The Hour of Decision [Jahre der Entscheidung] (1933) and its Relevance to Contemporary Politics and Culture.
Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) offers the explanation in his last book, The Hour of Decision (1933), why establishment discourse ignores or disdains his work, whether it is The Hour itself or the two volumes of The Decline of the West (1919; 1922). In Spengler’s phrase, a “universal dread of reality,” paralytic in its effect, holds the modern world in its stultifying grip. This pernicious dread invades every consciousness, edits every utterance, and persistently prunes back permissible language so as to prevent in advance any articulation of what anyone, stumbling momentarily out of his trance and confronting the world, might see. Establishment discourse will not and cannot admit Spengler because, whether it is Germany in 1933 or the United States of America in 2011, Spengler traffics in forbidden words and phrases and in contraband perceptions. He invokes prescriptively such concepts as necessity, destiny, hierarchy, aristocracy, and order; he points out the vulnerability of civilization to destructive forces and, provocatively, he names those forces.
Spengler poses the question in The Hour whether any of his contemporaries
Has eyes to see what is going on around him on the face of the globe? To see the immensity of the danger which looms over this mass of peoples? I do not speak of the educated or uneducated city crowds, the newspaper-readers, the herds who vote at elections – and for that matter, there is no longer any quality-difference between voters and those for whom they vote – but of the ruling classes of the White nations, insofar as they have not been destroyed, of the statesmen insofar as there are any left; of the true leaders of policy, of economic life, of armies, and of thought. Does anyone, I ask, see over and beyond his time, his own continent, his country, or even the narrow circle of his own activities?
The obscurantism of the contemporary prevailing mentality is, in Spengler’s judgment, as ever it was – flaccid, devitalized. In “the spiritual weakness of [the] ‘Late’ man of the higher civilizations,” Spengler writes, “reality is no longer to be borne,” while in order not to see actual conditions, “the wish-picture of the future is set in place of facts although fate has never taken any notice of human fancies.” The Hour calls on the familiar image of the ostrich to characterize the fact-obliviousness of the modern – liberal, socialistic – mentality. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, whose successor he was more than any other, Spengler derives the pathological escapism of his age from the seemingly cool attitudes and abstract style of the Enlightenment, about whose fatuousness he draws on a deep well of justifiable contumely. Spengler defines the Enlightenment’s much vaunted “rationalism” as nothing less than “the arrogance of the urban intellect, which, detached from its roots and no longer guided by strong instinct, looks down in contempt on the full-blooded thinking of the past.” A type of bloodless thinking took hold in the West in the Eighteenth Century, which had dire consequences for posterity. The liberal outlook, Spengler writes, “is obsessed by concepts – the new gods of the Age – and it exercises its wits on the world as it sees it.”
The Late Man, according to Spengler, acts like a mouse-sized, self-adulating simulacrum of the god whose existence he dogmatically denies but whose role of unmoved mover he wants to assume. Guided by his theories, the Late Man, as liberal-socialist, tinkers persistently with the social and moral universes, while granting no possibility of unforeseen or untoward consequence in respect of his agenda. The Late Man, with his contempt for the past and his narcissism, cannot acknowledge that anything inherited, whether custom or institution, has ever justified its function. “It is no good,” Spengler has his specimen left-liberal say; “we could make it better,” and indeed, “here goes, let us set up a program for a better world!” In Spengler’s judgment, “the children’s Land of Do-Nothing” ranks in insipidity with the “World Peace” movement and the “Workers’ Paradise.”
Among the notions in service of which the liberal mentality never ceases to tinker with life, none, in Spengler’s view, outshines in prominence the two linked notions of democracy and equality. The first of these finds its place ubiquitously in the self-descriptions of the modern nation-states, including the hangover monarchies, which are all republics in effect, and the hangover Communist dictatorships, which tend to call themselves democratic republics. The second achieves enshrinement as the middle term in the revolutionary trinity – liberté, égalité, et fraternité – first celebrated by the communist-insurrectionists of 1789. The anti-republican Spengler reserved a good deal of loathing for republics, especially for the Weimar Republic, whose demise he refused to mourn even in the same moment when he began criticizing the National Socialists. In The Hour, Spengler connects democracy with Romanticism and the cult of youth (“Die Jünglinge”) and, as he writes, with “a weak, self-detesting intellect.” For what underlying cause, in Spengler’s analysis, does the pimply advocate of the socialist utopia seek destructive transformation of the prevailing order?
