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Oswald Spengler & the Controversy of Caesarism

Augustus1,807 words

There has long been a commonplace notion in journalism (now often repeated in blogs and social media), that Oswald Spengler declared us to be at the end of Civilization. After all, he did write The Decline of the West, didn’t he? Furthermore, Spengler’s end-phase of Civilization is Caesarism, and we passed that many decades ago—so the story goes—during the age of Musso & Dolf.

This is all nonsense, of course. It comes as no surprise that this misrepresentation took hold during the 1930s and early 1940s, when Spengler came to be recast as a kind of prophet for National Socialist Germany. But before getting to that, let me just point out that the “Caesarism” bit is easily disproven. You need only consult the fold-out endpaper charts of “Historical Morphology” in The Decline of the West to set the facts straight.

I reproduce a portion of the relevant ‘Contemporary “Political” Epochs’ table at the bottom of this essay for reference, but the essential takeaway is this: Spengler’s “Winter” epoch, when Civilization finally supplants Culture, begins with the age of Napoleon around 1800 and moves on through two centuries of Imperialism and Wars of Annihilation. After 2000 comes the period of Caesarism, which reaches final maturity, and decay, after 2200.[1]

According to this matrix, our Caesarism period of 2000-2200 corresponds to 100 BC – 100 AD in Classical civilization. The post-2200 era corresponds to the Roman Empire from Trajan onwards. Here civilization has attained its peak, while cultural forms are completed, calcified, past evolution. This, you might say, is the true End of History—for our Western, Faustian civilization at least. But we have a way to go.

Now, one can dismiss Spengler’s schema as hogwash, the way one might reject astrology or Kondratieff waves; but one should at least know Spengler’s timeline before declaring an opinion on it. Just as one should bear in mind that in presenting his theory of the morphology of history, Spengler uses convenient analogies, e.g., the cultural epochs of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. When he says the great cultures are organic—they mature, bloom, and decay—he does not literally mean they are flowers. Yet these metaphors have always been a sore point with his critics. [2]

Getting back to Caesarism, let’s accept Spengler’s thesis arguendo and look at its significance. Caesarism marks the end of “Democracy,” brings “Victory of force politics over money” (chart at bottom). Economic powers give way to an authoritarian model that promotes collective values of health and social justice—or to use Spengler’s own description, “Ethical socialism after 2000” (Table I, Contemporary “Spiritual” Epochs—not reproduced here).


Breaking the money-power and promoting the national welfare was of course what the European nationalist governments of the 1920s and 1930s imagined they were doing, or intended to do. Spengler himself rejected the association of ‘Caesarism’ with National Socialism (The Hour of Decision). But it is easy to see how journalists—or Nazis—might confuse the two.

To Spengler, Caesarism isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. But his description of the epoch in Roman times is bleak. This truly was the end of that culture’s growth-and-struggle:

There are no more of those great decisions which concentrate the inner meaning of the whole culture . . . All great political questions are solved, as they are solved sooner or later in every civilization, inasmuch as questions are no longer felt as questions and are not asked . . .

. . . The struggle for the Caesar-title became steadily more and more negroid, and might have gone on century after century in increasingly primitive and, therefore, eternal” forms.

These populations no longer possessed a soul. Consequently they could no longer have a history proper to themselves. At best they might acquire some significance as an object in the history of an alien Culture and whatever deeper meaning this relation possessed would be derived entirely from the will of the alien Life. (Vol .2, pp. 50-51)

The “alien Life” Spengler has in mind here is of course our own culture and civilization, what he called Western or Faustian-Gothic. The solons of the Renaissance and Enlightenment might have liked to imagine otherwise, but there is no real continuity between the civilization of Greece and Rome and our own; we merely treasure their artifacts as museum-pieces.

Confusion about Caesarism, and Spengler’s schema in general, has been around a long while. But it was apparently not there in the 1920s when thoughtful people read Decline for the first time. That cynosure of high-middlebrow discernment, Time magazine, treated it appreciatively, almost worshipfully, when it reviewed Vols 1 and 2 in 1926 and 1928.

