This paper was presented to the 15th International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society Peterhouse College Cambridge September 2005
John S Moore
This might equally be entitled ‘Nietzsche’s Spengler’, because as well as discussing Spengler’s take on Nietzsche I try to give a Nietzschean interpretation of Spengler, arguing for a way of reading him that gives access to his fruitful insights without going too far with his obviously untenable philosophy.
In his 1922 preface to the revised edition of his Decline of the West[i] Oswald Spengler writes ‘And now finally I feel urged to name once more those to whom I owe practically everything, Goethe and Nietzsche. Goethe gave me method, Nietzsche the questioning faculty- and if I were asked to find a formula for my relation to the latter I should say that I had made of his ‘outlook’ (Ausblick) an ‘overlook’ (Uberblick) ‘.On p 49 he writes ‘the philosophy of this book I owe to the philosophy of Goethe, which is practically unknown today, and also (but in a far less degree) to that of Nietzsche’.
Spengler thinks of himself as doing Goethean science This seems to involve looking at phenomena from a strongly aesthetic point of view. Not for him the humility of the Baconian scientist, rather the insistence that phenomena should harmonise as much as possible with the intuitions of the investigator. Thus new relationships may be perceived which circumvent the old preconceptions. The visionary scientist must be very ambitious and must concentrate on developing the wholeness of his personality as the alchemists did, to seek an intuitive grasp of the archetypal forms and shapes underlying nature. Spengler’s approach serves to make history on the highest level delightful to contemplate. That must be why he is so satisfying to read, whereas Toynbee[ii] comes across in comparison as a frivolous constructor of ingenious patterns.
There are reasons for thinking the Nietzschean influence may be less than implied and that more significant influences have been concealed. Spengler claims to survey the whole world of values as they have arisen in history. He presents himself as a sceptic and a relativist, nothing more exalted being possible at this late stage of our Faustian civilisation. In fact he bestows some quite clear and definite values upon history, uncriticised because unexaminable within the framework he applies.
The primary hidden influence appears to have been Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner’s English born son-in-law, whose Foundations of the Nineteenth Century[iii] was published in 1899, several years before Spengler began his work. Chamberlain was not influenced to any significant extent by Nietzsche, though it may be said they had common roots in Wagner. Notoriously this book had a most unfortunate effect, promoting extreme racial arrogance, though as an Englishman, if a thoroughly Germanised one, Chamberlain was apparently attached to ideals of personal freedom.
He is anti-Latin as well as anti-Semitic. His book is a work of protestant mythologising, celebrating creativity. In one sense it is flagrantly dishonest, as when he tries to construct an Aryan Christ. Like his mentor, Wagner, he tries to create new myths and he is fully prepared to falsify history to do so. But there is much excitement and poetry in his vision. Much of it is fantastic, but very exhilarating. His is a vision of history as a product of race war. Unlike a critic like Oscar Levy, who in attacking Chamberlain, picks up on some of the more illiberal ideas he finds in Nietzsche,[iv] Chamberlain does have a genuine regard for liberty. Nevertheless his book is mad. He sees such a threat from the Jews that what should be at best an amusing hypothesis could become quite seriously a justification for mass extermination. Three is a notice about him at Dachau, giving him some of the blame his for the holocaust.
Spengler did to Chamberlain what some interpreters do to Nietzsche, that is remove a key principle, so producing a doctrine quite different from the original, though coloured by its feeling. Spengler claims to survey the whole world of values. He claims himself to be if anything a sceptic and a relativist[v]. In fact he bestows some quite clear and definite values upon history, uncriticised because unexaminable. The culture of relativism and scepticism seems to open up exciting opportunities for thought and for experience, despite the declaration of spiritual bankruptcy. Spengler offers an intellectual pleasure akin to those of modern deconstruction. His wonderful vision of the growth, flowering and decay of cultures, supposedly springs from a mood of pessimistic contemplation, but offers satisfaction in its claim to understanding. Scepticism can be an easy stance to take. Claiming to have no beliefs one may simply surrender to the unconscious.
Both Nietzsche and Spengler were themselves by no means unreceptive to racist ideas and principles, but these are far from essential to either of their philosophies as understood. For both of them, chauvinism of Chamberlain’s stamp was vulgar and distasteful. What I am suggesting about Spengler is that by removing the racial thesis which is the driving force, if not the whole idea of Chamberlain’s book, he manages to create an original vision which is not quite what it pretends to be. Furthermore it is not really justifiable on the principles he admits to
In its full implications relativism ought to be found extremely disturbing. When it is not that is usually because some value or idea is held onto irrationally or unconsciously as an authority. Spengler gives a value and meaning to all the phenomena of history that he surveys. He does not see different values as clamouring for his own allegiance. This is like the early stage of Antinomianism before the rot sets in. Abandoning Chamberlain's racism allows the sympathetic exploration of a great number of quite different viewpoints from a wide range of cultures. But you may have an unconscious perspective when you think you have no perspective at all. You operate with the energy of a basic dualism because that is just the way your mind works for the moment, trained by the habits you have developed and led by curiosity.
Reading Chamberlain, who is dishonest enough in his own way, we may understand the different dishonesty in Spengler. He describes himself as deriving from Nietzsche but there is more Chamberlain in his work. The idea of the value of creativity for its own sake is highly poetic and inspiring as he develops it. But Chamberlain is quite clear where it comes from, and clear about where he derives it, namely Kant (particularly the Critique of Practical Reason), whom he sees as having purified and rationalised Aryan religion, getting rid of the Roman element..
Spengler hides such sources of his philosophy. Fitting his own ideas into his relativistic scheme he presents himself as a terminal pessimist and sceptic. The intense affirmation that underlies his poetic vision of creativity in history, and enables such sympathetic identification with cultural forms throughout it, is concealed and taken for granted.
There is a parallel with Nietzsche interpretation. When people try to apply the scepticism of Nietzsche’s early unpublished Of Truth and Lying[vi][vii] to Nietzsche’s later thought. this may produce something that seems liberating in much the same way as Spengler’s thought, and enables people to accept, in a seemingly Nietzschean manner attitudes and values it was his whole object to refute and repudiate. The difference is that Spengler claims to have produced something new whereas the others claim to be interpreting Nietzsche.
What Spengler did to Chamberlain, suggests what Derrida did to Nietzsche. By dropping an axiom we build a fascinating construction like a non Euclidean geometry, something that gives permission to believe a great variety of new things. Without the key axiom there can be a kind of Nietzschean core to what remains, perhaps from a hidden assumption. 'Nothing is true', but something desired can be insinuated. In similar fashion postmodernist culture can be inspired by uncriticised ideas As the intellect abdicates something else takes over.
Spengler is exciting in a different way from that in which Chamberlain is exciting. In this sense there is an analogy with the way Nietzsche compares to Wagner, giving up the urgency of a single perspective in favour of a wide ranging freespiritedness. Spengler aims to range even further.
His comments on Nietzsche are often penetrating and always suggestive. He accuses him of historical provincialism. He writes:-
‘Whatever the substantial importance of Ibsen’s and Nietzsche’s generation may be, it infringes the very meaning of the word ‘world-history’ which denotes the totality and not a selected part- to subordinate, to undervalue, or to ignore the factors which lie outside ‘modern’ interests. Yet in fact they are so undervalued or ignored to an amazing extent.’ . (vol 1 p24)
He praises Nietzsche’s distinction between master and slave morality:-
“It will always remain the great merit of Nietzsche that he was the first to recognise the dual nature of all moral. His designations of ‘master’ and ‘slave’ moral were inexact, and his presentation of ‘Christianity’ placed it much to definitely on the one side of the dividing line, but at the basis of all his opinions this lies strong and clear, that good and bad are aristocratic and good and evil priestly distinctions.” (vol 2 p341)
There is indeed an obvious debt to Nietzsche, towards whom Spengler might be thought to show some ingratitude. It might be suggested that Nietzsche’s will to power ought to fill the vacant space once occupied by Chamberlain’s racism. If these are the values Spengler wants to adopt, then he might do so on Nietzschean principles. But that would play havoc with his rigid morphological determinism. Like other creative people seminally inspired by Nietzsche it can seem that Spengler turns on his master to patronise him. He describes George Bernard Shaw as Nietzsche’s legitimate heir. Like Sorel, Spengler sees modern capitalism as Nietzschean. Unlike him he does not praise the modern businessman as heroic, only maintaining that he is inevitably what Nietzsche reduces to in the modern world.