The utopist, according to The Hour, finds society “too masculine, too healthy, too sober.” These virile qualities offend, because they diminish, the utopist, arousing in him what Nietzsche would have recognized as ressentiment, that state of mixed humiliation and irritation at something self-evidently superior to the subject. Democratic man in Spengler’s view is “feminine and weak”; he is sentimental, the subject indeed of an “evil sentimentality,” the fertile soil of his inclination to ressentiment. “There is a social Romanticism of sentimental Communists,” Spengler writes, and “a political Romanticism which regards election figures and the intoxication of mass-meeting oratory as deeds.” There is also “an economic Romanticism which trickles out from behind the gold theories of sick minds that know nothing of the inner forms of modern economics.” In a paraphrase from Nietzsche, Spengler’s “Rationalists and Romantics” compensate the guilty knowledge of their own paltriness “by multiplying themselves” in a quasi-sacred “Overcoming of Individualism.”
For Spengler the existing situation entails a paradox: “The age is mighty, but all the more diminutive are the people in it.” In their character as “senile souls,” Spengler writes, modern people “crave happy endings.” Modern enthusiasts of democracy cry, “No more war,” Spengler writes, and yet “they desire class warfare.” The same modern democratic people “are indignant when a murderer is executed for a crime of passion, but they feel a secret pleasure in hearing of the murder of a political opponent.” Whereas Spengler perpetrated these locutions in the early 1930s, they could well comment on any daily sampling of newspaper articles in “The Drudge Report.” Spengler’s claim that “the age is mighty” despite its denizens being petty runs parallel to his observation that large-scale dissolution belongs to the mortal cycle of a Great Culture. At each seasonal epoch, forces come into play, which thwart individual desire and chastise happy expectation. This is what Spengler means when he describes the age as “mighty.” “We live in momentous times,” The Hour declares; “the stupendous dynamism of the historical epoch that has now dawned makes it the grandest, not only in the Faustian civilization of Western Europe but – for that very reason – in all world history, greater and far more terrible than the ages of Caesar and Napoleon.”
The chapter entitled “The White Revolution,” which takes up the largest deal of The Hour’s pages, deepens Spengler’s discussion of democracy. “The demoralization of the masses,” “the deterioration of the ruling classes,” and the alliance of “the cosmopolitan mass of people” with “sordid financial interests”: The coalescence of these trends, which its temporary beneficiaries call by exalted names, is nothing less than the dissolution of all inherited ordinances. Spengler writes: “The same thing has occurred in all former Cultures at the equivalent stage, little as we know the details.” There is no such thing, in fact, as democracy, that lovely but clinical-sounding word. There is only, in Spengler’s phrase, “radical democratic anarchy.” And that, “radical democratic anarchy,” is really only the disguise of “dictatorship.” Thus for Spengler, democracy so-called is the appearance while dictatorship is the substance of the state in dissolution. The Hour contrasts the crowds of the “Megalopolis” – that “formless human sand from which artificial and therefore fleeting figures can be kneaded,” as Spengler calls it – with “society.” The latter, “society,” implies “having Culture, having ‘form’ down to the least detail of manners or thoughts, a ‘code’ that has been built up by long discipline over whole generations.”
Culture, Spengler asserts, must insist on itself; it must exercise its prescriptions imperiously, or it will die. Once the bearers of Culture succumb to the sentimentality of “understanding,” of “acclamation… and support” for the amorphous, for the alien, the Culture has yielded itself entirely. In Spengler’s view this has been the case in the West since the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Western civilization, he writes, “offers no defence,” none at all, on its own behalf, while at the same time “it takes pleasure in its own vilification and disintegration.” Following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, clever, all-too-clever people celebrate tribal crafts and savage customs, imputing to them a supposed authenticity lacking in the Western heritage. Soon those people celebrate savagery itself.
Those who shout for democracy shout just as loudly for equality. They are indeed fixated, vehemently fixated, on equality. What is this vociferous equality? At its root the investigator discovers an ontological intuition, in which even the tub-thumper participates although he cannot accurately or truthfully articulate it. Invidia – the perniciousness of which the Decalogue addresses twice – has always and everywhere to do with Being. And Being is always and everywhere bound up with hierarchy. Spengler in The Hour ingeniously juxtaposes equality with its real opposite, which is not inequality, but rather quality. “Culture,” Spengler reminds his readers, “is ordered, intellectual life, a maturing and self-perfecting form, which calls for an ever higher grade of personality.” In light of the definition, Spengler remarks how in proletarian sloganeering, “the fact that all men work, and moreover that others – the inventor, the engineer, the organizer – do more, and more important work is forgotten.” In the intimidating atmosphere of strikes and shutdowns, as Spengler writes, and under threat of mob violence, “no one any longer dares to bring forward the class or quality of his achievement as a gauge of its value”; but rather “only work measured in hours now counts as labor.” Again: “Only the ‘worker’ is permitted and commanded to be an egoist… He alone has rights instead of obligations” and “he is the privileged class whom the others have to serve by their labor.”
