Jacques Barzun: Words and Acts

I first wrote to Jacques Barzun, through his publisher, soon after the appearance of his book A Stroll With William James.

That book expressed an unabashed admiration for its titular subject, and that admiration echoed my own – but, of course, it was expressed so much better, so much more wisely, than I could have managed.

I was trying to run a one-man law office when I read Stroll. The law office wasn’t something for which I was suited – I was a tolerably good lawyer, but a lousy office manager or entrepreneur – and as my business foundered I found escape in scholarly/philosophical studies. My discovery of Barzun was a part of that escape, and we were soon corresponding regularly.

When, in 1988, I was able to publish a work of my own on the history of modern philosophy, I placed Barzun’s name prominently on the acknowledgements page, as was only right.

But my greatest debt to Barzun was yet to be incurred. Because 1988-89 saw the final collapse of my law office. I was completely insolvent by the end of 1989, and for several years thereafter. I went from one temporary job to another through much of the 1990s, never really finding my feet.

During this period, too, notwithstanding material difficulties, I was pursuing my scholarly interests. Through the first half of the 1990s I was working on a book that I came to call, in imitation of Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Supreme Court. The book was inspired, if that’s the right word, first by the Bork hearings and later by the rather more disgraceful spectacle of the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill hearings.

In the course of writing this book, my correspondence with Barzun became a lifeline, and he willingly incurred the role of rescue ship. He critiqued the book chapter by chapter. I keep all those letters in a treasured file, I assure you.

We had a fascinating exchange when we reached the portion of my book in which I discussed so-called “symbolic speech,” the theory that ripping up a draft card or burning a flag or some such activity is speech-like enough to warrant first amendment protection. Without delving into the merits of that theory now, I’d like to quote from you a bit of what Jacques wrote to me at the time, in a letter of August 16, 1990:

In short, words are to me the essence of speech and I find it a stupid and dangerous addition when the court interprets flag burning or vandalizing paper records as protected modes of “speech.” As I said [in an earlier letter], any step beyond articulate utterance leaves no barrier to expression in the form of violence. Indeed, burning and pouring filth on documents is a first step into violence.

Even walking on a flag, though less violent an act than is the burning of it, is, he added a bit later, plainly intended to cause insult and offense:

and the question therefore is whether insults of this generic kind, which state no proposition, advance no program, are to be protected as valuable contributions to political debate.

This, I think, is typical of the marvelous and unique co-presence of passion, clarity, and analysis one finds in all great writing, and in an astonishing number of Jacques’ writings.

Christopher Faille, a reporter for a financial-news service, is the author of These Last Four Centuries: A Romp Through Intellectual History (1988), The Decline and Fall of the Supreme Court: Living Out the Nightmares of the Federalists (1995), and with David E. O’Connor, Basic Economic Principles: A Guide for Students (2000). He writes the blogs Proxy Partisans and Pragmatism Refreshed.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial