From Dawn to Decadence
1500 to the Present (2000)
by Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)
This work is 802 pages long, too long to report on after I have read it. Therefore, I intend to make notes here as I work my way through the book. I have obtained a copy from the local library, but probably will purchase it before I finish. Since I expect to refer to the book later, I will indicate the page number with the note. Someone had inserted a book review from Newsweek (May 22, 2000, by David Gates) which included: “If you’re not used to sitting on the edge of your seat for 750 pages, saying “Well, I’ll be damned!” every paragraph or so, you should go into training before taking on From Dawn to Decadence …. Unhappily, Barzun’s text goes on for 802 pages; some of the engagingness poops out when he hits the 1960s …”
Barzun was born in 1907 and has been reading and writing history for around eighty years. He knows a lot, and has a lot to say. In order to insert some material that doesn’t fit directly into his narrative, he uses the magazine-style insert, a small selection near the margin. Where I quote one of these notes, I will indicate it with (n) following the page number.
xiv(n): Mankind does nothing save through initiatives on the part of inventors, great or small, and imitation by the rest of us. Individuals show the way, set the patterns. The rivalry of the patterns is the history of the world. – William James (1908)
Can there be a better summary of my view of memetics?
The book is a prologue and four parts:
- Prologue: From Current Concerns to the Subject of This Book
- I: From Luther’s Ninety-five Theses to Boyle’s “Invisible College”
- II: From the Bog and Sand of Versailles to the Tennis Court
- III: From Faust, Part I, to the “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2”
- IV: From “The Great Illusion” to “Western Civ Has Got to Go”
Part I contains 9 chapters (not numbered), two of which are called “cross sections”. The first is The West Torn Apart.
7: How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event – tidal wave from a ripple – is cause for endless astonishment. Neither Luther in 1517 nor the men who gathered at Versailles in 1789 intended at first what they produced at last. Even less did the Russian Liberals who made the revolution of 1917 foresee what followed. All were as ignorant as everybody else of how much was about to be destroyed. Nor could they guess what feverish feelings, what strange behavior ensue when revolution, great or short-lived, is in the air.
First, a piece of news about something said or done travels quickly, more so than usual, because it is uniquely apt; it fits a half-conscious mood or caps a situation: a monk questions indulgences, and he does it not just out of the blue – they are being sold again on a large scale. The fact and the challenger’s name generate rumor, exaggeration, misunderstanding, falsehood. People ask each other what is true and what it means. The atmosphere becomes electric, the sense of time changes, grows rapid; a vague future seems nearer.
On impulse, perhaps to snap the tension, somebody shouts in church, throws a stone through a window, which provokes a fight – it happened so at Wittenberg – and clearly it is no ordinary breach of the peace. Another unknown harangues a crowd, urging it to stay calm – or not to stand there gaping but do something. As further news spreads, various types of people become aroused for or against the thing now upsetting everybody’s daily life. But what is that thing? Concretely: ardent youths full of hope as they catch the drift of the idea, rowdies looking for fun, and characters with a grudge. Cranks and tolerated lunatics come out of houses, criminals out of hideouts, and all assert themselves.
Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal, in keeping with the rest of the excitement, buildings defaced, images destroyed, shops looted. Printed sheets pass from hand to hand and are read with delight or outrage – Listen to this! Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, of priests marrying and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once – all things new for a blissful life on earth.
A curious leveling takes place: the common people learn words and ideas hitherto not familiar and not interesting and discuss them like intellectuals, while others neglect their usual concerns – art, philosophy, scholarship – because there is only one compelling topic, the revolutionary Idea. The well-to-do and the “right-thinking,” full of fear, come together to defend their possessions and habits. But counsels are divided and many see their young “taking the wrong side.” The powers that be wonder and keep watch, with fleeting thoughts of advantage to be had from the confusion. Leaders of opinion try to put together some of the ideas afloat into a position which they mean to fight for. They will reassure others, or preach boldness, and anyhow lead the movement.
Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families. As time goes on, “betraying the cause” is an incessant charge, and there are indeed turncoats. Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like the previous ones. But none of this holds back that transfer of power and property which is the mark of revolution and which in the end establishes the Idea.
… To the distant observer the course of events is a rushing flood; to those inside it is a whirlpool.
Such is, roughly, how revolutions “feel.” The gains and the deeds of blood vary in detail from one time to the next, but the motives are the usual mix: hope, ambition, greed, fear, lust, envy, hatred of order and of art, fanatic fervor, heroic devotion, and love of destruction.
This passage (longer than most I will quote) is full of concepts that must be part of any work of memetics. Anyone crafting a manifesto had better heed them. This is the introductory part of the description of the first of the great revolutions that Barzun sees as the core of the 500 years he has chosen as his subject, in the chapter he calls “The West Torn Apart.”
10: A revolutionary idea succeeds only if it can rally strong “irrelevant” interests, and only the military can make it safe.
This is one way of expressing Gladwell’s idea of the “stickiness” required to make a word of mouth epidemic.
11: What were in fact the things in the church’s “head and members” that people wanted to be rid of? First, the familiar “corruptions” – gluttonous monks in affluent abbeys, absentee bishops, priests with concubines, and so on. But moral turpitude concealed a deeper trouble: the meaning of the roles had been lost. … When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label. A decadent culture offers opportunities chiefly to the satirist, and the turn of the 15C had a good many, one of them a great one: Erasmus.
With this segue, Barzun introduces a section describing Erasmus’s person and career. He uses this device throughout to set off his narrative of events and ideas from descriptions of key individuals.
14: An idea newly grasped stirs the blood to aggressiveness. From safe corners such as universities and monasteries, force was called for, and many laymen were not afraid to use it. They quoted Luther: “One must fight for the truth.”
15: Munzer [a rabble leader] had won their allegiance by proclaiming that all men were created equal and should remain so. An impossible idea, but how suggestive! Gospel simplicity, self-rule, faith unencumbered by authorities – primitivism.
‘Primitivism’ is one of the nine themes that Barzun identifies throughout the period. It is his thesis that the adoption of the tenets of these themes, in varying degree from time to time and place to place, gave the period its character. The others are abstraction, analysis, emancipation, reductivism, secularism, self-consciousness, scientism, specialism.
Barzun ties up discussion of the Luther-inspired revolution with Luther’s death (1546), and starts a new chapter The New Life..
21: … the thick crust of customs that broke in the early 16C did not consist solely of abuses; nor did the revolution benefit in a material way only the princes. It threw off Everyman’s shoulders a set of duties that had become intolerable burdens. The “works” denounced by the Evangelicals took a daily expenditure of cash, time, and trouble.
Barzun then gives a long list of such works, and some of their costs.
23: The overturn [during the revolution], then, was in the slowly built-up system of ideas surrounding the faith, which is to say ideology. The more modern term makes it easier to understand the fury unleashed among the multiplying sects, each differently revisionist. It also explains the moral paradox of “wars of religion” in the name of a Christ who preached the brotherhood of man. On that injunction there seemed to be a meeting of minds; it meant: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”
In discussing the positive effects occasionally achieved by Calvinists, and in other circumstances, Barzun says, “… when our minds undergo sudden, profound alterations – in opinion or belief, in love, or in what is called artistic inspiration – what is the ultimate cause? We see the results, but grasp the chain of reasoning at a link well below the hook from which it hangs.”