Hard to improve upon is Time’s deft précis of the complete work, noting that Spengler

. . . analyzes history by huge analogies. Civilizations he sees as emerging & disappearing in cycles, each one, like a flower, experiencing birth, growth, decay, death. Our own Western civilization he declares to be in the phase of decay, characterized by material expansion, effete spirituality. Collapse is imminent in perhaps 300 years. But by that time another human group will be unwittingly generating a new civilization to flourish and sink in its own long turn. Herein lies the refutation of the charge of pessimism applied to Spengler by lesser minds. Regarding civilizations as organisms, he is no more the pessimist than any man who recognizes the transient nature of all organic life.[3]

This would be the high point of Spengler’s international reputation. A polymath and popular philosopher with a special appeal to autodidacts, Spengler was inevitably ground down by other, more specialized critics. Scholars in every field nit-picked his assertions and called him an amateur, a dilettante, a shoddy researcher. (A mere Gymnasium teacher, moreover.) Writing in The Spectator in 1929, an English reviewer lambasted Spengler’s whole conception of history as a “top-heavy tower,” a house of cards built upon factual inaccuracies and murky reasoning. Spengler’s description of the coming Caesarism came in for particular criticism as obscurantist wish-fulfillment.[4]

Anyway, when Time reviewed Man and Technics a few years later, the bloom was off the rose. In an about-face from 1926, Time now declared Spengler a pessimist, one who thinks Civilization is done for. This time around, the reviewer dismissed his work with lip-smacking sarcasm:

To ward off suicidal despair Spengler recommends the psychological attitude of the Roman soldier who died at his post in Pompeii. When the volcano under civilization explodes, and the burning dust begins to descend, the more honorable Spenglerian carnivores will take it standing, polish up their buttons as the lava rises. [5]

The height of anti-Spenglerism came about ten years later. At the height of World War II, Foreign Affairs ran a 25-year retrospective of Decline of the West and found it all nail-bitingly depraved. 1942 was of course the height of the Second World War, thus this essay by Georgetown diplomatic historian Hans W. Wiegert can be regarded as a sort of stuffy, highbrow equivalent of Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Since Spenglerism is a flame which burns and can cripple souls, we are justified in reexamining it twenty-five years later. Indeed, we have a duty to do so. [6]

Wiegert demonizes Spengler’s masterwork as pure proto-Nazi propaganda on a par with Karl Haushofer. Decline is so tendentious that although Spengler pretends to be writing about the West (Abendland), he’s really describing an aggressive, expansive Germany:

The realm which he calls the West is not the West as we understand it. It is limited distinctly to Germany, and not even the whole of Germany, but only those parts of it which can be labeled (spiritually rather than geographically) the Germanic North. England and America, even France and Italy, are not within the boundaries of the West which he covers in his factual materials and comparisons.

* * *

The present writer believes that the human area which Spengler calls the Faustian-Nordic-German sphere, and whence he drew the factual foundations of his doctrine, is the only one where a Spenglerian conception of a human type fits—the type, that is, which gave up its freedom to become an earth-bound slave of Hitlerism.[7]

Wiegert spends several pages musing over the interplay of Spengler’s Caesarism forecasts and the rise of Hitler. At no point does he ever admit that Hitler just doesn’t fit into Spengler’s Caesar-time-scheme. He doesn’t care. Spengler sounded the drumbeat for Caesarism, incited the crowds. Thus he bears the weight of guilt for Nazism.

Spengler’s conception of Caesarism foreshadowed the growth of the totalitarian religions of our time. He translated Plato’s ideas on the relationship of tyranny and democracy into the language of the twentieth century. The dictatorship of money had used democracy as its political weapon. At the end of the First World War Spengler saw the doom of this money-power age. New forces, the forces of Caesarism, of which the multitude becomes willingly the passive object, were arising from the soil of democracy. The scene was set for the final battle between the forces of financial plutocracy and the purely political will-to-order of the Caesars.

