Modernity: from dawn to decadence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I saw this book going cheap in a bookshop that sold remainders — unsold copies of books returned to the publishers. I knew Jacques Barzun as one of the authors of The Modern Researcher, which I had helpful in writing my doctoral thesis. So I bought it, and I’m glad I did.
It’s a kind of history and tourist’s guide to modernity. It’s taken me a long time to read it, because it’s a long book. I read other stuff in the mean time, and when I was halfway through I forgot about it for a while. I was moved to pick it up again after an internet discussion on science, magic and miracles, and now at last I’ve finished it.
It covers a tremensous range of Western culture, and in this age of globalisation you could say it’s global culture as well. A generation ago, back in the 1970s, the BBC did two TV series that produced books on similar topics — Kenneth Clark on Civilisation and J. Bronowski on The ascent of man dealing with arts and science respectively. I still remember how uncomfortable I felt at seeing “civilisation” spelt thus. It needed to be spelt “civilization”, and “civilisation” just looked wrong, and somehow uncivilized, though I’ve got used to it now.
Barzun’s book deals with the last 500 years of both, and deals with culture, religion, politics and science, and how they have influenced the modern worldview. In doing so, he also draws attention to things one tends to forget or overlook. In thinking of modernity, I tend to think of the Reneaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment as the shaping forces. Perhaps that’s because, as a missiologist, I see those as the things that formed the worldview of Western missionaries who came to Africa, and that can lead to an over-simplification. I tend to overlook Romanticism, as a reaction against the Enlightenment. I don’t forget it altogether, of course. I enjoy Beethoven’s music, and J.M.W. Turner’s paintings. But most of the 19th-century Western missionaries who came to Africa were anything but romantic in their outlook. Or if they were, they managed to hide it pretty well.
It’s a long book, and that’s why it took me a long time to read it, but it’s also divided into short sections that make it easy to refer to a little at a time. So having read it through, I think I’ll keep it at my bedside to refer to again and again.
Here are a few of my favourite bits, and there are many in a book this long:
The 18C, that is, Diderot on Painting, Lessing on the Laokoon, and finally Winckelmann on Greece, made detailed art criticism an institution. Its role is part scholarship, part advocacy. Winckelmann’s lifelong work was to glorify Greek art and discredit the Roman and thus to revivify Plato’s belief that Beauty is divine and to be loved and worshipped. It may be a symbolic coincidence that Winckelmann was the victim of a homosexual murderer.
Every age has a different ancient Greece. Winckelmann’s is the one that moved the 19C. By way of Goethe, Byron, Keats and lord Elgin, it inspired the universal urge to put a picture of the Parthenon in every schoolroom. It also aroused the Occident to support the Greeks’ war of independence against the Turks.
And, of course, that helped to shape modern Greece as well. It was the Occidental supporters of Greek independence (like Byron), with their Romantic notions of the glories of ancient Greeks, that led modern Greeks to think of themselves as Hellenes rather than Romans, and to produce such abominable slogans as “Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism”, and led to the inclusion of Byron in a Greek books of “Saints’ names”.