|Born||Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler
29 May 1880
Blankenburg, Duchy of Brunswick, Germany
|Died||8 May 1936
Munich, Bavaria, Germany
|Main interests||Philosophy of history|
Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (29 May 1880 – 8 May 1936) was a German historian and philosopher of history whose interests included mathematics, science, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, covering all of world history. He proposed a new theory, according to which the lifespan of civilizations is limited and ultimately they decay.
He wrote extensively throughout World War I and the interwar period, and supported German hegemony in Europe. His other writings made little impact outside Germany. In 1920 Spengler produced Prussiandom and Socialism (Preußentum und Sozialismus), which argued for an organic, nationalist version of socialism and authoritarianism. Some Nazis (such as Goebbels) held Spengler as an intellectual precursor but he was ostracised by the Nazis after 1933 for his pessimism about Germany's and Europe's future, his refusal to support Nazi ideas of racial superiority, and his critical work The Hour of Decision.
Oswald Spengler was born in 1880 in Blankenburg (the Duchy of Brunswick, the German Empire) as the second child of Bernhard (1844–1901) and Pauline (1840–1910) Spengler. Oswald's elder brother was born prematurely (eight months) in 1879, when his mother tried to move a heavy laundry basket, and died three weeks after birth. Oswald was born ten months after his brother's death. His younger sisters were Adele (1881–1917), Gertrud (1882–1957), and Hildegard (1885–1942).
Oswald's patrilineal grandfather, Theodor Spengler (1806–76), was a metallurgical inspector (Hütteninspektor) in Altenbrak. Oswald's father, Bernhard Spengler, held the position of a postal secretary (Postsekretär) and was a hard-working man with a marked dislike of intellectualism, who tried to instil the same values and attitudes in his son.
On 26 May 1799, Friedrich Wilhelm Grantzow, a tailor's apprentice in Berlin, married a Jewish woman named Bräunchen Moses (whose parents, Abraham and Reile Moses, were both deceased by that time). Shortly before the wedding, Bräunchen Moses (ca. 1769–1849) was baptized as Johanna Elisabeth Anspachin (the surname was chosen after her birthplace—Anspach). The couple gave birth to eight children (three before and five after the wedding), one of whom was Gustav Adolf Grantzow (1811–83)—a solo dancer and ballet master from Berlin, who married a solo dancer and ballet master from Munich named Katharina Kirchner (1813–73), with whom he procreated Oswald Spengler's mother Pauline Grantzow. Like the Grantzows in general, Pauline was of a Bohemian disposition, and, before marrying Bernhard Spengler, accompanied her dancer sister on tours.
Oswald had imperfect health, and suffered throughout his life from migraine headaches and from an anxiety complex. At the age of ten, his family moved to the university city of Halle. Here Spengler received a classical education at the local Gymnasium (academically oriented secondary school), studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and sciences. Here, too, he developed his propensity for the arts—especially poetry, drama, and music—and came under the influence of the ideas of Goethe and Nietzsche. He even experimented with a few artistic creations, some of which still survive.
After his father's death in 1901 Spengler attended several universities (Munich, Berlin, and Halle) as a private scholar, taking courses in a wide range of subjects. His private studies were undirected. In 1903, he failed his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus because of insufficient references, which effectively ended his chances of an academic career. In 1904 he received his Ph.D., and in 1905 suffered a nervous breakdown.
Biographers report his life as a teacher was uneventful. He briefly served as a teacher in Saarbrücken and then in Düsseldorf. From 1908 to 1911 he worked at a grammar school (Realgymnasium) in Hamburg, where he taught science, German history, and mathematics.
In 1911, following his mother's death, he moved to Munich, where he would live until his death in 1936. He lived as a cloistered scholar, supported by his modest inheritance. Spengler survived on very limited means and was marked by loneliness. He owned no books, and took jobs as a tutor or wrote for magazines to earn additional income.
He began work on the first volume of Decline of the West intending at first to focus on Germany within Europe, but the Agadir Crisis affected him deeply, and he widened the scope of his study. Spengler was inspired by Otto Seeck's work The Decline of Antiquity in naming his own effort. The book was completed in 1914, but publishing was delayed by World War I. Due to a congenital heart problem, he was not called up for military service. During the war, however, his inheritance was largely useless because it was invested overseas; thus Spengler lived in genuine poverty for this period.
Publication of The Decline of the West (1918)
When Decline came out in the summer of 1918[a] it became a wild success. The perceived national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and later the economic depression around 1923 fueled by hyperinflation seemed to prove Spengler right. It comforted Germans because it seemingly rationalized their downfall as part of larger world-historical processes. The book met with wide success outside of Germany as well, and by 1919 had been translated into several other languages. Spengler rejected a subsequent offer to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Göttingen, saying he needed time to focus on writing.