* * *

Those Caesars who would rule the world when all the creative forces of culture had disappeared would be war-keen men. The appearance of one, Spengler wrote in 1917, would suddenly raise a powerless nation to the very peak, and his death would plunge a mighty nation into chaos. “They are for war, and they want war,” he added. “Within two generations it will be they whose will prevails.”[8]

For Wiegert, Hitler is plain-and-simple part of the Caesarian drama. He tops off his analysis with the suggestion that Hitler himself will succumb a military coup. (“The great drama of German Caesarism: the fall of the tyrant and the rise of army rule.”[9])

Wiegert seems to be suggesting an officers’ revolt along the lines of what became the failed coup of July 1944. But that’s really beside the point here, because he is trying to shoehorn the Hitler situation into Spenglerian Caesarism, and it just doesn’t fit.


1. This is taken from the combined one-volume 1928 edition of The Decline of the West, published by Alfred Knopf, translated by C. F. Atkinson. In the original two-volume format published in 1926 and 27, the tables appear at the end of Volume One, subtitled “Form and Actuality.”

2. See for example the C.E.M. Joad review in The Spectator, quoted below. (And not to belabor the point, but I have found that Spengler’s metaphors are very hard for some people to wrap their heads around. Decades ago I gave Yockey’s Imperium to a co-worker, thinking he’d enjoy it. And he did, but found the Spenglerian conceits ridiculous because “Culture isn’t really a living organism.” It is as though I showed him a chair for the first time and referred to its legs, and he said: “But those aren’t really legs! Those are just pieces of wood!” Maybe we’re all autistes when encountering the unfamiliar.)

3. Time, June 28, 1926.

4. “A Top-heavy Tower”, C.E.M. Joad, The Spectator, 12 January 1929.

5. Time, Feb. 29, 1932

6. Hans W. Wiegert, “Spengler Twenty-Five Years After,” Foreign Affairs, Oct. 1942.

7, 8, 9. Ibid.

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  1. Ray
    Posted June 1, 2016 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    According to Lothrop Stoddard in his book revolt against civilization “environment may bring out all there is in a man but heredity predetermines what there is to bring. We now begin to see the fallacy of such fatalistic notions as the law of civilization and Decay. Civilizations, unlike living organisms, have no appointed cycle of life and death. Given a high type stock producing an adequate quota of superior individuals, and a civilization might be immortal.”

    But I don’t think that we need to attribute the fall of a civilization entirely to a universal cultural cycle or to dysgenic fertility. I think there might be some interplay between the two. If you look at Jon B Calhoun’s rat experiments, it seems that it was a combination of the idea of limited space and also a kind of dysgenic assortative mating which caused the rats to be siphoned off into non viable breeds that brought the populations to decline. The limited space in the the rat enclosure corresponds to the the cultural side of things becoming calcified, leaving the individuals with no hope of progress or adding anything to their world. So the question is which comes first the chicken or the egg. Does dysgenic fertility cause the calcification of culture or does the calcification of culture result in the dysgenic fertility? Or do they happen together in a mutually enforcing spiral?

  2. Posted May 30, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I apologize if I’m showing how totally deficient I am in my knowledge of the Classics; but weren’t Athens and Republican Rome the Leftist of their times? Of course I’m phrasing this a bit provocatively but I’ve noticed from my little reading on the subject that Republican Rome is considered the “healthy” time and Caesar and later the Emperors was the time of decline. Is this not, for lack of a better term, some sort of Leftist interpretation? Doesn’t this fly in the face of Tradition as Evola would conceive it? Or, alternatively, can we say that Evola is giving a veneer of respectability to the decline embodied in the Emperor cult? I’d really like to read a series of Alt Right articles on Classical Antiquity – a crash course. (I know Greg Johnson is well-versed in this topic. I’ve very much enjoyed reading Trevor Lynch’s review of “Agora” and the articles pertaining to “Moses the Egyptian”.) I’d welcome and immensely enjoy entertaining various, conflicting points of view. Ancient Athens and Republican Rome are considered the wellspring of Western Civilization but aren’t they both born in a rejection of Tradition(or “the Right”)?

