This is Part 4 (A) of "'I See Further Than Others': Reflections On Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and The Hour of Decision", a serial essay by Steve Kogan.
Like speaks to like. In a singular observation on The Decline, Jorge Luis Borges remarks on a rare quality of Spengler's "virile pages, written between 1912 and 1917," which "were never contaminated by the hatred peculiar to those years" (1). It is a striking comment to make about a philosophy of history, for it does not address Spengler's ideas or scholarship but the moral character of the work in relation to its times. In this respect, Borges’ "Capsule Biography" belongs to the genre of the exemplary portrait and is closer to the spirit of Plutarch's Lives than to modern criticism.
Steeped in the history of Rome and convinced that it held lessons for our "twilight" age (2), Spengler might have described Borges' remark itself as a Roman observation, for it recalls the ideal of the stoic hero: manly, self-possessed, and rising above the passions of the times. Like Goethe and Nietzsche, Spengler was a master of vigorous and concise expression, and his thoughts emerge from a seemingly bottomless well of learning in flashes of insight and descriptive analysis. The central ideas of The Decline came to him with the clarity of a vision, and when his work was completed he was surprised to find that he had created a philosophy, "a German philosophy" at that. If we recall the sheer range of artists and thinkers who were drawn to his work, from Furtwängler to Berdyaev and the gifted science-fiction writer James Blish, then Borges' description of his "virile pages" is accurate indeed.
No comparable audience appears on Hughes' radar screen. In the split between Spengler's admirers and detractors, those who "find in him a source of profound intellectual excitement" have "refused to be warned" away by the scholarly world, and Hughes himself finds their commentaries "inexact, impressionistic, and frequently naive." Outside Germany, in particular, The Decline may have “won the admiration of the half-educated," yet it also earned "the scorn of the judicious," with Collingwood leading the way. As Fennelly approvingly observes, Spengler treats his "cultural life-cycles with a rigidity that has been wholly unacceptable to his critics."
In their rush to judgment, it never occurs to "the judicious" that if they were right, then the quality of Spengler's prose would mirror the "dogmatic exactitudes" of his thought. In other words, dogma in, dogma out, yet this is clearly not the case, for his descriptive passages are suffused with insight and color, particularly when he interprets his subjects through his symbolic seasons of history, as in his opening discussion of the Gospels in the early "Magian" world:
The incomparable thing which lifted the infant Christianity out above all religions of this rich Springtime is the figure of Jesus. In all the great creations of those years there is nothing which can be set beside it. . . . . Jesus's utterances . . . are those of a child in the midst of an alien, aged, and sick world. . . . Like a quiet island of bliss was the life of those fishermen and craftsmen by the Lake of Gennesareth in the midst of the age of the great Tiberius . . . while round them glittered the Hellenistic towns with their theatres and temples, their refined Western society, their noisy mob-diversions, their Roman cohorts, their Greek philosophy. When the friends and disciples of the sufferer had grown grey . . . they put together, from the sayings and narratives generally current in their small communities, a biography so arresting in its inward appeal that it evolved a presentation-form of its own, of which neither the Classical nor the Arabian Culture has any example - the Gospel. Christianity is the one religion in the history of the world in which the fate of a man of the immediate present has become the emblem and the central point of the whole creation.
The underlying music of the passage, its “deep logic of becoming,” is brilliantly organized around Spengler’s central theme of the birth of a new “world-soul,” beginning with “the infant Christianity” and closing on the “Destiny-idea” of Christ’s own birth and death. Spengler's interpretive analysis of the Gospel-world is a model of history writing that is both vivid and true (3), and it is also noteworthy that his ”word-sounds and pictures” have a Wagnerian intensity that is never entirely absent from his work. In the passage cited above, this operatic quality is reflected in his richly emblematic pictures of "Late-city" Classical culture and the Magian "springtime," which he treats as a counterpoint of two contrasting historical leitmotifs, as Wagner composed his music dramas by interweaving the motifs of his music with his librettos (as a celebration of Easter, Parsifal is literally a springtime opera). All this is beyond the reach of critics for whom Spengler's "metaphysical structure" is "wholly unacceptable."