He describes how certain concepts common in Luther’s day have modern counterparts, as “Luther’s agonizing about sin is matched by the Existentialist preoccupation with Angst, or despair at ‘the human condition’”. He compares confession and psychotherapy. Then he says
30: Nor has the word sin disappeared from the vocabulary of the enlightened. More than one modern novelist, poet, or social theorist has attributed the horrors of our time to original sin, although its definition is left vague. It presupposes that human nature is fatally flawed. This is a more ruthless belief than the theologian’s, since it does not include a Redeemer from sin or the efficacy of baptism. In the 16C both together lifted that terrible burden. For some in our day what redeems “scientifically” is political revolution, after which history will stop and society will know happiness without laws – in other words, the Kingdom of the Saints fought for by the Anabaptists and others for 100 years.
In describing the continuation of the revolution, he says:
31: Juniors are impatient. In any movement, the second generation is likely to be dissatisfied with what it has inherited, including the confused state of affairs produced by the pioneers. The urgent duty is to create a system, a single doctrine, that will exclude the new dissenters, rally the uncertain, and make one flock of the faithful.
For this kind of task, ambition is the agent that selects the leaders. There is no “legitimacy” in revolution; power belongs to whoever can seize it; and the newcomer is most apt to gain it who is most “pure,” strict, and systematic.
Barzun attributes these characteristics to John Calvin.
35: To talk of Calvin and Knox inevitably brings ot mind the label Puritan. It belongs to England and New England rather than Switzerland and Scotland, and like other nicknames it is made to cover too much (262>. Only one feature properly connects it to Calvin: the desirability of self-restraint, in itself not a strange idea. Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and “puritanical,” to save themselves from both discredit and reaction (428>). Creating a purer life requires that people forget other aims; therefore public and private conduct must be regimented. That is why the theme applicable to revolution is emancipation and not Freedom. Old shackles are thrown off, tossed high in the air, but come down again as moral duty well enforced.
In this passage notice an interesting device used by Barzun: a ‘hyperlink’ to another page of the book, either forward or backward.
38: The cultural predicament after a revolution is how to reinstate community, how to live with those you have execrated and fought against with all imaginable cruelty.
Note that Barzun’s use of ‘community’ differs from that I use in Memetics.
About 1548, Ignacio de Loyola established the community (in my sense) of the Jesuits.
41: The Jesuits’ activity impinged on culture in other ways than the strictly devotional. In undertaking to deal with the young, the stubborn, and the hesitant souls, the Order developed casuistry, penetrated domestic life, and acquired a virtual monopoly of education. “Casuistry” and “Jesuitical” have become synonyms for deviousness, thus obscuring an important subject. The famous casuists of the 16C, such as the Spanish Mariana and the Anglican Jeremy Taylor, were men of high moral and intellectual caliber. Casuistry is the theory of cases: the casuist shows how to apply the general rules that govern conduct to the particular moral problem – exactly what the judge does with a statute when he decides a case. All the recent codes of conduct for lawyers, physicians, and other professionals require casuistry for their application. Casuistry is also the mental operation of the moral person when he or she faces an ethical dilemma. It is a difficult art.
The chapter The Good Letters covers the development of modern education (at least liberal arts) from the earlier humanism.
45: The path between the onset of the good letters and the modern Humanist as freethinker or simply as scholar is circuitous but unbroken. If we look for what is common to Humanists over the centuries we find two things: a body of accepted authors and a method of carrying on study and debate. The two go together with the belief that the best guides to the good life are Reason and Nature. Finding this assumption all-important, some moderns have carped at the early Humanists for fussing over grammar words, but it is hard to see how they could have produced good editions of the ancient works that they valued so highly without first mastering the minutiae of language. In any case, what is the point of saying about innovators that they should have done what later comers were able to do after the ground had been cleared for them?
As for the Humanist method, 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? …
To explain the curious fact that the Middle Ages valued the ancients enough to keep their works copied but did not breed Humanism calls for a Theory of Aspect. It would state that an object or idea is rarely seen in the round. Like a mountain, it presents a variety of faces. Moved by an ulterior purpose, observers take a few of these for the whole. This is a cultural generality. It accounts for the surprising differences in the value put on the same artist or thinker at different times and for the different pasts depicted by different historians. This partiality should not be surprising; it is a familiar fact of life: each individual “takes” only some elements of experience, and that spontaneous choice governs tastes, career, estimates of worth, and the feel of life itself.
For the early Humanists, the aspects that shone out in the works of antiquity were the beauty of the language and the novel features of a vanished civilization Both gave rise to a new sense, the sense of history, which may be defined as the simultaneous perception of difference and similarity between past and present.
In discussing Petrarch, he describes how he fashioned his poems in Italian
49: into a shapely quasi narrative work, a kind of allusive autobiography. This was new. And it was also an expression of his intense interest in himself: “I am unlike anybody I know.” He declared that art is an individual matter, not something within the reach of all professionals. “Everyone should write in his own style.” The theme to note here is self-consciousness. It is allied to individualism but differs from it in being not a social and political condition but a mental state. One can be in prison, individuality all but submerged, and yet be acutely self-conscious. Individualism has limits imposed by the coexistence of many other individuals; self-consciousness has none.
In discussing the sonnet:
50: The species that we owe to Petrarch is now regarded as if the command: “thou shalt stop at fourteen lines” had been uttered on Mount Sinai. But it was a happy turn of practice that established it; no ancient model existed, and in Petrarch’s day sonnets – verses to be sounded, to be sung – were of various lengths. The now traditional length is just right for a small oration – exposition, development, and conclusion. And that classical form, so closely studied and practiced by the Humanists, has remained a patter that governs western creations, from public speaking to poetry, drama, prose, and the symphony.
54: In general, 16C scholarship strengthened the Protestant idea that the gospel, not the church, was the fount of doctrine. It is a Humanist principle that if you want to know the truth, go to the sources, not the commentators. In short, Humanism and Reform, without being allies, converged in one point toward the same goal. This fact would seem enough to justify the usual phrase “Renaissance and Reformation” to label the culture of the 16C.
In discussing books:
60: Anything that can be said about the good letters implies the book, the printed book. To be sure, new ideas and discoveries did spread among the clerisy before its advent, but the diffusion of manuscripts is chancy and slow. Copying by hand is the mother of error, and circulation is limited by cost. As was noted earlier, print made a revolution out of a heresy (<4). Speed in the propagation of ideas generates a heightened excitement. Besides, the handwritten roll or sheaf (codex), on vellum or primitive paper, makes for awkward reading and for clumsy handling and storing. Indexing, too, was long absent or unsatisfactory, because the medieval mind rejected the alphabetical order – it was “artificial,” “irrational,” since no principle governs the sequence a, b, c, d, and the rest. To the modern lover of books, the product of the press is an object that arouses deep feelings, and looking at Dürer’s charcoal drawing of hands holding a book, one likes to think the artist felt the same attachment. The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.
In this passage, there is some truth, but also some apparent ignorance or disregard of the book’s successor: the electronic text. The searching and expanded indexing ability, plus the numerous advantages of hypertext, not to mention ease of editing and revision are distinct advantages. I’m also not so sure about the bicycle’s present perfection.
