Judgments on History and Historians

Article excerpt

Judgments on History and Historians by Jacob Burckhardt, translated by Harry Zohn Liberty Fund 1999 . 290 + xxvii pages * $17.00 cloth; $9.00 paperback

Reviewed by William D. Curl

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. …