THE IDEA OF DECLINE IN WESTERN HISTORY by Arthur Herman

THE IDEA OF DECLINE IN WESTERN HISTORY

KIRKUS REVIEW

 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 dÇjÖ 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.

Pub Date: March 3rd, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-82791-3
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1997




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