Jacques Martin Barzun

Jacques Martin Barzun (30 November 1907–25 October 2012)

Today is the 114th anniversary of the birth of Jacques Martin Barzun (30 November 1907–25 October 2012), who was born on this date in 1907.

Happy Birthday Jacques!

Barzun is remembered as an historian, and especially as an historian of culture and ideas. His massive book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000) was published when Barzun was 93. In the Prologue to From Dawn to Decadence Barzun lays out the thesis that the work defends:

“By tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought during the last 500 years, I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere. As already remarked, it has been a unity combined with enormous diversity. Borrowing widely from other lands, thriving on dissent and originality, the West has been the mongrel civilization par excellence. But in spite of patchwork and conflict it has pursued characteristic purposes — that is its unity — and now these purposes, carried out to their utmost possibility, are bringing about its demise. This ending is shown by the deadlocks of our time: for and against nationalism, for and against individualism, for and against the high arts, for and against strict morals and religious belief.”

Barzun’s book that is most concerned with history as a discipline was his Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History, and History (1974), which is a criticism of psycho-history (the mid-twentieth century fad for interpreting history in psychoanalytic terms) and scientific history (which Barzun calls “quanto-history”), and constitutes a defense of traditionalism in history.

“In history, similar terms correctly applied can yet deceive. Even when they seem to denote a firm identity — slavery is slavery the world over, isn’t it? any slave is his master’s chattel, surely? — the reality does not conform to the verbal abstraction. Slavery in the United States differed in almost all important respects from its nominal counterpart in the early Roman Empire, and both still more from slavery in the Ottoman Empire, where the nearly 100,000 slaves were the Establishment, the elite, the rulers, the army. The sultan himself was son of a slave, not by accident but by constitutional law. This unique system of recruiting the state’s religious enemies and training them under duress to govern the state worked for almost half a millennium, in defiance of ‘human nature’ and of the psycho- and quanto-historical minds.” (Clio and the Doctors, pp. 36–37)

One can wholeheartedly agree with Barzun’s critique of the careless use of abstractions, and still feel that he misses the mark in his criticism of scientific history (as does Isaiah Berlin, as I see it). Going after the “counting and measuring” of the “quanto-historian” Barzun writes:

“Counting and measurement not only disregard the dissimilar; they also tempt to a mental side-slip: when the subject-matter is elusive, go after something close to it — or thought to be close.” (Clio and the Doctors, p. 37)

Again, I wholeheartedly agree with this, but the fact that an historian makes an unwarranted conflation does not condemn the whole school of historians to which he belongs. To hold that this is the case is itself a conflation.

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