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)
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