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Let me begin by quoting from Jacques Barzun. He sees the book as " . . . a chance to describe . . . some aspects of present decadence that may have escaped notice and and show how they relate to others generally acknowledged." The forms of decadence that he identifies in comtemporary society include excess use of television, public images of a sexual and immoral nature, a decline in traditional religion and an upsurge in various sects, a decline in the nation state, a decline in support for the nation state, the rise of professional sports operated in an undistinguished way morally, and a general withdrawal from traditional forms of education and high culture. I mention this upfront because you may feel differently about the meaning of these same trends.
At the end of the book, he writes from the perspective of the year 2300 about what happens in the next 300 years. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. He predicts that boredom will eventually drive people back into being interested in the traditional intellectual, social, and artistic paths of western civilization. At one level, he may well be right because the current technological revolution will rapidly reduce the amount of employment required for every day goods and services. Until more interesting ones are developed, a surfeit of cheap goods, services and entertainment may quickly become boring -- particularly if they are primarily consumed in a passive way.
Barzun also tell us who his audience is: ". . . this book is for people who like to read about art and thought, manners, morals, and religion, and the social setting in which these activities have been and are taking place." He also has assumed tht readers " . . . prefer discourse to be selective and critical . . . ."
His hypothesis is a defense of western civilization. "I hope to show . . . that the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere."
This is an unusually long book, but the nature of the subject requires it. Certainly, I saw no place where the book provided too much or extraneous detail. To help the reader, the book is delightfully broken down into smaller units. The first is from 1500 to 1660 (the key issue was what to believe in religion), the second from 1661-1789 (the status of the individual and the mode of government predominate as topics), the third from 1790-1920 (government as a means to provide social and economic equality as the central issues), and the fourth from 1921 to the present (a mixture of all these past issues). Then, within each section, there are a series of essays that look at the primary religious, artistic, scientific, social, governmental, and thought developments. To tie all of these essays together, he uses concepts that he feels are continuing themes over the 500 years. To help these stand out, he CAPITALIZES them. Some of the major themes include PRIMITIVISM, EMANCIPATION, INDIVIDUALISM, SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, ANALYSIS, REDUCTIVISM, SECULARISM and ABSTRACTION. To give the reader a firm place to stand, he includes several essays that are centered on a place and time to give a better sense of what it was like to live then. These are usually chosen to be near where the dominant themes were playing most strongly (Madrid in 1540, Venice in 1650, London in 1715, Weimar in 1790, Paris in 1830, and Chicago in 1880).
What is good about this perspective is that it puts many things in context. You see the design in the mosaic as well as the design in the individual tile. Barzun adds to this by masterfully explaining why things happened differently than expected. For example, Luther in 1517, the French aristocrats in 1789, and the Russian nobles in 1917 did not intend to start revolutions. Luther tacking his theses was the equivalent of publishing an article today. What made it different was that the printing press allowed these ideas to spread.
Barzun adds another perspective that is useful: the intellectual spread of ideas and concepts. When thinking about the past, most of us focus on the greatest individual contributors. But in doing so, we may miss people who added a key element that allowed others to accomplish more in the future. I was impressed by how many essayists, artists, musicians, and philosphers he cited whose names were totally unfamiliar to me. Yet, I was enriched by understanding their contributions from reading this book. This gave me a new sense of how to think about history. I should confess that I was a modern French history major in college, so I should know more of these people than most will.
I do not agree with Barzun on all of his points, and he would be surprised if you or I did. For example, I think he vastly underestimates the impact of economic, technological, and financial forces on these five centuries. Looking forward, I think he is even more blind to them. For example, the rise of the Internet will allow us all to be in contact. But what should we rely on each other for? You may be a great soccer player, but not so good at algebra. If I ask you to help me do some financial planning, you may inadvertently harm me even though you are a well-meaning, moral person. This question of when to trust will be critical to further development of civilization. If you would like to read another perspective on these centuries that favors the factors that Barzun underrepresents, you may find The Sovereign Individual helpful.
I also don't think he makes his case for the superiority of western civilization over other cultures in the last 500 years. That would really require a different kind of book than this one is. This one focuses on Europe and North America. I suspect that he should have set a slightly less ambitious goal.
