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An in-depth intellectual history of the Western idea and a passionate defense of its importance to America's future, From Plato to NATO is the first book to make sense of the legacy of the West at a time when it is facing its greatest challenges. Readers of Francis Fukuyama, John Gray, Samuel Huntington, and other analysts of the dilemmas of Western nations in the twenty-f An in-depth intellectual history of the Western idea and a passionate defense of its importance to America's future, From Plato to NATO is the first book to make sense of the legacy of the West at a time when it is facing its greatest challenges. Readers of Francis Fukuyama, John Gray, Samuel Huntington, and other analysts of the dilemmas of Western nations in the twenty-first century will find in David Gress's original account a fuller description of what the West really is and how, with the best of intentions, it has been misrepresented. Most important, they will encounter a new vision of Western identity and how it can be recovered. Early in the twentieth century, American educators put together a story of Western civilization, its origins, history, and promise that for the subsequent fifty years remained at the heart of American college education. The story they told was of a Western civilization that began with the Greeks and continued through 2,500 years of great books and great ideas, culminating in twentieth-century progressive liberal democracy, science, and capitalist prosperity. In the 1960s, this Grand Narrative of the West came under attack. Over the next thirty years, the critics turned this old story into its opposite: a series of anti-narratives about the evils, the failures, and the betrayals of justice that, so they said, constituted Western history. The victory of Western values at the end of the cold war, the spread of democracy and capitalism, and the worldwide impact of American popular culture have not revived the Grand Narrative in the European and American heartlands of the West. David Gress explains this paradox, arguing that the Grand Narrative of the West was flawed from the beginning: that the West did not begin in Greece and that, in morality and religion, the Greeks were an alien civilization whose contribution was mediated through Rome and Christianity. Furthermore, in assuming a continuity from the Greeks to modern liberalism, we have mistakenly downplayed or rejected everything in between, focusing on the great ideas and the great books rather than on real history with all its ambiguities, conflicts, and contradictions. The heart of Gress's case for the future of the West is that the New must remember its roots in the Old and seek a synthesis. For as the attacks have demonstrated, the New West cannot stand alone. Its very virtues -- liberty, reason, progress -- grew out of the Old West and cannot flourish when removed from that rich soil.


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An in-depth intellectual history of the Western idea and a passionate defense of its importance to America's future, From Plato to NATO is the first book to make sense of the legacy of the West at a time when it is facing its greatest challenges. Readers of Francis Fukuyama, John Gray, Samuel Huntington, and other analysts of the dilemmas of Western nations in the twenty-f An in-depth intellectual history of the Western idea and a passionate defense of its importance to America's future, From Plato to NATO is the first book to make sense of the legacy of the West at a time when it is facing its greatest challenges. Readers of Francis Fukuyama, John Gray, Samuel Huntington, and other analysts of the dilemmas of Western nations in the twenty-first century will find in David Gress's original account a fuller description of what the West really is and how, with the best of intentions, it has been misrepresented. Most important, they will encounter a new vision of Western identity and how it can be recovered. Early in the twentieth century, American educators put together a story of Western civilization, its origins, history, and promise that for the subsequent fifty years remained at the heart of American college education. The story they told was of a Western civilization that began with the Greeks and continued through 2,500 years of great books and great ideas, culminating in twentieth-century progressive liberal democracy, science, and capitalist prosperity. In the 1960s, this Grand Narrative of the West came under attack. Over the next thirty years, the critics turned this old story into its opposite: a series of anti-narratives about the evils, the failures, and the betrayals of justice that, so they said, constituted Western history. The victory of Western values at the end of the cold war, the spread of democracy and capitalism, and the worldwide impact of American popular culture have not revived the Grand Narrative in the European and American heartlands of the West. David Gress explains this paradox, arguing that the Grand Narrative of the West was flawed from the beginning: that the West did not begin in Greece and that, in morality and religion, the Greeks were an alien civilization whose contribution was mediated through Rome and Christianity. Furthermore, in assuming a continuity from the Greeks to modern liberalism, we have mistakenly downplayed or rejected everything in between, focusing on the great ideas and the great books rather than on real history with all its ambiguities, conflicts, and contradictions. The heart of Gress's case for the future of the West is that the New must remember its roots in the Old and seek a synthesis. For as the attacks have demonstrated, the New West cannot stand alone. Its very virtues -- liberty, reason, progress -- grew out of the Old West and cannot flourish when removed from that rich soil.

