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Decline of the West? Spengler Reconsidered

ISSUE:  Spring 1983

The passage of time has never been taken for granted in the West. Rather, and as we know from the culture’s rich records in philosophy, religion, history, and biography, it has challenged the thoughtful in all generations to explain time’s ineluctable movements, come to terms with time’s boons and ravages, and, above all, to account for man’s proper use of his allotted span of life. In this general context few questions have preoccupied Western minds as insistently as those which probe the reasons for the rise and fall, or the progress and decay, of all man-willed ventures on earth, including nations, states, and cultures. One religious medieval thinker (4th century A. D.) thus concluded that

God looked in the future and set the first man in that place (i. e. Paradise, in the East) in order to cause him to understand that, just as the light of heaven moves toward the West, so the human race hastens towards death.

Another, writing in the 12th century A. D., held that the course of events has gradually been moving westward, until now it has reached the end of the earth and we must face the fact that we are approaching the end of the ages.

Such chiliastic anticipations were gainsaid by actual developments in history. True, the sun continued to rise in the East and set in the West. True also that the Islamic crescent displaced the Christian cross in Constantinople in 1453. Yet it was clear by the end of the 15th century that the West had advanced its frontiers to the far shores of the Atlantic and that its inventiveness in the arts, letters, and sciences was unparalleled in the East, where uneasiness was not the prevalent mood and where time-tested customs and modes of thinking were not as readily questioned as they were in the West.

The principle of individuation which sparks inventiveness as well as doubt, remained the dominant constitutive factor in Europe and, after the 18th century, also in North America. But from the 19th century onward it was challenged by theories of economic determinism, ideologies advocating the overthrow of the West’s political and economic institutions, and predictions announcing the doom of the West and the rise of the East. These tendencies, which received much of their momentum from foes of Occidental thought, had the combined effect of inducing widespread self-doubt and defeatism in Europe and the United States and therefore of confounding or impeding strategically vital thinking. The Second World War thus ultimately resulted in a marked spatial contraction of the West’s domain and the serious loss of strategic control in world affairs—tendencies that have since been confirmed and furthered by Euro-American policies as recorded, for example, in the Helsinki agreement of 1973.

Was the West destined to slide into retreat? How does one know just what is rising, what by contrast dying? And what exactly is meant by “decline” in the world of different cultures? Questions such as these have not been widely raised or answered in academic and diplomatic circles, and it may therefore be worthwhile, at this juncture in history, to review Oswald Spengler’s thoughts on The Decline of the West.

Reflections on Spengler allow for the thought that his own biography is an eloquent metaphor for one of the most pervasive themes in his work, that, namely, which centers upon the place of the creative individual in culture, society, and time. Spengler held with Goethe that humanity is an abstraction, and that there have always been only men. Only the individual—der Einzelne—thinks and has ideas. Humanity, or mankind, he notes, has no goal, no plan, and no ideas; it is an empty, zoological term. These were not fashionable thoughts in an age marked by crass materialism and totalitarian systems of rule, but Spengler never wavered in his commitment to acknowledge the primacy of ideas and the distinctiveness of men who bring them forth.

In praising the wondrous life of ideas, however, Spengler never forgot that all life is change, that concepts undergo transformation and that becoming and declining are two aspects of one and the same organic process. Contrary to numerous respected theorists and historians in the Occident, who accentuate the themes of evolution in their work and who are programmatically “upbeat” in conjecturing the future in terms of progress, Spengler was convinced that the full measure of life can be discovered only when decline and decay are perceived and assessed as clearly as beginning and becoming. It is this dual focus that seems to have irritated many of his detractors, causing them to charge Spengler with the social sin of pessimism.

Spengler was quite conscious of this clash of orientations in the West. He knew that men are generally disdainful of experience and that, driven by limitless and uncontrolled hope, they like to conceptualize the future in terms of what they consider the desirable rather than the likely course of events. In counterpoint to these, in his view, irrational trends, he remarked that optimism is naive and in some respects even vulgar, and that it surely stands for cowardice when one is afraid to face the fact that life is fleeting and transient in all its aspects.

These thoughts touch a major motif in Spengler’s philosophy which critics tend to ignore, namely the recognition of the place of tragedy in the Occidental cultural world. Tragic modes of experiencing life can only evolve there, where the individual human being is presumed autonomous in his feelings, thoughts, and actions, and where he is therefore vulnerable to the agony of having to make choices between conflicting interests and commitments. They are thus absent in the high cultures of the Orient, where human beings are generally subsumed in the superior concept of the consensus or in the social roles assigned them. In fact, they have been fully developed only in the cultures of the West, and in this context, again, Spengler suggests that they have been more enduring in continental Europe than in England, where they atrophied under the weight of utilitarianism and pragmatism, and in the United States, where “the longing for the happy ending” came to set the tone for life.