So, what's it all add up to? You cannot help but gain by reading this book. You will better understand the arguments for and against all of our current issues. You will locate artists and writers whom you will enjoy. You will have a great deal more fun on your next trip to Europe, visiting all of the places he talks about. You will also develop your own perspective on what the last 500 years means for now and in the future. For example, I was astonished to realize how much worse the 20th century was in many ways than earlier centuries, even though I was aware of the relevant details. Our social idealism is declining at an enormous rate compared to our scientific and commercial progress. All of these things are a lot to get from one book. I suspect we will not see its equal in our lives.
By the way, I suggest that you take this book in bite-sized pieces, unless you cannot stop yourself from going faster. The ideas will be easier to appreciate and connect, if you just read one essay at a time.
Overcome your misconception, disbelief, procrastination, independence, wishful thinking, and tradition stalls by becoming a better thinker about these issues. Enjoy!
Donald Mitchell
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Let me begin by quoting from Jacques Barzun. He sees the book as " . . . a chance to describe . . . some aspects of present decadence that may have escaped notice and and show how they relate to others generally acknowledged." The forms of decadence that he identifies in comtemporary society include excess use of television, public images of a sexual and immoral nature, a decline in traditional religion and an upsurge in various sects, a decline in the nation state, a decline in support for the nation state, the rise of professional sports operated in an undistinguished way morally, and a general withdrawal from traditional forms of education and high culture. I mention this upfront because you may feel differently about the meaning of these same trends.

At the end of the book, he writes from the perspective of the year 2300 about what happens in the next 300 years. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. He predicts that boredom will eventually drive people back into being interested in the traditional intellectual, social, and artistic paths of western civilization. At one level, he may well be right because the current technological revolution will rapidly reduce the amount of employment required for every day goods and services. Until more interesting ones are developed, a surfeit of cheap goods, services and entertainment may quickly become boring -- particularly if they are primarily consumed in a passive way.

Barzun also tell us who his audience is: ". . . this book is for people who like to read about art and thought, manners, morals, and religion, and the social setting in which these activities have been and are taking place." He also has assumed tht readers " . . . prefer discourse to be selective and critical . . . ."

His hypothesis is a defense of western civilization. "I hope to show . . . that the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere."

This is an unusually long book, but the nature of the subject requires it. Certainly, I saw no place where the book provided too much or extraneous detail. To help the reader, the book is delightfully broken down into smaller units. The first is from 1500 to 1660 (the key issue was what to believe in religion), the second from 1661-1789 (the status of the individual and the mode of government predominate as topics), the third from 1790-1920 (government as a means to provide social and economic equality as the central issues), and the fourth from 1921 to the present (a mixture of all these past issues). Then, within each section, there are a series of essays that look at the primary religious, artistic, scientific, social, governmental, and thought developments. To tie all of these essays together, he uses concepts that he feels are continuing themes over the 500 years. To help these stand out, he CAPITALIZES them. Some of the major themes include PRIMITIVISM, EMANCIPATION, INDIVIDUALISM, SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, ANALYSIS, REDUCTIVISM, SECULARISM and ABSTRACTION. To give the reader a firm place to stand, he includes several essays that are centered on a place and time to give a better sense of what it was like to live then. These are usually chosen to be near where the dominant themes were playing most strongly (Madrid in 1540, Venice in 1650, London in 1715, Weimar in 1790, Paris in 1830, and Chicago in 1880).

What is good about this perspective is that it puts many things in context. You see the design in the mosaic as well as the design in the individual tile. Barzun adds to this by masterfully explaining why things happened differently than expected. For example, Luther in 1517, the French aristocrats in 1789, and the Russian nobles in 1917 did not intend to start revolutions. Luther tacking his theses was the equivalent of publishing an article today. What made it different was that the printing press allowed these ideas to spread.

Barzun adds another perspective that is useful: the intellectual spread of ideas and concepts. When thinking about the past, most of us focus on the greatest individual contributors. But in doing so, we may miss people who added a key element that allowed others to accomplish more in the future. I was impressed by how many essayists, artists, musicians, and philosphers he cited whose names were totally unfamiliar to me. Yet, I was enriched by understanding their contributions from reading this book. This gave me a new sense of how to think about history. I should confess that I was a modern French history major in college, so I should know more of these people than most will.

