Saturday, September 4, 2010

About ready to return

With about 10 days off since mid may (including a 5 day vacation in the boundary waters), I am almost on top of my work. That's 12 - 23 hour days! It's been brutal.

But my project is nearing being under control. So I anticipate my return to Barzun.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This article seems relevant

When I ran across this article about a person in the UK who violated an animal rights law, it reminded me of Barzun's comments about how everything is given "rights."


I also find it ironic how the abstract world of "fairness" plays out, as is clear in this article.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Early" chapter post

I was reading "The Artist is Born" Friday before last before family chaos overtook my evening, and there was a very important paragraph (to me) that I wanted to push out.

It's an area that perplexes me, and one that is, I think, a fundamental topic.
The sheer number of Renaissance treatises tells us something about the nature of a cultural movement. One tends to think of what goes by that name as comprising a handful of geniuses with a group of admirers, patrons, and articulate supporters whose names appear (so to speak) as footnotes in smaller type. Actually, it is a large crowd of highly gifted people--the mass is indispensable. This is a generality. And these many co-workers must be great talents, not duffers. They may be incomplete or unlucky as creators, their names may remain or turn dim, but in retrospect we see that this one or that contributed an original idea, was the first to make use of a device. Together, by what they do and say, they help to keep stirred up the productive excitement, they stimulate the genius in their midst; they are the necessary mulch for the period's exceptional growths.
I've had this thought over and over again. It is at the foundation of my views on society.

I believe in Einstein. I believe in Newton. I believe in Grigoriy Perelman.

These people made quantum leaps. Newton spent seventeen years working on Calculus and physics in isolation. Einstein spent three years in isolation solving general relativity, and hyperbolic calculus. And Dr. Perelman spent his life living with his mother, solving the Poincare Conjecture and rejecting the million dollar prize for solving it.

These are my icons. These are the shining examples of people confronted with the unimaginable imagining it. At present, I'm unaware of any current idea that invalidates Einstein's equations, for instance.

On the other hand, I wonder what would have happened if Einstein had been born a (genetically short) million years ago. What could an Einstein have done then? The introspection required would have left him vulnerable, or any of the above, to say the least. The society plays a role: it has to allow these imaginative people to exist, and their insights to flourish. How many paths are unexplored? Who is to say? And who is to say which of these unexplored paths are inferior? It makes my head swim.

Insofar as the idea that there are many involved in a cultural movement, supporting it, perhaps that is true for fuzzy things like whether the trinity is one or multiple instances of the same thing. I'll leave that to Barzun.

The reason this is interesting to me is the question of wealth. I believe in our current society wealth accumulation is a factor of society, and geniuses marshaling the forces of luck, social mores, and people to obtain tremendous hereditary power from one social genre to the next. I'm firmly opposed to that, and to the extent that Barzun supports that idea, is the extent to which I'm willing to yield to Barzun's notion that "It takes a society."

Of course, none of the people I mentioned hold that hereditary power. They all sought something else, something internal, and I hope that light never goes away.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A stone, a leaf, a door

I really enjoyed this chapter. It describes the development in thinking about the worldly, as opposed to, spiritual life. It also points to something about human nature, the desire to discover the lost or the hidden. This chapter is historically out of order.

Petrarch is born in 1304, and as a humanist is interested in this world's experiences. Similarly, Forcino is born in the mid 15C. We see a Greek school in Italy opened in 1453. We hear about Pico della Mirandola, who wrote "On the Dignity of Man." The entire chapter seems devoted to pre-reformation trends. The trends are about the development of an interest in worldly that were somewhat tolerated by the church, and in the case of the Greek school, the church had a causative role.

There must be a purpose for putting these chapters out of order. In Chapter 1, all I could think was the reaction of a man to a church that had the tight, sumptuous yielding grip of the people in its hands. Luther's reaction was against the corruption of the church. The reaction of the populace was a rejection of the (unequal) corruption. But now we see other elements. We see the interest in the worldly at odds with the spiritual, a kind of debasing of the spiritual. This is the PRIMITIVISM Barzun describes as an element of return to simpler times.
All this is a is due the Middle Age's attitude toward history. They merged time and space indiscriminately. They mingled fact and legend and miracle, and being preoccupied with eternity, they "took" sameness and continuity as more real than development and change--hence, no history in the modern sense"
In other words, Humanism was the beginning of something: the beginning of an understanding of our own world, and in some way a "splitting" of spiritual and worldly. I do love the ending of the chapter:
Such was the scene that revolted the young Luther. Viewed with his eyes, humanism was only a name for worldliness. The low morals of high church-men often justified his verdict, yet on the whole, the Humanists were perhaps more truly Christians than the run of the mill priests and monks or the fanatic Evangelicals who lived by violence yet deemed themselves saved by by faith. . . .
Another interesting part of the book is the near obsession with the book. From the "Form" of a sonnet, to the typefaces, the reverence of books . . .It almost seems there is a mystical attribution to the books themselves "They must be true." I've known several people who have become fascinated with fonts. I'm not surprised with Barzun's anger towards having languages humans can't understand (bar codes) written on things.

I come back again to the placement of this chapter. Why historically out of place? I can only surmise it is done so to "set the record straight." We view Luther and his Evangelicals as the breaking up of the church, and paving the way for the sciences. But Barzun makes us see these elements were in place long before the Reformation. In chapter two, we see Barzun taking a swipe at the idea the reformation was necessary for the intellectual blossoming:
This stand was in effect dictated by their Protestant enemies. One could say in a roundabout fashion, it was these Bible-ridden revolutionists who got Galileo condemned for his astronomy. (middle of page 40)"
Barzun has a lot of convincing to do to me if he is to make me believe progress would have been as fast as before the reformation. I'm waiting to read more.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chapter 2, belated

I found Chapter 2 interesting, but it was hard for me to get a good handle on it. I really can't a find a main theme to it just several observations:

This chapter is really packed with information. I have read it several times and each time something new stands out.

I liked Barzun description of the various layers of ritual and saints that were built up by the Catholic Church. I actually have a book that shows the Saints for each day of the year. I particularly liked St. Sythe, saint of lost keys. Though I am an atheist, I could use Sythe in my house. The Catholic Church seems similar to the modern state in that over time it will try manage every aspect of a person's life.

Two chapter into the book and only three themes have been introduced. Will any of the other themes have their origin in the Reformation?

I found it surprising that Barzun wasn't harsher in describing John Calvin. Calvin may have been Lenin to Luthor's Marx as far as spreading the faith, but as a leader he seems closer to Stalin.

I liked the criticism of Max Weber and R. H.Tawney work linking capitalism to Protestant work ethic. It is pretty clear that realty is a bit more complicated, but it is interesting how an idea can become established fact.

I may be overstating this but I detect in Barzun a sense of futility of the human condition and human institutions. Revolutions may bring EMANCIPATION but that is not true freedom because "Old shackles are thrown off, tossed high in the air, but come down again as moral duty well enforced". The Catholic church trained Jesuits to mission to the New World and to Europe, the bright minds undermined the dogma they learned so well, the church became a "infamous thing" to crush. Calvin spends his life codifying the "proper" Christian beliefs and creates a parallel to the Jesuits mission but he cannot control Reform. This was probably an impossible task considering the Catholic had centuries to it's build it's layers of control, one lifetime is too short a time.

I found the explanation of the Eurcharist and Predestination very helpful. They are not easy concepts to understand and without the parallels to the modern variety I wouldn't be able to see the appeal of Calvinism.

This was a tough chapter to read, but even harder to write about. I need to shift into a higher gear to catch up.


March 8, 2008

DFTD Chapter 3 “The Good Letters”

OK—I think that I have understood some of what Barzun is presenting. Part of my problem with this material is my weak credentials in history and, in particular, the definitions of key words such as humanism.

One possible take on this is the departure of religious figures from ‘pure religion’ that retains the mystical aspects of ceremony, ritual, symbols, the Latin Mass, etc. It seems that he is opposed to much of the behavior of the elite who subscribed to the art and life style associated with the Renaissance and that focused on ‘this world’ and not the life after death. (Perhaps the painting that serves as the book cover is his vision of life during the Renaissance. I’m almost certain that the statue in the background is Michelangelo’s David.)

I am amazed by the intensity of the debates that governed the fate of some of the more controversial characters described in these early chapters, including Severtus and Savonarola, both of whom were burnt at the stake. But, as I read other reports on these characters, I learn that complex social, financial and even sexual factors played central roles in their fates. For example, Savonarola was a hugely successful Dominican friar whose emergence was linked to the disparity between the elite (and it was the wealthy elite who fostered and supported the advanced cultural achievements of the Renaissance) and the common man. Savonarola, amongst other activities, purged Florence of homosexuals, ‘plundered’ the homes of the rich and burned their possessions in the famous “Bonfire of the vanities”. His almost fanatical preaching of the need to destroy the vestiges of worldliness were enhanced by the devastations of war and the introduction of syphilis into Florence near the turn of the 15C. Apparently he exploited millennialism (and the associated fear that these were the Last Days) as well. But, eventually his powers waned because his spiritual focus on things not of this world led to economic hardships on the people. Pope Alexander VI eventually had his way and, after days of torture, he signed, with his remaining right arm, his confession that led to his being burnt at the stake in the same place (La Piazza della Signorina) where he supervised the Bonfire of the Vanities.

