Thursday, July 10, 2014

From Decadence to Dawn

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.


  1. Re: 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.

    A. They weren't "backward". You are biased in favor of material development.

    B. The situations as between the end of the Roman empire and the modern world are hardly analogous except in the fact of decadence. But our society scarcely has the virtues that allowed the Roman empire to be the "materia" for Christendom. And there is this little detail of the fact of a powerfully nascent Christianity as compared to our spiritual vacuum.

    Briefly: it is not possible to compare the modern world to the Roman empire. It's an optical illusion.

    1. a: "backward" was tongue-in-cheek, which should be obvious given the tone of this post as well as the dozen other posts I have written regarding this time period.

      b: I have written often about the necessity of some moral / ethical binding for a society to thrive, even survive. I even write of it in this post.

      c: It is possible to compare the modern world to the Roman Empire; it is less analogous, perhaps, to compare what comes after today's Rome with the Merovingians.

      But, it was not Rome that had the moral code of the Germanic tribes. So, I continue to suggest the story could very well rhyme.

    2. Probably one of the most specious even supercilious bunch of blather I have ever read. You are not intelligent so shut up. Briefly: it is very possible to compare modern dissolution to that of Rome, in fact it is almost exactly the same. Christianity was a small cult kind of like the followers of Honey Boo-Boo until the Roman Emperor decided to make it a state religion. Do some reading and less lecturing, obama.

  2. You are not the first to draw an analogy of the Roman Empire to that of the American and I think the analogy fits quite well. There are just too many similarities for people to dismiss it.

    Of course we are beyond repair now and furthermore there is very little left in our society worth salvaging. Hopefully there is a transition into something a little more libertarian and less authoritarian. We live in interesting times.

    Thanks BM.

  3. If I may:

    The Middle Ages weren't all sunshine and roses, even from a libertarian perspective. (NB: I'm not implying that you think otherwise.) For example, the villein system (i.e. serfdom - landed slavery), while instituted in the last days of the Roman Empire, was not abolished by the Germanic tribes who took over in the West. Apparently it was too convenient for them.

    Another libertarian issue with the Middle Ages is that apparently, when a Germanic tribe conquered a new area, the "king" (i.e. war-leader) was considered to be the owner of this new area. He then leased parts of the land to warriors under his command, bound by oaths of fealty. Likewise, those primary leaseholders could lease parts of "their" lands to secondary leaseholders, and so on. This is the feudal system, or feudalism. However, all of the land in a kingdom was still considered the sovereign property of (i.e. owned by) the king himself. He simply didn't manage most of the land directly, only the royal demesne.

    On a third note, it's interesting how many monarchs were originally elected, but became increasingly hereditary as time went on during the Middle Ages. I think this is a case of the controllers usurping the owners - akin to a CEO usurping ownership of a corporation from its shareholders (and I don't mean by legitimately purchasing their shares).

    1. Agree the time was not heaven on earth, however serfdom was not slavery - and in many respects serfs had more rights than people in the west enjoy today (they were certainly "taxed" less).

      Being tied to the land was not only a curse to the serf, it was also a blessing - he could not be kicked off the land arbitrarily either. The lord was also almost equally "tied" to the land.

      As to leasing land, hereditary kings, etc., the Middle Ages covered 1000 years and a large geographic territory. Practices were not uniform either through time or space.

      But as for offering a relatively libertarian, private-contract legal framework, the period offers much to libertarian thinkers today.

    2. I agree that it offers much to think about - especially in regard to why things are the way they are today. However, tying a person to the land involuntarily is aggression, plain and simple.

      Yes, the Middle Ages covered roughly 1,000 years and a large geographic territory. Nevertheless, there were more elected monarchs in the early Middle Ages than there were in the late Middle Ages. Furthermore, feudalism was certainly widespread during the Middle Ages. Indeed, feudalism is not unique to the Middle Ages at all - it seems to be the norm for surplus-producing, pre-industrial "economies".

    3. On being tied to the land, from my reading, people in medieval Europe had a different view of land and property than we do today.

      As to being involuntary, I will suggest this is not a blanket statement and perhaps not even a majority statement for much of the period. Compared to the available alternatives, being tied to productive farmland was probably not a bad deal - the serfs had access to courts in order to protect this relationship

    4. How do you not consider it to be aggressive for someone to be "tied to the land" (i.e. not allowed to leave without "his" "lord's" permission)?

    5. As mentioned before, no blanket statement serves justice to the period or place. Having said this, the serf swore an oath, as did the lord. The serf gained benefit - he could not be kicked off of the land, a rather valuable asset considering time and place.

      If you haven't already done so, start here:

    6. My understanding of serfdom is that some people were considered serfs from birth. Such a state of affairs was hardly voluntary on the part of those "born into" serfdom. Also, the Roman policy of tying peasants to the land, which gave rise to the villein system (i.e. manorialism, as opposed to feudalism), was not voluntary on the part of the peasants thus tied to the land. That doesn't mean people couldn't become serfs voluntarily - and if they did so, I don't see any problem from the libertarian perspective.

    7. I don't claim the time or institution to be an example of Rothbardian anarchy, I offer two points: 1) the time and institution is misunderstood greatly, and 2) the decentralization of the time is worth considering - even as a libertarian / anarchist.

  4. On the subject of ancient Rome:

    It was my investigations into ancient Roman law that led to my conclusion that the state arose from the (abusive) family. In ancient Roman law, there was a notion called patria potestas. This term means "fatherly power" or "fatherly authority" in English. Operationally, it originally meant that a father was considered to have complete authority over his offspring - including the authority to put his offspring to death. In other words, patria potestas originally meant that fathers were considered to own their offspring. <a href="*/Patria_Potestas.html>Here</a> is a source on <i>patria potestas.</i>

    Now what does the state do, operationally speaking? It exerts ownership rights over everyone within it, via its agents (collectively called "the government"). This gets muddled with a democratic state, because the owners and the owned are considered to be one and the same - i.e. all are the property of all. In practice, of course, things are different, but the principle remains the same. Anyways, it should be no surprise that, in the beginning, and for a long time thereafter, all states were tribal (familial) in character. Relics of this tribal origin persist even to this day.

    Franz Oppenheimer was right - the state was born from conquest. But that conquest was the conquest of children by their parents.

    1. Looks like I messed up the link. This is what I meant to say:

      Here is a source on patria potestas.

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