Spengler’s pessimism, then, is strictly qualified. And the same holds for his determinism. He notes that there is nothing absolutely inevitable about the passage from one phase in the history of a culture, a nation, or a state to the other, and that none of these three organisms is bound to wither away. Decline will set in only when living human beings choose to play light with their society’s moral and legal ground rules and when they voluntarily indulge in the mechanization of their intellectual and sentimental lives. Indices of decline are man-made, after all—hence Spengler’s distinction between possible and actual culture. Indeed, there is a strong suggestion in his work that biography is, in the final analysis, dominant over the flux of time. Just as he himself had the courage to fathom the idea of decline without ever suspending efforts to arrest this process, so does he seem to have believed that intelligent men must always be ready to size up the epoch and the milieu in which they find themselves so that they may take constructive action in response to the demands of the hour. Statesmanship in particular, he tells us, is just not conceivable without this dimension of thought.


Spengler announces his unifying scheme in Volume I of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, which opens with Goethe’s lines:

Wenn im Unendlichen dasselbe
Sich wiederholend ewig fliesst;
Das tausendfältige Gewölbe
Sich kräftig ineinander schliesst;
Strömt Lebenslust aus alien Dingen,
Dem kleinsten wie dem grossten Stern,
Und alles Drängen, alles Ringen
1st ewige Ruh in Gott dem Herrn

It is the Dasselbe in the rush of life and the flow of time which Spengler was determined to uncover and identify. What he looked for in his attempts to understand a folk, a nation, or a culture was the human unit’s integral sustaining essence. He concluded that this essence which radiates “inner certainty” to successive generations and which therefore stands for the group’s destiny (Schicksal) is not a function either of race or of language. Just look at the Romans, he counsels the reader: they were neither Etruscan nor Latin but specifically Roman. Or consider the Persians: once they were Indian heroes riding West, later they were Parthians or Mongolians who incorporated the sentiment of Persian nationalism and accepted Persian speech forms. The vital question in each case is rather, Spengler insists, what does it mean to be a Roman or a Persian? And the answer can be found and formulated only after one has come to terms with the given group’s “unity of experience.”

Since a culture—and it usually encompasses different but fundamentally like-minded peoples or nations—is such a field of unified human experience, the fact must be accepted that there are as many cultures as there are distinct modes of experiencing unity in thought and life styles. Spengler elucidates this point on page after page, as, for example, when he takes certain 19th- and 20th-century European thinkers to task (Nietzsche and Ibsen in particular) for their blithe assumption that abstract truths argued from the records of Europe’s history are valid for man everywhere. Other peoples, other truths, Spengler concludes; and for the thinking man all truths are relevant or none is.

This proposition is the core of Spengler’s philosophy of culture and history. We are thus reminded forcefully that mankind could not have rallied to one number system, because there are several modes of mathematical thought, several Zahlenwelten, and hence several cultures. Moreover, each distinct mathematical language is linked to other culturally discrete languages and symbols, among them those implicit in music and architecture. The Gothic dome and the Islamic mosque tell at a glance of radically different human strivings and spatial orientations. Further, and quite contrary to long dominant persuasions in the Western European world, few other realms subscribe to the principle of progression in time, and even fewer rely on history as the major repository of a society’s “unity of experience” in time. And in this connection Spengler notes explicitly what is generally being overlooked today, namely, that all dispositions to space and time, including those bearing on the organization and maintenance of society, are inextricably linked to a given group’s relationship to writing.

Spengler begins with the recognition that whereas speech relates to what is present, near, and actual, writing is the great symbol of distance, continuity, the future, and the yearning for eternity. History as distinguished from mere consciousness of the past thus presupposes writing; the state and law are preconditioned by it, and “world history,” which is predicated on recorded relationships between states, cannot be fathomed without it. Spengler’s main conclusion, presented in eloquent, often poetic prose, is, in effect, that the real meaning of any one category or order of thought can be experienced only within the particular culture that has brought it forth.

These insights or reminders help explain why societies which rose and matured in conditions of nonliteracy, as, for example, those in sub-Saharan Africa, simply cannot take to Western models of the state and law, and why it is difficult for us to understand societies for which history or secular law is not normatively significant.

Cultures rise, change, and decline. Spengler does not pretend to solve the mystery of a culture’s birth. But he points out that there are moments when the character of a culture becomes established, and when, therefore, a new reading of the universe becomes socially operative. These culture traits do not take form simultaneously in all fields of life. Rather, they appear in specific contexts which then become what he calls centers offeree, shaping first an elite and thereafter the culture’s structure in general.

Comparisons of eight high cultural histories (Egyptian, Sumero-Babylonian, Greco-Roman, Indian, Chinese, MayaAztec, Levantine, and West European) convinced Spengler that a moment arose in each of these great life courses when the critical-intellectual faculties of man gained ascendancy over the lyric-instinctual. A brief period of enlightened creativity then unfolded, but it always ended in exhaustion, sterility, mechanical repetition, and ultimately in confusion and dissolution. Spengler’s frame of reference here was deeply influenced by Goethe who had outlined a sequence of four stages as normal to all culture cycles and who associated the last phase with the following characteristics:

And so, the force of every mystery is undone, the people’s religion itself profaned; distinctions that formerly grew from each other in natural development now work against each other as contradictory elements, and thus we have the Tohuwa-Bohu chaos again; but not the first, gravid, fruitful one; rather, a dying one running to decay, from which not even the spirit of God could create for itself a worthy world.

