Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Jakob Burckhardt: Civilization, Art, and Power Politics

"I know too much of history to expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will be the end of history." –Jacob Burckhardt

Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) is the historian who, more than any other, is responsible for the concept of the Renaissance as a distinct historical epoch. Other historians had written about fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, to be sure, but Burckhardt was the first to see the period as a unit, characterized not by the “rebirth” of antiquity, as Petrarch thought, but by the invention of something entirely new—modernity, which meant the birth of the individual and of the modern bureaucratic state.

He was born into one of the oldest and proudest families of Basel, which, with a few other families, ruled the city as a closed oligarchy until they were forced to grant a liberal constitution in 1847. This background led him, as it did many other aristocratic historians, to emphasize the role of the extraordinary individual in history, and to warn against the amorality and vulgarity of the newly enthroned “masses.” He studied underLeopold von Ranke as a young man, but his thought diverged sharply from his mentor’s. Where for Ranke the history that mattered was political history, for Burckhardt real history was the history of civilization, of high culture—compared to which politics was simply a monotonous record of crime and folly. Similarly, where for Ranke factual accuracy was everything, Burckhardt would have never dreamed of leaving out a revealing anecdote simply because it may not have actually happened. What mattered was to communicate the vital spark, the spirit of the age. And, where Ranke tried to treat the past systematically and exhaustively, Burckhardt never pretended to offer more than a general impression.


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

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