The chapter The “Artist” Is Born introduces the development of the notion of the artist as an individual. He mentions how his period saw printing, and writing in common languages, the expansion of the audience to the non-clerical public.
65: None of this means that the Middle Ages had failed to diffuse advances in practical knowledge, but this effort was restricted by their institutions. The guilds of artisans kept the tricks of the trade secret; they were valuable property, as are today patents and copyrights. … The men of science – alchemists and astrologers – also used to compete in secret for gainful ends. From the late 15C on, moved by a nascent individualism and the decline of the guild spirit, all these brain workers relied more on talent than on secrets to protect the value of their services. Benefiting themselves from others’ inventions, they publicized their own in manuals that gave the latest news on technique.
67: 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 extraordinary growth.
68: In the best periods practice precedes theory – works before notions. But, again in the best periods, the theories derived from practice tell us something (not all) about the intentions of the leading artists and the criteria applicable to their work. These commonplaces hold for 400 years and should not be laughed out of court to please late-20C critics whose own intention is to discount artistic intention (621; 757>). The Renaissance treatises declare that apart from his moral mission, the artists duty (and thereby his intention) is to imitate nature. He must minutely observe “God’s footstool”; it is a way to worship Him. This discipline parallels the scientist’s, and more than one artist of the period thinks of himself as a “natural philosopher.” No “two cultures” as yet divide the best minds.
He describes some of the steps in making painting more naturalistic.
69: This new style is sometimes described as “realistic.” This adjective and its opposite have become not only critical terms in the several arts, but also the commonest retort in the arguments of daily life: “That’s unrealistic.” – “Be realistic!” In all uses it is a regrettable pair of words. It begs the difficult question, what is the reality? Artists and ordinary people alike spend much of their time trying to find out – what do I perceive? What are the facts? If Renaissance painting gives us “the real world at last,” why does it look so blindingly different in Michelango and Raphael? And it goes on diverging: is nature – is reality – in Rubens or in Rembrandt? Reynolds or Blake? Copley or Allston? Manet or Monet?
… All styles of art are “realistic.” They point to varied aspects and conceivings of of experience, all of which possess reality, or they would not command the artist’s interest in the first place and would not spark any response in the beholder. The variety of the Real confirms the importance of “taking” as a factor in life. Realism (with its implication of Truth) is one of the great western words, like Reason and Nature, that defy stable definition. It will come up again for discussion (552>). Here it is enough to question the term, and if one needed to mark the difference between works that “resemble” rather then “symbolize,” the word naturalistic is the less misleading of the two – perhaps.
Whatever may be the right word, the Renaissance artists believed that they had found the only true goal in art, and this for a “scientific” reason shortly to be told. But reason or no reason, the artists who count, in any school at any time, know that they are aiming at the right goal; it is the normal and necessary conviction for good work.
Barzun talks about the increasing independence of the artist, and the rise of criteria for judging art.
71: Aesthetic appreciation is something more that spontaneous liking; a good eye for accurate representation is not enough; one must be able to judge and talk about style, technique, and originality. This demand gives rise to a new public character: the critic.
He talks about the need to attend to technique for imitation, but also the need to be selective.
72: Such was the meaning of the dictum that imitation must not be slavish. That warning opened the door to every imaginative possibility. It meant that the artist’s goal could be beauty, that “divine attribute.” And beauty being a preconceived idea, it requires compromise with what nature gives us in the raw state. Michelangelo explicitly rejects the copying of externals. Platonists like him drew out of each natural object its more perfect, transcendent model, while Aristotelians saw in the ideal form the fulfillment that matter must reach in order to become reality. Both philosophies led to the same plastic ends.
Barzun has a small technical lapse, of no consequence, when he describes perspective as the result of our having two eyes (pg. 73). Later he describes how artists drew inspiration from ancient models.
74: It is a cultural generality that going back to the past is most fruitful at the beginning, when the Idea and not the technique is the point of interest. As knowledge grows more exact, originality grows less; perfection increases as inspiration decreases. …
To anyone in the mid-16C who looked back to Petrarch or Giotto or Wycliffe and though of more recent work in literature and the graphic arts or scholarship and religious thought, it must seem evident that the accumulation of desirable changes meant Progress. The word and a theory about it arose and provided a new standard of judgement: are we improving? Change came to be judged a move forward or backward, the latter being pointless. This in time generated the familiar labels progressive, conservative, and reactionary. The doctrine of progress was thus no foolish fantasy of the 18C philosophes, as is generally believed, which the 19C made into a creed certified by the forward march of industry. Now that the notion is generally decried – “the arts do not progress, nor does the moral character of man” – a look at its 16C origins makes clear how reasonable, how irresistible, how useful the new cultural yardstick was. …
To be aware of progress means being also aware of who has done the new thing, who is campaigning for the new idea. The individual gains in value: so-and-so is the talent to employ, to talk about and praise – or attack from a rival’s point of view.
This is interesting, but leaves me wondering along which of the many dimensions of experience the yardstick of progress is applied.
78: Emancipated from guild rules, the artist becomes an independent contractor. He deals with any member of the public on his own terms; willy-nilly he is a businessman, not always a congenial role. For as usual with emancipation, hard conditions limit the new freedom. If to win recognition the artist must show a distinctive style, the command may strain his fund of originality at the same time as he faces vicious competition. To gain the favor of the rich he must cultivate their taste and earn the applause of critics fronting for the public, not to mention the speculative eye of the art dealer, who also first appears in the 16C. Society meanwhile, though a willing customer in a general way, fumbles at that insoluble problem, the patronage of art (338>).
79: Actually the Renaissance man should not be defined by genius, which is rare, or even by the numerous performing talents of an Alberti. It is best defined by a variety of interests and their cultivation as a proficient amateur. A Renaissance man or woman has the skill to fashion verses and to accompany or sing them; a taste for good letters and good paintings, for Roman antiquities and the new architecture; and some familiarity with the rival philosophies. To all this must be added the latest refinements in manners as practiced in the princely courts, where men and women were expected to talk agreeably, to dance gracefully, to act in masques, and improvise other at-home theatricals. Social life for them was a species of serious work for mutual pleasure, one motive being to fend off boredom. The men must be soldiers; both sexes could be adept at politics. In short, it is the exact opposite of our intellectual and social specialisms, the reverse of our prefabricated hobbies and entertainments.
In his prologue, Barzun explained that he would use man to mean both men and women; then he deliberately used woman (in italics) in his description of the Renaissance man, for special emphasis. Then he explains his rationale for his primary usage in
A Digression on a Word
82: The reasons in favor of prolonging that usage are four: etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of “man and woman,” and literary tradition.
To begin with the last, it is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served. In Genesis we read: “And God created Man, male and female.” Plainly, in 1611 and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; “Man inhabits all the climatic zones.” Logicians have said “Man is mortal,” and philosophers have boasted of “Man’s unconquerable mind.” The poet Webster writes: “And man does flourish but his time.” In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd.