30 review for From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents

  1. 4 out of 5

    Charles Haywood

    This is a ferociously erudite book. The author, David Gress, offers an analysis and synthesis of essentially all thought on the idea of the West, from the Greeks to the postmodernists, in a book that seems to contain more than its actual six hundred pages of small print. The amount of thought he presents is astounding. My habit is to write down interesting-sounding books to which an author refers, then buy them. I probably bought thirty books, maybe more, as a result of reading "From Plato to NA This is a ferociously erudite book. The author, David Gress, offers an analysis and synthesis of essentially all thought on the idea of the West, from the Greeks to the postmodernists, in a book that seems to contain more than its actual six hundred pages of small print. The amount of thought he presents is astounding. My habit is to write down interesting-sounding books to which an author refers, then buy them. I probably bought thirty books, maybe more, as a result of reading "From Plato to NATO." Every portion of this book was interesting—but still, paradoxically, it left me unable to write the type of review I typically write. I think that is because this book is primarily historiography—that is, a history of history. In many ways, it is more useful as summary of innumerable thinkers than for its own thought (many of those thinkers are translated here by Gress, not being available in English-—I didn’t buy those books!). That is to say, this extremely dense book is primarily a longitudinal history of happenings and ideas, seen mostly through the lens of the key authors of each era. This doesn’t make it not worth reading. It does make my writing a lengthy review pointless, since I cannot add anything, really, or synthesize Gress’s thought in any way that does not infantilize it. In fact, I wasn’t going to review it at all, but I took some notes, and one thing led to another, so now I have a review! The author’s central plea is that the idea of the West not be identified as a straight line from Greece to the modern West, what Gress calls the (false) “Grand Narrative.” Instead, it should be viewed as a synthesis of Greek and Roman thought, with political institutions and habits later borrowed in part from Germanic tribes, all as modified first by Christianity and then by the Enlightenment, and all messy and tracing far from a straight line. So, for example, Charlemagne plays as big a role as Socrates or David Hume, and the Song of Roland, along with many other cultural touchstones, gets much discussion. The general outlines of this analysis are not new, though it is not fashionable, and despite his detailed discussion of scores of thinkers and historians, Gress does not precisely follow any of them. If you want to grasp the basics of all these lines of thought, here is the place to start, but I will not try to summarize. Still, I certainly know a lot more about a lot of things than when I started reading this book. My sole original thought is that Gress, who published this book in 1998, anticipated the modern moment by a good twenty years. He saw the West veering off the straight path, and to analyze that, he talks about modern thought opposed to the all aspects of the West, from postmodernism to radical environmentalism, but looks earlier as well, to talk about both the Enlightenment and its earlier critics. As to the Enlightenment, Gress identifies the modern West (i.e., the successful West, before the decay of the past fifty years) with only a portion of Enlightenment thought. Gress attempts to claim for the West the “skeptical” or “rational” Enlightenment of Adam Smith and Montesquieu, whose thought recognized the limits of human nature and eschewed utopia, and to reject as mostly an outrider the “radical” Enlightenment of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. In a common trope, the American Revolution yes, the French Revolution no. As the Enlightenment project grinds to a shuddering halt in the early twenty-first century, throwing off sparks and chewed gears, Gress seems to have anticipated this and made a pitch that the Enlightenment not be wholly rejected. Really, this book is an extended appeal to not throw the baby out with the bath water. I am not sure if this attempt to rescue Enlightenment thought makes sense, or if what Gress calls the rational Enlightenment is really the Enlightenment at all, since rationality and the Scientific Revolution far pre-dated the Enlightenment. More likely most of the truly original political ideas of the Enlightenment should just be thrown out as flawed from the beginning, and any fresh insights the Enlightenment offers into more traditional political systems kept, along with any new economic or scientific ideas (though none of those derived from the Enlightenment itself, even though they are commonly lumped in by Enlightenment apologists). As to the non-Left