Reader’s Corner: Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

Last week, the academic and writer Jacques Barzun passed away at the age of 104. Born in France, he came to the United States in between the world wars and found a perch at Columbia University in New York, from where he was able to survey and critique his adopted country with the dispassionate eye that so few of the native-born ever manage.

His most popular work, From Dawn to Decadence, an imposing-looking but compulsively readable work, was nothing less than a review of the past 500 years of Western civilization. He published that when he was a mere 92 years old.

Although Barzun’s sometimes baleful beliefs about the decline in Western culture were echoed by some conservatives, he didn’t have much truck with the right-wing suspicion of a non-specialized and nonutilitarian education. From the New York Times obituary:

Mr. Barzun may have been most influential in his arguing for a form of Romantic liberalism in American education. He believed that the mission of the university should have nothing to do with professional training or political advocacy. The university, he wrote, should not be a “public utility”; rather it should be a “city of the mind” devoted to the intellectual currents of Western civilization.

That being said, Barzun also had little patience for the politicking and insulated views of his fellow academics. In his 1959 book The House of Intellect, he opined that:

 The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish are one another’s works.

One of the better appraisals of Barzun’s life and work—whose reputation suffered in intellectual circles as it was written for a popular, if still learned, audience, instead of fellow intellectuals—as well as our dangerous lack of broad-interest intellectuals, comes from Joseph Epstein:

[Barzun’s death] is a reminder that a great model of the life of the mind has departed the planet. Not many such models left, if any.