Nor is the inclusive sense of human being an arbitrary convention. The Sanskrit root man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for “I think.” In the compounds that have been regarded as invidious – spokesman, chairman, and the like – man retains that original sense of human being, as is proved by the word woman, which is etymologically the “wife human-being.” The wo (shortened from waef) ought to make woman doubly unacceptable to zealots, but the word as it stands seems irreplaceable. In a like manner, the proper name Carman is made up of car, which meant male, and man, which has its usual human being application. Car, originally carl or kerl, was the lowest order of freeman, often a rustic. (Carl has further given us Charles and churl.)
In English, words denoting human beings of various ages and occupations have changed sex over time or lost it altogether. Thus at first girl referred to small children of either sex, likewise maid, which meant simply “grown-up,” and the ending –ster, as in spinster and webster, designated women. It is no longer so in gangster and roadster. Implications have shifted too. In Latin, homo was the human being and vir the male, so that virtue meant courage in battle; in English it long stood for chastity in women. The message of this mixed-up past is that it is best let alone what one understands quite well and not insist on a one-sided interpretation of a word in common use.
Some may brush aside this lesson from usage old and new with a “Never mind. Nobody knows or thinks about the past and man remains objectionable.” At this point the reformer must face practical needs. To repeat at frequent intervals “man and woman” and follow it with the compulsory “his and her” is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires. It is unfortunate that English no longer has a special term for the job like French on. But on is only the slimmed down form of hom(me) – man again.
For the same neutral use German has man, true to the Sanskrit and meaning people. English had the identical word for the purpose until about 1100. German has also Mensch with the sense of human being. So at bottom both French and German carry on the same double meaning of man as English, just more visibly; it is the only convenient generic term when it is not perversely interpreted. There is after all an obligation to write decent prose and it rules out recurrent oddity or overinsistence on detail, such as is necessary (for example) in legal writing. Besides, the would-be reformers of usage utter contradictory orders. They want woman featured when men are mentioned but they also call for a ban on feminine designations such as actress.
The truth is that any sex-conscious practice defeats itself by sidetracking the thought from the matter in hand to a social issue – an important one, without question. And on that issue, it is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women’s authority and earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.
Finally, the thought occurs that if fairness to all divisions of humanity requires their separate mention when referred to in the mass, then the listing must not read simply “men and women”, it must include teenagers. They have played a large role in the world and they are not clearly distinguished in the phrase “men and women.” Reflection further shows that mention should be given to yet another group: children. The child prodigy in music is a small category. But one must not forget the far larger group of 8-, 10-, and 12-year-olds: boys (and sometimes girls in disguise) who in the armies and navies of the West have served as fife-and-drum corps or as cabin boys. Columbus’s ships had a large contingent; all the great explorers of the New World relied on sizable teams of these hard-worked crew members. Manet’s painting of the small fife player and one by Eva Gonzales remind us of the continued use of these little waifs past the mid-19C. Perhaps the last child to be so memorialized is to be seen in Eastman Johnson’s “The Wounded Drummer Boy,” portrayed at the height of the American Civil War.
Western culture is also indebted to children in a less cruel way, through the age-old institution of the boys’ choir in church. In Renaissance England the “Boy Players” were actors, not amateurish as in the modern school play, but professionals and organized in companies. One of these was a serious competitor of Shakespeare’s troupe.
The teenagers’ cultural contribution is more varied and better recorded, and the thought it brings to mind is the marked difference between earlier times and our own in the feeling about age. When the 19C novelist George Sand at 28 declared herself too old to marry (by custom she had been an old maid since 25) or when Richard II, 14 years old, alone in a large field, faced Wat Tyler’s massed rebels and pacified them with a speech, attitudes were taken for granted that are hard for us to imagine. Nearly to the beginning of the present century, society accorded teenagers roles of social responsibility. Rossini first conducted an orchestra at 14 and led the Bologna Philharmonic at 18. Weber was even younger in a comparable position.
In war and government, posts of command were won early. Alexander Hamilton, also at 14, set the rules for captains who traded with the firm that employed him on St. Croix island, and he was 19 when Washington made him aide-de-camp. Pitt the Younger was prime minister at 23. Lagrange was professor of mathematics at the Turin School of Artillery at 19. And in Castiglione’s manual of Renaissance manners, The Courtier (85>), one of the engaging figures is Francesco della Rovere, nephew of the pope, Lord General at 17, and soon to be “General of Rome.” In the book he has just lost a battle but not the respect of his friends. His rank, his charm, and his mind ensure his being long listened to as if he were a mature philosopher. Teenagers could lead armies in battle, for an older warrior’s young page might be made a knight at 12 and there was no ladder of ranks between the first signs of talent and the top – witness several of Napoleon’s marshals.
Cultural expectations were based on early mortality and spurred the young to live up to them. Melanchthon wrote an acceptable play when not quite 14 and Pascal’s essay on conic sections, written at the age of 15, won the praise of Leibniz and other mathematicians. Halley – later famous for his comet – was a serious astronomer at the age of 10. The same often held good of the women. Catherine de Medici was married early to her husband Henry, heir to the throne of France. She was 14 (a little older than Shakespeare’s Juliet) and he a few weeks older than his wife. The marriage had been arranged by the pope as part of a complex political scheme, and to make it secure it was imperative that Catherine should produce a son in short order. When Henry proved unequal to the work, the pope challenged Catherine with the words: “A clever girl surely knows how to get pregnant somehow or other.” We shall shortly meet this great stateswoman in her prime (86>).
Of course, this diatribe is a bit overdrawn (not to mention the amusing use of stateswoman at the end. Still, he brings cogent arguments to the issue, and I find them convincing.
88: Over our five centuries, the changes in social structure, economic life, and cultural expectations have worked fairly steadily toward emancipation and made individualism a common form of self-consciousness. The artist is the conspicuous and congenial example. But free play for the self is still a goal to be achieved and not a gift. Under any system, whoever wants self-fulfillment must exert willpower over a long stretch of time, besides possessing talent and knowing how to manage it. And as is plain from daily experience, many who make this effort fail nonetheless and complain of “subjection.” Meanwhile, the great majority feel no wish for public fame or self-expression, which does not mean they are denied respect or some scope for their modest powers. The society in which everybody finds his or her proper level and due recognition has yet to be designed and made to work.
This passage seems pointed at me – perhaps a little more willpower is called for if I am to achieve my goals. Note the use of “his or her” so soon after his diatribe; sometimes it is fitting.
In his Cross Section: The View from Madrid Around 1540 Barzun has this interesting passage about men like Columbus:
99: The whole saga, including the sailors’ distrust and their leader’s deliberate deception, the success and the mistake at the heart of it; the glorification followed by the disgrace during and after the second voyage (the hero led back home in chains); the persistence and the final neglect and poverty – every feature of his career I spart of a typical pattern. Not all, but many of the great achievements of western man have followed this tortuous course, visiting more or less harsh punishment on the doers. This “tradition” is not the result of perversity. It is not the clash of stupid men opposing an intelligent one: Columbus’s interviewers were right to question his calculation of the distance to India: he made it 2,400 miles short of the actual 10,600. And it is true that the promoters of the really new more often than not look and talk like cranks and mis-state or mistake their goal. Their behavior is often arrogant or seems so from their impatience with cautious minds. The upshot – humiliation and penury – is disproportionate to the offense, but it expresses the culture’s need to defend its rational ways, to ward off the genuine cranks, and to avoid moving too fast into the untried. There is no evidence that the present system of subsidizing innovations – government and foundation grants – works any better than that of the kings and queens of earlier times: the same committee is always sitting at the gate.