He writes ‘Limited though his philosophic horizon is in general, Shaw has the advantage over Nietzsche of more practical schooling and less ideology, and the figure of the multimillionaire Undershaft in Major Barbara translates the Superman into the unromantic language of the modern age (which is in truth its real source for Nietzsche also, though it reached him indirectly through Malthus and Darwin). It is these fact-men of the grand style who are the representatives today of the Will-to Power over other men’s destinies and therefore of the Faustian ethic generally’.(vol 1 p350)
The will to power, according to Spengler, in the played out winter time that our civilisation has reached, can only express itself in the crude material form that Shaw grasped in works like Major Barbara and Man and Superman. No one would deny that Spengler had read a lot of Nietzsche and was significantly influenced by him. His book is full of fascinating ideas and illuminating insights, upsetting or offensive to progress enthusiasts but very congenial to those who prefer to think of modern culture as in a state of terminal decline.
For all his scholarly shortcomings, exaggeration and wild assertion, there is a legitimately Nietzschean element to Spengler’s vision, which is not without its attraction. It should be possible to enjoy and learn from it without confusing it with reputable academic history. Some of the attack and derision which he has faced is implicitly an attack on Nietzsche himself. He has often been attacked from Christian, Marxist, Hegelian and other such unnietzschean points of view, no less tendentious in their various ways.
One attack came from Heidegger.
From Theodore Kisiel:- The genesis of Heidegger's Being and Time.
Heidegger on Spengler p 337:- "Confidence in the possession of universally valid
sentences replaces the repeated questioning back to the original ground- giving
contexts of being which constitute the respective ground matters of the
sciences. This applies especially to the research whose task is to
interpretatively expose the self referential dimension of Dasein itself, in
particular "intellectual history" (Geisteschichte + history of the mind or
spirit) and philosophy. A time can claim the "historical consciousness" as its
own unique possibility for self interpretation. It works itself out by taking a
full look at the full range of the most remote and exotic cultures of world
history. It controls this wandering look by way of classification and the
systematic recording of types.
And since the way a time views the past is the criterion by which it interprets and evaluates itself, the present is also subjected to a comparative typology. (Spengler's physiognomic morphology thus naturally prompts him to predict a 'decline of the west'.
"Systematic and dialectic philosophy provide the foundation for such ordering schemes. Subsumption under a type becomes the goal of knowledge, that is, of a knowledge whose basic preoccupation is really a concealed curiosity. And although these research endeavours seek ultimately to interpret "humanity", the question of Dasein in its being is seldom raised, or it is explored in terms of an already finished system or an unquestioned definition of man as a "rational animal". Even a philosophy of life" by and large strays into the study of the manifold forms of cultural expression of life or its worldviews. To the degree that life itself in its being and as "being" is thematised, it is interpreted in terms of the being of the world or of nature. But the
sense of being remains in the indifference of a self evident and unquestioned verbal concept… the explication of the being experienced by Dasein as Dasein and the development of the ontology suitable for this entity is suppressed by the latent domination of Greek ontology in the externalised form in which it has come to us by way of traditional interpretations".
This assault on Spengler's vision, this promotion of the sick soul, as against the romantic and the tourist, reads something like a Christian attack on paganism. Heidegger comes across as some stern Church Father inveighing against he polytheists. Spengler is attacked for neglecting the really important question, “the development of the ontology suitable for Dasein”. How to deal with such a spoilsport? To defend that romantic freedom, and exotic curiosity is to ally ourselves with some form of paganism. But looking back on pagan culture we see it had its tensions. We have to go beyond it. We confront the criticisms of the Christians not by reversion to paganism, but by going forward into anti-Christianity. We need to advance beyond traditional paganism because any mere return would make us vulnerable to renewed infection. That was the weakness of the Italian renaissance. These questions are not abstract. I cannot be a mere pagan. I desire the pagan freedom that comes from negation, but not little sister's negation.
So on this, from a Nietzschean viewpoint, we will want to stick up for Spengler, and we can use Nietzsche’s philosophy to rescue him.
