In the history of writing history, there are a handful of volumes that become established as a model owing to tone, insightful content, and excellence of style. The most recent historical work by Jacques Barzun is such a volume. It is a cultural history of the highest standard. Massive in scope, From Dawn to Decadence is a tightly woven, extremely engaging narrative history wealthy in detail and interpretative insights.
From Dawn to Decadence is impressive both in depth and breadth. Barzun establishes several themes that he traces throughout the book. Among them are abstraction, analysis, emancipation, individualism, primitivism, secularism, self-consciousness, specialism, and scientism, all of which are developed within their concrete historical context. "History is above all concrete and particular, not general and abstract" (xvi). Barzun demonstrates this truth with several "cross sections" that function as windows into particular moments and places. The author also provides within the margins numerous quotes from primary sources that enhance each chapter.
Barzun is a practitioner of the traditional form of cultural history. "[C]ulture," he writes, "is a web of many strands; none is spun by itself" (ix). It is because of the intricately connected nature of culture that the author often relates the ideas to specific institutions, events, or even manners.
While Barzun acknowledges some of the everyday artifacts that have shaped western cultural life, he gives more attention to the great revolutions that impacted the western way of life by "giving culture a new face" (3). Employing extraordinarily clear and concise prose, Barzun traces the birth, development, and continued effect of these revolutions.
Barzun's work is broadly conservative, but this does not prevent an occasional challenge of received "wisdom," particularly regarding the late middle ages and early Renaissance.
The reader is exposed to many special insights throughout this work. Barzun skillfully traces the thread that runs from Luther's 95 theses to America's "Me Decade" of the 1970s. He also keenly observes that the current consumer culture has its roots in the scientific and industrial revolution.
Barzun is gracious even when reflecting on differing convictions and results. He contends that the basic flaw of Utopists is "taking it for granted that under fair conditions people would be sensible" (126). On the other hand he praises them: "in letting wish and fancy roam, this...