I do not agree with Barzun on all of his points, and he would be surprised if you or I did. For example, I think he vastly underestimates the impact of economic, technological, and financial forces on these five centuries. Looking forward, I think he is even more blind to them. For example, the rise of the Internet will allow us all to be in contact. But what should we rely on each other for? You may be a great soccer player, but not so good at algebra. If I ask you to help me do some financial planning, you may inadvertently harm me even though you are a well-meaning, moral person. This question of when to trust will be critical to further development of civilization. If you would like to read another perspective on these centuries that favors the factors that Barzun underrepresents, you may find The Sovereign Individual helpful.

I also don't think he makes his case for the superiority of western civilization over other cultures in the last 500 years. That would really require a different kind of book than this one is. This one focuses on Europe and North America. I suspect that he should have set a slightly less ambitious goal.

So, what's it all add up to? You cannot help but gain by reading this book. You will better understand the arguments for and against all of our current issues. You will locate artists and writers whom you will enjoy. You will have a great deal more fun on your next trip to Europe, visiting all of the places he talks about. You will also develop your own perspective on what the last 500 years means for now and in the future. For example, I was astonished to realize how much worse the 20th century was in many ways than earlier centuries, even though I was aware of the relevant details. Our social idealism is declining at an enormous rate compared to our scientific and commercial progress. All of these things are a lot to get from one book. I suspect we will not see its equal in our lives.

By the way, I suggest that you take this book in bite-sized pieces, unless you cannot stop yourself from going faster. The ideas will be easier to appreciate and connect, if you just read one essay at a time.

Overcome your misconception, disbelief, procrastination, independence, wishful thinking, and tradition stalls by becoming a better thinker about these issues. Enjoy!
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am 9. August 2005
Vielleicht sind die Worte des weisen Franzosen amerikanischer Schrift nebst feurig auch seine letzten. Barzun warnt: „Wenn die Geschichte einer Nation an den Schulen unzureichend vermittelt- von den Jungen ignoriert, und von qualifizierten Lehrkräften und Leitbildern überheblich verweigert wird, dann beinhaltet ein Bewusstsein von Tradition lediglich den Willen diese zu zerstören."
Im Alter von (damals) 93 erpicht sich der 'pensionierte' Geschichtsprofessor Jacques Barzun aus New York, mit entfesselter Empörung - es reicht - es ist Zeit seine Stimme zu erheben.
„Die Formen der Kunst sowie die des Lebens scheinen sich erschöpft zu haben, die Etappen der Entwicklung sind durchgetreten, Institutionen funktionieren mühsam. Repetition und Frustration ist das untragbare Resultat. Langeweile und Ermüdung setzen gewaltige Kräfte frei um die Geschichte zu beinflussen. "Barzun findet uns, zu Beginn des 21.Jahrhundert an einem Ende. Ein halbes Millennium von westlichem Glanz verblasst in ein neues dunkles Zeitalter in welchem eine hoch- aber eng ausgebildete Klasse von Technokraten über ein illiterates Proletariat Macht ausübt und mittelmässige Unterhaltung offeriert - dies im Rückzug staatlicher Bildung, die lediglich als Verschwendung von Ressourcen missbilligt wird. Wir im Westen werden reich- und friedfertig sein aber gelangweilt. Mit der Zeit - nach ungefähr 100 Jahren - wird diese Langeweile akut und unerträglich. Die Ungebildeten werden anfangen sich selbst zu bilden, sie werden die Geschichte wieder entdecken, Kunstsammlungen neu zur Schau stellen, welche „seit langem so eintönig und langweilig erschienen, dass niemand ihnen nahe trat". Wie ein Flickwerk und plump wird diese Renaissance nicht desto minder ausreichen um die Jungen und Talentierten zu begeistern, welche plötzlich zum Ausdruck bringen, „was für eine Freude es ist zu leben". Dekadenz wird einer neuen Dämmerung den Weg öffnen.
Diese Prophezeiung tritt ganz am Ende seines kolossalen Werkes in Erscheinung. Sie wird als literarische Einbildung präsentiert, indem Barzun plötzlich vortäuscht, dass er aus einer Zeit der fernen Zukunft geschrieben hat und dass es sich bei dieser Prophezeiung um ein geschichtliches Dokument handelt. Dieses Dokument beansprucht den Standpunkt New-York aus Sicht des Jahres 1995. Zudem projiziert sich der fiktionale Historiker mittels einer weiteren Gedankenwindung vorwärts ins Jahr 2300.
