Cover image for From dawn to decadence : 500 years of cultural life, 1500 to the present
From dawn to decadence : 500 years of cultural life, 1500 to the present
Barzun, Jacques, 1907-2012.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2000]

Physical Description:
xviii, 877 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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CB245 .B365 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
CB245 .B365 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
CB245 .B365 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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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.

Author Notes

Jacques Barzun was born in Créteil, France on November 30, 1907. He came to the United States in 1920 and graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University in 1927. Following graduation, he joined Columbia's faculty as an instructor while continuing his studies in graduate school there, receiving a master's degree in 1928 and a doctorate in French history in 1932. He became a full professor in 1945, was dean of graduate faculties from 1955 to 1958, and dean of faculties from 1958 to 1967. He retired from Columbia University in 1975.

He was a historian and cultural critic. The core of his work was the importance of studying history to understand the present and a fundamental respect for intellect. Although he wrote on subjects as diverse as detective fiction and baseball, he was especially known for his many books on music, nineteenth-century romanticism and education. His works include Darwin, Marx and Wagner: Critique of a Heritage; Romanticism and the Modern Ego; The House of Intellect; Race: A Study in Superstition; Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers; A Stroll with William James; The Culture We Deserve; and From Dawn to Decadence. He died on October 25, 2012 at the age of 104.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Others have written about the end of Western culture, but none with more cogent erudition than Barzun. With a poise borne of decades of distinguished scholarship, Barzun recounts the religious, political, artistic, and social revolutions that shaped Western culture. But far more than a chronicle of events, this magisterial history highlights the earliest emergence of seminal new ideas and impulses. Thus, though Barzun offers deft and often shrewd portrayals of such giants as Luther, Montesquieu, and Shaw, it is concepts--including individualism, emancipation, primitivism, and self-consciousness--that form the unifying threads running through the tapestry of the centuries. In scrutinizing the last few decades, Barzun sees the threads unraveling, and the weavers despairing. No new ideas inspire fresh or meaningful patterns. Signs of decadence abound. Absurdity pervades the arts. Empty slogans dominate politics. Violence replaces thought. Barzun expects and even invites disagreement. But he advances his views with an intellectual capaciousness that will win admiration even from those who reject his conclusions. An impressive culmination to a lifetime of serious reflection. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Now 92, Barzun, the renowned cultural critic, historian and former Columbia provost and professor, offers much more than a summation of his life's work in this profound, eloquent, often witty historical survey. A book of enormous riches, it's sprinkled with provocations. For example, Barzun contradicts Max Weber, arguing that the Protestant Reformation did not galvanize the capitalist spirit. With feminist ardor, he depicts the 16th century as molded and directed by women "as brilliant as the men, and sometimes more powerful" (e.g., Queens Elizabeth and Isabella). His eclectic synthesis is organized around a dozen or so themes--including emancipation, abstraction and individualism--that in his judgment define the modern era. Barzun keeps up the momentum with scores of snappy profiles, including of Luther, Erasmus, Cromwell, Mozart, Rousseau and Byron, as well as of numerous unsung figures such as German educator Friedrich Froebel, inventor of kindergarten, and turn-of-the-century American pioneer ecologist George Marsh. Other devices help make this tome user-friendly--the margins are chock-full of quotes, while vignettes of Venice in 1650, Weimar in 1790 and Chicago in 1895 give a taste of the zeitgeist. In Barzun's glum estimate, the late 20th century has brought decadence into full bloom--separatism in all forms, apathetic electorates, amoral art that embraces filth or mere shock value, the decline of the humanities, the mechanization of life--but he remains hopeful that humanity will find its way again. This is a book to be reckoned with. First serial to American Scholar; BOMC selection. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Nearly 100, the noted thinker contemplates the last half-millennium. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. ix
Prologue from Current Concerns to the Subject of This Bookp. xiii
Part I from Luther's Ninety-five Theses to Boyle's "Invisible College"p. 1
Part II from the Bog and Sand of Versailles to the Tennis Courtp. 237
Part III from Faust, Part I, to the "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2"p. 463
Part IV from "The Great Illusion" to "Western Civ Has Got to Go"p. 681
Reference Notesp. 803
Index of Personsp. 829
Index of Subjectsp. 853