Under The Sun

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Let us now praise famous men. I finally finished From Dawn To Decadence, Jacques Barzun's 800-page history of "modern" "Western" "culture" (he would agree that all three terms are worthy of scare quotes). In the end, I can't recommend it; it was too narrow to be a worthwhile introduction for layfolk, but its insights, though real, were too sporadic to make it required reading for specialists.

Still, I'm glad I read it, in part because I did learn some things about history and culture, but mostly because it explained to me something I'd intuited but not grasped: the importance of biography to the study of history, and specifically of the history of ideas. Ideas by themselves rarely embody wisdom; most principles do not include any comment on their own scope or applicability. As Barzun would put it, abstraction, however worthwhile, always involves distance from reality. To learn wisdom one must bring one's ideas back to reality. This can be done by trial and error, of course; the school of hard knocks is an accredited institution. But the process can be softened if one learns from the experience of others: what happened when some other person took the same idea back to reality. Was the idea helpful or harmful?--to those who propogated it or to those whose lives were affected by it? What compromises did reality demand of it, and what were the consequences when those compromises were made?--or refused? Did the idea pass the test of life?--and why?

For its sketches of ideas thus embodied, of wisdom thus learned and practiced--from Erasmus to Diderot to Sydney Smith to William James--Barzun's survey is most enlightening, and therefore most worth while.

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