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The Idea of Decline in Western History Hardcover – January 8, 1997


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (January 8, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684827913
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684827919
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #530,279 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In this ambitious and eminently relevant work of popular intellectual history, Arthur Herman, the coordinator of the Western civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, makes a broad survey of the literature of cultural decline and a scatter-shot retort to the purveyors of doom and gloom. Herman attempts to right the balance unset by panicky prognosticators who either decry the defeat of Western values or herald the bankruptcy of Enlightenment idealism, despite the unparalleled worldwide ascendance of market economics, universal human rights, and representational, constitutional government.

Herman is at his best when making erudite replies to today's ill-informed peddlers of doom and gloom. But when he starts attempting to trace the history of "declinism," to philosophers from Frederick Neitzche to Martin Heidegger, and writers from Henry Adams to Robert Bly, his accusations often fall wide of the intended mark. His assaults on Jean Jacques Rousseau and W.E.B. DuBois will appear particularly unfair to those familiar with the works of these men, though readers who trust in Herman's abbreviated accounts of their thinking will be unknowingly misled. The "Great Ideas" framework Herman defends in the pages of this book ought to prize the close reading of important texts as much as it seeks to protect a sacrosanct canon or a static notion of prized ideals. Great ideas after all stand up to close attention. Herman's book conveys a confidence in the values of the Western tradition, but in making its argument, it inspires a casual disrespect from the works of other arguably great thinkers and artists based on Herman's swift survey--a dubious achievement and troublesome side effect of this challenging book.

From 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

In sum : A great, thought-provoking read.
Amazon Customer
Herman here joins the ranks of the critics and, despite a prickly bias in his viewpoint, makes a good case for the fallacy of the prophets of doom.
John C. Landon
This book offers an interesting survey of the various decline theories as they have been expressed throughout Western history and culture.
New Age of Barbarism

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on October 27, 1998
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Herman provides an excellent introduction to the philosophy of history. The writing is exceptionally lucid for a topic so demanding. "Serious scholars" might not appreciate summary discussions of Spengler, Hegel, Toynbee, Chamberlain, Dubois, Garvey, Aquinas, and others, but the form of Herman's presentation suits his ultimate goal just fine. Furthermore, the willing reader will learn a great deal about classic works in the field AND be entertained. "The Idea of Decline" constantly challenges one to consider the value of clearly stated world views and, if readers share my experience, they will be encouraged to pursue further reading in the philosophy of history with vigor. In sum : A great, thought-provoking read.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Frank J. Tipler on April 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I first encountered the idea of decline, in the 1970's as a graduate student in physics, through the work of my professor, the historian of science Stephen G. Brush. Professor Brush associated the idea of decline with the discovery of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In spite of my admiration for Brush (whose book, THE TEMPERATURE OF HISTORY, Herman does not mention), I think that Herman has done a better job in describing the history of the Idea of decline, which indeed arose long before the Second Law was discovered. Rather, I now believe -- in large part because of the evidence Herman has presented in this book -- that the Second Law was interpreted as a guarantee of ineviable decline BECAUSE the virus of the idea of decline was already infecting the Western mind. (The physicist Pierre Duhem pointed out in the late 19th century that the Second Law actually does not imply inevitable decline.) Herman has written what is probably the best defense of the Enlightenment ideals, namely progress through physicial science and rationality, that I have seen in many years. Herman describes at length the personal connections between the philosophers of decline, and I think this description is one of the book's greatest strengths. Herman emphasizes the remarkable fact that all the Decliners, Left and Right, were united by a deep hatred for both Newtonian mechanics and Christianity. On reflection, this common hatred is not surprising, since these are the foundation of modern human civilization which the Decliners also hate and aim to destroy, as documented by Herman at length in this book. An extraordinary achievement. I'm very pleased that there are still scholars like Herman. With men like Herman around, writing books like this, the Decliners may yet fail to destroy civilization.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By New Age of Barbarism on January 21, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
_The Idea of Decline in Western History_ (1997) by historian Arthur Herman is an interesting study of the notion of decline and the decline theory applied to Western history. Herman traces the origins of the notion of decline to ancient sources, noting how generational conflicts gave rise to an older generation seeing a younger generation as in decline. Herman considers how these notions came to take on an important role in European and Western history in which civilization came to be understood as entering a period of decline from a previous era. In contrast to theories of progress, which argued that civilization and "civil society" had come about through a progression from previous eras, decline theorists maintained that civilization had entered a period of decadence and decline following some previous Golden Age. In fact, the decline theory amounts to an understanding of the nature and meaning of time and may be seen in the notion of "inevitable historical laws". Perhaps the most notorious decline theorists were those who made arguments concerning degeneration or in a similar vein to Oswald Spengler's famous _The Decline of the West_ which argued that Western history had entered an inescapable period of decline. Herman considers various versions of this theory that proliferated in Western history ranging from ancient times to the Renaissance to nineteenth century racial theories and theories of degeneration to the decline theories of various German academics to modern leftist theories of decline and multiculturalism and finally to ecological theories of decline which have come to play a more important role in the recent era. This book offers a fascinating study of the origins of such theories and the role of cultural pessimism in Western history and philosophy.Read more ›
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By John C. Landon on March 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
The viewpoint of Spengler on the decline of the West is an insidious thesis whose continued popularity and beguiling appeal endures notwithstanding the severe flaws that emerge on closer examination. The same could be said for Toynbee's elaboration of the idea of the West's inevitable decline. Herman here joins the ranks of the critics and, despite a prickly bias in his viewpoint, makes a good case for the fallacy of the prophets of doom. And this via the history, e.g. such works as Nordau's Degeneration, of the constellation of ideas behind these first of the 'postmoderns'. In some ways the view of the classical liberal is an appropriate response to the cockeyed conservatism of Spengler, and here we have the correct suggestion the rise of the modern is a creative era in world history, and not the tail end of some Faustian civilization beginning in the year 1000 AD.
Still, the issue of decline won't go away, if only because nothing lasts forever. But the latter is not an historical thesis or theory, and it is false to say that decline is inevitable, let alone that some invigorating barbarism will renew our esthetics. So far from being an aberration the Enlightenment brought into being a new age of history, and to foresee decline, and this unconsciously willed as some perverse progress, bespeaks only the idiotic epigone of Nietzche. Herman makes this basic point in a fashion that might not sit well with the mystique of the Spenglerian horde. As for Toynbee, his mechanics of history simply cannot deal with the facts of the rise of the West or its significance in any intelligent way, as if the author stepped from some medieval monastery to be appalled at the end times in the birth of freedom. Let's hope we don't go down fighting against this tide of willed self-destruction which seems attractive to the enemies of the Enlightenment. A bit 'thinktankish', but a useful work.
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