This preface I’m reading says I shouldn’t be literal-minded when reading Oswald Spengler. Yes, his presentation of the facts is dubious, he exaggerates and distorts, he’s polemical – but I mustn’t let this spoil my enjoyment. I’d be missing out on something important if I gave Spengler a miss on the grounds that he’s imprecise about historical detail. But how can I read a work of this kind and not be literal-minded? Shouldn’t I evaluate a work of history on the basis of whether it’s true or not? Of whether it gets the facts right?
The author of the preface I’m reading invites me to compare Spengler to Arnold J. Toynbee. Toynbee took great pains in his empirical approach. He appears “more precise” with his data, and “more reasonable” in his tone. But ultimately this was just an appearance: he is “as dogmatic as Spengler.” Behind Toynbee’s apparently reasonable claims are Christian assumptions, and he effectively “composed . . . a history of salvation.”
At least with Spengler the assumptions are there on the surface. But how can these historians be so subjective, so free with the facts? The preface I’m reading seems to suggest that the trouble is they’re not really doing history at all, but anthropology, or “cultural comparisons across time and space.” Or perhaps in Spengler’s case, it’s suggested, what he’s really written is a kind of poetry: Spengler, after all, referred to himself as a poet. Maybe there’s something about cultural comparison that lends itself to a poetic approach, rather than a scientific one: a rational or scientific approach demands that we begin with a set of underlying principles, and which principles can we begin with that could be universally applied to all cultures? If you are a poet, on the other hand, you accept that you are looking with your own eyes, that the truth you see is your own. Though he says “thinker,” Spengler sounds like he’s describing a poet when he writes:
“A thinker is a person whose part it is to symbolise time according to his vision and understanding. He has no choice; he thinks as he has to think. Truth in the long run is to him the picture of the world which was born at his birth.”
And the paradox seems to be, that once you acknowledge that your vision is your own, that you are describing the world as you see it and not from a god’s eye view, you begin to see the object more clearly: it shines and stands apart as you describe it, and through your work, if you write well, the simple truths of the world become clear and visible to the attentive reader.
(I’m reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, an abridged edition from the translation by Charles Francis Atkinson, published by Oxford University Press in 1991. The preface is by H. Stuart Hughes.)