FROM DAWN TO. DECADENCE. Years of Western. Cultural Life. to the Present. JACQUES BARZUN. Ha. HarperCollins/^/zs/rers. An outline biography of the life of the historian Jacques Barzun author of – From Dawn to Decadence – regarded as a classic cultural history review. Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuo.

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Jacques Barzun was born in and grew up in Paris and Grenoble, where his great-grandfather, a university professor, had settled to teach during the midth century.

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

In Paris, his parents’ house was one of the centers of the jacquws ‘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. Barzun’s father is supposed to have disputed with another aspirant poet over the honor of having invented ‘simultaneous’ poetry!

His father came to the United States on a diplomatic mission during jxcques war and decided Jacques should attend college there. He entered Columbia University in 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.

The age of entropy

Soon after graduation, he was appointed lecturer, and in due course became professor in He resigned from administrative work in and was named University Professor. For seven decades he has written and edited critical and historical studies on a wide variety of subjects. The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning 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: In this later work Barzun divides the period 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 froom, 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 ffrom to Enlightenment rationalism. Part four brings the story up to the year 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.

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: 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. 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: What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline.

Dan Schneider on Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence

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. Barzun observes, “any doctrine or program that claims the merit of going against common sense has presumption in its favor.

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At the same time the society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism.

The dwan 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. 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 preexist in the mind as laws.

Jacques Barzun historian biography From Dawn to Decadence review

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.

More insights into this “Philosophy of History” as recommended by Emerson, and the history pages so-prepared, are available to those sufficiently interested, from the links further down this page: