Volume 9, Issue 4: Ex Libris
The Idea of Decline in Western History
Arthur Herman ; New York, NY: Free Press, 1997
Reviewed by Douglas Wilson
The history of philosophy for the last two centuries can be described largely as a parade of scamps and twerps, with Nietzsche serving in the crucial role of drum major. The impact of that man has been profoundand the names of the usual Hitlerian suspects, of course, come to mind. But the alert Christian reader will begin wondering whether the ghost of this eloquent philosopher is not wandering the halls of Dallas Theological Seminary.
When someone asks whether or not this old world will improve over time, fall apart over time, or pretty much stay the same, they have not only exhausted the logical options. They have asked a question, the answer to which will be determined by the paradigm of the asker. The principal value of Herman's work is that he demonstrates that the idea of decline is in fact an idea; it is a school of thought. Not only is it a school of thought, but it has achieved near universal acceptancemaking it kind of hard to see.
When modern Christians consider the postmillenialism of a previous era, it is not difficult for them to see that historical optimism as an idea, influenced perhaps by other ideas. In other words, certain Enlightenment notions about the perfectibility of man, scientism's assumptions about evolution, were all supposed to have influenced Christians into a cheery rejection of the Bible's prophecies of thunder, lightening, and blue ruin at the end of the world, which, as the prophecy buffs would have it, was just around the corner. Clearly, historical optimism was an erroneous idea, as opposed to our current historical pessimism which is . . . well, reality.
This book is not about eschatology at all. But it is a wonderful book for the reader who wants to study the philosophical and sociological underpinnings of various eschatologies-both secular and Christian. This book would grace the shelf of any postmillennialist and must grace the shelf of any postmillennialist with teaching responsibilities within the Church. In many cases, an exegesis of Matthew 24, for example, convinces no one because the exegete has not taken into account the powerful presuppositions which makes people think pessimistically the way they do.
Herman makes a number of interesting connections. For example, the theory of evolution provided some with a simplistic justification for the idea of progress and improvement. But Herman shows how evolutionary theory actually had the opposite impactfears of atavism, or evolutionary regressionswere commonplace. The idea of evolution was one of the central forces in getting us to think gloomily about the future.
Another key factor in the idea of decline is that of various racial theoriesblack scholars like DuBois or loons like Farrakan appeal to very attractive racial mythologies. Certain preconditions, which make it possible to make such appeals, came from somewhere. In the fever swamps of the white Right, we find the same kind of appeals and the same kind of pessimismwhich amounts to fears of mongrelization. This intermixing must be stopped, and stopped now, the reasoning goes. A strength of this book is the ability Herman has to show that men in the grip of this kind of pessimism are willing to insist on drastic solutions"time is wasting, no time for debate, if we don't act now, we're sunk"and this makes for tyranny. Thus the negative view of the future is commonly a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Near the end of this survey of the doom and gloom, Herman correctly identifies the rabid greens as the latest unhappy regiment in this parade of saviors, who want to help deliver us from ourselves. To return to the picture of the parade, Al Gore, the Sierra Club, the Unabomber, and Greenpeace are all just Shriners on motorcycles, bringing up the rear of this most miserable stream of unhappy doomsayers.
But things are actually a lot better than they used to be, and we need to fix it in our minds. The exegetical case for postmillennialism comes first, of course. But this book may be used to clear away some fog which may be preventing some from even seeing the exegetical case.
Herman writes engagingly, and for the thoughtful reader, it is full of mindbenders. The reader will be able to put the book down and say, "You know, this explains a lot."
Joseph Sobran; New York, NY: Free Press, 1997
Reviewed by Douglas Wilson
I have long respected Sobran as a political writer and was a little surprised to see him come up with something like this. The "this" in question is the thesis of Alias Shakespeare, which is that William Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the plays attributed to him, but rather provided a "cover" for an aristocratic nobleman, the Earl of Oxford, one Edward deVere.
I had read a review of the book by a friend of Sobran's, Tom Bethell, in the American Spectator. Bethell gave the book high marks, so I thought I should get a copy of it. I then read a review of the book in The Weekly Standard by a gentleman who dismissed it as Sobran's "silliness." Thus prepared, I thought I was in for a fun ride of some sort, and set myself to read the book. The long and short of it is that the book is simply outstanding.
