excerpted from the opening chapter of Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918-1923)
Oswald Spengler It is a quite indefensible method of presenting world-history to begin by giving rein to one’s own religious, political or social convictions and endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system [i.e. ancient-medieval-modern] with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint. This is, in effect, making of some formulaâ€”say, the “Age of Reason,” Humanity, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, enlightenment, economic progress, national freedom, the conquest of nature or world-peaceâ€”a criterion whereby to judge whole millennia of history. And so we judge that they were ignorant of the “true path,” or that they failed to follow it, when the fact is simply that their will and purposes were not the same as ours. Goethe’s saying “What is important in life is life and not a result of life” is the answer to any and every senseless attempt to solve the riddle of historical form by means of a programme.
It is the same picture that we find when we turn to the historians of each special art or science (and those of national economics and philosophy as well). We find:
“Painting” from the Egyptians (or the cave-men) to the Impressionists, or
“Music” from Homer to Bayreuth and beyond, or
“Social Organization” from Lake Dwellings to Socialism, as
the case may be,
presented as a linear graph which steadily rises in conformity with the values of the (selected) arguments. No one has seriously considered the possibility that arts may have an allotted span of life and may be attached as forms of self-expression to particular regions and particular types of mankind, and that therefore the total history of an art may be merely an additive compilation of separate developments, of special arts, with no bond of union save the name and some details of craft-technique.
We know it to be true of every organism that the rhythm, form and duration of its life, and all the expression-details of that life as well, are determined by the properties of its species. No one, looking at the oak, with its millennial life, dare say that it is at this moment, now, about to start on its true and proper course. No one as he sees a caterpillar grow day by day expects that it will go on doing so for two or three years. In these cases we feel, with an unqualified certainty, a limit, and this sense of the limit is identical with our sense of the inward form. In the case of higher human history, on the contrary, we take our ideas as to the course of the future from an unbridled optimism that sets at naught all historical, i.e. organic, experience, and everyone therefore sets himself to discover in the accidental present terms that he can expand into some striking progression-series, the existence of which rests not on scientific proof but on predilection.
“Mankind,” however, has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids. “Mankind” is a zoological expression, or an empty word. But conjure away the phantom, break the magic circle, and at once there emerges an astonishing wealth of actual formsâ€”the Living with all its immense fullness, depth and movementâ€”hitherto veiled by a catchword, a dry-as-dust scheme and a set of personal “ideals.”
I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death. Here indeed are colours, lights, movements, that no intellectual eye has yet discovered. Here the Cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, landscapes bloom and age as the oaks and the pines, the blossoms, twigs and leavesâ€”but there is no aging “Mankind.” Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline. These Cultures, sublimated life-essences, grow with the same superb aimlessness as the flowers of the field. They belong, like the plants and the animals, to the living Nature of Goethe, and not to the dead Nature of Newton. I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvellous waxing and waning of organic forms. The professional historian, on the contrary, sees it as a sort of tapeworm industriously adding onto itself one epoch after another.
But the series “ancient-mediaeval-modern history” has at last exhausted its usefulness. Angular, narrow, shallow though it was as a scientific foundation, still we possessed no other form that was not wholly unphilosophical in which our data could be arranged, and world-history (as hitherto understood) has to thank it for filtering our classifiable solid residues. But the number of centuries that the scheme can by any stretch be made to cover has long since been exceeded, and with the rapid increase in the volume of our historical materialâ€”especially of material that cannot possibly be brought under the schemeâ€”the picture is beginning to dissolve into a chaotic blur.
When Plato speaks of humanity, he means the Hellenes in contrast to the barbarians, which is entirely consonant with the ahistoric mode of the Classical life and thought, and his premisses take him to conclusions that for Greeks were complete and significant. When, however, Kant philosophizes, say on ethical ideas, he maintains the validity of his theses for men of all times and places. He does not say this in so many words, for, for himself and his readers, it is something that goes without saying. In his aesthetics he formulates the principles, not of Phidias’ art, or Rembrandt’s art, but of Art generally. But what he poses as necessary forms of thought are in reality only necessary forms of Western thought, though a glance at Aristotle and his essentially different conclusions should have sufficed to show that Aristotle’s intellect, not less penetrating than his own, was of different structure from it.
It is this that is lacking to the Western thinker, the very thinker in whom we might have expected to find itâ€”insight into the historically relative character of his data, which are expressions of one specific existence and one only; knowledge of the necessary limits of their validity; the conviction that his “unshakable” truths and “eternal” views are simply true for him and eternal for his world-view; the duty of looking beyond them to find out what the men of other Cultures have with equal certainty evolved out of themselves. That and nothing else will impart completeness to the philosophy of the future, and only through an understanding of the living world shall we understand the symbolism of history. Here there is nothing constant, nothing universal. We must cease to speak of the forms of “Thought,” the principles of “Tragedy,” the mission of “the State.” Universal validity involves always the fallacy of arguing from particular to particular.
