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From Dawn to Decadence (2000)

by Jacques Barzun

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,291342,992 (4.1)63
"A stunning five-century study of civilization's cultural retreat."  -- William Safire, New York Times Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500. Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaissance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have been forgotten or obscured. His compelling chapters--such as "Puritans as Democrats," "The Monarchs' Revolution," and "The Artist Prophet and Jester"--show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the era.   The triumphs and defeats of five hundred years form an inspiring saga that modifies the current impression of one long tale of oppression by white European males. Women and their deeds are prominent, and freedom (even in sexual matters) is not an invention of the last decades. And when Barzun rates the present not as a culmination but a decline, he is in no way a prophet of doom. Instead, he shows decadence as the normal close of great periods and a necessary condition of the creative novelty that will burst forth--tomorrow or the next day. Only after a lifetime of separate studies covering a broad territory could a writer create with such ease the synthesis displayed in this magnificent volume.… (more)
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» See also 63 mentions

English (33)  Italian (1)  All languages (34)
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
I read this several years ago, while Barzun trod the earth. Most of it is worth five stars. But there is a serious flaw. Barzun had no clue how science works. His anti-science attitude was sadly misdirected. His declared beef was in fact against a caricature of science and scientists, a cartoon fancy held by some people who haven't any idea how, for example, a radio works beyond the knobs on the front. Barzun appeared to be one of them. Thus his proper argument lay with his own bias; a paradox that he failed to divine.

Or perhaps he painted himself into a corner by his pretentious choice of book title and preferred a willful ignorance about the enormous value created throughout the 20th century in many domains. That effect may explain the poor reaction of many goodreads reviewers to the last part of the book.

I don't recall Barzun giving any recognition to scientists or science, or noticing the influence of science upon events and ideas, or of events and ideas upon science. An excellent remedy is "The Western Intellectual Tradition, from Leonardo to Hegel" by Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish, a balanced and very readable survey of the same subject by eminent scholars, solid five stars.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/455391.The_Western_Intellectual_Tradition_fr... ( )
  KENNERLYDAN | Jul 11, 2021 |
During the May 68 uprising in France, a phrase that was written on a wall somewhere read: "Professors, you make us grow old." That moment in history is one of my favorites to read about, but the above quote never totally clicked with me. Now that I've read this book by Jacques Barzun, a stuffy liberal studies professor, I totally get it.

Seriously, this guy has such a wettie for western civ. Also, he thinks "decadence" is an insult, wtf? My favorite part was his comparing the (at the time) recent influx of privilege politics into the academy to the Inquisition. Or, even better, maybe it was the European witchhunts, I don't remember. Either way...totally bro, you're such a victim. ( )
  100sheets | Jun 7, 2021 |
NA
  pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |
An extremely thorough book full of intelligent ideas, most of which - I'm sad to say - were beyond the reach of my IQ. In fits and starts I had to claw my way through this read with only bursts of understanding in the way of a fantastic quote or enlightening passage to keep me moving on. I would still recommend it, Jacques Barzun is brilliant, however one must have great powers of concentration to be able to digest such an undertaking as this. ( )
  knp4597 | Mar 19, 2018 |
FIRST SENTENCE : “The Modern Era begins, characteristically, with a revolution. It is commonly called the Protestant Reformation, but the train of events starting early in the 16C and ending—if indeed it has ended—more than a century later has all the features of a revolution.”

REVIEW : Barzun, in his master opus, attempts to organize the Western cultural history of the last 500 years, chiefly around principles like Emancipation, Self-Determination, Primitivism. He has insights but expects a lot from the reader. The more you know, the more Barzun will help you organize your existing knowledge. He provides a narrative, not a detailed account. Writing style a bit peculiar, a zest of obsession for Operas.

QUOTES : “During the writing of this book I was frequently asked by friends and colleagues how long its preparation had taken. I could only answer: a lifetime.”
“The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.”

RATING : ★★★☆☆ Very Good
Read in January 2018, Nouméa. ( )
  Niurn | Jan 6, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jacques Barzunprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cuéllar, JesúsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodríguez Halffter, EvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Mankind does nothing save through initiatives on the part of inventors, great or small, and imitation by the rest of us  Individuals show the way, set the patterns.  The rivalry of the patterns is the history of the world. - William James (1908)
Dedication
To All Whom It May Concern
First words
The Modern Era begins, characteristically, with a revolution.
Quotations
How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event - tidal wave from a ripple - is cause for endless astonishment. . . . ardent youths full of hope as they catch the drift of the idea, rowdies looking for fun, and characters with a grudge. Cranks and tolerated lunatics come out of houses, criminals out of hideouts, and all assert themselves.
The "findings" [of scientism] have inspired policies affecting daily life that were enforced with the same absolute assurance as earlier ones based on religion.
This opposition to freedom of thought must, according to that very thought, be tolerated, thus creating a general lack of direction that a dictator will supply.
Providence, like predestination, lifts the burden of responsibility from the individual, as does their equivalent today: scientific and psychological determinism eliminates responsibility for bahavior, crime included.
What the journalists of every type see as their proper task is to form, with the help of rumor and current prejudice, what is called public opinion.
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"A stunning five-century study of civilization's cultural retreat."  -- William Safire, New York Times Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500. Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaissance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have been forgotten or obscured. His compelling chapters--such as "Puritans as Democrats," "The Monarchs' Revolution," and "The Artist Prophet and Jester"--show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the era.   The triumphs and defeats of five hundred years form an inspiring saga that modifies the current impression of one long tale of oppression by white European males. Women and their deeds are prominent, and freedom (even in sexual matters) is not an invention of the last decades. And when Barzun rates the present not as a culmination but a decline, he is in no way a prophet of doom. Instead, he shows decadence as the normal close of great periods and a necessary condition of the creative novelty that will burst forth--tomorrow or the next day. Only after a lifetime of separate studies covering a broad territory could a writer create with such ease the synthesis displayed in this magnificent volume.

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