Those who wish to dispute the thesis may do so with honor, but not if they just huff and puff while gesticulating wildly in the name of the reigning establishment orthodoxies. The thesis is controversial, but Sobran argues for it with wit, grace, style, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Shakespearean canon. Those who have disputed the traditional ascription of authorship have frequently discredited their case by means of certain, um, eccentricitiesone might say their cheese had slipped off their cracker. But Sobran does not fit in this category at all, and those who would debate him will have to do far more than try to place him there. They will have to produce some answers to the questions raised here, and it is difficult to see how that could be done.
Consider. The only evidence we have that William of Stratford went to school at all is that there was a school in Stratford that he could have gone to. Edward de Vere was thoroughly educated, and had an intimate membership in the literary circles of Elizabethan London. When William of Stratford died, no one from the literati came down from London, and there is no record that he left any books or other literary remains behind. Edward deVere knew Italy like his own home, and there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever went there. The author of the plays was well-acquainted with Italy. Sobran contrasts the writing and poetry of Oxford's with the writing we have received as Shakespeare's. They compare well, in stark contrast to the writing we have of William of Stratford. There is some doubt whether William of Stratford was even literate. And in what turned out to be a great boon for me, the enigma of the sonnets is wonderfully solved on the supposition of Oxfordian authorship. These suggestions mentioned here are just a small fraction of the case presented in this fine book.
The most imposing difficulty with Sobran's thesis, and which he deals with very effectively, is the traditional dating of the plays. Oxford was considerably older than Shakspeare, and a problem would certainly develop with the thesis if it were shown that William of Stratford was still writing and publishing plays after Oxford was dead. But Sobran meets this objection head-on, and dispenses with it well.
If the reader has any interest at all in the works of Shakespeare, this is a book that will clear the sinuses.
My Lady Nicotine: A Study in Smoke
J.M. Barrie; Moscow, ID: Thornbush Anthologies
Reviewed by Douglas Wilson
A friend of mine has done the Republic a great service by getting this book back into print. It was originally written as a series of newspaper articles by the future author of the now famous Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie.
The book serves three valuable services. First, the book is wonderfully written and is hilarious. The theme that ties all the little vignettes together is that of tobacco, particularly a blend of tobacco which the devotees call the Arcadian. But the role of that noble leaf is sometimes prominent and sometimes subdued in the stories. The range of stories includes the writer's failure to water a friend's chrysanthemum, another friend's reception of lousy cigars as a gift from a beloved wife, the pufferies of a male coxcomb who believes the ladies are waiting to melt in his presence"They have met us, and the mischief is done."and the cocky letters from a nephew on the subject of Christmas gifts. Quite apart from the subject matter, this book is a pleasure and delight.
Second, Barrie is very aware that women frequently regard the smoking male as a walking smudge pot that mistakenly wandered out of that peach orchard it was supposed to be protecting from frost. Many of the stories involve that very complex relationship between men, women, and tobacco. The same three players are involved today, with the differences being that the female hand is a lot stronger today, and the male is much more discourteous than in the chivalrous days of yore. What used to be a delicate interplay of manners in Barrie's day has become a litigator's paradise today. It is unlikely that very many women ever liked it when their men stank (tech proofers! stank? stunk? stinked?) up the place, but this book provides a humorous look at a day when gentlemen and ladies scuffled through their differences without recourse to federal agencies.
Which leads to the third point. Everyone who loves liberty should be concerned about the prohibitionist wowsers who are currently dominating our public discourse on the general topic of nicotine, tar, and tobacco. You can strike a blow for freedom by ordering this book (at 888-814-BOOK), placing its attractive hardcovered contents on your coffee table, and waiting for the comments to start rolling in. "My Lady Nicotine?" Eyebrows waggle ceilingward. Censorious pursing of the lips. Rumors in the neighborhood start flying. SWAT teams gathering on the lawn. Janet Reno takes full responsibility.
This book is a great conversation starter. Even if you are a nonsmoker like myself, you should prefer to breathe free than freely.
