Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: The Limits of Civilization and Barbarism - Judgments on History and Historians
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3.: The Limits of Civilization and Barbarism - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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The Limits of Civilization and Barbarism
We can no more begin our presentation of history with the earliest state formations than with the transition from barbarism to civilization. Here, also, the concepts are much too vague.
At what point, with what discovery, what accumulation of material comforts, does civilization begin? With the solar year? The alphabet? The loom? The chemical analysis of metals? Or with what else? And where does “barbarism” end? This is especially difficult in view of the ambiguous quality of the word in German where it is used in an intellectual and a moral sense. To some the Greeks are barbarians because they kept slaves and annihilated their political opponents. The Romans are considered barbarians if only because of their sacrifice of human lives in the circuses and amphitheaters. The Middle Ages again are barbaric for other reasons, because of religious persecution and the eradication of dissenters. In the final analysis, the use or non-use of this word becomes a matter of temperament. I consider it barbarism to keep birds in cages.
First one ought to eliminate those elements which have lived on from the infant days of mankind in petrified form in the most advanced civilization, perhaps for sacral or political reasons, such as individual human sacrifice. Then it might be asked whether such primitive peoples would not find some things in our civilization barbarism, i.e., running counter to their ethics.
And now we come to the real distinguishing feature which essentially separates barbarism from culture; the only reason it cannot serve us as a guiding rod or for the determination of the beginning is that the documentary evidence is inadequate. It is the question: Where does mere living in the present, such as the savage does, cease, and where does life in the past and the present, i.e., differentiating comparison, begin? When does the mere present, devoid of history, end?
A valuable possession of a people is its first heroic epic. In addition to daily life there at least exists an ideal past, such as Tacitus reports in his De Germania: “Celebrant carminibus antiquis (quod unum apud illos memoriae et annalium genus est) Tuistonem deum terra editum et filium Mannum, originem gentis conditoresque.” [In their ancient songs—the only means they have of remembering historical events—they celebrate Tuisto, a god born of the earth, and his son Mannus as the origin and founders of their race.] This is the way a people with a great future acts.
To be sure, side by side with a very beautiful tribal legend like that of the Scythians utter barbarism can still live on and be preponderant, permanently drowning out the upright and noble features. It can do this in various ways: through excessive savagery (the annual communion of those who have killed enemies; the sauromatic virgins); through servitude to symbols, religious fears instilled early, and narrow views of the beyond (the killing of the court servants and an entire equitatio [funeral procession on horseback] at a king’s grave); or through the impossibility of urban life and a sentencing to nomadism (the steppe, until people may move away from there). Purest barbarism is the behavior toward the soothsayers at the sickbed of a king (the king is ill because someone took a false oath at the royal hearth), and, finally, thralldom to nature magic.
Chronic, late wickedness which may be connected with advanced civilization may finally degenerate into pure barbarism with the decline of the people concerned.
At any rate, historically minded Egypt, with its records and comparisons, early moves into the first rank, as far as we can know anything. Even with an absolutely much lower culture, Egypt would take top place by virtue of its fondness for making written records.