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Jacques Barzun And Civilization In Decline

The great historian Jacques Barzun is dead at 104. He said western civilization is in decline. We’ll debate.

Sacco di Roma 455 (WikiCommons)

Sacco di Roma 455 (WikiCommons)

Civilizations rise and fall.  Last week, a great narrator of the civilization of the West fell.  Jacques Barzon.  At 104.  Immigrant intellectual and American icon.  He invented the modern idea of cultural history.  Spent a long lifetime focused on history, art, music, science, baseball, Berlioz.

And in his venerated ‘90s, wrote a bestseller titled “From Dawn to Decadence,”  looking at 500 years of Western history and concluding the West is in decline.  Was he right?

This hour, On Point:  Jacques Barzon’s summation, and the question – are we living the decline of the West?

-Tom Ashbrook


Michael Murray, author of Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind and editor of A Jacques Barzun Reader.

John Lukacs, historian and longtime friend of Jacques Barzun.

James Miller, professor of political science and liberal studies at the New School. His most recent book is Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzche.

From Tom’s Reading List

Washington Post “Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104.”

New York Times “Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.”


March to the Scaffold (from Symphonie Fantastique) — Hector Berlioz

The Damnation of Faust — Hector Berlioz

Requiem — Hector Berlioz

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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

     This first thing we should do to save civilization is to take off all of our clothes, stand in front of a mirror, turn from side to side, and take a good look at the truth !

    Do you go through the drive-thru at your local fast food restaurant ?
    Do you drive a high horsepower car ?
    Do you have a big screen television(s) ?
    Do you drive around and look for a closer place to park your car ?
    Do you have “vaulted” ceilings ?
    Do you NOT invest in energy companies ?
    Do you NOT prepay your bills ?
    Do you NOT invest in anything ?
    Do you drive from store to store to save pennies ?
    Do you shop every sale ?
    Do you say things like “ Isn’t that cute? “ and then buy it, just because it IS cute ?
    Do you give to charities and then take that “donation” as a tax deduction ?
    Do you always try “ not to get dirty” ?
    Do you avoid sweating at all cost ?
    Do you take some time to pick up the trash in the street, even though you did not throw it there ?
    Do you always just complain and never offer a new solution ?
    Do you always take the easiest path ?

    • DrewInGeorgia

      Nice list, especially this little number: Do you give to charities and then take that “donation” as a tax deduction?

      Sound like anybody we know?

  • Chikezie Nzewi

    Jacques Barzun was a treasure. I was first exposed to his ideas and clarity of expression in his book “From Dawn to Decadence”. He was an intellectual who could communicate complex ideas by focusing on a clear thesis and building his evidence and educating his readers.

    He opened a number of paths for me, especially understanding how Western Civilization evolved and how our current culture was not pre-ordained but depended on a number of unique points in history. It was a wonderful introduction to ideas that have been with me for years and are a basis for my worldview.

    His great intellect will be missed.

  • Ed75

    As G.K. Chersterton  points out, a civilization falls morally and then it falls completely. Our society supports, abortion, restriction on religious liberty, embryonic stem cell research, same sex marriage and (in the near future) euthanasia. We have fallen morally, the complete fall is imminent, unless we change. (And Chesterton said this in his time, before World War II.)

    • gemli

      I thought our society supported consideration for women’s rights, separation of church and state, medical advances to cure dread diseases, the right for all people to love each other as they see fit, and the right to let the dying end their needless suffering.  To me, these sound like we’re advancing to a higher form of morality.

      We’re constantly fighting immoral forces, such as the rich who fleece the poor, the cutting off of medical care and retirement security for the elderly, political factions that declare corporation to have the rights of people, and fundamentalist religious zealots who replace compassion and understanding with ignorance and hate.  These are the things that are destroying our country, and our morality.

    • jefe68

      The end is nigh!
      Should you not be looking for a mountain top or something? 

    • jefe68

      All I want to know is, will there be iPhones after the rapture.

  • Shag_Wevera

    Western civilization got the jump on the world by being the first to embrace industrialization.  It gave us an advantage for several hundred years.  Remember “gunboat diplomacy”?  We opened up trade with Japan with a few ironclads in Tokyo Bay.  Europeans could once dominate China and India by sailing a few warships up their rivers.  The advantage was temporary.  The non-west is numerically and in some ways culturally superior.  Much less reverence for the individual.  We find this hard to understand, and harder to compete with.