The book was widely discussed, even by those who had not read it. Historians took umbrage at an amateur effort by an untrained author and his unapologetically non-scientific approach. Thomas Mann compared reading Spengler's book to reading Schopenhauer for the first time. Academics gave it a mixed reception. Max Weber described Spengler as a "very ingenious and learned dilettante", while Karl Popper described the thesis as "pointless".
The great historian of antiquity Eduard Meyer thought highly of Spengler, although he also had some criticisms of him. Spengler's obscurity, intuitionalism, and mysticism were easy targets, especially for the Positivists and neo-Kantians who saw no meaning in history. The critic and æsthete Count Harry Kessler thought him unoriginal and rather inane, especially in regard to his opinion on Nietzsche. Ludwig Wittgenstein, however, shared Spengler's cultural pessimism. Spengler's work became an important foundation for the social cycle theory.
His book was a success among intellectuals worldwide as it predicted the disintegration of European and American civilization after a violent "age of Caesarism", arguing by detailed analogies with other civilizations. It deepened the post-World War I pessimism in Europe.[page needed] German Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer explained that at the end of the First World War, Spengler's very title was enough to inflame imaginations: "At this time many, if not most of us, had realized that something was rotten in the state of our highly prized Western civilization. Spengler's book expressed in a sharp and trenchant way this general uneasiness." Northrop Frye argued that while every element of Spengler's thesis has been refuted a dozen times, it is "one of the world's great Romantic poems" and its leading ideas are "as much part of our mental outlook today as the electron or the dinosaur, and in that sense we are all Spenglerians."
Spengler's pessimistic predictions about the inevitable decline of the West inspired Third World intellectuals, ranging from China and Korea to Chile, eager to identify the fall of western imperialism. In Britain and America, however, Spengler's pessimism was later countered by the optimism of Arnold J. Toynbee in London, who wrote world history in the 1940s with a greater stress on religion.
A 1928 Time review of the second volume of Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler's ideas enjoyed during the 1920s: "When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so."
In the second volume, published in 1922, Spengler argued that German socialism differed from Marxism, and was in fact compatible with traditional German conservatism. In 1924, following the social-economic upheaval and inflation, Spengler entered politics in an effort to bring Reichswehr general Hans von Seeckt to power as the country's leader. The attempt failed and Spengler proved ineffective in practical politics.
In 1931, he published Man and Technics, which warned against the dangers of technology and industrialism to culture. He especially pointed to the tendency of Western technology to spread to hostile "Colored races" which would then use the weapons against the West. It was poorly received because of its anti-industrialism. This book contains the well-known Spengler quote "Optimism is cowardice".
Despite voting for Hitler over Hindenburg in 1932, Spengler found the Führer vulgar. He met Hitler in 1933 and after a lengthy discussion remained unimpressed, saying that Germany did not need a "heroic tenor (Heldentenor: one of several conventional tenor classifications) but a real hero (Held)." He publicly quarreled with Alfred Rosenberg, and his pessimism and remarks about the Führer resulted in isolation and public silence. He further rejected offers from Joseph Goebbels to give public speeches. However, Spengler did become a member of the German Academy in the course of the year.
The Hour of Decision, published in 1934, was a bestseller, but the Nazis later banned it for its critiques of National Socialism. Spengler's criticisms of liberalism were welcomed by the Nazis, but Spengler disagreed with their biological ideology and anti-Semitism. While racial mysticism played a key role in his own worldview, Spengler had always been an outspoken critic of the pseudo-scientific racial theories professed by the Nazis and many others in his time, and was not inclined to change his views upon Hitler's rise to power. Although himself a German nationalist, Spengler viewed the Nazis as too narrowly German, and not occidental enough to lead the fight against other peoples. The book also warned of a coming world war in which Western Civilization risked being destroyed, and was widely distributed abroad before eventually being banned in Germany. A Time review of The Hour of Decision noted his international popularity as a polemicist, observing that "When Oswald Spengler speaks, many a Western Worldling stops to listen". The review recommended the book for "readers who enjoy vigorous writing", who "will be glad to be rubbed the wrong way by Spengler's harsh aphorisms" and his pessimistic predictions.
In his private papers, Spengler denounced Nazi anti-Semitism in even stronger terms, writing "and how much envy of the capability of other people in view of one's lack of it lies hidden in anti-Semitism!" and that "when one would rather destroy business and scholarship than see Jews in them, one is an ideologue, i.e., a danger for the nation. Idiotic."
Spengler spent his final years in Munich, listening to Beethoven, reading Molière and Shakespeare, buying several thousand books, and collecting ancient Turkish, Persian and Hindu weapons. He made occasional trips to the Harz mountains, and to Italy. In the spring of 1936 (shortly before his death), he prophetically remarked in a letter to Reichsleiter Hans Frank that "in ten years, the German Reich will probably no longer exist" ("...da ja wohl in zehn Jahren ein Deutsches Reich nicht mehr existieren wird!"). He died of a heart attack on May 8, 1936 in Munich, three weeks before his 56th birthday and exactly nine years before the fall of the Third Reich.
