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on January 12, 2018
This is an amazing book. I don’t know how it isn’t required reading in every American school. It exceeds any expectation, unless you’re expecting it to be anything less than stellar. In that case, prepare to be disappointed.

Barzun crafts such a web of change and continuity, and weaves in the themes he perceives throughout the era, such as INDIVIDUALISM, ANALYSIS, PRIMITIVISM. For any Christian wanting to engage the Western canon and culture, or for anyone at all wishing to do the same, this is a good start. Five stars. Well done, Mr. Barzun.

P.S. My book was used, had a minute amount of wear and tear, as well as what looked like a strange drop of metal, with a gold coloring, that I couldn’t pick at or pick it off. If anyone knows if this was perhaps a promotional or rare thing, and not just a product of the book’s last owner, I’d live to know!
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on April 23, 2018
Barzun is from a foreign country--not France, where he was born in 1907, but from the now distant cultural past where professorial erudition was to be admired and, as far as possible, emulated.

I'm old enough to remember when Barzun, Lionel Trilling, W.H. Auden, and numerous other "New York intellectuals" were role models for serious students of the liberal arts a.k.a. the humanities. They believed--and I still do--that knowledge of the past through the deep study of literature and the other arts, history, philosophy, political theory, theology, was the necessary condition for a person to achieve full humanity. It was a lifelong task, but also a lot of fun even if you had to sweat and strain to understand complex matters that the geniuses of the past and present concerned themselves with.

This has all gone now. Erudition has become at best a form of the higher "trivial pursuit", and university students waste their time writing theses about pop culture and inane views that are the detritus of post-modernist nonsense.

Barzun's book could be seen as a corrective to this cultural degeneration, but anyone who suffers from it won't get very far without dismissing him as a fussy "elitist" who's invincibly out of touch with the Important Issues of 2018.

Just think: this was a man who about 80 years ago dismissed the notion of "race" as a myth!
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on December 1, 2013
There have been many caustic comments about Barzun's seeming artistic and political conservatism. I don't see that and I am politically quite progressive.One thing he is doing, regarding the arts (one area discussed) is a call for standards- craft- not slovenliness and a return from the destruction of the anti-art of Dada and Du Champ.

A totally remarkable book, written by an erudite, educated man conversant with science, politics, philosophy, music and art. This book covers an arc from 1500 and Martin Luther to fin-de -siecle of the 20th century. It is attempt to answer the question- why we have the art culture and politics of each age and whether we are in decline.

It is a surprising page turner, and witty. Don't be afraid of the 800 pages- you will regret it's ending.

Most contemporary artists consider any criticism as reactionary and bourgeois- they reserve the right to shock, use any detritus as art and deface wall without boundaries. He explains that unfortunate trajectory with the onset of Dadaism and the destructive impulses born of World war One. Why one feel that graffiti must be "the peoples art- must they have something so cheap, so easily done with spray cans?

