This is Part 2 (B) 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.
In his early notebooks and The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche draws a sharp line between aesthetic understanding and systematic thought, a distinction that informs his philosophical argument on the limits of science and objective research. Guided by his critique, Spengler questioned the scientific model of historiography in German education, in which history was now
seen as Nature (in the objective sense of the physicist) and treated accordingly . . . The habits of the scientific researcher were eagerly taken as a model, and if, from time to time, some student asked what Gothic, or Islam, or the Polis was, no one inquired why such symbols of something living inevitably appeared just then, in that form, and for that space of time. Historians were content, whenever they met one of the innumerable similarities between widely discrete historical phenomena, simply to register it, adding some clever remarks as to the marvels of coincidence, dubbing Rhodes the "Venice of Antiquity" and Napoleon the "modern Alexander," or the like; yet it was just these cases . . . that needed to be treated with all possible seriousness . . . in order to find out what strangely-constituted necessity, so completely alien to the causal, was at work.
For Spengler, the contrast with Nietzsche could not have been more complete. The differences were evident to him not only in The Birth of Tragedy but also in the author's "Attempt at a Self-Criticism" in the 1886 edition, in which Nietzsche observes that in the book "the suggestive sentence is repeated several times, that the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon" and that "the whole book knows only an artistic meaning and crypto-meaning behind all events . . . ." When Spengler speaks of a "strangely-constituted necessity" at work in history, "so completely alien to the causal," he is thinking of destiny as just such an aesthetic phenomenon, which he defines by analogy to Goethe's concept of the prime or Urphänomen, the idea-image that for Goethe is the visible organizing form of any living thing. In Erich Heller's words, Goethe's aim was to understand nature without losing sight "of the world in which man actually lives, of everything that matters to him as a human being, of sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes, loves and hatred," beyond which we find ourselves "in an unrealizable infinity of potential abstractions" (1). It was the surface of life that held the key to its organizing forms, or "prime phenomena," and when Friedrich Schiller remarked that "This has nothing to do with experience, it is an idea," Goethe replied that he could even see his ideas "with my eyes." In Spengler's concise formulation, "The prime phenomenon is that in which the idea of becoming is presented net. To the spiritual eye of Goethe the idea of the prime plant was clearly visible in the form of every individual plant that happened to come up, or even could possibly come up." When Goethe told Schiller that he could see his ideas “with my eyes,” he was speaking of thought-pictures that emerged from his close observation of natural phenomena, which in turn served as organizing images of their changing features and development. "As naturalist,” writes Spengler, "every line he wrote was meant to display the image of a thing-becoming, the 'impressed form' living and developing." Goethe did, in fact, make a number of contributions to biology, but for Spengler the idea of the Urphänomen was even more valuable in the field of history, not only in visual terms ("the 'impressed form' living and developing") but also musical, whose implications for a philosophy of history he learned from his second great instructor, Friedrich Nietzsche.
The original title of Nietzsche's first published work was The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, a title that sums up Spengler's understanding of his thought process and the nature of his prose. In "Nietzsche and His Century" (1924), an address delivered at the Nietzsche Archive on the anniversary of the philosopher's eightieth birthday, Spengler observed that he was "the only born musician" among "the great German intellectuals" and that he neither shaped nor systematically analyzed his material but
lived, felt, and thought by ear. He was, after all, hardly able to use his eyes. His prose is not "written," it is heard - one might even say sung. The vowels and cadences are more important than the similes and metaphors. What he sensed as he surveyed the ages was their melody, their meter. He discovered the musical keys of foreign cultures. Before him no one knew of the tempo of history. A great many of his concepts - the Dionysian, the Pathos of Distance, the Eternal Recurrence - are to be understood quite musically. . . . He was the first to experience as a symphony the image of history that had been created by scholarly research out of data and numbers - the rhythmic sequence of ages, customs, and attitudes.
Among those attending the commemoration, more than one attentive reader of The Decline would have heard Spengler's allusion to his own vision of history "out of the spirit of music":
One soul listens to the world-experience in A flat major, another in F minor; one apprehends it in the Euclidean spirit, another in the contrapuntal, a third in the Magian spirit. From the purest analytical Space and from Nirvana to the most somatic reality of Athens, there is a series of prime symbols each of which is capable of forming a complete world out of itself.
H. Stuart Hughes remarks that Spengler was deeply taken by “the language of music,” meaning its vocabulary, but it was his entire experience of the art that gives his metaphors the stamp of truth. “One soul listens to the world experience in A flat major, another in F minor”: the great composers would have sensed a musical reality in his words and not simply taken them as a figure of speech. According to the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, for example, Shostakovitch told her that he envisioned his twenty-four preludes and fugues (one pair for each key in the twelve-tone scale) as a microcosm all its own; and, unless my attribution is in error, it was Claudio Arrau who said that when he was a child he heard every note on the keyboard as a distinct landscape, with its own weather, mood, and topography.
