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 under Leopold 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.
While visiting Italy, Burckhardt was inspired by its art, and, like another Gibbon, resolved to tell the story behind the monuments left behind by a forgotten era. He made his reputation with the two books that followed: The Age of Constantine (1853), and The Civilization of Renaissance Italy (1860), which studied the transition into, and out of, the Middle Ages, respectively. These won him a professorship in Basel, where he spent most of his life. He taught much, but wrote little, afterward. Offered Ranke’s old chair at the University of Berlin in 1874—then the very pinnacle of the historical profession—he turned it down. “In Basel,” he said, “I can say what I like.”
High culture was so important for Burckhardt because he believed it expressed, whether in a painting, a story, or a piece of music, the entire worldview of the artist, and more importantly, of the people who valued his art. Even though they might not be able to articulate their own thoughts and feelings so beautifully, they showed, by admiring and preserving it, that it spoke to them, and for them. But it was just because the Renaissance saw the birth of the individual that such art became possible. Medieval man, Burckhardt argued, thought of himself entirely in terms of society—his religion, his locality, his king, his order (i.e., aristocrat, clergy, or serf). The sum of these affiliations was the person. Dante, Petrarch, and Mirandola taught him to see in himself a unique and irreplaceable individual, who therefore had something unique and irreplaceable to express to his fellow men—something that had to be said before death foreclosed the possibility of speech forever.
This realization was not without its price, for it was not simply artists and authors, but also mercenaries, demagogues, and tyrants who felt the need for creative self-expression. They too had their art, and their plan to cheat death—the art of power, which they hoped would win them the immortality of fame. So the age of Michelangelo, Vasari, and Botticelli was also the age of Machiavelli, who instructed the world in the dark arts of power, of Cesare Borgia, who raped his sister, murdered his brother, and gleefully slaughtered civilians during every campaign, and of Julius II, who, though a pope, thought nothing of leading his armies in person, or of blessing the cannon before every battle. “How many,” Machiavelli wrote, “who could not gain distinction by praiseworthy acts, strove for it through disgraceful acts!”
According to Burckhardt, this is the essence of the modern state—a thoroughly amoral, power-obsessed monstrosity, only too ready to destroy the individual, and itself, simply because there is nothing to stop it. Certainly “the people” are not going to stop it, for they know everything, and, knowing everything, know nothing. It is only too easy for demagogues to get power over them by flattering their prejudices, and experience shows they will submit to practically anything that is packaged cleverly enough. Never particularly enthusiastic about liberalism, he became deeply hostile after the Franco-Prussian war (1871)—for Bismarck, that modern Machiavelli, used the war to transform a temporary alliance between petty German statelets into the German Empire. For Burckhardt, its democratic politics, militarist foreign policy, and materialist philosophy perfectly expressed the brutal stupidity of the modern age, and heralded even worse things to come. He was sure that Germany would see the rise of a new kind of state, ruled by a “terrible simplifier,” and which knew no law but power.
Burckhardt’s views stood in direct opposition not only to those of Ranke, but also to the new positivist history of Karl Marx, which stressed the importance of economics and sought to reduce all history to a formula. He also rejected liberal history, which saw in the past nothing but the slow, steady march of reason through progress to the present. This was, for Burckhardt, simply history written by the winners, which ruthlessly and falsely silenced the voices of the vanquished. Needless to say, the historian of art championed the rights of history as art, and of the historian to rule, rather than to be ruled by, “mere facts.”
He was in many ways a reactionary who was out of step with his times, but it was just because of his isolation that he was immune to its worst vices. Blood and iron militarism, xenophobia, vulgar materialism, social Darwinism, and the mania for “scientific” socialism all passed him by, while he delivered prophetic but unheeded warnings about the slow, grim slide of democracy into tyranny. His influence is still felt in history and in political conservatism, but it remains most powerful in philosophy, where it was carried forward by his most brilliant student, Friedrich Nietzsche.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.