Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler loom large over the horizon of twentieth-century European thought. Nietzsche was influential in the thinking of Spengler, while either one or both had a major impact on the thinking of most of the writers we deal with herein.
Both were primarily concerned with questions of decay and the possibilities of regeneration. Both held that Western Civilization had entered a cycle of decadence that was particularly evident in the cultural, moral and spiritual spheres. They were therefore of great relevance to many of the new generation of artists, writers and poets who emerged from the First World War, a war which made transparent the crisis of Western Civilization which had really entered its cycle of decay several centuries previously. The English and French Revolutions, in the name of “The People,” marked the overthrow of the old order by the new bourgeoisie, the victory of money over blood and family lineage.
Democracy for many of the cultural elite was not a political creed to be welcomed but rather a symptom, like Bolshevism, of the rise of the masses–and behind them of the rule of money: of quantity over quality, with the arts being the first to be degraded.
In a tide of intellectualism that degraded man and culture, Nietzsche and Spengler stand as the great thinkers who sought to ennoble. Against them stood Marx and his opposite numbers: the liberal economic theorists, who make of everything a matter of economics; Freud, who reduces man and culture to a mass of sexual complexes; and Darwin, who reduces man to being just another animal
To Nietzsche the meaning of man was that of “overcoming” his present state, to Will higher forms of existence, which are ultimately expressed in the arts. This was seen as being embodied in the great men of history. These great men, creators via their own individual will, are separated from the mass of humanity by a great gulf. Man is the tightrope between animal and Overman,
A rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.
Among the first sentences uttered by Nietzsche’s prophet Zarathustra are these words that define the purpose of man:
I teach you the Overman. Man is something that should overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All creatures have hitherto created something beyond themselves and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide and return to the animals rather than overcome man?
The Overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say the Overman shall be the meaning of the earth.
Despite the Darwinian interpretations that have been placed on Nietzsche, it was a rejection of Darwinism that prompted Nietzsche to herald the Overman as an act of Will rather than as evolution through random genetic mutation. The human existence beyond any other organism is only justified by culture, which is the perfection of nature through human Will.
This basic idea of culture in so far as it assigns only one task to every single one of us: to promote inside and outside of ourselves the generation of the philosopher, the artist, and the saint, and thus to work at the perfection of nature (Untimely Meditations).
In the same essay Nietzsche states that the goal of humanity lies in its “highest specimens.” Nature wants to make the life of man “significant and meaningful by generating the philosopher and artist. . .” Thereby not only is man redeemed but nature herself.
With the central focus of history, of mankind, of nature herself being epitomized by the artist, it is no wonder that Nietzsche’s philosophy caught the imagination of so many of the creative elite.
Prefiguring Spengler with a rejection of history as linear and progressive, Nietzsche states that what comes later in a civilization is not necessarily what is best. What is best is reflected in the highest specimens, the artists and philosophers, where the gulf that separates these higher men from the average citizen is greater than that which separates the average man from the chimpanzee.
Hence Ezra Pound’s Nietzschean attitudes towards the artist and the mass was reflected by many other contemporaries. Some, such as Wyndham Lewis and Evola, were even suspicious of Fascism as being “too democratic,” too much of a mass movement. Pound states:
The artist has no longer any belief or suspicion that the mass, the half-educated simpering general . . . can in any way share his delights . . . The aristocracy of the arts is ready again for its service. Modern civilization has bred a race with brains like those of rabbits, and . . . we artists who have been so long despised are about to take over control.
D. H. Lawrence went so far as to see himself as a coming dictator who would relieve the masses of the “burden of democracy.” whilst D’Annunzio did actually become a ruler of his own State (Fiume) for a time, where the arts were the focus.
Nietzsche demanded new law tablets upon which would be inscribed the word ‘noble’ (Zarathustra). The creative elite make their own laws through their acts of creation, and are not constrained by the democratic mob with their laws, morals and values that are designed for the control of the average. Hence, Nietzsche’s prophet Zarathustra counsels higher man to stay aloof from the masses, and from the market place, as the masses will drag the higher man down to the dead level of “equality” with such doctrines as democracy.
The Overman would be willed into creation by Higher Men striving to “self-overcome,” to reach beyond themselves through placing hardships upon oneself. The Nietzschean brute is one of many distortions of Nietzsche, who states that the strong are compassionate towards the lesser.
