Spengler on the Ecological Tragedy of Human Technology

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John Farrenkopf:

"Man rises in defiance of the natural world because of a primordial contradiction in his makeup. He is animated with the spirit of a proud beast of prey (Herrentier), like that of an "eagle, lion, [or] tiger," yet is distinguished by a degree of physical weakness on a par with that of animals who comprise the prey of carnivores (Beutetier).

This constitutional incongruity is the source of his tragedy. While Rousseau imagines man in the hypothesized state of nature to be a superlative physical specimen and detects no incipient, irresolvable conflict between man and the natural environment in the process of civilizational development,49 Spengler conceives of primitive man as finding himself in a condition of relative, corporeal "powerlessness," which contrast sharply with his high intellectual aptitude. Through the process of civilizational development man strives to resolve this existential dilemma, compensating for his physical weakness and vulnerability through the cultivation and employment of his powerful intellect. "The entire existence of the human race is [directed towards] the overcoming of its powerlessness." Thus, culture is not the harmonious teleological end of history as Kant had speculated," but "the weapon of the weak against nature. "

The "later" Spengler became deeply interested in the fundamental issue of the nature and implications of the interchange of humankind with the natural environment. Indeed, his greatly revised philosophy of world history offers an excellent vantage point for contemplating the intensifying global ecological crisis, of which the visionary thinker deserves recognition as a prophet. Spengler, who considered modern Western or Faustian civilization to be distinctively dynamic, expansive, and transformative of its environment, did not completely ignore the question of its impact upon the ecosystem in The Decline of the West. In its final pages he argued that modern civilization was exhausting the planet's energy resources and would, after its decline, leave the face of the earth permanently altered.53 Yet Spengler, who was socialized during a period of explosive industrial growth in Germany, went on to conceive an alarming vision of the nature of the interchange between humanity and the natural environment throughout the course of history. Man is a Promethean being endowed with the unique ability to create his own technics. He is an inventive and resourceful upstart locked into a revolutionary struggle with nature from remotestimes." "Artificial, contrary to nature is every human work from the lighting of fire to the achievements, that we in high cultures actually designate as artificial ones. The prerogative of creation is torn from nature."

The technics which the intellectual capacity of human beings allows them to develop and refine, should not be understood as enduring triumphs of rationality, but instead as counternatural Promethean means which ineluctably lead to their destruction.57 While Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History celebrated man's ability to reshape the natural environment as eminently rational,58 Spengler appreciated its profoundly irrational and negative qualities. World history is the saga of the tragic and hopeless struggle between man, the proud beast of prey (Raubtier), and nature which will be waged to its bitter end.59 The conflict between man and nature escalates during the industrial revolution into a veritable war.60 The war waged between humankind and nature achieves its tragic zenith in Western civilization.

- The Faustian, West European culture is perhaps not the last, but certainly the mightiest, most passionate, through its inner contrast between comprehensive intellectualization and deepest, spiritual turmoil the most tragic of all. It is possible that a feeble straggler comes along yet, somewhere on the plain between the Vistula and the Amur and in the next millennium. But, here is the struggle between nature and man, who through his historical existence has rebelled against her, practically fought to its end.

Although consciousness of the danger of a global ecological catastrophe has only emerged in the 1960s, already, in 1931, a profound vision of global ecological crisis clearly assumed a prominent place in Spengler's new conception of world history. "Everything organic succumbs to the spreading organization. An artificial world penetrates and poisons the natural one." He grasps the extremely dangerous quality of the extraordinarily sophisticated, yet ultimately brutal mastery of the environment the human race has won.

- "The mechanization of the world has entered into a stage of most dangerous, excessive tension. The face of the earth with its plants, animals and people has been altered. In a few decades most of the great forests have disappeared, have been transformed into newspaper and consequently climatichanges have occurred, which threaten the agriculture of entire populations; countless species like the buffalo have been completely or almost completely wiped out, entire races of men like the North American Indians and the Australian aborigines have been brought virtually to a state of extinction."


Assigning centrality to the conflict between humanity and nature in the process of civilizational development is only one of the many major differences between the philosophy of history Spengler expounded in The Decline of the West and the greatly altered philosophy in his Spatwerk.

He reverses himself about the idea of the meaning of history, a fundamental concern of speculative historical philosophy. In attacking the idea of progress like his mentor Nietzsche, Spengler sought to refute the post-Enlightenment notion that humankind was moving towards a supreme goal, whether it be peace, democracy, socialism, greater prosperity or what have you.68 In The Decline of the West he sharply took issue with the proposition that world history possessed any grand or overarching meaning. For the significance of history was fragmented, having its locus in each of the essentially independent cycles of Kultur and Zivilisation.

The meaning of history, in keeping with Nietzsche's thesis of "perspectivism" and the relativity of truth, was held to be relativistic in nature; it varied according to the unique and transitory perspective of each civilization. Although the "late" Spengler still holds world history to be composed of distinctive civilizational traditions, he now is convinced that, nonetheless, they are ultimately subsumed within the comprehensive and meaningful process of world history."