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Man and Technics

by Oswald Spengler, translated by C.F. Atkinson
Knopf, $3.50

It is characteristic of Alfred Knopf’s loyalty to authors he has long esteemed to have reissued two of Spengler’s minor writings which have been out of print for ten years. In terms either of sales or of intrinsic merit, I question whether the books deserve such attention. They are dated, chaotic and intellectually disreputable; it is difficult to see what the public of the 1960s will make of these tracts written only a generation ago, yet under such totally different circumstances. But now that Knopf has performed his quixotic gesture, we can only be grateful to him. It means that the corpus of Spengler’s translated work is back in print again and that we can see him in perspective as something more (or less) than the author of The Decline of the West; we can rediscover the second role which Spengler himself considered as important as his historical writing—his function as political spokesman and national prophet.

After the phenomenal success of The Decline in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Spengler faced a difficult choice. From a retired Gymnasium teacher living in obscurity in Munich, he had suddenly been transformed into a public figure. His every utterance commanded attention as a clue to the future of the Western world whose cultural ossification and political decay he had already delineated. On one hand, Spengler might confine himself to the task of enriching the historical perspectives he had presented in The Decline—taking a stand above the day-to-day battle as the cool observer of the millenial (and ineluctable) tendencies of history. The other choice was to get into the fight and show his own countrymen that all was not lost, that the German nation, if only it could organize itself aright, might provide the “Caesar” who would give the Western world strength for a last-ditch stand in the age of iron which it was entering.

By temperament, Spengler preferred the latter course. He was an activist and a German patriot, and for the five years of Germany’s post-war turmoil, he devoted his major energies to trying to steer his country toward national order and hierarchical discipline. Unfortunately, for this transition period in his writing English translations are totally lacking. We must go to the original texts for the articles and lectures in which Spengler preached his own brand of national regeneration, and more particularly to the slim polemical volume, Preussentum und Sozialismus, in which he outlined his prophetic suggestion of a reconciliation between German socialist ideals and the Prussian military tradition.

By 1924, Spengler’s failure as a polemicist was amply evident. With the apparent stabilization of the German economy and of democratic institutions, authoritarian conservatives of his type went into temporary eclipse. Ill and discouraged, Spengler returned to historical speculations, toying for years with two vast projects which finally became one—a “metaphysical” book and a study of prehistory in the Mediterranean basin. It was a fragment of these broodings that he decided to publish in 1931 under the title Man and Technics.

As an anthropological fantasy Man and Technics was distinctly inferior to such Freudian flights as Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism. The most pessimistic of Spengler’s works, it added little to the warnings about the culturally devastating effects of technology that had become routine among social critics during the previous generation. Moreover, by the time it was published, its author had once again shifted the focus of his interest. Unemployment, social strife and the rise of Adolf Hitler had given Spengler a second chance to preach to the German nation.

The Hour of Decision—“Years of Decision” in the original German—was, as its name implied, Spengler’s final call for action. The circumstances of its publication are a curiosity of literary history. When Hitler came to power in January 1933, the book had been printed up to page 106 (Spengler apparently kept writing while the presses were already grinding away!) and it was clear that the new rulers of the Reich would find much of it objectionable. So the author decided simply to cut the manuscript where it was, adding a conciliatory introduction and promising a second volume to come. The latter never materialized: after three months of hesistation, the Nazi authorities declared the book unacceptable and forbade its further circulation. Spengler lived under an official cloud until his death in 1936.

These circumstances give The Hour of Decision its historical and biographical importance. The book provides Spengler’s admirers with an irrefutable defense—and a contemporary and wholly spontaneous one, as opposed to a contrived or ex post facto self-justification—against the charge of his being a supporter of Hitler’s Reich. It is true that he had prepared the way for Nazism by his harsh nationalist utterances, his blood-and-soil effusions and his search for a Caesar. But he resisted the excesses of anti-Semitism, and he scorned the Hitlerian rabble. As The Hour of Decision amply documents, the “condottiere” Mussolini was closer to Spengler’s ideal. Perhaps it was no more than aesthetic fastidiousness that preserved him from being a National Socialist—but, as George Orwell says of English hypocrisy, that was at least a guarantee against the very worst.

Both Man and Technics and The Hour of Decision contain highly suggestive passages on the West’s relation to the non-European world. Despite their antiquated terminology of a “colored peril”—which our generation will doubtless find both scientifically and morally reprehensible—they demonstrate that in the last phase of his life Spengler’s gift for prophetic insight was far from spent. Whatever contemporary relevance these books possess derives from an understanding that is only now dawning on bewildered Westerners facing a newly liberated Asia and Africa—the realization that good will is not enough, that under a superficial similarity of technics and political institutions yawns an abyss of cultural misunderstanding.

Yet such passages are no more than the flickerings of a profound but clouded intellect. As always with Spengler, we need to separate out the majestic prose and the arresting thought from what is merely pompous or intellectually banal. Fortunately we are assisted in this selection by the translator, Charles Francis Atkinson, who brought to these slighter works the same scholarly care he had lavished on The Decline. All in all, it may have been a blessing that Nazi intolerance forced Spengler back on his earlier and more abstract interests: his last years he occupied with another—and more impressive—fragment of his metaphysical and prehistorical speculations which is untranslated and hence far too little known. This amounted to a long footnote to The Decline—and advisedly so. For The Decline remained Spengler’s monument; nothing that he wrote subsequently much increased or diminished the reputation he had acquired by it. For those of us who have learned to read Spengler selectively—as literature and poetic suggestion rather than as history in the strict sense—The Decline stands as the supreme achievement in a troubling and uncertain genre. Harsher, bolder, less equivocal than Toynbee’s, it has set its stamp on the cultural pessimism that remains a central and abiding element in the intellectual history of our era.

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