Spengler offers similar examples of the “world-experience” in sound, in which the instrumentation of a Gluck or Beethoven can evoke “distances, lights, shadows, storms, driving clouds, lightning flashes, colours etherealized and transcendent," while three bars of Wagner can create “A whole world of soul,” with tone-colors “of starry midnight, of sweeping clouds, of autumn . . . world-fear, impending doom.” For Spengler, the forms and very instruments of western classical music answered to the realities he perceived, and even in translation his prose style encompasses a whole range of “word-sounds” that give The Decline its special character as a tone-poem of history. Spengler may have drawn upon himself what Hughes calls “the scorn of the judicious,” but there is nothing injudicious in the idea of music as a tonal representation of reality, and those who speak of his “dogmatic exactitudes” have never taken him seriously when he speaks of the musical character of his ideas, nor have they reflected on the extraordinary subtleties of which musical precision is capable. Hughes manages to botch the subject altogether when he writes that The Decline is "not to be read as a logical sequence" but as a "contrapuntal arrangement, in which no one idea necessarily follows another," which betrays an ignorance both of the form of the work and the art of the fugue itself.
Spengler, however, would have taken all such failures of comprehension in stride, for he had meditated long and hard on Nietzsche's distinction in The Birth of Tragedy between the "aesthetic listener" and "Socratic-critical persons," and in his preface of 1922 he explicitly states that The Decline "addresses itself solely to readers who are capable of living themselves into the word-sounds and pictures as they read." A nice musical illustration of his contrast between systematic and intuitive logic can be found in the unusual baton work of Furtwängler, who distained the metronome yet, "with his peculiar beat . . . gets results of exactitude as well as of richness of sound" (2). Both his audiences and members of his orchestra came under his spell, in which he seemed to be conducting as though "under hypnosis . . . wrapped in sound and his inner vision," through which "was distilled organized tone bent to an emotional end." Commenting on the performance of a masterpiece such as Beethoven's C Minor Symphony, Furtwängler himself remarks in Spenglerian terms that
a symphonic piece originates with two, three, or four themes, which experience each other, enable each other to grow and become - like, say, individual characters in a Shakespearean play - what destiny has in store for them. . . . the question of tempo is one that cannot be separated from the interpretation of a piece as a whole, its spiritual image.
Hughes calls The Decline “a massive stumbling-block in the path of true knowledge,” but his “men of learning” conveniently ignored or never knew the kind of “true knowledge” that the great conductors of the time literally had at their fingertips. Furtwängler, in particular, found a kindred spirit in Spengler's aesthetic understanding of the "Destiny-idea":
We bring out that which is in the causal by means of a physical or epistemological system, through numbers, by reasoned classification; but the idea of destiny can be imparted only by the artist working through media like portraiture, tragedy and music.
Spengler sums up these contrasts with one of the central maxims of his work: "Real history is heavy with fate but free of laws."
Goethe's unwillingness to investigate organic life apart from "the world in which man actually lives" is echoed on the first page of "Destiny and Causality," in which Spengler states that no science or hypothesis "can ever get in touch with that which we feel when we let ourselves sink into the meaning and sound" of words such as fate, destiny, and doom, which demand "life-experience and not scientific experience, the power of seeing and not that of calculating, depth and not intellect." Hence, every chapter of The Decline is written in view of surface impressions, the character traits of people, events, and landmark achievements, and always "the 'impressed form' living and developing." By extension, "The visible foregrounds of history . . . have the same significance as the outward phenomena of the individual man," including "his bearing, his air, his stride, his way of speaking and writing," so that "'knowledge of men' implies also knowledge of those superlative human organisms that I call Cultures, and of their mien, their speech, their acts - these terms being meant as we mean them already in the case of individuals."
Since human events and creations for Spengler belong to "a historical world" and are "involved in the common destiny of mortality," the real question that "genuine historical work" has to ask of philosophies and religions is not whether they possess "an everlasting and unalterable objectiveness" and are based on "imperishable doctrines" but what they represent as "life-symbols" and "what kind of man comes to expression in them. . . . For me, therefore, the test of value to be applied to a thinker is his eye for the great facts of his own time."
