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From Plato to Nato by David Gress

From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents
by David Gress
Free Press. 610 pages. $25.00

For years now, we have been told by fashionable professors that ours is a postmodern age, an era in which every timeless “truth” has been proved relative and there is no longer any overarching meaning to be found in the record of human experience. But meanwhile, as if to flout the strictures of academic chic, the past few years have also seen an astonishing efflorescence of the now supposedly outlawed genre of “metanarratives,” grand interpretations of the historical past. Writers as different as Thomas Sowell, David Landes, Paul Kennedy, Francis Fukuyama, Daniel Yergin, Norman Davies, Samuel Huntington, and Paul Johnson have given us big, influential works of wide scope and speculative ambition. Now the Danish-American historian David Gress has entered the lists with a metanarrative of his own—albeit one distinguished by its own distrust of metanarratives.

The title of Gress’s book is meant to be taken with a grain of salt. By hitching together such disparate phenomena as Plato and NATO, he does not mean to poke fun at the idea of the West. Least of all does he wish to suggest any sympathy with postmodernists or other like-minded critics who are all too ready to denounce classical Greek philosophy and American cold-war policies in the same breath. What Gress really objects to is something else altogether: the way the West is usually defended by its most ardent partisans.

Not only, Gress argues, is it inaccurate to draw a simple line connecting the golden age of ancient Greece with our own liberal democracies, with stops along the way for such “magic moments” as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It is also selfdefeating. As he sees it, only a more nuanced account, one that emphasizes not the irresistible march of ideas but the accidents and concrete reality of history, can answer the West’s increasingly vocal critics.

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Gress’s bête noire is what he calls “the Grand Narrative,” the heroic and inspiring story of the West’s development as told in books like Will and Ariel Durant’s multivolume middlebrow classic, The Story of Civilization. In this conception, which had its heyday during the first half of the 20th century, Western civilization has been a chugging engine of progressivism, always ascending in the direction of greater freedom, equality, and individual rights. From Pericles to Leonardo da Vinci to Diderot, Jefferson, and FDR, the West has been presented as a tightly scripted drama in which rational and enlightened notions about the dignity of man gradually triumph over the dark clouds of superstition and the dead hand of authority.

Despite its usefulness as a tool of highbrow propaganda, such a story, says Gress, is very misleading. For one thing, by exalting the modern values of secularism, individualism, and science, it gives short shrift to the West’s distinctive religious faiths and institutions. Devotion to God, when mentioned at all, is cast as a transitional stage in the process of human maturation. But more importantly, by relying so heavily on the power of ideas, the Grand Narrative credits the West with far too much purity and idealism, thus leaving it open, when its practice fails to live up to its preaching, to the charges of arrogance and hypocrisy leveled by its radical detractors.

For the fate that has befallen it, the Grand Narrative itself, Gress maintains, is largely to blame. He has no patience with the many writers whose fairy-tale accounts of U.S. history celebrate our egalitarian principles while glossing over slavery, the decimation of the Indians, economic inequality, and other unsavory elements of our national past. Of course, he hastens to add, those who harp on the West’s failings are hardly any less guilty of moralism and historical ignorance; far from it. But what both sides fail equally to see is that Western political and social freedom have arisen not through the sheer force of ideas but out of the crucible of real-world struggles in specific places at specific times.

What were those struggles? In Gress’s revisionist account, the periods of particular importance are late antiquity and the Middle Ages. In these eras, which the Grand Narrative invariably presents as benighted counterpoints to the brilliance of ancient Greece, the classical legacy was fatefully reshaped by such wildly disparate forces as the late Roman empire, the medieval Church, and the freedom-loving Germanic tribes that eventually came to rule Europe. Gress uses the term “the Old West” to describe the peculiar premodern synthesis that emerged. Institutions we now regard as quintessentially Western—property rights and constitutional government, for example—grew out of the collision over centuries between empire-building rulers like Charlemagne and Charles V and the equally self-interested princes and churchmen who resisted their designs. But all this was in many respects a happy accident of history; it did not have to happen that way.

