Book Review

Book cover image
The Idea of Decline in Western History

Arthur Herman
The Free Press, 1997, 521 pages



I ntellectuals, says Arthur Herman, have been predicting the imminent collapse of Western civilization for more than 150 years. This pessimism has even created a vicious circle: during the 1970s, inflation approached 20%, culture sank lower than ever, and thanks in part to Jimmy Carter's ineffectual leadership, the military came to be widely seen as disaster-prone. Yet a decade later, to the astonishment of the Western intelligentsia, Carter had been booted from the White House and the economy rapidly rebounded, and shortly thereafter global Communism collapsed. Similarly, the ugly fad of postmodernism led to a decline in intellectual rigor in all the social sciences, most pronounced at the universities where its corrosive influence took root. And there can be little doubt that spiritual decline is the predominant future for Europe, which is slowly but surely replacing its democratic institutions with inflexible bureaucracies.

The Idea of Decline in Western History takes on the topic of book rot in the same way that The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought by Jerry Z. Muller takes on anti-capitalism, and attempts to trace the origins of pessimism to its origins in 19th and 20th-century European and American thought, from Henry Adams, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre to modern-day pessimists like the Unabomber and his idols, the environmentalist radical Jeremy Rifkin and onetime presidential hopeful Al Gore.

While the history of ideas undoubtedly influences the content of great works of self-flagellation like Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West and Al Gore's Earth in the Balance, as well as the guilt-ridden anti-Americanism of historian Arnold Toynbee, and even the modern lunatic fringe of leftists like Susan Sontag and C. Wright Mills, there may perhaps be a simpler explanation for the recurrent theme of `decline' in their works. For those who want to overthrow the system, the message defines how it can be presented. Telling people that things are going fine and getting better every day is hardly an effective way to induce your readers to accept one's prescription for radical change. For subjects like social 'sciences', which were left behind in the scientific revolution and left only with argumentation and polemic to get their positions accepted, prophecies of impending apocalypse are so common and so often wrong as to be easily ignored, like dogs barking in the distance at some unseen danger. But why does this perpetual crisis mentality and the unremitting urge to overthrow the extant social order have such a strong grip on writers, philosophers, and news pundits? This is the question Arthur Herman addresses.

In the 19th century, while the Europeans were busy building ruins, European thinkers, crushed by the catastrophe of the ghastly French Revolution and the failed revolutions of 1848, lost faith in progress and revolted against the optimism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. These Romantics were exemplified by Arthur de Gobineau, whose concept of original Aryan racial purity lost to "mongrelization" justified his own feelings of aristocratic superiority over his contemporaries. Although not mentioned in this book, this same obsession with race continues today in the writings of left-wing extremists like Noel Ignatiev and certain fringe groups. In the vacuum left by the inability of science to adequately explain social and psychological phenomena, writers and academics were free to make up their own explanations for the social changes in their society, and to convince themselves that their Romantic or Marxist ramblings were a new form of ironclad scientific reasoning. The mythology that the 19th century Romantics invented, and which is still continuing its Baudelairian flowering today, was as rich in symbolism and displaced aggression as its ideas were devoid of empirical justification.

Despite the wealth of detail in Herman's book, the idea that the concept of 'decline' is a fundamental factor behind either contemporary or 19th century anti-Westernism may not convince many readers. His reading of postmodernist ideas into the work of Nietzsche may strike others as slightly revisionist; but Professor Herman's survey of the concept of decadence, deterioration, and cultural rot, mold and mildew is informative and fascinating.

July 26, 2003 Back