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'
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Popular European History pages
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.