History Thoughts: Re-reading Burckhardt

Jacburc2It’s funny how books you bought for class ten years ago suddenly become useful again. Or the random clearance book you bought on a whim suddenly contains a key reading for your class.

I had to purchase Jacob Burckhardt’s Reflections on History for “Theologies and Philosophies of History,” HI451 as I recall, at Rice some years back. It was a Friday afternoon seminar, the first and last time that I ever made the mistake of taking a class in that particular time block. Especially inconvenient on the last days of classes, when in time-honored fashion everyone started drinking at some ungodly hour in the a.m., and I had to decline anything more than a sip of “orange juice” because I had a presentation that afternoon.

The class was taught by one of those characters you don’t find much anymore, a chap who would have been an “Oxford don” except he was the American, Yale Divinity School version–balding, rumpled jacket, tie that his dog had chewed on, spectacles, and very affected, semi-British way of talking. During first-day introductions, he asked how I pronounced my name: “Is it ‘Frank’, ‘FrankEE’, ‘Fronke’…?”  Rather like Longshanks in Braveheart, but with an intellectual menace, rather than a physical one. “Frank,” I replied. “Ah,” came the response, “the Lippstadt-Westphalian variant.” Or some such, but that conveys the essence of the response.

I also remember he avoided the Hegel lesson for as long as possible, even punting it a week, because he disliked Hegel that much. And when the inevitable came, he proceeded to read, without much interruption, an endless stream of yellowed, type-written pages: his unchanged Hegel lecture from a century ago. I believe it was at the end of that session that I said, “Well, this was fun, but now I’m going to listen to the Beach Boys.” Which earned me the eternal contempt of the Theology masters student in the class.  No matter, it was a beautiful afternoon and my portable CD-player was fully charged.

One thing which Professor S said, that has always stuck with me, was that all theories of history have been disproved, so pick one that you like and stick with it, flaws and all. A rather depressed, perhaps (neo-)Burckhardtian view, I think. As I cracked open Reflections this evening, my eyes found these passages from chapter 1 that will withstand some meditation:

We shall, further, make no attempt at system, nor lay any claim to ‘historical principles.’ On the contrary, we shall confine ourselves to observation, taking transverse sections of history in as many directions as possible. Above all, we have nothing to do with the philosophy of history.

The philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms, for history coordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.


As regards the characteristics of the philosophy of history current hitherto, it followed in the wake of history, taking longitudinal directions. It proceeded chronologically.

In this way it sought to elicit a general scheme of world development, generally in a highly optimistic sense.


The danger which lies in wait for all chronologically arranged philosophies of history is that they must, at best, degenerate into histories of civilizations (in which improper sense the term philosophy of history may be allowed to stand); otherwise, thought claiming to pursue a world plan, they are colored by preconceived ideas which the philosophers have imbibed since their infancy.


For that matter, every method is open to criticism, and none is universally valid. Every individual approaches this huge theme of contemplation in his own way, which may be his spiritual way through life: he may then shape his method as that way leads him.

Our task, therefore, being a modest one inasmuch as our train of thought lays no claim to system, we can (fortunately for us!) be thrifty. Not only may and must we leave out of account all hypothetical primitive conditions, all discussions of origins; we must also confine ourselves to the active races, and among these, to the peoples whose history yields us pictures of civilization which are sufficiently and indisputably distinct. […]

The study of any other branch of knowledge may begin with origins, but not that of history. After all, our historical pictures are, for the most part, pure constructions, as we shall see more particularly when we come to speak of the state. Indeed, they are mere reflections of ourselves. There is little value in conclusions drawn from people to people or from race to race. The origins we imagine we can demonstrate are in any case quite late stages. […]

What strikes me particularly throughout this introductory chapter is how Burckhardt seems, to this 21st-century reader, to inhabit the Rankean, positivist world of 1870 (around when he delivered the initial lectures), the world of the 1960s, when E. H. Carr pronounced with ridiculous certainty that one does not study the losers of history, and the world of 1994 and beyond, with the resigned but, in mid-nineteenth century, rather post-modern pronouncement that the past is “for the most part, pure [construction].” The key insight, though, is why history resists philosophy. Or, to take J.B.’s thought one step further, theory at all. One has theories about things, it can’t be helped, but human beings are complicated creatures. Put a million of them together, and they find ways of confounding even the smartest social scientists. I think this is why we historians are often considered to be somewhat less theoretically adventurous than our friends in English, Anthropology, or the dreaded “Cultural Studies” salons. History resists order.

The conclusion of chapter 1 delivers two more major pronouncements. “The essence of history is change,” he says. The trick, of course, is not to slip into the Whiggish error of assuming that change is synonymous with the advance of liberty, a very Hegelian view at heart. Naturally, from our vantage point today we can see that that is exactly what he does, and with typical 19th-century confidence in his own impartiality to boot. Burckhardt goes on to define epochal change in a way that is at once Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,  the latest research on the Black Death and social networks, H. S. Chamberlain’s Social Darwinism.

IN nature, annihilation only comes about by the action of external causes, catastrophes of nature or climate, the overrunning of weaker species by bolder, of nobler by baser. In history, the way of annihilation is invariably prepared by inward degeneration, by decrease of life. Only then can a shock from outside put an end to the whole.

Oh dear. What a load of hogwash; it’s writing like this that fuels Matt Gabriele’s calls for “guerilla warfare” against nineteenth-century scholarship. On the other hand, buried in there is the kernel of truth that social historians have learned, that for all our talk of change, true epochal change usually comes from a shock external to our communities–the Columbian Exchange, the Black Death, World War I. Drop the Social Darwinist hokum, and you have rather profound insight into social networks, well ahead of its time.

Anyway, I look forward to chatting with this volume again.