Sizing up his intellectual contemporaries, Spengler finds them complacent, narrow-minded, and, for all practical purposes, disconnected from the age "upon which we ourselves are now entering":
Why is it that the mere idea of calling upon one of them to prove his intellectual eminence in government, diplomacy, large-scale organization, or direction of any big colonial, commercial or transport concern is enough to evoke our pity? . . . Whenever I take up a work by a modern thinker, I find myself asking: has he any idea whatever of the actualities of world-politics, world-city problems, capitalism, the future of the state, the relation of technics to the course of civilization, Russia, Science? . . . far better to become a colonist or an engineer, to do something, no matter what, that is true and real, than to chew over once more the old dried-up themes under cover of an alleged "new wave of philosophic thought" . . . . And I maintain that to-day many an inventor, many a diplomat, many a financier is a sounder philosopher than all those who practise the dull craft of experimental psychology.
It is "far better . . . to do something, no matter what, that is true and real." This is the Spengler who never gets in the books. What we find instead are arguments, as when Heller insists that there is something wicked about Spengler's urging the young to become engineers and "build aeroplanes, no matter what they carry; roads, no matter where they may lead; weapons, no matter what 'values' they defend, or attack. For absolute scepticism is our intellectual fate, absolute engineering our historical Destiny."
The title of Heller's book is The Disinherited Mind, yet of all the German-speaking writers and thinkers he discusses, from Goethe and Burckhardt to Kafka and Karl Kraus, Spengler is the only one he sees strictly in terms of "mind," more precisely, a perverted mind: "Spengler's history is untrue because the mind which has conceived it is, despite its learning and seeming subtlety, a crude and wicked mind." In attempting to solve "a perfectly legitimate problem" regarding the search for meaning in history, Spengler has bent all the resources of his intellect toward a "catastrophic" conclusion and "reduced to a wicked kind of absurdity a tendency of the mind which is certainly not unfashionable yet: the habit of applying to historical necessity for the marching orders of the spirit." Heller's military image sums up his critique, for the "marching orders" of Spengler's Destiny not only require us to fulfill "the business of 'civilization'" but also demand that we "march" in lockstep, no questions asked. In other words, "the mind which has conceived" The Decline is organized around a totalitarian impulse, and, in Heller’s leap to a far-fetched conclusion, the more Spengler’s predictions turn out to be correct, the greater his "affinities . . . to the very stuff that will determine the evil future." By the same logic, Marx, Lenin, and Hitler should have been clairvoyants, yet their programs led to disaster, as Spengler knew they would.
In his one-eyed view of Spengler's "mind," Heller cannot help but distort his thoughts, for he cannot hear the man who is speaking:
Whenever I take up a work by a modern thinker, I find myself asking: has he any idea whatever of the actualities of world-politics, world-city problems, capitalism, the future of the state, the relation of technics to the course of civilization, Russia, Science?
This is not the voice of a thinker who participates in the mental habits of his contemporaries. Spengler's distinctive style alone should have given Heller pause, for it is unmistakably his own, even in his chapters on science and technology; and he also fails to modify his conclusions in light of their genuine questions and often unusual perceptions, as when he claims with abrupt finality that Spengler’s "acceptance of Destiny" denies human freedom and is nothing more than "a conscious decision for the false values; and this is the classical definition of sin and wickedness."
This is an extraordinary charge to level at a work that views history as "soul study" and "world-fear" as the hidden center of human consciousness. No philosopher who failed to realize "the full pathos of human freedom" could have made the following observation about existential fear or perceived it as the unheard music of all great accomplishment:
This world-fear is assuredly the most creative of all prime feelings. . . . Like a secret melody that not every ear can perceive, it runs through the form-language of every true art-work, every inward philosophy, every important deed, and, although those who can perceive it in that domain are the very few, it lies at the root of the great problems of mathematics.
In Spengler’s world view, this “secret melody” is capable of “infinitely-varied” expression, particularly in the ”springtime” blossoming, "summer" growth, and ”autumn” ripening of a culture, when human freedom, in all its tragic dignity, is in consonance with nature’s “cosmic beat.” With the onset of “early winter,” however, it grows less and less distinct. The urban world increasingly dominates the landscape, and a seismic uprooting from the order of nature takes place among men of the “final cities,” who become more and more filled with the tensions of a heightened “waking-consciousness.”
In today’s “Faustian” megalopolis, the most dynamic city-civilization history has ever known, time itself seems to be dominated by the pace of "inventions that crowd one upon another,” and our natural "world-fear" is compounded by the terrors of modern war and the anxieties of a disquieting peace:
Ever since Napoleon, hundreds of thousands, and latterly, millions, of men have stood ready to march, and mighty fleets renewed every ten years have filled the harbors. It is a war without war, a war of overbidding in equipment and preparedness, a war of figures and tempo and technics, and the diplomatic dealings have been not of court with court, but of headquarters with headquarters.