This is just what I am saying in Memetics, so naturally I agree. He has this to say about frontier life:
100: The conquistadors’ impelling goals have been summarized as “Gold, Glory, and the Gospel.” At any time, neither Gold nor Glory is a respecter of persons, and Gospel occasionally sins; together they do their worst when the scene is vast and sparsely populated, when communication is slow and policing haphazard. If we think back to the western frontier of the United States down to 1890, we find not exactly anarchy but free-wheeling crime and violence that took its toll of lives and goods, and sent not a few venturers scuttling back to the relatively civil order of the Midwest.
This passage, like many others concerning society, is quite close to views I have already written for Memetics, but at a high, almost superficial, level. Memetics is meant to get under the hood, and show what is happening when a community of greedy people encounters a community of hard-working people with a poorly-constructed social machinery for self-protection.
Writing of the Spanish efforts to establish commercial colonies in the New World, Barzun says:
107: Out of the battle that Las Casas and others waged in Madrid and New Spain to protect the mistreated natives came the revival of an ancient idea. The Roman Tacitus, it will be remembered, had portrayed the Germanic tribes of the first century in such a way as to shame the citizens of Rome (<9). The Germans led the simple life, in which candor, truthfulness, courage, and loyalty are as normal as falsehood, deceit, treachery, and a cowardly fear of death are in civilization This contrast was exemplified for the 16C by a number of the American tribes – at least as they seemed to observers 3,000 miles away. Thus arose the figure of the Noble Savage, which has ever since reinvigorated the successive primitivisms.
Barzun mentions a factor in the spread of fame (and memes):
109: It is a mistake to believe that “anything really good” will cross frontiers and find its due place. Such countries as Portugal, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and other parts of Slavic Europe cherish classics that are still confined to home ground. The prime 16C example is the poem about Europe’s expansion westward, the epic Lusiads by the Portuguese Camoëns, himself an explorer and Humanist (153>). Why is fame so capricious a goddess? In any country its favor depends on attention by one group of critics rather than another, or again by the fanatical devotion that goes to the right man at the right time. Some element in the work must chime in with some concern of the moment.
This is pretty much the ‘stickiness’ of a message that Gladwell mentions. Later he talks of the novel.
111: It was another Spanish writer of the period who gave the first sketch of a new genre: the novel. He was not Cervantes, as some critics assert, but the anonymous author of La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes. Why Cervantes’s masterpiece is not a novel will appear in a moment. And in any case Don Quixote belongs to a later generation than Lazarillo. His is the story of a friendless waif who becomes the servant successively of half a dozen common social types – friar, priest, squire, a seller of indulgences, and so on. At each move, the foibles of the master and the defects of society emerge from the incidents, mostly painful to Lazarillo, yet spurs to his growth in cunning and self-help. He ends up as a town crier. What makes the work, though short, a true novel is this double subject: character and social scene, both treated matter-of-factly and by inference critically. [The translation to read is that by W. S. Merwin.] Don Quixote does indeed contain elements of what is the distinctive subject matter of the novel, but it merges them with allegory and philosophy. It is not bound by the plausible, whereas the novel pretends to be genuine history, full of real people and places (153; 352>).
In this passage is another of Barzun’s devices: he cites works the reader should either browse or read, and says which. Later he talks about the rise of surnames:
114: It is not stretching things too far to see in this demand for clear naming an early instance of a trend in western culture that has itself no name: it might be called “the sharpening of identification.” The feudal lord, probably illiterate, used visual symbols, his heraldic shield, to make himself known. The modern commoner, who can spell, has been using two names and a middle initial; exact designation goes with heightened individualism. But with vast populations and multiplied roles and wants, names are proving insufficient, especially with literacy in decline. To remain distinct within the mass we must be branded with a series of numbers and must recite them to be known and served and allowed to pursue one’s life.
Barzun’s next chapter, The Eutopians, is deliberately spelled oddly. His point is that More’s use of utopia, from the Greek for “no place” could better be (or have been) eutopia, evoking “good place”. He also has this to say about More.
122: And looking at his career one wonders how he reconciled his Eutopian rule of religious toleration with his willing persecution of heretics when he was in power. Nor is this all. His reputation as a great and good man was given a fine start by his son-in-law’s biography; it was furthered by martyrdom for his faith and ultimate canonization. The modern play about him confirms it all. Thus most readers are hardly aware of a disturbing fact: More either invented, or allowed himself to propagate in a work of his own, the “big lie” in favor of the Tudors under whom he served – the lie that Richard III, the king whom the Tudor Henry VII overthrew, was a deformed monster who murdered his nephews, the young princes in the Tower. Ever since Horace Walpole in the late 18C raised doubts, a number of scholars have come to believe that Richard was the very opposite of the legend – handsome, able, and innocent of blood. It is not remembered, either, that the phrase “a man for all seasons,” now applied to More as a compliment, was used in the past to mean an opportunist.
Eutopias are a phenomenon of, and eutopians operate in, the reflective realm, in my memetic sense. Barzun confirms this:
123: In pictures of perfect states and less formally, as we shall see Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Swift, and others, the theme of emancipation from present hardships is the author’s main motive; but there is at least one other timely reason to account for the 16C cluster of such works. For the generation after Columbus, knowledge of the New World and its inhabitants began to modify the western mind about its own culture. The explorers’ voyages had become a literary form, which the Eutopians imitate minutely. They describe the ship going off course, the remote island, the natives’ treatment of the foreign crew, touchy at first, then friendly. Eutopia must always be isolated, to account for its being so long unknown and to prevent its being corrupted by the bad customs of the rest of the world – which incidentally suggests how fragile a good commonwealth is expected to be.
Now, new knowledge about alien customs creates self-consciousness. This is a fact and a theme: as soon as comparisons are made, one’s own customs no longer seem inevitable. To be sure, the neighboring people, the enemy, has always behaved differently from us, but he is simply wrong-headed. It is when two or three cultures far off provide large contrasts that the question thrusts itself on the mind: If others can do common things differently, why shouldn’t we? The idea of deliberate change is born, social engineering is around the corner and begins to find expression in literature
In a related way, Barzun describes a change in meme-complex:
125: When this change of expectations occurred in the late Renaissance, it began to reverse the original creed of the Renaissance itself: thou shalt ape and worship the ancients. The cluster of ideas that make up the later, revised outlook has been called the Counter-Renaissance. The ancients were now antiquated and the word modern, besides the meaning of “present-day,” acquired the connotation of total praise. “Progress,” “the latest science,” “advanced ideas,” “up to date” are the perennial markers of this cultural shift.
Barzun catalogues the eutopian meme-complex (my bullets):
127: If we ask what the eutopian legacy has been, it may be summed up in five points:
• social equality is more humane than hierarchy. (In this the Counter-Renaissance men diverge radically from Plato.)
• Next, everybody must work and earn his living or his honors.
• Then, rulers should be chosen by the people: it fosters a more willing obedience.
• In addition, marriage and divorce need accommodation to actual experience: adultery is not the sole cause of hopeless disunion.
