Monday, November 19, 2007

Barzun on History (via Nat'l Review)

The November 19, 2007 issue of National Review contains an "Appreciation" of Jacques Barzun by M. D. Aeschliman. Similar pieces have been penned in the New Yorker and New Criterion and all were inspired on the occasion of his 100th birthday. The plaudits are well deserved. Barzun is the sort of public intellectual and polymath that we rarely see nowadays. I was first exposed to Barzun when one of my former professors (a practicing psycho-historian) sent me along a selection of articles on psycho-history, including an excerpt from Barzun's Clio and the Doctors, a skeptical critique of quantitative and other "scientific" methods of doing history. Later, I read much more of Barzun in my historical methods class (his book with Henry Graff, The Modern Researcher, was an assigned text) and have enjoyed his work on historical theory (among other things!) ever since. Here's a bit from the NR piece:
It is Barzun’s contention that history is fundamentally made by individuals, and that all forms of determinism are grievously mistaken and destructive. Human liberty is an absolute datum of consciousness and reality: The human person’s “supreme pleasure and prerogative,” he writes, “is to feel himself at once a moral being and a natural philosopher.” No subjectivist, Barzun is nevertheless a rootand- branch opponent of two dominant modern intellectual extremes and errors: scientific reductionism (“what it reduces is the individual”) and histrionic subjectivism, dominant in the modern arts, a kind of permanent childishness: “We are permissive, not from love of liberty, but because we lack self-control and fear restraint as such,” he wrote 40 years ago. “We praise innocence because we want the license to behave like an infant.” These extremes congeal into intellectual attitudes and institutional forms in the culture and the schools: the scientistic worship of material procedures and objects, and the anarchic exaltation of aesthetic eccentricity and “self-expression” (what C. S. Lewis called “a world of incessant autobiography”).

Though inevitably and consciously a philosophical historian, Barzun is rightly suspicious and critical of all works on “the philosophy of history”—from Marx and Hegel through Spengler and Toynbee—that deny human agency and novelty. “A trend is variable and may be reversed,” he wrote in 1964, “as history, which is the graveyard of trends and the birthplace of counter-trends, amply shows.” Communism is dead, though its Western historical trumpet E. J. Hobsbawm is still alive and sounding. There is no monocausality and no determinism in history:
The “relentless” modern “drive to de-anthropomorphize,” to “unman” the human person, Barzun writes, must be shown to be not only logically false but emotionally demoralizing and politically harmful.

In addition to his timely 1941 critique of Marxism—at the high point of Western intellectual sympathy for and collaboration with Communism—Barzun’s lifelong hostility to the implicit, incessant, invalid philosophizing of Darwin and the Darwinians (increasingly explicit and vocal today) isone of his most courageous and illuminating achievements as an intellectual historian and civic moralist. In the 1870s the German Darwinist biologist Haeckel wrote to Darwin to congratulate and praise him for having “shown man his true place in nature . . . thereby overthrowing the anthropocentric fable.” Barzun’s teacher Hayes, Barzun himself, his student Fritz Stern, and Richard Weikart in his recent From Darwin to Hitler have shown in detail how historically and morally disastrous this transgressive philosophical dehumanization was for the Western mind. Barzun quotes a 20th-century “positivistic” French jurist as writing: “Responsibility, which is the foundation of the penal code, eludes scientific analysis and is thus a source of error and confusion.” Like Dostoevsky and C. S. Lewis, Barzun repeatedly argues that “learned foolishness” is the most dangerous folly of all, especially when clothed with the authoritative mantle of high science as in “the behavioral idea that mind and purpose are illusions.”

Barzun’s rationality is never reductive or arbitrary: “Life, which spurs desire and fills the mind, is wider than science or art or philosophy or all together. Mind encloses science, not the other way around.” Yet the radical voluntarists and irrationalists—whether historians or artists—are also mistaken: We are conditioned rational beings with implicit obligations to civilization as an ideal and partial reality. Among early modern thinkers, Barzun particularly admires Erasmus and Swift in this regard. In “Swift, or Man’s Capacity for Reason,” he wrote in the somber year 1946: “The axioms of social reason have a long history in Western culture, and Swift met them again and again in his favorite authors . . . Herodotus, Lucian, St. Augustine, Dante, Rabelais, and Montaigne.”

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