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Oswald Spengler, Prophet of World Chaos

Schmidt Number: S-4157

On-line since: 31st August, 2018


Lecture by
Rudolf Steiner

Dornach, July 2, 1920
Translated by Norman Macbeth

One who looks around a little in Germany today, and not at externals but with the eye of the soul; one who sees not only what offers itself to the casual visitor, who seldom learns the true conditions during his visit; one who does not cling to the fact that a few chimneys are smoking again and the trains are running on time; one who can to some degree see into the spiritual situation; such a person sees a picture which is symptomatic not only for this territory but for the whole decay of our world-culture in the present cycle. I would like today to point out to you, in an introductory way, a psycho-spiritual symptom which is far more significant than many sleeping souls even in Germany allow themselves to dream.

In old Germany decay and decline rule today, and the external things which I have mentioned cannot deceive us about this. But this is not what I want to point to now, for in the course of world-history we often see decay set in and then out of the decay there again spring upward impulses. But if we judge externally, basing our opinion on mere custom and routine and saying that here again everything will be just as it has been before, then we do not see certain deeper-lying symptoms. One such symptom (but only one of many), a psycho-spiritual symptom which I want to bring before you, is the remarkable impression made by Oswald Spengler's book The Decline of the West, which is already symptomatic in having been able to appear in our time. It is a thick book and widely read, a book which has made an extraordinarily deep impression on the younger generation in Germany today. And the remarkable thing is that the author expressly states that he conceived the basic idea of this book, not during the war or after the war, but already some years before the catastrophe of 1914.

As I have said, this book makes a particularly strong impression on the younger generation. And if you try to sense the imponderables of life, the things which are between the lines, then you will be particularly struck by such a thing. In Stuttgart I recently had to give a lecture to the students of the technical college, and I went to this lecture entirely under the impression made by Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. It is a thick book. Thick books are very costly now in Germany, yet it is much read. You will realize their costliness when I tell you that a pamphlet which cost five cents in 1914 now costs thirty-five cents. Of course, books have not risen in the same proportion as beer, which now costs ten times as much as in 1914. Books must always be handled more modestly, even under the present impossible economic conditions. Still the price increase on books shows what has happened to the economic system in the last few years.

The contents of this book may be easily characterized. It demonstrates how the culture of the Occident has now reached a point which, at a certain period, was also reached by the declining cultures of the old Orient, of Greece, and of Rome. Spengler calculates in a strictly historical way that the complete collapse of the culture of the Occident must be accomplished by the year 2200. In my public lecture in Stuttgart I treated Spengler's book very seriously, and I also combatted it strenuously. But today the contents of such a thing are not so important. More important than the contents or the psycho-spiritual qualities of a book is whether the author (no matter what view of life he may adopt) has spiritual qualities, whether he is a personality who may be taken earnestly, or even highly esteemed, in a spiritual way. The author of this book is, beyond any doubt, such a personality. He has completely mastered ten or fifteen sciences. He has a penetrating judgment on the whole historical process, as far as history reaches. And he also has something which men of today almost never have, a sound eye for the phenomena of decline in the civilizations of the present day. There is a fundamental difference between Spengler and those who do not grasp the nature of the impulses of decline and who try all kinds of arrangements for extracting from the decayed ideas some appearance of upward motion. Were it not heart-rending it might be humorous to see how people with traditional ideas all riddled with decay meet today in conferences and believe that out of decay they can create progress by means of programs. Such a man as Oswald Spengler, who really knows something, does not yield to such a deception. He calculates like a precise mathematician the rapidity of our decline and comes out with the prediction (which is more than a vague prophecy) that by the year 2200 this Occidental culture will have fallen into complete barbarism.