• Finally, the existing order is not fixed forever by divine fiat and doomed to be evil by original sin. Clear thought and strong wills can improve the human lot. Humanism takes it for granted that this worldly aim is legitimate.
On reflection, one must add communism to the list of contributions from the Eutopians, since our century has seen that system established for a time over fairly large areas, though with a difference: The Eutopians had of course no inkling of machine industry; their peoples were farmers, to whom Providence in the form of droughts and flood, pests and soil erosion, was more vivid than it became as control of natural processes increased. Prayer and righteousness were still pillars of society for the Eutopians. The idea of an atheist state did not occur to them as a possibility – nor even the idea of a secular government indifferent to all creeds. The related conviction that social order required religion to buttress the force of law died hard in western culture, if indeed it has died altogether.
In discussing Rabelais, he includes some perspective on the biological realm (which he mistakenly calls physical).
129: Like the giants’ meals, for which thousands of cattle must be killed, the repeated references to bodily functions and their satisfaction mean only one thing: the basis of human life – and therefore of all higher endeavors – is physical. This “grossness” is part of Rabelais’ attack on the ascetic ideal of the monk – the ideal, for the monastic reality (as we saw through Erasmus and Luther) was very different. But ideals take a good deal of killing even after the fact has fled – hence Rabelais’ repeated blows. The moral of the physical is that human nature is good, not corrupt. (Calvin vituperated the author of such a heresy, and no wonder.) For if Man were hopelessly bad and in continual need of divine help, civic education and social reform would be useless, and Rabelais is full of ideas under both these headings.
In discussing an aspect of Montaigne:
136: … Montaigne points out the elements that make the difference between a type and a character. The type may exhibit all kinds of tricks and tastes and gestures that make him different, recognizable, but his “stance” is unchanging, “typical.” Not so in the Character. He is, as we say, many-sided (“mountainous”), which is why we also speak of seeing someone “in the round.” For practical purposes, the character exists only in literature, because nobody has the time or opportunity to look as roundly at anybody else as Montaigne looked at himself.
The contrast between type and character as we meet them in life and in fiction explains why so many biographers declare the subject of their boo “a bundle of contradictions.” This misleading cliché occurs to them when, on surveying the life of the man or woman, they find the variations that belong to character: he or she was generous to strangers and public charities and stingy with the family. Contradiction! Not at all, inconsistency; a contradiction kills its opposite; inconsistencies exist side by side, in response to different situations. How could an unbending self survive in a variable world? In winter, hot soup; in summer, cool drinks. And when the need is less apparent, as in the shift from open-handed to stingy, it is real enough to the doer: he has come to dislike his family, or they fail to give him the praise he gets from strangers, or some other point of contact with reality alters the posture of the “wavelike and varying self.”
Discussing the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare:
140: The human link between the two writers is John Florio, whose translation of the Essays made Montaigne known quickly in England; and it may well be that something of Shakespeare’s lack of a positive creed, for which Bernard Shaw reproved him, was due to the Essays. Shakespeare at any rate found in Montaigne a kindred temperament. [The book to read is Shakespeare and Montaigne, by Jacob Feis, a hostile work that blames the latter for perverting the former’s mind.]
The strongest evidence of the kinship lies in their identical (and doubtless independent) invention of “character.” Montaigne, as we saw, pioneered in viewing man as ondoyant et divers, the variable sport of self and circumstance (<135). Making character a category of thought yielded nothing less than a rival to the physiology of the humors, namely psychology. The cognate fact is that in the drama before Shakespeare there are no characters, only types. Literature presented great figures made distinct from one another by a well-marked trait or two, but not rendered unique by complexity.
This is not to say that before Shakespeare the persons in the drama were unlifelike “cardboard.” They were by no means abstractions as in the medieval plays, where “the Vice” is one of the actors. But they were single-tracked in their headlong roles, the shifts in their actions being due to the actions of others, who were similarly conditioned by mutual buffeting. This conflict enabled the playwright to portray the human passions in their variety and fatal consequences. This was enough for ancient Greek drama, the Elizabethan, and the French classical to hold the spectator breathless. But we cannot say that we know Oedipus or Phèdre as we know King Lear or Lady Macbeth. The latter are as various as we feel ourselves to be, the others not; in types there are (so to speak) no irrelevancies.
How does Shakespeare create the roundness of character? By throwing light on new aspects of the person in successive relations. Polonius as a courtier is obsequious, as a royal adviser overconfident, as a father to his daughter callously blind, as a father to his son, endearingly wise. The grand result of this method, this multi-dimensional mapping, is that since Montaigne and Shakespeare, plays, novels, and biographies have filled the western mind with a galaxy of characters whom we know better than ourselves and our neighbors. We say: she is a Jane Eyre or a Madame Bovary; he is a touching Billy Budd, or a regular Pecksniff. Note that although the world understands what Freud meant by the Oedipus complex, nobody has the slightest notion of how Oedipus felt when he killed his father and married his mother. His later sense of guilt is general, not particular. Note also that in discussing Greek tragedy, Aristotle says that the action, the plot, is all-important; never mind the characters. In short, the full theme of individualism had not yet resounded.
Barzun begins his chapter Epic & Comic, Lyric & Music, Critic & Public, concerning the development of popular arts, with this comment, after mentioning the crime-and-spy fiction of Graham Greene, which he called “entertainments”:
But there is a difference between Graham Greene and the Renaissance poets: today, the entertainments – by him or anybody else – are considered a lower sort of production, even when they are excellent in their kind. In the early Modern Era there was no such discrimination. For centuries, poetry and storytelling had no purpose but to entertain. There were no other means of spending leisure time, of chasing away boredom, than to sing, recite, or listen. This pastime itself became a device of fiction: in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the famous set of erotic tales, these are presented to the reader as having been told to entertain a group of Florentines who fled their city to escape the plague. Marguerite of Navarre 200 years later used the framework again for her Heptameron (<86).
Barzun describes the codification in the Middle Ages of two styles or aspects of composing music: polyphony and harmony, followed by:
158: The technical innovation of the 16C was to combine elements of the two musical styles, the polyphonic and the harmonic. This merger produced a number of new forms, both for voice alone and for voice accompanied by instruments. Chief of these was the madrigal, a verse form more flexible than those sung by the troubadours – the minstrels – in the Middle Ages: ballade, sestina, and others. Like the popular songs that continued to be written and sung, the 16C lyrics dealt with the eternal subjects – love, sorrow, death, the springtime, and drinking. The music of a madrigal could vary from stanza to stanza and, as we have seen, a series of such poems could be made into a quasi dramatic work; there was no refrain or lines repeated word for word to halt the forward motion of the idea. The madrigal originated in Italy and was cultivated there by many gifted hands, but it also inspired in England a school of brilliant composers (161>) who flourished from the mid-16C to the early part of the next. Though long ignored, they have come in our century to be ranked among the master musicians.