    An anecdote;  After graduating from college I shared an apartment in a neighborhood populated by Chinese and Russian immigrants.  A chinese family lived down the hallway.  A family of 6 shared a 2 bedroom apartment.  The father worked all hours and the children practiced playing the piano everyday.  Across the alley was a Chinese restauraunt.  The owner delivered chinese food in his Mercedes.  He would also put on rubber boots and tar-patch the roof when it was needed.

    If we want to compete in the new future, we must do as ultra conservatives suggest.  No benefits, no safety net, no old age state pensions… Survival of the fittest.  Civilization is going to take a step or two back, before it begins moving forward again.

  • ttajtt

    earth resources became printed currency, disregard as for a done used up whore.  doubly decline and with its follow-ups to pass….  thats where the investments gold, money (jobs) is.   small town count down clocks ready.   do we really think they will tell us?  remember our church and states are separated. no code needed.  pick one or gamble with the other to cut it off.    when do the aliens land, come?

  • Tyranipocrit

    if the west is declining it is because the super-rich send all your jobs to the east, and all your money on murderous wars and at the same time dismantle all the benefits of a free and equal society.  

    • Tyranipocrit

       blame the super-rich.  they hate society.  they hate true democracy.  They hate your prosperity.  This is not crazy talk or embellishment–the behavior and actions of the super-rich are the very definition of anti-social behavior–the insane.  And for some reason we deify them and elect them.  This makes us insane masochists.  But also just dumb.  I’ve seen more patience, self-discipline, compassion, empathy and intelligence in animals than many many humans. 

      what we should be talking about–is the decline in critical thinking, courage, honesty, integrity, and truth in elected officials (the super-rich), the media–journalism and our national dialogue–its pathetic. 

      western civ is in decline because we are so dumbed down, lied to, and pacified on opiates–church, free trade, and American idol.  All three are complete nonsense. 

      • Doubting_Thomas12

        I’d argue with the last paragraph- up until then you struck gold. Church and free trade are great- but what has been pushed on us is neither. “Free trade” is capitalism for all but the most wealthy, who have socialism (via bailouts) when they slip and fall. The version of “Church” shown often in the media has somehow become based on a narrow and uneven interpretation of the Bible, that leaves entire sections out. So what we have is a warped, slow acting poison, rather than the ideals that really are good in themselves.

        And if you don’t believe me, take a look at what happened in China and Russia when they decided that they wanted to get rid of both entirely.

        Here, and now, we have people altering them for their own ends- again, the super-rich. They don’t see America, China, or Europe, they see a world full of territories, as theirs for the taking.

        • Tyranipocrit

           Well i enjoy replies and thank you i agree to disagree with you on free trade.  And religion is far to prominent in national dialogue.  The catholic church protects criminals.  And evangelists are ignorant fanatical nu-democratic cult disciples who go around the world converting and preaching insanity.  Anyone who worships a book and deifies a book and its Word is mental.  Sorry.  having a belief in god is one thing, but it should be kept to your self. And has NO place in government or politics or the national dialogue and no place in the media.  i have encountered many churches and many people outside of the media–i know what it is and its fanatical fascist cultist craziness.  The antithesis of progress, diversity, independent thinking reason, and democracy–often discouraging empathy and compassion. 

          Free trade is slave trade–its a euphemism.  We need certain protections and regulations.  we need law.  We need to protect jobs at home–free trade destroys labor unions, freedom, rights, and jobs.  it encourages mistreatment of workers, cruelty, slavery, and a super-rich class of crazy megalomaniacs. 

          I appreciate debate and believe it must discussed–so i am not trying to shut anyone down or insult anyone.

  • John Adams

    From Dawn to Decadence gets the most attention, especially now as Barzun is remembered.  An even greater service to his legacy would be for listeners to learn how much more he has to offer by perusing A Jacques Barzun Reader.  To that end, it would be a fine tribute for HarperCollins to translate Michael Murray’s generous and judicious selection into e-reader formats.  

  • John Adams

    From Dawn to Decadence gets the most attention, especially now as Barzun is remembered.  An even greater service to his legacy would be for listeners to learn how much more he has to offer by perusing A Jacques Barzun Reader.  To that end, it would be a fine tribute for HarperCollins to translate Michael Murray’s generous and judicious selection into e-reader formats. 

