A Reviewers Notebook: Reflections on History


When Jacob Burckhardt, the Swiss historian of art and culture, died in 1897, he left a series of classroom lecture notes that he considered unready for book publication. It was only as he was dying that he gave permission to his heirs to bring them out if they saw fit. The notes were originally published in Germany in 1905, but it was not until some forty years later, in the middle of a war against the very totalitarianism that Burckhardt had predicted, that the first English translation was made.

The original American title, as of 1943, was Force and Freedom; Reinhold Niebuhr and others seized upon the book at once for its astoundingly accurate prophecies about the coming of the Goliath State. The odd thing was that Burckhardt, no Hegelian, did not believe in historical determinism. His fluid conception of history could have done wonders to counteract the Marxism and neo-Marxism that have bemused so many of our intellectuals. But his influence has been limited, and his name has been pretty much forgotten.

Now, as part of a program that is seeing many neglected classics restored to contemporary use, the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis has republished Force and Freedom as Reflections on History (Liberty Classics, 7440 North Shadeland, Indianapolis, Indiana 46250, 354 pages, $9.00 cloth; $4.00 paper), with a beautifully comprehensive introduction by Gottfried Dietze. What immediately strikes the reader is that Burckhardt, a man of the nineteenth century, explains the 1980 headlines as no modern commentator has succeeded in doing. Take his discussion of Islam, for example. In the West, he says, state and church have not fused into “one oppressive whole.” But in Islam the fusion took place. “The whole of culture,” he wrote, “was dominated, shaped and colored by it. Islam has only one form of polity, of necessity despotic, the consummation of power, secular, priestly, and theocratic . . . . This aridity, this dreary uniformity of Islam, which is so terribly limited on the religious side, probably did more harm than good to culture, if only because it rendered the peoples affected by it quite incapable of going over to another culture.”

If our editorialists had known about Burckhardt, they would not have been caught so short by the apparition of the Ayatollah Khomeini. And if our policy makers in Washington had absorbed some of Burckhardt’s wisdom, they would never have been deluded into thinking that detente with a totalitarian power could ever come to anything.

Consequences of Intervention: A Subtle Understanding

Burckhardt did not believe in historical “laws.” But if nothing was fated, how could he have been such a good prophet? Only by a subtle understanding of the word “if.” Despotism would result “if” the State were to be permitted to absorb all the activities of men. But such absorption leads to stagnation and decay. History, as Burckhardt observed, is filled with overturns and interruptions. Great men can make a difference, for good or for ill. One whole chapter in Reflections on History is given over to a discussion of luck. It was lucky that the Greeks conquered Persia and the Romans Carthage, unlucky that Athens was defeated by Sparta. It was unlucky that Caesar was murdered before he had time to consolidate the Roman Empire into “an adequate political form.” In the eighth century it was lucky that Europe held Islam at bay. (Query: can we count on luck a second time around?)

Marx defined history as the history of class struggles. Burckhardt said “nonsense” to Marx and to Marx’s master Hegel. In Burckhardt’s estimation, history was a result of the interaction of State, religion, and culture, and could take protean forms. Sometimes culture (as determined by social power) dominated the scene, sometimes it was religion. There could be totalitarianisms that were atheistic; on the other hand, there could be theocracies as despotic as any secular tyranny.

The Criminality of Rulers

Burckhardt regarded force as evil, but he had no illusions about its inevitable exercise. Great men were quite capable of great crimes in consolidating a state, and genius and madness often went together. A justification for the crimes of great men seemed to lie in the fact that by them “an end could be put to the crimes of countless others.” “The greatest example,” said Burckhardt, “is offered by the Roman Empire, inaugurated by the most frightful methods . . . and completed by the subjection of East and West in rivers of blood.” The end result of Roman crimes was the “creation of a common world culture, which also made possible the spread of a world religion, both capable of being transmitted to the Teutonic barbarians of the Volkerwanderung as the future bond of a new Europe.”

But even though good may have come from the evil of Roman methods of conquest, Burckhardt refused to condone violence. The results of violence could be overcome as men strove “to turn mere power into law and order.” But not every destruction entails generation. Sometimes, so Burckhardt observed, “a people which has been too brutally handled will never recover.” Asia, so it appeared to Burckhardt, has been broken by the two periods of Mongol rule.

The Plague of Centralization

Burckhardt’s ideal civilization was one in which culture and religion established unseen but effective boundaries which the State did not dare to pass. His own Switzerland was a case in point. As Gottfried Dietze points out in his introduction, Burckhardt was a product of the aristocratic Swiss city of Basel, which had somehow escaped the leveling and centralizing effects of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests.

Burckhardt admired the Germany of Goethe, a land of small principalities and culture- loving courts. He considered Bismarck an evil genius, and regarded the Franco-Prussian War as the beginning of the end of everything he had admired in the Germany where he had studied under Ranke. Since Germany, under Bismarck, had taken politics as its principle, it would have, so Burckhardt said, to continue on that course. Dietze mentions a letter Burckhardt wrote to a friend during the Franco-Prussian War in which the prediction was made that the learned gentry of Germany would have a rude awakening when they saw the spiritual sterility that would come with Prussian centralization.

The Italy that Burckhardt loved as a student and historian of art was pre-Garibaldi and pre-Cavour. Aider all, the Renaissance took place in small independent principalities and cities, not in a land that made “unification” a virtue. Burckhardt stopped writing for publication when it became apparent that the centralizers were going to win everywhere. He had enjoyed writing about “beautiful things” in his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) and The History of the Renaissance (1867). But after the Franco-Prussian War he became, as Ernst Cassirer said, a “pathologist” of a civilization that he saw on the downgrade. It was because he felt he could no longer cheer his readers that he wanted his reflections on world history to remain unpublished. He wanted his gloomy prog nostications to be limited to a restricted audience. Luckily for us, he relented at the last.


March 1980

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November 2014

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