All of this historical review is an attempt on my part to understand Barzun’s treatment of Savonarola. On page 55 Barzun writes: “The Italian Humanists witnessed one fit of Evangelical zeal and it was enough.” I walk away from this chapter with the sense that Barzun’s considers humanism to be a contributor to the decadence he uses in the title of his book. Maybe he is striving for ‘pure faith’ and, perhaps, he views Savonarola’s fire and brimstone as one of the last gasps before the descent into irreversible decadence, a state of affairs that is the consequence of innovativeness, humanism, dedication to the sensual aspects of the arts, etc.

“As for the Humanist methods, it is the one still in universal use. Its conventions are commonplace everywhere in government, business, the weekly magazines, and even in schoolwork—who has escaped “research”? who dares ignore exact quotation and date, consulting previous work, citing sources, listing bibliography, and sporting that badge of candor, the footnote?”

Why so negative? Perhaps he prefers the mystical, at least the mysticism defined by the ‘True Church’. I think that he opposes the reformation, humanism, innovation, materialism, worldliness, sensual art and, to the extent that any of these aspects of his ‘modern era’ are reinforced the science, he opposes science or at least the scientific method. This may be too broad a sweep but, I think, that some of his thoughts go in this direction. Interestingly, I have not yet discovered what he promotes. I plan to search in my reading of FDTD those historical events that Barzun endorses.

This is an interesting aside—I recently joined FaceBook at the invitation of my son Paolo who wants to use this medium as a means of sharing some of his musical videos. Upon joining I was asked to include a photo. The only one I had was a photo taken by my colleague Jim Tanko for purposes of the University. I think this was taken about 10-15 years ago so it may be hard to recognize me from the photo.

I got a message yesterday from Emre Isin, a former graduate student who worked with me and how now works at AstraZeneca in Sweden. He wrote:

“I was pleasantly surprised to see you in Facebook, professor. And a good photo, too. Resistant to the years.”

It was the “Resistant to the years.” that led me to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde and to a review of his biography. He lived a debauched, decadent life that led to a famous trial and his incarceration at hard labor for 2 years. Following release he tried to join the Church but his request was denied. He died at the age of 46 in poverty. The following quote records the end:

"He was conscious that people were in the room, and raised his hand when I asked him whether he understood. He pressed our hands. I then sent in search of a priest, and after great difficulty found Father Cuthbert Dunne ... who came with me at once and administered Baptism and Extreme Unction. - Oscar could not take the Eucharist".

The story is interesting because many of the issues touched on by Barzun in these early chapters are reflected in Wilde’s life.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Using Barzun's Notation

I like the way Barzun adds themes to his work. I am in the process of writing a software design specification, and one of the things I need to do is write the design criteria. These are the guidelines and goals for the design. I'm using Barzun like tags for the design criteria, though instead of EMANCIPATION I'm using terms like MAINTAINABILITY. I'm adding references back to the design criteria in the design itself to indicate how the decisions were made in the design. I'm wondering how it will work out.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Chapter 2

Well, what can I say? This is my third reading of Chapter 2 independently over spans of years, and each time I read it I have a different understanding. I'm glad to see an answer to my question to David "What was a soul defined as in this time," and the answer is you, your body, etc.

As a prelude, I'm going to assume that the facts Barzun claims are vetted carefully by him. I also am going to assume that his statements are on good faith, and by that I mean they are given with the best intentions of complete and accurate depiction of the pertinent facts, except when he indicates one way or the other they are not. This book was clearly written to withstand the scrutiny of the historian elite, and I'll let them quibble over minor factual discrepancies.

First, I would like to point out what seems to me (and I'm borrowing a bit from David here) that he recognizes the importance of Everyman stepping up to the call of history. David pointed this out to me in a discussion about Luther, and I see it again with Calvin:
Contrary to popular belief, Calvin was not fond of power. Generally in poor health, he preferred study and did not repine when in the local struggle, Geneva expelled him.(page 34)
I also find it interesting how he portrays the projection of the personalities of both Luthor and Calvin to the masses (top of page 36), as opposed to that in the consensus driven Catholic Church:
The bishops were certainly deliberate: they took 18 years in three bouts of discussion to reach a consensus. It was a providential schedule: old resisters could be gradually argued into their graves (page 38).