Ich nehme an, dass er mit der komplexen Einbildung seiner „Wetten dass - Prophezeiung" sein ernsthaftes Thema mit geistesgegenwärtigem Humor (englischem wit) zu erheitern versucht, dies als Ausweichmanöver, seinem Weltschmerz etwas entgegen zu wirken und um die Aufmerksamkeit einer erweiterten Leserschaft zu gewinnen. Eine geradlinige Sprache wäre, um der Betonung des Hauptanliegens gerecht zu werden, angemessener gewesen. Es sei denn, dass Barzun sich durch das Ganze hindurch lustig macht. Seinen ernsthaften Schlussfolgerungen wegen kann man ihm jedoch eine solch sorgenfreie Haltung kaum zumuten, denn er sagt mit aller Deutlichkeit, dass diese Welt welche wir jetzt erschaffen widerlich ist und dass diese mit der Betitelung „human" keinesfalls gewürdigt werden kann.
Jedenfalls handelt es sich um ein Geschichtsbuch geschrieben mit Dringlichkeit, Eleganz und Zorn. „Das Denunzieren," schreibt Barzun, „befreit das Selbst nicht von dem was es hasst, genau so wenig wie man den Einfluss der Geschichte durch Ignoranz verhindern könnte." Barzun durchschaut mit Verachtung und Bestürzung den Untergang amerikanischer Bildung zu einem Morast von politischer Korrektheit, Analphabetentum und Gedächtnisschwund -, und kommt zur Schlussfolgerung dass der Westen sich in einem Prozess befindet durch welche seine Kultur gegen eine chaotische Technokratie ausgetauscht wird. Der Ruhm dem wir entsagen bildet das Kernthema dieses Buches.
Seine Methode ist schrull doch meistens ergreifend. Die Seitenränder sind bespickt mit Zitaten welche einen zweiten Text formen - eine Anthologie beflügelter Worte zu Schlüsselthemen wie - Primitivität, Individualismus, Emanzipation, Abstraktion, Analytik, Säkularisierung und moderne Wissenschaft - werden durch das ganze Werk hindurch mit Grossbuchstaben bekräftigt. Texte enden mit Sätzen welche in die Titel unmittelbar folgender Abschnitte fliessen. In Kürze, ein biographisches Stückwerk. Geschichtliche Charaktergestalten erscheinen unverhofft und verblassen wieder und um den Überblick einer Epoche zu erleuchten werden seine Thesen zyklisch unterbrochen; ein Schnappschuss aus Madrid, London oder Paris. Die Methode entwickelt sich aus Barzuns umfassender humanwissenschaftlicher Sicht.
„Geschichte ist kein Zweckvermittler noch hegt sie eine versteckte Macht in sich; das Wort Geschichte ist ein Abstarktum für die Totalität aller menschlicher Begebenheiten, erhofft man jedoch durch zusammentreffende Ereignisse eine verborgene Absicht zu konstruieren, dann verwandelt man Menschen zu Marionetten."
Die Gefahr einer solchen anti-theoretischen Sicht ist, dass kohäsive Geschichtserzählung durch eine schildernde Auflistung von sich folgenden Begebenheiten zerstört werden kann. Barzuns verhindert eine solche Darstellung, indem er seine verschiedenen Methoden zusammen webt um anzudeuten, wenn nicht auf ein exaktes Muster, dann doch zumindest auf einen Input von Ursache und Wirkung (Kausalität). Zudem ist seine Redewendung leidenschaftlich, unberechenbar und spannend.
Schlicht eine eher schrulle Anthologie kritischer Biographien, trotzdem wird das Buch seinem Preis mehr als gerecht, wenngleich sein Standpunkt zur Geschichte auch öfters verblüfft. Barzuns Leidenschaft für das 16. Jahrhundert ist masslos, sie drangt ihn zur Überzeugung, dass die Epoche welche jetzt endet dann begonnen hatte. Dies, ob ihm lieb oder nicht, ist eine Theorie, vielleicht sogar eine „verborgene Absicht" - er möchte behaupten, dass es sich bei den letzten 500 Jahre tatsächlich um eine definierbare Epoche handelte, zum besseren Armieren seiner Schlussfolgerung, dass es jetzt vorbei ist.
