Burckhardt, Jakob (1818–1897)

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The Swiss cultural historian Jakob Burckhardt was born in Basel, the son of a Protestant minister. He began his university education as a theology student, but lost his faith in orthodox Christianity comparatively early and turned instead to history. He spent part of his formative years in liberal and freethinking circles in Germany; it was in Germany, too, that he discovered and worked under Leopold von Ranke, probably the most potent and lasting influence upon his future career as a historian. On his return to Switzerland in the 1840s, Burckhardt was at first attracted to the political and religious dissensions that he found there. The violence to which they subsequently led, however, was repulsive to his temperament; and he retired to Italy, having, in his own words, "given up political activity forever." Some time later he finally settled in Basel, dedicating himself, as professor of history and history of art, to the routine of teaching and lecturing that was to occupy him continuously up to the last years of his life.

Burckhardt's chief writings were all published before he was fifty: The Age of Constantine the Great (1852), Cicerone (1855), The Renaissance in Italy (1860), and The History of the Renaissance (1867). In addition to these major works, he also gave a number of lectures between 1868 and 1871 on the general study of history, the notes for which were preserved and eventually published posthumously under the title of Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Reflections on world history). These are remarkable, not only for the prophetic insight they display in their analysis of contemporary trends, but also for the many subtle and individual observations they contain concerning the purposes of historiography and the theoretical problems it poses. They were attended by Friedrich Nietzsche, who at the time was professor of classics at Basel and whose later essay, The Use and Abuse of History, bears the impress of some of Burckhardt's ideas.

Burckhardt did not regard his lectures as representing a contribution to "philosophy of history" in the then current sense. Indeed, he made it clear at the outset that he was profoundly suspicious of fashionable schemes and systems that attempted to exhibit the course of historical development as conforming to a rationally ordered pattern, and referred with special scorn to the Hegelian conception of history as the "inevitable march of the world spirit." For him such projects were the manifestation of a crude and vulgar "optimism"; they sprang from the arrogant and egotistical assumption that "our time is the consummation of all time" and tended to "justify" the crimes and disasters of previous ages as necessary to the promotion of what came afterward. Burckhardt thought that the role of moral judgment in history could not be spirited away in this complacent manner; but neither, on the other hand, should the historian allow his view of the past to be distorted by moral predilections peculiar to his own time and society. What was above all requisite for true historical understanding was a contemplative, disinterested sense of the abiding and tragic aspects of human existence. Only through such detachment from prevailing concerns and preoccupations could the historian transcend the barriers that separate the mental life of one age from that of another.

Burckhardt admired Arthur Schopenhauer, and he tended to extend to the historian a position in some ways similar to that which the German philosopher had reserved for the artist. It was not merely that works of art and culture provided the historian with his most fertile material for the interpretation of previous phases of human experience; history itself was (or should be) a form of art. The mechanical piling up of the results of specialized research, dear to so-called scientific historians, was not enough; there must also be "intuition," an imaginative ability to re-create the vision of life underlying the relics left by former times. To see the past in these terms was to see it as the expression of the inexhaustible creative power of the human mindgreat individuals, great artistic achievements, great moments of civilization, all exemplified in different ways its potentialities. Scholarship, painstaking investigation, were indeed essential, but they must be properly used and directed. Only thus could a particular source or authority throw light on the character of a person, the significance of a style, the pervasive atmosphere of a period.

Ultimately, Burckhardt claimed, the subject of historical study was man himself, not the hypostatized abstractions of the philosophers of history. These philosophers, by implying that the historical process followed a fixed and predetermined course, betrayed a fundamental blindness to its most striking feature, the revelation of individual originality and creativity. Likewise, their "astrological impatience" to set limits to its future by talk of world plans and metaphysical goals was not only unwarranted; it failed to respect the very conditions of uncertainty and suspense that make human achievement possible. From this point of view, and insofar as the development of humankind is concerned, "a future known in advance is an absurdity."

Toward the close of the nineteenth century the tide of historical speculation began to recede. Philosophers, rather than continuing to offer sweeping interpretations of the human past, turned their attention toward examining the distinctive characteristics of historical thought and inquiry. In retrospect, Burckhardt can be seen to occupy an interesting position in this development. Though not a philosopher himself, he nonetheless anticipated in his own reflections on historical procedure some of the ideas that later found philosophical expression in the writings of Wilhelm Dilthey and Benedetto Croce.

See also Croce, Benedetto; Dilthey, Wilhelm; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Renaissance; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


works by burckhardt

Die Zeit Constantins des Grossens. Basel, 1852. Translated by Moses Hadas as The Age of Constantine the Great. New York: Pantheon, 1949.

Der Cicerone. Basel, 1855. Translated by Mrs. A. H. Clough as Cicerone, rev. ed. London: J. Murray, 1879.

Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien. Basel: Schweighauser, 1860. Translated by S. G. C. Middlemore from 15th German ed. as The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 2nd ed. London, 1890.

Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien. Stuttgart, 1867.

Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen. Edited by J. Deri, 2nd ed. Berlin, 1910. Translated by J. H. Nichols as Force and Freedom: Reflections on History. New York: Pantheon, 1943.

Gesammelte Werke, 7 vols. Basel, 1957.

works on burckhardt

Duerr, E. Freiheit und Macht bei Jacob Burckhardt. Basel: Helbing and Lichtenhahn, 1918.

Heller, E. "Burckhardt and Nietzsche." In The Disinherited Mind. Cambridge, U.K.: Bowes and Bowes, 1952, Ch. 3.

Joel, K. Jacob Burckhardt als Geschichtsphilosoph. Basel, 1910.

Martin, A. W. O. von. Burckhardt und Nietzsche philosophieren über Geschichte. Krefeld, 1948.

Meinecke, F. "Ranke and Burckhardt." In German History: Some New German Views, edited by Hans Kohn. London: Allen and Unwin, 1954.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. "The Faustian Historian: Jacob Burckhardt," in Men and Events. New York: Harper, 1957, Ch. 40.

Patrick Gardiner (1967)

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Burckhardt, Jakob (1818–1897)

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