Oswald Spengler and ‘Faustian culture’

spenglerWhen the first volume of Spengler’s Decline of the West appeared in Germany shortly after the First World War, it was an unexpected success. At this time, Spengler’s idea that the Western civilization is slowly but inevitably entering into its last phase of ‘life’ was in the eyes of the German public confirmed by hardships of the post-war years. Moreover, it provided very much desired answers that rationalised the German post-war suffering into a context of the decline of the Western civilization itself.

But Spengler did not want to provide simple answers for the masses. He was also far for trying to spread pessimism. He merely presented the idea that all cultures are organic entities that go through birth, adulthood, and ultimately their death. The same life course should be expected for the Western world – for the so-called Faustian culture – Spengler believed, and this was the time of its transition from the culture to the civilization.

This transition is characterised among others things especially by migration of people from countryside to city assuring thus their separation from soil – from the experience of natural life. People, instead of experiencing what the real life is – are now separated from it in cities, leading to abstract, from real experience separated ideas and thinking.

The use of the word ‘Faustian’ when describing the Western culture Spengler explained by pointing out a parallel between the tragic figure of Faust and the Western world. Just as Faust sold his soul to the devil to gain greater power, the Western man sold his soul to technics.

It might be now quite easy to see what Spengler had in mind. We rely so much on our technological miracles that we tend to forgot that we would not be able to live without them. This is neither good, neither bad, it is the way things currently are. However, it would be foolish to describe ourselves solely as Nature’s creatures. To ‘return to Nature,’ to ‘live in harmony with it’ as perhaps Rousseau would have is an impossible nonsense, Spengler argues. With the first sparks of fire made by Man, he desires to control the unleashed power, not merely to look at it with awe. The inspiration with Nietzsche is at this point obvious.

The difference between Goethe’s Faust and the Faustian man is thus only one, Spengler said, for the destiny for the latter offers no way to ‘redemption’. Spengler gives just as Julius Evola after him a parallel to a Roman centurion – the Faustian man can face the coming twilight with courage and determination and make his end spectacular, but these are all options left. The optimism must be condemned as weakness to face the inevitable.

Finally, it must be left to the reader to consider for himself whether our civilization truly faces any decline or whether the only remaining option is just to try to hold to the fading banner. What cannot be denied however is that Spengler’s writings give us a certain feeling of melancholy and we can easily imagine Spengler writing before the dusk of the First World War, predicting a tragedy which would wipe away all the things past and leave the Western man with a bleak vision of his inevitable destiny.

Except this eight hundred pages long two volume edition of Decline of the West, other Spengler’s works for instance include Man & Technics or Prussianism and Socialism, which are perhaps more accesible to the first time reader thanks to their shorter length.

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9 Responses to Oswald Spengler and ‘Faustian culture’

  1. James Rogers says:

    Interesting piece, and blog. Thanks for your remarks on my post on the ‘New “New Imperialism”’. I’ve added a permanent link to your blog from mine. Perhaps you might reciprocate?

    Spengler is an interesting fellow, and I think has much to teach us even in these seemingly ‘good’ times. I have this creeping feeling that European civilisation long ago reached its climax—particularly regarding its self-confidence—but I don’t think it’s necessarily a downward spiral from here. Granted, all cultures are eventually overtaken by more aggressive ones, but surely Europe is what we make of it? If anything, the European Union gives all of us, whether Briton, Czech, French or Pole a second chance to galvanise into a powerful new bloc…

  2. Faust says:

    Thank you both for your comment and especially for the link. I am gladly adding you as well.

    To the mentioned topic – I do not believe in any form of determinism and I am neither trying to be pesimistic, however, sometimes I consider European nations are lacking confidence, just as you have mentioned.

    At the moment, it seems that EU leaders are still lacking a clear vision – or rather, any vision – where exactly the Union should progress. It seems that some politicians do not realize or maybe do not want to realize, that their individual national resources will not suffice to counter the rising influence of new global political players. Hopefully, this fact will be realised and we will be able to overcome our differences and use them to build a strong union that can regain its influence in world.

    • Troy says:

      I was hard pressed to not leave a reply, but I always find it amusing when people don’t believe in any forms of determinism. Are physicists consistently LUCKY when they predict time after time the future movements and positions of physical objects? Is it mere chance that Na and Cl react time after time again in the same fashion? Moreover, are humans immune, or somehow separate from this physical world?

      And to the haters of Spengler. His position in the history of ideas, and greatness as a historian, philosopher and anthropologist are in question; the ENORMOUS praise given to him by such obviously luminous figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Joseph Campbell should help clear his name.

  3. James Rogers says:

    Great, then we are in almost total agreement then!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Complimenti per il Blog dedicato
    a uno dei più geniali pensatori di tutti i tempi.

    Alfonso Piscitelli

  5. Jason Heilgiwtz says:

    I read both volumes in their germanic language. You have greatly misstated Oswald, and may have misunderstood his large rambling missive. If you would also point out how he stated that, in 1908 or so, there would be no more advancements in science. He also voted for Hitler – twice! And stated Jewish people cannot contribute anything to society because they were “burned out”

    The idea that civilizations come into fulfillment then die is utterly ridiculous. Tell that to China.

    Furthermore, his other writings have completely degraded into the nonsense that is Oswald.

  6. faustus says:

    Thank you for your comment Jason Heilgiwtz. I’m personally no ‘fan’ of Spengler (although I have read most of his works) and I certainly don’t share many of his ideas. What I find interesting is for instance his theory of seeing cultures/civilizations as organic entities – not merely simple composites of individuals (in this, he is a heir of German romanticists such as Herder, Schiller, Schlegel…). I maintain the same distance from his ideas also in the article above.

    However, having said that, I have to absolutely disagree with your proposal to simple dismiss Spengler because he ‘voted for Hitler’. One thing are particular decisions of Spengler a man, the other is his philosophy – the latter being what is reviewed.
    Moreover, in his work ‘the Hour of Decision’ (the book which was published only in one edition in the Nazi Germany before being banned by the regime) develops one of the most pronounced criticisms of the Nazi regime from the ‘right’ which appeared before the outbreak of WW2…

  7. Pingback: Oswald Spengler and ‘Faustian culture’ | Délský potápěč

  8. Figs says:

    The comment by Jason demonstrates crass misunderstandings pertaining Spengler’s ideas. For instance, present China does not refute his ideas, since that country is not the same culture or civilization it once was, but is rather being reborn as another culture presently. Likewise, Spengler observed classical ‘Apollinian’ culture died, which is irrefutable, but neither did Greece or the Roman people died out, but rather changed into other cultures. Spengler was a brilliant historian and observer of reality, and his idea that cultures are organic entities is demonstrably valid.

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