Oswald Spengler, Prophet of World Chaos
Article I: Spengler's Perspectives of World History
Published 13 August 1922
Oswald Spengler has now issued the second volume of his Decline of the West. He calls it Perspectives of World History 1The Decline of the West, by Oswald Spengler; Volume II: Perspectives of World History. Translated by Atkinson. (Knopf). One feels compelled to compare the beginning and end of these perspectives.
The beginning directs our observation toward nature. “Regard the flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you — a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence. The dumb forest, the silent meadows, this bush, that twig, do not stir themselves, it is the wind that plays with them. Only the little gnat is free — he dances still in the evening light, he moves whither he will. A plant is nothing on its own account. It forms a part of the landscape in which an accident made it take root. The twilight, the chill, the closing of every flower — these are not cause and effect, not danger and willed answer to danger. They are a single process of nature, which is accomplishing itself near, with, and in the plant. The individual is not free to look out for itself, will for itself, or choose for itself.”
Throughout the whole book one feels that the “world-historic perspectives” are colored by this glance at the sleeping plant-life to which we are exhorted at the very beginning. Just why should we look at this? Is this what the man of the present is naturally driven to when the riddles and disturbances of his epoch rage in his mind? Is the mood provoked by this gaze at nature especially suited to penetrating the essence of present-day culture in such a way that it can be evaluated?
At the very end of the volume one is placed before the whole tragedy of the man of the present. “The passion for invention declares itself as early as the Gothic architecture — compare this with the deliberate form-poverty of the Doric! — and is manifest throughout our music. Book-printing appeared, and the long-range weapon. On the heels of Columbus and Copernicus come the telescope, the microscope, the chemical elements, and lastly the immense technological corpus of the early Baroque. Then followed, however, simultaneously with Rationalism, the invention of the steam-engine, which upset everything and transformed economic life from the foundations up. Till then nature had rendered services, but now she was tied to the yoke as a slave, and her work was, as though in contempt, measured by a standard of horse-power. ... As the horse power runs to millions and billions, the numbers of the population increase and increase, on a scale that no other Culture ever thought possible. This growth is a product of the machine, which insists on being used and directed, and in return centuples the forces of each individual. For the sake of the machine, human life becomes, precious ... The entire Culture reaches a degree of activity such that the earth trembles under it ... And what now develops, in the space of hardly a century, is a drama of such, greatness that men of a future Culture, with other souls and other passions, will hardly be able to resist the conviction that in our times nature herself was tottering ... And these machines become in their forms less and ever less human, more ascetic, mystic, esoteric ... Never save here has a microcosm felt itself superior to its macrocosm, but here the little life-units have by sheer force of their intellect made the unliving dependent upon themselves ... But for that very reason Faustian man has become the slave of his creation ... The peasant, the hand-worker, even the merchant, appear suddenly as inessential in comparison with the three great figures that the machine has bred and trained up in the course of its development: the entrepreneur, the engineer, and tne factory-worker.”
Why should man, who seems to be placed in such a relation to the machine, undertake to evaluate this position with the gaze directed toward the sleeping life of the plant?
It was certainly not gazing in this direction that brought man into the midst of wheels, cranks, motors, and so forth. Much more was it looking at lifeless nature. Ever since man approached this with a contemplation which wanted its objects to be as transparent as those of mathematics, he has moved toward modern technology. The newer thinking has trained itself to look at the spiritually transparent. This thinking learns something about itself when it understands how it conceives the impact of two elastic balls or the trajectory of a body. In the same way as it conceives these it would fain grasp all the phenomena which confront it in a physical or chemical laboratory. Spiritually transparent phenomena are what it desires. If someone objects that the impact of two elastic balls is not spiritually transparent because the force of elasticity remains dark and impenetrable, we may justifiably answer that this is not the point, that we need not know the nature of the ink in which a letter is written when we want to understand the letter.
In lifeless nature man sees in complete clarity all that he needs to construct a machine. For that purpose, he needs ideas which can dispense with all but what inorganic nature shows in full transparency.
But in the soul of man these ideas are mere pictures. Our consciousness recognizes them as such. They live without force in our consciousness; they are related to what they portray as mirror-pictures are related to the objects which stand before the mirror. One mirror-picture does not strike another, yet together they may give a coherent picture of a blow. In this picture-knowledge modern thinking has its greatness and its deficiency. If it understands itself in its greatness and deficiency, it is plunged into riddles and disturbances.
This picture-knowledge has its transparency. One who feels this will confess that all knowledge worthy of the name must be thus transparent. But already in the plant-world this transparency is no longer present if one seeks only for the same cognition as in the case of the pictures of lifeless nature. Goethe felt this. Therefore, he sought a differently formed cognition for the plant-world. He sought for the picture of the archetypal plant, out of which the single plant-form may be grasped as the single physical phenomenon is grasped out of “natural laws.”
We can cognize the living as thoroughly as the lifeless only if we expand our faculties of comprehension. In the cognition of the lifeless, men saw for the first time what knowledge could really be. But this cognition reveals only what is foreign to the real human essence. We cannot advance from the grasp of the lifeless to the experiencing of the true human essence if we cling to this method.
In the machine we have something which is transparent but which is foreign to us. We have bound up our lives with this foreign element. The machine stands there cold and alien, a triumph of “reliable” cognition. Besides it stands man himself, with only darkness before him if he looks into himself with this cognition.
Nevertheless, men had to acquire this insight into the dead-and-transparent if they were to be fully awake. They need the picture-knowledge of what is alien to their nature in order to wake up. All previous knowledge was drawn out of the darkness of man's own nature. It becomes clear for the first time when the human soul becomes simply a mirror, reflecting only pictures of things alien to man. Formerly when a man spoke of knowledge he had in his mind the impulses and contents of his own nature, which cannot be clear. His ideas were permeated with life, but they were not clear. The pictures of the lifeless world are clear. In such pictures, however, he has not only a revelation of the lifeless, but inner experiences as well. Pictures can cause nothing through their own nature. They are impotent. But if a man experiences his moral impulses in the picture-world as he has trained himself to experience lifeless nature, then he raises himself to freedom. For pictures cannot influence the will as passions and instincts do. The epoch which developed this mathematical picture-thinking in the lifeless is the first which can lead man to freedom.
Cold technology gives human thinking a stamp which leads to freedom. Among the gears and levers and motors there is only a dead spirit: but in this realm of death the free human soul awakes. It must awaken in itself the spirit which previously dreamed more or less as it ensouled nature. Thinking rises from its dream through the coldness of the machine.
Waking vision, which can be directed toward the machine, again becomes dreaming if, as in Spengler's contemplation, it is driven back to the plant. For this contemplation does not, like Goethe's, go forward to achieve transparency in observing plants; on the contrary it retreats into the twilight in which life appears when we look at it as men looked at the lifeless in the pre-technical period.
The observation to which we are challenged at the beginning of Spengler's contemplation allows technics to appear as something devilish. But this is only because he denies the clarity which is achieved through technics. Through this denial man recoils from his own wakefulness. In place of winning from this clearness the strength to kindle the free human spirit through the machine, this plant-contemplation calls up a fear which says: “These wheels, cylinders, and levers no longer speak. Everything which is decisive withdraws into the inner realm. Man feels the machine to be devilish, and rightly so.” But it seems necessary to drive the devil out of the machine. May one, if one intends to do that, thus frame the beginning and end of his thinking, and place “world-perspectives” in between as Spengler does? We will seek an answer to this question in the continuation of this article.