Magazine article The American Conservative

Oswald Spengler: Pessimism's Prophet

Magazine article The American Conservative

Oswald Spengler: Pessimism's Prophet

Article excerpt

Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life, Oswald Spengler, Arktos, 84 pages

Everyone instinctively knows which parts of Friedrich Nietzsche's work must be played down or rendered harmless--and there are many. The results went on display a while back in the Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, or as I like to call it, Honey I Shrunk Zarathustra! Even that "God is dead" business, which was none too scandalous in 1882, is now teachable only with a nervous eye on the frowners in class. (He only said "God," kids, he said nothing about Allah!) The man himself would not have been surprised by the turn things have taken. If he were still up in the Alps, he would be nodding grimly down at the many atheists, feminists, and homosexuals who welcome the growing presence of a religion that reviles them. This was what Nietzsche meant by decadence: a readiness to act against one's own obvious interests. But we may now use that word only with a smile, when the dessert comes out.

Harder to render campus-friendly is Nietzsche's more straightforward disciple Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), who was buried with a copy of Zarathustra. The good news is that he refused to serve the Nazis. The bad news? They were too left-wing for his liking. That's not quite as awful as it sounds. As far as he was concerned, all ideologies catering to the human herd, from communism and Hitlerism to liberal democracy, were on the left and beneath contempt. What he wanted was a German Caesar and a meritocratic elite of true individuals with--to quote a Nietzschean pop song--no time for losers. This still makes him a fascist in the catch-all sense now current.

If there were no more to Spengler than that, he would be discussed more often, if only in mocking terms. Awkwardly enough, however, he was an early espouser of many views that now count as progressive. He rejected the West-centric view of world history, believed that animals, in their own way, were as intelligent as humans, and asserted that deforestation had already set devastating climate change in motion. To Orwell and his ilk, that was "candles-and-sandals" stuff. Spengler also warned against off-shoring and the importation of Gastarbeiter at a time when most conservatives saw only the economic advantages. Everywhere around him he saw the decadence of which Nietzsche had spoken.

No wonder that despite a minor revival in Europe, this prescient Kulturpessimist remains obscure--by which I mean that it is still considered acceptable to dismiss his work without reading it. References to his alleged fatness and ugliness abound. Some detractors go so far as to crow over the self-loathing remarks in his diary, a low thing to do even to a dead man.

It comes as a nice surprise, therefore, to see that Arktos, a European publishing house, has brought out a new English translation of Spengler's Man and Technics. Too thin to justify a book on its own, the essay comes with a preface by Lars Holger Holm--a profound understander of the philosopher's life-work--that makes the paperback a very good value. I only hope this does not become anyone's introduction to someone whose ideas should be read in chronological order. Newcomers would do better to plunge right into The Decline of the West (1918-1922), which doesn't feel as long as it looks.

In that work the world's great cultures are described as tree-like organisms, each animated with its own soul, yet destined to run through a cycle of growth and senescence before dying out altogether. People and works of art from very different times can therefore be seen as mutually "contemporary" if they are in the same stage. The correspondences Spengler found between ages and continents--between Minoan art and American architecture, say--make the book entertaining and informative even in small doses. Of course, it was the declines and falls that interested him most. Like other great cultures before it, the West, as he saw it, had passed the peak of its creativity and fertility and entered the final stage of mere civilization, thus making it the Abendland, or "land of the setting sun," in more ways than one. …

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