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From Dawn to Decadence: Western Culture from 1500 to the Present: 500
Years of Western Cultural Life
by Jacques Barzun
San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000
(877 pages; $36.00, cloth)
reviewed by Gerald J. Russello
Decadence has been a consistent theme of reflection in the West. At almost every point in Western history—even those that we now would consider high points—there have been those looking back to a supposedly higher or better past. This way of thinking is at least as old as the Greeks, who lamented the passing of the Homeric age of heroes. Oswald Spengler famously revived the idea in his Decline of the West, which remains a classic analysis.
More recently, the notion of decline has received new emphasis, this time from defenders of traditional Western values against those who wish to jettison the particular features of the Western heritage in favor of anarchy or some vaguely defined “global” culture. Is there a way to analyze whether there is, in fact, a central core to Western culture and to ascertain whether that core has been degraded over time? The critic Russell Kirk liked to quote a definition of decadence offered by the philosopher C. E. M. Joad: It is the loss of an object. In this magisterial book, Jacques Barzun reviews the historical record of the last half-millennium of Western history to determine exactly what it is that has been lost.
Barzun has long been one of the nation’s great critics, producing an astonishing array of studies since the 1950s on subjects ranging from music to history. Over the course of his long career, he has more than fully satisfied the double role required of a critic. Based on the experience of the past, he offers both a critique of the present and suggestions for the future. In a democracy that prides itself on a total separation from the past and an obsession with self-invention, this can be a task with few rewards. That Barzun does not hesitate to skewer sacred cows only increases the difficulty. His opinions will be, in some quarters, unpopular; the defense of non-gender-inclusive language he presents in this book, for example, is forthright and essentially incontestable.
From Dawn to Decadence has the feel of a textbook in its range and subject matter, but Barzun has added several features that make the book easier to read and more comprehensible than the average textbook. It is thoroughly cross-referenced, an acknowledgement that history cannot so easily be sectioned off into discrete bits. Thus, Barzun notes throughout the narrative where other discussions of the same topic can be found, and adds bibliographical references for further reading. Each chapter is enhanced by quotes, placed in the margins, of the chapter’s major figures. So, for example, while being treated with a delightful summary of Rabelais’s life and work, we can also enjoy his actual words.
In what is perhaps the book’s most enjoyable feature, Barzun intersperses within the larger narrative short chapters entitled “Cross-Sections,” which give a view of a particular period from a particular place: Madrid in the mid-sixteenth century, or London at around 1715. (The book itself closes with a “view from New York around 1995.”) Barzun uses these interludes to great advantage, presenting a large amount of information in a coherent framework with a precise focus. Within the chapters themselves, Barzun has included brief biographical sketches of figures—beginning with Erasmus and continuing through to James Agate—who have contributed to Western civilization over the last five centuries.
The proper telling of history, of course, involves more than the accumulation and recapitulation of information. Because no one writer can possibly encompass all of history, the historian must choose which story he is to tell. And in doing so, what emerges is, to borrow a term used by the historian John Lukacs, participant history. There is an inevitable interchange between the historical circumstances that form the materials for the historian and the historian’s written efforts. In the process of selection and emphasis, the historian himself becomes a part of the story, making history not an objective “science” that may be plucked from the ether, or a mere collection of statistics, but a moral enterprise involving choice and selection. In an essay written in 1983 and entitled “Where Is History Now?” Barzun decried the waning of traditional narrative history within the bounds of chronology in favor of what he described as “retrospective sociology.” From Dawn to Decadence is a glorious revival of history in the old style.
In crafting his text in a particular manner, Barzun of course is making a point. The book is a particular kind of history: Battles and great political issues figure in, but above all Barzun is writing a cultural history. Barzun argues that the West has developed a definite culture over the last five centuries, which can be identified and separated from the West’s tendency to assimilate words, institutions, and ideas from other cultures. This identifiable cultural core includes the ways in which the West understands its history, and the connections it makes between the present and the past. That this concept should need a defense is only a sign of how far we have drifted away from understanding the true roots of our own culture.
Just as the West has been characterized by the ideas that helped it remain a cultural unity (which, Barzun reminds us, are always the work of individuals who embody and project those ideas), there are also ideas that have divided the West. Barzun names as the most important of these emancipation and primitivism. Both represent a rejection of inherited culture. The first term signifies the emergence of the “full-blown individual,” endowed with an endless panoply of rights that the individual can assert against any external pressure, almost without limitation. Thus, religion, traditional morality, and education must accommodate the individual’s wishes. Of course, as Barzun astutely notes, one’s rights often—and increasingly—bump into the equally “absolute” rights of others. This clash of absolutes has resulted not in more freedom, but, Barzun argues, in a system of government that increasingly monitors its citizens’ behavior for instances of “violating” another’s rights.
The second concept, primitivism, is a rejection of the idea of civilization itself. It is a notion that goes back at least as far as the Roman historian Tacitus, who contrasted the supposedly noble and courageous Germans with the decadent Romans. The idea that civilization needs to be simplified to reveal the “true” nature of society or faith has been a consistent theme in the West, usually carried out with disastrous results. It appeared during the Protestant Reformation in the effort to return to a “primitive” church. And, drawing from Rousseau and the immense new expanses of the New World, the eighteenth century was awash in theories of the “noble savage” and the idealization of non-European indigenous peoples. But, of course, such notions cannot be taken too far. Everyone, even those who think of themselves as “emancipated,” can do so only because of thousands of others who have contributed their words and deeds to developing the ideas and institutions within which we move.
Barzun takes the dominance of these themes in contemporary life as evidence that the West has become “decadent”; that is, that it has fallen away from any sense of purpose or unity in its culture. The West, he says, is filled with “open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths.” Like the historian Christopher Dawson, Barzun contends that a culture is animated by its ideas and by its ideals. When those are lost, boredom and exhaustion are the results. Thus, Barzun finds that the pluralism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which featured the growth of the nation-state and relative stability, in the present has been replaced by “separatism,” which denies the common culture and its historical memories. “The end of the half millennium destroyed what the beginning had so painfully accomplished: [It had] put an end to feudal wars by welding together neighboring regions, assimilated foreign enclaves, set up strong kings over large territories and done everything to foster loyalty to something larger than the eye could see.” His final chapter, “Demotic Life and Times,” portrays a culture in free-fall, its institutions largely ruined and its members seeking only pleasure or convenience.
Barzun does not end—entirely—on that dyspeptic note. He concludes with a fanciful portrayal of the rediscovery of the heritage of the West and, with it, a revival of true learning. Should Barzun’s predictions come to pass, From Dawn to Decadence will be a key text in that process of rediscovery.
Gerald J. Russello is an attorney in New York City and the editor of Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (Catholic University of America Press).
Gerald J. Russello is Editor of The University Bookman and a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.