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The Culture We Deserve
by jacques barzun
university press of new england, 185 pages, $19.95

“I have got materials toward a treatise,” Jonathan Swift wrote to Alexander Pope in September 1725, “proving the falsity of that definition of animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax.” The “treatise,” published a year later, was Gulliver’s Travels, and if any book ever showed that man was not by nature a rational animal, but only capable of reason—that he or she only becomes rational through will, effort, and discipline—it is this one. Both book and writer are congenial to Jacques Barzun, who has in fact written an introduction to an edition of Gulliver and often quotes Swift. For almost sixty years (his first book was published in 1932), Barzun has steadily and eloquently encouraged sweet reason, trying to aid in the conversion of readers and students from the raw material of rationis capax to the finished person who would be a rational animal in the sense of the phrase that Swift intended. 

To this end, like Swift and Matthew Arnold before him, Barzun has felt it necessary to be an iconoclast, but not at all in the way that our anarchic culture typically applauds. For in his attempt to defend a basically Aristotelian or classical rationality, Barzun has repeatedly attacked the two greatest sacred cows of modern culture, aestheticism and scientism. An admirer of Chesterton, he often seems to be making that witty sage’s point that the difficulty that ensues when people cease to believe in God is not that they then believe in nothing, but that they believe in anything. Thus, in the 1981 Preface to his 1941 classic Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, he writes that “the religious cult of art still dominates the modern spirit,” and elsewhere he describes the other target of that book as “the tradition of scientism.” Now it is not uncommon to see attacks on one or the other of these modern idolatries, but it is a very brave or foolhardy person who will take on both of them. 

And from his being a fool, if there is a more learned or civilized rationalist who has written over the last fifty years, it would be difficult to imagine who he might be. Yet Barzun’s “rationalism” is never reductive or antireligious; like Swift and Arnold, and like his more modern models William James and A. N. Whitehead, there is a lot of piety in Barzun, and a judicious openness to the varieties of religious experience. A good example is found in his generous estimate of the Salvation Army, of

what General Booth’s movement had done for the uneducated, pauperized, and drink-sodden masses which social Darwinism had complacently allowed to find their place under the heels of fitter men. Then it was seen that neither the fatalism of biological evolution nor the fatalism of “scientific” socialism could withstand a vigorous assault by people who believed in the power of the human will and had the wits to combine religion, social work, army discipline, and rousing tunes.

Like Darwin’s old teacher and later critic Adam Sedgwick, whom he quotes with approval, Barzun has always defended the “moral and metaphysical part of man” against scientistic reductionists for whom “objectivity” and “objectness” are indistinguishable. But he is no kinder to the deification of art. In light of the Mapplethorpe affair and the subsequent outraged demands of artists for carte blanche public tax subsidy without “censorship,” no book provides a better antidote to the antinomian nihilism of the modern artist than Barzun’s 1973 Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery, The Use and Abuse of Art. In The Culture We Deserve, the essays “The Insoluble Problem: Supporting Art” and “A Surfeit of Fine Art” are worthy successors to the Mellon Lectures.

Yet no one could call Barzun a Philistine or Know Nothing. He is, in fact, an urbane and greatly accomplished mandarin. Like Lionel Trilling, his close friend and colleague at Columbia, Barzun is concerned for the health and wellbeing of our culture. He has had the courage to attack extravagant claims made for both science and art while at the same time serving for several years as distinguished provost of a major “arts and sciences” university.

His concern for the res publica of our culture and our country shows that for all his urbanity, the French immigrant Barzun is actually an American patriot. For Barzun would have us value not only the classical sources of Western Civilization, but also our American contribution to and extension of it. This deep but not uncritical love of our country and culture at their best is apparent in Barzun’s 1959 book God’s Country and Mine (subtitled “A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words”), his lovely essay on “Lincoln as Writer,” his efforts on behalf of John Jay Chapman, his loyalty and service to his own university, his services to the Council on Basic Education, and his 1983 book on William James. In the course of the present book, Barzun directs our attention to a number of neglected great Americans, including George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), a man comparable to Jefferson in the range of his interests and accomplishments.

Yet the same Barzun has written a standard book on Hector Berlioz; has translated Diderot, Beaumarchais, Musset, and Flaubert; is the author of a rhetoric, a standard book on scholarly research, and volumes of literary and music criticism. His essays in the most recent Encyclopedia Britannica cover, among other topics, Poe, “European Culture Since 1800,” and “The Point and Pleasure of Reading History.” In all these efforts one encounters the same eloquent, nonreductive, rational humanist at work, extending and applying as much as he can the rich resources of a great civilization.

In the essays of The Culture We Deserve, as in Barzun’s other works, vast learning is lightly but eloquently deployed in defense of a normative understanding of human freedom and rationality, of the soul and of the mind. If Barzun is depressed at the continuing potency and prominence of both “the antinomian passion which is the deepest drive of the age” and of transgressive scientism, be nevertheless takes them on unremittingly with the tools of reason and rhetoric that he has boned so well. We have no better specimen in our time of that rare creature, the rational animal.

M. D. Aeschliman is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Virginia and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.

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