Study Guide

From Dawn to Decadence

by Jacques Barzun

From Dawn to Decadence Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Jacques Barzun has had a stellar career—or, rather, several of them. He was an influential teacher-scholar at Columbia University, where he and the critic Lionel Trilling conducted a famous colloquium on the Great Books. He also undertook a second occupation as an administrator, serving as dean of the arts faculty and provost at Columbia. For many years he, Trilling, and the poet W. H. Auden ran the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, taking turns at writing essays about their monthly selections. He also wrote twenty-nine books that impressed both academics and general readers, including Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941), Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943), and a two-volume study, Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950). He is surely the dean of American humanistic scholars.

Barzun’s perspective in this prodigious work is one of aristocratic pessimism. He regards the end of the twentieth century as also the end of the Western culture that began with the Protestant Reformation, with Martin Luther a Karl Marx figure to John Calvin’s V. I. Lenin. Since the Reformation (1500-1660), Barzun regards only three movements as powerful enough to transvalue Western culture with seismic waves: the rise of monarchy and the development of the nation-state (1660-1789); the political and social consequences of the French Revolution (1789-1920); and the present, beginning in 1920, with the aftershocks of World War I, the Soviet experiment, and the “demotic,” dominant culture of the United States.

Barzun’s work could hardly be more ambitious: He seeks to trace the evolution of Western art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought for five hundred years. He views the West as a “mongrel civilization” whose purposes have now been executed to their utmost possibility, resulting in a series of deadlocks: for and against nationalism, individualism, the high arts, strict morals, and religious commitment. His goal as a historian is to be a storyteller whose pragmatic philosophy sharply distinguishes him from such programmatic historians as Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee.

The book is beautifully built, with sections that correspond as much to patterns of thought and themes—primitivism, individualism, emancipation, and so forth—as to historical events. Barzun includes interchapters offering “the view” from various cities at a given date—for example, Madrid in 1540, London in 1715, Weimar in 1790, Chicago in 1895—serving as hooks from which to hang a consideration of the relevant epoch. Thus there is “The View from Madrid,” with the city becoming a European capital as Charles V became head of an empire whose extent was twenty times that of the ancient Roman Empire. Charles became a great conqueror largely because of his use of the Spanish infantry (from the Spanish infanteria) in battle formations of tight squares of men to break up formerly decisive cavalry charges. The Spaniard’s fighting spirit was rooted in a religious hatred for groups that included the Jews, who had been tolerated and influential among the Arabs. Vanquished Jews could become converts, but nonetheless kept being persecuted on suspicion of having only feigned conversion; ultimately they were expelled or executed after inquisitions.

Barzun’s thinkers and artists are all flesh-and-blood creatures. There is the Renaissance humanist François Rabelais, a distinguished physician who invented devices for the treatment of hernia and fractured bones, mastered many languages, was competent in jurisprudence, published scientific papers, and also happened to be a literary genius. HisGargantua (1534, English translation, 1653) proposes a Eutopia (Barzun’s preferred spelling) in the Abbey of Thélème, wherein men and women live together in courtesy and mutual respect, in contrast to the petty strictures of monasticism. Rabelais is exhilarated and amused by the human body—in contrast, writes Barzun sourly, to James Joyce’s representation of the physical as mean, furtive, and disgusting.

Barzun celebrates the humanistic and skeptical essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne as the discoverer of self-consciousness and character. Before him, the accepted idea of personality was that it was ruled by one of the body’s “humors”: A person was choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, or melancholic. In contrast, Montaigne regards the individual as deeper, more complex, more variable, more many-sided, less consistent.

William Shakespeare is considered here both as an Elizabethan and as a universal writer for all ages. Like Montaigne, he presents characters, not merely types. Before him, dramatic personages were single-tracked in their headlong roles, the shifts in their actions being caused by the actions of others. Yet Shakespeare’s protagonists are “as various as we feel ourselves to be.” As a consequence of this multidimensional mapping, literature has since filled the Western mind with a galaxy of characters whom readers often know better than themselves or their friends.

Barzun extends considerable space to supporting players in history’s...

(The entire section is 2102 words.)