Unfortunately Spengler is associated with what is called hard Nietzscheanism and has shared in the obloquy attached to that. Whatever the distortion of Nietzsche’s ideas of which Spengler has himself been guilty, it should be possible to rescue him for something more acceptable. His prophecy of a new age of Caesarism appealed to such would be Caesars as Oswald Mosley. It is associated with Nietzsche’s anti-democratic attitude and disapproved accordingly. It is presumably for reasons like this that Penguin Books have long refused to bring out a cheap paperback edition of The Decline of the West
Nietzsche's main point about the ubiquity of will to power has been made,
anything incompatible with it is arbitrary dogmatism, and superstition. If you
want to maintain an incompatible position, you have to argue that this point
cannot be made, that what he said was something quite different. You can try to
extend the incompatibility to a quite unacceptable limit (like making him
incompatible with all
decent feelings). This would be a hard interpretation. Or you can turn what he says into some sort of lesser point, that does not really touch your cherished commitment. You may make it into a conventional move, part of a greater stream of intellectual discussion. Your underlying axioms would in this case remain as something quite untouched by philosophical criticism, a general right to continue in your complacency. This would be the soft..
A 'hard Nietzschean` lumbers central Nietzsche’s discovery with all sorts of personal baggage, like prejudices and specific opinions. A `soft` one like Kaufmann detaches him so far from particular opinions that it leaves morality of the weak intact. Both are misinterpretations because they fail to identify what Nietzsche was essentially targeting.
identify "will to power" as meaning all the power that they happen to desire,
and identify with Nietzsche's wilder statements would be called "hard
Nietzscheans". But their concept of will to power quite misses out on its
and turns into a mere particular taste. Someone of the so called soft school while supposedly recognising the universality fails to admit that such recognition might pose any threat whatever to his complacent acquiescence in the clichés of his time and place. The distinction between a hard and soft Nietzscheanism is misleading and serves to obscure Nietzsche’s originality. So what can we say this consists in?
Nietzsche is concerned with overcoming what he understands as false interpretation. In the universal struggle of ideas and opinions he aims not so much to change the terms of conflict as to dismantle a particular weapon, slave morality, which he shows as relying upon untruth, while still remaining a most effective force in the world. The Nietzschean dissident would reinterpret the existing order by insisting upon commonly ignored aspects of reality.
We should look at his perspectivism, not as a metaphysical theory of truth, but as relating to his understanding of will to power. As a result of their different perspectives, their conflicting desires, ambitions, and the different ideas in their heads, different people assert very different things. Nietzsche's own perspective he calls will to power. This perspective insists upon recognising the suppression of alternative possibilities that is involved in any change or assertion, and sees different viewpoints as striving with each other for mastery. Crucially, there are some perspectives with which this demonstrably conflicts. Insofar as Nietzsche can convict these of untruth, or falsification, his own perspective is vindicated. Insofar as it uncovers material facts which an opposing perspective denies or conceals, his is a true perspective. To do this it is not necessary to have a metaphysical theory of truth, that might rather be an encumbrance. His concern is with truth in an ordinary, everyday sense, that can win general assent.
Of course the above is very controversial. For many students Nietzsche is famous for saying ‘there are no facts only interpretations’, and as soon as they hear the suggestion that Nietzsche’s argument as fundamentally rooted in an appeal to ordinary fact, conclude it can be safely disregarded
There is much in The Decline of the West that is far from incompatible with what is here classed as a genuine Nietzscheanism. Spengler’s more authoritarian opinions, like Nietzsche’s own, are far from essential to what is valuable in him. All kinds of questions arise which I have not had the space to explore. A interesting study would be to take each of Spengler’s criticisms of Nietzsche in turn, and confront it from a genuinely Nietzschean perspective This I think could bring out the basic differences between them in a way that could be powerfully illuminating for both.
p xlviii “For the German Protestant Christian is again a rechauffe´ of the first Christian, he is (as Mr Chamberlain himself sees) a Pauline Christian, that is to say a rebel, a heretic, a democrat: just as the first Christians rebelled against the Jews, he- by means of his Reformation- has rebelled against the aristocracy of the Italian Renaissance, he owes his ‘Empire’ his present position in Europe, to his rebellion.; It is he who- indirectly by the same reformation- instigated the French Revolution; it is he who has brought all the democratic values to the front in modern Europe….”
[v] See Vol 1 P 49 The Classical scepticism is ahistoric, it doubts by denying outright. But that of the West, if it is an inward necessity, a symbol of the autumn of our spirituality, is obliged to be historical through and through. Its solutions are got by treating everything as relative, as a historical phenomenon, and its procedure is psychological.
[vi] Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense." (In German) Werke in drei Bänden. K. Schlechta, ed. München 1960 (cf., English trans. in Shibles 1971b:1-13).
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