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The Idea of Decline in Western History


Arthur Herman (View Bio)
Hardcover: The Free Press, 1997.

The Idea of Decline in Western History

"It is not the prophecy of decline that is self-fulfilling; it is the evidence of decline, the loss of confidence in the ideas that have defined and sustained our civilization. That evidence, as presented in this book, is powerful and persuasive.... Herman displays great virtuosity." — Gertrude Himmelfarb, Washington Post Book World

"Herman takes us through these heady thoughts with great panache and erudition, a brisk and cordial guide to the slough of despond." — Publishers Weekly

"Challenging, broadly informed ...Herman stimulates thought.... The Idea of Decline in Western History puts the subject in play at last and sharpens consciousness of the truly momentous issues at stake. For those reasons, it deserves a wide audience." — Benjamin DeMott, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Arthur Herman has written a brisk survey of declinism from Sophocles to the Unabomber, outlining the long shadow of Western pessimism.... His aim is to discredit declinism: 'While intellectuals have been predicting the imminent collapse of Western civilization for more than 150 years ...its influence has grown faster during that period than during any other period of history.' He places the worrywarts of today, from Al Gore with his 'eco-pessimism' to Robert Bork with his cultural gloom and doom, in a long and misguided Western tradition.... Herman handles his sprawling subject with intelligence and ease." — Fareed Zakaria, The New York Times Book Review

"A swift, learned and marvelously readable account — and, in the end, indictment — of declinists at work in the West.... He presents abstruse philosophical speculation in elegant summary and with great clarity. He is especially deft at suggesting how doctrine begets doctrine, in sympathetic expression or open challenge. And he has the gift of being able to make connections not just among contemporaries but across decades and centuries. The context for his survey of declinists grows ever more spacious and detailed, and the characters play off of one another to fascinating effect.... Herman exposes the roots of the foolishness, and, upended in the light, they look not just bare but barren.... Herman seldom raises his voice or editorializes, yet his willingness to let the declinists speak for themselves proves merciless." — James M. Morris, Civitas

"A learned study of the concept of decline since the Enlightenment, sure to generate widespread discussion and debate. A recent spate of books has proclaimed the 'end' of just about everything from education to science to history itself. Historian Herman, coordinator of the Smithsonian's Western Civilization Program, has provided us with an invaluable historical context from which to re-examine this persistent belief that everything is in an inevitable process of decline. Herman has an admirable command of his sources.... A fascinating — and disturbing — study, and one that surely demands a response from those who firmly believe in the idea of progress." — Kirkus Reviews

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