The modern deracinated mass, working through or for its demagogic leadership, coerces these gestures from the productive sector to assuage its secret, inchoate knowledge that quality persists even where the law bans it and public opinion rebukes it; and that the vaunted égalité of all Jacobins then and now, being no more than denial and negation, would mean nothing without reference to its opposite. Once the mass begins to lose faith in the flattering charade, however, a new impulse shows itself. Quality-hatred, Spengler argues, must by its internal logic, the insidious logic of its lies and self-deceptions, transform itself into “Nihilism.”
Nihilists never call themselves that. Candor would give their game away. Nihilists call themselves soldiers of “Liberty” or champions of “Liberation.” “Here,” Spengler writes, “the word ‘Liberty’ takes on the bloody significance that it has in the declining ages.” In the case of “Liberty,” the familiar ressentiment once more kicks its spurs against Being. Just as society exists on the basis of quality rather than equality, so too society necessarily “rests upon the inequality of men… strong natures and weak natures, natures born to lead or not lead, creative and untalented, honorable, lazy, ambitious, and placid natures.” It is precisely through creating the hierarchies that societies come to terms with natural differences in the human substance, but the adjustments necessary to the result require centuries and millennia to refine. To the unformed subject, once the harangue about “universal rights” and “equal rights” has roused his jealousy, the same refinement appears – or rather it can be made to appear – as arbitrariness and constraint. Putting one moment of Spengler’s text in communication with another, the bloodless ideas of the Enlightenment lead to insurrectionary bloodthirstiness and the programs of annihilation of the modern period.
Spengler argues for form (one of his recurrent terms) as identical with life, from which identification follows the kernel of The Hour’s analysis. “It is a piece of stupidity,” as Spengler writes, “to want to substitute something else for the social structure that has grown up through centuries and is fortified by tradition” because “there is no substituting anything else for Life” and “after Life there is only Death.” When “wastrel nobility… shipwrecked academicians, adventurers and speculators, criminals and prostitutes, loiterers, and the feeble-minded” rouse the rabble in the cause of “Liberty” what they really mean, as Spengler writes, is: “Liberation from all the bonds of civilization, from every kind of form and custom, from all the people whose mode of life they feel in their dull fury to be superior.”
Ignore the lofty, if by now cliché, vocabulary, Spengler admonishes his readers. They should use their “physiognomic tact” to recognize Nihilism for what it is, “the abysmal hatred of the proletarian of every higher form of every sort, of culture as its essence, of society as its upholder and historical product.” Such phenomena as “the bad manners of all parliaments,” “jazz and negro dances,” “women painted like prostitutes,” and “writers [who would] win popularity by ridiculing… the correctness of well-bred people” – such phenomena betoken nothing more than the Nihilist’s “dull fury” that “anyone should have ‘form,’ master it, feel comfortable with it,” or that “tact, taste, a sense for tradition [should] belong to highly cultivated beings by inheritance.” And at last “dull fury” breaks down into murderous intolerance, at which moment, “Culture, because of its superiority, [becomes] the enemy” and “its creations… because they are not available for all… must be annihilated.” According to Spengler, “liberty,” as the term signifies in its recentest usage, “consists in breaking loose from the Culture and its society” – that is, through the radical gesture of destroying the Culture and its society.
