Jacques Barzun Lived 104 Years

That’s remarkable. I didn’t know he was still alive. All my copies of his books are decades old. When I learned this morning that he died yesterday I was ashamed of myself that I had read so little. Barzun is one of those authors whose books have sat on my shelf and by my feet for years. I’ve read some here and there and thought, “This is really good stuff. I need to read more of Barzun.” Well, there is till plenty to read but there won’t be any more after that. I’m sorry to learn that he’s gone but his death is a good reminder that he did an enormous amount of thoughtful writing of which I need to take advantage.

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  1. You’re not the only one. “The Jacques Barzun Reader: Selections from His Works,” edited by Michael Murray (New York: Harper Collins, Publishers, 2002) has been sitting on my own bookshelves since it was published ten years ago, and I’ve never cracked it open – much less read any of his books. Shame on me, based on what I’ve been reading about him since his death yesterday.

    I certainly hope he went “up” instead of “down” (so to speak) at his death.

  2. Hi, Dr. Clark,

    I am another one who has an unread Barzun book on my shelf. I have read a little of it, but have much more to read. I am sad to hear of his death.

    The one I have is “From Dawn to Decadence.” It looks good and I love the thrust of the book, summarized by the title.

    Do you recommend this book?

  3. Thanks you for posting this, Dr. Clark — it will reach readers who normally would never even know the names of Barzun or similar people.

    There are going to be people who read this post and say, “Barzun? Who is he, and why should I care?”

    These sections from the New York Times article cited above by Dr. Clark may motivate people to look further and read more about him: “If Mr. Barzun kept the political issues of the day at arm’s length, he nonetheless developed a reputation as a cultural conservative after the student protests at Columbia in the late 1960s. He later argued that the ‘peoples of the West’ had ‘offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.’ But at the same time, he said, Western civilization had also cultivated the seeds of its undoing by envying what it renounced and succumbing to the lure of rebellion. Its virtues and failings, he argued, were in some respects identical: the freedom to rebel could turn into sweeping nihilism, resulting in decadence. He saw that happening…. He traced periods of rise and fall in the Western saga, and contended that another fall was near — one that could cause ‘the liquidation of 500 years of civilization.’ This time the decline would be caused not by scientism and absolutism, he maintained, but by an internal crisis in the civilization itself, which he believed had come to celebrate nihilism and rebellion.”

    Barzun was in some ways a melding of apparent contradictions. He was at once a scholar who was raised in France and steeped in the European elite intellectual tradition but also worked in and came to love America and its populism and egalitarianism; he was a scholar of the first rate but also a popularizer who believed intellectuals have a responsibility to educate the citizens at large; and he was deeply concerned that egalitarian principles of politics (which he affirmed) were destroying the necessary academic standards of university-level education (which he tried to fight against).

    I’ve long since left the classicist or humanist model of education in which I was originally trained, but I certainly recognize Barzuns’ role in creating the concept of a canon of “great books” that all educated people should have read as a basis for more specialized study. The canon of Scripture has ultimate and eternal significance, but that does not mean the canon of classical Western scholarship has no significance.

    One thing I respect about the Westminster tradition, unlike that of virtually all of American evangelicalism with its overt anti-intellectualism or most of Calvinism for the last two centuries with an often-narrow sectarianism, is that Westminster comes out of the old Princeton tradition in which professors of theology were expected to have the same level of academic competence as men teaching in other academic fields. Princeton was, after all, an Ivy League school.

    I am anything but an academic elitist, but I understand the importance of the academy. We simply are not developing the level of academic competence today in Reformed circles that would produce men like J. Gresham Machen. On the contrary, too many Reformed high schools and colleges and even seminaries are doing the things to which Reinhold Niebuhr objected in the old Evangelical and Reformed Church, namely, giving young men entering the ministry a low level of education and a focus on repeating back right answers rather than teaching them how to think, both of which make it very difficult for them to succeed at the upper levels of the academy.

    Obviously the Niebuhr brothers had different fundamental principles than me, but that doesn’t mean their diagnosis of the problems of the old E&R synod was wrong. However, the antidote to liberalism is not anti-intellectualism but rather rebutting error. Reading and understanding Barzun’s critique of the collapse of the American university system can help evangelicals avoid the same fate in our Christian schools and colleges that has long since happened in the public school system and secular universities, as well as preparing young people from conservative Christian backgrounds to succeed in secular colleges and graduate schools.

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