The Appeal of Decline; Review of Arthur Herman's The Idea of Decline in Western History

Is the West doomed to go the way of all other civilizations--into history's bin?

Issue: Summer 1997

Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York: Free
Press, 1997), 521 pp., $30.

Is the West doomed to go the way of all other civilizations--into
history's bin? This question has preoccupied intellectuals, often in
the form of a meditation on the fall of Rome, ever since the
eighteenth century. More recently, it has become an instrument for
claiming political power; those who understand the causes of decline
must be given the power to avert it. Such understanding becomes a
revelation, a kind of gnosis, marking off an elect from those sunk in
quotidian triviality. Fascist doctrines obviously follow this model;
more egalitarian forms of salvation merely cover their tracks by
pretending that the elect act for the masses. But it takes a vanguard
of commissars, judges, bureaucrats, and others to equalize our modern
societies, and their work will never be finished.

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