“History is the product of individual initiative aided or stymied by chance,” says noted historian, scholar and author Jacque Barzun in his classic book, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. “Above all it is concrete and particular, not general and abstract.”
Here are my notes and excerpts from this monumental work:
History is not, as one wag put it, simply “one damn thing after another.” There are patterns to be observed and docketed even if they can never be entirely plumbed. Movements in art or thought, Barzun observes, gain influence at the cost of variety.
Cultural Nonsense, Moral Confusion
“Age of…” is a favorite shorthand of historians: the Age of Reason, the Age of Faith, the Age of Science, the Age of Anxiety. Such phrases are probably indispensable; they are also, Mr. Barzun observes, “always a misnomer, except perhaps, “An Age of Troubles” which fits every age in varying degrees.”
Barzun is convinced that our age, despite its vast technological capabilities, is a time of cultural nonsense, depleted energies, and moral confusion. Amen.
Barzun use “man” to refer to all of humanity, primarily, he tells us, for four reasons: “etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of ‘man and woman,’ and literary tradition.”
“Intellect watches particularly over language because language is so far the only device for keeping ideas clear and emotions memorable.”
The Test of the West
The picture of the West promulgated by its enemies, as “a solid block having but one meaning” cannot survive scrutiny. It is central to Mr. Barzun’s task to show that the West has in fact been “an endless series of opposites — in religion, politics, art, morals, manners.”
The West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had becomes exhausted by the end of the twentieth century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda but an expandable list of desires, particular forms of which can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era.
The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that Emancipation is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the women’s suffrage movement.
“Victory brings on imitation and ultimately boredom,” a most underrated catalyst of historical change. It is part of an historian’s task to discern continuities in what had appeared to be random; it is also part of his task to recognize the limits of those continuities.
Decadence and Revolution
Decadence “is not a slur; it is a technical label.” The sources of decadence are many and varied. Decadence has triumphed in various facets of modern life.
Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal. In keeping with the rest of the excitement, buildings are defaced, images destroyed, shops looted.
Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, priests marrying, and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once — all of these are postulated as contributing to a new and blissful life on earth…
Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families.
Angst and Anguish
Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like previous ones. But none of this holds back that transfer of power and property which is the mark of revolution and which in the end establishes the Idea.
Even the terrorist who drives a car filled with dynamite toward a building in some hated nation is part of what he would destroy: his weapon is the work of Alfred Nobel and the inventors of the internal combustion engine. His very cause has been argued for him by such proponents of national self-determination.
“How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event-tidal wave from a ripple, is cause for endless astonishment.”
This evocation describes many revolutionary periods. The term “decadent” can properly be used where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means.
Labyrinthine in Nature
Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people seek to create small accommodations within a larger unsatisfactory context.
Decadence is not a neutral historical fact, it is a cultural, moral, and political disaster of the first order. The symptoms of decadence can be understood as resulting from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, individualism, and so on.
What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline. Ridicule, denial, anti-art sensory simplicity mean that culture and society are in the decadent phase.
Art and Excellence
Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by the public cry for excellence. At the same time, society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism.
The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interest of “the free market of ideas.”
The confusion generated by such contradictions attends every aspect of cultural endeavor. In the arts, it leads to the rise of anti-art. The transformation of art into anti-art could not have succeeded on it own. It required the collusion of institutions that certify artistic achievement as well as audience whose interest ultimately sustains it.
If a new work or style was not easy to like, if it was painful to behold, revolting, even it was nonetheless ‘interesting.’ “Art is what you can get away with” …Andy Warhol, 1987.
How Decadence Comes To Be
“When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” Futility and absurdity only seem normal to a damaged sensibility. That damage has been wrought by a progressive loss of resistance to humbug. One then becomes susceptible to all manner of cultural viruses.
This lowered resistance has affected connoisseurs, critics, and teachers. It has also affected the public at large, whose healthy rejection of absurdity one used to be able to count on. No more.
The questions with which intellectual history confronts us can be parsed as elements of that large, perennial question, “How should I live my life?”
The stolid bourgeois used to aid culture by resisting it; by the late twentieth century, he had been transformed into a “docile consumer” for whom the avant-garde achieves “the status of a holy synod.”
The Great Switchover
The realms of social relations and politics are equally beset by confusion. One result is the “Great Switch,” “the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite.”
If Liberalism originally “triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least,” today “for all the western nations political wisdom has recast the ideal of liberty into liberality.”
The universalization and extension of the welfare state has nurtured a culture of entitlement. What began in an access of largess ends in an explosion of regulation and hectoring scrutiny.
Motives that had once encouraged unity and social comity such as emancipation and self-consciousness, now act as centrifugal forces: forces of decadence.
Decadence vs Progress
As Oswald Spengler said in 1918, “One day, the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be, though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes may remain, because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message” will be gone.
Sooner or later, some few intrepid souls will turn with new curiosity to the neglected past and use it “to create a new present,” discovering along the way “what a joy it is to be alive.”
The forces of decadence are formidably potent. But decadence is no more inevitable than progress. Myopia is perennial, despair a temptation to be resisted. One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies.
Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, we hope, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what joy it is to be alive.
A Cheerful Explanation
The one thing that I think you can say about From Dawn to Decadence is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to encounter as to why Western culture is ending.