In the last half-millennium, as the noted cultural critic and historian Jacques Barzun observes, great revolutions have swept the Western world. Each has brought profound change--for instance, the remaking of the commercial and social worlds wrought by the rise of Protestantism and by the decline of hereditary monarchies. And each, Barzun hints, is too little studied or appreciated today, in a time he does not hesitate to label as decadent.
To leaf through Barzun's sweeping, densely detailed but lightly written survey of the last 500 years is to ride a whirlwind of world-changing events. Barzun ponders, for instance, the tumultuous political climate of Renaissance Italy, which yielded mayhem and chaos, but also the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo--and, he adds, the scientific foundations for today's consumer culture of boom boxes and rollerblades. He considers the 16th-century varieties of religious experimentation that arose in the wake of Martin Luther's 95 theses, some of which led to the repression of individual personality, others of which might easily have come from the "Me Decade." Along the way, he offers a miniature history of the detective novel, defends Surrealism from its detractors, and derides the rise of professional sports, packing in a wealth of learned and often barbed asides.
Never shy of controversy, Barzun writes from a generally conservative position; he insists on the importance of moral values, celebrates the historical contributions of Christopher Columbus, and twits the academic practitioners of political correctness. Whether accepting of those views or not, even the most casual reader will find much that is new or little-explored in this attractive venture into cultural history. --Gregory McNamee
'This astonishing and monumental work may fairly take its place alongside Gibbon, and for much the same array of qualities: a majestic view of five hundred years of history, done in great style, with vast erudition and a continuously entertaining idiosyncrasy of judgement' ALISTAIR COOKE 'To define Western culture is the most delicate and difficult of all operations. Jacques Barzun is one of the most cultivated exemplars of Western civilization and his book contains the experience and the reflection of a lifetime. He tells us not to judge past centuries by our standards and to recognize that, however different, those centuries have made us what we are.' NOEL ANNAN 'Jacques Barzun's summa is the work of a very great historian and of a seer. The phrase from the Bible in apposite: "The hearing ear, and the seeing eye" is his great gift - and a gift to his readers.' JOHN LUKACS 'From Dawn to Decadence is a personal, witty, learned, bold, and above all wise retrospect of the past half-millennium. One will read it through with mounting interest, and then go back again and again to savour favourite parts of it' GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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