Over seven decades, Barzun wrote and edited more than forty books touching on an unusually broad range of subjects, including science and medicine, psychiatry from Robert Burton through William James to modern methods, and art, and classical music; he was one of the all-time authorities on Hector Berlioz.
At 84 years of age, he began writing his swan song, to which he devoted the better part of the 1990s. The resulting book of more than 800 pages, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, reveals a vast erudition and brilliance undimmed by advanced age. Historians, literary critics, and popular reviewers all lauded From Dawn to Decadence as a sweeping and powerful survey of modern Western history…
In the prologue, Barzun offers his summary view and objective for the book:
By tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought during the last 500 years, I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.
… [the west] has pursued characteristic purposes – that is its unity – and now these purposes, carried out to their utmost possibility, are bringing about its demise.
What is this demise, this decadence?
All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear line of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility.
The Beginning of the End
Barzun spends some 650 pages providing a thorough overview of western culture and civilization; to examine this in detail is well outside of the scope of this blog. Barzun expertly demonstrates the wealth of the west – in both economic and cultural terms. Many of the most significant individuals are reviewed – very few from the ranks of politics! Then he comes to the beginning of the end:
The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-18.
Much has been said about the causes of the Great War, and all the chief actors in the feverish August days – nations and individuals both – have been accused of making it inevitable. No conclusion has been agreed upon because no action can be held to have been decisive by itself. The most that can be charged against any officials is that the Austrian Minister Konrad von Hetzendorf wanted a war and that Sir Edward Grey in the Foreign Office vacillated before announcing that Britain would side with France. All the other diplomats and heads of state worked hard to avert the catastrophe.
A war of the west in destruction of the west; this much is certain.
Shaw and the Fabians
What led to this Great War? Barzun offers as prologue to the war the cheap daily paper, “in which raucous propaganda, crime, and scandal were the main fare, but not the only attraction.” As an example, the work done by Hearst to drive popular opinion in America for the Spanish-American War.
In addition, many periodicals were introduced or gained influence:
There were various other publications written by one or another individual or small group of like-minded individuals. “The most unified and best organized were the Fabians. And among them the most untiring and resourceful propagandist was Shaw.”
George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics.
He was most angered by what he perceived as the exploitation of the working class. An ardent socialist, Shaw wrote many brochures and speeches for the Fabian Society. He became an accomplished orator in the furtherance of its causes, which included gaining equal rights for men and women, alleviating abuses of the working class, rescinding private ownership of productive land, and promoting healthy lifestyles.
In 1882, influenced by Henry George’s view that the rent value of land belongs to all, Shaw concluded that private ownership of land and its exploitation for personal profit was a form of theft, and advocated equitable distribution of land and natural resources and their control by governments intent on promoting the commonwealth. Shaw believed that income for individuals should come solely from the sale of their own labour and that poverty could be eliminated by giving equal pay to everyone.
After visiting the USSR in 1931 and meeting Joseph Stalin, Shaw became a supporter of the Stalinist USSR.
Shaw delivered speeches on the theory of eugenics and he became a noted figure in the movement in England.
Returning to Barzun:
Shaw was a conscious pragmatist…. Pragmatism is a natural bent of Shaw’s heroes and heroines, just as his own made him a Fabian Socialist.
Pragmatic approaches, when it comes to politics, are certain to lead to an ever-increasing and encroaching state.
The name “Fabian” was chosen after a Roman general, who wore down his enemies by skirmishes and delaying tactics instead of head-on combat. Beginning with municipal ownership of utilities through taxation of income and inherited wealth, step by step England (and the west) was Fabianized.
This, of course, has been the method by which liberal has evolved to liberal….
Shaw had his own vision of “Catholic”:
The word Catholic meant to him what an up-to-date religion should be – universal; a common faith is a necessity for any society that wants internal peace and decent government.
Shaw offered supermen as leaders:
Man is…led forward and upward by the “masters of reality” – artists, statesmen, founders of religion.
