There are any number of decline-of-Western-Civ books. Since I just wrote one myself, I ought to talk down the competition. In the case of John Carroll’s book, The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, I just can’t. It’s too brilliant.
Carroll’s basic point is that man needs a place to stand, and humanism—the attempt to put man at the center of things—can’t give him one. So the book recounts 500 years’ worth of attempts to supply the lack, either through humanism or in opposition to it.
The book is brilliant both on account of the clarity and coherence of the analysis and the manner in which the author tells the story. The analysis rings the changes on a very few themes, like reason and honor and death, which it traces in their various permutations throughout the humanist period.
The presentation is based on close analysis of literary and artistic works: Holbein’s Ambassadors as a representation of the failure of Renaissance humanism, Vermeer’s interiors as a depiction of Puritan domestic inwardness, Cezanne’s landscapes as a last-ditch attempt to save natural order, and so on.
In general, I found the interpretations—Las Meninas as radically subversive and whatnot—both startling and persuasive. Sometimes I had my doubts, though. Is David and Uriah really David and Uriah? Someone’s being sent his death, as Carroll says, but is he an innocent? And is it really true that Poussin was the Catholic Counter-Reformation prophet who would have saved us through the restoration of liturgical community had we but followed him?
Be those things as they may, the basic analysis is clear and persuasive, and the examples are fascinating in themselves and the use made of them at least plausible and often strikingly illuminating. So read it. (After you’ve read my book, of course.)
[A note: I noticed after writing the foregoing, and after posting an Amazon review, that what’s on sale is a revised edition. Presumably it hasn’t changed much! Also, at least in my edition the illustrations are grossly inadequate, so you have to read the book with a computer at hand so you can look up the images on the net.]