Seine Leidenschaft gründet in den Entdeckungsreisen von Kolumbus, der Reformation und die Ausweisung der Moslimen (Mooren) aus Spanien. Gewiss waren dies Begebenheiten von nicht unbedeutender Tragweite um den Anfang einer neuen Zeitepoche anzudeuten, doch sie waren alle implizit verstrickt mit den vorhergehenden Jahrhunderten. In der Tat können sie gar nicht anders verstanden werden als Aspekte der verlängerten Flugbahn westlicher Zivilisation schlechthin. Barzun ist unhaltbar schwach wenn er versucht auf die Wurzeln 'seiner' Epoche zurück zu greifen. Er ist schlicht zu besessen mit dem Aufgang und Untergang den er in seinem halben Millennium sieht.
Im weiteren ist seine intellektuelle Haltung oft verblüffend. So zum Beispiel in seinen Diskussionen über den Relativismus, in denen er vermeidet, dass genau dieser als Quintessenz des Liberalismus zu verstehen ist - der ein Nebeneinander von sich konkurrenzierenden Absoluten fördert.
Seine Abscheu mit der Moderne zieht sich ungeschickt in die Länge, mit einem erweiterten Widerwillen gegen den Modernismus. Doch seine zentrale These, dass etwas jetzt endet und dass die Aussichten für das was kommen mag nicht gut sind, stehen für mich nicht in Frage. In diesem Buch geht es letztlich über den Verrat an der Geschichte von Seiten ihrer vermeintlichen Beschützer - der geistlichen Elite, der Mächtigen und Privilegierten. Anstelle haben diese sich dafür entschieden eine Welt ohne Vergangenheit-, die der modernen Wissenschaft und der Technokratie willkommen zu heissen. Dieser Entscheid stellt das Überleben westlicher Zivilisation in Frage und überlässt die Verantwortung an andere - an engagiert religiöse oder politische Randgruppierungen - wie hoffnungslos auch immer. Barzun zuzustimmen ist eines, seine affirmative Flamme mag unbeständig züngeln aber sie brennt zumindest.
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am 27. Juli 2000
Just to briefly note that Jacques Barzun's new book seems to have been completed in the middle 1990s, when he was in his late 80s! When published earlier this year, after some review period (and getting some good help at putting in a quite accurate and complete index, people and subjects), Mr. Barzun had moved towards his middle 90s.
Nevertheless, any reader will be hard put to find a more fully educated and civilized view of "western culture" since the Renaissance written for the good old educated layman. Mr. Barzun seems to have made a very conscious effort, however, in quite a few spots, to show us how very fully educated he is: giving us a few paragraphs or pages here and there on a large number of men and women probably unknown to most "educated laymen" who made big and often vast contributions to the West over the years.
Also note that he clearly went out of his way to show that in many periods in the last 500 years women were readily admitted to the various culture clubs. That is to say that they were fully recognized for their talents, their knowledge, their minds. It was quite a good thing for me, and I think a good thing for all of us to see that the peculiar attitudes towards women we've seen during many of the years from Victorian times up to the present do not represent women's lot in history. It is at the very least interesting to think about how it came about that in relatively recent years, women have in many ways lost ground and are looking for "the rooms of their own" many of them had in the past.
Be forewarned that Mr. Barzun's book is not a textbook nor is it a very ordered review of the last 500 or so years. It is rather one summing up (Mr. Barzun's biggest summing, I believe) of what he, one of the most knowing scholars and critics around today, has concluded about roughly what happened from there to here, and then to now.
He makes a very good case for the decadence in his title. He is generally very fair and just with people and events, but, note again, please, that you will read his opinions, not a "balanced" "coverage" of "the period" <S>
The book is well worth reading. His opinions are usually wonderful.
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am 11. Juli 2000
I rarely read history books. I spent nearly a month reading this 800-page book. Not surprisingly, it took Barzun "a lifetime" to write this book. From both standpoints, it was definitely worth the time and effort, for Barzun triumphs at bringing the last 500 years of Western culture to life for his reader.
One of the recurring points of this book is that there is cultural beauty buried in the silence of the past (p. 177). Western culture inches along not so much chronologically in this book as thematically. Barzun employs themes of emancipation, individualism, primitivism, abstraction, and self-consciousness to survey the last half millennium. Culture is not linear, Barzun observes, but rather "a web of many strands; none is spun by itself, nor is any cut off at a fixed date."