Consider this: has this not been achieved via the new catholic church – the church of publicly-funded education? A common faith – an indoctrination in the narrative of history? Consider also the role of the media – reinforcing this narrative almost religiously.
Now consider the internet, and in how many ways it is tearing apart this common narrative. To the extent it enables individuals to break free from the narrative, two outcomes emerge – not mutually exclusive, in fact, mutually supportive: 1) a loss of internal peace and decent government, and 2) a loss of faith. Are not both of these visible today throughout the west?
Shaw’s utopia didn’t turn out so great:
At the nadir of the war years, Shaw despaired of man’s ability to overcome his brutish instincts and his propensity to lie and mouth empty ideals.
All was not lost; Shaw found a new Superman:
In his last years, Shaw extolled Russian Communism…. His approval of government by murder and massacre looks like a desperate gambler’s last throw.
The Great Switch
Barzun focusses on Shaw and the Fabians in order to introduce what he calls the Great Switch:
It was the pressure of Socialist ideas, and mainly the Reformed groups in parliaments and the Fabian outside, that brought it about. By Great Switch I mean the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite.
Beginning with Bismarck, and expanding through the early years of the twentieth century, numerous laws were passed “in aid of the many….”
Liberalism triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least; now for all the western nations political wisdom has recast this ideal of liberty into liberality. The shift has thrown the vocabulary into disorder.
Barzun sees all political action pulling in the same direction: “Changes of party mean only a little more or a little less of each tendency, depending on the matter under consideration.”
The Causes and Consequences of the War
Barzun spends virtually no effort counting bodies or budgets. His focus is on the damage inflicted to the culture of the west – described as “an emancipation that nobody could oppose.”
…this last desire was fulfilled in many ways. Class barriers lost rigidity; conventions were relaxed. The soldier was cut loose from his nine-to-five at the office or six-to-four in the factory, as well as from home and its constraints. Watchful neighbors having scattered, each spouse, now separated, gained sexual freedom if it was wanted, or at least escape from a bad marriage.
…family life broken as badly as by divorce; careers, occupations ended and livelihood reduced to a meager government allowance; social distinctions and manners diluted or erased – even clothing and speech altered to fit new human relations, loss of bourgeois pride and comfort – in short, an unexpected tide of egalitarianism.
It scrambled the continuities of western culture.
Just today, from an article at LRC by Paul Fussell, entitled “The Culture of War”:
War kills people; the culture of war does not, but the culture of war kills something precious and indispensable in a civilized society: freedom of utterance, freedom of curiosity, freedom of knowledge.
Now my point is simple: if you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further and learn to be uncritical of government and authority, and even to be uncritical of all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitions prevail at the moment.
Back to Barzun; of course, western civilization didn’t collapse solely on the back of Joe the Plumber:
…the intellectual rift was worse than the political: the cultivated classes had no excuse. By definition – their own boastful definition – intellectuals were independent thinkers…. Overnight, en masse like so many sheep, they turned into rabid superpatriots.
Barzun describes as “the most remarkable feature of this turncoat response”:
What is truly astonishing is the unanimity, unheard of on any other subject but the war and the enemy. …one cannot think of more than half a dozen or so who did not spout all the catchphrases of abuse and vulgarity.
Barzun goes on to offer a few possible explanations of this unanimity – not seen during the Napoleonic wars, for example:
…the “purifying” of human motives by war…
A blood sacrifice, offered to the gods.
Yet another motive…animated these culture makers: for the first time in their lives they had become important, useful, wanted.
One of the tools of the state is the co-opting of the intellectuals. I do not know the extent to which this was effective one-hundred years ago, but it has matured into an almost total condition. Professors, scientists, economists, leaders of major corporations – each of these professions and more can thank the state for a subsidized privilege; supportive the narrative is a requirement.