I've noticed the same thing in my experiences with startups and large corporations. The startups operate by decree: they must. Money is scarce, and there is little room for dissent. Decisions are made quickly, and all follow. In large corporations, decisions take forever and are consensus based, which is to mean that all stakeholders agree their slice of pie is big enough.

Second, I'm interested in Barzun's use of the analogy "But Calvin--a sort of Lenin to Luther's Marx--may well have saved Protestantism when it was at a low ebb." (page 34). Is it a coincidence that Barzun then spends from the bottom of page 36 to the top of page 38 discrediting two authors who link Protestantism to the origins of Capitalism? This discussion is out of context of the chapter, so clearly he felt it important to include to correct the bias of the commonly held intelligensias' thought that Protestants are responsible for Capitalism. I also suppose he thinks of individualism, the responsibility of each individual for his relation to god, is too much for most people. They would prefer the simpler authoritarian rule, even if it means severe restrictions and penalties. Somewhere, he also points out that Protestantism as a cultural force is fractured, with hundreds of sects. I wonder what Barzun would think if the Catholic church had not existed, but only Lutherns and Calvins. Perhaps the Calvins would be much like the communist countries of the defunct USSR and Maoist China.

Third, I really enjoyed the unexpected and complex interplay between the different religions. From chapter 1, we see that Catholicism begat Protestantism, but Protestantism altered Catholicism in a fundamental way:
it too went to PRIMITIVISM. The aim was to oppose Protestant errors: the result was to freeze Catholic beliefs at the point that European ideas had reached by 1500 or even earlier (bottom of page 39). . .it was these Bible ridden revolutionaries [protestants] who got Galileo condemned for his astronomy (middle of page 40).

I think the answer is that ultimately no one "controls" the future of culture. It is chaotic, and only reflection can unlock the how it happened. I guess that's why we need Barzun.

Finally, I had a fun experience while reading the book. For some reason, I read the quotation by Calving Of Meditating on the Future Life before reading the text. I couldn't make any sense of it. So I read it again. Then again. Perhaps underneath it if there is enough context, it makes sense to someone, but I then read the text next to it and found: "The ailing Calvin was not a relisher; his advice is contradictory and leaves nature a rather narrow crack through which to manifest God's goodness."

As a footnote, I wasn't much attracted to either Calvin or Luther's personalities. They just seem like regular serious folks with their personalities magnified by their opportunity and role in history.

Monday, February 22, 2010


February 22, 2010

Report on Chapter 2 of FDTD

I start with a simple question: What was the inspiration of the title of this chapter—The New Life? Perhaps Barzun views the aftermath of the Reformation as a new life. New life to me has the connotation of a positive beginning with some joy and liveliness. But, if I have understood Barzun correctly, the Reformation led to conflicts and bloodshed that lasted for over a generation. I’m not thrilled with the history of the Roman Catholic Church (I want to assure you), but Barzun has not convinced me with the material in this chapter that life got a hell of a lot better following the Reformation.

I wonder how much all of these conflicts were driven by money. “It [the Reformation] threw off Everyman’s shoulders a set of duties that had become intolerable burdens.” By intolerable burdens Barzun is referring to the payment of indulgences and the promotion of saints days (that restricted business operations) and tithes (the Romewardness of the coin) and other extractions of money and property as part of the activities of the Church.

However, Barzun also writes on page 23: “To understand the feelings that kept up the sectarian bloodshed, it is not enough to cite material interests.” Apparently the Reformation also was driven by religious beliefs—of saving one’s soul. Parenthetically, Barzun notes that such religious beliefs are not of much concern today because “….every believer [today] is surrounded by a host of non-believers…..” Then, it seems, Barzun ‘blames’ today’s problems (maybe today’s decadence) on the existence of so many creeds that need to be tolerated. Is Barzun longing for the ‘single faith’ provided by Rome during the pre-reformation (pre-modern) era—“that ancient solace, single truth and unanimous belief”? Maybe, but he also seems to endorse the value of daily worship including bible readings (consequences of the Reformation and the translation of the bible into vulgar languages). And another hit at modern times Barzun writes that this institution of the bible has disappeared today because of secularism. “In this role, the only ecumenical replacement one can think of is the daily newspaper’s comic strip.” My, what a disparaging comment on modern society!

