From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Triumph and Defeat, 1500 to the Present

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9780060175863: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Triumph and Defeat, 1500 to the Present

Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

In this account, Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaisance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have "Puritans as Democrats," "The Monarch's Revolution," "The Artist Prophet and Jester" -- show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the eras.

The triumphs and defeats of five hundred years form an inspiring saga that modifies the current impression of one long tale of oppression by white European males. Women and their deeds are prominent, and freedom (even in sexual matters) is not an invention of the last decades. And when Barzun rates the present not as a culmination but a decline, he is in no way a prophet of doom. Instead, he shows decadence as the creative novelty that will burst forth -- tomorrow or the next day.

Only after a lifetime of separate studies covering a broad territory could a writer create with such ease the synthesis displayed in this magnificent volume.

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Product Description:

The bestselling (New York Times No. 3) history chronicling half a millennium of Western culture.

From Dawn To Decadence is the French-American historian Jacques Barzun’s great opus. It is the product of a lifetime of separate studies which he now sets down in one powerful narrative, interspersing his entertaining analysis of wars, philosophy, science, manners, sex, religion, morals, art, et al, from the Reformation to the present day, with biographical sketches of influential historical figures (including Luther, Charles V, Descartes, Bacon, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Cromwell, Peter the Great, Defoe, Swift, Rubens, Bach, Byron, Pascal, Florence Nightingale, James Joyce…) His positive conclusion is that the decadence of the current age is merely a watershed for a new age in which Western culture will again flourish.

This is heavyweight history written with great wit and verve, comparable in scope with the Big Ideas and Big Themes history of Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which was a huge bestseller that was first ‘made’ in the US, and Paul Johnson (The Birth of the Modern; Intellectuals; Twentieth Century Britain). With Barzun’s lucid and easy style it is also a very accesible book which will be eagerly devoured by history and culture lovers alike.

Review:

At the outset of Jacques Barzun's colossal book From Dawn to Decadence 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, the author admits that when asked by friends how long he has been writing his book, he can only answer--a lifetime. The book is worth the wait for its extraordinary energy and intellectual range. Barzun begins by arguing that "by tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy and social though 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 elsewhere." In the process Barzun adroitly guides the reader from Luther's Ninety-five Theses and the religious revolution of the 16th century, through what he calls "the monarchical, liberal and social" revolutions of the subsequent 400 years that have shaped the culture of the modern Western world. All of Western life and thought can be found somewhere in From Dawn to Decadence. Portraits of Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Descartes, Florence Nightingale and James Joyce jostle alongside snapshots of cities at turning points in history--"The View from Venice Around 1650", "The View from Paris Around 1830", and finally "A View from New York Around 1995". Barzun's central argument is that "after a time, the Western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom." This does lead Barzun to some more curmudgeonly comments towards the end of the book, where he deals with the cultural exhaustion of the last decades of the 20th century, but over 800 pages he offers more than enough insight into an incredible sweep of history to make this a riveting and rewarding book. -- Jerry Brotton

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