After mentioning the use by art critics of analytical technique:
167: Now, analysis, the breaking of wholes into parts, is fundamental to science, but for judging works of art, the procedure is more uncertain: what are the natural parts of a story, a sonnet, a painting? The maker’s aim is to project his vision by creating not a machine made up of parts but the impression of a seamless unity that belongs to a living thing. Looking at an early example of systematic criticism by analysis – say, Dante’s comments on his sonnet sequence La Vita Nuova – one sees that the best he can do is to tell again in prose what the first two lines mean, then the next three, and so on in little chunks through the entire work. We may understand somewhat better his intention here and there, but at the same time we vaguely feel that the exercise was superfluous and inappropriate. Reflection tells us why: those notations taken together do not add up to the meaning of the several poems. In three words: analysis is reductive. Since its patent success in the natural sciences, analysis has become a universal mode of dealing not merely with what is unknown or difficult, but also with all interesting things as if they were difficult. Accordingly analysis is a theme. Depending on the particulars of its effect, it can also be designated reductivism.
In Cross Section: The View from Venice Around 1650, Barzun talks about the theory of education of the Czech Jan Komensky (John Amos Comenius):
180: Of the many books he managed to write, the most famous is Orbis Sensualium Pictus – the world portrayed to the senses, published at the exact mid-century point. Others of his school texts were widely used and translated into a dozen languages, including Arabic, Persian, turkish, and Mongolian. Despite Luther’s early appeal for free public schools to teach Protestant children, few were founded and none had a philosophy of education to match the Jesuits’. Comenius supplied it. He was another in the long line of school reformers who, with interesting variations, always say the same thing; it is their fated role. The nature of a school being to ossify, it must be periodically galvanized into life. The reason for the loss of vitality is that the school is a government on the small scale; it aims at forming a common mind as government aims at a common will. Both need periodic overhaul, a re-injection of the original idea that got lost in routine.
At this point anyone who has had much to do with education or has dipped into its history can guess what Comenius said: things, not words – hence the Sensualium of the textbook. Change school from a prison to a scholae ludus (play site), where curiosity is aroused and satisfied. Stop beatings. Reduce rote learning and engage the child’s interest through music and games and through handling objects, through posing problems (the project method), stirring the imagination by dramatic accounts of the big world. The Orbis Pictus teaches objects and places, simultaneous with words, by means of pictures to be studied and talked about, a first hint of the audiovisual in education. Comenius would also teach a universal religion compatible with modern science, “Pansophia.” All children should be schooled at state expense, starting very early in affectionate surroundings: nursery school for the four- to six-year-olds. He added the substance of the 20C thought-cliché: education goes on as long as life.
… Wherever he went Comenius set up schools and taught in them. No less invariably he received bids to go elsewhere and repeat his success. … But fame has bypassed Comenius …. Time, place, and nationality have the power to confer or withhold renown.
In The Invisible College, Barzun discusses science and scientists of the Renaissance (and beyond).
191: It is misleading to see in the 17C a scientific revolution, not because it is best to keep the word revolution for vast changes in power and property, but because the new conception of the cosmos was rather an evolution, with stumbles and backtrackings along the way. Points in Aristotle’s physics were refuted at the University of Paris as early as 1300, others soon after at Oxford. The dismantling of the reigning systems went on bit by bit in halting fashion, speeding up in the 16C and taking another fifty years or more to make an end.
That Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Jung, Pascal, and Descartes – all men of the 17C – are better known than their elders in science is the kind of wrong that happens repeatedly in all fields of culture. The pioneers, the first who struggle out of the established systems and who form new and useful conceptions, appear only half-right, incomplete; and their names stay remote. But they are perhaps more to be cherished than those who come after, who clear off the debris and offer a neater, more full-blown view.
He also has this to say about Middle Ages science:
193: The Middle Ages did not “neglect observation.” They examined the heavens minutely (mostly for astrological prediction) and the earth eagerly for what it could yield of food, medicines, materials, and elemental power for use in machines (230>). But observation is rarely neutral; it rests on pre-conceptions and pre-perceptions; and it was these that had to change. In fact, close observation can be a hindrance to scientific thought if it fastens too hard on outward appearances. A better way of observing consists in overlooking visible details, in neglecting observation (to put it rather strongly) and in viewing objects in geometrical fashion – seeing the Rabelaisian quintessence (<130). It is the method used in Picasso’s bull: in the series of sketches he starts lifelike – massive, glossy, beautifully drawn in every part. Then, in a dozen or so of gradual reductions, he loses one characteristic after another until, at the last, he is the bare outline of what he was at first. He is the abstract bull, the bull, so to speak, of science.
He further describes the similar sequence of abstractions that underlie much of science, and allow the application of mathematics to it.
194: In other words, for science to arise from previous speculations, a strange idea had to become clear and fully accepted – the idea of body as such, the purely physical, devoid of qualities so as to be capable of quantity. Earlier conceptions were not sufficiently geometrical; their truth was pictorial and poetic. They mirrored the universe clearly but symbolically, which is to say full of meanings; whereas the purely physical has no meaning; it just is.
He discusses the career of Giordano Bruno, who separated the anthropomorphic view of nature from the physical view.
195: It goes without saying that the cultural consequences, the effect on human lives, of this shift in outlook have been profound. To begin with, as success in “natural philosophy” became evident in one realm after another, scientists, as we now call them, came to be regarded as “those who really know.” This in turn meant that reality was split – scientific fact and human experience, no longer one and often contradictory. If the one was real, the other must be illusion.
He then goes on to describe the great mistake of western culture (though he doesn’t identify it as a mistake):
The only way out of the contradiction was to regard Man as not part of Nature. He confronted it as an enemy. The search for knowledge began to be spoken of as the “conquest of nature,” the hostile cosmos being regarded as “blind”; for once man was excluded from it, it had no consciousness. Next, man himself must be regarded as nursing a fantasy when he thought he was pursuing a purpose. Being made of matter, he was a thing too, possessing no free will, only the illusion of it. The chain of causes determined his every act. He was predestined, as Luther and Calvin had said, though they said it for a different reason (<6).
196: A further consequence of re-thinking nature geometrically was to make abstraction an obsessive habit of mind. Ever enlarging its scope, it has become so infectious that it ranks as a theme. For the moment, consider abstraction as the urge to disregard the features that lie on the surface of things, in hopes of finding the kernel within that does not change and is therefore felt to be the reality. This urge has always existed; it makes experience orderly. But the scientific use of abstraction has modified the very feeling of life on a scale unexampled, as will appear in the sequel.
In this passage, Barzun seems to be criticizing (or at least lamenting) what he calls abstraction. However, I suspect he is conflating at least two kinds of mental phenomena under this term, and one of them is indispensable. The satisficing nature of man, which I take as well-established by Herbert Simon, is based on a kind of abstraction that does not seek to penetrate to the kernel of truth behind the world, but rather seeks to avoid investing excessive effort in that kind of activity. Instead, we routinely react to an abstraction of the world, with lesser or greater fidelity, in order to get on with our lives. This is the kind of abstraction that allows Barzun to discuss the difference between a type and a character (see note 140 above). Perhaps further reading will show that he is not making this mistake.
Further on, he addresses the rise of Cartesian philosophy’s faith in Reason.
202: This conviction is one that is being questioned today, and not for the first time. Unfortunately, the combatants on both sides keep arguing whether the modern mind is harmed – some say victimized – by “too much reason,” the attackers holding that science and numbers are not the only truth; the defenders retorting that if reason is given up, intellectual anarchy and wild superstition will reign. The latter are right about reason as an activity reasoning; the former are right about Rationalism, the dominance of a particular form of reason and its encroachment where it does not belong.