I can’t get my arms around this issue of the New Life that was characterized by decades of sectarian bloodshed. I have a feeling (I think Dante has this same feeling about big government) that both the pre- and post-reformation religious institutions were man made, power-based entities and were corrupt. “In the Name of God”, in my opinion, has rationalized the exploitation of the powerful few over the disenfranchised many throughout history. Although Barzun intimates that religion is a wash-out today, I still see the great polarizations based on “In the Name of God” driving global strife, particularly between Islam and the ‘Occident’. I fear that there is enough 'bipolarized' energy to fuel destructive forces for a long time.

In this chapter Barzun makes several statements that I consider to be negative critiques about present day society. He is not always clear in his rationalizations for these statements. For example, he describes some modern-day ‘non-believers’ as ‘believers’ in scientific determination. “It is the assumption all laboratory workers make and it rules out free will.’ “….common folk who babble about genes….” I know that this last partial quote is taken out of context but it does disturb me. Perhaps Barzun is criticizing the scientific method and if so I am in conflict. I would rather be treated with antipsychotic medications than be condemned to be burned the stake as a witch. I doubt that Barzun would make such a comparison. But, as we proceed through this interesting exercise, I would like to make clear that I am dedicated to science and the scientific method but not necessarily to scientists. Maybe you think that such dedication is a statement of belief. Let me know.

Has either of your read “The Mind of the Maker”? Barzun’s description of the ‘Trinity’ as an essential ingredient of the conflicts that led Calvin to denounce Severtus, resulting in his being burned at the stake, is hard for me to deal with. So, I wonder what Sayers has written about the Trinity that Barzun seems to praise.

Calvin wrote, amongst other things: “The Church has no punishment but with-holding the Lord’s Supper. It has no sword to punish or restrain, no empire to command, no prison, no other pains.” How I misunderstood that quote! Later I read another Calvin quote: “If heaven be our country, what can earth be but a place of exile? Let us long for death and constantly meditate upon it.” Now I understand that by “The Church” Calvin must have meant Rome. Barzun states: “But everywhere enclaves of heresy and rash individuals occupied the persecutors for nine generations.” How am I to interpret these statements as being characteristic of the New Life?

So, once again, I say that I am happy to be part of the 20/21 C and not the 16/17 C. My evaluation of life in the 18/19 C awaits future chapters in this book.

Although most of my reactions to the contents of Chapter 2 were not positive, never the less I was pleased to read about the Jesuits (whom I would describe as teachers—also of science). I have never personally known a Jesuit. But the impression from my readings and conversations with the devote is that they were genuine contributors to the social fabric that helped to bring some light into darkness.

I am disappointed with my understanding of Chapter 2 (and a bit frustrated because I think that Barzun is not always as ‘up front’ with his fundamentals as I think he should be). Never the less I move on. I should start reading on page 43 tonight. That leaves only 759 pages to go. I hope that I win!


The morning of February 22, 2010

I'm still not operational with this system. I read David's comments and posted a short response but I don't think it ever transmitted.

Essentially I wrote:

(1) Many thanks. I learned a lot and should read Chapter 1 again.
(2) Despite the decadence David, Dante and Barzun perceive and considering my origins, I'm
quite happy to be part of the present rather than the 16C. I doubt that I would have done very well under either the Catholics or the Reformers.

I plan to upload my report on Chapter 2 soon. I'm very much looking forward to comments from the two of you. This chapter is more difficult for me to follow. I have many question marks throughout.


Thursday, February 11, 2010


I do enjoy the many themes Barzun presents in his book, like emancipation, primitivism, and many others.

Barzun defines emancipation as "one of the cultural themes of the era, perhaps the most characteristic of all. And of course it requires more and more limitations in order to prevent my right from infringing yours."

I think the truth of this depends on the definition of "rights." Was it a right to emergency health care in the early 16C? Underlying this seemingly concise definition is a fluid term, "rights", yet I suspect these ideas are the keys to understanding our culture through Barzun's eyes.

For instance, Barzun claims that Primitivism is "a main motive of the Protestant Reformation". After reading David's comments about Johann Tetzel, I would tend to think people were rebelling against a system they created that could allow his kind of parasite to survive (notwithstanding if I could wash away my guilt for $10000.00, I would, though I try in that and other ways).

I'm wondering whether it would be worthwhile to have posts that we link to and update throughout the book our understanding of these terms and their expression in various time frames throughout the course of the book. I hope we all post at least once per chapter. I'm thinking of this as more of a catalog to add depth of understanding and as a point of reference. Note, these are Barzun's terms, so in that sense it is a leap of faith that this is a worthwhile endeavor.

Thoughts on this idea?
Based on the title alone I would find "From Dawn to Decadence" appealing. I have always found history to be very interesting and I like the idea of examining events from longer term timescales. Since my own particular bias is that Western Civilization is in decline, I want read Barzun theories critically.

