A lesson from our past; a possibility for our future…
I am reading for a second time the book by Jacques Barzun, “From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life.” I am scarcely qualified to describe the depth and breadth of this volume – some background of the book and author will have to suffice:
Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.
This book does not represent a passing fancy, but a summary of a lifetime’s work; Barzun was over 90 years old when it was published in 2000.
Over seven decades, Barzun wrote and edited more than forty books touching on an unusually broad range of subjects, including science and medicine, psychiatry from Robert Burton through William James to modern methods, and art, and classical music; he was one of the all-time authorities on Hector Berlioz.
At 84 years of age, he began writing his swan song, to which he devoted the better part of the 1990s. The resulting book of more than 800 pages, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, reveals a vast erudition and brilliance undimmed by advanced age. Historians, literary critics, and popular reviewers all lauded From Dawn to Decadence as a sweeping and powerful survey of modern Western history…
I can only add: almost every sentence in the book bears witness to the depth of one who has studied a subject for seventy years.
As mentioned, I am reading the book now for the second time – the first time being several years ago. I feel much better prepared to at least somewhat understand minor portions of the topics about which Barzun writes. I will likely write a few posts based on the book, and otherwise use some cites from the book here and there in my writing.
But first, I – like Barzun – will take a detour. Despite the title and time range Barzun offers (he begins his story with Martin Luther), he devotes a few pages of the book to the Middle Ages, a period of history upon which I have written a good deal. He indicates that history is not as neatly divided or defined as the labels we place upon times and places – Europe did not turn a distinct chapter at the moment Luther tacked his complaints on the church door. Additionally, he offers that the popular perception of the Middle Ages is faulty; much of what is attributed to the modern age has its roots in this so-called dark period.
Certainly you have noticed that the title of this post has it backwards – this is not the title of Barzun’s master work, you shout. You are correct. And with the background work out of the way, I will get to the point.
Recently, LRC ran an article: “15 Interesting Women of Ancient Rome.” Just about every woman mentioned had a story of political intrigue, sexual promiscuity (both an understatement and redundant when it comes to politics), backstabbing (literally…and redundant again), and /or duplicity (yes, redundant again). For example:
The account of Messalina competing with a prostitute to see who could have sex with the most people in one night was first recorded by Pliny the Elder. Pliny says that, with 25 partners, Messalina won.
Hortensius then made the unusual request that he allow Porcia just live with him until she produced a son. Cato divorced his wife Marcia and let Hortensius marry her instead, which was a strange solution since Cato by all accounts loved his wife.
Rome was not only about sex and politics and political backstabbing – it was also about empire, military conquest, inflation, bread, circuses, tyranny, and slavery. Decadent is certainly one word to describe the culture that was Rome. I have not written much on the fall of Rome – the story is fairly well known; however, I offer one post comparing it to the current travails and decadence of the Anglo-empire (which hardly needs to be expanded upon, I believe; if otherwise, refer to the first sentence of this paragraph for a reasonable description).
I contrast decadent Rome with my understanding of the Middle Ages that followed the fall of Rome – a wonderful dawning of Merovingian anarchy; a period characterized by the ethic of the sacred oath. It is from the decadence of Rome to the dawn of the decentralized Middle Ages to which I refer in my title – and, perhaps, a foreshadowing of the transition that may occur in the next several decades (or century or two) of our future?
What was this “dawn” that followed Rome’s decadence and fall? What were some of the characteristics in the era of “do-nothing” kings (doesn’t that sound delightful?) that differed from the time of decadent Rome? Summarizing from my post “Liberal Society Hidden in the Dark Ages”: the Middle Ages saw the virtual elimination of slavery (yes, there was serfdom, but to be a serf was most certainly not the same as being a slave); in many ways, women had opportunities equal to those available to men; religious tolerance was practiced.; the king was below the law; the law was not a weapon to be held over the people, but a check to be held over the king.
From Barzun, and corresponding to my earlier reading, regarding the stereotypical view of feudalism:
In its place, one should put the idea of loyalty between man and man, the strong feeling backed by an oath that bound a vassal to his lord for military service and other aid.
The oath was sacred – based on a moral code necessary to undergird and hold together a society. The oath cut both ways – even a serf could bring cause if the noble did not keep up his end of the bargain.
By offering this interlude into the Middle Ages in his sweeping review of the last 500 years, perhaps Barzun is providing some clues toward our future – toward the one that I tend to believe is possible and even likely as the current centralizing forces finalize their slow yet inevitable (and painful) descent into both moral and financial bankruptcy.
The truth is that during the 1,000 years before 1500 a new civilization grew from beginnings that were uncommonly difficult….showing the world two renaissances before the one that has monopolized the name.
The stereotype of the time is one of war and disease – true only in the last 100 years or so of the period, and involving (in regards to war) the two (by then) centralized kingdoms of England and France – not the still decentralized Germans. The truth is of a culture that developed literary, scientific, and technological advancements in many cases far beyond anything available in Rome.
…the Germanic invaders brought a type of custom law that some later thinkers have credited with the idea of individual freedom.…no rule was held valid if not approved by those it affected.
Individual freedom in the barbarity of Europe after Rome – no wonder this isn’t taught in school. I have written before about every individual vested with veto power during this so-called Dark Age. Perchance to dream!
Anglo-Saxon law…defined crime literally as breaking the peace.
Nothing more. The legislative authority in a centralizing bureaucracy was destroyed with the fall of Rome – oh, that history might rhyme! (I would even accept haiku.)
Not bad for a backward people. We should be so blessed to see the dawn of such an age after the inevitable fall of today’s version of a decadent Rome.