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

June 1, 1997 Topics: Society Tags: Bosnian WarYugoslaviaRacismSerbs

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

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

by Author(s): Kenneth Minogue

What is striking about collective self-hatred is that it leads to
both arrogance and self-abasement. It may well be that Toynbee
inherited his Manichaean distinction between otherworldly
spirituality and vulgar self-serving politics from his father. Herman
describes an occasion in 1883 when the elder Arnold Toynbee confessed
to a working class audience:

We--the middle classes, I mean, not just the rich--have neglected you
. . . but I think we are changing. If you will only believe it and
trust us, I think that many of us would spend our lives in your
service. . . . You have to forgive us, for we have wronged you; we
have sinned against you grievously.

Among the more absurd cultural pessimists are the Adams brothers of
Boston, scions of the distinguished Adams line, who thought that the
United States had betrayed its destiny as a redeemer nation. Henry
Adams in 1880 published Democracy, a novel expressing his sense of
American decadence. Some of its views will have today's readers
muttering "plus ça change." Patronage and corruption are the
lifeblood of the nation and presidential elections have decayed into
mindless popularity contests. When the president and his wife appear
at a party they seem like "mechanical figures . . . their faces
stripped of any intelligence", but they also seem to be
"representatives of the society that streamed past them." The
question raised by such pessimism is always: When did the decline
begin? For Adams it was with the War of 1812 when, as Herman puts it,
the original American ideal dissolved into a squalid scramble for
land, money, and empire.

A conviction of collective and historical unworthiness is the spirit
in which some contemporary Christians are approaching the second
millennium: they hope, by apologizing for the crusades, slavery,
colonialism, and other past episodes, to achieve a new reconciliation
between the peoples of the earth. Such moral salvationism resembles
an old man trying to make his peace with those he thinks he has
injured--except that here we are dealing with the moral ambiguities
of collective action for which apology is inappropriate.

The key point lies in the fashionable corruption of the notion of
"representation." Herman quotes the black nationalist Henry H.
Garnet: "When those representatives of our race were filling the
world with amazement, the ancestors of the now proud and boasting
Anglo-Saxons . . . abode in caves underground, either naked or
covered with the skins of wild animals" [emphasis added].

Against the massed ranks of declinists, against the notion that our
reality is locked into some organic entity with a cyclical destiny,
the liberal West has fielded the enterprising individual with a life
of his or her own, and so far we have put these ridiculous figures to
flight. On the other hand, imagination and extrapolation, within
their limits, are useful tools that help us recognize dangers ahead.
The small child who kept calling "Wolf!" ended up being eaten. But
Herman's masterly survey of the idea of decline points us toward
recognizing the fallacy in the whole idea: namely, that societies and
cultures are organisms. As Lord Palmerson remarked, half the wrong
conclusions at which mankind arrives are reached by the abuse of
metaphors. In the idea of decline, metaphor has run amok.

Image: Essay Types: Book Review