Dawn to Decadence - 1500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Reply Sat 21 Nov, 2009 04:37 pm
From Dawn to Decadence
1500 Years of Western Cultural Life
Jacques Barzun
ISBN: 0-06-092883-2
Publisher: HarperCollins Books

OVERVIEW: This didn't need to take me months to get through. Don't get me wrong, it IS a hefty book (802 large pages at small/medium print). What took me so long was the utterly unique and intuitive way in which the author presented such an excellent panorama of our Western History. I found myself constantly referring to other books and the internet to figure out: who was that? what's that term? What does that painting look like? and so on. WOW this was fantastic. It's chief appeal to fans of history is the way in which he's woven together events, influences and cultural movements. History isn't static with set mileposts "Now Entering <THIS> Era"; thoughts, ideas and influences were dynamic - overlapping and ebbing as human events do. You'll find most of the major influences here, no doubt, but you'll also find a litany of seldom spoken-of authors, political figures, music and literature authors and much more. I can't tell you in strong enough terms how nice it was to have an intelligently-written piece speak clearly and concisely. Chapters are arranged by "theme" or major set of influences on <this> or <that> - it's defintely not your average history book.


  • Expertly written in frank language that's well-enunciated
  • Examples and quotes litter each chapter; helps to place the reader's mental context
  • Many heroes and villains, not typically given face-time, are well represented
  • A litany of myths are dispelled; misnomers called our and popular misgivings brought to light
  • Period Influences are clearly emphasized in context
  • A real effort to not judge is clear
  • Specific instances and examples, for the reader to research on their own, are abundant
  • On virtually every issue, page or event, the reader's given more sources for further investigation
  • Issues of typical controversy (race, sexuality, etc.) are treated very maturely in a matter-of-fact tone that belies a neutral stance - leaving it to the reader to interpret


  • The author is obviously a world-class adept at letters; with this, comes the occasional sentence the reader (no matter how well accomplished) will likely need to re-read. It's clear, but complex in places.
  • I sensed, or believed I sensed, a markedly pro-French bias. I don't think this diminishes the text, or its worth, one iota. I mention it here only because it struck me as such in several places.


There are so very many, it's difficult to choose. I'll try to give you a few to provide a flavor of the book:[INDENT] From the chapter "The Good Letters"[INDENT]"For the early Humanists, the aspects that shone out in the works of antiquity were the beauty of the language and the novel features of a vanished civilization. Both gave rise to a new sense, the sense of history, which may be defined as the simultaneous perception of difference and similiarity between past and present."
[/INDENT]From the chapter "The 'Artist' is Borne"[INDENT]"Actually, the true Renaissance man should not be defined by genius, which is rare, or even by the numerous performing talents of an Alberti. It is best defined by a variety of interests and their cultivation as a proficient amateur. A Renaissance man or woman has the skill to fashion verses and accompany or sing them; a taste for good letters and good paintings, for Roman antiquities and the new architecture; and some familiarity with rival philosophies. To all this must be added the latest refinements in manners as practices in the princely courts, where men and women were expected to talk agreeably, to dance gracefully, to act in masques, and improvise other at-home theatricals. Social life for them was a species of serious work for mutual pleasure, one motive being to fend off boredom".
[/INDENT]From the chapter, "Things Ride Mankind"[INDENT]"Besides this revulsion against things and numbers, the complaint against mechanism in the 19C and ours has included the direct effect of machinery on the spirit. This is not imaginary, and it is rarely seen to be not a single but a double effect. The obvious part is that the machine makes us its captive servants - by its rhythm, by its convenience, by the cost of stopping it or the drawbacks of not using it.... When the domestic or public landscape is filled with objects deprived of any aura, it as if the world of living things has been reduced by abstraction to something emphatically not alive."
[/INDENT]From the chapter, "The Great Illusion"[INDENT]"What must be said further about the 20C colonial empires is not that nations found them financially worth fighting for - on the contrary, they were an expense; only some individuals profited. But Imperialism created endless opportunities for enhancing or wounding prestige. Hence the boast about possessing lands so fortunate that the sun never sets on them. In short, not alone imperialism as economic greed, but 'national power' - Jingoism as a state of mind - was another of the conditions that lead to war"

