A few months ago I wrote about Oswald Spengler’s attempt at comparative world history. I expressed severe reservations with Spengler’s methods and conclusions. But for me the most fascinating parts of the book were the footnotes to Spengler’s main argument. Take, for example, Spengler’s attempt to compare and contrast members of his chosen pantheon of “great” scientists, philosophers, and artists over the course of world history. This particular comparative game is just a sidenote to his larger attempt at comparative civilizational history: Spengler’s main thesis is that all great cultures (and by culture he means something as broad as the entire classical world, the modern West, or all of India) follow a parallel course of development. Events that occur in one era for one culture will have distinct mirrors in another culture a few centuries later. Thus if one culture had its Socrates and its Homer, or it Jesus and its Justinian, then other great cultures will produce figures of similar stature that play a similar role in their own civilization’s story.
Now the specifics of Spengler’s comparisons are not really that important for this post. If you would like to know more of those details feel free to read my original review essay of his work. The only thing relevant to the point I want to explore here is that Spengler saw his own culture, that of the modern West, as beginning in the high Middle Ages and reaching its point of intellectual stagnation in his own lifetime. 20th century Europe was about to enter the period where politics swallows up the world of thought and creativity. Empire would lead to intellectual rigidity, just as it did in Rome two millennia before. This periodization explains the book’s contemporary popularity—everybody loves books that predict imminent disaster—but it meant that Spengler gave himself a fairly difficult task. 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. That they are still household names millennia later is all the evidence you need to prove that these men were, in Spengler’s words, “world-historical” figures. 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.
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.
In the world of literature there are more candidates that I can imagine people listing: Beckett, Achebe, Márquez, Morrison, Ishiguro, Solzhenitsyn all come to mind, but none save the last would be recognized as automatically, obviously deserving to be on the list, and the last only because he is one of the key testaments of the 20th century’s totalitarian experiment, and it still is not clear which individual will be seen as the definitive voice of that experiment in a few centuries time (Orwell? Arendt? Levi? Grossman? Serge?).
Where have all the great works gone?
In my essay “Living in the Shadow of the Boomers” and in my review of Lawrence Friedman’s Strategy: A History I have discussed closely related questions. The latter book is intellectual history of strategic thinking— including military strategy, political strategy, and business strategy— over the last three centuries. Because strategic theory is so thoroughly intertwined with broader intellectual currents, the book served as an able history of social, economic, and political thought over that time. Though it is not the book’s central thesis, it is clear from his survey that there was a post 1950s decline in the quality of thought in all three domains. There are many possible reasons for this: these sixty years we have lived enslaved to the culture of the boomers, a generation whose great intellectual commitments were explicitly anti-intellectual. The professionalization of intellectual pursuit is another problem. Melville would never have written Moby Dick if he had spent years enrolled in an MFA program instead of spending years at sea. Men and women who in past ages would have observed humanity up close (or at least who would have been forced through a broad but rigorous education in classics) instead cloister themselves in ivory towers. Their intellectual energy is channeled into ever more specialized academic fields and cautiously climbing a bureaucratic and over-managed academic ladder. Could that social scene ever produce a great work?
But much of this is not entirely unique to human history. Nations go through creative phrases. Occasionally a lucky combination of massed intellectuals and useful incentives converge in one era, inspiring a series of great works remembered centuries later. Then it dissipates out. It is not strange for America to repeat this experience. More damaging, and perhaps more unique, is how American stagnation has deadened creative thought across the globe. In many ways global intellectual life has been reduced to American intellectual life. Here is how I describe it in my review of Strategy:
Freedman’s history really begins only in the 19th century. Specifically, 19th century Europe. At this time, no one European country dominates the debates over military, political, or revolutionary strategy. Germany is something of the center-node for strategic thought and practice as the century comes to a close, but the Germans by no means have a monopoly on strategy, and there is no clear division between debates happening within Germany and those happening outside of it. In both military and revolutionary circles, everybody read everybody else.
When American thinkers first show up on the scene in the 1910s, this did not change. They simply joined the conversation. It is clear from Freedman’s profile of American theorists like Jane Addams and John Dewey (not who you expected to show up in this book, is it?), that the American thinkers of this era viewed themselves as voices in an international conversation. Freedman presents them as such; the chapter in which they appear gives equal space to Max Weber and Leo Tolstoy.
This changes in the post-war world. In each of the three eras, Freedman’s intellectual history narrows in on America after 1945. These chapters are devoted almost entirely to case studies involving American social movements, American military conflicts, or American firms. Henceforth he profiles frameworks created by strategic theorists living in America or made relevant because they were written in English and addressed to Americans. There are two main exceptions to this: a chapter on Foucault and French social theory of the 60s and 70s, and a chapter on Japanese business strategy in the 1980s. Even these two chapters earn their place mostly because of the immediate impact their subjects had on American strategic thought in ’80s and ’90s. The utility of French thinking and Japanese praxis is assessed by the impact they had on American conceptions of strategy.
There is a larger pattern here. You will find it on numerous syllabi in philosophy and related topics in the humanities. A chronologically minded 101 course will contain a scatter-shot collection of writings from the ancient and medieval world, a much larger chunk of content from 18th and 19th century Europe, and then around 1950 or so “Western” thought becomes “Anglophone” thought, and most of that is really just “American.” Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it.
Interestingly, Freedman is not an American himself. This narrative is not a creation of self-centered Americans but rather the standard way of thinking about many topics regardless of the country in which one lives. There are explanations for this: the best scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs from every nation flock to the United States and its university system. American pop culture saturates the music and movies of other nations. It is not uncommon to find Asians or Europeans who know more about American politics than many Americans do themselves. Their mind has been taken over by American affairs. Thus the creative classes of the rest of the entire Earth are sucked into the same orbit that the Americans have languished in for three generations. This only reinforces Americans own significant cultural insularity. While there may be important debates being had and works being written in Russian, Spanish, or Chinese, those works are not being translated for American readers.
This is probably the greatest cost of American hegemony. In a world in which American culture is so dominant yet so sterile it is difficult for genuinely fresh developments abroad to arise. For three decades we have had our universal empire and all the intellectual rigidity that comes with it. Perhaps Spengler’s prediction that the Western world would follow the Roman may not have been wrong, just a few decades too early.
 Tanner Greer, “Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human History,” The Scholar’s Stage (14 December 2020).
 William Scott Rule, “Seventy Years of a Changing Curriculum at St. John’s College,” Dissertation, Georgia State University (2009), 45.
 Tanner Greer, “Book Notes–Strategy, a History,” Scholar’s Stage (16 July 2019)