Some of my initial thoughts on the prologue are:

I like Barzun bias of the exceptionalism of Western Civilization. The advances made by the West are really impressive. It is interesting that he is limiting the "West" to the past 500 years. Rediscovering the classic works of Roman and Greeks contributed the Renaissance, did any of these classics plant the seeds for the eventual Decadence?

"EMANCIPATION is one of the cultural themes of the era, perhaps the most characteristic of all. And of course it requires more and more limitations in order to prevent my right from infringing yours." This passage makes me think of a snake slowly constricting the creative breath out of a society.

Barzun's definition of Decadence is straight forward, a multitude of groups and institutions blocking and preventing progress. I am having a harder time understanding what constitutes the unity of Western Civilization.

Thoughts on the first chapter:

I like the description of the Reformation as more then a religious revolution, especially the part about raising the status of vernacular languages. Writing great works in native tongue helps to unify a culture. I am still not comfortable with a "ancestral sense of unity". My feeling is that the unity was already lost at this point.

Barzun covers a lot of material; I have read entire books and taken courses on subjects he refers to in a paragraph. This is necessary trade-off in covering a large time span but I am concerned about my understanding in other chapters where I don't have as much background information.

I think the brief introduction allows Barzun to understate the corruption of medieval church and the absurdities of the sale of indulgences. Consider Johann Tetzel:

He was a sort of medieval P. T. Barnum who traveled from village to village with a brass-bound chest, a bag of printed receipts, and an enormous cross draped with the papal banner. Accompanying him were a Fugger accountant and another friar, an assistant carrying a velvet cushion bearing Leo's bull of indulgence.

Setting up in the nave of the local church, Tetzel would begin his pitch by opening the bag and calling out, "I have here the passports . . . to lead the human soul to the celestial joys of Paradise. " The fees were dirt-cheap, he pointed out, if they considered the alternatives. Christians who had committed a mortal sin owed God seven years' penance. "Who then," he asked, "would hesitate for a quarter-florin to secure one of these letters of remission?" Anything could be forgiven, he assured them, anything. He gave an example. Suppose a youth had slipped into his mother's bed and spent his seed inside her. If that boy put the right coins in the pontiff's bowl, "the Holy Father has the power in heaven and earth to forgive that sin, and if he forgives it, God must do so also." Warming up, Tetzel even appealed to the survivors of men who had gone to their graves unshriven: "As soon as the coin rings in the bowl, the soul for whom it is paid will fly out of purgatory and straight to heaven."

In Germany Tetzel exceeded his quota. He always did. This was his profession; he traveled from one diocese to another, raising funds as instructed by the Curia. Indulgences were popular among the peasantry, but less so among those who, in those days, formed the opinions of the laity. And this time he was in hostile territory. Northeastern Germany — Magdeburg, Halberstadt, and Mainz — had been chosen for this extortion because it was weak. France, Spain, and England were strong, and when they had asked that little be expected of them, pleading poverty, the pontiff had agreed. The decision was not without risk. Anti-papal feeling was strong and vocal in Germany. The papal nuncio to the Holy Roman Empire was worried. That part of the Reich, he had written the pope, was in an ugly mood. He had therefore urged cancellation of the jubilee.

Leo had ignored him — unwisely, for presently ominous signs appeared. After watching Tetzel perform, a local Franciscan friar wrote: "It is incredible what this ignorant monk said and preached. He gave sealed letters stating that even the sins a man was intending to commit would be forgiven. The pope, he said, had more power than all the Apostles, all the angels and saints, more even than the Virgin Mary herself, for these were all subjects of Christ, but the pope was equal to Christ." Another eyewitness quoted the money-raiser as declaring that even if a man had violated the Mother of God the indulgence would wipe away his sin.

The call for PRIMITIVISM seems more understandable considering the level of corruption.

"Violent events were to be typical of European life till the middle of the 17C." How does the level of violence compare with the time before the Reformation? Warfare in Europe seems to be the norm.

Martin Luther theology seems very appealing to me, having God's grace heal a sick soul must be a blissful experience. I think this idea can bind really tightly in some people's minds and the comfort they derive from it would compel to fight for a new religion. I really liked the way Barzun presented the various character traits of Martin Luther. Luther was an intelligent man who didn't seem particular ambitions but rose to the occasion when history called. It was interesting that he added the part about "despite the rude noises that the Devil kept making to thwart him".