But something much more disquieting than a logical fallacy begins to appear when the centre of gravity of philosophy shifts from the abstract-systematic to the practical-ethical and our Western thinkers from Schopenhauer onward turn from the problem of cognition to the problem of life (the will to life, to power, to action). Here it is not the ideal abstract “man” of Kant that is subjected to examination, but actual man as he has inhabited the earth during historical time, grouped, whether primitive or advanced, by peoples; and it is more than ever futile to define the structure of his highest ideas in terms of the “ancient-mediaeval-modern” scheme with its local limitations. But it is done, nevertheless.
Consider the historical horizon of Nietzsche. His conceptions of decadence, militarism, the transvaluation of all values, the will to power, lie deep in the essence of Western civilization and are for the analysis of that civilization of decisive importance. But what, do we find, was the foundation on which he built up his creation? Romans and Greeks, Renaissance and European present, with a fleeting and uncomprehending side-glance at Indian philosophyâ€”in short “ancient, mediaeval and modern” history. Strictly speaking, he never once moved outside the scheme, nor did any other thinker of his time. And is the thought-range of Schopenhauer, Comte, Feuerbach, Hebbel or Strindberg any wider? Is not their whole psychology, for all its intention of world-wide validity, one of purely West European significance?
What the West has said and thought, hitherto, on the problems of space, time, motion, number, will, marriage, property, tragedy, science, has remained narrow and dubious, because men were always looking for the solution of the question. It was never seen that many questioners implies many answers, that any philosophical question is really a veiled desire to get an explicit affirmation of what is implicit in the question itself, that the great questions of any period are fluid beyond all conception, and that therefore it is only by obtaining a group of historically limited solutions and measuring it by utterly impersonal criteria that the final secrets can be reached. In other Cultures the phenomenon talks a different language, for other men there are different truths. Thethinker must admit the validity of all, or of none. How greatly, then, Western world-criticism can be widened and deepened! How immensely far beyond the innocent relativism of Nietzsche and his generation one must lookâ€”how fine one’s sense for form and one’s psychological insight must becomeâ€”how completely one must free oneself from limitations of self, of practical interests, of horizonâ€”before one dare assert the pretension to understand world-history, the world-as-history.
THE HISTORICAL EYE
In opposition to all these arbitrary and narrow schemes, derived from tradition or personal choice, into which history is forced, I put forward the natural, the “Copernican,” form of the historical process which lies deep in the essence of that process and reveals itself only to an eye perfectly free from prepossessions.
Such an eye was Goethe’s. That which Goethe called Living Nature is exactly that which we are calling here world-history, world-as-history. Goethe, who as artist portrayed the life and development, always the life and development, of his figures, the thing-becoming and not the thing-become (Wilhelm Meister and Dichtung und Wahrheit), hated Mathematics. For him, the world-as-mechanism stood opposed to the world-as-organism, dead nature to living nature, law to form. As naturalist, every line he wrote was meant to display the image of a thing-becoming, the “impressed form” living and developing. Sympathy, observation, comparison, immediate and inward certainty, intellectual flairâ€”these were the means whereby he was enabled to approach the secrets of the phenomenal world in motion. Now these are the means of historical researchâ€”precisely these and no others. It was this godlike insight that prompted him to say at the bivouac fire on the evening of the Battle of Valmy: “Here and now begins a new epoch of world history, and you, gentlemen, can say that you ‘were there.'” No general, no diplomat, let alone the philosophers, ever so directly felt history “becoming.” It is the deepest judgment that any man ever uttered about a great historical act in the moment of its accomplishment.
And just as he followed out the development of the plant-form from the leaf, the birth of the vertebrate type, the process of the geological strata – the Destiny in nature and not the Causalityâ€”so here we shall develop the form-language of human history, its periodic structure, its organic logic, out of the profusion of all the challenging details.
In other aspects, mankind is habitually, and rightly, reckoned as one of the organisms of the earth’s surface. Its physical structure, its natural functions, the whole phenomenal conception of it, all belong to a more comprehensive unity. Only in this aspect is it treated otherwise, despite that deeply felt relationship of plant destiny and human destiny which is an eternal theme of all lyrical poetry, and despite that similarity of human history to that of any other of the higher life-groups which is the refrain of endless beast-legends, sagas and fables. But only bring analogy to bear on this aspect as on the rest, letting the world of human Cultures intimately and unreservedly work upon the imagination instead of forcing it into a ready-made scheme. Let the words “youth,” “growth,” “maturity,” “decay”â€”hitherto, and today more than ever, used to express subjective valuations and entirely personal preferences in sociology, ethics and aestheticsâ€”be taken at last as objective descriptions of organic states. Set forth the Classical Culture as a self-contained phenomenon embodying and expressing the Classical soul, put it beside the Egyptian, the Indian, the Babylonian, the Chinese and the Western, and determine for each of these higher individuals what is typical in their surgings and what is necessary in the riot of incident. And then at last will unfold itself the picture of world-history that is natural to us, men of the West, and to us alone.
Tags: Oswald Spengler