Monday, June 27, 2005 +

Contemplating History

Jacob Burckhardt’s Reflections on History consists of notes from several lectures Burckhardt delivered in Basel around 1870. After Burckhardt’s death, his nephew Jacob Oeri prepared the notes for publication under the title Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen. An English translation of Werner Kägi’s 1941 edition, with a long introduction by James Hastings Nichols, was published in 1943 as Force and Freedom. The translation was republished, with a shorter introduction by Gottfried Dietze, as Reflections on History (Indianapolis, LibertyClassics, 1979). In the following excerpts, the page numbers refer to the LibertyClassics edition.

P. 36: Since mind, like matter, is mutable and the changes of time bear away ceaselessly the forms which are the vesture of material as of spiritual life, the task of history as a whole is to show its twin aspects, distinct yet identical, proceeding from the fact that, first, the spiritual, in whatever domain it is perceived, has a historical aspect under which it appears to change, as the contingent, as a passing moment which forms part of a vast whole beyond our power to divine, and that, second, every event has a spiritual aspect by which it partakes of immortality.

P. 43: In the realm of mind we must simply strive for the higher, the highest we can attain.

P. 43: The truest study of our national history will be that which considers our own country in parallels and in relation to world history and its laws, as a part of a great whole, illumined by the same heavenly bodies as have shown upon other times and other peoples, threatened with the same pitfalls and one day to be engulfed in the same eternal night and perpetuated in the same great universal tradition.

P. 87: Every time heresy appears, it is a sign that the dominant religion no longer quite fulfills the metaphysical need from which it sprang.

P. 104: The arrogant belief in the moral superiority of the present . . . has only fully developed of late years; it makes no exceptions, even in favor of classical antiquity. The secret mental reservation is that money-making is today easier and safer than ever. Were that menaced, the exaltation it engenders would collapse.

P. 126: The greatest technical and artistic geniuses were powerless to make any change in the utterly uncouth royal fortresses of Nineveh. The meanness of their ground plan and the slavishness of their sculptures were law for centuries.

P. 190: Heresies . . . at times . . . harbored the best minds and spirits of their age.

P. 216: It is part of the wretchedness of life on earth that even the individual beliives that he can only attain a full consciousness of his own value if he compares himself with others and, in certain circumstances, actually makes others feel it.

P. 220: The only lesson to be drawn from an evil deed successfully perpetrated by the stronger party is not to set a higher value on earthly life than it deserves.

P. 225: Castes . . . such as the priesthood [before the Reformation] and the old French nobility [before the French Revolution] are absolutely incorrigible even when a large number of their members clearly see the abyss. For the moment, it is more unpleasant to join forces with men of like mind and be doomed to certain destruction than to have the feeling that a cataclysm may come. And quite apart from any such calculation of probability, conditions may already be so far gone that castes can no longer hope to reform themselves. There may already be an overwhelming likelihood that other elements from outside will make themselves masters of the movement once it has been set going.

P. 248: All spiritual growth takes places by leaps and bounds, both in the individual and . . . in the community. The crisis is to be regarded as a new nexus of growth.

P. 280: To give tangible form to that which is inward, to represent it in such a way that we see it as the outward image of inward things, as a revelation—that is a most rare power. To re-create the external in external form—that is in the power of many. But the other awakens in the beholder or listener the conviction that the creator of this work could do this, but no other, and so that he is indispensible.

P. 288: Greatness in the true sense of the word, however, is only attributed [among architects] to Erwin von Steinbach and Michelangelo. Immediately after them we might name Brunelleschi and Bramante. . . .

P. 289: Mozart and Beethoven may become as incomprehensible to future humanity as Greek music, so highly praised by its contemporaries, would be to us. They will then remain great on faith, by virtue of the expressions of delight we have uttered, not unlike the painters of antiquity whose works have been lost.

Pp. 289–290: When the man of culture sits down to the banquet of the art and poetry of past times, he will not be able, or wish, to resist the lovely illusion that these men were happy when they created their great works. Yet all they did was to rescue the ideals of their time at the cost of great sacrifice, and wage in their daily life the battle we all fight. It is only to us that their creations look like youth rescued and perpetuated.

P. 298: The fate of peoples and states, the trends of whole civilizations, may depend on the power of one exceptional individual to endure cerain acute stresses at certain times.

P. 299: Power has never yet improved a man.

P. 315: Great men are necessary to our life in order that the movement of history may periodically wrest itself free from antiquated forms of life and empty argument. And for the thinking man, reviewing the whole course of history hitherto, one of the few certain premises of a higher spiritual happiness is an open mind for all greatness.

P. 323: [After the Reformation] Catholicism again became a religion, which it had almost ceased to be.

Pp. 327–328: Every individual—we too—exists not for his own sake, but for the sake of all the past and all the future. In face of this great, grave whole, the claims of peoples, times and individuals to happiness and well-being, lasting or fleeting, are of very subordinate importance, for since the life of humanity is one whole, it is only to our frail powers of perception that its fluctuations in time or place are a rise and fall, fortune and misfortune.

P. 334: We must always be on guard against taking our historical perspectives for the decrees of history.

P. 339: Imperceptibly we have passed from the question of good and evil fortune to that of the survival of the human spirit, which in the end presents itself to us as the life of one human being.

See also Burckhardt on Greatness and Jacob Burckhardt on the Greeks.