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From Plato To NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents [Hardcover]

David Gress
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In From Plato to NATO, political historian David Gress takes a wide-ranging look at the development of Western Europe and its colonial outposts. Gress views Europe not just as a geographic entity, but as a complex of conflicting ideas such as social good and individual rights, control and freedom. Those ideas come from many traditions, and they have blended to make the region politically and economically unlike any other in the world. Gress's viewpoint is conservative, but the author also calls himself a "skeptical liberal." Readers of all political stripes will find much food for thought in these pages.

From Publishers Weekly

Conventional historians, asserts Gress in this original, sweeping study, see Western civilization as a progressive, linear sequence "from Plato to NATO," meaning that our modern ideals of freedom and democracy flowed directly from classical Greece. To the contrary, argues Gress, the notion of modern political liberty?a set of practices and institutions?took shape between the fifth and eighth centuries in a synthesis of classical, Christian and Germanic cultures. Gress's thesis that the Germanic tribes who invaded the former Roman Empire infused new energy and an ethos of heroic, aristocratic freedom was popular in the U.S. until the early 20th century, but, as he notes, it fell out of favor after two world wars and the experience of Nazism. The real strength of his scholarly inquiry lies in its fertile dialogue with Gibbon, Tocqueville, Goethe, Nietzsche, Marx, Montesquieu, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Campbell and numerous others as he wrestles with Western survival and the concept of Western identity. Arguing that the U.S. remains the bulwark and heartland of democratic liberal Western values, Gress mounts a withering attack on those he considers motley critics of modern capitalism and the West, including Sartre's slavish Stalinism, Toynbee's anti-Americanism, postmodernist nihilists (Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard), multiculturalists who assume that no single culture is preferable to any other and "Singapore school" economists who divorce economic development from political liberty. Gress, a historian, is a fellow at the Danish Institute of International Affairs.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This is a must read for every serious student of Western civilization, not only for its argument that Western civilization does not begin with the Greeks but because it invites us to appreciate anew the West's historical faith in reason, democracy, science, capitalism, and the possibility of human progress. (LJ 6/15/98)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Just what is Western civilization? Gress, a historian of Germany, urges that defenders and attackers of "the West" share an ahistorical base: a "Grand Narrative" that "mistakenly defined liberty as an abstract, philosophical principle, which it then traced through a series of great books and great ideas divorced from passions and politics back to classical Greece." Gress maintains that "liberty, and Western identity in general . . . evolved, not from Greece, but from the synthesis of classical, Christian, and Germanic culture that took shape from the fifth to the eighth centuries A.D." The Grand Narrative of "the West" developed after World War II served propaganda as well as pedagogical needs in a cold-war world, Gress suggests, but was incomplete, selective, and "deaf to religion and theology as forces in their own right." In fact, he argues, "the West was not a single story, but several stories, most of which neither began with Plato nor ended with NATO." A challenging alternative reading of Western intellectual history. Mary Carroll

From Kirkus Reviews

An erudite examination of the history of the West and what this history has meant to both its proponents and opponents. ``The West'' is not, for Gress, a fellow at the Danish Institute of International Affairs, simply an idea. Presented as an unblemished history of progress from ancient Greece to the present, this idealized ``Grand Narrative'' in its perfection was easy prey for those who would oppose the West; it couldnt possibly live up to its billing. This ``Grand Narrative'' was bad history, and Gress attempts to present a better history. He finds that the modern West evolved not as an idea but as a series of practices and institutions, some quite accidental and fortuitous, some tragic. Specifically, he finds the West to be an amalgam of ancient Roman, Christian, and Germanic cultures (the ``Old West'') mixed with the Enlightenment creations of liberty, reason, and economic freedom (the ``New West''). The scholarly detail with which the author presents this history is truly impressive. In the end, he concludes that the West of today, while not universal, not a destination at which all nations will or must arrive, is beyond question worth preserving and defending. He has, however, no patience whatsoever for those who would disparage the West. While his history is an intellectual marvel, his depiction of critics of the West consists of caricature and intellectual chicanery. Any criticism of the West is, for Gress, an attack on the whole tradition, so that the anti-Americanism of the Vietnam era simply became reformulated as anti-Westernism, so that ``environmentalism'' is nothing more than something invented by people to serve an authoritarian agenda. Thus does scholarship become reduced to polemic. Still, despite its flaws, this is a thought-provoking work, whether one is ``for or ``against the West. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Review

From Plato to NATO comes off as a sequence of digressions; it includes appraisals of both the Hollywood costume drama The Fall of the Roman Empire and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land in between lots of potted histories and micro-biographies. The reader may therefore think that Gress finally has no message to convey. But he does. He wants to rehabilitate what he grandly calls the "third force of Western identity": the anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment (of course) Christian traditionalists.... -- The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Edward N. Luttwak

Gress's defense here of rationality, science, technology and liberalism is, on its own, worth the price of the book. -- The New York Times Book Review, Anthony Gottlieb

In telling his epic tale, Gress covers a truly impressive amount of historical ground, from the Bible and the Song of Roland to contemporary debates over global warming and economic growth. His interpretations are almost always highly intelligent, and are offered with an intellectual panache that few academic historians now permit themselves. -- Commentary, Wilfred M. McClay

Norman Davies author of Europe: A History The idea of Western civilization is under attack. Some denounce it for racism, elitism, and exclusivism. Others, like myself, think that it presents a false view of European history. But no one interested in history, culture, or education can ignore the conflict. Whether one wants to sling a shot at the ramparts or to stand shoulder to shoulder with the besieged, one has first to ascertain where the battle lines are drawn. David Gress's book, which is written to strengthen the defense, outlines the progress of the siege so far. It can be read with pleasure and profit by participants and spectators alike. -- Review

This is a near-encyclopedic survey of the way in which historical mythologies have been imagined, composed, developed and even institutionalized. It is hard not to be swept away by the author's learning and persuasive exposition, for he is not merely a fluent but at times a torrential writer. -- The Wall Street Journal, J. M. Roberts

About the Author

David Gress was born in Copenhagen of Danish-American parents, studied classics at Cambridge and received his Ph.D. in medieval history from Bryn Mawr College. He is a fellow of the Danish Institute of International Affairs and director of the Center for Studies on America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is the author, with Dennis L. Bark, of A History of West Germany, and of other works in both Danish and English. He lives with his wife and three children in Denmark.
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