Barzun divides his book into four parts. Part I covers Luther's Protestant Reformation (the "ripple" that became a "tidal wave") to Pascal, and then Burton's studies on melancholy. Part II then picks up with the monarchial revolution of the 17th Century, ending with the French Revolution in 1789. Part III starts with Romanticism and ends with Freud. Part IV begins with the bloodshed of WWI, and ends by merging seamlessly into the present. Along the way, Barzun's observations are fascinating. For instance, we witness the 1755 Lisbon earthquake resulting in a "brutal confirmation of disbelief" in a personal God (p. 378). We visit the Cafe Procope in Paris during the 1820s and 1830s, "the meeting place of artists and writers native and foreign." During the Industrial Revolution, we find Thomas Carlyle guarding his soul from the flood of "cheap and nasty" goods, while manufacturers and bankers are all hoping to "get rich" (p. 526). At page 620, we meet Walter Pater attempting to live his life with intensity, "to burn with a gem-like flame."
Perhaps this is to say readers will find their own favorite sections of this book. One of mine was "Things Ride Mankind" (pp. 557-89), in which Barzun discusses in a single chapter the invention of the steam engine and railroad in 1830, Darwin's ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES in 1859 and the Victorian "debate on religion and science," the craze for "ghostly seances," Baudelaire's FLEURS DU MAL, bohemia, Florence Nightingale, and Karl Marx.
Again, I normally don't read history books, and strayed outside my usual reading habits by purchasing this book. But as I approached page 800 of Barzun's big, enjoyable book of history, I actually found myself hoping for more, and wondering, too, what cultural beauty will unfold in the next 500 years.
G. Merritt
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am 14. Juni 2000
Although my first love is reading about American history, an understanding of all the main events of Western Society since the discovery of America provided a very valuable read for me. For example, by understanding the Protestant Reformation better, religious movements in colonial America are put into better perspective. When I open a book of 800 or so pages, my first thought is "Oh Lord, how am I going to plow through this?" However, this book is so enthralling that it moves as quickly as a short novel. I find the type of writing in this book to be absolutely captivating.. the writing I refer to is that which has a point of view but is not the product of an idealogue. The author states an intelligent point of view, throughout, certainly one which can be disagreed with, but certainly reasonable and thoughtful. Barzun is like the great historian Paul Johnson in that he is able to weave biographical information of key historical figures as well as in depth coverage of culture, religion, economics, philosophy etc. Additionally, this is a history of real people, not just a survey of wars and great men/women. In this respect, the book is like Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern," and "History of the American People." Finally, I must point out that although a review stated that his viewpoint is generally conservative, he makes numerous points which would find agreement among leftists. True he defends Western culture and is wary of political correctness. However, he is not an obssessed idealogue and, as for example in his discussion of religious development, he offers observations which might offend traditionalists. Although he may, in fact, be generally conservative, I don't think his views are easily subject to labels. If you are interested in world events, this survey of the last half millenium is 5 stars plus! And, if you are interested in America, the development of world events in a time period coinciding with the development of the New World is a must. I highly recommend this book for all history lovers.
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am 14. Juni 2000
Barzun is 94 years old and has written more than thirty books. His career as a historian has been an amazing one, and this book gives evidence of his vast experience. The time period covered (500 years) is certainly a broad one. But it is a magnificently rich one to study. I bought the book because I was interested in reading about Renaissance and Baroque art and wanted to get a broader sense of historical context. I got that and much more... politics, philosophy, religion, and more are discussed with reference to one another and with an amazing sense of cohesion.
Barzun speaks with a truly historical perspective. He never fails to be thorough, insightful, probing, and penetrating in his analysis. His lucidity and clarity are amazing; as I said his vast experience as a historian is evident. He is always impartial, rendering a truly helpful take on whatever he adresses. His approaches are always fresh - he dispels common misconceptions and gives the reader a more accurate historical perspective. His sense of focus is remarkable. The book is 800 pages long, but it never loses a sense of the big picture it is painting. Barzun names a few common themes of change in the last 5 centuries and they become threads which reappear constantly in his narrative. None of his thoughtful observations go without context and relation to his overarching argument. The impact of events becomes clear through Barzun's careful analysis.
