The West has died many times, yet remains alive and kicking. In there lies the problem for a whole battery of Western intellectuals up and down its flourishing centuries, who have confidently called for our civilization’s imminent demise. Again and again, writers and philosophers like Henry Adams, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Paul Ehrlich have been proven wrong by reality.
Somehow, the lessons taken by the next generation of their followers is almost always “this time is different.” Every new prophet of doom – be they racists concerned with nonwhite immigrants or teenagers and politicians of the highest offices worrying about climate change – every new generation of doomsayers speaks the words of failed prophets of the past.
Pessimism, argues the distinguished scholar Deirdre McCloskey, has been a poor guide to the modern world. This I learned from her work and from the great discipline of economic history, but the point has recently been hammered into me by Arthur Herman’s classic The Idea of Decline in Western History. I must be rather late to the party if I’m reading a book almost as old as myself, but the hopeless events and intimidating government power grabs of last year had many of us flirting with declinist ideas. Most sought refuge in timeless works of the past: Many a nightstand in recent months have seen Shakespeare, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Albert Camus’ The Plague, Robert Higgs’ many writings on government’s historical overreach, or Stefan Zweig’s rose-tainted remembrance of the society that World War I destroyed. Mine most certainly.
In contrast to Herman’s dismal topic and the many prophets of doom explored throughout its dense 450 pages, I took from it a very optimistic message: even though declinist ideologies are appealing, they are often wrong. Still, they get recycled into new messages generation by generation – old wine in new bottles.
It’s a conservative book, in the original meaning of the word. Not because it pushes or investigates conservative values, but because it illustrates the hopeless failures of social planners wishing to revolutionize what they think is a decadent, flailing, and collapsing society. And how could they not be wrong? Human civilization is complicated, filled with countless unobservable values and motions and motives that no single mind can uncover. The hubris with which intellectuals like Sartre or Adams or Marcuse or Du Bois approach society, believing themselves capable of both investigating and fixing it as if it were a predictable system – like an engineer a broken engine – is monumentally foolish.
The book is challenging to read and filled with long and intricate explanations of the life work for dozens of Western civilization’s greatest minds. Herman divides the many critics of the West into two camps: cultural pessimists and historical pessimists:
“The historical pessimist sees civilization’s virtues under attack from malign and destructive forces that it cannot overcome; cultural pessimism claims that those forces form the civilizing process from the start. The historical pessimist worries that his own society is about to destroy itself, the cultural pessimist concludes that it deserves to be destroyed. The historical pessimist sees ‘disaster in the pole star,’ as Henry Adams put it: the cultural pessimist looks forward to disaster, since he believes something better will rise from its ashes.”
“For every Western intellectual who dreads the collapse of his own society,” writes Herman, “there is another who has looked forward to that event with glee.” Some men just want to watch the world burn, Alfred famously taught us.
What unites all the pessimists and declinists that Herman investigates is their fundamental conviction that their societies were on the brink of collapse, of irremediable disaster. They are so unflinchingly certain that theirs is “a moribund social order” and that only some utopian scheme of the declinist’s own making can save us. We could safely call it “The Jesus syndrome” – single-handedly seeing what’s wrong with their times and with the only remedy in town. It’s strange too that this remedy always involves “a total overthrow of the economic interests and the political institutions” of their time – as if total overthrows usually pan out the way its proponents envision.
Reading about one declinist after another, the famous names of Western intellectual history crisscrossing the pages, I can’t help but wonder if these people ever paused and thought: maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m missing something here. Maybe the world is not irrevocably destined for doom…? That humbling thought should be at the back of all of our minds when we can’t make sense of events and ideas in the world.
If it were that the Marxian stories of the declining world – or the eco-pessimists’, or the racists’, or the fascists’ – had much of a bearing, would they not have played themselves out by now? It’s a well-known irony that the communist revolutions happened not in industrializing Britain but in backward Russia. The more “exploited” and “alienated” the working classes have become, the better their material and physical well-being. Something is clearly wrong in the grand models of the world presented by these varying flavors of doom.
Sprinkled throughout the book are these small commentaries on the grand philosophies he has so eloquently explained. If you don’t pay attention they will pass you by in the otherwise dense prose. By themselves, and by the 21st century standards of Twitter, these are innocent comments – but against the careful and balanced account that usually precedes them, these nuggets of withdrawn ridicule are explosive. About Herbert Marcuse and his Frankfurt School of cultural pessimists he says “a rather farfetched utopia,” before delivering the ultimate ridicule: “a kind of socialist Nintendo arcade.” Another is against Sartre and his reading of the Paris student protests of 1968:
“The crisis dissipated and the riots ended. The Renault workers called off their strike, the students returned to their classes, and the old ‘doomed’ society again proved its resilience, carrying on as before.”
“In their haste to abandon the West, Sartre and his disciples soon discovered that there was nowhere else to go.” It isn’t, Herman says sardonically about the much-celebrated indigenous societies that the sinful West supplanted, “that the Iroquois or Uruburu cannot build airports or nuclear reactors but that, at a deep level, they have chosen not to do so.”
Occasionally, even our tolerant and diligent guide loses patience with the nutjobs of our intellectual past: “Race history,” he writes, commenting on Francis Parker Yockey or Alfred Rosenberg, “has always rejected empirical research in exchange for a mythic vision. The world of verifiable facts becomes unimportant because a deeper vital truth lies underneath.”
From this great book I take away that pessimism and declinist convictions aren’t a left-right divide – indeed, the leftist intellectuals gladly unite in their conclusions with the rightist intellectuals, confidently proclaiming our societies’ doom unless their favored agenda is enacted.
Western societies’ dividing line doesn’t go between left and right, black and white, or rich and poor, but between those who think demise is around the corner and those seeing humanist progress overcoming its obstacles. “Humanism,” ends Herman, “assumes that since people generate conflicts and problems in society, they can also resolve them, and it concentrates on supplying people with the material, moral, and cultural tools to do so.”
Judging by the many failed prophets of the past, neither are we this time doomed, from climate change or corporate takeovers or from cultural values and demographics deteriorating. That’s an explosively optimistic notion in a world otherwise flirting with madness.