From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

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Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

In this account, Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaisance 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 "Puritans as Democrats," "The Monarch's Revolution," "The Artist Prophet and Jester" — show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the eras.

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 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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Jacques Barzun is the dean of American intellectuals. From Dawn to Decadence is, in many ways, the crowning achievement of his long career. Not just cursory summary that one might expect of a book of this breadth, this 500-year study represents a major reexamination of Western cultural life, where it has gone, and where it is going. As the New York Times reviewer put it, "in short...peerless."
John Gross
In From Dawn to Decadence, Mr. Barzun shepards us through five centuries of Western cultures. The book is so readable, and its handling of even familiar matters so fresh, is its civilized, conversational, witty, jargon-eschewing tone of voice. It is a highly personal book without being an eccentric one.
Wall Street Journal
National Review
How many times in one's life does one get to welcome a masterpiece, which, without a doubt, this amazing work certainly is?
New Yorker
Barzun writes with unfailing, stylish lucidity and enlivens his vast tale with ingenious devices.
Library Journal
Preeminent scholar Barzun brilliantly and succinctly narrates the saga of 500 years of Western cultural history. He came to the United States from France in 1920, becoming professor of history at Columbia University and eventually dean of faculties and provost. To hear these tapes is like attending a fast-paced seminar from a professor with a lively and fertile mind. Chronologically, the topics range from Martin Luther to the Internet and include a mosaic of miniature portraits of artists and intellectuals that give meaning, color, and texture to each era. Barzun never ignores other interpretations and cites alternative sources on every crucial issue; the breadth and depth of his synthesis are breathtaking. The area most open to criticism is the treatment of the so-called "decline" of Western culture mostly things that annoy the 93-year-old Barzun, e.g., moral relativism, hypersexuality, and computer nerds. But his faults give the listener an opening for discussion. A magnificent book, ably read by Edward Lewis. James Dudley, Westhampton Beach, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
William R. Everdell
A great achievement. Encyclopedic without being discontinuous, the book hardly seems as long, as carefully constructed or as densely packed as it is. Though the ideas it explains are often complicated, the explanations it offers are limpidly clear . . .
The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
An immense, ambitious panaroma of the period that historians call "modern" and that the venerable author believes is ending. Barzun writes with unfailing, stylish lucidity and enlivens his tale with ingenious devices, such as entering into the preoccupations of the past through a particular time and place (Venice in 1650, say, or Chicago in 1895).
Alan Messmer
Written with compassion, respect, dignity, and wit, Barzun's latest is probably the best single volume account of the evolution of modern Western culture to date.
The Christian Science Monitor
If you're not used to sitting on the edge of your seat for 750 pages, saying "Well, I'll be damned!" every paragraph or so, you should go into training before taking on From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun's intensely engaging history of Western culture after 1500.
Kirkus Reviews
This lively and opinionated survey of western culture marks the capstone of the noted scholar's intellectual career. Many academics can't be found in the pages they write. Barzun (former provost and professor at Columbia) is everywhere present in his. His seemingly limitless learning, wit, and always distinctive views shine in every paragraph of this, his first full-fledged trade publication since A Stroll with William James (1983). Few scholars combine erudition with such clarity and ease of expression as he does; few wear their learning so lightly or write so purposefully for the general reader. Now 93, Barzun seems to have read and to know everything. Starting with Luther's revolution within Catholic Christendom, Barzun describes, evaluates, and, yes, judges the events, people, and ideas that have composed the history of western Europe and its overseas transplants for a half-millennium. But this is no textbook: it sparkles and courses through time and places like water in a clean-running brook. Readers will gain new insight here into figures, movements, books, and ideas that are probably already familiar; they will also discover little-known individuals, works, and events. One of the book's distinctive features is Barzun's engaging method for encouraging his readers to deepen their knowledge. Rather than conventional footnotes or lists for further reading, he gives direct, parenthetical exhortations ("the book to read is . . ."). Also characteristically, he never minces words: early 20th-century intellectuals, he states, gave a "turncoat response" to the Great War of which they were initially "rabid glorifiers." In addition to suchbracingfrankness, the book justifies its price simply by the wonderful quotations that stud the margins of its pages. Barzun is pessimistic about the West's future, but his gloomy views rarely cloud his judgment and do not, fortunately, permeate the text. In every way, this is a book to savor. An extraordinary achievement by one of the glittering minds of our time. First serial to American Scholar; Book-of-the-Month Club selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060928834
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: 1ST PERENN
  • Pages: 912
  • Sales rank: 190,445
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in France in 1907, Jacques Barzun came to the United States in 1920. After graduating from Columbia College, he joined the faculty of the university, becoming Seth Low Professor of History and, for a decade, Dean of Faculties and Provost. The author of some thirty books, including the New York Times bestseller From Dawn to Decadence, he received the Gold Medal for Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he was twice president. He lived in San Antonio, Texas, before passing away at age 104.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The West Torn Apart

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. I take these to be: the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea.