  • ToyYoda

    The West emphasizes individuation, knowledge, and achievement, the East emphasizes harmony, wisdom and happiness.  Having grown up a Westerner I enjoy its merits, but knowing Eastern mysticism, I know that what the West values is ultimately unfulfilling.  In the end, it’s about happiness, not GDP, scholastic accolades, absolute and comparative advantages.  Of course, we need all the things that the West has developed,  but I don’t understand why we can’t have a West in decline, and a rise of East AND West civilization.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      You give a lot of vague terms there.  The important difference is in individual rights.  The West, in its fundamental values and more and more in reality, defends the right of each person to make individual choices.  A decline of that is a decline in humanity.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    We’re going to debate whether or not Western Civilization is in Decline? This is going to be the shortest debate in recorded history.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    “decadence” is the shift of oligarchies from rulers and creators to tyrants and leeches.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Civilization is in ascent, not descent. This is the beginning of the Technological Age and history will conclude that the beginning of the 21st century was the new dawn. 

  • brandeisian

    What of Barzun’s thesis was original and provocative?  In what way was it not simply a return to the 19th century fin de siecle lamentations regarding the malaise encroaching upon European politics and society.  It would appear as though Barzun is rehashing an argument proposed by Max Nordau over a century ago in his scathing indictments of social degeneracy and entropy in Europe.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    A broad distinction between West and East as cultural terms is what is seen as the fundamental unit of society.  In the West, the individual is that unit, while in the East, it’s society itself.  We in the West risk decadence.  The East risks totalitarianism.

  • brandeisian

    What of Barzun’s thesis was original and provocative?  In what way was it not simply a return to the 19th century fin de siecle lamentations regarding the malaise encroaching upon European politics and society.  It would appear as though Barzun is rehashing an argument proposed by Max Nordau over a century ago in his scathing indictments of social degeneracy and entropy in Europe.

    • tn4th

      My redneck auntie thinks we have gone to hell in a handbasket, too, but there is no correspondence between Barzun’s knowledgeable and reasoned conclusions and my neighbor’s panic over the sorry state of affairs regarding not being able to have her preacher do a prayer at public high school football games.  Barzun does not strike me as a rehash, but a fresh, analytical, and comprehensive sweep of history up to the present.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    If you look at the rise of mass ignorance in the US, corruption of the system by money of corporations and wealthy industrialists, how can there be any doubt?

    We are managing problems not based upon facts but emotion, religion, greed and lies. How can this society not be undermined? 

    No one would employ chaos to run a business, but that is essentially how the government should run the economy in the eyes of the power brokers on Wall street, Big Pharma and Big Energy – They don’t want any regulation, any rule of law, or any impediment to the success of the “job Creators”. They want growth at any price – sadly that growth is for the most part in the amassed wealth of those wealthy interests who now broker legislation through their ownership of Congressmen and Senators.

    This impetus leaves very little room for funding education, scientific research, the arts or healthcare for the masses. That is true decay.

    • Roy-in-Boise

       Keywords: Mass ignorance, emotion, greed, and lies.
      We see this manifested on hate radio daily as opiate for the masses. Well expressed.

  • Michael Huby

    My thought is this:
    The “big idea” of the western world up until recently has been to go around the world and just take whatever we needed. Natural resources, human resources and so on, by means of wars,  slavery, you name it.
    Now we run out of places to steal from…

  • KeepBiking

    Memories of Barzun from my days at Columbia four decades ago. The decline of the West was foreshadowed by Thucydides. Our hubris led us to squander vast resources on imperialist wars

  • jcosumano

    I worry about our youth and how they will handle our world’s distortions of factual knowledge, – dependence on technology which provides parts but does not teach big pictures. Our testing in schools emphasizes picking best answers from 4 or 5 choices, but essays and understanding meaning based on thinking is weak. The common man’s ability to figure out solutions is weak as machines do the work for us. We need to engage in exercising our brains and this is lacking with our youth. Academics are secondary to entertainment. Too much and we should all worry

  • ToyYoda

    just listen to some of these quotes from people who study Barzun:

    “Whole swaths of Western culture he wasn’t interested in.”
    “Gotten so old that he’s seen everything.”
    “Writes parallels with Roman culture with very little evidence of decline.”

    I guess we can summarize Barzun’s thesis of Western decline as shoddy scholarship.

    We have 3 minutes left, let’s salvage this hour by talking about the hurricane Sandy.

  • John Adams

    For Jamie in Los Angeles:  try “Race: a Study in Superstition” (1937/1965).