critics of liberalism, who have proceeded in parallel with liberalism since it began in the eighteenth century, Gress has a great deal to say. One of the thinkers Gress studies is the obscure Giacomo Leopardi, who died in 1837, and whom Gress treats along with Alexis de Tocqueville, Søren Kirkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. “[T]hey were pessimists because they understood on the one hand that liberalism was the destiny of the West, and on the other that this set of doctrines was unable and unwilling, by its very nature, to restore the sense of self, of continuity, of belonging, and of tranquility that they considered essential to any civilization with a pretense to last.” If it appeared in 1830 that liberalism was the destiny of the West, that mirage is fading fast. However, that is not my point here, it is rather the narrow one that Gress’s book, in this context, has a paragraph that I think encapsulates everything there is to say about the attitude that made the West great, the attitude we have lost in these emasculated and decadent days, where we fall back in confusion. One of my (few) heroes is Hernán Cortes, a man today too often deprecated. I have never fully enunciated why I admire Cortes, other than basically I think that because staying still is moving backward, human flourishing is impossible without the drives that Cortes, that man of contradiction, embodied. Gress spills a lot of ink talking about Leopardi, and it is worth quoting a paragraph, along with his embedded quotes from Leopardi: A society that was becoming liberal and capitalist without that Old Western ballast was a society of timid, bourgeois cynics, incapable of great passion or of great joy. As [Leopardi] wrote, “this century presumes to re-do all skills and institutions, because it actually does not know how to do anything.” Happiness, he believed, could only come from the sense of achievement, of having created something, overcome real challenges. In the age of faith, of Christendom, religion posed both the absolute challenge—of following Christ—and the absolute reward. Living under judgment, men conceived life as an adventure, and their vivid imaginations conceived great tasks—sometimes bloody, cruel, and murderous—and impelled them to surmount great challenges. Hernán Cortes conquered Mexico for God, gold, and glory, and only a mundane imagination would distinguish these impulses, for they were one and the same. In the liberal age, great desires, great efforts, and great risks were banished, but “the man who does not desire for himself and love himself is not good to others.” This, the quest for adventure and achievement informed by, not in contradiction to or attempting to overcome, human nature, is the spirit that animated the expansion and greatness of the West, which is solely responsible, or rather a subset of which is solely responsible, for the good parts of the modern world as it is today. It is a spirit without which the entire globe would be living the same as in the sixteenth century, and having lost that spirit, we are unlikely to find our way through the valley of shadow unless we regain it. We will be left, and are currently left, in the unenviable position of a small child, as in the famous Twilight Zone episode, able to wish any thought into reality, but without the wisdom or even knowledge to choose rightly and to our and others’ benefit. I suspect that this spirit cannot be animated without a combination of Christianity and baser, or at least less Christ-focused, human instincts, which, as in the case of Cortes, sit uncomfortably with each other. Here, still, lies the narrow path, given the inherent limitations of humans. I don’t think Gress spends enough time on this, though. He spends much more time on attacking the “Grand Narrative,” exemplified in the mid-twentieth-century passion for the Great Books. I think he overstates the acceptance of that narrative even in that time, and in any case, the era in which the Great Books, or Will and Ariel Durant, or even Mortimer Adler, had any relevance to society is just as dead as Thucydides. I can assure Gress nobody teaches the Grand Narrative anymore, though the neoconservatives still buy into it, exalting Greek thought and rejecting the Christian and Germanic influences on which Gress focuses. But Gress’s emphasis is perfectly reasonable. Twenty years ago the flaw embedded at the heart of the Enlightenment, its exaltation of autonomic individualism, which must naturally end in the Cthulhu state destroying all unchosen social bonds because of its crazed lust for so-called emancipation, along with the forced suppression of anyone or anything that opposes atomized liberty, was not so obvious, though Gress does cite Cyril Connolly in an epigraph to one chapter, “It is closing time in the gardens of the West.” Truer words were never spoken—but maybe after some pruning and digging, they can be reopened.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Chris Reichman

