The best books about why Western civilization is falling apart

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a misplaced law professor, you might say: I never wanted to be a lawyer; I went to law school almost by accident; and for four decades I’ve used law as a window into my deeper interests– religion, history, and philosophy. I couldn’t make myself write books unless the subjects were personally engaging; and in defiance of editors, I insist on writing readable prose. If this adds up to “dilettante,” so be it. My books, published by the university presses of Harvard, Oxford, Notre Dame, Duke, and NYU, as well as Eerdmans, have dealt with constitutional law; Roman, medieval, and modern history; legal philosophy; and religious freedom.

I wrote...

The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

By Steven D. Smith,

Book cover of The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

What is my book about?

In The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity, Steven D. Smith considers Jacques Barzun’s provocative assertion that “the modern era” is coming to an end. Smith investigates the question of decline by focusing on a single theme—conscience—that has been central to but disruptive of Western politics, law, and religion over the past half-millennium.

Closely examining three episodes that reflected major transformations—Thomas More’s beheading for his conscientious refusal to take an oath mandated by Henry VIII, James Madison’s insertion of conscience into the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and Justice William Brennan’s promise that he would confine his religion to his private life—Smith argues that conscience has come to mean almost the opposite of what it meant when the modern era began.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

Steven D. Smith Why did I love this book?

This book, which I read in my first year as an academic, has powerfully influenced my thinking ever since – more than any other scholarly book, probably.

It is the best treatment I know of that not only diagnoses and explains the futility of modern moral thinking – an ailment that is as apparent in public political debates as in academy philosophy – but also explains how we got here.

In addition, the book offers cogent insights into much else that is wrong with modern culture and politics. And although After Virtue is not exactly light reading, it is succinct, occasionally eloquent, and sometimes wickedly funny.

By Alasdair MacIntyre,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked After Virtue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When After Virtue first appeared in 1981, it was recognized as a significant and potentially controversial critique of contemporary moral philosophy. Newsweek called it "a stunning new study of ethics by one of the foremost moral philosophers in the English-speaking world." Since that time, the book has been translated into more than fifteen foreign languages and has sold over one hundred thousand copies. Now, twenty-five years later, the University of Notre Dame Press is pleased to release the third edition of After Virtue, which includes a new prologue "After Virtue after a Quarter of a Century."

In this classic work,…

Book cover of Love in the Ruins

Steven D. Smith Why did I love this book?

I don’t read many novels – my work doesn’t leave me much time – but I’ve had to make time for Percy.

His novels are full of intriguing characters, vivid and natural dialogue, and masterfully controlled plots; and in both his fiction and his essays and interviews he offers a trenchant diagnosis of the ills of modern life. Love in the Ruins is borderline sci-fi and quasi-apocalyptic.

Its protagonist, Tom More (a proud if decadent descendant of Sir and Saint Thomas More) lives in an American society much like our own, which is on the verge of collapse even though most of its residents don’t perceive the problem. The book is at the same time compelling, profoundly insightful, and hilarious.

By Walker Percy,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Love in the Ruins as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A pair of profound dystopian novels from the “brilliantly breathtaking” New York Times–bestselling and National Book Award–winning author of The Moviegoer (The New York Times Book Review).
Winner of the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, the “dazzlingly gifted” Southern philosophical author Walker Percy wrote two vividly imagined satirical novels of America’s future featuring deeply flawed psychiatrist and spiritual seeker Tom More (USA Today). Love in the Ruins is “a great adventure . . . so outrageous and so real, one is left speechless” (Chicago Sun-Times), and its sequel The Thanatos Syndrome “shimmers with intelligence and verve” (Newsday).
Love in…

Book cover of From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Steven D. Smith Why did I love this book?

Barzun, who lived to be 104, was in his lifetime possibly the most erudite human being on the planet. 

And this book, published when he was much younger (as a spry 93-year-old) is an almost perfect history of the modern age: a superb, readable sort-of survey that is not surveyish but rather earnestly engaged with themes that were important in the 16th-century beginnings of our modern civilization and are important still. 

Barzun doesn’t seem to be a gloomy naysayer, and he admires and appreciates the achievements of Western civilization; but as his title suggests, he came to believe that the culture is exhausted and unraveling. An informative and provocative read!

By Jacques Barzun,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked From Dawn to Decadence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A stunning five-century study of civilization's cultural retreat."  — William Safire, New York Times

Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaissance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have…

Book cover of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Steven D. Smith Why did I love this book?

This book (actually, this series of volumes) is of course an epic and a classic. And deservedly so—even though most scholars no longer find Gibbon’s account of the causes of Rome’s fall persuasive. 

Right or wrong, the book is a model of a study that is both immersed (sometimes admiringly and sometimes caustically) in individual characters and episodes and yet also intensely interested in the big picture. And the elegant, witty prose makes the book a pleasure to read. 

Analyses of modern Western decline often look for parallels in ancient Rome, and Gibbon’s study is almost a mandatory point of departure.

By Edward Gibbon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edward Gibbon€™s classic timeless work of ancient Roman history in 6 volumes collected into 2 boxed sets, in beautiful, enduring hardcover editions with elegant cloth sewn bindings, gold stamped covers, and silk ribbon markers.

Book cover of A Study of History: Volume I: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI

Steven D. Smith Why did I love this book?

A book can be vastly overambitious, and hence broadly unpersuasive, and yet still be full of insights. 

Toynbee’s monumental study attempted to order all of human history into a recurring pattern of civilizational genesis, growth, decline, and breakdown. It couldn’t be done, as historians and critics have pointed out.

Even so, the study is rich with ideas and perspectives about factors that contribute to societal growth and decline, the role of “creative minorities,” the effects of religion on civilization and vice versa, and much else.

Hardly anyone (including me) will manage to read all 12 volumes, but Toynbee himself approved a readable two-volume abridgment by D. C. Somervell, which was illuminating when I read it in college and has continued to be illuminating in the years since then.

By Arnold J. Toynbee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Study of History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Arnold Toynbee's analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations has been acknowledged as one of the great achievements of twentieth-century scholarship. D.C. Somervell's abridgement of this monumental work is a great achievement in its own right. While reducing the work to one sixth of its original size, he has succeeded in preserving its method and character. The first volume of the abridgement presents Toynbee's philosophy of history as it appears in the first six volumes of the original work. This volume includes the Introduction; The Geneses of Civilizations; The Growth of Civilizations; The Breakdowns of Civilizations; and The Disintegrations…

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A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

Kathleen Baldwin Author Of Sanctuary for Seers: A Stranje House Novel

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Loves God Mother to Many Wilderness Adventurer History Enthusiast

Kathleen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A spy school for girls amidst Jane Austen’s high society.

Daughters of the Beau Monde who don’t fit London society’s strict mold are banished to Stranje House, where the headmistress trains these unusually gifted girls to enter the dangerous world of spies in the Napoleonic wars. #1 NYT bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this exciting historical series "completely original and totally engrossing."

A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

What is this book about?

A School for Unusual Girls is the first captivating installment in the Stranje House series for young adults by award-winning author Kathleen Baldwin. #1 New York Times bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this romantic Regency adventure "completely original and totally engrossing."

It's 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England's dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don't fit high society's constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young…

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Interested in Western culture, civilization, and ancient Rome?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Western culture, civilization, and ancient Rome.

Western Culture Explore 52 books about Western culture
Civilization Explore 213 books about civilization
Ancient Rome Explore 295 books about ancient Rome