In Gress’s judgment, a proper awareness of the contingent nature of our most cherished institutions, as well as of how much we owe to past historical experience, is not only sound analytic method but is itself a precious Western inheritance. That is no doubt why, in turning to more recent times, he finds intellectual allies among the members of the “skeptical” Enlightenment: figures like Hume, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and the American founders, whose thought forms a strong contrast to the “radical” Enlightenment represented by Voltaire and Diderot. Though, like their French counterparts, the “skeptical” Enlighteners extolled the power of reason and firmly rejected the clericalism and imposed religious orthodoxy that were one legacy of the Old West, they also recognized the limits of human intellect and will. As a result, they were respectful of tradition, and appreciative of the degree to which the liberty they prized was dependent upon the customs and institutions of the past. Innovation, they taught, had to be balanced by inheritance.

This same sensibility, according to Gress, remains the best response to those who are forever ready to find fault with the shortcomings of the West. If the Grand Narrative created expectations that could not be met, a deeper understanding of the messy dialectic by which the West actually came into existence can teach both respect and vigilance. Against the often grim backdrop of history, Gress contends, the freedom and prosperity we enjoy in the West must be seen for what they are—a matchless but far from predetermined achievement.

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In telling his epic tale, Gress covers a truly impressive amount of historical ground, from the Bible and the Song of Roland to contemporary debates over global warming and economic growth. His interpretations are almost always highly intelligent, and are offered with an intellectual panache that few academic historians now permit themselves. At the same time, however, From Plato to NATO is a sprawling and rather convoluted book. Gress devotes far too much space to rehearsing academic debates and counterpunching against other historians, and thus fails to tell his story as directly and concretely as one would wish.

A more serious problem is that the Grand Narrative against which Gress argues so energetically is something of a straw man. Like other contemporary historians—like, in fact, the more radical critics of the West—Gress exaggerates the degree to which scholars earlier in this century were uncritical celebrants of the Western tradition. Certainly, to give one example, the outstanding books about America produced in that period by such writers as Henry Nash Smith, Perry Miller, Richard Hofstadter, and Louis Hartz show a keen awareness of the antinomies and tragic imperfections of American life. Theirs was hardly a fairy-tale version of the nation’s past.

Finally, one is left to wonder why an author who seeks to recast our view of the West should be so relentlessly and severely critical of the independent power of ideas, and of their ability to function as historical causes in their own right. Is not the vision of the West that Gress sets forth itself an idea? Does not this book illustrate, more powerfully than anything Gress himself says, the belief that ideas matter historically? And if they matter today, why not in the past as well?

What is perhaps most regrettable about Gress’s strange hostility to ideas is that it detracts from his valuable recommendation that the West’s defenders turn their attention to history. This need is especially urgent, he rightly recognizes, with respect to the West’s religious traditions, which our liberal elites—partisans of the Grand Narrative or not—continue to treat as a nagging atavism or a juvenile way station along the path to enlightened adulthood.

Though Gress’s treatment of religion is far from perfect—most notably, the Jews are present in his account only as a wholly owned subsidiary of Christianity or as the hapless objects of anti-Semitism—he well understands the key role that communities of faith have played in establishing the boundaries of Western liberty. As he convincingly shows, militant secularism is at best an unsteady friend of rights or order. At its most extreme, in the French and Russian Revolutions, it has led to atrocities. In our own day, it has cleared the way for moral pathologies too numerous to name, and has brought the power of the state into realms that are previously considered private sanctuaries.

For reminding us so forcefully of these and other crucial historical lessons, David Gress deserves considerable credit. Whatever its flaws, his rich and suggestive book has much to contribute to today’s often woefully ill-informed debates over the past and future of Western civilization.

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About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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