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A review of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn To Decadence

Wow. I doubt Mr. Barzun would approve of the colloquialism, but that 's  the best word for how I felt after finishing  From Dawn To Decadence, his history of Western Civilization from the Reformation to the 20th century. It's encyclopedic in scope (appropriately including a chapter called "The Encyclopedic Century"  which contains a biographical sketch of Diderot, one of the first compilers of encyclopedias) and a challenging but ultimately rewarding read.

This book is very dense with information. This is not surprising, since Barzun has been a diligent scholar his entire adult life and his adult life has been very long (he was born in 1907.) One of the rare first person passages in the book illustrates what an energetic  researcher he is:

"In a work of my  youth, published over fifty years ago, I added to a discussion of period a sampling of usage in print...90 small paragraphs, annotated to show from the context what the writer meant by romantic(ism)".

You can tell this is the work of someone who would go out and find 90 different usages of a word. He describes multiple aspects...political, social, artistic, and moral...of all the periods covered in this book, and provides plenty of facts to bolster his points. Capsule biographies of important figures of the age are included in each chapter. Many of the obvious figures, such as Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, and Goethe are profiled, but so are many obscure figures.

Among the lesser known historical figures he profiles are Pierre BeaumarchaisJames Agate, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. No, Supreme Court justice Holmes is not  an obscure figure. Barzun writes about his father. Beaumarchais is the French playwright who wrote The Barber Of Seville and was also instrumental in helping fund the American Revolution. Barzun complains "the continued omission of Beaumarchais [from history books] is inexcusable", and given the story Barzun tells, I have to agree. Holmes, besides having a famous son, was also a poet and essayist.  Agate was a theatre critic and diarist, whose diaries have been edited for publication by Barzun.

At times  I became frustrated, almost angry, reading this book. I wanted to find some underlying concept to help me wrap my mind around all of the knowledge presented and couldn't. About halfway  through I softened in my attitude and began to enjoy the book more.

This change of heart was based on a couple of things. The first is that you simply can't have a single underlying concept for 500 years of history. And Barzun does identify multiple recurring themes, which he puts in all caps when he mentions them (for a guy who was 75 years old when hypertext was invented, he does some very innovative things with typography and cross-referencing.) Among these themes are EMANCIPATION, ABSTRACTION, ANALYSIS, SECULARISM, and many others.

Barzun is also wary of  attempting to impose simplicity and order on historical works when it's not really there. He warns that  "history cannot be a science" and that "the historian who contemplates the infinite diversity of human character....is persuaded that these challenges to the concrete imagination cannot be merged and reduced to a formula."

The last section of the book, dealing with the 20th century, is the most focused. This is probably because Barzun experienced much of it first hand. Here he makes the case for the "decadence" mentioned in the title. He cites  World War I ( a term he dislikes...he prefers "the four years war" or "the great war") as the catalyst. He makes a poignant comment about his own memories of the war : "taking refuge in a cellar at night was for us children a kind of fun--at first."

He makes a number of pithy and insightful observations about the modern world, such as "The point at which good intentions exceeded the power to fulfill them marked for the culture the onset of decadence." He points out that as the modern state grew bigger "the feeling of being hemmed in by rules matched that of being hemmed in by people."

He ends with a possible prologue to a similar book written 500 years from now about the new era he believes we are entering. While he is not happy about the way things are, he holds out some hope. In this hypothetical prologue he says "what saved the masses from brutishness was the survival (though in odd shapes) of a good deal of literature and history from the 500 years of western culture".

Barzun's love of this literature and history is what made the huge mountain of facts that comprise this book more scalable. When I got to the last page, I felt like I had just finished reading a very long love letter to western civilization. One of his chapters on the romantic era is entitled "The Work Of Mind-And-Heart". That's also a pretty good description of this book.