This combination of universal outward decline, especially in the psycho-spiritual field, with the revelation by a serious thinker that such decline is necessary in accordance with the laws of history — this combination is something remarkable, and it is this which has made such a strong impression on the younger generation. We have today not only signs of decay, we have theories which describe this decay as necessary in a demonstrable scientific way. In other words, we have not only decay but a theory of decay, and a very formidable theory too. One may well ask where we shall find the forces, the inner will-forces, to spur men to work upward again, if our best people, after surveying ten or fifteen sciences, have reached the point of saying that this decay is not only present but can be proved like a phenomenon in physics. This means that the time has begun when belief in decay is not represented by the worst people. We must stress again and again how really serious the times are, and what a mistake it is to sleep away this seriousness of the times.

If one grasps the entire urgency of the situation, one is driven to the question: How can we orient thinking so that pessimism toward western civilization will not appear to be natural and obvious while faith in a new ascent seems a delusion? We must ask if there is anything that can still lead us out of this pessimism. Just the way in which Spengler comes to his results is extremely interesting for the spiritual-scientist. Spengler does not consider the single cultures to be as sharply demarcated as we do when, for example, within the post-Atlantean time we distinguish the Indian, Persian, Egypto-Chaldean, Greco-Latin, and present-day cultures. He is not familiar with spiritual science, but in a certain way, he too considers such cultures. He looks at them with the eye of the scientific researcher. He examines them with the methods which in the last three or four centuries have grown up in occidental civilization and been adopted by all who are not prejudiced by narrow traditional faith, Catholic, Protestant, Monadistic, etc. Oswald Spengler is a man who is completely permeated by materialistic modern science. And he observes the rise and fall of cultures — oriental, Indian, Persian, Greek, Roman, modern occidental — as he would observe an organism which goes through a certain infancy, a time of maturity, and a time of aging, and then, when it has grown old, dies. Thus Spengler regards the single cultures; they go through their childhood, their maturity, and their old age, and then they die. And the death-day of our present Occidental civilization is to be the year 2200.

Only the first volume of the book is now available. One who lets this first volume work upon him finds a strict theoretical vindication and proof of the decline, and nowhere a spark of light pointing to a rise, nothing which gives any hint of a rise. And one cannot say that this is an erroneous method of thought for a scientist. For if you consider the life of today and do not yield to the delusion that fruit for the future can grow out of bodiless programs, then you see that an upward movement nowhere appears in what the majority of men recognize in the outer world. If you regard rising and declining cultures as organisms, and then look at our culture, our entire Occidental civilization, as an organism, then you can only say that the Occident is perishing, declining into barbarism. You find no indication where an upward movement could appear, where another center of the world could form itself.

The Decline of the West is a book with spiritual qualities, based on keen observation, and written out of a real permeation with modern science. Only our habitual frivolity can ignore such things.

When a phenomenon like this appears, there springs up in the world-observer that historical concern of which I have so often spoken and which I can briefly characterize in the following words: One who today makes himself really acquainted with the inner nature of what is working in social, political, and spiritual life, one who sees how all that is so working strives toward decline — such a person, if he knows spiritual science as it is here meant, must say that there can only be a recovery if what we call the wisdom of initiation flows into human evolution. For if this wisdom of initiation were entirely ignored by men, if it were suppressed, if it could play no role in the further development of mankind — what would be the necessary consequence? You see, if we look at the old Indian culture, it is like an organism in having infancy, maturity, aging, decay, and death; then it continues itself. Then we have the Persian, Egyptian, Chaldean, Greco-Latin, and our own time, but always we have something which Oswald Spengler did not take into account. He has been reproached for this by several of his opponents. For a good deal has already been written against Spengler's book, most of it cleverer than Benedetto Croce's extraordinarily simple article. Croce, who has always written cleverly apart from this, suddenly became a simpleton with Spengler's book. But it has been pointed out to Spengler that the cultures do not always have only infancy, maturity, aging, and death, they continue themselves and will do so in this case also; when our culture dies in the year 2200, it will continue itself again. The singular thing here is that Spengler is a good observer and therefore he finds no moment of continuation and cannot speak of a seed somewhere in our culture, but only of the signs of decay which are evident to him as a scientific observer. And those who speak of cultures continuing themselves have not known how to say anything particularly clever about this book. One very young man has brought forward a rather confused mysticism in which he speaks of world-rhythm; but that creates nothing which can transform a documented pessimism into optimism. And so it follows from Spengler's book that the decline will come, but no upward movement can follow.

