"The Idea of Decline
What do Vice President Al Gore, Robert Bork, the Unabomber
and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have in common? They are
members of a long line of cultural and historical pessimists,
says Arthur Herman, who currently co-teaches with Robert Forster
a non-credit course titled France and the Spirit of Revolution
for the School of
Continuing Studies Odyssey program.
For as long as there has been something we call civilization, there have been those who bemoan its decline. Over several centuries of gnashing of philosophical teeth, it seems not much has changed except the cast of characters, countless philosophers, writers, and social and political activists and slight variations on the evidence for decline they present.
Herman's recently published book, The Idea of Decline in Western History (The Free Press, 1997), is not a book about the decline of Western civilization, however. It's a book about the idea of the decline of Western civilization as expressed by both "historical pessimists" and "cultural pessimists."
"Theories about decline are theories about time and change and the idea that time and change are essentially destructive processes," says Herman. For Herman, historical pessimists are those who cry out against and deplore the decline of civilization, while cultural pessimists have welcomed and celebrated it. Historical pessimists have included Oswald Spengler and Henry Adams; failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork; and Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Herman's cultural pessimists include Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault and, most recently, Vice President Al Gore and the Unabomber.
"Cultural pessimists say, 'If Western civilization has this capacity to systematically undermine its foundations, then maybe it's time to chuck the whole thing and start over,' " Herman says.
According to Herman, who also teaches history at George Mason University and is the coordinator of the Western Civilization program at the Smithsonian Institutions' Campus on the Mall, spreading doom and gloom about the future of civilization is not a new intellectual occupation, but Gore may have opened a new chapter in the history of the idea of decline.
Herman says that Al Gore "pushes cultural pessimism to a new extreme" when, in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, he places all human cultural and technological activity at odds with nature. Gore, outdoing most cultural pessimists in his ecological critique of planet Earth's future, bemoans both cultural and physical decline and becomes an "eco-pessimist."
By coupling the decline of Western civilization with outrages against nature, Gore has not plowed new ground. Herman points out that even Heidigger spoke out against "technological capitalism." What Gore has done, however, is to surpass his cultural pessimistic brethren. "By saying, as he does in his book, that Western civilization has not only the capacity for self-destruction but all societies have, in the end, the same destructive impulses, Gore takes cultural pessimism to a new level," says Herman.
Classic cultural pessimism, Herman argues, has included those "racial pessimists" who worry that "race mixing" will drain the vitality, creativity, and moral and rational capacity out of the Aryan race. "Racial pessimists take the issue of race and subject it to this same fear of change," he says, adding that historical pessimists despise multicultur-alism as part of an overall destructive trend.
And then there's the Unabomber. For Herman, the alleged Unabomber's lengthy manifesto railed against decline in much the same way as have the classic historical pessimists. The Unabomber, who had a well-used and heavily underscored copy of Gore's book in his cabin, falls in step as an historical pessimist, but perhaps marches at the head of the most recent line. "The Unabomber was not influenced by Gore's book," Herman says. "But he did follow his own train of thought through the book and found reinforcement."
Herman places white supremacists and anti-government militias in the historical pessimist's parade. "Militias come at this from a different angle," Herman says. "They fear a malign social and political process, one over which we have no control and appears threatening. The same issue is at root--that modernity is running out of the control of the institutions that Western society has put together."
Herman, who teaches graduate level history courses in the M.L.A. program and has taught adults in retirement or semi-retirement through The Evergreen Society, is now at work on a book about Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Following this book, Herman wants to do a sequel to his book on the idea of decline by returning to the roots of the idea of progress in the Enlightenment. Through the sequel he hopes to show through thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith how we could construct a very different view of the relationship between human beings and modern society and the fate of the West.
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