In The Decline of the West, German philosopher and mathematician Oswald Spengler urges a new understanding of the world. In this work of historical philosophy, which was written mostly before World War I, Spengler names eight “high cultures” (the term he prefers), or civilizations, of human history: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Classical (Greek and Roman), Arabian, Western, and Mexican (Aztec/Mayan). Five of these cultures he uses as examples, but he discusses in more detail the Classical, Arabian, and Western cultures.

Spengler considers his work to be a morphology of history, meaning that he treats every culture separately, as a living organism, and tries to identify each culture’s birth, growth, decline, and death. Furthermore, to Spengler, no culture is superior. He uses the term “culture” to describe the growth and living stage, or soul, of an organism, and the term “civilization” to identify an organism’s declining stage, in which human creativity vanishes. A culture’s soul is held together by a bond of blood, and civilization actually destroys culture; with this destruction, the soul begins to die. A culture’s civilization stage could last hundreds of years in a petrified state. Because cultures are constantly changing, history is an endless series of formations and transformations. The one part of the formation that Spengler does not clearly describe is that of birth.

Three concepts are vital to understanding Spengler’s morphology of history: the unity of development in the life of each separate culture; each stage in the life cycle of all cultures lasts for about the same length of time; and every stage is contemporaneous with those of other cultures. The general pattern is that all cultures begin in a nonurban setting and then gradually move into urban developments, in which growth and materialism eventually lead to its decline.

In The Decline of the West, Spengler compares European conditions with the later years of Hellenistic Greece and the Roman Republic, ending about the time of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Spengler recognizes the paradox of Western culture first honoring its Classical foundation then reaching out to other cultures. Classical humans had been static, but Western humans became dynamic, always looking for ways to expand their cultures.

Spengler follows the cyclical philosophy of history, in which all cultures go through a cycle of life similar to human life—birth, youth, maturity, decline, and death. The cycles follow a...

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Further Reading

Delacampagne, Christian. A History of Philosophy in the Twentieth Century. Translated by M. D. DeBevoise. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Includes a discussion of Spengler in chapter 2, “Philosophies of the End,” because of the pessimistic nature of his work. Emphasizes his doctrine of Prussian socialism, which he had considered the answer to the deterioration of European civilization.

Farrenkopf, John. Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. A detailed analysis of The Decline of the West, its background, and its influence on interpretations of European history. Introduces the reader to the Spengler archive in Munich, Germany.

Fennelly, John F. Twilight of the Evening Lands: Oswald Spengler—A Half Century Later. New York: Brookdale Press, 1972. Gives a good definition of Spengler’s theory of cultural growth and decline. Includes an appendix, “Origins and Rationale of Twentieth Century Liberalism,” which discusses Spengler’s role in the creation of that movement.

Helps, Arthur, trans. and ed. Letters of Oswald Spengler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. Features many letters written by Spengler between 1913 and his death in 1936. Gives clear insight into his thoughts, especially during his last years after Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany, when his own writings were being censored.

Hughes, H. Stuart. Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952. An early post-World War II critique of Spengler in light of the Third Reich. Covers the influences on Spengler that led to his theories. Includes those persons Hughes calls new-Spenglerians, Arnold Toynbee and Pitirim Sorokin.

Spengler, Oswald. The Hour of Decision—Part One: Germany and World-Historical Revolution. Translated by Charles Francis Atkinson. 1933. Reprint. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2001. This last major work of Spengler, after many years of defending and trying to explain The Decline of the West, does much to clarify his theory, as well as to express his fears in an increasingly dangerous Europe being dominated by Hitler. Provides a valuable sequel to The Decline of the West.