Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. Garden City, New York:

 

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. Garden City, New York:
Doubleday Anchor, 1958. (Originally, Little, Brown, 1941)

This is a wonderful book. Barzun, a Columbia historian, develops this thesis: the three cited in
the title personify the mechanical materialism of their age as well as the ideology which caused
this century so much grief. Essentially, these three symbolize the notion that moral values are
illusions in our world of facts and that human will is helpless against the ineluctable laws of
nature. These three men participated in the development of a world view which has had dire
consequences for our age.

Barzun expands upon his thesis by dramatically portraying the central year of the development of
mechanical materialism as 1859, the year in which Darwin published The Origin, Marx brought
out Political Economy, and Wagner produced Tristan. Germane to this bibliography, all three
were reluctant to credit their sources. Indeed, in the cases of Marx and Wagner, they insisted that
they owed nothing to anyone, that their contributions were the result of their genius. Darwin was
a bit more modest but he was also reluctant to admit his indebtedness to his grandfather Erasmus
or to Lamarck; it was only late in life, after he had achieved great fame, that he admitted to have
had sources for his ideas. The three focused on ideas which were, as it were, already in the air.
The time was ripe for the notion of evolution, for the growth of class warfare (struggle), and for
the form of the musical drama and its nationalism. To put the matter simply, the three men took
up the ideas which surrounded them and formed them in new ways, using new metaphors. They
did not make "original" contributions.

Concerning their works: "When their systems are examined they appear, usually, almost
incredibly incoherent, both in thought and in form. Of the many books which Darwin, Marx, and
Wagner have left us not one is a masterpiece... Imperfectly aware of their intellectual antecedents
and impatient of exact expression, they jumbled together a bewildering collection of truths and
errors and platitudes. They borrowed and pilfered without stint or shame, when the body of each
man's work stands as a sort of Scripture, quotable for almost all purposes on an infinity of
subjects." (p. 324)