Life, ‘Technics’, and the Decline of the West

by Ian James Kidd

Oswald Spengler is best known as the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, ‘The Decline of the West’, a classic doomsday vision, first published in 1917. Describing the inevitable slide into intellectual, social, and cultural decay of our ‘Faustian’ culture, it was followed, two years later, by Preussentum und Sozialismus, which called for martial virtues, like discipline and self-sacrifice, as the best, most heroic responses to the doom awaiting us. Both the dark vision of history and life and the celebration of martial heroism persisted into Spengler’s next book, Der Mensch und die Technik, first published in 1932 and reissued, last year, by Routledge as part of their ‘Revivals’ series.

Oswald Spengler (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R06610 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, this new edition is a flat reprint, lacking an introduction, therefore leaving readers in the dark about how the book fits within Spengler’s oeuvre. That’s to be regretted, since in certain respects, Man and Technics, its English title, represents a change of mood for Spengler. Its subtitle – ‘a contribution to a philosophy of life’ – strikes an oddly positive tone, where the ‘life’ spoken of is the raw, almost primal thing spoken of by early twentieth century Lebensphilosophen, like Spengler’s French contemporary, Henri Bergson. Certainly Man and Technics has many things in common with Der Untergang – its brooding character, grand ambition, and agonistic vision of life. But there is also, underneath that, something different. To see what this is, though, a little context might help.

The historian Jeffrey Herf classified Spengler as a ‘reactionary modernist’, one of a loose group of German historians, philosophers, cultural critics, and others, that included Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, and others. The reactionary modernists aimed, says Herf, to ‘reconcil[e] the antimodernist, romantic, and irrationalist ideas present in German nationalism’, with the ‘most obvious manifestation of means-end rationality’, namely, technology. An older cultural spirit filled with Geist, völkisch identity, and Nietzschean will-to-power was merged, remarkably, with new industrial and military technology, fulfilling the idea of a reactionary modernism – an embrace of the modern, but reacting against what Spengler lambasted as the ‘devastating shallowness’ of its liberalism, utilitarianism, and materialism. Profit, utility, and other bourgeois values stifle the true ‘essence of technics’, complained Spengler, who inveigles against ‘progress-philistines’ who fail to perceive in machines a pulsing Will zur Macht.

Cover of Ernst Jünger’s Der Arbeiter. Herrschaft und Gestalt (1932)

Only when the depth of ‘technics’ is properly grasped can the ‘soul of man’ be set free. Such is the aim of a genuine ‘philosophy of life’, fuelled by a philosophy of technology and history, focused on the release of vast energies and power. Understandably, Spengler’s vision in Man and Technics was welcomed by the National Socialists, with Josef Goebbels’s proclaiming the inauguration of ‘an age that is both romantic and steellike’ – a vision of a reactionary modernist state. But Spengler, for his part, resisted their efforts, complaining, if obliquely, that their militaristic zeal was just as shallow as those of the bourgeoisie. ‘The essence of technics’, he wrote, is identical with ‘the soul of man’, not the ends of military ambition. Man and Technics is less a manifesto for a militarised technological state than ‘the history of Man from his origins’, that affords, at its most portentous, ‘a provisional glimpse’ into our ‘destiny’.

Talk of destiny is, of course, not new to Spengler. Decline of the West offered a ‘morphology of world-cultures’, a description of the cyclical processes that dictate the movement of a Kultur into the degenerate form Spengler called a Zivilisation. With a sweeping historical gaze, the waxing and waning of these ‘world-cultures’ is described, from the Classical culture of ancient Greece and Rome, through the ‘Hindu’, ‘Magian’, and, finally, the ‘Faustian’. In the beginning, these cultures are potent and energetic, generating original images and values that coalesce in a ‘Prime Symbol’, like the nude statue of Rome, a symbol of pride, power, and autonomy.

Such ‘cultural-forms’ (Gestalt) are, however, swept up in irresistible transhistorical forces, destined to gradually decline, losing the vitality and energy that sustained their rise. In time, they degenerate into civilizations, orderly and stable, lacking vigorous energy and so declining into defeat or extinction. It was, of course, Spengler’s explanation of the decline of German culture into Weimar civilization as a product of historical forces beyond knowledge or control that made Decline of the West so popular in its day. Scholars, of course, attacked Spengler’s procrustean historiography and his vast generalisations, but the German public was captivated. Socially depressed and politically exhausted as much of Germany was, it’s easy to see why Spengler’s appeal to ‘morphological’ forces was an attractive diagnosis of decline, even if it came at the cost of profound fatalism.

By the 1930s, though, the appeal of Spengler’s original pessimistic historical determinism was fading. Emboldened by the rise of National Socialism, the new mood was more optimistic. Germany’s political and economic fortunes were changing, pushing out talk of inevitable decline. Certainly it now came to seem premature for Spengler to speak of German decline, with so many signs of activity, life, and power. Similar sentiments flowed through writings by other reactionary modernists in the early 1930s, always with industrial technology as a proof and symbol of this restoration. Among the most important of these fellow-travellers was the war hero, writer, and rhapsodist of battle, Ernst Jünger.

A couple of years before Man and Technics, Jünger published two landmark works, a vivid essay, Die totale Mobilmachung (1930), and its longer companion, Der Arbeiter (1932). The titular concepts pull together in a vision of a ‘totally mobilised’ society, whose entire energies, resources, and people are concentrated into a singular goal, pursued by a vast collective of ‘Workers’. These are not muscular fellows labouring in overalls, but creatures, at once ‘bees and titans’, utterly dominated by an inexorable desire to ‘summon … all possible forces’, deploying them for the purposes of struggle, domination, and violence. Technology, on this vision, is an expression of this primeval impulse to ‘total mobilisation’, to generate and unleash a collectivised will-to-power upon the world.

Spengler, too, celebrates the violent, transformative character of ‘technics’. Man and Technics describes a restlessly stirring ‘will-to-power’ that ‘embraces the world’ in the ‘gigantic power of its technical processes’. Sleepless factories, roaring furnaces, tireless production lines – all of these show the on-going manifestation of ‘technics’, the dynamic, agonistic force that Spengler conceived as a metaphysical force. Channelling Nietzsche’s Der Wille Zur Macht, ‘technics’ is characterised as ‘immemorially old’, ‘immensely general’, underlying all of life and history.

Through much of our history, ‘technics’ was manifested mainly in natural forces and processes, but with the age of technology – of Jünger’s world of ‘totally mobilised’ Arbeiter – we enter a new stage in the history of our species. Indeed, ours is the final stage, the dramatic point of culmination. ‘The creature is rising up against its creator’, warns Spengler, since under loathsome bourgeois influence we are ‘becoming the slave of the Machine’. Seeking comfort, profit, and utility, we are being lulled to sleep, dominated by ‘technics’, surrendering our vital power and spirit. Man and Technics contributes to a ‘philosophy of life’, then, by awakening in us a sense of our ‘doom’.

It is at this point that Spengler combines his earlier historical determinism with the new sense of agency and power. Ultimately, we are ‘doomed’, he says, to live in a stage in the history of human cultures where the release of those underlying energies reaches its final stages. Mass mobilisation, mechanised warfare, and other dimensions of modern industrial and military existence force us into ‘a grim, pitiless, no-quarter battle of the Will-to-Power’, the ultimate expression of ‘technics’. Unlike every age before, the ‘active, fighting, charged’ nature of the ‘soul of man’ finds total expression – a vast outpouring of power, able, on the one hand, to display our potencies, but, on the other, to culminate in our destruction. The ‘curse and … grandeur’ of the modern age, declares Spengler, lies in our being witnesses to – and, indeed participants in – the historical moment of the total realisation of ‘technics’, when the ‘soul of man’ finds its fullest, most satisfying expression.