These are the major symptoms of decline also perceived by Spengler. Surveying his own West European culture, he thus took early note of the mechanization of intellectual activities, the meaninglessness of all forms of political life, the rise of cosmopolitan world cities and rootless masses, and the advent of a second, rather primitive religiosity.

Spengler’s diagnoses of the ills of culture are so farreaching, vivid, and explicit that they are apt to induce depression. It is therefore helpful to remember that his time frame is not that of our “now” generations. In Spengler’s conception, decline is a most protracted process, in no way comparable, metaphorically speaking, to the sinking of an ocean liner. He thus notes that it took approximately one thousand years for creativity to spend itself in China (the nuclear creative epoch here is the period of “The Warring States”), and that the cultures of India and the Levant had also been fulfilled in all essentials when the decline set in hundreds of years before overt notice was taken of their exhaustion. In short, each of these cultures was burnt-out; in Spengler’s language it had become Fellahin. Western Europe’s Faustian culture, which began to unfold itself in the 10th century A.D. , reached its autumn period in the 18th century and began its wintering phase during the 19th century, i.e. nine hundred years after its inception.

Spengler’s thesis, that cultures follow essentially parallel courses, but that each culture transforms itself in accordance with its own guiding and sustaining ideas, holds for all stages of evolution, including those marked by decline. In combination with his conviction that one must distinguish between possible or potential culture and actual culture, it has the effect of correcting the impression left by a casual reading of his works, namely that everything is predetermined. Determinism is strictly qualified also by yet another distinctly Spenglerian and, in my opinion, politically and theoretically revolutionary complex of ideas, It is the one that addresses the problem of intercultural relations.

Spengler starts with the proposition that cultures are mutually incomprehensible in the sense that the denizens of one cannot fully understand the ideas and values guiding men in another culture. Misunderstandings thus ensue as a matter of course, even when deliberate efforts are made to approximate, even merge, culturally separate peoples by transposing concepts and institutions from one to the other.

The transplantation of Buddhism from India to China in the first millennium A.D. is a case in point. In Spengler’s view there had not been such a movement of “Buddhism” but rather an acceptance of part of the Indian Buddhists’ store of images by Chinese of a certain spiritual tendency. They then fashioned a new mode of religious expression having meaning for Chinese, and only Chinese, Buddhists. Other particularly interesting variations on the theme of cultural borrowing relate to interactions between the cultures of the Near East and Western Europe. Spengler thus observed that the Magian realm (which encompasses Judaism, early Christianity, and Islam) is the midmost of the group of higher cultures because it has been in touch with practically all others, and that in respect of both space and time. Yet nothing in any of these records persuaded him that a culturally unified world society can be created by a fiat of will. After all, Greeks and Persians had long coexisted in geographically close quarters, but Alexander’s intricate strategic design to fuse these two peoples turned out to be a failure. And the same holds for his methodical endeavors to merge these two societies with Bactria (Afghanistan today) and northwest India.

The relevance of these and analogous historical records for the present is obvious. Had scholars and statesmen in the United States followed some of Spengler’s leads and come to an understanding of the cultural structures underlying modern Islamic society, they might well have tempered their trust in the principle of “economic determinism,” according to which all 20th-century peoples would gladly forsake their values and worn-out traditions—which consigned them to poverty—so as to “develop” into economically advanced nation-states on models enacted by the modern West. Political decision-makers in our nation might also have learnt how to distinguish meaningfully between different strains in the Magian, notably the Islamic, world. Knowledge of pre-Islamic Iran’s heritage would surely have led them to the awareness that the 20th-century Pahlavi monarchs were in fact determined to build a Western-type secular nation, not by relying on borrowed Western blueprints, but by resuscitating some of their own Achaemenid traditions of statecraft in counterpoint to those espoused by the Shiite religious establishment. The full meaning of Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaratory injunction (1979) that Iranians must choose between the Book of Kings and the Koran would have been instantly understood by Spengler in its full significance. American scholars, journalists, and diplomats, by contrast, failed to assess the relevance of this remark.

Some of the episodes in the dialogue between Europe and the Levant—perhaps including the one just mentioned—are aspects of a phenomenon which Spengler calls “historical pseudo-morphosis.” This concept, viewed by some commentators as the most daring construction in The Decline of the West, relates to situations in which an older alien culture lies so massively over a land that a young indigenous culture cannot develop its own self-consciousness. No authentic positive or constructive feelings and ideas can arise in such conditions. What grows and festers instead is hatred for “the alien.” Spengler thus points out that an important segment of the Magian realm had developed in just this way under Greek and Roman pressures until it suddenly, with Mohammed, broke free, allowing Islam to evolve its own culture. And he makes the same case for northern Europe’s culture which began its evolution under the heavy cover of both classical Greco-Roman and Levantine Biblical influences and which came into its own only after the original Magian forms of Christianity had been recast so as to bring them into an organic relationship to Europe’s indigenous (non-Magian) character.

Spengler illustrates the poignancy of the ongoing dialogue between the West and the East by calling attention to the fact that Magian man is mainly an integral part of the consensus which, emerging from God, excludes error and the very possibility of a self-asserting ego. Truth here is thus something other than in the Occident, where the human being thinks of himself in terms of an essentially self-determining ego. Such a norm is explicitly denied in Magian thought, and Western epistemological methods must be dismissed as madness and infatuation in the Levant because they rest upon individual judgment.

Spengler had a keen understanding for yet another aspect of cultural borrowing that has not received the attention it deserves from modern Western scholars and diplomats. This relates to the psychological “backlash” that has been ensuing regularly when borrowed Western ideas, whether pertaining to science, economics, law, or government, do not produce desired or expected results in non-Western societies. With special regard to the phenomenon of pseudo-morphosis in the Middle East, Spengler thus knew what we seem to have been discovering only lately, namely that this kind of failure does not induce self-criticism on the part of the receiving people. Rather, and as he observes succinctly, it vents itself routinely in indictments of the Occident, which is pronounced guilty of the crime of corrupting Islam or, in the jargon of the post-Spengler era, of committing “cultural aggression,” a concept launched by the Chinese communists.

Another case of pseudo-morphosis singled out by Spengler is the Russia that was shaped by Peter the Great and his successors in near total deference to Western European norms, styles, and institutions. Here as elsewhere the process bypassed the folk of the countryside—the carriers of the Russian soul, in Spengler’s terms. It affected mainly city elites, but even in these strata Westernization did not penetrate to great depths, Spengler found. What he perceived and watched was the rise, under the surface of imparted forms, of a “near-apocalyptic hatred” for the Occident.


“Pseudo-Morphosis” may be an awkward term, but the concepts and processes it conveys are certainly alive and well today as non-Western societies in Africa and the Orient shake off the Western norms that had made for self-determination and national independence in order to return to roots. The chief casualties in this revolutionary process of transformation are the Occidental idea of the sovereign state, secular constitutional law including individuated civil rights, and the entire apparatus of parliamentary institutions. Spengler had foreseen precisely these developments at a time when his contemporaries in academe and politics were confident about the world-wide applicability of all of these Occidental designs. Not being one to succumb to dreams of sameness, brotherhood, and peace for which supporting evidence was altogether lacking, he had become persuaded that other peoples bring forth other politically effective forms, just as they create other art styles, religions, and musical modes. It would therefore not have occurred to him to apply the term “state” to a tribe, a village, or a church. For one thing, the state presupposes writing in his frame of reference, For another, it is associated with “a nation,” and a nation—in Spengler’s view—is always identified with a major idea. Further, he holds that only those peoples are “nations” who are conscious of history and whose existence makes for world history.

Still, not all nations can accommodate the idea of the territorially-defined state as this had evolved in the classical and Christian West. After the passing of ancient Persia, the concept thus proved meaningless or irrelevant in the Magian Near East, where the region’s essentially Semitic culture developed in terms not of “nation states” but of communities of believers or freely floating sects unconfined by spatial bounds. In fact, the near total refutation of “the state” which set in after the eclipse of the Persian and Byzantine states is in Spengler’s view the main reason for the stubborn incidence throughout the centuries of that “magic type of formless violence” which has been finding continuous expression in one and the same kind of insurrection.

Few in the modern West, notably in the United States, seem to acknowledge that the forces shaping societies in the Near East are wholly different from those moving their own societies. At any rate, the record of our endeavors to pacify relations between Israel and its Islamic/Arab neighbors shows that we continue to think of these rival “Magian” nations primarily as territorial sovereign states of the type so neatly defined in our system of international law—an error in perception and strategic thinking for which the West now pays a heavy price.

Next, the Occidental state is traditionally defined in terms of law, and it is therefore not surprising that imported norms of constitutional or other public law have also been ejected by non-Western societies. Being keenly aware of law as a symbol of a nation’s culture and therefore as a suitable measure for comparisons of Occidental and Oriental legal orders, Spengler notes that whereas the classical Western law was made by burghers on the basis of practical experience, the Arabian and the Jewish came from God. In the first case a man regards law as an expression of another human being’s will. In the latter, law is an element of divine dispensation. Western jurists are thus culturally conditioned to seek the truth by pondering the records of human experience compiled by other men in similar circumstances, whereas Levantine jurists are concerned with discovering the general conviction of their associates in regard to the mind of God.

We are beginning to know today what Spengler concluded half a century ago, namely that the imported European norms of a secular public law simply cannot be expected to displace the native religious law, just as the Occidental idea of the state cannot win over that of the consensus of believers.

In short, Spengler did not think of the state as a natural political organism. Although he identified its existence in several nations and cultures, he shows in each case that the concept of “the state” is as fragile and as subject to transformation and decomposition as all other great forms and ideas. Closely related themes which also absorbed Spengler throughout his life related, first, to parallelisms among classical Rome, ancient China, and modern Europe, chief among them the role of state-sustaining elites and the conceptualization of foreign policy, and second, to the association of “the state” with “world history.”