    • Leon
      Posted May 30, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      My first interpretation (for what that’s worth) was that Republican Rome was governed by aristocratic (in the Platonic sense) elitist and traditional values, in which the participation in public life was restricted to those who met with standards of morality, virtue and tradition, whereas Ceasarism meant the rule of tyranny (and nepotism) on behalf of the masses. Of course this is also a simplistic view, as it was ‘usurious’ practices of this elite, which you mention, which led to the rise of Ceasarism in the first place.

      Personally, I tend to believe that the decline of Rome originates further back, to when the original patrician elite of Rome (defined by heredity and who ruled in the name of tradition and honour) lost their grip on Roman politics to make way for the ‘new elite’ (nobiles) of wealthy plebeians, whose power was defined by wealth and by underhanded political deals. Cincinnatus is the best example of the former, Marcus Crassus a good example of the latter.

      • Leon
        Posted May 30, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        It’s also worth noting that contemporary depictions of Ancient Rome stress that it was the unjust elitism of the Senators which led to the fall of the Republic and the rise of Caesar (i.e. HBO’s Rome series).

      • Posted May 30, 2016 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        This is a very good answer. Thank you for it. Although wouldn’t a Traditionalist see the move from monarchy to the founding of the Roman Republic as a degeneration in itself and, therefore, anti-Traditional?

        I’m unsure whether such a Traditionalist viewpoint would see the transition from the Republic into the Roman Empire under Augustus as a further degeneration, a restoration, or a composite event made up of both Traditional and anti-Traditional elements.

        It strikes me that the argument could be made that if the Roman Republic was in a sense anti-Traditional by the very fact of being a Republic; then it represents a “Leftist” force in its time.

        Could I have your take on Classical Athens?

        • Leon
          Posted May 30, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

          Personally, I don’t label myself a Traditionalist with a capital “T”, in the sense of belonging to a specific philosophical school -I’m not well-read enough to do so- but as for myself I don’t have any personal attachment to the concept of ‘monarchy’ the way perhaps many capital “T” Traditionalists might. Personally, I see ‘democracy’ (originally associated with aristocratic individualism) as a deep-rooted part of our Western/European/Aryan heritage, which goes back to our primordial roots, and our nature as a more intelligent and free-thinking race. I believe that Ricardo Duchesne, for example, in his Uniqueness of Western Civilization, links the tradition of democracy and rule of law to the aristocratic individualism of the early Aryans.

          As for democracy in Ancient Greece, I’m afraid I’m not a great source. While I love reading about the ancient world, I haven’t really delved into it for many years now. However, what I do recall is the democracy of the ancients was highly elitist and nationalistic (for lack of a better word), and was defended on the grounds of staving off the vulgarity, nepotism, and even, paradoxically, mob-rule, that came with rule by tyrants. My view was that ancient democracies were generally healthier than states governed by absolute rulers, in that they encouraged the natural elite of society to remain a large body of strong, virtuous, and creative citizens, whereas the latter encouraged nepotism, conformity, and sucking up to the man in charge. Some of the most ‘fascistic’ and powerful, yet tradition-oriented states in Greece, such as Sparta, were also among the most ‘democratic’ amongst the elite.

          I hope that makes sense.

          • Leon
            Posted May 30, 2016 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

            An afterthought: It should be noted that in the democracies of the Ancient world, ‘universal suffrage’ would have been considered ridiculous, and indeed, a threat to democracy itself.

  3. sandy
    Posted May 30, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I seem to remember from somewhere that the original Caesar, Julius, was assassinated by Brutus to protect the usurious loans of the senators. The relief that Caesar wanted to give the people from the loans making the money lenders rich died with him.

  4. c
    Posted May 30, 2016 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    It is the crushing inexorability of the schema, in an age where everything is considered limitless and alterable, which the critics find so terrifying.

    • Matthias
      Posted May 30, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I think so, too. For the relativist or even solipsist mind, the thought of a “really real”, non-negotionable reality is pure terror. Those believes are not really authentical philosophical positions, but forms of arrested mental development.

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