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From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of

Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by

Jacques Barzun

Free download audio book.

Original Title: From Dawn to Decadence

ISBN: 0060928832
ISBN13: 9780060928834
Autor: Jacques Barzun
Rating: 3.3 of 5 stars (1993) counts
Original Format: Paperback, 828 pages
Download Format: PDF, FB2, MOBI, MP3.
Published: May 15th 2001 / by Harper Perennial / (first published 2000)
Language: English
History- 521 users
Nonfiction- 144 users
Cultural- 37 users
Philosophy- 31 users

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

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.

About Author:

Jacques Martin Barzun was a French-born American historian of ideas and culture.

Other Editions:
- From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (Hardcover)

- From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 To The Present (Paperback)

- Del amanecer a la decadencia: quinientos aos de vida cultural en Occidente (de 1500 a
nuestros das)
- From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life; 1500 to the Present (Hardcover)

- From Dawn to Decadence (Paperback)

Books By Author:

- Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers

- A Jacques Barzun Reader

- The House of Intellect

- The Culture We Deserve

- Teacher in America

Books In The Series:

Related Books On Our Site:

- The Civilization Of Europe In The Renaissance

- The Reformation (The Story of Civilization, #6)

- Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties

- The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination

- The Crisis of the European Mind

- Passions of the Renaissance (A History of Private Life, #3)

- The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century

- The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea

- Landscape And Memory

- Civilisation

- The Reformation

- The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments

- A History of Civilizations

- The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism

- The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

- Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient

Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages
- Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe

- Tiepolo Pink


Jun 10, 2016

Rated it: really liked it
Shelves: history_general
This is Barzun's magnum opus: an original, multi-faceted, ambitious interpretation of the cultural
history of the West of the last half millennium. This is a unique, idiosyncratic, provocative work that
is definitely not a linear, dispassionate account, but a critical, personal and thorough re-evaluation
of the modern era.
Before getting into the merits of this important work, it is necessary to highlight that this book is
quite heavily weighted towards what is commonly called the fine arts
This is Barzun's magnum opus: an original, multi-faceted, ambitious interpretation of the cultural
history of the West of the last half millennium. This is a unique, idiosyncratic, provocative work that
is definitely not a linear, dispassionate account, but a critical, personal and thorough re-evaluation
of the modern era.
Before getting into the merits of this important work, it is necessary to highlight that this book is
quite heavily weighted towards what is commonly called the fine arts (literature, poetry, music,
painting), occasionally at the significant expense of other fundamental aspects of European culture
(philosophy and science, in particular). Moreover, the environmental and political/military
influences, that played such an important role in the development of the European cultural
evolution in the last half millennium, are occasionally underestimated and frequently treated too
The major and significant limitation of Barzun's historical and cultural perspective is, in my opinion,
his thinly disguised dismissive, if not outright hostile, attitude towards the sciences and technology,
compounded by embarrassing mistakes whenever he briefly ventures into the history of science:
for example he says that Newton's notation for the calculus rather than Leibniz's is the notation
that is still currently in use; his definition of chaos theory betrays his clear ignorance of what it is
about, and when referring to the second law of thermodynamics he says that it records how
matter and energy perpetually disintegrate (sigh).
He confuses/identifies science with scientism, analysis with reductionism; and rather than
appreciating the power of scientific thinking to identify patterns out of disorder, and the
epistemological strength of the scientific method, he claims that science leaves behind the facts
of experience. Science is not about leaving behind the facts of experience, it is about making
order and sense out of them! Another sentence that clearly betrays his attitude: faith in science
excludes dissent on important matters; the method brings everyone to a single state of mind. It is,
in my opinion, no coincidence that the only philosopher of science who really gets any attention in
his book is Thomas Kuhn who else. To him, Internet makes still more general the nerveless
mode of existence sitting and staring - he ignores the tremendous push towards the
democratization of cultural opportunities that Internet has been responsible for in recent times
(how about MOOCs,, Project Gutenberg, Good Reads etc.). But I get the strong feeling
that, in his ultimately conservative and possibly even elitist view of culture, these are aspects that
would not gain his approval.
Coming to the history of philosophical thought, he has a clear preference for Schopenhauer - this
is OK, after all he is one of my favourite philosophers! :-) - but I think that his treatment of Kant is
way too simplified and succinct, and it does not fairly reflect the fundamental importance of this
great thinker in the development of European thinking. Nietzsche is treated quite well, but I
strongly disagree with the author's perspective of Existentialism, which he mainly sees as a
negative, pessimistic, decadent current of thought, and which I personally consider quite the
opposite: in my view there is, in Existentialism, also an element of profoundly liberating, deeply
invigorating, almost Nietzschean and ultimately optimistic urge for Man to create His own
meaning. It must also be said that many important philosophers do not get mentioned, while for
example obscure writers get the attention of the author.
On the positive side, the author is an absolute master in providing a multi-perspectival, realistic,
credible and nuanced perspective of the ideological, social and cultural climate of some of the
most important or interesting historical periods/events/trends of the last 500 years: such as
Humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the period of Charles V, Venice around 1650, the
emergence of Absolutism, The Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the Romanticism, which
are all masterfully brought to life by the author. The author is erudite, highly original and insightful.
These parts are riveting, instructive, of high scholarly value, fully rounded, and a joy to read
historical writing at its best. Many very interesting points are elaborated convincingly and with
strength he destroys several common misconceptions and intellectual superstitions that have
been perpetuated by much popular history writing. There are so many interesting and original
points that I can only just begin to list them within the constraints of a book review. Just a few
examples: I really liked how he debunks the myth that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition
believed the Copernican model threatened the Church's teachings and Mans place in the
Universe, and also how the author highlights some deeply reactionary aspects of the Reformation.
His rendering of the unique and utterly fascinating Venetian Republic is masterful. His debunking
of the erroneous concept of the Middle Ages as divorced from the legacy and heritage of the
culture of Classical Times is convincing and well argued.
It must be said though that, maybe in the effort of pursuing originality at all costs, the author
occasionally makes some questionable, or at least severely selective or highly idiosyncratic,
statements: for example when he claims that "the Kaiser did everything in his power for Austria to
avert war" from what I remember this is a statement that, at best, only partially represents what
happened: in reality Wilhelm and his Chancellor, after the assassination, incited Austria-Hungary
to exact revenge against Serbia and pushed it to declare an ultimatum! Events then quickly
spiraled out of control, but Wilhelm appeared not to foresee (or did not want to foresee) the
consequences of the Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia, and when he later feebly attempted to
scale things back, it was too late, and he was dissuaded by the German generals, who convinced
him that Germany would easily win the war. Hardly a committed pacifist, I would think.
While I am one who agrees that WWI Germany has often received an unfair treatment in much
historical writing, I can't agree with the apologetic attitude of the author in this particular instance.
There is also an embarrassing, huge mistake in page 225, when the author states that the
Carolingian Renaissance was swamped by a fresh wave of Germanic invaders Franks,
Vandals, and Goths (sigh).
Apart from these issues, though, the author's historical writing is generally compelling, precise,
very interesting and rich with insights. I also strongly agree with the author's perspective on
historical research: contrarily to the fashionable historical over-determinism that sadly affects too
many authors (see my review about the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" as a glaring example of
such approach), the author correctly states that: to begin with, cause in history cannot be
ascertained any better than motive in its human agents. Both must be represented as probable,
and it is wiser to speak of conditions rather than causes, and of influence rather than a force
making for change. I would personally add to the recipe the strong element of pure, simple
element of randomness, and irreducible elements of feedback loops and of chaotic behaviour that
necessarily govern multi-agent complex systems such as human societies.
The author narrative style is quaintly and charmingly unique, highly original, somewhat old-
fashioned and ornate, but pleasant and effective enough to make reading this book a generally
highly pleasant experience it just takes a little while to get fully used to it. Many under-
appreciated and under-reported authors and thinkers are dutifully represented, and this is highly
laudable, but occasionally the author really goes too far, and in such cases the narrative becomes
a dull list of unknown authors and books that are only very succinctly described, that are forgotten
as soon as the reader turns the page, and that add absolutely nothing to the value of the overall
The final chapter (the one dealing with contemporary times) is unfortunately a significant
disappointment and of much lesser quality than all the other chapters (a real pity in what is
otherwise such an important and valuable book): it amounts to no much more than a series of
rantings about a supposed decadence of contemporary demotic society and this is done from a
point of view that is difficult not to perceive as really conservative, even plain anachronistic at
Regardless of these issues, it is important to highlight however that this is a very important and
ambitious book, well written and highly insightful and original, interesting and a pleasurable
reading experience, instructive and highly recommended to anybody interested in the Western
cultural history of the last 500 years.
3.5 stars (rounded up to 4).