As weapons become ever more lethal and complex, “The place of the permanent armies as we know them will gradually be taken by professional forces,” yet the coming centuries will continue to experience “catastrophes of blood and terror.” Hence the craving for escape through pacifism and other "wish-pictures of the future," a craving that arises just when "we must have the courage to face facts as they are." For Spengler, this necessity defines “the full pathos of human freedom” in our time, for in his eyes it was touch and go whether the west would survive or go under. As he surveyed the historical landscape of the 1930s, Spengler was convinced that "The white world is governed primarily by idiots," yet he continued to believe that
The traditions of an old monarchy, of an old aristocracy, of an old polite society . . . in so far as they possess honour, abnegation, discipline, the genuine sense of a great mission . . . can become a centre which holds together the being-stream of an entire people and enables it to outlast this time and make its landfall in the future.
Four years after Spengler died, England rallied by the skin of its teeth around an aristocrat with "the courage to face facts as they are," a quality that Cendrars experienced in his very language as "the living word of Churchill," who spoke of "'blood, toil, tears, and sweat'" without any recourse to "preconceived theories" or "received ideas" and "without ever losing sight of the earth" (3).
All the values and traditions of the high cultures, writes Spengler, are rooted in a land-based and "form-filled" society; hence his respect not only for "Prussianism" but also for England's historical continuities, "Parliamentarism," in particular, with the added "circumstance that this form had grown up in the full bloom of Baroque and, therefore, had Music in it." By contrast, he saw nothing but danger in the illusions of world reform that were gaining ascendancy among the "Late" men, who were now living in “land-alien” cities, "cut off from the peasant and the soil and thereby from the natural experiencing of destiny, time, and death.” In a wartime lecture for the BBC on Jack London, Orwell made a related observation when he noted that socialist ideals originated in the urban centers of Europe, whereas London took readers to far-away places and confronted them, as Kipling had, with the raw brutalities of life. For Spengler, it was an open question whether metropolitan man would have any remaining instincts and values "to face facts as they are." As he noted in The Decline, "We ourselves, in a very few years, have learned to take little or no notice of events that before the War would have horrified the world; who to-day seriously thinks about the millions that perish in Russia?"
Spengler must have anticipated dozens of variations on Heller's theme that his philosophy denies human freedom, for he made it a point to qualify "the risky word 'freedom'" in the closing pages of his introduction and the penultimate line of the work: "We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing." These are not "marching orders" but an expression of the choice that underlies the meaning of responsibility, in this case the obligation to become conscious of our historical life-crisis, confront the forces of dissolution in the west, and work to bring about a "politico-economic order that transcends all class interests, a system of lofty thoughtfulness and duty-sense that keeps the whole in fine condition for the decisive battle of its history." If the west is to prevail, writes Spengler, we will need our best judgment, a will to succeed, and the "creative piety" that for us "adheres only to forms that are older than the [French] Revolution and Napoleon," to which he adds the following note: "Including the Constitution of the United States of America. Only thus can we account for the reverence that the American cherishes for it, even where he clearly sees its insufficiency."
These are not theories but challenging responses to modern actualities, yet nothing of Spengler's practical wisdom or sense of "living history" finds its way into Heller’s critique. Instead, he does as other critics have done by over-intellectualizing a work that is “intuitive and depictive through and through" and then takes Spengler’s “Destiny-idea” so far afield that its author becomes an ideologue of "the Absolute," like Hegel and Marx, but with “a perverted mind” of sinister intent. In place of Hegel's "metaphysical" and Marx's "messianic-social" idealism (4), Spengler has made "the spiritual bankruptcy" of the age "our history, our Absolute, our guiding principle" and "appears merely concerned with lending Destiny a hand in the business of destruction."
There is a psychological insight derived from Freudian analysis which states that when intelligent people make foolish remarks it is because a defense mechanism has been triggered to shield them from an uncomfortable fact. Spengler's celebration of modern science, mathematics, and engineering seems to have disturbed Heller in just this way, for it runs so entirely contrary to his values that he cannot help but stretch his argument to the point of aligning him with today's "enemies of the spirit," this despite all that Spengler has to say about the authentic spirituality that he is convinced still remains for us to fulfill. Unlike Nietzsche, who regarded the quest for systematic knowledge in Greece and in the modern world as a symptom of cultural decay, Spengler sees in our "twilight" sciences the return of the western soul "to the forms of early Gothic religiousness," in which
The uniting of the several scientific aspects into one will bear all the marks of the great art of counterpoint. An infinitesimal music of the boundless world-space - that is the deep unresting longing of this soul, as the orderly statuesque and Euclidean Cosmos was the satisfaction of the Classical.
