Discussion on Herman’s – ‘The Idea of Decline in Western History’

Book Review:  Wendel Krossa

The area of research- progress and decline studies- is quite fascinating as it gets to the heart of today’s great struggle for consciousness and its fundamental orientation and what this means to all life.

You have the few establishing a new tradition of progress studies- Julian Simon (Ultimate Resource, Its Getting Better All The Time), Greg Easterbrook (A Moment On the Earth), Indur Goklany (The Improving State of the World), Bjorn Lomberg (The Sceptical Environmentalist), and Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist). These researchers look at the long term trends of life on our planet which all show improvement. But they are Davids standing against the Goliaths of modern pessimism. And mainstream media don’t find much of ratings spurs in progress research. Doom and gloom get more attention.

So for anyone wanting to join the great battle of our age, get on board the progress train heading for the front.

Arthur Herman’s book The Idea of Decline in Western History is essential to understanding the dominant  narrative of pessimism today. It is detailed, thorough, and full of fascinating stories of the leading actors in the pessimist narrative. In his third chapter he treats Burckhardt and Nietzsche. The decline themes continue through all these actors. Spiritual vitality  has been lost in the change to modernity and progressive civilization with its urban industry and easier lifestyle. Dissolution is evident. Impending collapse. The creative and ordered past is fading. Pessimism turns to fatalism and the only option is resignation and withdrawal says Herman. The destruction and passing of the old is witnessed with fear and regret. Vital elites are no longer able to maintain the order of the past as mass citizen democracy permits the many to change things just because they wish it. This brings mediocrity in the eyes of the elite pessimist.

Nietzsche brings his own dark nihilism to this ongoing pessimist narrative. Capitalism creates new miseries and exploitation. Hurry and worry spoil life. Money becomes the measure of all things. Readers can hear modern complaints in this 19th century doom and gloom. Elites are forced to compromise with the rabble.

Nietzsche enters an association with the German composer Wagner who shares this fallen and declining  humanity myth.

Others like Schopenhauer with his escapist Eastern ideas (life is suffering- we must abandon, renounce and escape it and its drives for money, love, and power). They all recoil at the contemptible money economy, capitalism. Modern Europe has lost its vital greatness. A new elite must step forward and turn away from the prevailing materialistic civilization. Mass democracy and capitalism are precipitating a breakdown of civilization.

In Nietzsche’s view man has lost the will to power. The Aryans were alive and complete humans because they possessed the will to power, to conquer. Modern man has lost this vitality and now experiences an ebbing away, a decadence. But the imminent collapse is cause for rejoicing as an rejuvenated new order can be brought in (Salvationism). Others rejected Nietzsche’s thought as tending toward despotism.

It is at this time that the theory of degeneration is introduced by the Italian doctor Cesare Lombroso. His examination of a criminal corpse leads to the evaluation of people based on physical features. This leads directly to eugenics. The population of Europe is seen as degenerating physically due to cross breeding between Aryans and less vital human types. Degeneration is defined as the morbid deviation from an original type. A new sub species emerges, less vital than its forbears. The eugenicists took their impetus from degeneration theory. New barbarians are emerging.

Darwin had introduced a new view of ongoing progressive development to higher biological species. A process of continuous improvement. But this was countered with the theory of atavism, that every organism has lost characteristics that would reappear under certain conditions and then passed on to offspring. This became the foundation stone of degeneration theory. This was used to explain criminal behaviour and racial characteristics. Degeneration was employed to explain the emerging industrial society. A rising stain of morbidity in the modern urban industrial civilization (it was argued that crime was worse in the urban industrial world).

I am skipping huge sections to pull out comments here and there to try and give some sense of Herman’s research and flow of thought. You can see so much of ancient mythology here (Fall of man, subsequent decline). And this interesting thing of the human resentment of change to something new. Many of these thinkers were elitists who mourned the loss of elite powerholding structures in the face of rising democratic rights.

As Herman says, “A key factor in this postliberal persuasion was precisely the fear of degeneration. The assumption that modern civilization is psychologically debilitating became a standard axiom of the social sciences and social psychology…the only way to avert a crisis was by turning to solutions that would replace laissez-faire liberalism”. Hence the warning to Nietzsche from a colleague that  his ideas tended toward totalitarianism (socialism). Eugenics then found strong support among radicals and socialists (George Shaw, H. G. Wells). Only the state could organize and take the coercive steps necessary for a serious eugenics program (an anti-degeneration program).

Into this mess of thought and action emerges Ernst Haeckel the father of the environmental movement (see Alston Chase’s In A Dark Wood). He presents his theory of monism, that man is not in God’s image but is just another species in nature. Opponents accused Haeckel’s eugenics solutions as pointing the way to socialist dictatorship. He became the chair of the Society for Racial Hygiene. This spread across Germany with many agreeing some form of state socialism was needed to promote eugenics and controlled selection in order to preserve the German race. “the fear of degeneration, and appeals for collective state solutions, could drive progressive practitioners into the arms of those willing to marshal the forces of the state to save civilization, regardless of the cost”.

All of this then found its way into Freud’s theories. Freud also held to a Fall of man, a fatal flaw in civilization at its origin.

And then on to America and the new hope there.

Lots of food for thought in this detailed history- the recurrence of ancient mythological themes, of Fall and ongoing decline toward looming disaster and ending, of the evils of progress and material abundance, of the need to return to a simpler lower consumption lifestyle for salvation, of the need for strong leadership to coercively return degenerating humanity to its more pure past (coercive historical intervention to save as in the Christian view), and so on.