    This is an excellent book following the attempts of Western Culture to define itself. It is especially concentrated on the period from the rise of Germany on when the prevalence of media allowed people to conciously form or change what the general populace thought of as its national identity. It is especially good in examining how leaders in Germany and America very intentionally structured education and locla literature to form distinctly German and American national identities. The stopping poi This is an excellent book following the attempts of Western Culture to define itself. It is especially concentrated on the period from the rise of Germany on when the prevalence of media allowed people to conciously form or change what the general populace thought of as its national identity. It is especially good in examining how leaders in Germany and America very intentionally structured education and locla literature to form distinctly German and American national identities. The stopping point of the formation of NATO as club of the Western world may be more historically expedient than particularly insightful since the cultural battles over national identity have only intensified since then. This book really illuminates the underpinnings, conscious or not, of the modern debate culture in America and a great deal of modern European politics. It shows that revising history to fit a modern need is by no means a modern trend; that attempting to control language such as PC attempts in America and successes in Europe are modern only in the battle for control and direction of them; and how constantly those in power strive to build their world in a particular image using every means of subtle influence at their command. And it does this with a depth of intelligence, understanding and sympathy that is refreshing for those bored by the media debate crossfire.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Connor

    The idea that the west is inherently democratic and freedom loving is absolute crap. Western civilisation emerged in the 6th century with the Germano-Roman kingdoms of the Merovingian Franks, Angles etc. and for half of western history the western half of the continent has been subject to feudalism etc. Additionally, this book proliferates the idea that greek philosophy is an essential core of western society, whilst greek philosophy was partially forgotten in Western Europe and then re-discover The idea that the west is inherently democratic and freedom loving is absolute crap. Western civilisation emerged in the 6th century with the Germano-Roman kingdoms of the Merovingian Franks, Angles etc. and for half of western history the western half of the continent has been subject to feudalism etc. Additionally, this book proliferates the idea that greek philosophy is an essential core of western society, whilst greek philosophy was partially forgotten in Western Europe and then re-discovered in the times of Averroes. The conception that the west is constituted by democracy and freedom-loving etc. is essentially a post-colonial stance that has ties to orientalism. History shows that Plato is not an essential ingredient in western society but a good addition.

  4. 5 out of 5

    K.

    A bit meandering at points, especially in the second half. The very end falls flat, giving no real practical prescription other than to remember the past more accurately. Nevertheless, the overall thesis of the book, and the vision of the West it puts forward, is accurate.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Fred R

    Don't be put off by the schlocky airport bookstore title; David Gress by and large (although not without a few exceptions) manages to avoid the breezy, information-lite tone predicted by it. It's a book about Western History and Western Historiography, with the goal of correcting our understanding of how the West became the West (the origin of its virtues, etc). His biggest enemy is the comfortable Great Books consensus view, which, in drawing a direct line of descent between Greek Rationalism a Don't be put off by the schlocky airport bookstore title; David Gress by and large (although not without a few exceptions) manages to avoid the breezy, information-lite tone predicted by it. It's a book about Western History and Western Historiography, with the goal of correcting our understanding of how the West became the West (the origin of its virtues, etc). His biggest enemy is the comfortable Great Books consensus view, which, in drawing a direct line of descent between Greek Rationalism and 20th century democracy / science, avoids the positive role played by such things as: the Germanic virtues, the Catholic Church, etc. Even so I find him engaged too much in the kind of boosterism that is more appropriate for the mythologizing he is attacking. A few years ago I would have loved it but now I spend a lot more time trying to overcome my own biases so as to become a Nietzschian Superman, at least in the field of "thinking about history."

