The Idea of Decline in Western History

Arthur Herman’s THE IDEA OF DECLINE IN WESTERN HISTORY traces the belief in social degeneration from antiquity through the modern day, arguing that contemporary intellectual pessimism has had a long heritage. The work is a fast-paced and well-written survey of academic gloom, intended primarily for the nonspecialist, and it is at its best when it draws upon a wide array of sources to highlight unexpected similarities in outlook. Unfortunately, the book’s flaws are more numerous than its merits. Herman’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 last of these problems is the most serious. Herman demonstrates that he has not come to terms with what a belief in “decline” really is or how a theory of degeneration differs from a generally gloomy outlook. He treats all pessimistic authors alike. It does not matter to Herman whether someone believes that humanity’s greatest triumphs were all in the past (a true “idea of decline”) or that humanity is on a brink of a crisis (millenialism) or that civilization will simply never solve its problems (pessimism). He ends up devoting large sections of the book to discussing authors who do not believe in decline at all but fear that civilization (even while progressing) will someday face an inevitable apocalypse. Thus Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler, and Michel Foucault properly belong in THE IDEA OF DECLINE IN WESTERN HISTORY. Other figures such as W.E.B. du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X represent an entirely different sort of outlook. Some of these individuals seem introduced merely to provide ammunition for the author’s attacks on multiculturalism later in the book.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist. CCCXLIII, May 17, 1997, p. 3.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVI, January, 1997, p. 153.

Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1997, p. 146.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 9, 1997, p. 6.

National Business Review. March 21, 1997, p. 44.

National Catholic Reporter. September 5, 1997, p. 26.

National Review. XCIX, October 13, 1997, p. 71.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 30, 1997, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 27, 1997, p. 89.

The Wall Street Journal. February 24, 1997, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, February 23, 1997, p. 1.