  • Martin Luther, pp5
  • Establishment of the Church of England, pp9
  • Lutherian Celebacy, pp17
  • Motivations behind the Reformation, pp21
  • Protestantism, Luthernism, Luthanism and Capitalism; Tenants of Calvinism, pp35
  • Catholic Revolution, pp39
  • The ancient Humanists and Humanist Secularism, pp45
  • Humanism, Medieval thought and the Renaissance, pp47
  • Liberation of the Bible/Impact of the Printing Press, pp61
  • The Word "Man", pp83
  • European Perspective on the Colonialization of America, pp99
  • Surname Emergence and Use, pp113
  • Utopian Notions in 16C Literature, pp127
  • Rabelasian Influence, pp131
  • Literary Evolution, pp144
  • 17C Venetian Government, pp171
  • Common/Everyday life in the 17/18C, pp183
  • 16/17C Science, pp199
  • The word "Spirit", pp221
  • Life in the Middle Ages, pp227
  • Monarchical, Revolution of the 17C, pp239
  • Crowning of Louis XVI, pp251
  • Machivelli, pp255
  • Diversity and Tolerance in Ideas, pp271
  • Honesty of Fools, pp303
  • Louis XVI and the Fall of the French Court, pp309
  • Early Seeds of the American Revolution, pp316
  • Prose and the Biblical Style, pp354
  • Ditrich's Encyclopedia, pp371
  • Ben Franklin, the Noble Savage, pp375
  • Russeau, pp382
  • Genesis of the American Revolution, pp397
  • Witch hunt of the French Revolution, pp429
  • Bonaparte and the Forgotten Troupe, pp442
  • Napoleon: Hero of the Period, pp483
  • 1830's Music: Berlioz and Beethoven Influences, pp495
  • Rediscovering Racism, pp503
  • Shakespeare Recognized, pp516
  • 19C Socioeconomic Engineering, pp523
  • Inspections and Stats/Property Rights and Voting, pp535
  • Society and the Victorian Era, pp552
  • 1859: Ripe for Darwin, pp571
  • 1870: Question of Wealth Distribution, pp594
  • 1890 U.S. Education Reform, pp609
  • Artistic Movements in the 1870s, pp621
  • Cubism and Impressionist Art, pp644
  • William James and Pragmatism, pp667
  • Embracing the Idea of War: Pre WWI, pp700
  • Post WWI Art and Literature Deconstruction, pp717
  • Post WWI Europe->U.S. Cultural Bleed-over, pp745
  • Scientific Loss of Confidence, pp751
  • 20C Absurdism, pp755
  • Abstraction, Analysis and Absurdity, pp766
  • Demotic Life and Times, pp773


  • Catholicism/Polytheistic Correlates: 22
  • Pagan/Christian Conversions: 22
  • Power/Influence of Scripture that's Widely Known: 27
  • The Act Faithful to Become Faithful Philosophy: 39
  • Sense of History: 47
  • "Our Judeo-Christian Heritage": 52
  • Shakespeare - the 'frivolous' Playwrite: 62
  • Renaissance Man: 79
  • Notable and Talented Women Repressed?: 88
  • Utopia: 116
  • Rabelais Examined: 128
  • Armida's Bow: 147
  • Loss of Past Entertainments: 177
  • 17C Morality, Manners and Religion:
  • Location of the Will - Descartes: 207
  • Stereotypes: 227
  • Liberal Arts: 228
  • Chivalry and Courtly Love: 233
  • Dueling, Honor and State Control: 241
  • Isms and Examining History: 250
  • Peace through Threat of Force Contradiction: 255
  • Persecution: 271
  • Nationalism and The Monarchy: 305
  • Baroque: 332
  • Pure -vs- Representative Democracy: 385
  • 18C Evening at the Play: 406
  • Ben Franklin and the French: 407
  • Equality's Contradiction within Humanity: 436
  • A view of the Marquis de Sade: 447
  • Renaissance, Romantic Period and the Divisions: 466
  • The Dandy: 488
  • The Scandalous Waltz: 500
  • The U.S. An uncultivated People: 504
  • Positives U.S. Democracy: 537
  • 19C Democracy Evaluation: 537
  • Arrangement of British Parliament: 536
  • Introduction of the Railway: 542
  • Machinery's Downside: 554
  • Separate but Equal Legalized: 592
  • 1890's Explosion of Currently-Used Inventions:
  • Wagnerism: 637
  • Philosophy of History: 653
  • Real Language Linguistics: 657
  • 1870-1914 Modernism Developments: 679
  • 20C Colonialism: 693
  • Art Deconstructed (Abstract): 723
  • Art Deco: 723
  • Killing on Principle: 743
  • Post-WWI Repercussions/Occupations: 746
  • Marxism's Post WWI Appeal: 747
  • Nature and Man: 756
  • Relativism: 761
  • Disunity/Nation Splitting: 773
  • Consumerism and the Demotic Labyrinth: 778

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Reply Sun 22 Nov, 2009 08:54 am
Some of us were almost brought up on Barzun's The Modern Researcher; along the same lines as the book above but with a Brenda-ish polemical slant, one could recommend as well his The House of Intellect. I'm told that his book on Berlioz is an outstanding example of history of ideas.

Added later: Having forgotten much (actually, almost all of) Barzun's House since it has been some time since I read it, I found it in my library and began to read it. I soon remembered why I thought so highly of it as a Junior in college. His discussion, written some fifty years ago, seems even more relevant to what is happening today, and I intend to reread the entire work.
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