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From Plato To NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents Hardcover – July 13, 1998

4.4 out of 5 stars 17 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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: The Free Press; 1st edition (July 13, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684827891
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684827896
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,554,899 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
David Gress certainly does have a habit of burying into the some of the overlooked or uncomfortable aspects of our history and dragging his findings out into the sunlight, evidenced by this substantial work as well as his regular articles for the Danish newspaper Politiken. He is also, above all, a true academic (I use that term in its most positive connotation), who has little time for pretentious pseudo-intellectuals who clutter libraries with their scribblings and demean the currency of academia. His work is careful and penetrating, while frequently revealing the subtle humour and flourishes of someone who clearly enjoys practicing his art. In this book, he examines the heretofore seemingly settled question of the "real" West, arguing that our involvement in two world wars forced us to see the history of the West through lenses significantly biased against recognizing the myriad Germanic influences which so profoundly affected Western culture. [Those interested in the topic of German influences on the US public school curriculum may wish to read "The Underground History of American Education" by award-winning author John Taylor Gatto (New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990 and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1990 and 1991).]
Particularly interesting to me was his effort to provide the reader not only with an overview of history but also a view to how history is portrayed and debated in the current day. Allan Bloom's philosophical handwringing in The Closing of the American Mind and Francis Fukuyama's famous and fabulously absurd End of History essay are placed into a perspective which is familiar yet unique and thought-provoking. Gress provides exceptionally well-reasoned and well-crafted arguments to support his positions.
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Format: Paperback
Gress' book is intensively researched and well formulated. It somewhat overstates the case "against" Greece as an ancestor of the modern West, but this really amounts to the author being very vigorous in deconstructing the "Grand Narrative" (the post-WWI narrative concocted by mostly American scholars and public intellectuals that celebrated Greece as the cradle of Western "democratic" civilization).

I would suggest, as someone who was an undergrad in the 1970s, that the "Grand Narrative" no longer needs quite so much deconstructing. It was much criticized in the 1970s, and I don't think it's taught at all today. The 19th century German penchant for locating the source of all political enlightenment in Ancient Greece is just no longer a problem for us.

Moreover, any modern Westerner surveying the history and literature of the ancient world will find his political sympathies lying with that of Greece, and specifically and definitely NOT with that of China, India, Persia, or Egypt. Gress' thesis that the modern West arose from a synthesis of Roman, Christian, and Germanic philosophies and practices is useful in highlighting the undoubted contributions of those influences. Certainly the American ideas of individual liberty and self-government did not spring unmediated from Ancient Greece. But there is a reason why a modern American can read Thucydides' account of the political bickering in ancient Athens and see himself -- and why he doesn't have a like sensation when encountering ancient texts from other parts of the world.
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Format: Hardcover
Well, what to say on a book that dwells on western philosophy from the Greeks to post-modernism and universalism of the 1990s. Dry stuff, but I found this book very helpful to me and timely. With the end of the Cold War and the closing of the 1990s, I felt a sense of the question "what is western identity" as David Gress explores in this book.
First, I didn't have much background in Western Civ or Greek Mythology or about the Romans; as I did not take these types of classes in school. I was an engineering student. But, this is the point of Gress's book. Our society was filled with "The Grand Narrative" of the wonders of Western Civilization as it came to us Americans from the Greeks and the Romans. I mean there were always allusions to it from TV, commericials, movies, teachers, ministers, news commentators and etcetera.
The Grand Narrative permeated our society so much without us realizing where it came from. Gress does an excellent job explaining it came from the minds of two professors at Columiba College in the 1920s and more specifically from a set of books published by the Encyclopedia Brittanica company out of Chicago called the "The Great Books of the Western World."
He, of course, goes much further and traces it throughout history to many of the philosophers out of Germany during the Enlightment and the Sceptical Enlightment. An unique feature of his book is the emphasis on the Germanic freedoms. I never realized we owed so much to the Germanic tribes that dominated the central European forests. I do wonder if this ignorance of the German contribution is from a nationalistic point of view because we are a nation of English Founding Fathers and the fact we fought a vicious war against the German nation{twice}.
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