We have got into the habit of calling too many things revolutions. Given a new device or practice that changes our homely habits, we exclaim: "revolutionary!" But revolutions change more than personal habits or a widespread practice. They give culture a new face. Between the great upheaval of the 1500s and the present, only three later ones are of the same order. True, the history books give the name to a dozen or more such violent events, but in these uprisings it was only the violence that was great. They were but local aftershocks of one or other of the four main quakes: the 16C religious revolution; the 17C monarchical revolution; the liberal, individualist "French" revolution that straddles the 18th and 19th; and the 20C "Russian," social and collectivist.

The quotation marks around French and Russian are meant to show that those names are only conventional. The whole western world was brooding over the Idea of each before it exploded into war, and the usual dates 1789 and 1917 mark only the trigger incidents. It took decades for the four to work out their first intention and side effects-and their ruling ideas have not ceased to act.

One must speak of the West as being torn apart in the 16C because Europe would beinexact. Europe is the peninsula that juts out from the great mass of Asia without a break and is ridiculously called a continent. In the 16C revolution only the westernmost part of that peninsula was affected: from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy to the Atlantic Ocean. The Balkans belonged to the Moslem Turks and Russia was Orthodox Christian, not Catholic. For the West, in this clearly defined sense, it would be convenient to say "the Occident."

To call the first of the four revolutions religious is also inadequate. It did indeed cause millions to change the forms of their worship and the conception of their destiny. But it did much besides. It posed the issue of diversity of opinion as well as of faith. It fostered new feelings of nationhood. It raised the status of the vernacular languages. It changed attitudes toward work, art, and human failings. It deprived the West of its ancestral sense of unity and common descent. Lastly but less immediately, by emigration to the new world overseas, it brought an extraordinary enlargement of die meaning of West and the power of its civilization.

When the miner's son from Saxony, Luther, Lhuder, Lutter, or Lotharius as he was variously known, posted his 95 propositions on the door of All Saints' church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, the last thing he wanted to do was to break up his church, the Catholic (= "universal"), and divide his world into warring camps.

Nor was he performing an unusual act. He was a monk and professor of theology at the newly founded university of Wittenberg (where Hamlet later studied), and it was common practice for clerics to start a debate in this fashion. The equivalent today would be to publish a provocative article in a learned journal. A German scholar has recently argued that Luther never posted his theses. Whether he did or not, they circulated quickly; he had made copies and sent them to friends, who recopied and passed them on. Soon, Luther had the uneasy surprise of receiving them back from South Germany, printed.

This little fact is telling. Luther's hope of reform might have foundered like many others of the previous 200 years, had it not been for the invention of printing. Gutenberg's movable type, already in use for some 40 years, was the physical instrument that tore the West asunder. But one point about the new technc is worth noting: the printing press by itself was not enough: better paper, a modified ink, and a body of experienced craftsmen were also needed to make type a power. Pamphlets could now be produced quickly, accurately, in quantity, and, compared to manuscript copies, cheaply.

Many of the Protestant tracts were illustrated with woodcuts, by Cranach, Dürer, and other leading artists, which helped propaganda by attracting the illiterate: their friends read them the text. No longer always in Latin for clerics only, but in one of the common tongues, the 16C literature of biblical argument and foul invective began what we now call the popularization of ideas through the first of the mass media.

Some notion of the force wielded by this new artifact, "the book," may be gathered from the estimate that by the first year of the 16C, 40,000 separate editions of all kinds of works had been issued-roughly nine million volumes from more than a hundred presses. During the Protestant struggle some towns had half a dozen firms working day and night, their messengers leaving every few hours with batches of sheets under their cloaks, the ink hardly dry, for delivery to safe distributors-the first underground press. [The book to browse in is: The Coming of the Book by Lucien Febvre and Jean Martin.]

If Luther had no thought of setting off a revolution, what was his aim? He only wanted to elicit the truth about the sacrament of penance." An innocent question, but timely, because of the current sale of "indulgences." These were a sort of certified check drawn by the pope on the"treasury of merit accumulated by the saints." In popular belief, buying one enabled the holder to finesse penance and shorten his or her time in Purgatory--or that of a friend or relative. Luther wanted to know whether any substitute for true remorse and active penance could be bought in the open market. He thought the only treasure of the church was the gospel.

