The shank end of 2007 has brought Jacques Barzun, the distinguished historian and cultural critic, to his one-hundredth birthday. This would be a notable event in any life. But for all of us who cherish the quiet witness of civilized men living decent, profitable, and orderly lives in a chaotic age, this event ought to be marked by more than a passing nod. By dint of Barzun’s steadily fine, well wrought, and penetrating writings and observations on life as it is lived and has been lived over the span of the past several centuries, this celebration should be ours as well. It is meet and right to honor not only our elders but also our betters.
We gain more than a bit of perspective on the occasion when we realize that this one man has breathed for fully one fifth of the period expertly sifted and chronicled in his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: Five Hundred Years of Western Cultural Life, a magisterial and exhaustive—though not exhausting—record of discoveries and achievements, great and small, made and commemorated over the long, bumpy haul of half a millennium in the West. Nothing quite like this book has ever been penned, and its date of publication, 2000, made its appearance on the eve of 9/11 especially propitious, though not nearly enough thoughtful critics and reviewers have acknowledged this discomfiting fact over the last six years.
Jacques Barzun was born in France in 1907, imbibed the youthful excitements of growing up around the artists who always seemed to hang about his parents, and attended a typically rigorous French lycee during the First World War. He followed his diplomat father to America in the 1920s and he never looked back. He had found a new country and became an American citizen not long after he went to study at Columbia University, an institution he never left until his retirement as Provost and University Professor in 1975.
Barzun elevated the pursuit of cultural history and criticism to academic respectability. Many scholars and critics had followed this vocation for centuries—including Barzun’s presumptive models, Gibbon and Macaulay—but few with quite the same thoroughness and precision, and no moderns with the same joy. The cultural historian guides himself by the simple but daunting precept that no bit of flotsam and jetsam floating down the river of time can be discarded as irrelevant or useless; if it has accompanied human beings on their journeys through life, they make the cut. For this reason, for example, Barzun, a man with no formal musical training, has been able to make himself an authority on music with his two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century, a work that required not so much training as solid knowledge and sensibility and tact.
No matter how erudite Barzun’s writing may be—and he can be ruthlessly, painstakingly meticulous—he is never patronizing to those of us who know far less and he is always accessible to the curious, non-scholarly reader. Nothing human is alien to him. Always humble, he’s a cosmopolitan man without the easygoing arrogance of the cosmopolite. For Barzun has never relinquished his own amateur’s card; if deep learning cannot bring the learner pleasure and illumination, it’s probably best not pursued—no doubt a rebuke to platoons of contemporary academics who go at their work with all the gusto and delight of automatons and tired bureaucrats.
To list one of Barzun’s books tempts one to run the gamut until all fifty or so have been listed. The temptation must be resisted. But running by a few titles gives some idea of this man’s range of interest and expertise: Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, The Energies of Art, The House of Intellect, Science: The Glorious Entertainment, The Delights of Detection, A Catalogue of Crime (on mystery fiction), The Use and Abuse of Art, A Stroll with William James, The Culture We Deserve, and An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry—and none of this includes his ten translations. This has been no scholar hemmed in by the strictures of academic over-specialization. Here has been a man engaged with anything that strikes his fancy in life—which is to say everything.
How much poorer we would be had not Barzun written so well and prolifically on the sticky matters of education and language at a time when both are assailed by armies of the ignorant and licentious. “Teaching is not the application of a system,” he once wrote, “it is an exercise in perpetual discretion.” Barzun may be the very exemplar of the enlightened and humble humanist, and he long ago cut down to the core of the greatest difficulty in modern schooling: if we want young people to be humanized by the knowledge they acquire, they must be taught by humanists—that is, by those who themselves have been humanized by that same knowledge, who have been, in a word, changed, and changed for the better, by what they know. But this is no mean task, and providing for it doesn’t call for new policies dressed in ugly, self-defeating, vague, cowardly lingo: it requires a clear head, simple words, and eternal vigilance, which is no easy prescription in a time of pompous over-promising. (Yes, unfortunately, some children will be left behind.)
Yet even as we celebrate, we struggle to imagine a world to come without Jacques Barzun, a sad and poignant thought. When he has finally passed from the scene, all his humane knowledge, that entire constellation of association, anecdote, and nutritious nuggets of rich information will drift into the ether, forever beyond our reach. But his books, and his exuberant example, will abide to remind all us would-be applicants to the house of intellect of what a cultivated man once looked like. Barzun’s lucid humanity will always act as a persistent aide memoire that the extravagantly kind, intelligent, and fruitful life can still be lived.
Let us praise civilized men.
Tracy Lee Simmons is the director of the Dow Journalism program at Hillsdale College and holds a masters degree in classics from Oxford University. He is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (ISI Books).