It is not easy to know what to make of the late, great Jacques Barzun. He wrote too many books over his long life--forty books, one hundred and five years--for more than a handful of people to fully immerse themselves in his oeuvre. At best, we can hope to sample but a few of his more influential works.
His opus, From Dawn to Decadence is brilliant, nay--what else?--magisterial. To understand Barzun, one may as well start here, but one is still beset with difficulties. For to plumb the depths of five centuries of cultural history as Barzun did, one would need to possess the mind of a Barzun. Read his book, by all means, but only a lifetime devoted to careful study of the topics on which he writes will allow one to competently pronounce judgment on the work as a whole.
I stumbled upon a key to interpreting and appreciating the great man in A Jacques Barzun Reader, a wonderful collection of his writings assembled by Michael Murray. In his essay on Diderot, Barzun writes:
The group of geniuses I have in mind [William James, Walter Bagehot... Diderot] are figures known, at least by name, to all who discuss ideas and their history... Their distinction lies in the perennial disquiet they inspire. Their praise is mixed with doubts. Most significant, perhaps, the reason for valuing their work are many and conflicting. In a word, the men and their achievements resist classification. (p. 203)
It is that last phrase which applies above all to Barzun. In our age, we classify thinkers politically first and foremost. Such and such is a conservative, is a liberal, is a neo-conservative, a socialist, a libertarian. What were Barzun's politics? I've read over one thousand pages of the man's works and I cannot tell. No doubt, he can be used as a cudgel with which to beat the political opposition, but that is a testament to our sophistry, not an indictment of his views.
It would be silly to insist that this is the proof of his greatness; buffoons can likewise appear politically indifferent. But it is a clue. In these times of tired political paralysis, in which we cast truth aside to root for our team, there is much wisdom in withdrawal. There is more, yet, in a man like Barzun, who devoted his time and energy to culture, which informs and is therefore more lasting and important, than practical politics.