The Idea of Decline in Western History

( 2 )


Historian Arthur Herman traces the roots of declinism and shows how major thinkers, past and present, have contributed to its development as a coherent ideology of cultural pessimism.

From Nazism to the Sixties counterculture, from Britain's Fabian socialists to America's multiculturalists, and from Dracula and Freud to Robert Bly and Madonna, this work examines the idea of decline in Western history and sets out to explain how the conviction of civilization's inevitable end has...

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The Idea of Decline in Western History

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Historian Arthur Herman traces the roots of declinism and shows how major thinkers, past and present, have contributed to its development as a coherent ideology of cultural pessimism.

From Nazism to the Sixties counterculture, from Britain's Fabian socialists to America's multiculturalists, and from Dracula and Freud to Robert Bly and Madonna, this work examines the idea of decline in Western history and sets out to explain how the conviction of civilization's inevitable end has become a fixed part of the modern Western imagination. Through a series of biographical portraits spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, the author traces the roots of declinism and aims to show how major thinkers of the past and present, including Nietzsche, DuBois, Sartre, and Foucault, have contributed to its development as a coherent ideology of cultural pessimism.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Herman neatly sidesteps the question of whether the West is actually in decline. His disclaimer at the outset is that he only intends to trace the idea of decline as expressed by intellectual pessimists of various persuasions. Some doomsayers view the "inevitable" collapse with dread and resignation; others regard it with grim satisfaction. John Adams and Arnold Toynbee are typical of the first sort, Adams viewing Americans as squandering their birthright as the "redeemer nation," Toynbee realizing that the British empire is not immortal after seeing ruined Baroque palaces in Venice. Representing the second type are American thinkers such as Gore Vidal, Christopher Lasch, Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag and Kirkpatrick Sale. Each of these paints the modern world as spiritually bankrupt, displaced and isolated, psychologically scarred. In this typology of "decliners," the most interesting are the paradoxical ones, who welcome destruction as heralding a new order. Although Nietzsche and Herbert Marcuse deserve honorable mention in this category, it is Oswald Spengler who wins the prize, for The Decline of the West (1918-1922), in which he rejoices at the collapse of Europe and reassures his readers that the German master race is equal to the task of saving the soul of civilization. Herman, adjunct professor of history at George Mason University and coordinator of the Smithsonian's Western Civilization program, takes us through these heady thoughts with great panache and erudition, a brisk and cordial guide to the slough of despond. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Herman (history, George Mason Univ.; coordinator of the Smithsonian's Western Civilization Program) traces the idea of Western civilization's decline as it has appeared in the writings of political thinkers of the last two centuries. He begins with a brief review of the concept of decay as seen in societies from antiquity to the 18th century. He then turns to the writings of Nietzsche, Brooks Adams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and various others and examines their concepts of decline, whether racial, moral, cultural, or intellectual. Al Gore makes an appearance in one chapter on eco-pessimism: "Gore compares the modern West to a dysfunctional family." One chapter is devoted to Arnold Toynbee, who, typical of the writers under discussion, seems to welcome the end of Western civilization. Academic in subject but written in a style that appeals to informed readers, Herman's work is recommended for academic and large public libraries.-Norman Malwitz, Queensborough P.L., N.Y.
Library Journal
Herman, coordinator of the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian, argues, like Gress (above), that despite the West emerging triumphant from the Cold War, intellectuals continue to predict pessimistically the decline of the West as they have since the days of Nietzsche and Spengler. Modern society is always "materialistic, spiritually bankrupt, and devoid of human values. Modern people are always displaced, rootless, psychologically scarred, and isolated from one another." (LJ 2/15/97) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A learned study of the concept of decline since the Enlightenment, sure to generate widespread discussion and debate.

A recent spate of books has proclaimed the "end" of just about everything from education to science to history itself. Historian Herman, coordinator of the Smithsonian's Western Civilization Program, has provided us with an invaluable historical context from which to re-examine this persistent belief that everything is in an inevitable process of decline. Herman has an admirable command of his sources. Part I, "The Languages of Decline," reveals how a particular tradition of rhetoric combined with historical analysis and science (and sometimes pseudoscience) to produce a sense of doom. Part II, "Predicting the Decline of the West," shows how popular the idea of decline was in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But valuable as the book is in tracing the evolution of these ideas through an impressive array of sources, it's not without faults. Herman rather startlingly moves (without any seeming self-consciousness about the gesture) from a masterful analysis of the concept of decline in the recent past to what seems to be a personal and heartfelt attack on modern systems of thought. In Part III, "The Triumph of Cultural Pessimism," readers who have read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind may feel a sense of déjà vu: Herman attacks the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, as well as modern French philosophers from Sartre to Foucault. The book degenerates into a diatribe against multiculturalism and environmentalism, even making an implicit connection between the latter and Nazism. Hovering over the entire project, although never invoked, is the controversial 1989 essay "The End of History," by Francis Fukuyama.

A fascinating—and disturbing—study, and one that surely demands a response from those who firmly believe in the idea of progress.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416576334
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 9/7/2007
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Progress, Decline, and Decadence 13
2 Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism 46
3 Historical and Cultural Pessimism: Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche 76
4 Degeneration: Liberalism's Doom 109
5 Gilded Age Apocalypse: Henry and Brooks Adams 147
6 Black Over White: W.E.B. Du Bois 187
7 The Closing of the German Mind: Oswald Spengler and The Decline of the West 221
8 Welcoming Defeat: Arnold Toynbee 256
9 The Critical Personality: The Frankfurt School and Herbert Marcuse 295
10 The Modern French Prophets: Sartre, Foucault, Fanon 329
11 The Multiculturalist Impulse 364
12 Eco-Pessimism: The Final Curtain 400
Afterword 441
Notes 452
Bibliography 476
Acknowledgments 498
Index 501
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2003

    a must read for intellectual analysis

    i found spengler's analysis highly intresting and informative.however it dwells deeply on american history at would have been more facsinating study if there were perspectives from oriental cultures and religions.the observations are profoud ,philosophic and prophetic.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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