"For Luther the bathroom was also a place of worship. His holiest monuments often came when he was seated on the privy (Abort) in a Wittenburg monastery tower. It was there, while moving his bowels, that he conceived the revolutionary Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. Afterward he wrote: "These words 'just' and 'justice of God' were a thunderbolt to my conscience. . . I soon had the thought [that] God's justice ought to be the salvation of every believer. . . Therefore it is God's justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower."

Well, God is everywhere, as the Vatican conceded four centuries later, backing away from a Jesuit scholar who had gleefully translated explicit excretory passages in Luther's Sammitche Schriften. The Jesuit had provoked angry protests from Lutherans who accused him of "vulgar Catholic polemics." Yet the real vulgarity lies in Luther's own words, which his followers have shelved. They enjoy telling the story of how the devil threw ink at Luther and Luther threw it back. But in the original version it wasn't ink; it was Scheiss (shit). That feces was the ammunition Satan and his Wittenberg adversary employed against each other is clear from the rest of Luther's story, as set down by his Wittenberg faculty colleague Philipp Melanchthon: "Having been worsted. . . the Demon departed indignant and murmuring to himself after having emitted a crepitation of no small size, which left a foul stench in the chamber for several days afterwards."

Again and again, in recalling Satan's attacks on him, Luther uses the crude verb bescheissen, which describes what happens when someone soils you with his Scheiss. In another demonic stratagem, an apparition of the prince of darkness would humiliate the monk by "showing his arse" (Steiss). Fighting back, Luther adopted satanic tactics. He invited the devil to "kiss" or "lick" his Steiss, threatened to "throw him into my anus, where he belongs," to defecate "in his face" or, better yet, "in his pants" and then "hang them around his neck."

A man who battled the foulest of fiends in der Abort and die Latrine was unlikely to be intimidated by the vaudevillian Tetzel.

Final thought is, I am happy the Reformation happened, even happier that I wasn't there for it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Chapter 1

I find I can't separate my thoughts I had from reading the book from my re-read of chapter 1.

First, the book is dense, full of facts and ideas, many of which are easy to skip over in the mind without obtaining the full benefit.

My sense of Chapter 1 is a longing for the success of people like Erasmus to make change, but accepting of the fatalistic idea that only the right concocture of independently aligned selfish forces can bring about major change, with an underlying populace sentiment part of the selfish people's unwitting servants.

I recall a note, perhaps in a later chapter, the idea that before the reformation everyone thought the same way, and that the idea of life eternal is very comforting. The reformation destroyed that idea. If there are multiple views of what religion is, they can not all be correct, and that adds doubt.

I had often wondered how it was possible that simple ideas like "crop rotation" and "horses are better beasts of burden than oxen" were lost in the middle ages until I recently read that fathers died before their sons were adults. How much support would people need in that time to get through their lives? Embracing a common idea like Catholicism (different then than in 1942), must have been wonderful. I wonder even if hell was much a part of the equation then, though clearly purgatory became a major force as wealth increased.

So to that extent, I think of the pre-Lutheran times as Nirvana. Everywhere you went, people knew your values and morals, and knew that your future life depended on your own actions.

A few years ago I went to a church, which served several thousand people, and the expression was amazing. People had so much emotion, and there were even people closing their eyes with hands outspread to receive God. But even the need to express in that way is an expression of doubt, the need to exclaim one's faith. I can't imagine that form of emotional expression in any environment, except perhaps at a football game in which everyone knows it is pretend.

The Reformation destroyed that Nirvana of common understanding and brotherhood.

I wonder whether something that good simply can not last without the misery that enabled it. Perhaps it is not a part of human nature to live in Nirvana, and eventually that leads to decadence, and as Barzun says, the change itself must be violent.

Perhaps Barzun's first chapter is really an expression the sane course of Erasmus is the path humanity will not traverse.

February 8, 2010

Dear Dante and David,

I record here some of my thoughts that were generated following my reading of Chapter 1 “The West Torn Apart” in Barzun’s FDTD.

My first impression is that I need to adjust my critical attitude to appreciate this book fully. By that I mean that when Barzun ‘makes a statement of fact’, I should understand this statement as his interpretation of historical facts that he has retrieved through his scholarly endeavors. He does not give much wiggle room, in my opinion, even though the material is complex. But, equally importantly, I am happy to make this adjustment because he has convinced me (even within these few pages) that he has an exceptional grasp of the critical events of the past 500 years. He explains in his prolog that he is biased (and I think that he is, particularly from the perspective of how he views the common man vs. the uncommon man). Now, I will be paying particular attention to when his biases may give an exaggerated view of historical facts to support an underlying thesis. It would be easier for me if he had laid out this thesis in a more expanded version than the title of the book. Still, that may be enough. However, it would be of some interest to me to have an attribution to identify the jacket image (I should recognize it). This looks like decadence long before beginning of the 16C.

