From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Jacques Barzun

Introduced by Peter Conrad

The first illustrated edition of Barzun's synoptic journey through the history of Western thought, from the Reformation to the dawning ‘decadence’ of the 21Ž—st century.

Published price: US$ 180.00 US$ 90.00
Saving: US$ 90.00 (50%)


From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

‘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’
Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence is a unique vision of the past – the culmination of a lifetime of knowledge and experience. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Barzun eloquently guides us through five centuries of Western cause and effect, building the extraordinary ‘cultural web’ that binds our modern world together.

Production Details

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life book
  • Bound in blocked metallic buckram, printed slipcase wrap with portrait paintings by Holly Frean
  • Set in Garamond
  • 1,024 pages in total; frontispiece and 32 pages of colour and black & white plates in each volume
  • 10" × 6¾"

The first illustrated edition

This first illustrated edition features over 60 images that visualise Barzun's ‘web of many strands’, including: a pamphlet outlining the manifesto that spurred on the Peasants’ Revolt; a portrait of a bedraggled and toothless Marie Antoinette awaiting the guillotine; the morning after the First Battle of Passchendaele; and a garish Planet Hollywood in Bloomington, Minneapolis, photographed in 1994. The slipcase displays 49 miniature portraits by artist Holly Frean, some faces well known, others lost to history. From Cromwell to a chimney sweep, it is from this cacophony of voices, and its revolutions, that Barzun builds his vision of the past.

Images from the slipcase, and the slipcase itself, designed by Holly Frean.

A complete critical revaluation of the modern era

When Jacques Barzun began writing From Dawn to Decadence in the early 1990s, he was 84, nearing the end of a long and distinguished career as a historian and educator. It was at this point that he felt inclined and compelled to begin his magnum opus, a reinterpretation of the history of the West that would catalogue ‘in sequence the great achievements and the sorry failures’ of the last five centuries. First published in 2000, this extraordinary work is no linear, neutral account, but rather a complete critical re-evaluation of the modern era. For Barzun there is no determinism in history, just the freewheeling of human thought and events both past and present, looping and sparking off each other to create a monumental pattern, at the end of which he stands looking back. This is the essence of who we are, of ‘Who is we’. And although he laments the ‘decadent’ current age – a natural ‘dropping off ’ – he asserts that we are on the brink of radical change: ‘It is only in the shadows,’ he writes, ‘when some fresh wave, truly original, truly creative, breaks upon the shore, that there will be a rediscovery of the West.’

‘I remain an historian, that is, a storyteller who tries to unfold the intricate plot woven by the actions of men, women, and teenagers (these last must not be forgotten), whose desires are the motive power of history. Material conditions interfere, results are unexpected, and there can be no single outcome’

'The new life must be free of all the old errors and full of new pleasures' Cover of Life magazine, 1926

As signposts, Barzun uses four revolutions – religious, monarchical, liberal and social – spaced approximately 100 years apart, as well as 8 leitmotifs, themes that echo across each age, from our prolonged quest for Emancipation to the soullessness of Analysis and Scientism. Barzun splices his narrative with epigrammatic portraits of cultural figures that have keenly affected their times. These are both heralded and unsung, from Shakespeare to Dorothy L. Sayers, and from Florence Nightingale to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the brilliant but largely forgotten 18th-century polymath. These seeming asides are threaded together with an ingenious system of cross-references between chapters. Barzun is an adept guide: begin with the 18th-century Beaumarchais, author of The Marriage of Figaro – ‘an extraordinary man in an extraordinary age’ – and you will soon find yourself embroiled in the turmoil of French revolutionaries, transported back to the ‘Christian liberty’ of the 1650s and then carried forward to the anarchist protests of the 20th century.

And it is the human aspect that Barzun continually returns to. As Peter Conrad writes in his introduction, our cultural history is only ‘the spectacle of human beings exercising a freedom that changes the world they live in’. However, while history is hung around individuals, it is the combination of collective ideas, actions and chance that has herded Western habits. As Barzun says, these ideas ‘have not sprouted out of the ground like weeds, they are the work of innumerable hands and heads’.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: ‘The modern era begins with a revolution.’ Martin Luther, prime instigator of
the Protestant Reformation, woodcut by Heinrich Göding, 1598. (Age Fotostock); Reverend Dr
Martin Luther King, March on Washington, 1963. (NARA/Rex)

‘How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event – tidal wave from a
ripple – is cause for endless astonishment’

About Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun was born in Créteil, France, in 1907, with a childhood shared between Paris and Grenoble. Due to his father’s membership of the utopian collective Abbaye de Créteil, the family home was filled with the artists and writers of belle époque France, including Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau and Stefan Zweig. After emigrating and attending school in the United States, Barzun began his distinguished academic career at Columbia University, an institution with which he would have a lifelong association.

As well as teaching history and contributing to education theory, Barzun is widely credited with establishing the discipline of cultural studies, in addition to running the university’s renowned Great Books course with literary critic Lionel Trilling. A man of boundless curiosity, his interests encompassed science, psychiatry, language, art, classical music (particularly the works of Hector Berlioz), detective fiction and baseball. He authored over 40 books, and is hailed as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He died in 2012, aged 104.


Please sign in to your account to leave a review for From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.

Review by RikZak on 8th May 2015

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"A gorgeous edition of an insightful and brilliant history of the West, by an academic who knows how to teach and entertain!"

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