Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun, Intellectual Giant, 1907-2012

When Jacques Barzun was born, there was a Habsburg on the throne, and a Hohenzollern, and a Romanov. (And a Windsor). He first began teaching during World War One (then known as The Geat War). He started teaching at Columbia University before the Geat Recession. In 1956 he was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine as the representative of America's finest intellectuals. In those days, Time Magazine's cover interested many people. By the time of the student riots of 1968 he was an important university administrator approaching retirement; his rioting students are now retiring. He died yesterday, apparently lucid and creative until the end.

He was of the class of public figures for whom newpapers prepare obituaries in advance - the New York Times one is unusually long and detailed, to fit his unusually long and creative life.

He wrote shelves of books. I've read only one of them, some years back, but it remains in my mind as an unusually important book - and also, a bit startling for an author who was in his 90s at the time - an innovative book: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, published in 2000. Here's how it begins:
It takes only a look at the numbers to see that the 20th century is coming to an end. A wider and deeper scrutiny is needed to see that in the West the culture of the last 500 years is ending at the same time. Beliving this to be true, I have thought it the right moment to review in sequence the great achievements and the sorry failures of our half millenium.
A few pages later he present the outlines of the half millenium:
[I]t could be said that the first period - 1500-1660 - was dominated by the issue of what to believe in religion; the second - 1661-1798 - by what to do about the status of the individual and the model of government; the third - 1790-1920 - by what means to achieve social and econmic equality. The rest is the mixed consequence of all these efforts.
Read it. It's a very fine book, and it tells important things about our world.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the pointer to a figure with whom I was not previously familiar. One small fact-check: he began teaching before he turned 11?

Leo Wong said...

Possibly at aged 8, in 1916: "he was assigned a group of younger students to instruct in mathematics." Michael Murray, Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind (2012). For possibly the last will see from Barzun's pen, see: .

Anonymous said...

No big deal, but I think you meant "Great War" not geat war.