The great teacher, cultural historian and social critic Jacques Barzun died yesterday (October 25, 2012) at the age of 104. The French-born Barzun’s father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a civil servant in the French ministry of labor, but the elder Barzun was also a writer and many prominent authors and artists visited the family home. In 1917, the French government sent Henri-Martin Barzun on a mission to the United States. The young Jacques went to the United States in 1920. Still a teenager, Jacques Barzun enrolled in Columbia University in New York City in 1923.
Barzun took his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1927 and then began teaching and graduate study at the same institution. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1932. His dissertation was published as his first book, The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution (1932). In this book, Barzun examined how the idea of race had developed historically in French thought and how this idea had shaped political and social behavior. This theme of the historical emergence of the idea of race, an idea that Barzun saw as misleading and dangerous, became the basis of his second book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937). These two books were timely in their topic because the Nazi Party had risen to power in Germany during these years, advocating racial doctrines derived from the historical influences described by Barzun.
While teaching at Columbia, Barzun came into contact with prominent New York intellectuals. The literary critic Lionel Trilling became his friend and collaborator when the two taught a “Great Books” class in 1934. Barzun and his first wife, Marianna, frequently socialized with Trilling and his wife, Diana, also a renowned literary critic.
Barzun’s third book, Of Human Freedom (1939), also treated the historical currents of his day. Written on the eve of World War II, the book offered a defense of democracy in the face of the absolutist doctrines of Nazism and Fascism. The political ideas in this book were inspired by the late nineteenth century American psychologist and philosopher William James, who formulated a version of the philosophy of pragmatism and saw American democracy as an imperfect but sound way of meeting the challenges of political life.
Barzun served Columbia as Dean of Graduate Faculties from 1955 to 1958 and Dean of Faculties and Provost from 1958 to 1967. He was named Seth Low Professor of History in 1960. In 1975, he finally retired from Columbia’s active faculty and became an emeritus professor. In his retirement, though, he took up a second career as literary consultant to the publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons, Inc.
The prolific Barzun managed one of his most impressive achievements when, at the age of 92, he published From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000), an massive overview of five centuries of Western cultural history that he had begun writing when he was 84. In this book, he regarded the modern period of history in the West as having begun in the sixteenth century. He divided this era into four stages. The first stage lasted from the Protestant revolution sparked by Martin Luther to the scientific revolution of Sir Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century. The second stage began with the rise of the nation state during the time of French king Louis XIV and ended with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. The third stretched from the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment to the appearance of Cubism in art and thought in the decade before World War I. The fourth and last stage lasted through the World Wars through the opening of the twenty-first century. Barzun argued that by the time at which he was writing, the modern culture of the West had spent itself and had become empty, self-defeating, and decadent. Even critics who disagreed with the representation of historical periods as having definable beginnings and endings thought that Barzun had written a masterpiece, and Barzun was often compared to the great historian Edward Gibbon.
While working on From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun finally left New York and moved to his final home in San Antonio, Texas with his second wife, Marguerite, who was a San Antonio native. Barzun became an active part of the cultural life of his new city, giving lectures and interviews. Through most of his life, Barzun had been in the public eye less than other New York intellectuals, such as his friend and colleague, Lionel Trilling. Nevertheless, he had maintained a consistent reputation as an elegant and insightful historian, an independent and clear-headed observer of higher education, and an incisive critic of modern culture. For my part, I regard Dawn to Decadence as the greatest achievement in a lifetime of great achievements. Reading or re-reading it may be the best way to memorialize Jacques Barzun.