30 October 2012
Cultural historian Jacques Barzun (1907–2012), who died October 25 at the age of 104, was in a unique position to observe the history of the twentieth century. He was alive and aware for almost the whole period. When he was 92, he published From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present (2000).
Decadence? Yes, old folk usually think things are going downhill. But sometimes things are going downhill. If the old man is also wise, we had best understand how and why.
Update: Scooped! The New York Times is already untelling the story of Barzun …
Barzun (pronounced “BAR-zin”), who was closely associated with Columbia University for most of his career, is credited with helping invent “cultural history.” He himself wanted to clearly describe the genuinely new ideas that transform civilizations and identify the people who birth them. But—perhaps characteristically, in our day—the term “cultural history” came to mean giving every worthy person fifteen minutes of fame. The resulting squabbles among partisans of identity groups were hardly what Barzun intended to encourage.
He was born in Paris (Créteil) and grew up among bohemian artists and poets. But when his father, literary scholar Henri Martin Barzun, was sent to the United States on a diplomatic mission in 1917, he followed him and enrolled at Columbia University at 16, becoming a US citizen in 1933.
Barzun came to be thought of as a “conservative.” But that meant, in the words of Gerald J. Russello, editor of The University Bookman, that because
… he defended a series of values that were superior to others, and (more important) could be distinguished from them, Barzun evaded neat description. He certainly avoided the vilification poured upon others, such as Allan Bloom, when offering his critiques of popular culture and modern education, which he criticized for credential inflation and failure to maintain its proper object, the removal of ignorance, in favor of networking and “life skills.”
“The Achievement of Jacques Barzun” (First Things, October 26, 2012)
It’s not that he thought teaching networking or life skills was wrong. Quite the contrary, it is an essential process among intelligent animals, never mind humans. Dogs teach networking and life skills to their pups, and cats to their kittens. Parents should teach them to their children. As the terms themselves imply, they are simply the skills by which one can live successfully as a given type of being.
The test and the use of man’s education is that he finds pleasure in the exercise of his mind.
—Jacques Barzun (1907–2012)
Once human beings begin to ask why we live and how we should live, we are asking questions of a different order, for which the same types of answers have no relevance. These questions concern the life of the mind.
Socrates, for example, might have avoided his famous death if he had had the “life skills” to flatter the Athenian jury, or to bribe his jailors as his friends urged him to do, but how many philosophers would condemn his choice and his reasons for making it?
One way of understanding decadence, in Barzun’s sense, is that institutions devoted to the life of the mind concern themselves with a variety of other pursuits instead: political, social, military, or religious, depending on the culture. As Russello puts it,
“All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance.”
Many projects are started with great expectations, but almost all wither on the vine or sour in the fruit. Current institutions wither and sour them because they have no roots by which to nourish them. A recent film, Won’t Back Down, addresses the problem in education, for example, when parents try to reform tax-supported schools that have come to exist for every purpose but student learning—and face massive opposition from the very people who claim to have students’ interests most at heart. What distinguishes a decadent culture is not decline, which is inevitable in any human enterprise, but the inability of the system to produce any other outcome at that point.
Russello argues that
What is needed is an understanding of what it means when a society adopts, say, athletes and pop stars as role models and how we can distinguish those models of legitimacy and authority from those of other times and places. Further, Barzun’s analysis can help tell us whether, in the face of our new threat, decadence can be halted.
No estimate of Barzun would be complete without a look at his view of today’s science. As Russello observes,
Indeed, he named science, or, rather, a misunderstanding about the nature of scientific inquiry, as one of the enemies of Intellect. The prestige of scientists carried over into nonscientific fields, disrupting the authority of those disciplines and investing the public with a false credulity over its claims. In [Science: The Glorious Entertainment], Barzun subjects the claims of science to rigorous analysis not as claims about physical reality but on the claims made then (and made now) that science somehow can address nonscientific problems.
A classic example would be neuroscientist Sam Harris’s and colleagues’ honestly asserted and surprisingly well-accepted belief that science can arbitrate moral claims. The claim is not even possible; science obviously cannot tell us whether we are or are not our brother’s keeper, and any pretense otherwise is a cultivated form of confusion.
But Barzun’s clarity is probably the precise reason his reputation is likely to go into eclipse in a decadent period. In “Jacques Barzun, wide-ranging cultural historian, dies at 104” (Washington Post, October 26, 2012), Joe Holley offers a conventional view. Noting that Barzun wrote Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937), he explains,
The book was written at a time when notions of racial superiority were being put to murderous use in Nazi Germany. In subsequent work, Dr. Barzun explored dangerous perversions of Western thought in Of Human Freedom (1939), a defense of the democratic spirit and an attack on absolutism, and Darwin – Marx – Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941, revised in 1958), in which Dr. Barzun charged the three 19th-century “intellectual imperialists” with responsibility for the pseudoscientific, mechanistic system that gave rise to 20th-century communism and fascism.
Note Holley’s careful choices of words: “racial superiority” is joined with “put to murderous use.” But “Darwin, Marx, Wagner” are joined merely with “charged.” In fact the charges are well justified in that Darwin and Marx have been put to murderous use as well. But Darwin is still revered in polite circles and criticizing him is dangerous. Marx is still quite popular in government circles as long as his name is not attached to his ideas, which have been far more successfully connected with their outcomes. And poor old Wagner is either unknown or a figure of fun (the obese, earsplitting soprano spouting Germanic gibberish from under a horned helmet and all that … ).
So, considering how little evidence there is for the great transitions of life forms Darwin proposed, as opposed to fervent belief that they occur (backed up by an occasional suggestive find), let us recall something that Barzun said about him:
Why was evolution more precious than scientific suspense of judgment? Why do scientists to this day speak with considerable warmth of “the fact of evolution,” as if it were in the same category as the fact of combustion . . .?
Darwinism answered an emotional need for a religion without God. Darwinists gained power on that account, including the power to pronounce on all kinds of social and moral issues:
That is why Huxley called Darwin the Newton of biology, why he called the evolutionary debate a New Reformation, and why he liked to date events in the history of human thought as pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian—under the old dispensation or the new. This profound emotional and intellectual victory once gained, it would have taken a superman or a coward to retreat from it for so trifling a cause as lack of final proof.
– Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner (University Of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 65-66.
In short, there was ultimately no proof but there was a great meeting of needs. And falsifying claims for Darwin’s theory became an act of blasphemy or treason against science, irrespective of the state of the evidence in a given case.
Holley does recall Barzun saying that “I have always been—I think any student of history almost inevitably is—a cheerful pessimist.” That is good because Barzun is now praised largely in the hope that he will be soon forgotten. His measured analysis is a more powerful indictment than another man’s denunciation. And it is recognized as such by armies of purveyors of inferior intellectual goods.
—His reminiscences of the Columbia History Department, well worth the read:
One of the silliest things done today in the world of higher education is to publish an annual ranking of the leading universities. The weeklies that conduct such surveys pretend that the public wants to know which are best: it knows this about teams in professional sports, why not about colleges? The answer that is given is about departments, not institutions, so it is no guide to choosing a college. And the ranking is done by asking the members of departments to judge their colleagues elsewhere, so it yields very shaky estimates. They are based on the kind and amount of scholarly publication, so that added to the unconscious bias of personal connections there is that of agreement on doctrine and overvaluation of work done on the topic in fashion. In a word, the ranking procedure is the very negation of scholarly method. It tells the public nothing about college education.
—A short biographical film on the life of Jacques Barzun:
—A talk with Dr. Barzun in 2010.
—He wrote dozens of books on intellectual history and American education.