NO GLOOMIER METAPHOR was ever coined to lend a semblance of shape to man's long struggle through history. Cultures, said Oswald Spengler, are limited biological forms of life—like inchworms, like oak trees, like men. Mysteriously born, they inexorably grow old, decay according to discernible pattern and then die. What is more, Spengler insisted, Western culture has already reached the last stages of its allotted life span.
A troll-eyed German high school teacher, Spengler looked at history not as a linear series of events but as the organic flowering and dying of eight major cultures: ancient Egyptian, ancient Semitic, Peruvian, Chinese, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Greco-Roman and Western. All had flourished for the same amount of time (about 1,000 years). All showed the same development. By comparing the dead to the living, the historian could tick off the inevitable signs of decay and predict how death would come again.
Staked Continents. Writing in a shabby Munich apartment just before and during World War I, Spengler gloomily concluded that history was witnessing the decline of the West. As in the "age of the Caesars," art and music had lost all real creative vitality. Power over the affairs of men had centered in a few enormous cities (megalopolis). Soon the masses of people, without hope or sense of form, would turn to a "second religiousness," clinging to blind faiths out of desperate need, while a series of world leaders backed by enormous military power would vie with one another over the destruction of civilization. During the final world rivalry, he wrote, "whole continents will be staked." The great powers "will dispose at their pleasure of smaller states, their territory and . . . their men alike." Partly because this prophecy bears a shadow-image likeness to today's world, the original, repetitious, two-volume book, skillfully pared to a highly readable single volume, has just been reissued. Often damned but still cited (the very title can turn a whole evening into disputation), it is still a provocative and often dazzling book.
Dark Prophet. The Decline of the West first appeared when the last afterglow of 19th century optimism had guttered out.
The exhausted postwar world swallowed Spengler's gloomy brew as a confirming, almost a soothing draught. What matter if the drink were hemlock? At least the worst was known. The Decline of the West, despite its Germanic prolixities, sold more than 100,000 copies in the first eight years, mostly in Germany. Spengler was the talk of every campus.
He also became the object of one of the hottest historical assaults ever. The body of serious historians angrily excommunicated him for offenses of pride, ignorance, plagiarism and inaccuracy. The humanists could not forgive him for his constant and unalterable pessimism (death of the West is inevitable) and his firm determinism (a culture cannot change its historical destiny).
Shot Down. As they would later with Arnold Toynbee, whose sweeping theory of flowering civilization resembles Spengler's earlier conception, teams of specialists — anthropologists, economists, art critics as well as historians — fell upon the cosmic thinker. Toynbee is an immeasurably more learned and more scrupulous scholar than Oswald Spengler, and his Christianity helped him to see not only the possibility of self-rejuvenation in a dying civilization but the hope as well of a spiritual development for mankind.
Under attack, Toynbee merely revised some of his broader conclusions. Spengler was all but shot down in flames. The experts demonstrated that he knew almost nothing about Chinese culture, nothing at all about Mexican. His Time Chart, marking off the exact number of years spent by each culture in each Spenglerian phase of its doomed history, was riddled with errors of fact. His parallels between cultures were often forced. All this was true. If the West was declining, it was not doing so according to any rules or laws the book had demonstrated.
But if Spengler's master plan for comparing cultures had no provable validity, it did provide his readers with an exciting excursion through history. Even in this cut-down version (Editor Helmut Werner has scrapped the Time Chart and much of the Teutonic repetition), it remains a kind of cosmic Baedeker of art and idea, of anthropological and architectural insight, of historic and religious parallel.
Inspired Guess. Thus Spengler proposes that the music of Mozart and "the glad fairyland of Moorish columns that seem to melt in air'' are contemporary because they express the golden flowering of two comparable cultures (Western and Middle Eastern). In Western culture (which Spengler regards as entirely separate from Greco-Roman), Cecil John Rhodes's campaign to exploit Africa is made equivalent to Caesar's foray into Gaul. Both mark the start of expansionist drives that Spengter sees as the beginning of the culture's final decline.
Ever since man emerged into consciousness, he has been trying to descry order in the world around him, often by resorting to provocative guesswork. It was an inspired guess by Dmitri Mendeleev that helped organize the elements into the periodic table. Historical guesswork is harder to prove definitely right or wrong. Spengler, who died in 1936, remains one of the few men of modern times who have attempted to assimilate all knowledge and discern a broad design. Even wrong, Spengler is more stimulating than many another historian who has never guessed at all.