Here are some other general thoughts:

(1) Barzun writes well. This is a real pleasure for me and I very much look forward to ‘consuming’ this entire opus.

(2) I wonder where he is ‘coming from’ is this first chapter. I sense that Barzun is highly critical of the decadence of the Catholic Church but at the same time highly critical of the forces that led to the reformation, in particular because this revolution, like all revolutions according to him, are violent. So, one question that I will be asking as I proceed in my reading is How does Barzun judge (and, I think that he does judge) the maintenance of the status quo that is corrupt and exploitative vs. upheavals that attempt to dismantle the status quo?

(3) Barzun starts his book with “The Modern Era Begins, characteristically, with a revolution”. That is a big mouthful for me. First of all why is 1517 (or what ever specific date) the beginning of the Modern Era? and What does he mean by ‘characteristically’?

(4) “the four main quakes”—That is rather arrogant, I think. Maybe he could have stated this as an opinion with a few sentences of justification. And I wonder why he appears to dismiss revolutions like the Scientific Revolution that has so dramatically impacted on the history of modern man (I guess I will start with the 15C since Barzun has already documented the Modern Era).

(5) I very much agree with Barzun about the impact of technology on history. Had it not been for Gutenberg’s mobile type where would we be today?

(6) “No longer always in Latin for the clerics only….” But I remember as a kid (about 1942) when my Spanish neighbor explained that, if I didn’t go to church, I certainly would go to hell. I went to church. I still can smell the guts of the interior and a see the images of the crucifixion and the arrogance and ignorance of the nuns. And the mass was in Latin—Nobody that I knew understood the meaning of the words. I’m not certain that the message is much clearer in the ‘common man’s language’, but at least one can discuss the issues.

(7) I learned a new word—indulgences—or at least a new meaning of the word. I looked this up in Google and discovered that, at least one interpretation, describes indulgences as a way of paying off (sometimes using someone else’s treasure) for your sins so that time in purgatory will be diminished. You could ‘buy’ up to 40,000 years this way. No wonder Luther was mad. But he probably should have been better informed since, according to Barzun, the Albingenses tried to fight the establishment’s use of indulgences and they were exterminated. So, maybe it is better to not rock the boat. I note that later on in this chapter, Barzun reports that Luther had second thoughts about how some of his followers were behaving and ordered the princes to destroy thousands or protestors. “The end was a massacre or exile for some 30,000 families.”

(8) The story about Erasmus was great. I know the Dürer portrait. Now I know a little about the person. I should read more about him.

(9) How do you two understand Luther? He seems complicated to me. I’m not certain that his brand of religion was any better than the Pope’s. I must admit to problems with Catholicism. Maybe we could make that another topic. My problem with Luther is that he seems to be self-damned, and that he damns almost everyone else with him. At least the Church (the One and Only) provided avenues for salvation—including the indulgences.

(10) An interesting concept introduced by Barzun is that revolutions are based, at least in part, on individuals trying to ‘rediscover the fundamental truth’ that has been lost by the degenerate elite. I think that I like that but, in Luther’s case, the truth was a rather primitive concept that humanity is utterly destitute of creative energy. Maybe I have it wrong, but I don’t see too much difference between Luther and other power-motivated ‘leaders’.

So here I leave you.

Neal (l’ancien)

Friday, February 5, 2010


We didn't have a protocol for the prelude or the author's notes. So I will start by writing about these notes.

Tonight I read the author's notes and the prelude. One of the many ideas is it is difficult to eliminate bias. I particularly like the idea that multiple perspective helps to lead to ones own truth about the reality. It leads to God's view.

Another point Barzun makes is the idea that we live off of the past, and everything flows from it. He points out the heroes we hold up as the icons of change stand on the shoulders of others. Perhaps this is correct, but I find this offensive. It diminishes the quantum jumps forward by Einsteins. As Barzun says, perhaps these are the things we have to leave behind to understand the reality, or on the other hand perhaps this may be part of the bias.

David has said he will scan the entire book, and send it to us for quotations, despite his feeling it is a travesty to destroy a book.

Regarding the stake in the ground

After consulting with David, I put a two week stick in the ground for a chapter. However, I think we all know the depth and complexity of this wonderful book, so let us only use the two weeks as a guide.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From Dawn to Decadence, one chapter every two weeks

This blog is for readers of From Dawn to Decadence. My father, my friend David, and I will post read a chapter, then blog for a week to move on to the next one.