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. 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. 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! It must also be said that many important philosophers do not get mentioned, while for example obscure writers get the attention of the author.
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For Barzun, who was born in France in and whose education was supervised by a great-grandmother born in the year of the final fall of the Bourbons, it is precisely that - an event of recent vintage - and it is one of the virtues of his vast, synoptic book that he makes the history of the past years vivid and urgent.
For a generation for whom history largely comprises BBC2 theme nights on the s and s, it is a salutary lesson. He offers a history of ideas, not a historical narrative; it is an interpretation, not a description, of what happened, which is why he gives parenthetical suggestions of other books to browse.
Barzun moved to the US in and, based at Columbia University, became one of its starriest and most combative academics, using his elegant pen in books such as The House of Intellect and Darwin Marx Wagner to oppose premature academic specialisation and defend the place of the humanities. He has been an emeritus professor since , suggesting the need for some enhanced term of venerability. This book concludes his lifelong quest to relate historical events to cultural expression, and to understand the process of change.
His question is nothing less than that which Tolstoy poses at the end of War and Peace : "What is the force that moves nations? From to it was religion: the Protestant challenge to Catholicism that led men, suddenly given direct access to God, to redefine themselves and states. From to it was the pursuit of political freedom and individual rights, culminating in the French Revolution. From to it was the search for social and economic equality, exploding in the Russian Revolution.
In the past century, it has been an uneasy amalgam of all three. Now, if his bleakest pronouncements are to be taken at face value, it is nothing at all: we are ruled by inertia. Entropy has replaced ideology.
The story starts with Luther because the religious revolution he began lit the fires of individualism that burned ever more brightly thereafter. Barzun sees the religious, monarchical, liberal and collectivist revolutions as a chain reaction triggered by increasing demands for individual rights.
Luther said that every man was a priest; the monarchs who built the nations of the 17th and 18th centuries undermined the nobility and inadvertently? The revolutions of the late 18th century converted subjects into citizens, and Marx sought to turn political equality into economic equality. That is the canopy that Barzun erects over his luxuriant garden of ideas and aphorisms.
He shows his age in only one respect: like his fellow academic luminary Harold Bloom, he is anxious to judge, to draw moral lessons from the lives of figures such as Cromwell and Louis XIV. That is at best otiose and, when he dismisses the leading figures in the French Revolution as "men who lacked mature political talent", ludicrously banal.
Most of all, Barzun wants to judge the present generation, and he finds us sadly lacking. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces. The present cannot be judged in the same way as the past; , , and only make sense with hindsight. Similarly, greatness in art, itself a mutable designation, is determined by later generations.
The present age, unquestionably suspicious of ideology, may appear bereft of genius and empty of meaning; but who knows, any day now another Luther may be posting a new set of incendiary propositions on the internet, making placemen and plutocrats quake.
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