Interestingly, despite the place of honor (if you can call it this) in this dawning of decadence upon which Barzun places Shaw, Shaw is one of the few complaining about the situation:
“We have looted and persecuted, reviled and insulated and assaulted. We have meanly robbed poor women of their little savings; we have seized a man for going across London to snatch a caress from his wife, and we have punished him as we punish only the most savage hooligans. Editors of newspapers have printed dastardly letters demanding that German prisoners of war, when they die, shall not be buried as soldiers who have fought for their country, but thrown on the dungheap to ‘rot like dogs.’”
Perhaps another example of a utopian whose dream was dashed on the shores of reality. But why? Why would Shaw react negatively to the ultimate extension of his vision? During war, communism is, in many ways, achieved:
The nation-in-arms is virtually a communist state: the people must be paid wages and fed and protected and regimented behind the lines as much as the front. Minds must be kept loyal and at the right pitch of hate, so that successive drafts of fighters are accepted without murmurings. Letters and newspapers must be censored while the propaganda mill grinds on.
The conflict was on its last legs. Fraternizing with the enemy occurred early and often – at Easter and Christmas, for example. In 1916, “mutiny broke out on the French front. It was put down and the fact kept secret.”
Not able to leave well enough alone, Wilson decided to jump in:
Then came the news of America’s declaration of war against Germany, which gave the conflict renewed impetus.
The impact of this in both extended the war and damning the peace is well-documented.
It was not long after the end of the Great War that farseeing observers predicted the likelihood of another and it became plain that western civilization had brought itself into a condition from which full recovery was unlikely. The devastation, both material and moral, had gone so deep that it turned the creative energies from their course, first into frivolity, then into the channel of self-destruction.
The impetus born of the Renaissance was exhausted, and the new start made in the years just before 1914 had been cut short; its creators themselves were unwilling or unable to pick up where they left off.
What was left in the wake? The Soviets took firm hold in Russia, Italy brought forward the dictator Mussolini and Spain the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera and subsequently a civil war, Japan invaded Manchuria, smaller countries in Central Europe succumbed to armed Communism or struggled against it, and Germany succumbed to inflation and ultimately National Socialism. Of course, classical liberalism was lost throughout the west.
All along, Communism attracted converts throughout Europe and America – it offered a fresh start. Only a few recanted after the extent of Stalin’s massacres were revealed. Then, the continuation of the war, now known as World War II.
By the end of the war, the welfare state was firmly established throughout the west:
The late 20C welfare states of the West are not Communist Russia…but some of the aims and devices are not unlike. The desire for security on the part of the population is the same, coupled though it is with a desire for freedom. This combination…is self-contradictory and probably unworkable.
Given what has transpired even since Barzun wrote this book, it seems more than “probably.”
The End of the Nation-State
Barzun now examines the current time – the period of decadence. He suggests that the strongest tendency is that of Separatism – the idea of Pluralism had disintegrated.
…if one surveyed the Occident and the world as well, one could see that the greatest political creation of the West, the nation-state, was stricken.
Scotland and Wales won autonomous parliaments; various regions in France, Italy, and Spain desired autonomy. Belgium was two pretending to be one. Quebec. Rebels were fighting in many parts of the world. The Soviet Union broke into a dozen parts, with other regions desiring to break free. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia each broke into pieces.
The building blocks of the nation-state – “a common language, a core of historical memories with heroes and villains, compulsory public schooling and military service” – were all decaying, with no chance to be restored.
Cradle-to-grave security was promised. The effect on the quality of legislation is easy to imagine, “as the welfare state must pass laws by the bushel….Bogged down in their efforts to keep welfare up-to-date, the democracies had lost the power to keep the governing machinery up to the same date.” Bills were brought forward, only left to die without action. “Such a failure of will, which is to say the wish without the act, is characteristic of institutions in decadence.”
The demotic individual has appeared as “an immigrant, freedom fighter, or criminal; a listless voter, a victim of impotent law and order, and a receiver of benefits at the hands of government….” The one reference to the individual as a private person “was the mention that he felt a lack of room to breathe, oppressed by the rule book and by the mass of adversaries in the allocation of conflicting rights.”
