Saturday, October 27, 2012

Jacques Barzun: American Historian, Dead At 104

Literary Lives

Jacques Barzun, a noted historian and essayist, died on Thurday, October 25th at his home in San Antonio, Texas; he was 104. An article in the New York Times notes:
Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.
Mr. Barzun stood beside Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell and Lionel Trilling as among the mid-20th century’s most wide-ranging scholars, all of whom tried to reconcile the achievements of European culture and philosophy with the demands and tastes of American intellectual and cultural life.
He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.
Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.
Jacques Barzun was born in Créteil, a suburb of Paris, on Nov. 30, 1907, influenced like many of his contemporaries by European Romanticism. Common to all thinking humans, Brazun's words incited controversy; he was right about many things (the quality of a liberal arts education) and wrong on a few others (the teaching of science in universities).

His love and devotion to Romanticism undoubtedly colored his views on science, which he worried had mechanistic tendencies. The Times writes: "This was to become a recurring theme; Mr. Barzun even considered science to have had a deleterious effect on university education. While he maintained that modern science was 'one of the most stupendous and unexpected triumphs of the human mind,' he attacked, again and again, any hint of 'mechanical scientism,' which he said had baleful consequences."

Although his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, viewed western civilization in decline, it was not its end, but rather another new phase in its movement forward. Thinkers like Jacques Barzun, who put forward ideas for debate and analysis, will be missed.

You can read the rest of the article at (NYT)