The cost, of course, is our destruction, eradicated in a titanic, global release of violent energies, insatiable strife, and vast chaos, that will leave our ‘Faustian civilization … in fragments, forgotten … in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon’. For Spengler, however, this is no cause for despair, since it affords us something momentous, ‘the Choice of Achilles … a short life, full of deeds and glory, [or] a long life without content’. Although the bourgeoisie of Weimar Germany urge the latter, those who appreciate that the ‘essence of technics’ is identical with the ‘soul of man’ will see – acutely, keenly – that a short life, ‘active, fighting, and charged’ affords our only true satisfaction.

Man and Technics is full of these sorts of remarks, testaments to the evocative style and vision of its author. Spengler is, if nothing else, a fascinating read, captivating and frustrating in almost equal measure. Certainly no-one should read his works as historical analyses, much less as prognostications, even if his vision of the relentless extension of technology into all areas of life does ring true. There are many technophiles writing, during this period, among whom Spengler sits among the most dramatic. In a sense, the interest of his work lies in its emotional appeal, his capacity, in the words of one historian, to ‘bewitch’ you, the way he ‘compels you to forget that we know better’. Perhaps it’s best to explain Spengler’s appeal in terms of his capacity to dramatize an ideal, better than any other reactionary modernist. The ideal or vision is what Thomas Mann called a ‘technological romanticism’, infusing technology with ‘soul’, even with ‘Destiny’. If ‘technics’ goes deep, an embrace of it is a source of depth, a way to be, says Spengler, ‘in the silent service of Being’.

There’s a rich resonance, here, with deeper currents in German intellectual history. A full account of Spengler needs to include German Romanticism, Kant, Lebensphilosophie, Hegel’s vision of history, Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will-to-power, the later Heidegger’s ‘history of Being’, among others. If locating Spengler among such philosophically illustrious company seems overgenerous, one should consider, to take one example, his influence on Heidegger’s later writings, themselves so important to modern cultural criticism and environmental thought. Man and Technics describes how ‘we think only in horsepower now’ – a waterfall appears as a source of electric power, a field of cattle is ‘a source of meat-supply’ – and we see the origins of the later Heidegger’s conception of ‘technology’, a ‘way of revealing’ things and the world in the narrow terms of human use. Both Spengler’s ‘technics’ and the later Heidegger’s ‘technology’ offer a vision of reality and human life – totalising, violent, dramatic. The difference is, however, that the former ends in our inevitable doom, whereas the latter offers the enigmatic prospect of a ‘saving power’, an eventual emergence into a post-technological world.

Spengler’s own life ended without the drama and vigour described in his books. His criticisms of Nazi ideology, such as its racist biology, made his final days uncomfortable. Declining invitations to honours, professorships, and invitations to address the Nazi elite, Spengler awkwardly played up to his lone prophet status. ‘I do my thinking independently of parties, tendencies, and interests’, he said, and for that reason ‘see more keenly’. Studying the morphology of world-history, then, meant staying away from local and particular manifestations of its deep rhythms and dynamics.

Fortunately for Spengler, the Nazis froze him out, leaving him to live out his days reflecting on his Cassandra status as an unheeded prophet. By 1936, his influence was almost nil, although interest in his work would sporadically recur, not least among scholars of Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and other cultural pessimists. Certainly the existing scholarship on Spengler does not exhaust his interest or influence on twentieth-century history, politics, or philosophy—barely a handful of books exist, alongside a small scholarship.

It is to be hoped that the reissue of Man and Technics might encourage others to look again at Spengler, although this Routledge edition – a straight reissue of Charles Francis Atkinson’s 1932 translation, with no introduction or scholarly notes, priced at seventy pounds – is overpriced and underserved. The few who read it, though, may find something more interesting than they might expect from the brooding, pessimistic author of Decline of the West.

Oswald Spengler: Man and Technics. A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life
Translated by Charles Francis Atkinson
London: Routledge, 2016
ISBN 13-978-1-138-23180 (hbk)
104 pages, hardback, GBP 68.00

Ian James Kidd is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, UK. He has research interests in the history of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Austro-German philosophy and co-edited Wittgenstein and Scientism (Routledge, 2017).