What Spengler does is to observe scientifically the infancy of the organism which is a culture or civilization, its maturity, decline, aging, death. He observes these in the different epochs in the only way in which, fundamentally, one can observe scientifically. But one who can look a little deeper into things knows that in the old Indian life, apart from the external civilization, there lived the initiation-wisdom of primeval times. And this initiation-wisdom of primeval times, which was still mighty in India, inserted a new seed into the Persian culture. The Persian mysteries were already weaker, but they could still insert the seed into the Egypto-Chaldean time. The seed could also be carried over into the Greco-Latin period. And then the stream of culture continued itself as it were by the law of inertia into our own time. And there it dries up.

One must feel this, and those who belong to our spiritual science could have felt it for twenty years. For one of my first remarks at the time of founding our movement was that, if you want a comparison for what the cultural life of mankind brings forth externally, you may compare it with the trunk, leaves, blossoms, and so forth, of a tree. But what we want to insert into this continuous stream can only be compared with the pith of the tree; it must be compared with the activating growth-forces of the pith. I wanted thereby to point out that through spiritual science we must seek again what has died out with the old atavistic primeval wisdom.

The consciousness of being thus placed into the world should be gained by all those who count themselves a part of the anthroposophical movement. But I have made another remark, especially here in recent years but also in other places. I have said that, if you take all that can be drawn out of modern science and form therefrom a method of contemplation which you then apply to social or, better still, to historical life, you will be able to grasp thereby only phenomena of degeneration. If you examine history with the methods of observation taught by science, you will see only what is declining &8212;, if you apply this method to social life, you will create only the phenomena of degeneration.

What I have thus said over the course of years could really find no better illustration than Spengler's book. A genuinely scientific thinker appears, writes history, and discovers through this writing of history that the civilization of the Occident will die in the year 2200. He really could not have discovered anything else. For in the first place, with the scientific method of contemplation you can find or create only phenomena of degeneration; while in the second place the whole Occident in its spiritual, political, and social life is saturated with scientific impulses, hence is in the midst of a period of decline. The important thing is that what formerly drew one culture out of another has now dried up, and in the third millennium no new civilization will spring out of our collapsing Occidental civilization.

You may bring up ever so many social questions, or questions on women's suffrage, and so forth, and you may hold ever so many meetings; but if you form your programs out of the traditions of the past, you will be making something which is only seemingly creative and to which the ideas of Oswald Spengler are thoroughly applicable. The concern of which I have spoken must be spoken of because it is now necessary that a wholly new initiation-wisdom should begin out of the human will and human freedom. If we resign ourselves to the outer world and to what is mere tradition, we shall perish in the Occident, fall into barbarism; while we can move upward again only out of the will, out of the creative spirit. The initiation-wisdom which must begin in our time must, like the old initiation wisdom (which only gradually succumbed to egoism, selfishness, and prejudice), proceed from objectivity, impartiality, and selflessness. From this base it must permeate everything.

We can see this as a necessity. We must grasp it as a necessity if we look deeper into the present unhappy trend of Occidental civilization. But then you also notice something else; you notice that when a justified appeal is made it is distorted into a caricature. And it is especially necessary that we should see through this. Now in our time no appeal is more justifiable than that for democracy; yet this is distorted into a caricature as long as democracy is not recognized as a necessary impulse only for the life of politics and rights and the state, from which the economic life and the cultural life must be dissociated. It is distorted into a caricature when today, instead of objectivity, impartiality, and selflessness, we find personal whims and self-interest made into cultural factors. Everything is being drawn into the political field. But if this happens, then gradually objectivity and impartiality will disappear; for the cultural life cannot thrive if it takes its directions from the political life. It is always entangled in prejudice thereby. And selflessness cannot thrive if the economic life creeps into the political life, because then self-interest is necessarily introduced. If the associative life, which can produce selflessness in the economic field, is spoiled, then everything will tend to leave men to wander in prejudice and self-interest. And the result of this will be to reject what must be based on objectivity and selflessness — the science of initiation. In external life everything possible is done today to reject this science of initiation, although it alone can lead us beyond the year 2200.