While Nietzsche makes culture the criterion for defining the value of both societies and individuals, Oswald Spengler develops a morphology of culture as the basis of historical analysis. Both philosophers elevate the cultural beyond the contemporary fads of economic, sexual, and biological determinism, as the basis of their world-views. Spengler in the preface to The Decline of The West states that the two figures to whom he owes most are Goethe for “method” and Nietzsche for the “questioning faculty.”
Hence, Spengler was also of great interest to the new generation of artists, poets and authors. Spengler explains that by drawing on analogous cycles of history in each of the civilizations he could explain how and why Western Civilization was undergoing a cycle of decay. Like Nietzsche, Spengler sees democracy, parliamentarianism, egalitarianism, and the rise of money and the merchant on the ruins of the old aristocracy of birth (or blood) as symptoms of the decadence that are reducing the arts to the lowest denominator.
Many of the cultural elite were of a mystical nature, such as Yeats and Evola, and their knowledge of the cyclic myths of many ancient cultures of East and West and the Americas accorded with the cyclical conclusions drawn by Spengler.
In his influential magnum opus The Decline of the West Spengler rejects the Darwinian, linear, progressive approach to history, explaining:
I see in place of that empty figment of one linear history . . . the drama of a number of mighty cultures, each having its own life; its own death . . . Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression, which arise, ripen, decay and never return . . . I see world history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms. The professional historian, on the other hand, sees it as a sort of tapeworm industriously adding to itself one epoch after another.
This cyclic approach to history is organic. It sees cultures as living entities with a birth, a flourishing, a decay and death. Each civilization, although self-contained, has the same cyclic phases, which Spengler identifies with the four seasons. The winter phase is the advanced civilization where the city replaces the country, profit replaces heroism, and the merchant replaces the aristocrat. As for the social castes, these cease to have a cultural value and are mere economic reflections. The rootless city dwelling proletariat replacing the rural yeoman and craftsman, the merchant replacing the warrior, and the banker replacing the noble. Hence, what is often regarded as “new,” “progressive,” “modern,”and “western.” the rise of abortion, family planning, of banking practices, of parliaments and voting majorities, of feminism, socialism, revolutions . . . have already been played out in the “winter” phase of prior civilizations. Spengler describes it thus:
You, the West, are dying. I see in you all the characteristic stigma of decay. I can prove that your great wealth and your great poverty, your capitalism and your socialism, your wars and your revolutions, your atheism and your pessimism and your cynicism, your immorality, your birth control that is bleeding you from below and killing you off at the top in your brains. I can prove to you that these were characteristic marks of the dying ages of ancient states . . . Alexandria and Greece and neurotic Rome . . .
Many of the new generation of writers were thus drawn to Spengler’s analysis of the way the rule of money, of money values and of the money baron’s control of politics, had become determinative of the tastes of a civilization in its final cycle. They were concerned with overthrowing the rule of money and returning civilization to its “springtime” where the arts flourished under the patronage of born nobles. Yeats and Evola look to certain epochs of the Medieval period of the West. Ezra Pound sought the overthrow of the banks through the economic theory of Social Credit; Hamsun and Williamson wished for a return to rural values in place of those of the City; many were attracted to Fascism.
Spengler states that in the final phase of the winter cycle there arises a reaction against the rule of money. Money marches on reaching its peak then exhausts its possibilities:
It thrust into the life of the yeoman’s countryside and set the earth moving; its thought transformed every son of handicraft: today it presses victoriously upon industry, to make the productive work of entrepreneur and engineer and labourer alike, its spoil. The machine with its human retinue. The real queen of this century is in danger of succumbing to a stronger power. Money, also. Is beginning to lose its authority, and the last conflict is at hand in which civilization receives its conclusive form–the conflict between money and blood.
The rule of money will be overcome by new “Caesars,” strong leaders not harnessed to the plutocrats and their parliaments and media. In Spengler’s last book, The Hour of Decision, he sees the Fascist legions in Italy as heralds of the “new Caesarism.” Mussolini was much impressed with both Nietzsche and Spengler.
The sword is victorious over money, the master-will subdues again the plunderer-will . . . Money is overthrown and abolished by blood. Life is alpha and omega, the cosmic stream in microcosmic form . . . And so the drama of a high culture–that wondrous world of deities, arts, thoughts, battles, cities–closes with the return of the pristine facts of blood eternal that is one and the same as the ever-circling cosmic flow.
Preface to K. R. Bolton, Thinkers of the Right: Challenging Materialism (Luton, England: Luton Publications, 2003).