A good many people, on being reminded of Spengler’s grim assessment of the modern condition as it presented itself to him in the early 1930s, will agree that The Hour’s language applies with astonishing appropriateness to the existing moment at the beginning of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century. The Pöbel or “mob” that The Hour conjures with such naturalistic candor startlingly resembles the contemporary “Occupy” rabble camping out in North America’s major cities: Here formlessness, inarticulacy, mere loitering, and abundant incoherent ressentiment put themselves graphically and malodorously on display. In various “Slut Walks,” so-called, which have lately replaced the “Take Back the Night Walks” of the 1990s, adulation of the “working-girl” lifestyle makes an occasion to advertise itself. “Occupy” mobs and “Slut-Walk” participants never organize themselves; the people whom Spengler calls “shipwrecked academicians,” and who call themselves progressives and feminists, or merely faculty, organize them. The relation of the uneducated following to the half-educated leadership in the “dull fury” of their mutual Nihilism appears to be the same now as it was then, in Spengler’s day. On the other hand, by comparison with contemporary commercial music, “jazz and negro dances” seem almost like classical genres (certainly Duke Ellington had form), but in their time their detractors rightly saw them as harbingers of dissolution; critics today would validate them retrospectively and comparatively. These resemblances, while difficult to ignore, prompt a few questions.
The Decline of the West and The Hour of Decision date from ninety years ago and seventy-five years ago, in round numbers, respectively. The Hour Spengler aimed especially at a German audience, whereas The Decline he aimed at an audience broadly Western. Nevertheless, what ensures that all those resemblances really are resemblances? Can contemporary people in 2011 really be living in – and living through – the same crisis as that lived in and through by their precursors of two generations ago? Is it the same crisis? How could it be the same crisis?
The term “historylessness” (Geschichtslosigkeit), admittedly rather awkward in English, occurs in The Decline, in Charles Francis Atkinson’s once and only translation. By “historylessness,” Spengler means that condition in which a people loses all touch with its own tradition, becomes narrowly focused on short-term propositions in the day-to-day, and generally shrinks down its mental and cultural horizons so that one day is much like another in endless succession. Richard Weaver’s coinage in Visions of Order (1957) of “presentism” is similar in meaning, indicating an abdication of all trans-personal memory, of all genealogical orientation, of all concern for the future, and of all large ideas. The notion of history itself, insofar as it persists, will, where “presentism” or “historylessness” prevails, likewise undergo foreshortening: People will think of history in entirely journalistic terms as what has happened in the last decade at the most; or in the last year, or in the last month or week; or as what Bill O’Reilly talked about last night on his cable-cast.
The skeptical thesis – which proposes that the crisis, which Spengler addresses in the context of the mid-1930s, and the crisis, which thinking people confront today, cannot be the same crisis – is, itself, a symptom of “historylessness,” hence also of the crisis. The skeptical thesis identifies the now with the new and refuses to grant duration.
The crisis of Western Civilization has been plausibly in process since the mid-Eighteenth Century at least and perhaps since the religious schisms of the Fifteenth Century. The periodicity of history is long. Moribund societies can linger in sickness many centuries before they die. Think of Byzantium, in decline for four hundred years after the Battle of Manzikert (1071) – its court rituals unchanging, its hippodrome factions regularly and ritually at one another’s throats, the dynastic intrigues uninterrupted. Or think of Islam, stillborn and still here. In looking at history, which Spengler constantly admonishes his readers to do, it becomes quite plausible that phases, even chaotic and degenerative ones, can prolong themselves not merely over decades but over centuries. Losing the sense of history is a phase of history, a “Late” and deliquescent phase. In The Decline (Vol. II), Spengler writes: “‘Historical’ man… is the man of a Culture that is in the full march towards self-fulfilment. Before this, after this, outside this, man is historyless; and the destinies of the people to which he belongs matter as little as the Earth’s destiny matters when the plane of attention is the astronomical and not the geological.”
Another writer-thinker, who saw what Spengler saw and, in recording his observations, created a book that posterity must recognize as oracular, is José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955). It is worth considering Ortega in comparison with Spengler, as Ortega himself once did. Writing in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), Ortega declares that, “Spengler himself, so subtle and profound – though so subject to mania – appears to me… far too optimistic.” Spengler, according to Ortega, “believes that ‘culture’ is to be succeeded by an era of ‘civilisation,’ by which word he understands more especially technical efficiency.” (Writing in 1930, Ortega of course directs his remarks to The Decline, the Spanish version of which he edited, and not to The Hour.) Ortega for his part harbors doubts whether “mass man” will be able to uphold the technical order. “The type of man predominating today,” Ortega writes, “is a primitive one, a Naturmensch rising up in the midst of the civilized world.” Thus, “the world is a civilized one, its inhabitant is not.” One notices the parallelism with Spengler’s paradox that the age is great even though the men of the age are petty. As “technicism and science are consubstantial,” Ortega argues, and as “science no longer exists when it ceases to interest for itself alone,” it will be the case that people who “feel [no] enthusiasm for the general principles of culture” will also take no interest in science and will not sustain the technical order. A Naturmensch, “mass man” is outside history; he lives day to day, having no notion of origin or continuity. “Mass man” too is historyless.