This is the great anxiety as regards our culture, which can come over you if you look with a clear eye at the events of the present. On this basis, I regard Spengler's book as only a symptom, but can anyone possibly say today: “Ah yes, but Spengler is wrong. Cultures have risen and fallen; ours will fall, but another will arise out of it.”? No, there can be no such refutation of Spengler's views. It is falsely reasoned, because trust in an upward movement cannot today be based on a faith that out of the Occidental culture another will develop. No, if we rely on such a faith nothing will develop. There is simply nothing in the world at present which can be the seed to carry us over the beginning of the third millennium. Just because we are living in the fifth post-Atlantean epoch, we must first create a seed.

You cannot say to people — Believe in the Gods, believe in this, believe in that, and then all will be well. You must confess that those who speak of, and even demonstrate, the phenomena of degeneration are right with regard to what lives in the outer world. But we, every individual human being must take care that they shall not remain right. For the upward movement does not come out of anything objective, it comes out of the subjective will. Each person must will, each person must will to take up the spirit anew, and from the newly received spirit of the declining civilization each person must himself give a new thrust; otherwise it will perish. You cannot appeal today to any objective law, you can appeal only to the human will, to the good-will of men. Here in Switzerland, where things have unrolled themselves differently, there is little to be seen of the real course of events (although it is also present here); but if you step over the border into Middle Europe you are immediately struck, in all that you observe with the eye of the soul, by what I have just described to you. There comes before your soul the sharp and painful contrast between the need for adopting initiation-wisdom into our spiritual, legal, and economic life and the perverted instincts which reject everything which comes from this quarter. One who feels this contrast must search hard for the right way to describe it, and one who does not choose words haphazardly often has trouble in finding the right expression for it. In Stuttgart I spoke on Spengler's book and I used this expression, “perverted instincts of the present.” I have used it again today because I find it is the only adequate one. As I left the stand that day I was accosted by one of those who best understand the word “perverted” in a technical sense, a physician. He was shocked that I had used just this word, but out of curious reasons. It is no longer commonly supposed that one who speaks on a foundation of facts, out of reality, chooses his words with pain; rather is it supposed that everyone forms his words as they are usually formed out of the superficial consciousness of the times. I had a talk with this physician, told him this and that, and then he said he was glad that I had not meant this word “perverted” in any elegant literary sense. I could only reply that this was certainly not the case, because I was not in the habit of meaning things in an elegant literary way. The point is that the man in the street today never assumes that there is such a thing as a creation out of the spirit; he simply believes, if you say something like “perverted instincts,” that you are speaking on the same basis as the last litterateur. That tone dominates our minds today; our minds educate themselves by it. Just in such an episode you can see the contrast between what is so necessary to mankind today — a real deepening, which must even go back as far as the basis of initiation-wisdom — and that which, through the caricature of democracy, comes before us today as spiritual life. People are much too lazy to draw something up from the hidden forces of consciousness within themselves; they prefer to dabble at tea-parties, in beer-gardens, at political meetings, or in parliaments. It is the easiest thing in the world now to say witty things, for we live in a dying culture where wit comes easily to people. But the wit that we need, the wit of initiation-wisdom, we must fetch up from the will; and we will not find it unless the power of this initiation-wisdom flows into our souls. Hence, we cannot say that we have refuted such a book as Spengler's. Naturally, we can describe it. It is born out of the scientific spirit. But the same is true of what others bring to birth out of the scientific spirit. Thus he is right if there does not enter into the wills of men that which will make him wrong. We can no longer have the comfort of proving that his demonstration of decline is wrong; we must, through the force of our wills, make wrong what seems to be right.

