Oswald Spengler on Cosmopolis and Depopulation


Historians are professionally averse to grand civilizational themes, especially where predictions may be entailed. The German historian Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), whose membership in the academic fraternity of his discipline has often been questioned, was an exception. His two-volume magnum opus. The Decline of the West, published in 1918 and 1922 (English translation, 1928), in its time attracted much public and professional attention. (It remains in print.) It presents an enormously ambitious tableau of universal history seen as the unfolding of the fates of eight cultures, with a focus on four main strands: Indian, Classical, Arabian, and Western. In Spengler's interpretation, imbued with cultural and historical pessimism, the West was exhibiting symptoms found in earlier civilizations in decline. “Civilization,” in Spengler's vision, was a stage that follows cultural flowering—creative manifestations of the culture's unique soul expressed in art and thought. Civilization's preoccupation is with the enjoyment of material comforts; the sequence from “culture” to “civilization” represents the very antithesis of progress. Spengler saw the West as having entered that latter phase in the nineteenth century: a phase in which, in the words of the synoptic chart appended to Volume 1 of The Decline of the West, “The body of the people, now essentially urban in constitution, dissolves into formless mass.” Urbanism, the emergence of “megalopolis,” or “cosmopolis“—the world city—is a distinguishing and crucial feature of that declining civilization. A passage (section V, including some translator's notes) from the chapter titled The Soul of the City in Vol. II of The Decline of the West, which has the subtitle Perspectives of World History, is reproduced below. It offers arresting characterizations of the morphology of urban forms and of the rise of the world city. As longer-term consequences (for the West “between 2000 and 2200”) Spengler foresaw the “formation ofCeasarism”; “victory of force-politics over money”; “increasing primi-tiveness of political forms”; and “inward decline of the nations into a formless population, and constitution thereof as an Imperium of gradually increasing crudity and despotism.” As to demographic consequences, Spengler highlights the emerging “sterility of civilized man“—“an essentially metaphysical turn toward death.”“Children do not happen, not because children have become impossible, but principally because intelligence at the peak of intensity can no longer find any reason for their existence.”“Prudent limitation of the number of births” eventually leads to a “stage, which lasts for centuries, of appalling depopulation.” Immigration apart, the time scale specified by Spengler for depopulation—“for centuries”—may be seen today as relatively cautious. Should Europe's current period fertility level—slightly below a TFR of 1.4—be translated into cohort performance, it would yield an intrinsic annual rate of population growth of roughly -1.5 percent. Within 200 years, such a growth rate would reduce a population to 5 percent of its original size.

From The Decline of the West: Volume 2 by Oswald Spengler, translated by C. F. Atkinson, copyright 1928 and renewed 1956 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.