Oswald Spengler, Prophet of World Chaos
Article II: The Flight from Thinking
Published 20 August 1922
Spengler speaks of the sleeping plant-life and uses expressions such as these: “A plant has Being without Waking-being. In sleep all beings become plants: the tension with the environment is extinguished, the rhythm of life goes on. A plant knows only the relation to the When and Why. The pressing of the first green tips out of the winter-earth, the swelling of the buds, the whole mighty process of blossoming, giving out aroma, shining, ripening: all this is the wish for the fulfilling of a destiny and a continuous yearning question after the When.”
In contrast to this is the awakeness of animals and men. Awakeness develops an inner life. But this is torn away from cosmic being. It seems as though, in the experiences of awakeness, nothing remains of the urging, driving cosmic forces which become destiny in the plant-world. This feeling of being torn away is fully worked out in Spengler's views.
In the life of men, the plant-like element continues to work. It rules in the subconscious activities which appear as the results of the mysterious forces of the “blood.” Out of the “blood” arises what lives as the element of destiny in mankind. In contrast to this, what is formed by waking consciousness appears as a chance addition to the true Being. Spengler finds sharply etched words to describe the insignificance of waking consciousness in relation to the really creative plant-like forces in human nature: “Thinking gives itself much too high a rank in life because it does not notice or recognize other methods of apprehension and thereby loses its unprejudiced view. In truth all professional thinkers — and in all cultures almost these alone are vocal — have, as. a matter of course, held cold abstract reflection to be the activity by which men attain to ‘last things’.” Rather than being profound, it is a fairly easily achieved insight which Spengler expresses with the words: “But though man is a thinking being he is far from a being whose whole life consists in thinking.” This is as true as “that two and two are four.” But for any truth it is important just how one places it into life-connections. And Spengler never once inserts thinking into life: he places it beside life. He does this because he grasps it only in the form in which it appears in modern scientific research. There it is abstract thinking. In this form it is reflection on life, not a force of life itself. Of this thinking one may say that what works formatively in life comes out of the sleeping plant-element in man; it is not the result of waking abstraction. It is true that “The real life, history, knows only facts. Life-experience and human knowledge address themselves only to facts. The acting, willing, struggling man, who daily asserts himself against the facts and makes them useful to himself or succumbs to them, looks down on mere truths as something insignificant.”
But this abstract thinking is only a phase in the development of human life. It was preceded by a picture-thinking, which was bound up with its objects and pulsed in the deeds of men. Admittedly this thinking works in a dreamlike way in conscious human life, but it is the creator of all the early stages in the various cultures. And if one says that what appears as the deeds of men in such cultures is a result of the “blood” and not of thinking, then one abandons all hope of grasping the driving impulses of history and plunges into a clouded materialistic mysticism. For any mysticism which explains the occurrence of historical events through this or that quality of soul or spirit is clear in comparison to the mysticism of the “blood.”
If we take up such a mysticism, we cut off the possibility of rightly evaluating that period of time in which human evolution progressed from the earlier pictorial forms of thinking to the abstract method. This is not, in itself, a force which drives us to action. While this worked toward the formation of scientific research, men were subject, in their actions, to the after-effects of the old impulses springing from picture-thinking. It is significant that in occidental culture during recent centuries abstract thinking continually grows while action remains under the influence of the earlier impulses. These take on more complicated forms but produce nothing essentially new. Modern men travel on railroads in which abstract thoughts are realized, but they do so out of will-impulses which were working already before railroads existed.
But this abstract thinking is only a transitionary stage of the thinking capacity. If we have experienced it in its full purity, if we have absorbed in a full human way its coldness and impotence, but also its transparency, then we shall not be able to rest content with it. It is a dead thinking, but it can be awakened to life. It has lost the picture-quality which it had as a dream-experience, but it can attain this again in the light of an intenser consciousness. From the dream-like picture, through fully conscious abstraction, to an equally fully conscious imagination: this is the evolutionary course of human thinking. The ascent to this conscious imagination stands before the men of the Occident as the task of the future. Goethe gave a start toward it when, for the understanding of the forming of plants, he demanded the idea-picture of the archetypal plant. And this imaginative thinking can engender impulses to action.
One who denies this and stops with abstract thinking will certainly come to the view that thinking is an unfruitful appendix to life. Abstract thinking makes the cognizing man a mere spectator of life. This spectator-standpoint shows itself in Spengler. As a modern man he has lived himself into this abstract thinking. He is a significant personality. He can feel how, with this thinking, he stands outside of life. But life is his main interest. And the question arises in him: What can a man do in life with this thinking? But this points us to the tragedy in the life of modern man. He has raised himself to the level of abstract thinking, but he does not know how to do anything for life with it. Spengler's book expresses what is a fact for many persons, but which they have never noticed. The men of our culture are fully awake in their thinking, but with their awakeness they stand there perplexed.
Spengler's Decline of the West is a book of perplexity. The author has a right to speak of this decline. For the forces of decay, to which others passively succumb, work actively in him. He understands them, yet he refuses to come to those forces of ascent which can be achieved in waking. Therefore, he sees only decline and expects the continuation of this in the mystic darkness of the “blood.”
An alarming trait runs through Spengler's presentation. Accomplished intellectual soul-constitution, grown confused concerning itself, approaches the events of the historical life of man only to be repeatedly overpowered by these facts. The agnosticism of modern times is taken with such complete earnestness that it is not only formulated theoretically but raised to a method of research. The various cultures are so described that each sets before us a picture which drives us to flee from our own Waking-being. But this flight is not into the fruitful dreams of the poet, which plunge into life and transform cold thinking into spirit; much more is it a flight into an artificial and oppressive nightmare. Glittering abstract thinking, which is afraid of itself and seeks to drown itself in dreams!