler  Ian James Kidd  Forthcoming in Gregory Claeys (ed.),  Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought  (Washington: CQ Press, 2013)Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was a „reactionary modernist‟ –  one of a loose group of earlytwentieth century German historians, philosophers, and cultural critics whose thought was profoundly shaped by the social and political context of the Weimar Republic. Although henever held an academic or political position, Spengler became an immensely popular andinfluential writer and ideologue whose diagnoses of the decline of Western culture wereinformed by an ambitious history of human civilization.Spengler  ‟s main work is the two volume doomsday classic The Decline of the West  (  Der Untergang des Abendlandes ) published in 1917 and 1922. Its deep pessimism was graduallymoderated in  Prussianism and Socialism (  Preussentum und Sozialismus , 1919)  –  which  praised a „true socialism‟ characterized by martial virtues such as discipline and self-sacrifice  –  and in  Man and Technics (  Der Mensch und die Technik  , 1931), which identified industrial technology as a mode of cultural recovery. Unfortunately Spengler‟s later work  , The Hour of  Decision (  Jahre die Entscheidung  ,   1933), was banned by the National Socialists for itscriticisms of their racial biological ideology. Various other notebooks and sets of correspondence have since been published.Spengler was born in 1880 into a conservative family and a lonely childhood. Despiteearly immersion in classical cultures, Goethe, and Nietzsche, Spengler‟s academic studies were unexceptional and he worked as a private tutor until retiring on a modest inheritance. Like Nietzsche, Spengler‟s rather uneventful life w as characterized by psychologicalisolation and intellectual independence which, coupled with his material poverty, confirmedhis perception of himself as a neglected prophet. Spengler died in 1936 shortly after makingthe striking prescient prediction that the Third Reich would disappear within ten years. Spengler‟s thought was a reaction to the cultural crisis following the First World War and the liberal and egalitarian values of the Weimar Republic. Such reactionary sentiments wereinvested in a romantic nationalism inherited from Goethe and Nietzsche based upon anennobling conception of the German spirit  –  the Volksgeist  . Yet although such stirringaffirmations of the supremacy of German culture were welcomed by a disenchanted population with a recent experience of military defeat and political and economic collapse,they generated a problem  –    namely how to reconcile these nationalist accounts of Germany‟s ennobling historical and cultural richness with its obvious state of present crisis.Spengler responded by articulating the intellectually and historically ambitious „morphology of world - cultures‟ expressed in  Decline of the West  . Spengler drew upon Hegel‟s philosophy of history to articulate a cyclical model of the history of human civilizations. Cultures, like organisms, pass through a series of predetermined developmentalstages whose transition relies upon the presence of isolated visionary figures  –  like Spengler. Those visionaries begin to reorder society around a „prime symbol‟ –  an object or narrative  –   which symbolizes its values and identity. For instance, the prime symbol of Classical (Greek-Roman) culture was the bold and autonomous individual as represented by the nude statue. This „morphological‟ process takes around one thousand year  s which Spengler illustrates using dense descriptions of various „cultural forms‟ ( Gestalt  )  –    including the „Hindu‟,„Magian‟ and „Faustian‟ –  and used this to determine that Western culture was entering into  its inevitable stage of decline. The power of this thesis lay in its attribution of German declineto irresistible historical forces which could only be described and resolutely faced with themartial virtues  –  like courage and discipline  –  which Spengler praised. Unfortunately Spengler‟s pessimistic d eterminism lost its appeal during the economic and political optimism of the early years of National Socialism. Later works therefore becomemore optimistic and activist as Spengler argues that the proper response to inevitable declinewas not fatalism but heroism and martial virtue.  Man and Technics urges Germans to become „active, fighting and charged‟ and to embrace military and industrial technology and manifesttheir creative and intellectual capacities in defiance of their impending doom. Spengler arg ued that the history of human cultures was the manifestation of „technics‟ –  a metaphysical force related to Nietzsche‟s „will -to-  power‟ –  and that cultural deliverance was  premised upon appreciation of the fact that the „soul of man‟ was identical with the „essenceof technics‟ as an inexhaustibly creative and agonistic force concerned not with utilitarian  progress but with dynamic competition and courageous struggle.Unfortunately Spengler‟s continuing hostilities towards National Socialist ideology and his refusal to become a state ideologue ensured that his final days were lonely ones spent inreflection on his Cassandra status as an unheeded prophet. Spengler‟s pessimistic vision of  Western culture influenced both his contemporaries and subsequent thinkers ranging fromMartin Heidegger to the Beat Generation counter-culture. Few were persuaded by his „morphology of world - cultures‟ ,  but the power of Spengler‟s thought lies not in the clarity of his arguments, nor the plausibility of his claims, but rather in his polemical intensity andvisionary power. See Also German Political Thought, Martin Heidegger, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche,Carl Schmitt, Technology and Political Thought.B IBLIOGRAPHY Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimenberg (Eds.). The Weimar Republic Sourcebook  .Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. David E. Cooper, “Modern Mythology: The Case of „Reactionary Modernism‟,”  History of the Human Sciences 9 (1996): 25-37.Jeffrey Herf.  Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and theThird Reich . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.John Farrenkopf,  Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics . Baton Rouge:Louisiana State University Press, 2001.Ian James Kidd , “Oswald Spengler, Technology, and Human Nature”, The European Legacy  17 (2012): 19-31.
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