From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Barzun, Jacques

HarperCollins, 2000

pp. 3 - 20, esp. 7 - 8

The Protestant Reformation was actually a revolution (the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea”), and it is equal to or surpassed by only three others in magnitude: the 17th century monarchial revolution, the late 18th century French liberal and individualist revolution, and the 20th century Russian social and collectivist. Luther hadn’t wanted to divide his church, but only to start a debate in the typical fashion. But people copied his theses, and he soon “had the uneasy surprise of getting them back from South Germany printed. Gutenberg’s movable type was 40 years old. It was a key. “Pamphlets could now be produced quickly, accurately, in quantity, and, compared to manuscript copies, cheaply. Could also be illustrated, to attract the illiterate, who would have literate friends read them the text. And the revolutionary idea was popularized through the use of mass media–a key. Barzun offers a virtuoso description, pp. 7-8, of how a revolution starts–with a relatively small thing that is, however, uniquely apt. The atmosphere charges up. Somebody nails some theses or shouts in church or shatters a window, and somebody harangues a crowd, urging it to stay calm! People get aroused, including youths out for fun who don’t want to go to school that day. Cranks too. Breakage. Shouts of “Listen to this!” And all else–esp. high art–seems for the time irrelevant because there is this one thing: the revolutionary Idea. Families divide. Parties form. Charges are hurled, including inside the movement. Causes: a host of corruptions, including bishoprics bought for boys of twelve whose families were looking out for his future. The system was rotten and a lot of people, including a lot of priests knew it was rotten. But “the old hulk was immovable.” When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent . . . A decadent culture offers opportunity chiefly to the satirist, and the turn of the 15th century had a good many, one of them a great one: Erasmus. Luther was for PRIMITIVISM, because he thought that accretions had buried the original purpose of the church, and his cry for the freedom of the Christian man is the first cry in the West for EMANCIPATION.