Along the same lines but written for a wider audience, Donald Kagan refers to H. G. Wells, Pitirim Sorokin, and Spengler as "amateur historians" and remarks that "Each man and his work won considerable notoriety, but all were easily dismissed by professional historians" (4), as though Emery Neff were not one of them, nor could there be any other serious audience for Spengler's work. Borges, however, was not concerned with Spengler's place among scholars in the field but with his solitary labors in the midst of hardship and the power of his prose, which communicates a sense of high drama in the growth and disappearance of the great cultures of the world, each with 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 limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species species of plant has its peculiar blossoms 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.
Taking this passage in its most reductive sense, Kagan's “professional historians” have labeled him a "cyclical" and “biological determinist,” yet its context is not theoretical but poetic and religious; for, in their freshness and particularity, his “springtime” cultures are like the lilies of the field in the Gospel of St. Luke, whose splendor is both immediate and complete. “They neither toil nor spin” means that their beauty is not an end result but prime. Likewise Spengler's cultures, whose spirit owes nothing to causality but flows from within as the spontaneous expression of a particular humanity. Hence their “soul-language” speaks to our capacity for wonder and contemplation, such as Wordsworth exercised when he stood before his field of daffodils.
My comparison with Wordsworth is deliberate, for Spengler's contrast between causal analysis and pastoral vision has its origins in a long line of philosophy and literature that dates from the time of Goethe, Blake, and Wordsworth. Spengler was primarily familiar with its German antecedents, but a brief digression on American literature may illuminate his thinking best of all, for it appears with striking clarity in several classics of American poetry and prose, among them Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" (1875) and Herman Melville's Billy Budd (c. 1890). Whitman's poem is a study in contrasts between the systematic and visionary mind, whose tensions he resolves by wandering alone in nature to be open to direct experience. It is a quintessential emblem of romantic poetry and corresponds to Faust's walking "over woods and fields" and Wordsworth's wandering "lonely as a cloud":
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars. (5)
Whitman's poem dramatizes in blank verse what Spengler would reflect upon half a century later:
Reason, system and comprehension kill as they "cognize." That which is cognized becomes a rigid object, capable of measurement and subdivision. Intuitive vision, on the other hand, vivifies and incorporates the details in a living inwardly-felt unity.
In Billy Budd, the terms of this opposition recall the Gospel message that the letter kills but the spirit gives life; for, when Budd stands on the mainyard at the moment of his execution and spontaneously cries "God bless Captain Vere!" he appears in a state of pastoral grace, like "a singing-bird on the point of launching from the twig," with a noose prepared by military law and logic around his neck (6). Melville ends his tale with a ballad on Budd’s last night before his execution, written by an anonymous sailor “with an artless poetic temperament,” in which Billy imagines himself merging with the sea when he will be dropped "Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep," his lifeless body wrapped in underwater vegetation among the "oozy weeds" as he sinks into the unconscious, ocean-world of sleep and dreams.
There are any number of literary associations between dream-visions and the sea, as in Shakespeare's Richard III and The Tempest and Wordsworth's The Prelude (1799-1805), but an even closer parallel to the symbolism of spiritual depth may be found in the closing lines of Wagner's Das Rheingold (1853), whose magic ring must be returned to its solitary place beneath the Rhine, beneath Wotan's newly created fortress of Valhalla - the world of systematic structures, law, and power - to be appreciated in aimless innocence by the Rhinemaidens, for
Traulich und true
ist's nur in der Tiefe:
falsch und feig
ist, was dort oben sich freut!
"Only in the depths is there tenderness and truth. What is false and cowardly rejoices above."
Like Goethe's stanza on the life-force that surges through everything ("Wenn im Unendlichen dasselbe"), which Spengler took as his epigraph for The Decline, the words of the Rhinemaidens’ echo in Spengler's philosophy of history, for he insists that cultures have a spiritual depth that is not accessible to systematic thought, which kills the living spirit. It was in this frame of mind that Goethe remarked, "No one can be more afraid of numbers than I"; and Ernst Cassirer similarly notes that
When the botanist Link tried to illustrate Goethe's theory of the metamorphosis of plants by means of an abstract model, he vigorously objected. "In such efforts," he declared, "only the last formless sublimated abstraction is left, and the subtlest organic life is joined to the completely formless and bloodless universal phenomena of nature." (7)
So too, Whitman felt his own vitality drain away when he was "shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them."
