Spengler Translation Notes 2

(Page numbers in brackets refer to the single-volume unabridged German edition. All English translations marked [DS] are my own.)

Spengler is full of witty barbs [58]:

Nothing is simpler to do than to establish a system in place of thoughts that one does not have. Yet a good thought is of little value, if it is spoken from an empty head. [DS]

I think Spengler is not an advocate of literal translation:

Wir sprechen in Sätzen und nicht in Worten. [726]

We speak in sentences and not in words. [DS]

Perhaps it would be in spirit to translate this as “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way,” so as not to seem too literal!


5 thoughts on “Spengler Translation Notes 2

  1. Thanks for entering into the spirit Dave. I’m really interested in anything you’d like to do in this direction.

    To comment on the above, I managed to run down the Atkinson translations online. Links are to the passages I’ll quote, giving page numbers as in the print. (With a little ingenuity you can copy and paste from the search results boxes):

    (Vol 1)


    (Vol 2)


    Thus, Spengler:

    Nichts ist einfacher, als an Stelle von Gedanken, die man nicht hat, ein System zu begründen. Aber selbst ein guter Gedanke ist wenig wert, wenn er von einem Flachkopf ausgesprochen wird. [58]


    Nothing is simpler than to make good poverty of ideas by founding a system, and even a good idea has little value when enunciated by a solemn ass. [Vol 1 p.41]


    Nothing is simpler to do than to establish a system in place of thoughts that one does not have. Yet a good thought is of little value, if it is spoken from an empty head.


    Atkinson is weak here, certainly; your version is both better and more literal. I don’t think he misrepresents the sense though. “Flachkopf”, literally “flat head”, might have been too colloquially rendered as “fathead”, but some connotation of solemn stupidity would seem to be called for.

    Then, Spengler:

    Wir sprechen in Sätzen und nicht in Worten. [726]


    – we speak in sentences and not words [Vol 2 p.141]


    We speak in sentences and not in words; glossed (playfully) as “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way”


    The literal translations seem as good as each other. I guess your point (a valid and clever one) is that in German “Satz” can mean “proposition” or “theorem” as well as “grammatical sentence”. Thus, it may be that a stronger progression is implied, from words used simply as labels to thoughts expressed as sentences (and therefore independent of the actual words).

  2. These were not intended to be submitted for grading. I’m still doing preliminary reading, and I haven’t started using the dictionary yet.

    My plan was as follows:

    1. Review the use of the questionable terms Physiognomik and Psychologie.
    2. Read Section 15 of the Einleitung all the way through.
    3. Determine whether it would be too much work to translate all of Section 15. If so, I would just do the two paragraphs that begin with “Die systematische Philosophie . . .”
    4. Produce a rough intuitive reading in English, with problematic terms/constructions and key terms highlighted in German.
    5. Do further research on problematic terms/constructions and key terms.
    6. Produce a perfected literal translation.
    7. Produce a poetic and stirring translation consistent with Spengler’s moral purpose, which also expresses his deep, underlying affect.

    However, I may stop short of step 7.

    Here’s a more likely step 7: Combine insights from this reading of Spengler with my other research, so that I might be able to justify the time.

  3. Sounds great! I’ll hold back on the grading and restrict my comments to awestruck admiration.

    Actually the passage that haunts me is the paragraph in Einleitung, Section 16, that begins:

    Vor allem aber fand sich endlich der Gegensatz, aus dem allein das Wesen der Geschichte erfaßt werden kann: der von Geschichte und Natur…

    I think I mentioned before, I believe “Eleaten” (Eleatics, as in Zeno) here to be a specific and negative reference to Plato. If so there is a curious contradiction in the linked Note 39, which might bear investigation by Spengler’s own “psychological” (OK physiognomic) method.

    But it’s your project! Really, I’ll be fascinated by anything you wish to do with it.

  4. I’m not sure why Spengler wouldn’t just specify Plato here. It seems that by praising Plato in the footnote, Spengler is trying to distinguish him from the Eleatics.

    A few years ago I started a survey of the type of world-historical theorizing found in Untergang des Abendlandes, intending to produce a summary of 20th-century perspectives up through 1951. So, this would feed into that.

  5. But the praise is for something Plato was not, thus:

    Note 39: “Plato und Goethe repräsentieren die Philosophie des Werdens, Aristoteles und Kant die des Gewordnen.”

    i.e. “Plato and Goethe represent the philosophy of becoming, Aristotle and Kant that of the become.”

    If Plato hated anything it was “becoming”, change. This is illustrated, somewhat ludicrously, by his remarks on the education of the Guardians in arithmetic: “they aren’t concerned with its usefulness for commercial transactions, as if they were merchants or shopkeepers, but for war and the easier conversion of the soul from the world of becoming to that of reality and truth” (Republic 525c, Demond Lee translation).

    It might be just a slip on Spengler’s part, but I’m suggesting it is the kind of inversion one sees in psychological defence mechanisms.

    Regarding the Eleatics, they are supposed to attribute only a “being (or having-become)”, not a “becoming”, to “den Erkennenden” – the “knowers”, who sound a lot like the Guardians. So “Eleatics” is a paraphrase for Plato.

    Such were my thoughts, anyway.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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