Spengler’s classical state in the Apollinian culture realm is the “absolute” polis as represented, specifically, by Rome. “Absolute” here refers to the condition which comes about when the nobility—which Spengler considers cognate with the state “down to the roots”—has put itself wholly at the state’s service. At that point in evolution Spengler finds that the nation is “in condition” in the sense that it is unified by a common and voluntary acceptance of moral and legal precepts, standards of manners, diplomatic and strategic codes, and canons of taste in art, thought, and expression. The difficulties arise when this classical state expands. Conquests thus produce a juxtaposition of the polis and the subjugated border regions which encircle it—a state of affairs illustrated in the Hellenistic-Roman world first by Carthage, which was destined to degenerate into a mere core city after it had acquired a Mediterranean empire, and, after Caesar had fashioned his Gallic empire, by Rome itself. These developments—which Spengler likens to the advent of Napoleonism in the later European Faustian culture—herald the transition from “culture” to “civilization.” “With this,” Spengler writes, “which is the preface to unredeemed historical formlessness, dawns the real day of the great individual.”

Rome is, in Spengler’s view, “a perfectly unique and marvelous phenomenon in world history” because it managed to remain in form in circumstances that have doomed all other states. This accomplishment, he writes, is not due to the Roman people but to the class which had brought Rome into “condition” in the first place—a class that has no counterparts elsewhere. The human element here in play is identified by him as an eminently talented elite which had no constitutionally established status but “found its constitutional engine in the Senate,” which knew how to keep social revolutions within constitutional limits and when to incorporate the upper strata of such other classes as the plebs, and which succeeded, gradually, in drawing the rest of the Mediterranean societies into Rome’s “bed” of sustaining values and ideas.

The particular qualities that made this elite so “popular and yet historically successful” are, in Spengler’s analysis, functions of its continuous commitment to government as a public service, an avocation, and an art. These men were no ideologues, Spengler notes approvingly. Well read and highly educated, they yet disdained to perceive facts through the prism of abstractions. Here were no theories and no critical literature such as had been the ruin of Athens; what we have instead is only “a praxis in the grand style.” Thus there came into being a government such as no megalopolis in any other culture has possessed and a tradition to which it would be impossible to find parallels, save perhaps in the Venice and the Papal Curia of the Baroque. Rome’s decline set in only when freedom was granted to a vast slave population which came from Mediterranean border lands and could not be integrated because it had no roots in Rome. It was the growth of these people’s influence during the Gracchi period that ruined what Spengler assesses to have been a marvel in the annals of statehood.

The second important model of the state in Spengler’s design is the princely state in Ancient China which began evolving in the “Spring and Autumn Period” just before the onset of the epoch of the “Contending States” (Spengler’s dates here are 480—230 B.C.). The latter—which marks the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism in China—ends with the victory of what Spengler calls the “Roman” state of Tsin (Ch’in) over all other warring states and the establishment, in 221 B. C., of a unified empire.

Spengler begins by drawing attention to the numerous parallels between the period of China’s Warring States and the 19th-century European “age of gigantic conflicts.” Next, he makes a compelling case for correspondence between the “chain of statemen and generals centered on Tsin (Ch’in) and the sequence of classical Roman figures leading from the Scipios, the Catos, and the Gracchi to Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, and Augustus. All leading Chinese statesmen of the time, Spengler writes,

were finished orators and all from time to time wrote on philosophy . . .but they did so not as professional philosophers, but because otium cum dignitate was the habit of cultivated gentlemen. In business hours they were masters of fact, whether on battle fields or in high politics, and precisely the same is true of the Chancellors Chang-I and Su-tsin; the dreaded diplomatist Fan-Sui (Fan-Chu) who overthrew PeKi (Po-chi’i), the general; Wei-Yang the legislator of Tsin; . . . and others.

And most of them, Spengler adds, were deeply influenced by the war theorist Sun Tzu and by Kuei-Ku-Tzu, whose knowledge of men, deep sense of the historically possible, and command of the diplomatic technique of the age known as “art of the vertical and the horizontal”—i.e., the art of manipulating the North/South and West/East alliance systems—was unsurpassed.

This learned elite of state-serving Legalists or Realists was renowned for its efficient ruthlessness in domestic administration, diplomacy, and warfare. But, as Spengler rightly observes, it coexisted—usually in bitter contention—with rival schools of thinkers, prominent among them the Confucians and the Taoists. The German scholar thus takes note of “the China of Lao Tse,” likening it to the Athens of the Sophists and the Europe of Montesquieu on the ground that all three exemplify the inordinate influence of books and abstract systems upon the art of government. In his perspective it is therefore no accident that the “Roman state of Tsin” rose in the unphilosophical North-West, whereas the focus of the opposition was in the kingdom of Ch’u in the Taoist South. Here, he writes, we have in fact the opposition of Rome and the Hellenistic East: on the one side, hard, clear will-to-power; on the other, the tendency to dreaming and world-improvement.

Both Rome and Ch’in forfeited statehood as they expanded into empires. But there is a difference between them in this transformation which Spengler identifies in its full poignancy. Chinese myths and legends—contrary to those of Roman susceptibilities—make a powerful case for the superiority of the imperial principle over that of the state, and the victorious king of Ch’in could thus assume the legendary title of emperor which invited claims to universal rule. Further, imperial Chinese administrations could rely in this context upon the richly suggestive concept of “the Middle Kingdom”—a notion entirely alien to the classical European world and to India—which allowed for a system of conducting foreign relations that is unique to China. As one of China’s sages put it: “For the ruler of the Middle there is no foreign land.”

