Numbers and Humanity

In the final weeks of World War I, Oswald Spengler published Der Untergang des Abendlandes, tamely translated as The Decline of the West. Its almost a thousand pages of turgid Teutonic prose swept over mangled Europe like a tidal wave, becoming the still-young century’s best-seller. (A second volume was published in 1922, to less rapturous attention.) It offered a diagnosis to a world convulsed in mass-produced death, an explanation of the “last spiritual crisis that will involve all Europe and America.” According to Spengler, the essence of modern civilization — its Faustian soul, he called it — was a type of mathematics that was created in the seventeenth century by Descartes, Galileo, Leibniz, and Pascal. That mathematics had proven powerful but also lethal, for “formulas and laws spread rigidity over the face of nature, numbers make dead.” Now the West and its mathematics, “having exhausted every inward possibility and fulfilled its destiny,” were dying together. Never mind that Spengler’s claim about the death of mathematics was incorrect. From Mussolini to Thomas Mann, everybody who was anybody claimed to have read the book. Plenty of people disagreed with the analysis. In 1920, on the brink of winning the Nobel Prize, Albert Einstein wrote to the mathematical physicist Max Born: “Sometimes in the evening one likes to entertain one of his propositions, and in the morning smiles about it.” He attributed Spengler’s “whole monomania” to his “school-child mathematics.” But the most acute critics recognized that Spengler represented a powerful stream of the Zeitgeist that saw in mathematics, as the writer Robert Musil put it, “the source of an evil intelligence that while making man the lord of the earth has also made him the slave of his machines.” (Ulrich, the protagonist of Musil’s great novel The Man Without Qualities, which was set

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