Spengler was not so humble

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

It is easy to pick out the most significant figures of ancient history — say, Socrates or the Buddha — and pronounce that these were comparable figures of similar historical weight, T. Greer suggests, but how do you pick out which of your contemporaries deserve that honor?

One day a few men of your generation may be vindicated by history. But that history has not happened yet. Humility demands that we decline to declare what only time can prove.

Spengler was not so humble. He repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.

Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John’s curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin.[2]

Now Erskine’s list is not perfect; it has not perfectly weathered the centuries. The fame of William James has sunk with time; today we usually think of Joseph Conrad, not Thomas Hardy, as the supreme English novelist of that era. But the broader point holds: only a decade or two after these men’s deaths intellectuals confidently spoke of them in the same breath as Shakespeare and Plato. And not just subjectively, in the sense we might today (“I think Urusala LeGuin is as good as Shakespeare” or “I think Hayek is better than Plato”) but with full knowledge that the broader public already knew that these people and their works belonged on the list. It was obvious to even those who disliked Nietzche that he was a seminal figure in Western thought; it was obvious even to those who disagreed with Ibsen that he claimed a similar place in Western literature, and so forth. Their ideas might be argued against, but their genius and their influence was undeniable.

Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?

How about for the last two decades?

The last three?

Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?

In the realm of science, perhaps. But in the world of social, historical, ethical, and political thought, no one comes to mind. Most “great books” curricula stop right around World War II and its immediate aftermath. St. John’s recently added Wittgenstein and de Beauvoir to their curricula, but their works are almost 70 years old. Michel Foucault is the next obvious candidate, and he died 37 years ago.


  1. John says:

    Miles Mathis, Petro Dobromylskyj, Ugo Bardi.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    It’s easier to market a great books canon if it’s all in public domain. Way less talking to lawyers, and way less suspicion that it’s just some shady book promotion deal.

    Somewhat less money tho. Gotta go for the acid free paper and the leather binding to have a decent markup.

  3. Altitude Zero says:

    Houellebecq. He’s at least as good as Ibsen.

  4. Adept says:

    These days, Nick Bostrom and Robin Hanson are regularly mentioned in scientific and philosophical papers. They’re mainstays, and for good reason:
    They’re fairly original thinkers, they’ve already developed a few interesting/useful thought experiments, they avoid troublesome and paradoxical topics, they’re good self-promoters, and they’ve developed a habit of working in subjects that are of interest to the technical-scientific elite. Artificial intelligence, transhumanism, etc.

  5. The American Muse says:

    I nominate James LaFond.

  6. David Roman says:

    Zizek, obviously.

  7. Freddo says:

    Gotta be Al Gore for inventing the internet and global warming.

  8. Adept says:

    Zizek doesn’t really rate, I think. He’s basically a Hegel scholar and a commentator. His modus operandi is to interpret modern forms (for e.g. political structures,) through Hegel — and, when in doubt, to use Lacanian critical theory to interpret and broaden the oeuvre of Hegel.

    So Zizek is not a terribly original thinker. His archetype is that of the disciple.

    I don’t think that there are any really noteworthy 20th century philosophers. Wittgenstein had one good idea, a simplification of which is that certain philosophical paradoxes are rooted in the way we use language. Wittgenstein held that to properly grasp a concept, you have to be very clear about the use of words and phrases governing the concept — if they’re unclear, as is often the case in metaphysics and the philosophy of mathematics, unnecessary philosophical problems arise, which can be beyond our ability to disentangle.

    Heidegger and the existentialists had no good ideas, and put forth a really puerile philosophy. If existentialism had clear axioms, they would seem obvious and trivially self-evident to every seven year old child. (Though very few seven year old children would be naïve enough to express them.) This is precisely why Heidegger viewed obscurantism as the philosopher’s most important and powerful tool.

    Foucault and Lacan, for their part, have done far more harm than good.

  9. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Herman Melville’s fame came long after he was alive to enjoy it. Such will be the case for what truly great writers exist, if any, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

    The true canon will be formulated only after that presently incumbent power tendering its anti-canon, dies of its own poison.

  10. Jim says:

    Paul Town

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