Friday, December 7, 2018

From Dawn to Decadence

 Selections from Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000):

“Except among those whose education has been in the minimalist style, it is understood that hasty moral judgments about people in the past are a form of injustice.”

“Inquisition as such, that is, apart from methods and severity of results, has remained a live institution. The many dictatorships of the 20C have relied on it and in free countries it thrives ad hoc - Hunting down German sympathizers during the First World War, interning Japanese-Americans during the second, and pursuing Communist fellow-travelers during the Cold War. In the United States at the present time the workings of 'political correctness' in universities and the speech police that punishes persons and corporations for words on certain topics quaintly called 'sensitive'  are manifestations of the permanent spirit of inquisition.”

“The feeble clavichord did not carry far; the harpsichord was only a little stronger; but Cristofori in Italy was working at these defects; he built a machine he called clavicembalo piano e forte — a keyboard instrument to play 'soft and loud.' Contrary to all experience, we now call it simply 'a soft.'"

“The motives behind scientism are culturally significant. They have been mixed, as usual: genuine curiosity in search of truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank. But these efforts, even though vain, have not been without harm, to the inventors and to the world at large. The 'findings' have inspired policies affecting daily life that were enforced with the same absolute assurance as earlier ones based on religion. At the same time, the workers in the realm of intuition, the gifted finessers - artists, moralists, philosophers, historians, political theorists, and theologians - were either diverted from their proper task, while others were looking on them with disdain as dabblers in the suburbs of Truth.”

“The Modern Era was to be one of plans and proposals, which is to say futurist to the point of bigotry.”

“Now, analysis, the breaking of the 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 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 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.”

“'If one consults reason alone, one cannot assent to the articles of our faith' it was full of mysteries; 'we are fools to try to explain them.' This makes preaching Christianity not only a hard task but also dangerous. 'Had I know, I should never have been a preacher.'”

“The notion that talent and personality in women were suppressed at all times during our half millennium except the last fifty years is an illusion. Nor were all women previously denied an education or opportunities for self-development. Wealth and position were prerequisite, to be sure, and they still tend to be. The truth is that matters of freedom can never be settled in all-or-nothing fashion and any judgment must be comparative. Individual cases moreover show that what happens in a culture always differs in some degree from what is supposed to happen; possibilities are always greater than custom would dictate.”

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