One cannot read Spengler's chapters on mathematics and the sciences and rationally conclude that he is "merely concerned with lending Destiny a hand in the business of destruction," and no one could come to this conclusion unless he ignored Spengler's own conception of his work.
From the outset of his project, Spengler was inspired by the conviction that he had discovered a language of the soul in the raw data of history:
Before my eyes there seems to emerge, as a vision, a hitherto unimagined mode of superlative historical research . . . a comprehensive Physiognomic of all existence, a morphology of becoming for all humanity that drives onward to the highest and last ideas: a duty of penetrating the world-feeling not only of our proper soul but of all souls whatsoever that have contained grand possibilities and have expressed them in the field of actuality as grand Cultures.
Spengler’s vision was his own, yet he acknowledged "those to whom I owe practically everything: Goethe and Nietzsche. Goethe gave me method, Nietzsche the questioning faculty." In The Disinherited Mind, Heller compares the two with insight and judgment, yet he never mentions them in his chapter on Spengler, and this silence sums up everything that is wrong with his critique. His treatment of Spengler's understanding of destiny, symbolic expression, and organic development is therefore inherently skewed, since these are the three principal themes that Spengler made his own through his readings in Goethe and Nietzsche, namely, the identification of destiny with life and not with a concept of life, the interpretation of history through poetic vision, and the distinction between what is alive, "form-filled," and productive in a culture and what is lifeless, formless, and destructive. Spengler respects the "fact-men" of our time not because they are fulfilling an inexorable law of "the Absolute" but because they are in daily contact with how the world actually works, in the same way that "The Pre-Socratics were merchants and politicians en grand" and Chinese philosophers "from Kwan-tsi (about 670) to Confucius (550-478) were statesmen, regents, lawgivers like Pythagoras and Parmenides, like Hobbes and Liebniz," while "Goethe, besides being a model minister . . . busied himself again and again with the question of American economic life and its reactions on the Old World, and with that of the dawning era of machine-industry." Spengler not only celebrates these men-of-the-world philosophers but also identifies with them in embracing his times as they did theirs:
To me, the depths and refinement of mathematical and physical theories are a joy; by comparison, the aesthete and the physiologist are fumblers. I would sooner have the fine mind-begotten forms of a fast steamer, a steel structure, a precision-lathe, the subtlety and elegance of many chemical and optical processes, than all the pickings and stealings of present-day "arts and crafts," architecture and painting included.
John F. Fennelly thinks that Spengler is right about the architecture and wrong about modernist painting, but his argument is irrelevant, for it disregards Spengler's qualifying words “To me” and “I would sooner have.” Spengler is not attempting to prove a point but using examples to illustrate a preference, and, even if there was much about the new art that he ignored or did not know, his response was not superficial. Of all the writers of the time, Cendrars probably had the most intimate knowledge of the European art world just before and after World War I; yet he said much the same as Spengler in his 1926 farewell to "the modern painters" and again in 1945 of Picasso and the French modernist poets when he wrote in L'homme foudroyé that they had turned away from the common stream of life, noting, by contrast, that he had sung of railroads in The Trans-Siberian (1913) and that pilots themselves had brought the airplane into literature "quite naturally - and not as a theme."
Spengler echoes this distinction when he remarks more than once that works of art are created whole and not "thought out." This is the sum of what he means about his own work when he writes that The Decline is not an intellectual construction but a world-vision born of its age and rediscovered in himself. By extension, when he speaks of "understanding the world" he is not referring to a condition of thought but a productive relationship to actualities, which he defines in his preface of 1922 as "being equal to the world." For Spengler, The Decline was a mirror of this equivalence, a deed of historical consciousness written in the language of metaphor, as the book of nature for Galileo was written in the language of mathematics.
(1) Erich Heller, "Goethe and the Scientific Truth," The Disinherited Mind: Essays in German Literature and Thought, Farrar, Straus and Cudahay, 1957, p. 22. All references to Heller on Spengler are taken from "Oswald Spengler and the Predicament of the Historical Imagination" in this work.
(2) John Ardoin, The Furtwängler Record, Amadeus Press, 1994, p. 29. The subsequent references to Furtwängler are also taken from Ardoin.
(3) Blaise Cendrars, Sky (Le Lotissement du ciel, 1949), trans. Nina Rootes, Paragon House, 1992, p. 31.
(4) The alleged idealism of The Communist Manifesto is predicated on "the abolition of all existing social relations," a nihilistic goal that Spengler correctly termed "an aim without a future."