The death of a true intellectual

The death of a true intellectual October 29, 2012

Jacques Barzun died at age 104.  A scholar of breath-taking range, Barzun, a French immigrant, was a cultural historian wrote about literature, history, music, philosophy, religion, education, how to write well, and baseball.  (He is the source of the quotation, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  A champion of the liberal arts, he was a key developer of the “great books” approach to higher education.  He was a critic of Darwinism, existentialism, and other modern and postmodern philosophies.  Though his positions seemed largely in accord with a Christian perspective, he did not profess any personal Christian convictions.  And yet, he was baptized and sometimes attended both Catholic and Protestant churches.  (See this for the question of his religious beliefs.)

From his obituary in the Washington Post:

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104. . . .

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

Dr. Barzun sustained one of the longest and brightest careers in academia, having first risen to prominence as a professor who helped shape Columbia University’s approach to general education. He later was dean of the graduate school, dean of faculties and provost. . . .

Dr. Barzun was a cultural historian, concerned with the interrelationships of intellectual movements over time and how ideas transform a civilization.

In addition to conducting dynamic and wide-ranging seminars at Columbia with literary critic Lionel Trilling, Dr. Barzun wrote dozens of books on intellectual history and several volumes on the state of American education. Other topics he explored included French and German literature; music, language and etymology; crime fiction; suspense writer Edgar Allan Poe as proofreader; and President Abraham Lincoln as prose stylist. . . .

Dr. Barzun received his doctorate in history from Columbia in 1932. Afterward, a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies enabled him to travel abroad and undertake research that led to a book, “Race: A Study in Modern Superstition” (1937).

The book was written at a time when notions of racial superiority were being put to murderous use in Nazi Germany. In subsequent work, Dr. Barzun explored dangerous perversions of Western thought in “Of Human Freedom” (1939), a defense of the democratic spirit and an attack on absolutism, and “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage” (1941, revised in 1958), in which Dr. Barzun charged the three 19th-century “intellectual imperialists” with responsibility for the pseudoscientific, mechanistic system that gave rise to 20th-century communism and fascism. . . .

In essays and a series of books on American education, including “Teacher in America” (1945) and “The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going” (1968), Dr. Barzun presented education as having a mandate to impart “common knowledge and common reference.” He inveighed against “the gangrene of specialism” in college offerings that he thought would cause the “individual mind [to be] doomed to solitude and the individual heart to drying up.” . . .

At Columbia, where he taught 19th- and 20th-century history, Dr. Barzun became a full professor in 1945. He was one of the sponsors of the Colloquium, a two-year course of reading and discussion of the great books. His Columbia seminars with Trilling, conducted from 1946 to 1972 and titled “Historical Bases of English Literature,” were considered essential to forming Dr. Barzun’s reputation as a dynamic and illuminating thinker. . . .

In 1997, Dr. Barzun moved to San Antonio, where he finished the 800-page “From Dawn to Decadence.” His magnum opus divides the past five centuries into four principal eras — a religious era (about 1500 to 1660) that began with the Reformation; a political era (1661 to 1789) that ended with the French Revolution; a Romantic era (1790 to 1920); and the modern era, coming to an end now.

Given the book’s title, some readers suggested that he saw the contemporary period as a new and hopeless Dark Age. Instead, he said, he was a believer in chaos, “a sudden twist in the course of events,” heralding a brighter time. He added, “I have always been — I think any student of history almost inevitably is — a cheerful pessimist.”

via Jacques Barzun, wide-ranging cultural historian, dies at 104 – The Washington Post.

I didn’t realize he served as Columbia’s Provost.  That encourages me that scholarship can survive after a professor also becomes an administrator!  Although I’ve read many of his works, I didn’t know all of this about him.  But he exemplifies what I have always thought that the intellectual and scholarly life should involve–an informed interest in just about everything–and which I’ve tried to follow, however faintly, in my own academic career.  So I now see Jacques Barzun as my role model.  I wonder if I can write a bestseller when I’m 92!

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  • Steve Billingsley

    Barzun was truly an example of “a man of letters”. The breadth and depth of his scholarship is stunning. Rest in peace, Dr. Barzun.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Barzun was truly an example of “a man of letters”. The breadth and depth of his scholarship is stunning. Rest in peace, Dr. Barzun.