Spengler’s reading of modern European history, in particular of what we customarily call the modern European states-system, differs considerably from conventionally established wisdom. The period of “the absolute state” in the Faustian world thus covers scarcely a century and a half in his perspective, from 1660, when Bourbon triumphs over Hapsburg and the Stuarts return to England, to the Coalition Wars against the French Revolution. Spengler’s exemplar of the state here is Prussia as fashioned by Frederick II (the Great). Identified by Spengler as the last great Occidental nation, it was in his judgment a masterwork in political organization because Frederick II conceived of it as a “service state” and succeeded in associating it with an ethic of duty in accordance with which the monarch had to think of himself as “the first servant of the State.”

The counterplayer to Frederick II is Napoleon, who represents the principle of unlimited individualized power. For in the degree in which nations cease to be politically “in condition,” Sprengler argues, possibilities open up for the energetic private person who means to be politically creative and who will have power at any price. Such a “fact-man” then becomes “the destiny” of an entire people or culture, and in that situation events become unpredictable, a development which Spengler views as the preface to unredeemed formlessness.

The social substratum of the state has been totally transformed by this time, for the first estate which had supplied a state-conscious elite is now replaced by the urban bourgeoisie which experiences the state as a burden, being mainly concerned with its own well-being. It is in this context too that intellectuals become a new political force, wholly different from the educated state-serving elites in classical Rome, ancient China, Venice, or Prussia in the sense that they wish the state to actualize “justice” or “the rights of man” rather than the force of historical facts, and to defend freedom of criticism rather than respect for nationally accepted moral and religious norms. In short, the new times herald the emergence of “abstract concepts” as guides for rule.

Spengler tells us that government in 19th- and 20thcentury Europe reflects the culture’s general decline into civilization. Quite contrary to most Western political scientists and historians, who view the rise of modern democracy as the Occident’s most solid and admirable achievement and as a decidedly progressive force in world affairs, Spengler is dubious on this score. He is thus persuaded that parliamentarism in France and England has actually been in full decay throughout this period of transition to Caesarism and that democratic institutions of government merely mask the real political power of finance capital and of its major agent, the press. This estimate is qualified in the case of England, for Spengler notes with admiration that the aristocratic elite of Tatsachen-Menschen was able, at least temporarily, to rule indirectly under the cover of the “unwritten constitution.” But he did not believe that either of the uniquely British norms and arrangements was exportable. It was thus a “catastrophic” notion in his opinion to attempt a transfer of English institutions to Germany—a finding analogous to his conclusion that the earlier massive borrowing of Roman law by the Germans had interfered negatively with that nation’s fortunes.

Spengler was, of course, deeply concerned with the past, present, and future of the German nation. The norms for its optimal development had in his judgment been set by Prussia, but attempts to approximate this ideal were consistently thwarted by other, mainly geopolitical factors. In a set of deeply probing reflections that illumine such later developments in East/West relations as the Yalta agreement, the settlement of the Oder/Neisse line, and the recent Helsinki accord which confirmed the actual war-induced boundaries of Germany and the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellite states, he thus notes in Jahre der Entscheidung that Germany could not become an organically sound state because it functioned throughout history as the battlefield for “real” states. And in the same but extended context he points to the indisputable fact that the German realm emerges from Eurasian history as die Mitte between Occident and Orient. In that capacity, Spengler continues, it has served as the rampart of the West, for the oriental limits of Occidental culture have always coincided with the advance lines reached by German colonization.

The Eurasian plain beyond this fluctuating frontier has been traditionally feared by continental Europeans because it has regularly unleashed hordes of barbarian invaders bent on ravaging the West’s countryside and culture. But this vast Eastern realm has also long been the home of the Russians, and they occupy a somewhat enigmatic place in Spengler’s comparative culture history. Spengler does not include them in the concert of Western or Faustian nations. Nor does he acknowledge Russia as a state. In his scheme it is definitely part of the Byzantine Magian realm and should therefore never have been pressed into the European order of things. Further, and as noted earlier, Spengler views the tsardom of Peter the Great as a pseudo-morphosis and the entire era of the Romanovs as a mere episode in a history that is yet to unfold itself, possibly in alignment with the kind of Magian religiosity represented by Dostoevsky.

Nor does Spengler acknowledge Bolshevik Russia as a “state.” In developing the motif of Caesarism he points to Lenin as a “Private Power Man” of the type also represented by Cecil Rhodes, and to Trotzky as one in the line of Russia’s “alien executioners” (another being Genghis Khan). All of these, he writes, are “very little different from most of the pretenders of the Latin-American republics, whose private struggles have long since put an end to the form-rich age of the Spanish Baroque.” Indeed, under Stalin as previously under the Mongols, Russia was just a country that had fallen prey to the rule of a barbarian horde, this time in the form of the Communist Party.

