Monday, July 27, 2015

From Dawn to Decadence

For this impressive work, noted public intellectual Barzun drew upon a lifetime of reading and teaching to chart the great intellectual rivers flowing out of the springs of the Renaissance and Reformation, their tributaries and distributaries - Analysis, Reductionism, Abstraction, Self-Consciousness, Individualism, Emancipation, Primitivism, Scientism, and Secularism.

The book gives the effect of listening to a brilliant, garrulous lecturer as he takes the reader on a tour of the past five centuries.  Although he sometimes gets his facts wrong, some of his interpretations are questionable, and some of his conclusions are debatable, the breadth of his learning and charm of his delivery bears the weight.  He gives his own philosophy about two-thirds of the way to the end: "attend most carefully to the big points and judge the importance of details by their consequence."  The unorthodox construction, with relatively few endnotes, quick parenthetical page references back or forward, pull quotes, and reading suggestions embedded in the text propel the narrative briskly forward.  The narrative itself may be Barzun's greatest achievement, imagining the present as a part, and not necessarily the most important part, of an ongoing story, and thus attempting to reawaken a sense of historical consciousness at the end of an age.

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