  6. 4 out of 5

    ik.ben.henri

    It a book not about history, it's a history about history. It's a meta-history book. Where to begin? This book contains so much information, it's impossible to remember it all from reading it only one time... The amount of things I've learned about the western history from this book is immense. The topics presented in this book are wide; from philosophy, religion, art, capitalism, liberalism, socialism, war, science, literature, imperialism, everything western related... Where to start? With this It a book not about history, it's a history about history. It's a meta-history book. Where to begin? This book contains so much information, it's impossible to remember it all from reading it only one time... The amount of things I've learned about the western history from this book is immense. The topics presented in this book are wide; from philosophy, religion, art, capitalism, liberalism, socialism, war, science, literature, imperialism, everything western related... Where to start? With this book, the author wants to prove a point about the perception that the Western Civilization has of itself and it's opponents. And to make that point, to prove it, he has to make certain the reader knows the history of the western civilization. And that is a big plus for me. I've learned much about history I didn't know, especially since this book places history into different perspectives. To break this down into simple questions: how did the middle ages look back to the classical times? The renaissance? The french revolution? 19th Century romanticism / nihilism? Neo-nazism? How is it all connected to each other? And much more questions are answered here... He takes all those historical facts and analyses it, how it fits into the grand narrative of history as we know it today, but also other narratives such as for example the german cult-of-greece and how their vision shaped our perception of history. It's not about history, it's a history about history. It's a meta-history book. When reading this book I try to stay open, try to absorb the information, interpret it, learn from it. But honestly I don't think I'm smart enough or don't know enough yet, to catch it all. But I'm learning a lot, how the worlds views our western history and what it defines to be a westerner. And that is enough for me. It's more an attempt to understand or follow Western Civilization throughout history attempting to define itself. History is so much more complicated than most extremist politicians, patriotic people or even history teachers try to let us think. Maybe they themselves don't know how narrow their view is. He also discusses the ways the forces in power build their own world image and how they misuse history and misinterpretations to give themselves more power. And that's also what makes this book so contemporary... This debate is still ongoing today, between liberalism, socialism, patriotism. But also people who are religious against those who want to almost eradicate (in my opinion) religion from our history pages. Is the idea of democracy even a western idea? And is cultural liberalism not something typical Christian? Personally this is one of the most intense, dense books I've ever read. The amount of thought written down in this book overwhelms me and I can't possibly imagine the amount of research, work and thought put into this book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Achord

    An ok overview of Western ideals. The author aims to show that the Western narrative of Chicago’s “Great Books” program is not so airtight. One of his main arguments is that much of the old world is incompatible with the modern. But Gross overlooks the fact that the story of the West is not one of appropriating and transmitting ideas, values, religion, etc., in a one-for-one fashion, but in learning from a shared past, memories, stories, lessons, places. This can be demonstrated easily enough wi An ok overview of Western ideals. The author aims to show that the Western narrative of Chicago’s “Great Books” program is not so airtight. One of his main arguments is that much of the old world is incompatible with the modern. But Gross overlooks the fact that the story of the West is not one of appropriating and transmitting ideas, values, religion, etc., in a one-for-one fashion, but in learning from a shared past, memories, stories, lessons, places. This can be demonstrated easily enough with language. It is easily seen that English is not Greek or Latin. However, neither is modern English the same as Old English. Does this mean, therefore, that there is little or no continuity between the two languages? No. In fact, they are not even two languages but variations of one language over time and place. English is further to confluence of a few older languages such as Latin, including many Greek words and phrases and even idioms and maxims. English is different and yet relies upon Latin and Greek. The same is true of the modern West in relation to the old world, the Middle Ages, Rome, And Greece.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Colin

