Like many others, I lamented the passing of the mighty Jacques Barzun, one of the last in a line of scholars still interested in addressing a general public, as he did most memorably in his justly celebrated From Dawn to Decadence. Here's a brief passage that's characteristic of Barzun's style:
The Modern Era begins, characteristically, with a revolution. It is commonly called the Protestant Reformation, but the train of events starting early in the 16C and ending-if indeed it has ended-more than a century later has all the features of a revolution. I take these to be: the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea.
We have got into the habit of calling too many things revolutions. Given a new device or practice that changes our homely habits, we exclaim: "revolutionary!" But revolutions change more than personal habits or a widespread practice. They give culture a new face. Between the great upheaval of the 1500s and the present, only three later ones are of the same order. True, the history books give the name to a dozen or more such violent events, but in these uprisings it was only the violence that was great. They were but local aftershocks of one or other of the four main quakes: the 16C religious revolution; the 17C monarchical revolution; the liberal, individualist "French" revolution that straddles the 18th and 19th; and the 20C "Russian," social and collectivist.
The quotation marks around French and Russian are meant to show that those names are only conventional. The whole western world was brooding over the Idea of each before it exploded into war, and the usual dates 1789 and 1917 mark only the trigger incidents. It took decades for the four to work out their first intention and side effects-and their ruling ideas have not ceased to act.
You can read a longer portion of this excerpt here.