Many besides Luther had felt true piety and wanted to worship sincerely, not buy their way into heaven. One form of awakened faith was significantly called devotio moderna.The formation of groups like the Brothers of the Common Life, the founding of new grammar schools, works such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, and the spontaneous attitude of ordinary folk showed that the work of earlier reformers was bearing fruit.

These reformers had been many. From Wycliff in 14th-century England to John Huss in Bohemia in the 15th, heroic attempts had been made to "go back to the primitive church," the humble early Christians, whose only church was their elected overseers. For them the gospel had been enough and so it should still be.

From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 to the Present. Copyright © by Jacques Barzun. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Author's Note xiii
Prologue: From Current Concerns to the Subject of This Book xvii
Part I From Luther's Ninety-five Theses to Boyle's "Invisible College" 1
Part II From the Bog and Sand of Versailles to the Tennis Court 237
Part III From Faust, Part I, to the "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2" 463
Part IV From "The Great Illusion" to "Western Civ Has Got to Go" 681
Reference Notes 803
Index of Persons 829
Index of Subjects 853
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2000

    Historical Origins of the Contemporary World

    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

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2010

    Expanded Table of Contents for Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence

    This book covers a lot of ground at different levels. It is "mountainous" as the author said of one of his favorites, Montaigne. To help readers over the terrain, I have constructed an expanded table of contents of the book: Enjoy the book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2006

    Boring, Tedious and Meandering

    For someone who evidently pontificated about being simple and direct, this book is the antithesis of both. Virtually every page drips with the condescending snobbery of a 'man of letters' who has seen and read about it all before. I was often left scratching my head at the end of a section, and wondering why I was forced to suffer the endless juxtapositions and what was the salient point of the bloated writing style. I am fascinated with European History, and if I had began with this book years ago I would have dumped the subject.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2001

    Brilliant, but Excessively French

    The book is surely a tour-de-force. It is the distillation of the wisdom and learning of one of the 20th century's greatest intellects. Any educated person should want to read it, will enjoy reading it, and will gain by reading it. In his review of 'western cultural life' over the past 500 years, however, Barzun exaggerates the influence and value of Frenchmen/women. That, my judgment, is subjective. So are Barzun's however. The impartial reader may be convinced by Barzun's claim that Hector Berlioz was the greatest master of melody since Mozart. Greater than Beethoven -- or Schubert? Than Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti? (And Wagner, Verdi, Schumann, and Brahms had also produced works of great melodic beauty by the time of Berlioz's death.)

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2001

    Great book, but Barzun gets cranky in the end

    Jacques Barzun presents a wonderful survey of ideas. It's the kind that I'll have to read at least twice to begin to absorb it. Still, his assessment of the 20th century is largely superficial. It might be better titled, 'From Dawn to Decadence: 430 years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to 1930.' Barzun seems less a scholar talking about this century than a cranky professor. Still, I recommend it for Barzun's wonderful way of weaving together the thinking and events of the last half millennium.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2013

    Well-written, insightful history of our civilization

    I'm still reading this book, and I'm reading it slowly because I am learning so much. I find myself making notes in the margins as well as jotting down thoughts and quotes in my journal. Anyone who senses something is amiss with our present day culture and wants to understand how we got here might want to try this book.

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  • Posted October 6, 2010

    Not Recommended - I haven't been so disappointed in a book in a long time

    After reading glowing reviews, I bought the book anticipating a great reading experience. Wrong.

    Maybe it's a case of the emperor's new clothes; no one wants to admit having difficulty following the author's writing because they agree with his opinions. Honestly, I don't think JB is capable of writing a simple sentence. Oh, the grammar, syntax, and punctuation are all fine, but the writing is convoluted. It's rambling. It's less history and more pontification. I thought that perhaps my reading level had slipped in the last few years, so I showed a couple of paragraphs to others, including my daughter who has a Masters in writing. Her response was, "That's how they told us not to write."

    If I could get a refund, I'd return it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2001


    The Fortune of being a learned Citizen of this great Syetem . In respect of the system atomic weights and measures. I can only obtain what is only written in our presents :From dawn to Decadence :500 Years of Western Cultural Life,1500 to the Present. To understand is become in present nature.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2000

    Why does Barzon hate Shakespeare?

    This is my first reading of this author. I must say he is delightful to read especially his handling of such an all encompassing subject.However ,I can see the French bias toward the English people every now and then.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 28, 2009

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    Posted November 20, 2008

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    Posted April 29, 2009

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    Posted November 29, 2012

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    Posted April 15, 2009

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