Courtesy Reuters

From Homer to the Unabomber: Declinists Across the Ages

In This Review

The Idea of Decline in Western History

By Arthur Herman
Free Press, 1997
400 pp. $30.00

At one level, Arthur Herman's book is a marvelously efficient compendium of dismal predictions or resigned assessments of ongoing, imminent, inevitable, or just possibly avoidable political, social, economic, cultural, or racial declines by hundreds of very famous, less famous, or infamous thinkers, novelists, poets, and artists, starting with Homer and ending with the Unabomber. The efficiency derives from Herman's uncanny ability to compress the views of the likes of de Maistre, Schopenhauer, or Sidney Webb into a short paragraph or two, while disposing of many others in a single sentence, often a quotation.

Thus we find that, faced with the relentless advance of capitalism and its definition of human worth as net worth, the French Romantics Gautier, Stendhal, and Flaubert, like their English counterparts Coleridge, Blake, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Southey ("profit and loss became the rule of conduct; in came calculation, and out went feeling"), became convinced that they were witnessing the moral decline of man, amid the ruination of the land itself by dark, satanic mills. Rousseau and Herder had been pessimistic even before industrialization, reacting to the Enlightenment's cold rationalism and its implied warrant for individual hedonism, which they saw as squeezing out all spontaneous emotion, self-expression, and altruism.

What Herman does for the Romantics he does for all other categories of declinists, from the political variety that goes back to Plato and includes America's own Henry and Brooks Adams (here at chapter length), to the physical degeneration school that starts with Cesare Lombroso (another chapter), the racial devitalization crackpots headed by Arthur de Gobineau (a further chapter), the economic worriers and fretters, and finally -- the largest category of all -- the sociocultural pessimists. The latter include the still highly influential Ferdinand Tonnies and Gustav von Schmoller, whose student W. E. B. Du Bois followed him in seeing communal and spiritual Kultur (including the "Negro soul") under deadly attack by Zivilisation (material advancement). Among their contemporary American exponents Herman lists Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Thomas Pynchon,

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