These and related aspects of Russian history persuaded Spengler to assign Russia to the ranks of “the colored nations,” those which are attracted to Western culture and its miracle of “economic development” but prove incapable of making it yield its boons to them. None of these peoples should be supplied with our cultural and technical armor, he holds, for all of them are in the final analysis Western culture’s enemies. Yet, and somewhat in counterpoint to these devaluations of Russia, Spengler projects the possibility that something entirely new may well arise in the eastern vastness between the Weichsel (Vistula) and the Amur after the decline of the West has become a fait accompli. It is poignant to recall in light of recent developments in this area that the Weichsel had been a German river feeding Danzig, an old German trading town, until Germany was defeated in two world wars.

The United States occupies a similarly enigmatic position in Spengler’s universe. It is identified mainly as a region or “a country,” not as a solid state. Not unlike the Soviet Union, it is territorially so vast, Spengler finds, that its citizenry cannot experience the kind of national danger that makes for consciousness of a common destiny. In fact, the essential elements of nationhood may be lacking here since America is a country of immigrants whose spiritual roots and legacies are elsewhere in the world and who tend to fashion the challenges of life in essentially materialistic terms. In short, Spengler finds that the United States lacks depth as a state and as a nation, never more so than in the 20th century which marked its entry into the arena of world politics. Furthermore, he finds that the American cause is poorly served by a form of government which insists, following Montesquieu, that the executive and the legislative must have parallel powers—an arrangement ill-suited for political emergencies when it is apt to make way for “formless powers” of the kind with which Mexico and South America have long been associated.

The modern state, then, is critically embattled in its function as the outer normative form of national life. In Spengler’s judgment this crisis stems mainly from the ills afflicting the state’s inner life—a diagnosis which he extends to the United States. Spengler thus points out that the mechanistic economic world view, which has peaked 200 years after Puritanism, had been nurtured assiduously by English commitments to ideals of “utilitarianism” and of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people” before it became the “real” religion of our times. Faustian man, whose passion for the inventive intellectual life is in Spengler’s view unequaled in other cultures, was thus destined to become the slave of this, his own and latest creation; for in calling forth a spectacular technological environment, he lost his bearings in his culture. His proud inventions tire him now, and he is possessed by longings for a return to the simple pastoral life. The nonEuropeans (i.e., the colored peoples including Russia), meanwhile, whom Faustian men regarded as major beneficiaries of all new Western breakthroughs, fail conspicuously to appreciate the intrinsic meanings and promises of all these Western achievements. True, they are eager to appropriate the Euro/American “secret,” but only because they value Faustian techniques as weapons in their struggle against this inventive civilization. In Spengler’s prognosis, then, there is no future for the West’s Technik: it will end with Faustian man—forgotten and destroyed.

* Dostoevsky and Tolstoi are Spengler’s symbols for the two contending forces in Russian culture. The latter stands between Peter the Great and Bolshevism; he belongs to Marx, Ibsen, and Zola; he speaks of Christ but really means Marx, and he represents the Russian past. Dostoevsky, by contrast, stands outside of all these struggles. Self-assured in his integral Russian nature, he heralds a new Christianity and a Russia that is to come in the next millennium.


World realities today confirm the substance of these predictions and premonitions. As the West’s power wanes in Africa and Asia, the West’s machinery, so recently installed in many provinces of these continents for the furtherance of health, education, and economic development, has also been grinding to a halt, in some places as a result of simple carelessness and neglect, in others by virtue of ruling policies and ideologies which insist that these imported tools are the satanic devices of an evil enemy.

Spengler identifies the triumph and the tragedy of the European state in this era with the prominence of the third estate. He praises the urban bourgeoisie for its creativity, love of freedom, and determination to uphold the cause of Occidental culture. He also notes, though, that this social class was at no time wholly master of its actions and that its individualist and antisymbolic attitude toward life clearly presaged the transition from “culture” to “civilization.” The analysis thus notes that the third estate never had a positive inner unity. Refuting all differentiation in rank and function that cannot be justified by reason and utility, it stands instead for negative unity only—a unity that expresses itself more or less exclusively in moments of opposition to something. “To be free from something—-that, all wanted,” Spengler notes.

The state-related functions of this “non-estate” as Spengler calls it are today, as in historically parallel periods, fatally compromised and undercut by the rise of the masses—the fourth estate—in the great cities which alone now speak the decisive words. This conglomeration of rootless fragments of populations stands outside all established social relationships.

Elements drawn from all classes and conditions belong to it instinctively—uprooted peasantry, literates, ruined businessmen, and above all (as the age of Catiline shows with terrifying clarity) derailed nobles. Their power is far in excess of their numbers, for they are always on the spot, always on hand at the big decisions, ready for anything. . . .

This city mob feels no attachment to a vocational class; indeed, it is not even prepared to identify itself as “the real working class.” Refuting the very idea of culture and antagonistic to all political form as well as to ordered property and ordered knowledge, these populations do not or cannot acknowledge their past and do not have a future as a group. The fourth estate thus represents “the new nomadism” of the cosmopolis, which marks the transition from history to nonhistory. Die Masse ist das Ende, das radikale Nichts.

