Article by: Steven D. Smith

41 PEPP. L. REV. 983 (2014)

On the verge of the new millennium, the eminent historian Jacques Barzun, possibly the most learned person then alive, observed that as the twentieth century was winding down “[a] wider and deeper scrutiny is needed to see that in the West the culture of the last 500 years is ending at the same time.” “[T]he culture,” Barzun lamented, “is old and unraveling.” Over the last centuries, the West “has offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.” In developing these “ideas and institutions,” however, the West “has pursued characteristic purposes . . . and now these purposes . . . are bringing about its demise.” There is, to be sure, much to question in Barzun’s elegy, and to quarrel with—its air of fatalism, for one thing. Arnold Toynbee, another historian of massive erudition and morose disposition, cautioned that history, while exhibiting discernible recurring patterns, is not ultimately deterministic. In addition, it is perilous to try to discern our own place in the broad panorama of history. With our faces pressed against the canvas, how can we see the whole picture? Thus, the annals are replete with people who mistakenly believed they were living on the brink of the apocalypse (and also of people who erroneously expected to see the Millennium—the one where lions eat grass and lie down with lambs—or some secular variant thereof).

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