In arguing for the living identity of things in contrast to "bloodless" models of nature, Goethe voiced a reaction against mechanism that was shared by writers throughout the nineteenth century, among them Thoreau, Dickens, and Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground (1864), in which the underground man rails against mathematical logic and the celebration of science and progress in the exhibition halls of London's Crystal Palace.
The terms of this debate were established prior to these writers, however, and nowhere was the religious position stated more vividly than in William Blake's "Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau" (c. 1800):
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton's Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.
Closer to home among the classics of German thought, Spengler writes that his world cultures "belong, like the plants and animals, to the living Nature of Goethe, and not to the dead Nature of Newton."
When Renaissance Platonists spoke of "sweet harmonies" and the secret "hieroglyphics" of beauty, they had specific principles of Pythagorean proportion in mind, and, although not mathematically precise, Spengler's forerunners had a well-defined understanding of such terms as "world-view" and "inner form." When Spengler, for example, states that his method of entering into the unique worlds of different cultures "is the method of living into (erfühlen) the object, as opposed to dissecting it," he not only echoes Wordsworth's "The Tables Turned" (“We murder to dissect”) but also recalls a key term of historical study in Johann Gottfried Herder’s Philosophy of History (1774): "First sympathize with the nation, go into the era, into the geography, into the entire history, feel yourself into it," which, according to Neff, marks "the first appearance of the verb einfühlen.”
Historical thinking for Herder thus requires a receptive understanding of the special characteristics of a people and its world, including its landscape, which Spengler refers to as the “mother-region” of a culture. As Neff observes in The Poetry of History, ruins, fragmentary forms, alien religions, folk culture, all this and more disclosed a richness, in Herder's words, that "the mole's eye of this most enlightened century" could not see. As in Spengler’s view of history ("the Living, with all its immense fullness, depth and movement”), "The stuff of history, Herder now believed, was action, instinct, atmosphere, the spirit of a people in its geographical setting. History should be displayed as 'pictures,' not analyzed into abstract generalizations. Its charm was 'absence,' remoteness."
For Spengler, it is precisely here that history challenges our powers of interpretation, since everything that once comprised “the Living" is now accessible only through its remains, and it was his conviction that the once living "depths of an alien soul" could only be reached through a "deep wordless understanding." Spengler is indeed writing in the language of poetic vision, for his "wordless understanding" in the historical sphere echoes Whitman's in the natural world when he wandered into the night and looked up "in perfect silence at the stars."
In his chapter "The Living Past," Neff discusses the new approaches that Herder and others brought to the study of ancient poetry, myth, and religion, which Spengler, like Nietzsche before him, wove into his readings of the past and modern times. In this respect, it would be more accurate to describe him as a mythopoeic than a biological determinist, for when he speaks of "Euclidean," "Magian," and "Faustian" consciousness his defining examples are taken from myth and epic poetry, in which "Every myth of the great style stands at the beginning of an awakening spirituality":
These very earliest creations of the young soul tell us that there is a relationship between the Olympian figures, the statue and the corporeal Doric column; between the domical basilica, the "Spirit" of God and the arabesque; between Valhalla and the Mary myth, the soaring nave and instrumental music.
Drawing the thought-provoking conclusion that "all 'knowing' of Nature, even the exactest, is based on a religious faith," Spengler asks us to consider the various "form-languages" in which “nature-knowledge” has been written:
For what, after all, are the basic notions that have been evolved with inward certainty of logic in the field of our physics? Polarized light-rays, errant ions, flying and colliding gas particles, magnetic fields, electric currents and waves – are they not one and all Faustian visions, closely akin to Romanesque ornamentation, the upthrust of Gothic architecture, the Viking’s voyaging into unknown seas, the longings of Columbus and Copernicus? . . . Are they not, in short, our passionate directedness, our passion of the third dimension, coming to symbolic expression in the imagined Nature-picture as in the soul image? . . . (8)
The "Nature" of Classical man found its highest artistic emblem in the nude statue, and out of it logically there grew up a static of bodies, a physics of the near. The Arabian Culture owned the arabesque and the cavern-vaulting of the mosque, and out of this world-feeling there issued Alchemy with its ideas of mysterious efficient substantialities. . . . And the outcome of Faustian man's Nature idea was a dynamic of unlimited span, a physics of the distant.