  • http://twitter.com/LockeTalks Andy Locke

    The west is only in decline if you measure it with early twentieth century metrics. While I agree that architecture, painting, philosophy, and many other fields haven’t made any great strides in quite a while, those forms don’t matter as much as they used to. The geniuses of today don’t design buildings, they design computers. They don’t write novels, they write code. We’ve made massive leaps in technology and medicine over the past twenty years, particularly in the expansion of web-based and mobile devices. Sure, we’re more distracted, but we’ve also made an unprecedented amount of information available to an unprecedented amount of people at a very, very low cost. The emergency response forces mobilizing on the east coast right now are more organized and effective because of these technologies than they ever could have been when the west was in “ascent.” And need I remind you that there is a robot performing scientific experiments on the surface of Mars right now? 

    And besides, even if the west was in decline, the east/west distinction is mattering less and less. The young adults of my generation are part of a global society that is getting more global all the time — we don’t read local newspapers, watch local TV, or socialize only with people in our geographical region. We live on-line, read blogs and listen to music from around the world, and Facebook chat with friends (and friends of friends) from Hong Kong to Cairo. If the culture and history of the west falls into decline, it will be to make room for a diverse global society. No one can say exactly what that might look like, but it sure sounds nicer than the hate, division, and stubbornness that so often originates from my parents’ generation.

  • ttajtt

    Yes, as Mesopotamia to Columbus to to-date.  we need more.  Mans law over his True Gods Law, big changed over.  the lack of earth care for others in a lifes’ way, it did not start with the true native american buffalo kill off.   sure i (would) enjoy the finer things life to Have to Give too, like any body.  i don’t want to pick to be the ruler of it too.  but Sharing sounds easier.   

    So with toays SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY as state, and with COMMON SENSE, as religion. 
    we’ll need to re-think our path.   it’ll take say, to a good start off, at lest 500 years. 

    what are the top five of each to-do list.

                got to do better.  /& problem to get rid of.

    you or to together.   

    No secret just us & them with your are not alone feeling.

  • http://twitter.com/LockeTalks Andy Locke

    I strongly agree regarding testing — fortunately, we are starting to see a trend away from this. (For example, the SATs now include a writing component wherein test-takers must write a two-page essay.) And many youth definitely mis-use technology only for entertainment. But there are also many who use cell phones and lap tops to take free on-line courses in everything from programming to physics, who collaborate with other youths from around the world on everything from Wikipedia (and its many off-shoots) to open-source software that is bringing great services to more and more people for free. There’s definitely a danger in the internet and the iPhone, but it’s not the technology’s fault — it’s parents, teachers, and other role models that don’t understand what they’re dealing with.

  • tn4th

    Jacques Barzun was such an amazing intellect.  I re-read Dawn to Decline every couple of years, and every time I learn so much and am impressed all over again

  • Adrian_from_RI

    Our Western Civilization is certainly in decline. However, does this not imply the question “in decline from what?” The wellspring of Western Civilization was Aristotle’s Athens. It took 2,400 years from ancient Greece to the writing of The Declaration of Independence. I agree with Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) that it took about 500 years of western cultural life to go from “Dawn to Decadence” and it was René Descartes (1596-1650), the “Father of Modern Philosophy” who stood at the dawn of that decadence that resulted in today’s world of post-modern nihilism.
    To understand what ideas made Western Civilization possible I found the “History of Philosophy” lecture series by Dr. Leonard Peikoff priceless and indispensable. Therefore, I recommend to the curious minded to buy part 1 “Founders of Western Philosophy: Thales to Hume” at:
    If you want to understand what brought about the post-modern era you have to also listen to part 2 “Modern Philosophy: Kant to the Present.”
    Another just published book looking at the decline of the West is “The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out.”  

    • ttajtt

      we ate the bait.  2-5000 or plus years ago nature was more free to use pliantly to go around.  Then Maximum Out Million came in, the rules changed. 
      Now, rules must change to remane the same? 

  • sinan yilmaz

    A listener from Turkey:

    Of course the western civilization is in decline. It is not based on a sustainable system. Instead of nourishing its ecosystem the western outlook exploits the ecosystem it is based on. The great western invention that made the west, ie. capitalism, evolved during later 19th century into financial capitalism, as a result of diminished ability to exploit others, ie. colonialism. What classical capitalism and its extension colonialism was based on exploitation of others. The evolution into financial capitalism turned the system into exploitation of itself. The latest financial crisis is a clear illustration of how that system worked. As long as financial capitalism continues to exploit western civilizations it will inevitably fail….

