Historian Jacques Barzun, age 104, RIP
October 26, 2012, 08:07 AM
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Franco-American historian Jacques Barzun has died in San Antonio at 104. He could recall the sound of the Big Bertha cannon shelling Paris, and met as a child many of the cultural luminaries of the pre-Great War age.

In his 2000 bestseller  From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, published when he was 92, Barzun suddenly stopped on p. 654-656 to briefly discuss what he's learned from a lifetime of learning:

"... history cannot be a science; it is the very opposite, in that its interest resides in the particulars."


Still, he goes on to list a dozen "generalities" to show "how scanning the last five centuries in the West impresses on the mind certain types of order." Here are five of them (I'll leave it to you to fill in examples):

- An age (a shorter span within an era) is unified by one or to pressing needs, not by the proposed remedies, which are many and thus divide. 

- A movement in thought or art produces its best work during the uphill fight to oust the enemy; that is, the previous thought or art. Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom. 

- "An Age of —" (fill in: Reason, Faith, Science, Absolutism, Democracy, Anxiety, Communication) is always a misnomer because insufficient, except perhaps "An Age of Troubles," which fits every age in varying degrees. 

- The historian does not isolate causes, which defy sorting out even in the natural world; he describes conditions that he judges relevant, adding occasionally an estimate of their relevant strength. 

- The potent writings that helped to reshape minds and institutions in the West have done so through a formula or two, not always consistent with the text. Partisans and scholars start to read the book with care after it has done its work.