“Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity…?”—Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West
It was a chance remark by a friend that put me onto the track of the German historian. I knew little about Spengler other than that he was one of many ambitious intellectuals who have attempted a systematically interpretive, or metahistorical, record of human events. According to Christopher Dawson: “Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change” (Dynamics of World History).
Spengler achieved immense popularity after his publication of The Decline of the West in wake of the First World War. His intellectual legacy lingered into the middle of the century. It was about this time that a precocious young Roger Scruton became fascinated by Spengler’s vision: “how rewarding it has been to wrestle with his influence and, finally, to cast him aside.”
As Scruton notes, there are simply too many issues with “Spenglerism” to adopt it as a plausible worldview. So why study it at all? Undoubtedly the very subject of his magnum opus, Western decline, seems of renewed relevance. Like Edward Gibbon’s flawed but brilliant history of the Roman Empire, it is admirably conceived. And there is something to be said for studiously dissecting a major philosophical work at first hand, even if one ends up critiquing it.
Dawson says that if the study of the past were left entirely to mere chroniclers, history “would never have attained the position that it holds in the modern world. It was only when history entered into relations with philosophy” at the hands of “Montesquieu and Voltaire, Hume, Robertson and Gibbon, that it became one of the great formative elements in modern thought.”
Metahistory also has its pitfalls. There is the temptation to oversimplification and the manipulation of evidence to fit an eloquent narrative. But there has never been any lack of interest in the topic. It explains, for example, the best-selling Outline of History by Spengler’s contemporary, H. G. Wells. Such comparative studies existed even in ancient times (e.g. Polybius). Later metahistory often took on the role of ersatz metaphysics—a kind of secular theology. Marx is an obvious example. Ironically, the foundational work of universal history, which set the pattern for all subsequent attempts, is St. Augustine’s Christocentric City of God.
In future posts I hope to discuss this topic in more detail….