The Long View: From Dawn to Decadence

Jacques Barzun's masterwork is an intellectual roadmap to the Western mind, although its structure is not systematic. Rather, Barzun simply writes about the people and things he found interesting. Since he had a very broad and capacious mind, this amounts to just about everything of importance, but from sometimes unusual points of view. Barzun is famous for saying that Western Civilization has entered a period of decadence, but he used this as a technical term. He meant that the great burst of energy that started the Renaissance has dissipated, and now our civilization wants the same things we have wanted for the past 500 years, but are no longer willing to do the things that are necessary to achieve those things. Decadence means willing the ends but not the means, and in and of itself is not a moral judgment. Barzun's own thesis has now become one of the intellectual superstitions he worked to demolish.

Barzun's massive intellectual history is one of the great syntheses to appear in English the late twentieth century, this despite the fact that Barzun was born in France. A similar work of lesser scope is Paul Johnson's Modern Times. Earlier examples include Willem Van Loon's The Story of Mankind and Fletcher Pratt's Battles that Changed History. These are the works that you should read if you want to understand the grand sweep of history in the West over the last 500 years.

Another similar work that I cannot recommend is  Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This book was recommended to me by my high school American history teacher. I started to read the book, and near the beginning, Zinn claimed that during the Revolutionary War, the rate of illegitimate childbirth was similar to what you saw after the failure of The War on Poverty in the 1960s. This seemed deeply wrong to me, but I didn't know the reason why until fifteen years later. Until the Civil War freed them, the children of slaves were counted as illegitimate, no matter what the actual status or intentions of their parents were. Every single birth to a black slave woman could be considered a bastard in law. Thus, Zinn's statement was accurate, in a legally defensible way, and also completely misleading. At the time, I was suspicious, but I had no proper basis for criticism. It just seemed wrong somehow. Zinn's book has long been popular, but other historians seem not to have respected his work. Now that I know the truth, I find that I am far more sympathetic to those who claim they have been wronged, without the ability to articulate the wrong. History is not written by the winners, it is written by the articulate.

In total honesty, I tried to pick up From Dawn to Decadence once, and failed, but I intend to attempt this book again. There have been eight years since my last attempt, so I think I may be more prepared this time. I suspect this book is worth the effort because both John and Jerry Pournelle have recommended it. In general, I have found their recommendations trustworthy.

From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
(1500 to the Present)
by Jacques Barzun
HarperCollins, 2000
877 Pages, US$36.00
ISBN 0-06-017586-9

"From Dawn to Decadence" is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to "The Education of Henry Adams," the great intellectual autobiography that seemed to sum up the last fin-de-siecle. The comparison does no injustice to either work, but it would be entirely apt only if Henry Adams had lived to be 500. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a remarkably large slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. Nonetheless, in some ways "From Dawn to Decadence" reads less like a history than it does like a personal memoir, with people and topics selected chiefly because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about "From Dawn to Decadence" is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.
Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James, the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing or a dozen other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he co-authored with Henry Graff, "The Modern Researcher," sticks in my mind after 25 years as a philosophy of historiography disguised as a reference guide.) In "From Dawn to Decadence," he manages to touch on just about all his life-long interests, and without turning the book into a mere anthology.
The format is loosely chronological, with the great era of the post-medieval, "modern" West divided into several lesser ages. The whole text is broken up into digestible chunks of commentary and biography. We get assessments, sometimes quite idiosyncratic ones, of almost all the great names of the modern era, but many of the biographies are of persons the author deems worthy-but-obscure. Some of these subjects really are virtually forgotten, such as the ingenious 18th-century polymath, Dr. Georg Lichtenberg. Others are just a bit neglected, such as the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Barzun manages to praise this physician and essayist while barely mentioning the senior Holmes's jurist son.) A particularly entertaining feature of the book is the brief, apt quotations set into the margins. Had it not been for "From Dawn to Decadence," I would never have known that Thursday was bear-baiting day at the court of Elizabeth I.
The format of "From Dawn to Decadence" does have its drawbacks, notably the minimal amount of political and military narrative. In fact, the author routinely makes unexplained allusions to people and events that may no longer be common knowledge. (Do undergraduates today know what Stanley said to Livingston? I'm afraid to ask.) And then there are the fact-checking lapses inevitable in a work of this scope. These will allow readers to entertain themselves by looking for mistakes. More than one reviewer has noted that modern calculus does not use Newton's notation, as Barzun says, but that of Leibniz. However, this review may be the only place you will read that those long-range shells the Germans fired at Paris (and Barzun) during the First World War did not come from Big Berthas, but from Krupp's Pariskanone.
Parlor games aside, the author corrects errors that are far more important than the ones he makes. He points out, for instance, that, no, M. Jourdain did not speak prose, and that Moliere knew this as well as anyone. He reminds us that it is anachronistic to suppose that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition believed the Copernican model threatened man's place in the universe. With a note of exasperation, he observes that Rousseau's works can not be made to say that Rousseau was a revolutionary who wished mankind to return to a state of nature. Intellectual superstitions of this sort are probably immortal, but it is a good idea to try to correct them at least once every 500 years.
While a book as genial as this one can hardly be accused of promoting anything as crudely Germanic as a theory of history, nonetheless it does outline a general shape for the last half-millennium. According to Barzun, the West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had become exhausted by the end of the 20th century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda, but an expandable list of desires. Particular forms of them can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era. The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that EMANCIPATION is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the woman's suffrage movement. Another example is PRIMITIVISM, the perennial impulse to return to the original text, to the early constitution, to the uncluttered state of the beginning. Other trends of the modern era have been informed by the desires for ABSTRACTION, REDUCTIVISM and SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. Ideas like these can hardly be said to have been the motor of Western history, but looking for their various incarnations over the centuries does make it much easier to view the era as a whole.
Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a "decadent" society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study "Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet," but Barzun may persuade readers that "decadence" is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term "decadent" may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger, admittedly unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre-Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.
Decadence may end in the explosion of a revolution. Barzun narrows the meaning of this over-worked term, by defining it as the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea. Revolutions are great simplifiers that pave over the labyrinths and open up possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years previous. There have been four of these revolutions during the modern era, each more or less defining an age. There was the religious revolution of the Reformation, which first stated themes that would recur through the rest of the era. There was the monarch's revolution of the 17th century, in which the aristocracy was tamed and large, centralized states began to appear. The monarchs, of course, got their comeuppance in the liberal revolution at the end of the 18th century. Most recently, every throne, power and dominion was shaken by the social revolution at the beginning of the 20th.
Barzun seems to believe that the twentieth century was so traumatized by the First World War that it was never able to fully exploit the positive possibilities in what he calls the "Cubist Decade" that preceded the war's outbreak. Rather, the Age of Modernism (not to be confused with the modern era) largely confined itself to analysis and destruction. Thanks to the First World War, the more distant past became unusable: the sense of living in a completely new age left the past nothing to say. No restraints remained on the expression of the desires that had characterized the whole modern era. The result was that, by century's end, the chief remaining impulses in Western culture had developed to a theoretical maximum. So ends an age.
This conclusion would be depressing, if it were not so obviously where we came in. Barzun notes that, at the end of the fifteen century, some people held that the sixth millennium of the world was about to end, and history along with it. As is often the case with this kind of sentiment, the people who shared it were on to something, if the end of history is taken to mean the end of history as they knew it. Barzun ends the book on a note of hopeful speculation. He looks back from a more distant time on our immediate future, which he supposes will be an age when history will wholly disappear even from the minds of the educated. Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, Barzun hopes, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what a joy it is to be alive.
Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly
This review originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of First Things.

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