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Jacques Barzun
From Dawn to Decadence

Jacques Barzun ~ historian

Jacques Barzun was born in 1907 and grew up in Paris and Grenoble, where his great-grandfather, a university professor, had settled to teach during the mid-19th century. In Paris, his parents' house was one of the centers of the new 'modernist' movements in the arts at the turn of the century, and so, the boy's earliest adult friends included Apollinaire, the poet, who taught him how to read time on his watch, and Marie Laurencein, who made his portrait. Other constant visitors were the Cubist painters Gleizes and Duchamp, the musician Varése, and such foreigners as Richard Aldington and Stefan Zweig.
Barzun's father is supposed to have disputed with another aspirant poet over the honor of having invented 'simultaneous' poetry!

His early education was taken at the Lycée Janson de Sailly, after which he experienced life behind the lines in the First World War. His father came to the United States on a diplomatic mission during the war and decided Jacques should attend college there. He entered Columbia University in 1920 where he studied law and history over several years. His upbringing in the arts led him increasingly to the study of cultural history, then a new branch of history.

Soon after graduation, he was appointed lecturer, and in due course became professor in 1937. In 1955 he was named Dean of the Graduate Faculties and three years later, Dean of Faculties and Provost. Concurrently, he occupied the chair of Seth Low Professor of History and Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. He resigned from administrative work in 1967 and was named University Professor.

For seven decades he has written and edited critical and historical studies on a wide variety of subjects. They include Race: a Study in Modern Superstition (1937), Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941), Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1945), The Teacher in America (1945), The House of Intellect (1959), Classic, Romantic, and Modern (1961), Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1964), The American University (1968), Berlioz and the Romantic Century (3d ed. 1969), The Use and Abuse of Art (1974), and Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991).

Some of Mr. Barzun's approximately thirty books - particularly Teacher in America and The House of Intellect - were bestsellers that influenced debate about culture far beyond the realm of academic history.
A more recent, and very widely acclaimed, bestseller is From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000).

In this later work Barzun divides the period 1500-2000 in western cultural history into four large segments. The first segment takes us from Luther's Protestant revolution to Newton - from the early sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. Part two opens with the ascent of Louis XIV and the rise of the nation state; it ends with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Part three, which opens with a section called "The Work of Mind-and-Heart," details the Romantic reaction - that is to say, the Romantic reactions, for they were many and disparate - to Enlightenment rationalism. Here Mr. Barzun takes his story from the time of Goethe and Wordsworth to the pre-World-War-I period he calls the Cubist Decade. Part four brings the story up to the year 2000.

Barzun guides the reader through conflicting views of history, highlighting the existence of particular themes in the last five hundred years of Western cultural life. Some of these include SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS (he uses the capitalisation himself), a "mental state" of individuality without limits; ANALYSIS, or "the breaking of wholes into parts," a fundamental process of science but new to art; SPECIALISM, with its threefold appearance in intellectual, scientific and educational circles; EMANCIPATION, "indeed the immediate appeal of all revolutions"; PRIMITIVISM, the desire for a break from the demands of urban life and technology and a return to simpler modes of living; and INDIVIDUALISM, an effect of emancipation and cause of self-consciousness. Unlike historians with an agenda, Barzun does not force his account to conform to these themes, as a statistician might skew data to support a hypothetical trend. Instead he notes their reappearance and discusses its relation to precedents.

He is convinced that our age, despite its extraordinary technological capabilities, is an Alexandrian age: a time of cultural sunset, depleted energies and moral confusion. His summary of what he calls "our present decadence" shows that he does not regard decadence as a neutral historical fact but as a cultural, moral, and political disaster of the first order.

As one would expect, the sources of decadence are many and varied. Mr. Barzun shows how, from one perspective, the symptoms of decadence can be understood as resulting from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, individualism, and so on. What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline. Mr. Barzun devotes the last sections of his book to showing how decadence has triumphed in various facets of modern life. There is, first of all, the spiritual paralysis that results from willing contradictory things. These days, Mr. Barzun observes, "any doctrine or program that claims the merit of going against common sense has presumption in its favor."
Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by the public cry for Excellence. At the same time the society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of "the free market of ideas."

The confusion generated by such contradictions attends every aspect of cultural endeavor. In the arts, it leads to the rise of anti-art, embodied on one side by the nihilistic pranks of Marcel Duchamp, on another by Picasso. Mr. Barzun is right that "When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent." But futility and absurdity only seem normal to a damaged sensibility.

Of course, it is not only in the realm of culture that confusion reigns. The realms of social relations and politics are equally beset. One result is what Mr. Barzun refers to as the "Great Switch," "the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite." If Liberalism originally "triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least," today "for all the western nations political wisdom has recast the ideal of liberty into liberality." The universalization and extension of the welfare state has nurtured a culture of entitlement. What began in an access of largess ends in an explosion of regulation and hectoring scrutiny.

The titles of the book's last two sections indicate the tenor of Barzun's overall assessment: "Embracing the Absurd" and "Demotic Life and Times." On a more general level, the very notion of rights in Western society has devolved into farce, with everyone demanding his voice be heard. All this takes place under the rousing rebel yell of democracy, when the fundamental principle of democracy is majority rule. This last advent, socially speaking, creates a tyranny of the common man over his gifted counterpart--in short, it is the lamentable rise of the "demotic," not "democratic," in fashion, music, and the arts--a decline expedited by the Lowest Common Denominator strategies propagated by the monolithic advertising and television industries

Although the picture Mr. Barzun paints is one of cultural desolation, he nevertheless manages to end on a note of cautious optimism. Even if present trends continue and society becomes more routinized and culturally sterile, human ingenuity can surely be counted upon to precipitate a rebellion against the spread of bureaucratized futility. Sooner or later, some few intrepid souls will turn with new curiosity to the neglected past and use it "to create a new present," discovering along the way "what a joy it is to be alive." The forces of decadence that Mr. Barzun describes are formidably potent. But decadence is no more inevitable than progress.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.

In the later eighteen-twenties Ralph Waldo Emerson read, and was very significantly influenced by, a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.

A key section of Cousin's work reads as follows:
"What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man : evidently man and human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. …
… Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations."
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1829)

Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness. (Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization. (Journal entry of December, 1824)

Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books … (This dates from January - February, 1828)

The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II

Plato, Socrates and Shakespeare endorse a 'Tripartite Soul' view of Human Nature. Platos' Republic

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Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.