This weekend I read of the passing of Jacques Barzun. It made me more than a little sad. Not because I was his biggest fan or have read all of his books (I’ve read one.) What made me sad was that another great mind and insightful thinker has passed from our world at a time when we can ill afford the loss.
Jacques Barzun was a historian but his interests were broad ranging. Music, art, teaching, the intellectual life, even detective fiction were the subjects of his writing. However, his observations and commentary on Western culture was where, to me in my limited exposure, he truly shone. He strongly believed that ideas greatly influence civilization. Take this example from “Darwin, Marx, Wagner,” which I read several years ago:
The Evolution which triumphed with Darwin, Marx, and Wagner . . . was something that existed by itself. It was an absolute. Behind all changes and all actual things it operated as a cause. Darwinism yielded its basic law, and viewed historically, its name was Progress. All events had physical origins; physical origins were discoverable by science; and the method of science alone could, by revealing the nature of things, make the mechanical sequences of the universe beneficent to man. Fatalism and progress were as closely linked as the Heavenly Twins and like them invincible.
Their victory, however, implied the banishment of all anthropomorphic ideas, and since mind was the most anthropomorphic thing in man, it must be driven from the field, first in the form of God or Teleology, then in the form of consciousness or purpose. These were explained away as illusions; those were condemned as superstition or metaphysics.
There, in eight easily understandable sentences, was Barzun’s analysis of the idea of Darwinism. That he wrote so clearly was another of his talents. He was an intellectual who wrote so that everyone could understand. He was a public intellectual in the best sense of the word.
His magnum opus, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present,” was published when he was 93 years old. Amazing. I hope merely to be breathing by then.
Joseph Epstein shared his memories of Jacques Barzun in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I can do no better than to leave you with his closing sentences:
He lived to 104, and his death scarcely comes as a surprise. Chiefly it is a reminder that a great model of the life of the mind has departed the planet. Not many such models left, if any.