A Theological Interpretation of American History
C. Gregg Singer; Greenville, SC: A Press  1995
Reviewed by Greg Dickison
Reading history from secondary sources is a risky business. Ideas have consequences, and if the historians' ideas are anything but Christ-centered, the consequences will show up in historical interpretation. We see the results in the humanistic explanations for history taught in the government schools, which ignore or mythologize important historical facts, or even create wholesale historical events. Gregg Singer's excellent book provides an antidote and a preventative to this epidemic in two important ways. He describes a sound historiography based on theological absolutes, and he demonstrates this historiography by applying it to the American past.
Singer begins by making the point that "[H]istorical scholarship, if it remains true to its purpose, is characterized not only by the necessity of finding the facts of history, but also of achieving a correct interpretation of all the data which it has in its possession." His thesis is simple and biblical: "Only in the light of the Christian revelation can American history be brought into a proper perspective; that the intellectual, political, social and economic trends of the past and the present can be rightly interpreted only in the light of the scriptural norm." His purpose in the book is to provide that perspective.
Singer is careful not to completely dismiss any of the other schools of historical thought, which he describes in the introduction. But he does argue that the historical analyses provided by these schools are incomplete and even misleading to the extent that they refuse to consider or acknowledge biblical revelation. The importance of factors such as economics or environment in shaping historical events can only be truly assessed in the context of the prevailing theological dogma.
This is particularly true in American history, Singer's proving ground for his thesis, given the uniquely Christian character of this country's origins. Singer begins with the Puritans, describing their Calvinistic theology which would prove the highpoint of American theology and the benchmark for everything that came after. In tracing the decline through deism, unitarianism, transcendentalism, Social Darwinism, modernism, and so on, Singer describes how these successive doctrines borrowed from their predecessors and grew out of the failures that went before, taking advantage of the circumstances and events in which they prospered. Singer's historical analysis clearly traces the gradual shift from the Calvinism of the Puritans, which stressed the sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and the necessity of individual salvation, to the consciously anti-Calvinistic liberal theology, which stressed the sovereignty of man, his inherent goodness, and his ability to save not only himself but society as a whole by entirely humanistic means. Theology became more democratic, and both church and civil government followed suit. The result was a corresponding move away from a constitutional government held within strict biblical bounds to a government which was omnipotent, omnicompetent, and, indeed, messianic.
Reformation took on a primarily civil connotation, and the historical reformation of the church came to be regarded as an unfortunate low-point in history, in which Calvinism came to unwarranted prominence. While the church fell away from its reformational history, no aspect of civil or individual behavior was considered beyond the scope or competence of social reformers. The gospel itself ceased to have anything to do with individual salvation, and was instead expressed primarily in terms of the socialism of American life. Men need not be redeemed by Christ; mankind only need be redeemed by men.
Singer also argues at length, quite successfully, that the anti-Christian worldview is ultimately self-defeating. Since each individual is understood to be basically good and capable of perfecting himself, the civil government becomes increasingly democratic on the one hand, while at the same time individual liberty is undermined as more power is given to the federal government to accomplish democratic (really socialist) reforms. Singer demonstrates the prevalence of this paradox in liberal theology and politics, and the fact that it never seems to occur to liberals that the problem exists.
Singer's analysis contains both lessons and warnings for modern evangelicals: lessons, in that coming to understand how the church and civil government came to their present condition will help us to intelligently resist further decay and to circumspectly address the current problem; warnings, in that we must be careful not to analyze history in a relative way, wanting only to return to the "good old days" without knowing whether we have merely moved our camp farther up the slippery slope.
As a history text, this book is technically well presented. Singer writes in a very sober and scholarly yet lucid manner. He avoids the partisan and apologetical spirit present in many modern Christian histories, as well as the tendency of secondary authors to paint in broad brush strokes. The causes of events are as numerous as the people and groups behind them, and it is tempting to characterize an event based on one or two factors. Singer recognizes and anticipates the problem and is very careful to point out that emphasizing one factor (the theological climate) does not negate the interplay of other factors (for example, the economic climate). The text is full of statements such as "on the other hand," and "this point should not be taken too far." He is always careful to point out the exceptions. This is not to say that Singer displays the tepid pseudo-virtue of balance, but he is most certainly fair. He teaches us to approach history carefully.
While better students of history than I may disagree with parts of Singer's analysis, it cannot be denied that his premise is correct. For this reason, Singer's book stands out as a classic text of American history and biblical historiography. No student or teacher of history, American or otherwise, should leave this book unread.