896 pages, HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN13: 978-0060175863
Let me begin by quoting from Jacques Barzun himself: he sees this book as “[a] chance to describe…some aspects of present decadence that may have escaped notice and show how they relate to others generally acknowledged.” The forms of decadence that he identifies in contemporary 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: “[t]his 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 that 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 intellectual spread of ideas and concepts. When thinking about the past, most of us focus on the greatest individual contributors. But in doing so, we may miss people who added a key element that allowed others to accomplish more in the future. I was impressed by how many essayists, artists, musicians, and philosophers he cited whose names were totally unfamiliar to me. Yet, I was enriched by understanding their contributions from reading this book. This gave me a new sense of how to think about history.
So, what's it all add up to? You cannot help but gain by reading this book. You will better understand the arguments for and against all of our current issues. You will locate artists and writers whom you will enjoy. You will have a great deal more fun on your next trip to Europe, visiting all of the places he talks about. You will also develop your own perspective on what the last 500 years means for now and in the future. For example, I was astonished to realize how much worse the 20th century was in many ways than earlier centuries, even though I was aware of the relevant details. Our social idealism is declining at an enormous rate compared to our scientific and commercial progress. All of these things are a lot to get from one book. I suspect we will not see its equal in our lives.