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When Malcolm Cowley in 1938 polled leading American intellectuals on the nonfiction book that had given them the greatest "jolt," Spengler came in fifth behind Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Sigmund Freud. He tied with Alfred North Whitehead and was ahead of Lenin and I. A. Richards.
- Spengler influenced two major European philosophers: Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
- American authors influenced by Spengler include Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather,Henry Miller, John dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once referred to himself as an "American Spenglerian."
- Numerous British writers were influenced, such as H.G. Wells, as well as novelist Malcolm Lowry. William Butler Yeats acknowledges there were striking coincidences but says he got them independently of Spengler.
- Many Germans and Austrians were influenced including painter Oskar Kokoschka, conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and filmmaker Fritz Lang.
- In Latin America, intellectuals and writers were especially drawn to Spengler's argument that implied Europe was in terminal decline.
- Communal readings of The Decline of the West held great influence over the founding members of the Beat Generation. Spengler's vision of the cyclical nature of civilization and the contemporaneity of the end of the Western European cycle led William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to look for the seeds of the next cycle in the communities of which they were a part.
- Spengler's concept of the 'Faustian' outlook was an important part of Herman Kahn's book The Year 2000. Kahn used the Spenglerian term to describe cultures that value continual, restless striving.
- Francis Parker Yockey claimed Spengler was a pivotal influence on him and wrote Imperium as a sequel to The Decline of the West. Yockey called Spengler "The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century." Yockey's philosophy, especially his vehement anti-Semitism, differs heavily from Spengler, however, who criticised anti-Semitism and racialism much in the same vein as his own influence Friedrich Nietzsche had... Drawing from Spengler’s thesis, Yockey maintains that in the long run it would have been better for Europe if World War II had gone the other way.
- Literary critic Northrop Frye said he "practically slept [with The Decline of the West] under my pillow for several years" while a student. Spengler's book inspired Frye to have his own "vision of coherence", resulting in Anatomy of Criticism. Frye later criticized the over-reading of Spengler's metaphorical system as actual history rather than an organizing principle.
- In his book World of Wonders, writer Robertson Davies has narrator Magnus Eisengrim refer to Spengler's conception that the Middle Ages had a Magian World View, the view that the world was filled with wonders. So the title itself is Davies' nod to Spengler.
- Spengler's ideas parallel those of Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of civilizations theory.
- James Blish's Cities in Flight tetralogy explicitly lists Spengler's theories as an influence on the future history of the Cities.
- The late paleoconservative political theorist Samuel T. Francis cited Spengler's views on race as influential on his own.
- The Hour of Decision influenced Malcolm X’s views on economics and his critiques of capitalism. He agreed with Spengler’s prediction that class conflict would eventually be surpassed by racial conflict. When asked about Karl Marx, Malcolm X (who had never read Marx) stated that he agreed with Spengler’s view of social class and economic systems as secondary to racial identity.
- Beginning in January 2000, David P. Goldman wrote a column for Asia Times Online under the pseudonym "Spengler". He revealed his identity in April 2009.
- Traces of Spengler's philosophy can be found in the works of Canadian novelist Gabrielle Roy.
- Certain deep ecologist and green anarchist thinkers such as John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen have cited Spengler as an influence when discussing the downfall of civilization and the overcoming of the natural world against man-made civilization.
- Comparative mythologist and mystic Joseph Campbell cited Spengler as an influence when describing the universality of myths among cultures.
Spengler's pessimism did not go unchallenged. In the July 10, 1920 issue of The Illustrated London News, G. K. Chesterton took issue with pessimists (without mentioning Spengler by name) and their optimistic critics, arguing that neither took into consideration human choice: "The pessimists believe that the cosmos is a clock that is running down; the progressives believe it is a clock that they themselves are winding up. But I happen to believe that the world is what we choose to make it, and that we are what we choose to make ourselves; and that our renascence or our ruin will alike, ultimately and equally, testify with a trumpet to our liberty."
Answering Spengler's pessimism helped animate Arnold J. Toynbee's similarly themed work A Study of History. He was optimistic where Spengler was pessimistic. He expanded Spengler's theory into a fully cyclical one and replaced Spengler's "cultures" with nations or societies.
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In foreign languages
- Baltzer, Armin. Philosoph oder Prophet? Oswald Spenglers Vermächtnis und Voraussagen [Philosopher or Prophet?], Verlag für Kulturwissenschaften, 1962.
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- Reichelt, Stefan G. "Oswald Spengler". In: Nikolaj A. Berdjaev in Deutschland 1920–1950. Eine rezeptionshistorische Studie. Universitätsverlag: Leipzig 1999, pp. 71–73. ISBN 3-933240-88-3.
- Schroeter, Manfred. Metaphysik des Untergangs: eine kulturkritische Studie über Oswald Spengler, Leibniz Verlag, 1949.
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