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Books: Doom, gloom, hope

Books | There's a good reason intellectuals are always so depressed

Issue: "Army's new MP's?," May 31, 1997

Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have bad consequences. If ever there were any doubts, these provocative new books would quickly dispel them.

Arthur Herman is a professor at George Mason University and the coordinator of the Western Civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution. Disturbed by the pervading sense of pessimism in American academia, he began to explore the roots of our current cultural self-immolation. The Idea of Decline in Western History is the result of that study.

Surveying the pessimistic assault on the virtues of Christendom evident in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, W.E.B. DuBois, Oswald Spengler, Herbert Marcuse, Michael Foucault, Paul Erlich, and Noam Chomsky, the book ranges across the entire landscape of modern thought.

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It is not a pretty sight. From the Fabians to the postmodernists, from the Freudians to the multiculturalists, and from the romantics to the environmentalists, the intellectual elite have been a somber bunch able to agree on only one essential premise: antipathy toward principled reason, bourgeois liberalism, determined progress, and most especially Christian ethics.

According to Mr. Herman, this suicidal impulse is at the heart of our culture's gravest crisis since Attila swept across Pannonia. While more than a little alarming, this well-written and carefully documented volume is a brilliant analysis of what has gone wrong among the best and the brightest in our day-and why.

While Mr. Herman wrestles with the effect the prophets of doom and gloom have had on our culture, David Hall explores the message of a number of prophets of hope. In The Arrogance of the Modern he asserts that while the enemies of Western Civilization have dominated public discourse over the last two hundred years, they have not leveled their assaults unopposed.

He profiles the substantive work of such champions of Christendom as R.L Dabney, Groen Van Prinsterer, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Eric Voegelin, and Michael Oakeshott. But rather than merely examine the countervailing assumptions of these great thinkers, poets, and reformers, Mr. Hall goes a step further by showing how their example may be followed in resisting the insidious irrationality of today.

Mr. Hall is a prolific pastor and writer who has a real knack for smelling out the lessons of the past for the present. Where Mr. Herman has precisely pinpointed the problem, Mr. Hall has vividly illustrated the solution. In a world filled to overflowing with bad ideas, such succor comes none too soon.

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