Published Humanitas, Volume XV, No. 2, 2002
From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. 877 pp. $36.
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…
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