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Fall Books

Crisis of wolf-criers is ever-worsening

By Arthur Herman
The Free Press, 451 pages, $30 hardback


An evasive subject, history is. It's only predictable in hindsight. But will we ever stop trying to foresee the course of it? Hardly.

There is something profoundly comforting in the thought that history always moves in a certain direction, even if it's a bad one. The belief in progress, technological and otherwise, holds an obvious attraction. But why would we willingly believe and even argue vigorously that civilization as we know it is about to end? Shouldn't we rather give thanks to God for what we have and laugh the doomsayers out of business?

But no -- doom is as popular as ever. The imminence of the year 2000 doesn't help. Watch, say, for the word crisis. NCR's electronic archives reveal that we have used it 68 times in the last 10 months, which works out to 6.8 crises every single month. Or ever -- violence is ever-escalating, fragmentation is ever-worsening, slopes are ever more slippery, morality is ever-dwindling, attention spans are ever-disappearing and optimism is ever-decreasing. On top of that, everything is always becoming more complex.

Time, then, for Arthur Herman's The Idea of Decline in Western History, a calm and methodical expose of the most prominent pessimists since the Enlightenment, written by an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Think of the book as a solemn procession of boys that cried wolf. These boys were scholars, prophets and philosophers, however. Their ideas had -- and have -- heft.

Remember Jean-Jacques Rousseau? "Everything degenerates in the hands of men," he wrote, leading us into the first chapter, which presents two ideas that still resound today. One is a distillate from Edward Gibbon's classic work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). His thesis was that the Roman empire's enormous success necessarily led to decadence followed by inevitable destruction. Take that one step further, and it seems logical that our civilization is headed for the same fate -- which is exactly what Karl Marx later predicted, just to mention one of Herman's more obvious examples.

The second idea to keep in mind is that of Rousseau's "noble savage," a mainstay of Romantic thought. The noble savage was unrestrained by the effete conventions of politeness and culture. He listened to his heart and his pride, he communed with Nature, he acted more than he thought. (Admiration of action over thought returns, not coincidentally, with fascism.) Present day men, by contrast, were persnickety, flabby fops (including Rousseau himself, we must infer).

Both these ideas had punch. Lest we delude ourselves that academics and intellectuals are irrelevant to the course of history, take for instance a French gentleman by the name of Arthur de Gobineau.

Monsieur Gobineau, Herman writes, "began life despising two things: revolution and the bourgeoisie." That was inconvenient in early 19th-century France, which had plenty of both. Consequently, Gobineau spent much of his life in disgust, and disgust governed the course of his literary output -- a hodgepodge of Romantic notions of the noble savage, rants about moral decline and attempts to trace his own lineage back to Viking nobles. He was largely ignored, however, which of course intensified the smell of rot that seemed to linger in his nostrils.

To his rescue came the noble savage, that older, purer form of humanity from which modern civilization had supposedly degenerated. Enter also the hypothesis of a largely forgotten German academic who, based on a fallacious linguistic theory, proposed that an original, pure and noble race of forebears had jump-started the Indus Valley civilizations, and that Europeans (white, of course) were their inheritors.

The German university professor who came up with the idea called them "Aryans." Gobineau snatched the opportunity, producing a tract he called "Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races," followed by an opus of cosmic scope that purported to prove that Aryans had founded all the great civilizations of history. Gobineau's particular brand of "anthropological" idiocy was mostly ignored in France (due, naturally, to the advanced state of decline the French were in). In Germany, however, aided by the young composer Richard Wagner, they took root. Some 80 years later, an irate young man by the name of Adolf Hitler got hold of them.

Nazism succeeded, in the end, only in thoroughly discrediting the Aryan theory. The myth of the "noble being" did not die, however, nor do fascist ideologues have monopoly. In the latter decades, philosophers and professional cultural critics from Jean-Paul Sartre to Jonathan Kozol and Noam Chomsky have proposed, not just the inevitable decay of Western society but its fundamental rottenness. Rationality and the belief in progress, they argue, produce amoral, passive masses incapable of passion, action, intuition or pride.

As contrast and as replacement for the noble savage we have the decisive, praxis-oriented and decidedly active individuals of, say, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Cuba under Fidel Castro and China during the Cultural Revolution. Granted, the great regimes of this century have all excelled at marketing themselves as utopias. Many took the bait partly also because a smell of rot did linger over their own societies, the United States not excluded. But to go from there to gleefully pronouncing Western civilization dead and buried and to invite brutal and even grotesquely inhuman regimes to dance on its grave seems a tad excessive for purportedly rational thinkers.

We should point out that the selection of modern thinkers in Herman's book is suspiciously left-leaning. Where are the doomsayers of the right? The religious right especially tends to appeal to alarmist ideas of moral decadence and societal disintegration when peddling its own solutions. The Roman Catholic church has its prominent representative in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; substitute relativism for decadence, and you'll see the pattern. And remember Robert Bork's Sloughing toward Gomorrah (see NCR, Nov. 11, 1996)? It was a veritable parade of garden-variety references to decay, decline, decadence and on and on -- this time from the right, and from a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court to boot. He merits no mention in this book.

Granted, radical cultural critics of the last two or three decades, especially within the university system, have tended toward the far left. At the same time, the grassroots political climate in the United States especially is one of suspicion and even hostility toward academia and intellectuals, particularly those of the left. Rush Limbaugh, for whom liberal means degenerate, appeals, unfortunately, to a very large audience in this country, and the fascist and overtly racist militia and survivalist movements are only the tip of an iceberg of hate, discontent and millenarian pessimism. This pervasive reactionary sentiment right now is represented mostly by Neanderthal rhetoric, but it is nevertheless real and should merit treatment in a work like Herman's.

This work does provide invaluable perspective on some prevalent and deeply rooted ideas, however. Be aware of the omissions, but do pick up the book if you are reading anything on the history of ideas this year. Herman's prose is crisp, clear and sometimes ever-so-slightly ironic, but he is a scholar and does not taunt or ridicule; the ideas he presents fail ingloriously on their own merits.

Pierre Jorgensen is NCR's proofreader. He believes the world as we know it will survive New Year's Eve 1999.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997