Judgments on History and Historians
Burckhardt Was a Scholar of Remarkable Erudition
JULY 01, 2000 by DONALD BOUDREAUX
Historians and laymen alike will find immediate topical value in this compilation of notes and manuscript fragments from lectures presented by Jacob Burckhardt at Basel University, 1865-1885. A severe critic of his own time and staunchly countercultural by today’s prevailing ideologies, Burckhardt differentiated himself in two major areas: his approach to history, which considered every major era of man’s development as having equal significance, and his nearly prescient belief in the dire consequences of the idealization and increasing powers of the state.
Burckhardt’s perspective of history deviates greatly from most historians in that he argued against viewing mankind’s existence as a progressive continuum contributing to modernity. Rather, he perceived each epoch as being significant because of its unique set of intrinsic values, intellectual and/or artistic achievements, cultural ethos, and spiritual insights, which contribute to the aggregate of humankind.
Judgments on History and Historians is divided into five sections: antiquity; the Middle Ages; the period from 1450 to 1598; the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and perhaps most significantly, the Age of Revolution. Burckhardt viewed the study of history in general and the ancient world in particular as having great value. Antiquity’s specific significance was its bequeathal of our concept of the state and its creations in form and writing. It was also the birthplace of our religions. He maintained that “the contemplation of historical ages is one of the noblest undertakings. It is the story of the life and suffering of mankind viewed as a whole.” He also felt that “Barbarians and modern American men of culture live without consciousness of history.” The study of history was not a trivial pastime but a source of identity: “we feel ourselves the true descendants of the latter [peoples of antiquity] because their soul has passed over into us; their work, their mission, and their destiny live on in us.”
If antiquity was the birth of mankind, the Middle Ages was its youth. “Whatever to us is worth living for has its roots there.” This section is divided into 20 divergent topics ranging from “Christianity as a Martyr Religion” to “Islam and Its Effects” and the “Iconoclastic Controversy.” These topics are not always treated with sympathy but always with insight. Typical of this is Burckhardt’s evaluation of Islam’s spiritual father: “Through the sensuous delineation of a future life, Mohammed gives his own measure.”
Throughout this compilation Burckhardt refers to man’s spirit and emphasizes freedom of the self. In Renan’s Marcus Aurelius, Burckhardt finds “The highest goal of mankind is the liberty of the individual.” And, “A man must belong only to himself.” These are the basic ideas that become “the new faith of mankind.”
It is in the final section on the Age of Revolution that Burckhardt is perhaps most interesting and accessible. In addition to the separation of church and state, the theoretical conviction of the harmfulness of any state interference, and other consequences, he specifies equality before the law as one of the enduring results of the revolution. Burckhardt cogently perceives these reformations as part of a broader, subtler shift in our concept of the state. He rightly dismisses Hegel’s concept of the state as the realization of morality on earth, but concentrates on the more central issue of “the new concept of the extent of the state’s power.”
Judgments on History and Historians complements Burckhardt’s work on historiography, published originally as Force and Freedom, reprinted by this same publisher as Reflections on History. Unlike later historicists and empirical economists who attempted to gain stature for their disciplines by mimicking the methods of the natural sciences, Burckhardt avoided the mistake of applying scientific methodology to history: “Of all scholarly disciplines history is the most unscientific, because it possesses or can possess least of all an assured, approved method of selection; that is, critical research has a very definite method, but the presentation of it has not. It is on every occasion the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another.” He elaborated: “Every historian will have a special selection, a different criterion for what is worth communicating, according to his nationality, subjectivity, training, and period.” The original title of Force and Freedom revealed not only his position in regard to historical research, but also placed him within the tradition of European Liberalism. Once called “the most civilized historian,” Burckhardt was a scholar of remarkable erudition whose perspective of history and its significance to mankind is even more meaningful today than during his lifetime. 
William D. Curl is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.