Jacob Burckhardt's View Of History And Historiography

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"The lessons Burckhardt learned from the events of 1844–1845 in Switzerland and the 1848 Revolutions throughout Europe did not turn him into a radical pessimist. He no longer believed, as Droysen and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in their different ways both did, in a single movement of history toward freedom. He had simply ceased to believe in any underlying direction of history at all. If there was one, only the Divinity knew what it was. From a human perspective, history was constant change: it was by no means impossible, for instance, that the age of mass culture and mass politics would be followed by a new aristocratic age. The task of the individual was not therefore to try to second-guess a putative divine plan of history and then work to promote it. It was, first, by internalizing the literature, art, and experience of past humanity, to cultivate his own humanity and thus preserve in himself what had already been achieved; and second, to protect the cultural achievement of humanity as vigorously as possible, whatever the historical circumstances and the apparent "movement of history"—against these, in fact, if necessary—so that what had been achieved would not be squandered or destroyed but would continue to be available to succeeding generations. Each individual had to write his own historical role, in other words, in accordance with his or her moral and cultural values, not to fit a supposedly prescribed role. Similarly, both past and present actions and societies were to be judged in accordance with those same values, not measured and justified according to their contribution to some alleged "progress" of history.

Burckhardt's understanding and practice of historiography corresponds to this view of history. The aim of the historian, as he understood it, was not to promote ephemeral political ends, or to make his auditors—in his own case, the students and citizens of Basel—"shrewder (for next time)" but to make them "wiser (for all time)." The goal he set himself as a scholar-teacher was Bildung (which means the process of educating or forming a human being as well as the humane content with which that human being is informed), not Wissenschaft (positive or "objective" knowledge of external events and phenomena). Thus he turned away from the current practice of historiography as the establishing of facts and the narrating of events. Instead he devoted all his attention either to cultural history—the history of the ways in which human beings have organized their lives and made sense of their experiences—or to the history of art, one of the chief media, along with myth and literature, through which men and women have expressed their views of the world.

Through his teaching and writing on the history of art and on the history of culture (he taught art history at Basel in addition to his regular teaching of history, and in 1886 became the first occupant of a newly founded Chair of Art History at the university, a position he retained after he retired from the Chair of History and did not relinquish until 1893, four years before his death), Burckhardt hoped to develop in his audiences both the capacity for contemplative delight in the individual manifestations of human creativity and the habit of reflecting critically on the changing spectacle of human cultures, of weighing up the good and the bad, the losses and the gains, and of attending to the processes by which one culture is transformed into another, as during those periods of crisis or major transition that he especially liked to teach and write about (the Hellenistic age, the age of Constantine, the Renaissance). Contemplative delight (Anschauung, Genuss) was not, for him, a matter of pleasurable consumption. As well as a consolation in hard times, it was an essential transforming and humanizing activity. Similarly, coming to an understanding of historical processes was not a means of acquiring practical political skills for the here and now; on the contrary, it provided a degree of independence from history, an "Archimedean point"—similar to the city-state of Basel itself—from which the great pageant could be observed sine ira et studio (without bitterness or bias).

Burckhardt's position has been criticized — understandably — as an aestheticizing of history. But he was by no means indifferent to politics. He was keenly aware that political conditions, like religious beliefs, might be more or less favorable to that development of human culture that was the highest value he knew; he was also convinced that the goals of the three Potenzen (powers, energies) he had identified as the primary moving forces in history—the State, Religion, and Culture—were not by any means always in harmony. Though culture, for instance, which was material as well as mental and included economic activity as well as the arts, was dependent on the security provided by the state, its development might in certain cases undermine the state and thus the very condition of its own existence; equally, however, the state could develop in such a way that it undermined the culture that it was ideally its proper function to protect. Burckhardt's classic Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and many of his other major works are in fact explorations of the relations between the three Potenzen. Living, as he believed he was, in a time of cultural change comparable to the Hellenistic age or the age of Constantine, it was inevitable that he would follow developments in contemporary European politics and society with great, even anxious, attention."