    The keywords are sustainability and simbiosis. Unless any civilization is able to develop a sustainable simbiotic relationship with its physical and social ecosystem it will of course fail. Unfortunately there does not currenty seem to be such a system that will/may give rise to an alternative model of civilization that will be able to build upon the technological/economic advancementd provided by the western experience.

    • Eliezer Pennywhistler

      “Unless any civilization is able to develop a sustainable simbiotic [sic] relationship with its physical and social ecosystem it will of course

      Can you name one civilization in the last 10,000 years that developed a sustainable symbiotic relationship with its physical and social ecosystem?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Renoir-Gaither/615760671 Renoir Gaither

         Perhaps those civilizations whom we’ve come to recognize as pre-Colobian in the West, including the Native peoples of North America will answer your question.  I don’t think Eliezer Pennywhistler implied that there aren’t other factors that can and do cause failure, only that without sustainable symbiotic relationships such are “doomed” to fail.  One factor missing in this discussion is violent colonization.  Of course there doesn’t seem to currently be, as Pennywhistler points out, a system that will act as an alternative model to the western “advancement” of the western experience because we’re in the period of late capitalism, which in itself is unsustainable.  In short, capitalism has within itself the seeds of its own evolutionary demise.

        • Eliezer Pennywhistler

           Off the top of my head, in some areas Indian hunters exterminated all their game animals – the early American horse was hunted to extinction about 7000 BCE.

          The Cahokia were an American Indian tribe indigenous to the Midwest. The tribe is extinct.

          A large population like
          Cahokia’s requires additional resources. Excessive tree cutting,
          for instance for fire and constructions like the stockade, as well as a landscape change due to maize
          fields around the city, certainly destroyed wildlife habitat.

          This went along
          with an ever-increasing
          demand on natural resource and the fact that people may have
          hunted the local game to extinction.

          it was this increasing demand for natural resources that led to a climate

          “One theory says their increasing reliance on lumber for fuel, houses
          and temples [as well as maize agriculture] culture may have caused [the city’s]
          collapse. Removing too much timber from the area would have left nothing to
          anchor the soil, so that heavy rainfall would have washed it away, wiping out
          the crops.” — http://www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/webprojects/LiveMiss/Cahokia/decline.htm

          Don’t get me started on inter-tribal warfare … or slavery.

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  • PeteJohnsonpolisci

    For anyone interested in the subject, a few books to consider

    The Black Swan : The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb – contends that, in order to deal with possible but relatively uncommon events that can occur, a society needs to have a stout level of auxiliaries and backups – something which is out of fashion in our streamlined, just-in-time, no-safety-net business world.

    Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter – argues that societies eventually collapse when faced with diminishing returns on investment.  This is not in purely financial terms but in a broader economic sense of it taking more resources to provide for a society’s needs than the society is able to provide. 

    Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy by Alfred Crosby – contends that the history of civilization is that of a trend of our utilization of more and more energy over time and that, given finite fossil fuels as well as the costs of extracting and using them, we are likely nearing a point in which they will not be able to meet our needs. 

    Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak by Kenneth Deffeyes – the author, a petrogeologist, argues that mankind is likely at or near the maximum extraction rate we will ever achieve for petroleum, which is the transportation lifeblood of modern civilization.

    None of these are particularly focused on “The West.” Broadly speaking, all these books tend to take the view that civilization is essentially global in nature, as there are no autarkic countries.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3AWBA43SCIODQSFYT7EBGGKISQ Kemberly Nelson

    While listening to the show, I did wonder if Mr. Barzan analyzed the comparison of the carbon footprint of both the uncivilized and the civilized poplulation. In the end, who’s best sustaining our planet thus far?

    • drivebyguy

      A trolling politicism with no relevance at all to this man’s life. I’m more incensed at the disrespect, than ashamed to acknowledge the post

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  • http://www.facebook.com/SusanSeaside Susan Watson

    Perhaps Barzan saw something like the ‘creative destruction’ of bankruptcy; The kaleidoscope turns, the old pattern disolves but all the beautiful pieces remain and reassemble anew.

    A ‘civilization’ is an assembly of parts. Mayan offspring still walk the streets of Mexico. Not everything has to die. The best parts of our civilization (litteracy, the rule of law, science) emerge as robust as ever.

  • ExcellentNews

    Western civilization started to decline when we lost faith in progress and science.

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