    I obtained this tome from the library: an incredibly dense, often dry, account of the idea of the West and the uses to which narratives about the West have been put, historically.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Harrison-Walsh

    Great read. Gives a good introduction to key philosophers.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Keller

    Insightful.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tommy

    Starting from the canon wars of the 1980s/90s as a point of departure the author here lays down a monumentis cultural history of the idea of the West which is a real lap slapper of an ideological construct problematizing the more conventional historical emergence/periodization of the "West". Of course anyone with a more indepth understanding of any of these events or figures would see how naive this presentation is nonetheless it can still serve as an adequate launching ground from which the mor Starting from the canon wars of the 1980s/90s as a point of departure the author here lays down a monumentis cultural history of the idea of the West which is a real lap slapper of an ideological construct problematizing the more conventional historical emergence/periodization of the "West". Of course anyone with a more indepth understanding of any of these events or figures would see how naive this presentation is nonetheless it can still serve as an adequate launching ground from which the more introductory student of history can get a broad enough overview to begin looking critically into the various politicized points here presented. The claim is that freedom in any meaningful sense actually existed in Western history all along (more specifically it developed within the context of the activities of Germanic tribes not within archaic or classical Greece) and this is what all self identifying Westerner should celebrate and remember as the concrete grounds upon which we understand freedom. Unfree palaeolithic man could only dream of all the real freedoms the Magna Carta would grant. Any dangerous illusions of "freedom in the abstract" can only subvert the institutional basis of real historic freedom. The highly polemical nature (notice the practical grovelling over Solzhenitsyn and T. S. Eliot) is disappointing since a more dispassionate inquiry is very much necessary to face the real potential future prospects of the West. An emotionally engaged practising Christian tearing up just thinking about negative liberties, pluralism and Winston Churchill just isn't up to the task methinks. The moral of the story is we should thank the practical Cold Warriors for having saved any prospects for the West but also forgive them for being stupid and not really understanding the truth of what it really was beyond the various discursive constructions provided in liberal university textbooks. Christianity will need to self-consciously take to the centre stage within the public sphere if the West is really to survive. Practically all intellectuals ignored this, by explicitly or unknowingly bowing to atheistic Soviet totalitarianism, and couldn't see the only real freedom which was embodied in the 20th century institutions of the United States of America all along.

  12. 5 out of 5

    David S

    Gress argues an interesting point: the Western world, particularly the democratic society of the United States, is not a direct descendant of ancient Greece. He argues his point convincingly, but I have two major problems with the book, both of which have to do with writing style. First, it is a long book that doesn't hold the reader's attention well, meaning that it takes a very long time to get through it unless you're well-practiced at skimming. Second, Gress comes across as being both concei Gress argues an interesting point: the Western world, particularly the democratic society of the United States, is not a direct descendant of ancient Greece. He argues his point convincingly, but I have two major problems with the book, both of which have to do with writing style. First, it is a long book that doesn't hold the reader's attention well, meaning that it takes a very long time to get through it unless you're well-practiced at skimming. Second, Gress comes across as being both conceited and condescending, which rubs me the wrong way as a reader. Perhaps I'll give the book another try in the distant future.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    A good introductory source for some of the most influential minds from Western Civilisation.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Hendre

  15. 4 out of 5

    Torben Mark

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alexis Petrounias

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ali

  18. 5 out of 5

    Bogdan Micu

  19. 4 out of 5

    حسام موصللي

  20. 5 out of 5

    R.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Razib Khan

  22. 5 out of 5

    Richard Daniels

  23. 4 out of 5

    LPenting

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  25. 5 out of 5

    Andy

  26. 5 out of 5

    Klement

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  28. 4 out of 5

    Muhammad Nouman

  29. 5 out of 5

    Joshua

  30. 4 out of 5

    L Abdulsalam

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