I don't agree with everything he says- but the book is an education. I recommend it to any artist at sea regarding his work ( most of us). It helps explains why beauty is in the dustbin.
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on March 23, 2018
This book is one of the Greatest written in modern times. As one of the reviews says, it is already a classic, as it came off the presses. The author remembered hearing the artillery off in the distance while a child in France; he died in Texas a bit over one hundred years of age. He said for anyone to truly understand America, they should understand Base Ball. If half the people that claim to be college educated read it, maybe we - as Modern Westerners - would not be slouching so rapidly towards the decadence referenced in the title. Oh, well ...... Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. What a great book this is. Thanks.
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on July 8, 2015
An extraordinary comprehensive history of Western Civilization from the breaking out of the European cocoon to approximately the day before yesterday. This is a cultural/intellectual history, not a political history. If you want to know why Wellington had to wait so long for Blucher, then look elsewhere. Barzun's outlook is more Francophone than what conventionally passes my desk. Not a negative nor a positive -- just a difference: viva, etc.
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on June 21, 2017
This book is a masterpiece of rational thinking and research. As a 72 year old retired NCO and Vietnam War Vet the book touched a lot of sore spots
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on January 18, 2011
Jacques Barzun, as of this writing still alive, and over 100 years old, (to the best of my knowledge) is an ambitious historian.
This book which reads like a testament, and was published late in his life, has epic scope : it spans over 500 years in the history of Western culture, and was written with encyclopedic intent, in the encyclopedic tradition of.. Diderot, for example.
Not encyclopedic, as in Wikipedia...
Mr Barzun is a writer's historian, and he has a beautiful and sophisticated command of a language which is not his mother tongue. (As is often the case, he speaks and writes English better than most native speakers.)
At a time when many historians, many people are closely confined in highly specialized academic fields of study, Mr Barzun's highly synthetic mind is capable of finding important analogies, and making insightful generalizations that tie together isolated events, and ideas to make sense outside of the little boxes that so painfully hem in our vision these days.
"From Dawn to Decadence" achieves several major accomplishments : it takes the pulse of major intellectual crossroads at given points in time : "the view from Venice around 1650", for example. It exposes and analyzes the significant ideas that underlie Western civilization, and traces their development : individualism, analysis, emancipation, for example. Last but not least, Mr. Barzun takes great pains to uncover and set to right our most persistent... PREJUDICES about our history, and the men and women whose lives MADE IT. (See p. 87-88, with Barzun's comment on our 20th and 21st century prejudice in considering that it is only in the past 50 years that the female sex has had access to education or "opportunities for self development".)
This LARGE book is filled with fascinating anecdotes that flesh out our ancestors, and make our past more than a collection of lifeless and stuffed dates.
And it thoroughly finds its place in a humanist tradition where the scientific method (reason) and emotion are not mutually exclusive traits of the human soul.
Once upon a time.... scientists and (lyrical) poets could be one and the same man.. or woman.
Today, Jacques Barzun is a scientist AND a poet.
Who could wish for anything else ? And this book definitely illustrates it.
One last thing : since Jacques Barzun is an extremely cultivated historian of ideas, and an authority in his field, this book is equally important for the student of history who wants to glean an idea of how "history" emerged in our civilization and where it is heading. At least... where Jacques Barzun is taking it...
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on January 18, 2001
This book is a grand review of the past five hundred years of cultural history. It is also an essay written by a fascinating man, as he wanders through what he considers important. The two threads sometimes unravel, making for difficult reading.
Warning: As you read this book, you will be tempted to buy a hundred more books mentioned in the text -- Tasso sounds fascinating, why not read his stories?
The author has a clear view, but is honest about showing it -- the title gives it away. The decadence he sees is intellectual, spiritual, cultural... a grossness of sensualism, a dumbing down of high culture, various trends that appear in capitals (PRIMITIVISM). These views make the historical work juicier, but a tad more tendentious.
My one complaint is that the book reads a bit choppy, as the author writes in short hand, introducing topics suddenly, and moving on from them quickly. This requires an adjustment by the reader, but has a certain charm if you can get used to it. The book is rich and anyone who reads it needs some weeks, some good Port, and a comfortable chair.
One question: why do you WANT to read a history of the past five hundred years? If it is simply to re-affirm your belief in western decadence, skip this book. The work is cultured and layered and will strongly challenge simplistic preconceptions while confirming a thesis that the west has been in decline. This is a Big Read -- it takes time, thought, patience, and work by the reader.
I started reading the book five months ago, and have been picking it up off and on since then, finishing recently. The book needs this sort of time, and is worth the investment, but only if you have the desire.
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on June 12, 2001
This challenging work argues that the last 500 years form a distinct period during which the Occident has made tremendous advances in culture and science, only to have run out of steam in the present day and fallen into a state of decadence. Barzun compares the modern era to the glorious past, and like so many before him, he finds it wanting.
The author invites you to become an intellectual tourist as he surveys the highlights of the last five centuries. The terrain is familiar, but the perspective is individual, the interpretations often quirky and you are always challenged to re-examine your assumptions. Two unusual features of Barzun's book are the quotations in bold type that are scattered around the text to illustrate his points and his recommendations of books to read on topics of special interest. The latter serves as a sort of eccentric bibliography in miniature, and has furnished this reviewer with many happy ideas for future reading.
The most provocative remarks are reserved for the last part of the book, which provides a long list of what the author feels is wrong with western society at the end of the millenium. Some of these are the usual complaints of the fastidious conservative, while others are harder to dismiss. Readers will have to decide for themselves where they stand on these issues, and whether they agree with Mr. Barzun that "Western Civ." is going down the tubes. But it's a fascinating journey, and Jacques Barzun is a wonderful guide.
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on October 10, 2013
I'm not going to wax on too long here because everything about this book has been said already. But this is THE book to get on the last 500 years of western thought. Brilliantly explained, brilliantly contextualized. But not simplified--this is not a pop-theory Malcolm Gladwell type "lite" work. It is big and it is just about as dense as the average college educated person can handle. I tried reading it on an airplane a few times, it's a bit complex for that, but still...it's the only "big" history book I know of which manages to be both digestible and substantial (in terms of density of thought/ideas) at the same time.
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