His overriding taste was for the Unconditioned Life….the unconditioned life was something different from enjoying rights and decent treatment from one’s fellows. It was to act as if nothing stood in the way of every wish.
A life of no expectations, no consequence, no negative sanction.
Signs of this unconditioned life could be found in clothing, the decrease in deference toward women, the constant need to hurry, pleasure first and fast:
The conglomerate that best fulfilled the ideal of the time was the course offering of the large colleges and universities. It had ceased to be a curriculum, of which the dictionary definition is: “a fixed series of courses required for graduation.” …These hundreds of electives were designed to appeal to students who wanted unconditional choice.
Sports and entertainment were offered in excess – “Imperial Rome did not match it. In both places it became the people’s chief object in life….” “Sports were the last refuge of patriotism.” Children stare at the television (and now tablet and smartphone). Sexual emancipation caused its greatest damage in the public school – through both talk and behavior.
The arts were not unaffected:
So much exposure to the puzzling, the shocking, the bizarre (called surrealist), the repellent, the intrusively (sexually) intimate, the disturbing and the disturbed….
This condition was not limited to the masses:
…although the habits and desires that formed the demotic style were lodged in individuals, it is they – and the most able and active among them – who made the rules and led the institutions all lived by.
The intellectuals, the leaders of public institutions – these are the ones who led the charge. Scientists falsified data. Political correctness was injected – making the practitioners “ridiculous by the antics it entailed.”
Barzun reflects on the attack on the family:
The attacks on that institution in the 1890s, followed by disruptive wars and new ideas about sexual relations, had changed to the point where “family values” was a phrase that divided the population into believers and heretics…. The traditional form of union had not disappeared, but variants…were becoming traditional themselves…. Out of these situations arose two novelties: the day care center and the semi-orphan.
The upshot was that an increasing number of children found at home no encouragement to schooling, no instruction in simple manners, no inkling of the moral sense.
As to the future, Barzun humbly offers his view of what appears to him “possible, plausible, likely, as our own era reaches an end.” He does this through the voice of an anonymous author:
“The shape and coloring of the next era is beyond anyone’s power to define; if it were guessable it would not be new. But on the character of the interval between us and the real tomorrow, speculation is possible.”
“Let the transnational state be described in the past tense, like a chronicler looking back from the year 2300.”
“The population was divided roughly into two groups; they did not like the wordclasses. The first, less numerous, was made up of the men and women who possessed the virtually inborn ability to handle the products of techne and master the methods of physical science, especially mathematics – it was to them what Latin had been to the medieval clergy.”
“It is from this class – no, group – that the governors and heads of institutions were recruited. The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain – clerics in one case, cybernists in the other.”
The masses “by then could neither read nor count. But these less capable citizens were by no means barbarians, yet any schooling would have been wasted on them; that had been proved in the late 20C.”
“As for social organization, the people were automatically divided into interest groups by their residence and occupation, or again by some personal privilege granted for a social purpose. The nation no longer existed, superseded by regions, much smaller, but sensibly determined by economic instead of linguistic and historical unity.”
“As for peace and war, the former was the distinguishing mark of the West from the rest of the world. The numerous regions of the Occident and America formed a loose confederation obeying rules from Brussels and Washington in concert…”
Barzun identifies the Great War, and at it roots the transition from classical liberalism to a socialist society, as the beginning of the end for Western civilization. It seems to me that we are now living through the final convulsions, as witnessed by the remaining centralizing structures acting and reacting almost reflexively to maintain and extend control in the face of the inevitable progression toward decentralization.
Barzun describes as a transition something akin to the Middle Ages: one class, or group, akin to the nobles and clergy, another of the masses; no over-riding nation-state, but loosely confederated regions. A move toward significant and further decentralization.
As regular readers are aware, this conforms to my views of where we are headed: a continuing move toward a decentralized society. There are, as many have pointed out,parallels to the end of Rome; what followed was a period of anarchy and decentralization.
Let’s hope for a similar outcome, as Barzun suggests; the alternatives are not pleasant to consider.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.