In Oswald Spengler’s philosophy of history, every “historical people” is launched on its career by a “destiny-idea,” and it flourishes and has a history so long as it is occupied in “actualizing” this “idea into a living historical form” (1). It is possession of (and by) a destiny-idea that raises a historical people above the grey morass of “historyless” peoples who simply exist through the endless “zoological” round of feeding, breeding, and death.
Spengler did not, of course, claim that possession of a destiny-idea would free a historical people from the fate of living through a cycle; but the evolutions through which such peoples lived were, in his philosophy, the “majestic wave-cycles” of history. Completion of these cycles was the work of centuries, not years. And completion of these cycles was most decidedly the work of nations
Spengler took this idea from Hegel, who a hundred years earlier had written:
“The Spirit of a people . . . erects itself into an objective world . . . . That is its work . . . . A Nation is moral, virtuous, vigorous while it is engaged in realizing its grand object” (2).
One nineteenth-century Hegelian neatly explained the concept of destiny idea as a nation’s “consciousness of a vocation” (3). Another described it as “consciousness of a special national destiny,” as the “national idea,” and as the belief in a “national purpose” (4). This same writer also explained that a destiny idea does not spring into being, fully-grown, like Athena from the mind of Zeus, but is, instead, a “growth” that is “gradually shadowed forth.”
This means we must understand that a nation “realizing its grand object” will pass through three stages. It must, first of all, realize (i.e. come to believe) that it has a grand object. It must then realize (i.e. come to understand) just what that grand object is. And then it must, at last, realize (i.e. actualize) that “grand object” by imposing it on reality.
Spengler called the period of national growth the period of culture in the strict sense of the word. An historical people is a Culture so long as it continues to discover and develop the possibilities in its destiny idea. And, Spengler wrote, “it dies when this soul [i.e. idea] has actualized the full sum of its possibilities.”
To say that it dies is not to say that it disappears, but that it “hardens . . . and becomes a Civilization.” So long as it is able, a hardened Civilization will continue in its vocation of realizing itself, but it does this not by unfolding or developing itself, but by extending its domain and imposing its stamp upon the world.
Spengler calls this transition from Culture to Civilization the “Climacteric of Culture.” A climacteric is, literally, a step in a staircase, and the figurative usage comes to us by way of the old notion that a man’s life is divided into four “ages” separated by “climacterics” or “grand alterations” (5). The ages were childhood, youth, middle age (or maturity), and old age. The climacterics were said to occur after twenty-one, forty-two, and sixty-three years.
Spengler intended his Climacteric of Culture as analogous to the climacteric that separates Youth and Middle Age. Childhood ends when a man reaches physical maturity. Youth ends when he reaches moral, mental, and spiritual maturity. Middle Age (maturity) is the age of harvest in which, for good or ill, a man reaps what he has sewn. In Middle Age, he may well remain at the peak of his power, but he no longer sprouts, or shoots, or breaks out in wondrous blossoms. His time of growth has passed. And Old Age is, alas, the time decline. (This is, incidentally, why it is called middle age, even though it does not begin until half a man’s years have passed. It is the age between the ages of growth and the age of decline.)
Obviously, these four ages are analogous to the four seasons of the year.
Unlike the ages of man, or the seasons of the year, Spengler’s cycle of culture is not inexorably driven by underlying mechanisms of biology or astronomy, and this allows critics to deny that every great culture is doomed to die. Such critics invariably believe that their own culture has discovered the elixir of eternal “Youth.” But for Spengler the Climacteric of Culture follows necessarily from the premise that a Culture is the development of a destiny-idea, and thus must wind down once the “possibilities” of that destiny-idea have been realized.
Jacques Barzun recently described this loss of possibility as “decadence.” This word decadence, he writes,
“implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary it is a very active time . . . peculiarly restless, for it sees no lines of clear advance . . . . The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through . . . . Repetition and frustration are the intolerable results. Boredom and fatigue are the great historical forces” (6).
Spengler wrote that, to understand the Climacteric of Culture and the onset of national decline, we must register these signs of exhaustions, or what he called “unfruitfulness.” To understand our age, in other words, we must “understand [this] word [unfruitfulness] in all its direct seriousness.” We must grasp without flinching the awful historical significance of comprehensive sterility.
Comprehensive sterility has two parts.
The first part is the unfruitfulness that marks “the brain-man of the megalopolis,” who is no longer capable of “great art,” “great courtesy,” or “the great style” in anything at all. This brain-man of “cosmopolitan intelligence” is no longer an artist capable of creation. He is merely a critic who churns out parasitic commentary—ironic or academic, as the market demands.
This is why Spengler tells us that “diatribe” is the typical intellectual product of a civilization in decline. In its original sense, the word diatribe did not signify an angry rant, but rather a learned and scholarly dissertation. Etymologically, the word diatribe means to wear away, the underlying notion being that diatribe is the essentially fruitless way in which the brain-men of a decadent civilization pass their time.
They are pedants after the fashion of the Reverend Edward Casaubon, in George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and their endless diatribes are nothing but variations on The Key to All Mythologies, the unfinished work of that old humbug.
In a stinging line, Spengler calls these pedants “intellectual male-prostitutes” who hire themselves out to simulate the “outward effect” of intellectual life. The utterly sterile words of these voluble rent-boys are what “fills and dominates the halls and market-places of the megalopolis.” This is to say, they are what fills and dominates everything that you and I read today.
The second part of comprehensive sterility is the literal “childlessness and ‘race-suicide’ of this civilized and rootless strata.” Men who fritter away their lives with diatribes (as you and I are doing at this moment) turn out to be men who also fritter away their tribe. Having lost all sense of national destiny and purpose, they become the “market-loungers of Alexandria and Rome,” the “newspaper-readers” of Spengler’s time, or the bored and despondent surfers of today’s worldwide web.
Cosmopolitanism is in every age marked by “hatred of Destiny,” and of “history as the expression of Destiny.” Spengler did not live to see the term used, but today’s cosmopolitans expresses their hatred of Destiny by their love of Diversity.
Diversity is, after all, a negation of Destiny, just as Destiny as a negation of Diversity.
Spengler tells us that cosmopolitans hate Destiny because they are barren, because they are fruitless critics, pedants, and Casaubons. They are hollow men who are “inwardly detached from the pulse of blood and being,” and who therefore feel the hatred of incomprehension when faced with the “nation-idea.” These men yearn to return to the “formless and therefore historyless mass” of humanity, to the diverse swarm that that Spengler calls “fellaheen.” In Diversity, they hope to find their way back to “zoological” existence, to a life that is “a planless happening without goal . . . wherein occurrences are many, but, in the last analysis, devoid of significance.”
(1) Decline of the West (1918, 1922)
(2) Philosophy of History, 1822-1830.
(3) Elisha Mulford, The Nation: The Foundation of Civil Order and Political Life in the United States (1877). Mulford was an Episcopalian priest who had studied in Germany in 1860.
(4) Charles Brandon Boynton, The Four Great Powers (1866). Boynton was a Presbyterian minister and Chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives (1865-1869)
(5) Benjamin Allen, Natural History of the Chalybeat and Purging Waters of England (1699)
(6) Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (2000)