French-American author and historian Jacques Barzun’s non-fiction book From Dawn to Decadence
: 1500 to the Present – 500 Years of Western Cultural Life
(2000) is an expansive survey of key events, people, and works of art that helped define the course of history and culture, particularly in the United States and Europe. The Guardian
describes the book as "a history of ideas, not a historical narrative; it is an interpretation, not a description, of what happened."
To frame his book, Barzun identifies four important "revolutions" of the Western world over the past 500 years. The first was the Protestant Reformation, a challenge to the religious and political supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church that began in 1517 when Martin Luther made his Ninety-five Theses
public. The second was the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 until 1651, resulting in a significant reduction in the power of the English monarchy compared to the country's Parliamentary bodies. The third was the French Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and replaced it with a republic, though the conflict eventually ended with the establishment of a military dictatorship by Napoleon Bonaparte. Finally, there was the Russian Revolution of 1917, which ended the tsarist rule, replacing it with the leftist Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin.
Rather than detail the historical timelines of these events, Barzun seeks to capture the broader shifts in culture by focusing on particular artists, thinkers, and politicians who lived during these revolutions, some of whom are less widely known than others. For example, when discussing the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century, Barzun devotes less attention to Martin Luther and more to relatively obscure thinkers such as Juan Luis Vives. Born in Spain in 1493, Vives became a prominent scholar and a staple at the royal court of Henry VIII, who largely spearheaded the English Reformation due to the Catholic Church's refusal to grant him a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragorn. Amid this atmosphere of social upheaval, Vives became a pioneer in a number of fields of thought, particularly psychology and medicine. In his writings on memory, Vives became one of the earliest thinkers to formulate a theory concerning the unconscious mind and how memories can live buried in our unconscious for years before suddenly revealing themselves in the wake of some sensory perception. This insight, among others, has caused many to refer to Vives as the father of modern psychology. Meanwhile, as the power of the Catholic Church waned, Vives made important arguments concerning the role of the state in alleviating poverty, rather than relying solely on religious institutions to provide charity.
Meanwhile, the English Civil War was nominally a dispute between the monarchy of Charles I and his Parliament, but it, too, was highly religious in nature, much like the English Reformation. Charles's marriage to a Roman Catholic, his efforts to make the Church of England more like Catholicism, and his persecution of Protestant Puritans, were all guiding factors behind Parliament's dissatisfaction with its king. Fittingly, Barzun devotes a great deal of his writing on this era to Oliver Cromwell, the Parliamentarian who played a key role in defeating the Royalists, resulting in Charles's execution and Cromwell's ascent as Lord Protector of England. While Cromwell's motivations were largely religious in nature, his victory over the monarchy can be viewed in historical terms as a precursor to the more politically motivated revolutions that would happen in France and Russia. In fact, Leon Trotsky, an important Bolshevik leader during the Russian Revolution, viewed Cromwell as one of the great anti-aristocratic revolutionaries of his time.
In discussing the French Revolution, Barzun primarily focuses on thinkers whose work influenced the Revolution but who died before its start. These include the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, whose work was highly critical of both the Catholic Church and the French Monarchy. His 1730 play, Brutus
, which focused on the horrors of tyranny, provided the basis for many of the most popular slogans used during the Revolution. Barzun also profiles Denis Diderot, a similarly-minded French Enlightenment philosopher whose twenty-seven-volume Encyclopedie
was a favorite among key figures of the Revolution. In it, Diderot argued that the work of artisans, technicians, and laborers was just as important to society as the work of intellectuals, clerics, and monarchs. By profiling Diderot but not, for example, Karl Marx, Barzun elevates Diderot's ideas as being very important to not only the French revolutionaries but also the Bolsheviks.
Finally, Barzun examines the twentieth century, but it doesn't seem to excite him nearly as much as the previous five centuries. He writes, with deep pessimism, "The impetus born of the Renaissance was exhausted, and the new start made in the years just before 1914 had been cut short. Ridicule, denial, anti-art, and sensory simplicity mean that culture and society are in the decadent phase."