Monday, February 8, 2010

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)


  1. With regards to Luther, I like the idea of decentralization of power, that each person had a direct line to God, and that neither priests forgiveness or indulgences altered your relationship with God.

    To that extent, and in that way of thinking, I greatly appreciate what Luther did and even his motivations for it. He seems to have cared deeply for people and understood them, and that what people actually were was at odds with the religious teachings. In this sense, I project on to him a sense of individual rights.

    With regards to the 30,000 families exiled or killed, I don't know what to say. It sounds like a complicated story of its own, but as I read the few sentences Luther agreed to their point of view, but when these were rejected thousands of these people took to pillaging and murder. What can the outcome of this be? Clearly there will be consequences with or without Luther's approval. Is this simply Luther's weakness to the princes? Or is this a reflection of Luther's callousness?

    I see humanistic elements in Luther, and a freeing of the individual, an acceptance of the individual. Outside of witches, he seems quite tolerant, even of Copernicus.

    So, is his way better? I do not know. Ultimately he took away God. But he replaced God with humanity.

  2. This group might find useful
    or its interactive version.

  3. Leo,

    Thanks for the pointer. That's an impressive catalog! I almost missed your comment. I take it you have spent some time studying Barzun. I am curious as to why you have become so interested?

  4. Interested in Barzun? Because in 1960 at the age of 14 I read and was impressed by The House of Intellect.''

    Interested in From Dawn to Decadence? Because it is a book of lasting importance, and enjoyable besides.

    Btw, did someone ask about the painting on the cover of From Dawn to Decadence? It is Thomas Couture's Romans of the Decadence, now at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

  5. I see. So Decadence in the West is paralleled to Decadence of the Romans. Now there is a terrifying thought.