"The Sterility of Civilized Man"

"When reasons have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable." - Oswald Spengler

The following excerpt is taken from Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. II. Perspectives of World History, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1928, pages 103-105:

And then, when Being is sufficiently uprooted and Waking-Being1 sufficiently strained, there suddenly emerges into the bright light of history a phenomenon that has long been preparing itself underground and now steps forward to make an end of the drama - the sterility of civilized man. This is not something that can be grasped as a plain matter of Causality (as modern science naturally enough has tried to grasp it); it is to be understood as an essentially metaphysical turn towards death. The last man of the world-city no longer wants to live - he may cling to life as an individual, but as a type, as an aggregate, no, for it is a characteristic of this collective existence that it eliminates the terror of death. That which strikes the true peasant with a deep and inexplicable fear, the notion that the family and the name may be extinguished, has now lost its meaning. The continuance of the blood-relation in the visible world is no longer a duty of the blood, and the destiny of being the last of the line is no longer felt as a doom. 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. Let the reader try to merge himself in the soul of the peasant. He has sat on his glebe [an alotted parcel of land] from primeval times, or has fastened his clutch in it, to adhere to it with his blood. He is rooted in it as the descendant of his forbears and as the forbear of future descendants. His house, his property, means, here, not the temporary connexion of person and thing for a brief span of years, but an enduring and inward union of eternal land and eternal blood. It is only from this mystical conviction of settlement that the great epochs of the cycle - procreation, birth, and death - derive that metaphysical element of wonder which condenses in the symbolism of custom and religion that all landbound people possess. For the "last men" all this is past and gone. Intelligence and sterility are allied in old families, old peoples, and old Cultures, not merely because in each microcosm the overstrained and fettered animal-element is eating up the plant element, but also because the waking-consciousness assumes that being is normally regulated by causality. That which the man of intelligence, most significantly and characteristically, labels as "natural impulse" or "life-force," he not only knows, but also values, causally, giving it the place amongst his other needs that his judgment assigns to it. When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard "having children" as a question of pro's and con's, the great turning-point has come. For Nature knows nothing of pro and con. Everywhere, wherever life is actual, reigns an inward organic logic, an "it," a drive, that is utterly independent of waking-being, with its causal linkages, and indeed not even observed by it. *The abundant proliferation of primitive peoples is a natural phenomenon, which is not even thought about, still less judged as to its utility or the reverse. When reasons have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable. At that point begins prudent limitation of the number of births. In the Classical world the practice was deplored by Polybius as the ruin of Greece, and yet even at his date it had long been established in the great cities; in subsequent Roman times it became appallingly general. At first explained by the economic misery of the times, very soon it ceased to explain itself at all. And at that point, too, in Buddhist India as in Babylon, in Rome as in our own cities, a man's choice of the woman who is to be, not mother of his children as amongst peasants and primitives, but his own "companion for life," becomes a problem of mentalities. The Ibsen marriage2 appears, the" higher spiritual affinity" in which both parties are "free" - free, that is, as intelligences, free from the plantlike urge of the blood to continue itself, and it becomes possible for a Shaw to say "that unless woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself."3 The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of "mutual understanding." It is all the same whether the case against children is the American lady's who would not miss a season for anything, or the Parisienne's who fears that her lover would leave her, or an Ibsen heroine's who "belongs to herself" - they all belong to themselves and they are all unfruitful. The same fact, in conjunction with the same arguments, is to be found in the Alexandrian, in the Roman, and, as a matter of course, in every other civilized society - and conspicuously in that in which Buddha grew up. And in Hellenism and in the nineteenth century, as in the times of Lao Tzu [father of Taoism] and the Charvaka doctrine [an ancient Hindu materialism], there is an ethic for childless intelligences, and a literature about the inner conflicts of Nora and Nana. The "quiverful," which was still an honourable enough spectacle in the days of Werther, becomes something rather provincial. The father of many children is for the great city a subject for caricature; Ibsen did not fail to note it, and presented it in his Love's Comedy.

At this level all Civilizations enter upon a stage, which lasts for centuries, of appalling depopulation. The whole pyramid of cultural man vanishes. It crumbles from the summit, first the world-cities, then the provincial forms, and finally the land itself, whose best blood has incontinently poured into the towns, merely to bolster them up awhile. At the last, only the primitive blood remains, alive, but robbed of its strongest and most promising elements.

*The abridged edition of Spengler's work begins a new paragraph at this point, omitting everything quoted prior, and much that follows.

1"Being" and "Waking Being" are defined by Spengler on page 7:
"...there emerges in all clarity yet another distinction, which is normally obscured by the use of the ambiguous word 'consciousness (Bewusstsein).' I distinguish being or 'being there' (dasein) from waking-being or waking consciousness (Wachsein). Being possesses beat and direction, while waking-consiousness is tension and extension. In being a destiny rules, while waking-consiousness distinguishes causes and effects. The prime question for the one 'when and wherefore?' for the other 'where and how?' A plant leads an existence that is without waking-consciousness."
2Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), Norwegian dramatist. Hjalmar Ekdal, in the play, The Wild Duck, act 4., referring to Mrs. Sörby’s marriage, says:
"A marriage based on full confidence, based on complete and unqualified frankness on both sides; they are not keeping anything back; there’s no deception underneath it all. If I might so put it, it’s an agreement for the mutual forgiveness of sin."
3Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsen.


GL said...

A better title would be "The Self-Imposed Sterility of Civilized Man." We have castrated ourselves and are now geldings.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

True, but that is what is meant by the title. It is a direct quote from Spengler.

GL said...


I know. I was just adding my own spin.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

What amazes me is the prophetic accuracy of this piece, which was written at the time of World War I when the total fertility rate was still well above replacement level worldwide. Spengler certainly knew that history repeats itself.

The Dutchman said...

Spengler is profoundly accurate on this and most issues. I frequently reference him on my blog: