Guidelines for Interpreting History

In From Dawn to Decadence (654-56), Jacques Barzun discusses the nature of historical writing. History suffers an identity crisis: “Not a science and not a philosophy, history is bereft in an age like ours, which wants at least theory when science is not attainable.” What does history do, then? “It shows patterns that recur with a difference, dramas in which one follows exposition, complication, and denouement, while continuity in aims suggests THEMES. In all these ways knowledge of man is enhanced. History moreover includes energetics lives, no two alike, that show creatures as characters.”

After contending against approaches to history that rely heavily on single causes, all-embracing theories, and simplistic “laws,” Barzun gives some fruitful reflections gleaned from his work interpreting the modern era:

An age (a shorter span within an era) is unified by one or two 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.

All historical labels are nicknames—Puritan, Gothic, Rationalist, Romantic, Symbolist, Expressionist, Modernist—and therefore falsify. But “renaming more accurately” would be effort wasted. Coming from diverse minds, it would re-introduce confusion. All names given by history must be accepted and opened up, not defined in one sentence or divided into subspecies.

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 relative strength.

Neither of these propositions is true by itself: “Ideas are the product of society.” “Social change is the product of ideas.”

The denial just stated applies also to heredity and environment; great men and the masses of mankind; economic forces and conscious purpose; and any other pair of commonly invoked coordinate factors. The exact course of their respective action cannot be understood and consequently cannot be stated.

A class is not a homogeneous group of people marching in step but a sort of labeled platform populated by a continuous stream of individuals coming from above and below. Once settled, they acquire the common traits.

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.

In art, influence does take place and when strongest is least literal. When it is literal it must be called plagiarism and the fact should not be concealed by the eminence of the thief.

In biography, systematic explanation by unconscious motives defeats the purpose of portraying an individual character. It turns him or her into a case, which then belongs to one of the types in the literature of psychology.

Progress does occur form point to point along a given line for a given time. It does not occur along the whole cultural front, though it may appear to by throwing into shadow the resistant portion. The sciences are no exception.

Published in: on December 27, 2010 at 10:44 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating to see which of Barzun’s thoughts others find most quotable. I’ve begun rediscovering some myself:

    Wishing you all the best with your studies.


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