The Idea of Decline in Western History
The Idea of Decline in Western History is a disappointing and frustrating book. On the one hand, readers will want to admire it. The topic chosen by Arthur Herman, an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University and coordinator of the Western civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, is impressive, even daunting. Herman finds schools of thought that believed in universal human decline as early as antiquity and argues that contemporary social critics are merely part of a long tradition. The sources that Herman introduces are wide ranging, and the sheer task of assembling such a massive amount of material must have been arduous. Furthermore, the author summarizes complex points for the nonspecialist, presenting his findings in a style that never fails to be interesting and readable. Despite all these virtues, however, The Idea of Decline in Western History does not succeed at its central task. Few readers will be persuaded by its basic argument that contemporary prophets of doom have much in common with Plato, Cesare Lombroso, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Those who care little about the idea of decline will lose patience with Herman’s meandering narrative long before its end. Those who are already interested in the topic will be annoyed by his glib generalities and tendency to reduce every complex issue to a few simple sentences.
There are three fatal flaws in The Idea of Decline in Western History. The author’s research is frequently shoddy, his focus is often unclear, and most surprisingly of all, he has not thought through the central idea about which he is writing. The first of these problems is apparent from the very start. Since Herman wishes to portray decline as a recurrent theme in Western civilization, he begins with ancient Greece and Rome, where such themes as society’s degeneration from a distant “Golden Age” were of vital importance. In a mere seven pages, however, Herman demonstrates that he has surprisingly little familiarity with the authors he introduces to support his case. Virgil’s “Fourth Eclogue” was not, as he claims, “composed in 40 b.c.e. to celebrate Augustus’ victory at Actium over Marc Antony and Cleopatra.” The Battle of Actium took place only on September 2, 31 b.c.e., more than six years after the Eclogues were published. This single error, which could have been corrected by a glance at any encyclopedia, renders useless the entire paragraph in which it appears and calls into question the quality of Herman’s research. Similar mistakes continue. The Iliad was no more than fifty years earlier than the poems of Hesiod, not “two hundred years” before them as Herman claims. Zeus’s father was Cronus, not Chronus (“Time”); ancient Greeks made frequent puns on the similarity of these two words, but they knew they were different. Herman apparently does not.
So frequent are Herman’s misstatements of fact that even assertions one might dismiss in other authors begin attracting attention. Herman says, for instance, that “Plato saw the Greek city-states evolving according to a recurrent cycle.” Indeed Plato did, and yet the context in which Herman introduces this remark suggests that the person he may really be thinking of is Aristotle, who discussed this theory extensively in the Politics. (Aristotle, who is never mentioned in The Idea of Decline in Western History, also originated a theory that Herman, in the very next sentence, attributes to Polybius.)
Herman’s carelessness with facts continues throughout the book. In his discussion of contemporary intellectuals, for instance, he takes no notice of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?” in The National Interest or Fukuyama’s subsequent book The End of History and the Last Man (1993). Such an omission seems especially baffling since Fukuyama’s thesis is precisely the one that Herman ends up rejecting. Is Herman’s silence intended to be a damnatio memoriae, or is it something far worse, a lack of familiarity with what should have been a basic source? In any case, why does Herman, who cites numerous individuals only peripherally related to his topic, pass over in silence one of the most influential recent authors on the very subject of his book?
Herman’s second major flaw is an inability to focus. He writes in a breezy style that readers will find either exhilarating or cloying. Major works of literature—indeed, whole periods of history—are dispensed with in a few words. The Idea of Decline in Western History thus careens from topic to topic, and when the author does devote extended attention to a...
(The entire section is 1918 words.)