Scholar and writer Jacques Barzun died last week at 104. His was a life of the mind, distinguished by much more than just its unusual length. His contributions to civilization were many. He cannot be replaced.
Barzun was an academic, with a PhD from Columbia, but he never spoke or wrote like one. He was a serious intellectual, but always wrote for a general audience. Sometimes called a cultural historian, his interests were vast. In his dozens of books he wrote lucidly about history and music and poetry and culture and detective fiction and baseball. He even wrote about writing, a simple and direct primer entitled, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers.
I’m sorry to say that of Barzun’s work I’ve only read Rhetoric, and Barzun’s magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, published when Barzun was 93. I can’t remember how many hours it took me to read this nearly 1,000 page treatment of what’s worth knowing about the West and the civilization it created. But it was worth every one of them. I lift it up to TAS readers.
Barzun wasn’t much interested in the daily grub of politics. But it’s probably accurate to call him a cultural conservative. He was particularly cogent on the shortcomings of the modern university and had some pretty jaundiced things to say about student and faculty misbehavior at Columbia in the Sixties. The flaws in our current education system make it almost certain that it will never produce another Jacques Barzun. And this is a great loss to civilization’s friends.