Conceived "with the eye of an artist," Spengler's most incisive and evocative passages are informed by his observations on art, mythology, and epic poetry, for it is here that he finds his historical emblems in their clearest and most expressive form:
Olympus rests on the homely Greek soil, the Paradise of the Fathers is a magic garden somewhere in the Universe, but Valhalla is nowhere. Lost in the limitless, it appears with its inharmonious gods and heroes the supreme symbol of solitude. Siegfried, Parzeval, Tristan, Hamlet, Faust are the loneliest heroes in all the Cultures. Read the wondrous awakening of the inner life in Wolfram's Parzeval. The longing for the woods, the mysterious compassion, the ineffable sense of forsakeness - it is all Faustian and only Faustian. (9)
Spengler's association of mythology with the "springtime" of a culture completes a line of thought that extends from Goethe and Herder to Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, whose opening sections recall Herder's fascination with cultural origins in "the dark regions of the soul."
Early in his career, Herder traveled from Riga through the Baltic and North Sea to France, and, "With his quick turn to generalization," as Neff remarks, Herder’s new-found awareness of the North Atlantic brought to mind the spirit of the Norse sagas and presented a very different picture from the Mediterranean of Homeric Greece and the earth of ancient Egypt. Like Melville in Billy Budd, who directs the reader to great themes and passions "Down among the groundlings," Herder found himself
on the open boundless sea among a little state of men who have severer laws than the republic of Lycurgus; in the midst of a wholly different, living and moving Nature . . . past the lands where of yore skalds and Vikings with sword and song wandered through the sea . . .
Spengler draws upon this vision when he reflects upon "the old Northern life-feeling, the Viking infinity-wistfulness" and "the idea of the high-seas voyage . . . as a liberation, a symbol." A utilitarian would say that it was the unique design and construction of the ships that allowed for the journies, but for Spengler it was the longing itself that created the technologies it needed. The term "Faustian" is his emblem of this urge.
Reading "the course of human events" through symbolic interpretation therefore has a history of its own; and just as humanity "walks through forests of symbols" in Baudelaire's "Correspondences" (1857), Herder views history as though it were a symbolic pastoral scene. In Ideas on History (1784-91), the achievements of a culture represent "the flower of its existence"; the empires of Egypt and China sprang "from a root" and rested "on themselves" like firmly grounded trees; and, although "the very appearance of the flower is a sign that it must fade," there are analogous flowers, as it were, in every age: "Shakespeare was no Sophocles, Milton no Homer, Bolingbroke no Pericles: yet they were in their kind, and in their situation, what those were in theirs."
In The Decline, we walk through a similar landscape of history, in which "Cultures, people, languages, truths, gods, landscapes, bloom and age as the oak and the stone-pines, the blossoms, twigs and leaves." In Spengler's version of Herder's rooted empires, once civilizations have aged and taken their final forms,"they may, like a worn-out giant of the primeval forest, thrust their decaying branches toward the sky for hundreds and thousands of years, as we see in China, in India, in the Islamic world."
