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!



  1. Let us suppose that the New Life is the life of the modern era. The reformation is its birth, which in my experience is a primordial event. 20th/21st century experience would be included in this "Life."

    I did not like the way Barzun presents science. If I understand how physics actually works, the future is constantly in motion due to random quantum effects. The quantum world, it is a world of very strange possibilities. However, if one could capture the entire state of the universe, one could recreate the past. At least that is information theory as I understand it, but even capturing the state of the universe is not possible.

    I will give Barzun this, however. Science is by necessity limited to the effects we can detect with our senses. You have to start by believing you can trust your senses. Certainly we have extended our senses in many ways.

    Also, I am nagged by two great wonders. I suspect one is beyond the realm of science, and perhaps always will be.

    That is the mind boggling question "How are we here at all?" It seems to answer that question, you can have one of three choices, none of which make sense.

    1) Something came from nothing.
    2) Everything has always been here.
    3) We are nothing.

    I don't see how any of these makes any more sense than any other, and each seems beyond "Cause and effect," which if I'm not mistaken seems to be at the heart of the scientific method, that is, the ability to test our abstract models of the universe.

    The other great mystery is consciousness. I can understand how it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, make it scared, make it hungry, make it want to reproduce, but I can't imagine how it would be possible to build it up at all. I think you have the same three choices.

    1) It is always there (as in some other form of essence, present in minuscule quantities in rocks and such)
    2) It magically came into being like the big bang
    3) It is nothing

    Perhaps science some day can give an answer to this, but to me I can't imagine it. If it isn't in everything, how does it come about? I read a book about this, and there are many competing theories, but they are just that, and upon deconstruction none make sense.

    Also, please don't get me wrong. Science and as verified by the scientific method is the best thing we have going, and I also suspect each abstract idea is limited in its ability to describe the natural world. But I'm not ruling out a greater understanding later on, though I can't imagine what it would be. Also, I suspect Barzun and I would diverge on our understanding of it as "just another human idea," because it will potentially lead to "The omega step."

  2. Try to remember that in this book Barzun is primarily writing history, not philosophy or criticism. The latter two enter into the book, but with this text time past is more important than today or eternity.