The bourgeoisie looks at these masses with real uneasiness, seeking to separate itself from them, Spengler observes. But in the presence of overpowering realities, the separating frontier cannot be drawn; “wherever the bourgeoisie throws into the scale against the older orders its feeble weight of aggressiveness, this mass has forced itself into their ranks, pushed to the front, imparted most of the drive that wins the victory, and very often managed to secure the conquered position for itself—not seldom with the continued idealistic support of the educated who are intellectually captivated, or the material backing of the money powers. . .” At this point of time, then, when “civilization” is developing into full bloom, there stands the miracle of the Cosmopolis which Spengler portrays in the following way:

. . . the great petrifact, a symbol of the formless—vast, splendid, spreading in insolence. It draws within itself the beingstreams of the now impotent countryside, human masses that are wafted as dunes from one to another or flow like loose sand into the chinks of the stone. Here money and intellect celebrate their greatest and their last triumphs. It is the most artificial, the cleverest phenomenon manifested in the lightworld of human eyes—uncanny, “too good to be true,” standing already almost beyond the possibilities of cosmic formation.

No evocation of the big modern city—be it Berlin in the 20’s and 30’s, or London, Tokyo, Rome, and New York today—has in my judgment captured the construction, inner life, and atmosphere of “radical chic” more vividly and accurately than Spengler’s. And few modern evaluations of the relevance of this complex urban phenomenon for the fortunes of the state in foreign relations come to mind as convincing as his. One of Spengler’s main motifs in this context—and allusion was made to it in earlier pages of this paper—is the malaise that urban reason experiences in its relationship to the state. For this “non-estate” the state is definitely a burden, and the same holds for its disposition to the idea of the nation. The very thought that the whole people should be “in form” or simply disciplined in its commitment to the well-being of the whole does not arise, Spengler reasons, because the individual himself is inwardly no longer disciplined or “in form.” And this holds not only for morals, the arts, and in modes of thinking, but also and most importantly, for politics. The result is, Spengler concludes, that the bourgeoisie is not inclined to think in terms of foreign policy and world history. Whether the state is able to hold its own at all amongst other states, is a question no one asks. All that matters is whether it secures men’s “rights.”

This is so, Spengler explains, because bourgeois urbans equate their own “class” ideals with historical actuality. Led and tutored by the era’s bookmen (Büchermenscheri) who disdain nationalism as they propagate abstract truths for men everywhere, these city people willingly subscribe to such catchwords as liberty and equality for all, nowhere more so than in the United States, where the Declaration of Independence proclaims the universality of typically European values and standards. To think in terms of the primacy of a “world society” and “world citizenry” rather than in those of the nation’s survival, and to aim at international understanding and world reconciliation rather than at unity and harmony within the state, thus become the policy objectives for which priority is claimed. In all these ways history is being canceled today as it also was in the age of imperial Rome when humankind ceased to live as nations and when actualities were distorted by the blithe propagation of such slogans as humanity, happiness, economic development, enlightenment, the freedom of the peoples, the subjection of nature, or world peace—all understood as absolute measures of the records of millennia.

Real or genuine history has never taken notice of abstract propositions such as these, which lose themselves in the moving crush of facts. It just is not apolitical cultural history as understood by philosophers that counts. Rather, Spengler holds, it is the history of war, of diplomacy, and of states. And in the world of facts with which history deals, the choice is not between peace and war but between victory and defeat. Taking a cue from Heraclitus, Spengler thus warns us (see Preussentum und Sozialismus) that the superiority of a nation or an ideology is in the final analysis determined by its capacity to win in war. True, “world peace” has often been said to exist, but what precisely are the connotations of this condition? Spengler describes them tersely as follows:

world peace . . . involves the private renunciation of war on the part of the immense majority, but along with this it involves an unavowed readiness to submit to being the booty of others who do not renounce it. It begins with the Statedestroying wish for universal reconciliation, and it ends in nobody’s moving a finger so long as misfortune only touches his neighbor.

The state of being “in form” then passes from nations to bands and retinues of adventurers, self-styled Caesars, seceding generals, barbarian kings, and what not—in whose eyes the population becomes in the end merely a part of the landscape.

“World peace” is phony even as a catchword in our times, when we watch the annihilation of nation after nation while hearing boastful announcements that “we are at peace.” Spengler could not have pondered the guerrilla wars, civil wars, and surrogate wars that brought ruin to nation after nation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, yet he seems to have known the basic score and scenario of these exercises in violence better than most of our statesmen and academicians. “The wars of the age of world-peace are private wars, more fearful than any State wars because they are formless,” he concludes after telling us first that there are only private histories, private destinies, private ambitions, from top to bottom, from the miserable troubles of the fellaheen to the dreary feuds of Caesars for the private possession of the world. Spengler’s last published words addressed precisely this set of issues. In response to the question “what are the possibilities of world peace?” which reached him from America in early 1936, he telegraphed back: “Pacifism will remain an ideal, and war a fact, and if the white peoples are resolved to wage war no more, the colored will do so and will be the rulers of the earth.”

Reflections on the future of states and nations in the Occident led Spengler to conclude that it falls to us to live in the most trying times known to the history of a great culture and that this challenge must be met by mustering the will to endure as an authentic thought world. The main task before us is to shape up and live by daring to act, and the example here is Achilles—not the moody anxious intellectuals, die Menschen der ewigen Angst, who initiate the decline of cultures with their sermons on moral self-disarmament.


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