In discussing the scientific community (in the memetic sense), Barzun says:
207: The free exchange of ideas and results corrects errors and speeds up discovery. In the formative period print was of course available and put to use, as shown by the works of Kopernik, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, and the rest; but it is remarkable how much of the new thought was conveyed in private letters between congenial minds; or again, between a person of scientific tastes and a cluster of thinkers. Father Mersenne, a classmate of Descartes’, served as a kind of post office or clearinghouse for the scientists of Europe. People of rank might get in touch with a particular celebrity of the new kind. Thus Descartes came to write a book-length batch of letters to Elizabeth, the Princess Palatine, and it is in them alone that we learn his belief – not clear from his other works – that the will, which connects the mind with the body and directs its actions, is lodged in the pineal gland of the brain.
Here he is talking of the Connectors described by Gladwell, people who facilitate the flow of ideas. If someone like Mersenne was also knowledgeable enough to evaluate and filter the information passing through his hands, he would also be a Maven; this role would correspond to the modern journal editor (augmented by a committee of referees). He goes on:
212: Needless to say, the source of truth likewise shifted, from settled revelation to restless experiment; truth itself was no longer static. Science took pride in having the courage to discard its own views. Why, then, should it be trusted, a platform moving underfoot? Because the method was sure and the results covered an ever-wider area of the previously unknown or misknown. Someday all the truths would have been won and they would form a coherent system, for Nature is regular and uniform.
At this point comes the paradox already hinted at: the age of the new method and the new revelations (in the plural and without capital letter) saw a resurgence of superstition, most violently expressed in the persecution of witches (213>). Yet it should be no surprise that when novel ideas set minds wondering and tongues wagging, strong minds with well thought out convictions should resist and defend the intellectual status quo. Not everybody has the mental elasticity to be a fideist, believe in Genesis and in Galileo at the same time. There is always a conservative party, and by a kind of Newtonian law of the mind, action is matched by an equal reaction; one branch of the conservative party turns reactionary and clings more intensely to the old convictions.
In this Barzun is too glib. Certainly there are conservatives and reaction, but the “law” he invokes is too simple. He really wants memetics. Also, I doubt that anyone now (or ever) believed that “someday all the truths would have been won” etc.
He mentions Pascal’s essay “On the Passion of Love”. Then he makes these observations about intuition:
217: “Geometrical” matters are handled by all good minds without any argument over their interconnections, and mistakes in reasoning are quickly noticed and admitted by the culprit; whereas in matters of intuition, of finesse, the details to take in are so numerous and fugitive that reasoning about them is chancy and god minds arrive in all honesty at different conclusions. Pascal might have added that this large number of elements rules olut the use of Descartes’ method: one can never be sure of having found all the parts of the problem or of having put back all those one thinks one has found – no complete analysis is possible of Love or Ambition.
It is from this incapacity that the belief in science and mathematics as the only forms of truth has arisen. Such has been the faith of most scientists and mathematicians, who in turn have persuaded the people that apart from their experimental findings and deducings all is mere opinion, error, and fantasy. Even so, in every generation, thinkers – including some notable scientists – have maintained that the geometrical spirit and the method of Descartes do not apply to everything. Truths of a different order are attainable by finesse, even if consensus is lacking. The language itself recognizes the source of the distinction: to know and to know about express the difference the difference between intimate awareness and things learned. Some languages in fact use different words for the contrast: wissen and kennen, savoir and connaitre. Man as scientist has come to know a great deal, but as human being knows and feels intuitively love and ambition, poetry and music. The heart-and-mind reaches deeper than the power of reason alone.
Longing for unanimity in belief is understandable (<23). The bloody conflicts of the world have their source in the realm of finesse, and to deplore the fact leads to such skepticism as Montaigne’s. It is also the best argument for toleration.
Again, Barzun is too glib (though not by much). In speaking of “truths of a different order” he opens the way to all manner of superstition and defiance of science. It seems to me that even where analysis and experiment cannot choose among a too-rich set of alternatives, it is still possible to describe realms of phenomena and identify those that must be addressed (given the present state of science) by intuition. As with any exploration, it is better to map the ground, than to simply point at the horizon and say “there be monsters”.
218: What, then, is the importance of Pascal’s distinction [between heart and mind, or geometry and intuition]? It is as an axiom for the critic and a warning against scientism. Ten succinct paragraphs of the pensées state it with finality. Scientism is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue. Again and again, the bright thought has occurred, “If we can only define our terms, if we can only find the basic unit, if we can spot the right ‘indicators,’ we can then measure and reason flawlessly, we shall have created one more science.” And nearly as often, the shout has been heard: “Eureka! We are scientists,” the new science being some portion of the desired Science of Man – history, sociology, psychology, archeology, linguistics, and other more or less short-lived ologies.
Barzun gets this right, without the glibness. He goes on to discuss the psychological insights of Robert Burton, and recommends The Psychiatry of Robert Burton, by Bergen Evans. The passage is applicable to memetics.
224: The omission of Burton’s Anatomy from general accounts of 17C science is without excuse. Because he took the humors as sound physiology, his sound psychiatry is ignored. Such eclipses of a source of light by some dark matter in the surroundings are familiar to the student of cultural history.
In a similar vein, he discusses the neglected contribution of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa.
230: Today Cusa is honored by cosmologists for having conceived the cosmos as continuous, instead of divided up into spheres of different materials. His ideas were not adequately followed up; he is a prime example of the truth that before science could prosper it had to become an institution. At the same time, to be fair to the Scholastics, one must heed Whitehead’s reminder that by their logic-chopping they contributed to science the habit of asking what a statement implies and of not being satisfied with merely plausible answers.
Before closing the chapter, Barzun says:
234: One more topic needs attention before this interlude comes to an close. The Middle Ages were far from indifferent to the past, but their way of looking upon it was not the same as our “sense of history”; or to be more exact, the sense developed in the 19C and which is fast fading (775>). The Middle Ages welcomed any books and traditions that told them about the Roman empire; and the learning transmitted by Arab and Jewish scholars (<231). But what medieval writers themselves produced in the way of history was of a different cast.
They compiled chronicles, a day-by-day recital of events, into which might be interwoven hearsay about previous or remote incidents. These works are valuable for the firsthand factual reports, but in these and other types of medieval literature the unhistorical mind is betrayed by the authors’ failure to perceive differences of time and place: under Providence life has been the same as we see it to be; the past is uniform with the present. …
And yet it is a fact, a stupendous fact, that a whole literature has come down to us from the ancient world thanks to the tireless activity of the medieval scribes. They copied and recopied the texts, apparently without noticing Difference in what that literature portrayed. This is one of the great paradoxes of history. For if we suppose that this blindness came from contempt for pagan society, why spend time preserving its records? Enough minds must have been in some way captivated if certain parts of Cicero or Tacitus were among those that the delegated Brother read aloud at meals. And then, for lack of cultural context (so to speak), that interest had no sequel. In any event, the modern world must remain grateful to the medieval copyist for copying, not only the local chronicler’s exciting pages but also the scattered remnants of the previous civilization.
This concludes my report on Part I. I expect to resume reading, and reporting, after returning from vacation.