To development belongs fulfilment -- every evolution has a beginning, and every fulfilment is an end. To youth belongs age; to arising, passing; to life, death. For the animal, tied in the nature of its thinking to the present, death is known or scented as something in the future, something that does not threaten it. It only knows the fear of death the moment of being killed. But man, whose thought is emancipated from the fetters of here and now, yesterday and tomorrow, boldly investigates the "once" of past and future, and it depends on the depth or shallowness of his nature whether he triumphs over the fear of the end or not. An old Greek legend -- without which the lliad could not have been -- tells how his mother put before Achilles the choice between a long life or a short life full of deeds and fame, and how he chose the second.
Man was, and is, too shallow and cowardly to endure the fact of the mortality of everything living. He wraps it up in rose-coloured progress-optimism, he heaps upon it the flowers of literature, he crawls behind the shelter of ideals so as not to see anything. But impermanence, the birth and the passing, is the form of all that is actual -- from the stars, whose destiny is for us incalculable, right down to the ephemeral concourses on our planet. The life of the individual -- whether this be animal or plant or man -- is as perishable as that of peoples of Cultures. Every creation is foredoomed to decay, every thought, every discovery, every deed to oblivion. Here, there, and everywhere we are sensible of grandly fated courses of history that have vanished. Ruins of the "have-been" works of dead Cultures lie all about us. The hybris of Prometheus, who thrust his hand into the heavens in order to make the divine powers subject to man, carries with it his fall. What, then, becomes of the chatter about "undying achievements"?
World-history bears a very different face from that of which even our age permits itself to dream. The history of man, in comparison with that of the plant and animal worlds on this planet -- not to mention the lifetimes prevailing in the star world -- is brief indeed. It is a steep ascent and fall, covering a few millennia, a period negligible in the history of the earth but, for us who are born with it, full of tragic grandeur and force. And we, human beings of the twentieth century, go downhill seeing. Our eye for history, our faculty of writing history, is a revealing sign that our path lies downward. At the peaks of the high Cultures, just as they are passing over into Civilizations, this gift of penetrating recognition comes to them for a moment, and only for a moment.
Intrinsically it is a matter of no importance what is the destiny, among the swarms of the "eternal" stars, of this small planet that pursues its course somewhere in infinite space for a little time; still less important, what moves for a couple of instants upon its surface. But each and every one of us, intrinsically a null, is for an unnamably brief moment a lifetime cast into that whirling universe. And for us therefore this world-in-little, this "world-history," is something of supreme importance. And, what is more, the destiny of each of these individuals consists in his being, by birth, not merely brought into this world-history, but brought into it in a particular century, a particular country, a particular people, a particular religion, a particular class. It is not within our power to choose whether we would like to be sons of an Egyptian peasant of 3000 B.C., of a Persian king, or of a present-day tramp. This destiny is something to which we have to adapt ourselves. It dooms us to certain situations, views, and actions. There are no "men-in-themselves" such as the philosophers talk about, but only men of a time, of a locality, of a race, of a personal cast, who contend in battle with a given world and win through or fail, while the universe around them moves slowly on with a godlike unconcern. This battle is life -- life, indeed, in the Nietzschean sense, a grim, pitiless, no-quarter battle of the Will-to-Power.
Excerpted from Chapter II of Spengler's Man and Technics, trans. Charles Frances (London: Unwin, 1932), pp. 12-16. The title is editorial.