Ortega’s “mass man,” as The Revolt represents him, strongly resembles Spengler’s “white” proletarian, as The Hour represents him. “The common man,” Ortega writes, “finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes that it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly-endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed.” “Mass man” exists to indulge “the free expansion of his vital desires,” which the fact of the inherited civilization permits him, but at the same time he broadcasts, as Ortega puts it, “his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence.” Like a spoiled child, “mass man” lacks any “experience of [his] own limitation” and is prone to ressentiment on encountering “another’s superiority.” Ortega states that, “the masses… do not see, behind the benefits of civilisation, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight.” Rather, the multitudes “imagine that their role is limited to demanding [the] benefits [of civilisation] peremptorily.” Modern man “is satisfied with himself exactly as he is.”
As does Spengler in The Hour, Ortega in The Revolt contrasts modern vulgarity with that for which vulgarity reserves a deep fund of bitter detestation: “Nobility.” According to Ortega, “the excellent man… is the one who makes great demands on himself.” Nobility, Ortega insists, “is defined… by obligations, not rights.” As in the case of The Hour, so too in that of The Revolt, readers will come face to face with precise characterizations of the contemporary situation. Ortega remarks on “the fact,” unsurprising to him, “that there are so few countries where an opposition exists.” The dearth of meaningful “opposition” stems, he argues, from the totalizing pressure of the self-satisfied mass, which, “homogeneous… weighs on public authority and crushes down, annihilates every opposing group.” “Mass man” moves largely on the basis of “a deadly hatred of all that is not itself,” and which therefore stands in the way of the untrammeled expression of vulgarity. Ortega’s formulation is once again close to a Spenglerianism. Spengler wrote: “Culture, because of its superiority, [becomes] the enemy” and “its creations… because they are not available for all… must be annihilated.”
The Hour, like The Revolt, is an oracular book. Another word for oracular is prophetic. The first use of the term “prophetic” in connection with The Hour appears in a letter from Crown Prince Wilhelm to Spengler (12 November 1933): “Most of what you write speaks to me from the heart… Your views regarding future developments can only be described with the word prophetic.” The princely compliment that The Hour “speaks… from the heart” perhaps serves to distinguish Spengler’s tone from Ortega’s although the perception involves a reversal of the usual national stereotypes. The Spaniard’s analysis remains always cool and distant whereas the German’s analysis gives the impression of springing from immersion in what it addresses. Spengler was in a manner in the trenches – for in his refusal to embrace the National Socialist cause he had become an enemy of National Socialism. In a letter to Spengler, Alfred Hugenberg wrote (9 February 1933): “I am very anxious to express to you my regrets and my thorough disapproval of the attacks on your last book in the gutter press.” Hans Brunswig wrote soon thereafter to Spengler and in a similar vein (16 August 1934): “I feel obliged to express my indignation and my pain at the unfounded, personally malicious, and rancorous way in which your last book… and going back further, your chief work, were attacked recently.” The chief attackers were Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg.
The present remarks took their inception in an invitation from the H. L. Mencken Club to talk about Spengler under the broader topic of “Rethinking the Conservative Canon.” They took much inspiration from Steve Kogan’s multi-part Brussels Journal treatment of Spengler’s Decline of 2011. For inclusion in “The Conservative Canon,” and echoing Kogan, I nominate first The Decline of the West; but second, and as the indispensable guide to The Decline, I nominate The Hour Of Decision. Atkinson, the translator, takes care to key The Hour to the Decline in footnotes on almost every page. Admirers of The Decline and The Hour include novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller, and the composer Hans Pfitzner. Fitzgerald attested doubly that he wanted to be the American Oswald Spengler and that he saw his novels as partly realizing the ambition. As soon as one knows this The Great Gatsby (1925) appears in a new light. The Decline and The Hour belonged to what Miller called The Books in My Life, in a volume of that name (1969). Pfitzner’s Cantata Von Deutscher Seele (1922), while taking its text from the poet Eichendorff, manages yet to be in its persuasion, both philosophical and musical, quite Spenglerian. The great value of The Hour, considered on its own, is its lively perception of cultural disintegration in process, and its vivid characterization of the wrack and detritus strewn about our passing civilization’s tidal plane by the receding waters of spirit and life.