You see, this must be said in sentences which seem paradoxical. But we live in a time when the old prejudices must be demolished and when it must be recognized that we can never create a new world out of the old prejudices. Is it not understandable that people should encounter spiritual science and say they do not understand it? It is the most understandable thing in the world. For what they understand is what they have learned, and what they have learned, is decay or leading to decay. It is a question, not of assimilating something which can easily be understood out of the phenomena of decline, but of assimilating something to understand which one must first enhance his powers. Such is the nature of initiation-wisdom. But how can we expect that those who now aspire to be the teachers or leaders of the people should discern that what gives man a capacity for judgment must first be fetched out of the subconscious depths of soul-life and is not sitting up there in the head all ready-made. What really sits up there in the head is the destructive element.

Such is the nature of the things which you encounter wherever the consequences have already been drawn, where you have only to look at this seeming success. It is comprehensible that in the decline of occidental civilization our consciousness cannot easily enter into this field. Hence, we stand today entirely under the influence of this contrast which has been described to you; on the one side the need for a new impulse to enter into our civilization, and on the other side a rejection of this impulse. Things simply cannot improve if a sufficiently large number of people do not grasp the need for this impulse from initiation-wisdom. If you lay weight on temporary improvement you will not notice the great lines of decline, you will delude yourself about it, and you will march just so much more surely toward decline because you fail to grasp the only means there is to kindle a new spirit out of the will of men. But this spirit must lay hold of everything. Above all, this spirit must not linger over any theoretical philosophical problems. It would be a terrible delusion if a great number of people — perhaps just those who were somewhat pleased by the new initiation-wisdom and derived therefrom a somewhat voluptuous soul-feeling — should believe it would suffice to pursue this initiation-wisdom as something which was merely comfortable and good for the soul. For just through this the remainder of our real external life would more and more fall into barbarism, and the little bit of mysticism that could be pursued by those whose souls had an inclination in that direction would right soon vanish in the face of universal barbarism. Everywhere, and in an earnest way, initiation-wisdom must penetrate into the various branches of science and teaching, and above all into practical life, especially practical will. Fundamentally everything is lost time today that is not willed out of the impulses of initiation-wisdom. For all strength which we apply to other kinds of willing retards matters. Instead of wasting our time and strength in this way, we should apply whatever time and strength we have to bringing the impulse of initiation-wisdom into the different branches of life and knowledge.

If something is rolling along with the ancient impulses, no one will stop it in its rolling; and we should have an eye to how many younger people (especially in the conquered countries) are still filled with old catch-words, old chauvinism. These young people do not come into consideration. But those young people do come into consideration on whom rests the whole pain of the decline. And there are such. They are the ones whose wills can be broken by such theories as those of Spengler's book. Therefore, in Stuttgart I called this book of Oswald Spengler's a clever but fearful book, which contains the most fearful dangers, for it is so clever that it actually conjures up a sort of fog in front of people, especially young people.

The refutations must come out of an entirely different tone than that to which we are accustomed in such things, and it will never be a faith in this or that which will save us. People recommend one happily nowadays to such a faith, saying that if we only have faith in the good forces of men the new culture will come like a new youth. No, today it cannot be a question of faith, today it is a question of will; and spiritual science speaks to the will. Hence it is not understood by anyone who tries to grasp it through faith or as a theory. Only he understands it who knows how it appeals to the will, to the will in the deepest recesses of the heart when a man is alone with himself, and to the will when a man stands in the battle of daily life and in such battle, must assert himself as a man. Only when such a will is striven for can spiritual science be understood. I have said to you that for anyone who reads my Occult Science as he would read a novel, passively giving himself to it, it is really only a thicket of words — and so are my other books. Only one who knows that in every moment of reading he must, out of the depths of his own soul, and through his most intimate willing, create something for which the books should be only a stimulus — only such a one can regard these books as musical scores out of which he can gain the experience in his own soul of the true piece of music.

We need this active experiencing within our own souls.

Last Modified: 04-Jul-2018
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