His writing style is most enjoyable. He is quite casual without lacking anything in specificity. His prose is always engaging - it makes this massive work of cultural history a joy to read. Barzun's quickness to get to the heart of the matter and the ease with which he resolves historical questions are amazing and sometimes bring a smile to my face. His wit is a welcome addition to such an easy-to-read style. His sense of humor is subtle but piercing, accompanying perfectly his lucidity of thought.
This book will not fail to please you, whatever historical interests you may have. It is so far-reaching (while still amazingly focused) that there is something here for everyone. Critical praise has been heaped on this book - it is, to me, one of the greatest and yet most approachable works of history to come along in a while.
Most highly recommended...
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am 1. Juni 2000
I wasn't sure what to think while I was reading. But, I couldn't put this down. While reading, I thought Barzun crammed tightly so many ideas, events, details, and biographies that he verged on stimulus overload. Later, when remembering names or events that I encountered when watching TV or reading, I realized how much of the book is retainable.
Barzun is a famous stylist. Given how much I admire his writing, I was at first disappointed in the prose. This is not to say that it's written poorly. Only that I think Barzun was more concerned with imparting information in a straightforward way. Nevertheless, certain passages still sing.
I was also at first put off by the many biographies interspersed throughout the narrative. But, then again, after awhile I looked forward to them. They not only add information about famous persons, but color.
Barzun believes certain ideas-individualism, primitivism, self-consciousness, etc-are singularly Western. He uses all capital letters to denote these ideas each time they appear in the narrative. At first, these bothered me because I thought they were trite. But, again, I realized that Barzun was attempting to remind readers of the consistency of Western thought. He demonstrates that so many modern or even post-modern theories, which claim to be avant-guard and even anti-Western, really have deep cultural roots in the very things they revile.
This book is a challenge to those finding it fashionable to denounce Western Civilization. As Barzun says: "[T]he West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere." We are rightly proud of them.
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am 14. Juni 2000
Barzun's work is at once entertaining and analytical. Although one may at first be skeptical about the accidental relationship between the themes he compares, Barzun ultimately runs full circle by articulating a cultural commonality, a narrative thread to the past 500 years.
There are a thousand lanes in the literary city which Barzun erects: at each there is a scene which relates a unique persona, odd events, and concrete specifics of the ages. Although disparate, these events, ideas, and persons which Barzun covers are by no means inconsequential. Barzun argues (successfully, in my own view, judge for yourself) that several dominant themes and tendencies of "the West" are truly virtues, in need of being saved and perpetuated.
No Pangloss, Barzun is more than ready to admit the faults and vices which have gripped "the West" throughout the past half-millenia". His hesitancy to launch right out into uncritical praise makes From Dawn to Decadence all the more objective.
From Dawn to Decadence is immense, scholarly, and cleanly articulated. Barzun's unique faculty for fresh insight abounds, and his reluctance to end at the first layer of analysis gives the reader a fairly deep understanding of the themes and patterns of Western culture. Traditionally historical works impart the "what?" of history: Barzun reflects upon the "so what?" of human events. Both historical and argumentative, From Dawn to Dusk is a well-balanced inquiry into the relationship between ideas and events.
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am 24. Mai 2000
This book begins with the Protestant Reformation in 1517, and continues to the present day. Many times histories can be very dry and difficult to read, but this 877 page book covers 500 years of Western Cultural Life in a very readable manner. The focus is on all the facets of Western culture through the centuries. This book is about 500 years of art, politics, religion, writing, philosophy, science, morals, and manners. One of the things that makes the book so interesting is that not only are historical and cultural revolutions covered, but the part that people had in important events and their effects on real people are described. The importance of individual people is greatly stressed in the book. This book shows that we all have many connections with the past. The events of each century have effected what happened in the following centuries, and in our lives today. Jacques Barzun describes our current age as being decadent; but that sense of decadence is really the end of one age and a new beginning for the future. That new beginning can see another flowering of Western culture. This book is the work of a lifetime, and I always had that awareness while reading it. There is a vast richness in the depth and range of this book that any review can only briefly describe. Reading this book is like looking back through the footprints of time, and seeing many of the places that we came from. Then there is also a vision of the path that may lay before us in the future. I recommend this excellent book to everyone.
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