Beginning with the title itself, Der Untergang des Abendlandes is rich in allusions and metaphors drawn from the natural world of forests, fields, skies, the sea, the four seasons, the human life-cycle, and the progression of a day from morning and noon to evening and night. Returning to the principle that "Poetry and historical study are kin, " Spengler instructs us in the art of aesthetic perception when he cautions the reader that his "Faustian vision . . . is not a postulate but an experience" and that in order to understand him we should meditate on his analogy between history and organic life, "letting the world of human Cultures intimately and unreservedly work upon the imagination." In all the commentary that I have read, none of Spengler's detractors has ever followed his instruction or even mentioned it. Moreover, they have deliberately yet quite unconsciously done the opposite by turning “an experience” into “a postulate.” Hence their critiques of his “biological determinism” and "water-tight compartments" of history, theoretical models that suffer from the same "bloodless" categorizing that Goethe objected to when he said that Link's systematizing of his views on plant development turned "the subtlest organic life" into an abstraction. If Kagan’s “professional historians” were able to dismiss Spengler “easily,” it is because they were incapable of setting aside their own training and assumptions, even as an intellectual exercise, and not only lacked the creative impulse to allow the language of metaphor to work “unreservedly upon the imagination" but also ignored an obvious artistic precedent for Spengler’s recurring phases of history, in which the four seasons, from the Limbourg brothers’ Book of Hours through Vivaldi, Breughel, Poussin, Haydn, and James Thomson, served as a traditional organizing principle for religious, artistic, and poetic material.
Where the decisive terms of inquiry are not "'correct' and 'erroneous' but 'deep' and 'shallow'" what is required are not proofs but what Goethe calls productive ideas. The arts teach us this lesson at every turn. A portrait by Rembrandt is neither more nor less “true” than a portrait by Holbein or Cézanne, all of which are masterpieces of observation yet very different in technique, naturalistic effects, and cultural background and values. Taking a lesson from Nietzsche's "questioning faculty," Spengler argues that objective knowledge itself derives from a web of presuppositions, in which "everything depends on whether that being, the being for whom [a fact] occurs or did occur, is or was Classical or Western, Gothic or Baroque." As for the patterns that he sees in history, even when he speaks of the rhythmic order of his cycles, he maintains that they are illustrative images and recur not only like the seasons of the year and the life cycle of an individual but also the hours of the day and "majestic wave-cycles" of the sea. At best, they are no more than approximations of what he means by the sense of inevitability in the human sphere. In Billy Budd, Melville similarly has no recourse except by “indirection” to describe the depth of Claggart’s malevolence, the hinge on which the story turns: “This portrait I essay, but I shall never hit it.”
(1) Juan Luis Borges, "Oswald Spengler: A Capsule Biography" (1936), in Borges: A Reader, E. P. Dutton, 1981, p. 87.
(2) In "The Relation between the Cultures," for example, Spengler writes that, although we no longer look to Roman law for "principles of eternal validity . . . the relation between Roman existence and Roman law-ideas gives it a renewed value for us. We can learn from it how we have to build up our law out of our experience," II: 83.
(3) In his final pages, Hughes defends The Decline as a powerful work of "imaginative literature," in the sense that "The 'Magian' culture," for example, "may never have existed," although the idea can still "deepen our imaginative comprehension" of the region's "art and religion." To divorce the imagination from what Spengler calls the "fact-world," however, is to dismiss his philosophy of history out of hand, and it also undercuts the nature and uses of metaphor in all great poetry and prose.
(4) Donald Kagan, "The Changing World of World Histories," New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1984, p. 42.
(5) In "Science and Beauty" (1979), Isaac Asimov claims that the poem justifies know-nothings who think that they "can just take a look at the night sky, get a quick beauty fix, and go off to a nightclub." The poem must have struck a nerve, since he cannot speak of it without mockery, nor can he tolerate the idea that even one person should not have been captivated by "the learn'd astronomer."
(6) Among the many Christian allusions toward the end of the tale, "the vapory fleece hanging low in the East" at the moment of execution "was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision"; the mast and mainyard form a cross, and sailors traced the spar until it was "reduced to a mere dockyard boom," yet "To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross."
(7) Ernst Cassirer, "Goethe and Kantian Philosophy," in Rousseau, Kant and Goethe, Harper & Row, 1963, p. 81. On "the dread of mechanism" in American literature, see Jack Beatty, "Trapped in the 'NASA-Speak' Machine, New York Times Op-Ed, March 9, 1986.
(8) The relationship between "the imagined Nature-picture" and "the soul image" was a subject of interest to Wolfgang Pauli, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. See Gino Segrè, Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, Viking, 2007, pp. 105-106.
(9) Forsaken in the limitless, unlike Christ on the Cross in Matthew 27, who fulfills a "Magian" destiny when he utters the first words of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" whose silent reply appears in line 3: "But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel."