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84.: Introduction to the History of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1598–1763) - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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Introduction to the History of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1598–1763)
(I) [May 4, 1869.] The preceding lectures presented the break with the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times differ in great, essential ways: In the former, there is the endless division of power and the still slight contrast among the nations; in the latter we have concentration of power, the wars of conquest with national development of power at any price, and the crude beginnings of the so-called state system.
In the Middle Ages, moreover, there is a limitation to the European West and to ecclesiastical unity. In the age which succeeded them, the European nations spread over all continents, Catholicism is divided into great ecclesiastical parties whose conflicts threaten to absorb all other conflicts and affinities.
At one time culture was determined by the church and was homogeneous all over Europe, partly because of the church, partly because of the specific spirit of the Middle Ages, and still differentiated by race. But now culture is refashioned out of antiquity and new research into nature, and alongside all ecclesiastical influences it is nevertheless secular in essence, as well as multiform nationally and yet highly individual.
Now there takes place a truly endless crossing and entangling of all these strands. An unprecedented variety of life becomes characteristic, and this is developed further in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The ordinary value judgment of history is in the habit of demanding the immediate and complete victory of one element. It cannot stand variety. Clerics of all denominations, fanatics of all denominations and non-denominations, popular philosophers, dynasts, and radical politicians who in history cannot stand the sight of rival forces and their fights demand one thing, completely and immediately, too, although this would make the world dead and colorless until those concerned killed one another out of sheer boredom or produced a new conflict. For it is an illusion to expect lasting contentment with any victory, something for which man lacks the organ anyway.
Of course, man must in this life want and represent something definite, but must reserve higher judgment.
One thing that we need not wish for but encounter as a reality, whether we rejoice at it or deplore it, is Europe as an old and new focus of multifarious life, a place where the richest formations originate, a home of all contrasts which dissolve into the one unity that here everything intellectual is given voice and expression.
This is European: the self-expression of all forces, in monuments, pictures and words, institutions and parties, down to the individual; the full life of the intellect in all aspects and directions; the striving of the intellect to leave behind knowledge about everything that it experiences, not to surrender mutely to world monarchies and theocracies, as did the East with its monolithic monarchies. From a high and distant vantage point, such as a historian’s ought to be, bells harmonize beautifully, regardless of whether they may be in disharmony when heard from close by: Discordia concors [discord becomes harmony].
The old peoples could have founded in Asia still more great, powerful empires, such as Iran and Assyria, one after the other, but every one of these would have had only one kind of strength, spirit, and tone, like other Oriental empires. They, too, had to exist as the soil of certain civilizations.
An obscure impulse may have driven a few branches of the Indo- Europeans to the West, toward the setting sun, because here there were waiting for them a different soil and a different climate, that of freedom and variety, a craggy world of promontories and islands. For it is European to love not only power and idols and money, but also the spirit. They created the Hellenic, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic civilizations, and did so in constant transformations and conflicts which in the periods concerned were always painful, but ever accompanied by the release of new forces, unlike what happened in Byzantium, quite estimable in itself, where for seven hundred years the same revolution of throne and army kept repeating itself. These civilizations are far superior to the Asiatic ones by their being multiform and by the fact that in them the individual could develop fully and render the greatest service to the whole.
The church created a great new framework for European life. Bound and yet infinitely free and myriad-formed, the Middle Ages and finally the transitional epoch rose into modern times, the fully expressive ones.
History should rejoice at this profusion and leave the mere victor’s desires to those with an ax to grind. It is the function of history not to deplore this struggle of the European West, but to study and present it. From its vantage point, as high and free as possible, it perceives discordia as concors. It should rejoice at all forces of the past, not merely those that happen to be congenial to a contemporary decade, and regard them as riches. Considering the great violence of the struggles at that time and the desire for the destruction of the adversaries, we humane latecomers could not keep absolute sympathy with any side, not even the one we consider ours.
A concealed supreme power here produces epochs, nations, and individuals of endlessly rich life.
The development of the West has the most genuine characteristic of life: out of the struggle of its opposites something really new develops; new contrasts supplant the old; it is not a mere inconsequential, almost identical repetition of military, palace, and dynastic revolutions, as happened for seven hundred years in Byzantium and even longer in Islam. At each struggle people become different and give evidence of it; we have insight into a thousand individual souls and can date the styles of the spirit by decades, while at the same time national, religious, regional, and other elements add countless spiritual nuances. These things in their time were not pleasant and enjoyable, but struggles for life or death.
Only one thing has always appeared to be fatal to Europe: crushing mechanical power, whether it emanated from a conquering barbarian people or from accumulated local instruments of power in the service of a single state (the ambition of Louis XIV) or of a single leveling tendency, be it political, religious, or social, such as the present-day masses. Against such crushing powers Europe will always gather its last strength, and it has always found its deliverers (William III of Orange).
At that time there were no primitive barbarian forces or invading barbarians, with the exception of the Ottomans, and even they had been at a relative standstill since Suleiman II. Modern Russia was still a relatively small state and separated from Europe by a very large Poland. But the Spanish “world monarchy” did seem dangerous. The fight of all the others against it occupies the sixteenth century and part of the seventeenth. Added to the original elements of power of this world monarchy was its alliance with the strongest old faction, the Catholic church; thus it could hope to break through all merely political opposition.
Under Philip II, once he was involved in the quarrels of the entire West, it became a fight between Spain and its dependencies, which for a considerable period included the Roman See, and the entire heretic world, based especially on the thirty years’ powerlessness of France which Philip promoted in every way so that France, too, might fall prey to him.
(At this point a more detailed survey should be added, as an introduction to the history of the seventeenth and eighteenth century and continuing up to the Treaty of Vervins.)
The saviors of Europe were not the greatest enemies of Rome, but the most persistent enemies of Spain: the Dutch, Catholic as well as Protestant England, and Henry IV, despite his conversion. The savior of Europe is, above all, he who saves it from the danger of an imposed politico-religious-social unity and forced leveling which threaten its special character, the varied richness of its spirit. It is a banal objection that the spirit is unconquerable and will always be victorious. Actually, it may depend on the particular degree of strength of one man at one certain moment whether peoples or civilizations are to be lost or not. Great individuals are needed, and they need success. But at moments of crisis Europe frequently did find great individuals.
As the main content of this course of lectures the following might be set forth:
From the beginning of the seventeenth century a growing inflammation from Germany and Austria can be noticed. The greatest individuals, Henry IV and Gustavus Adolphus, fell early, by violent death, at the moment when they saw their greatest ambition within their grasp. Spain, inwardly a corpse, again becomes a world power, just strong enough to interfere everywhere, but not to determine events. In 1612, 1626, and at other times France bows to Spanish policies, and Richelieu who frees the country from this domination is able to do it only through an inhumane regime on the inside, and Mazarin has to fight Spain once more de imperio [for the first position]. Italy, politically dead, lives only through its culture and no longer derives any benefit from the decline of Spain, until then its tyrannical master. Germany collapses in the misery of the Thirty Years’ War. Sweden and France have it at their disposal. To be sure, alongside this there is the highest flowering of Holland, and the English Revolution breaks out. Even though it was only a thinly disguised military revolution, it left the English people very powerful and inwardly in a condition in which no permanent forcible rule was any longer conceivable.
However, once more Spain arises from the grave, and in its most dangerous guise, as a Hispanicized France under Louis XIV. (? The blame for this must no longer be placed on Spain.) The Spanish program is grafted onto a nation which possesses disproportionately more real means and a central location for the gagging of Europe. Once again there arises the danger of a Catholic world monarchy, and the opponents, too, have been infected by “sultanism.” The political repulse is accomplished in part through terrible wars whose physiognomy is almost entirely military, political, financial, and commercial, without the psyche of the peoples being clearly expressed in them.
However, culturally France was victorious. Louis XIV brought it about that in the eighteenth century French becomes tantamount to European; to him France owes her general capacity for contagion.
In the meantime, while the heritage of Spain was being fought for, Sweden, the same great power which had once wanted to form, with part of Germany, a great German-Scandinavian empire, was blown up in the air by a mad hero. Out of and beside the powerlessness of Sweden and Poland there arises Russia, starting with Peter the Great, immediately bent on shaking up and inciting the West and on its own business in the East. And Prussia, the last great power that was emerging with an unspeakable effort from the debris of Germany, after the Seven Years’ War must acknowledge itself as the permanent and inevitable ally of this Russia. Meanwhile England puts Holland in the shade as regards colonial and commercial greatness. Finally, with the aid of France, which had been humiliated in the Seven Years’ War and was thirsting for vengeance, there arose the beginnings of a future great power, North America.
All this is happening as the great crisis of the entire old system of what we consider authoritarian states and religions approaches perceptibly and with strangely increasing clarity—the revolution.
(II) [May 4, 1871.] The following may be said regarding the justification for the course of lectures as regards its scope, apart from its being recognized academically.
Any limitation is really made only out of necessity. There is always something arbitrary in detaching one sequence or view from the stormy sea of world history, beginning with the most remote past and flowing on into the most distant future, and yet even a painter of seascapes proceeds no differently.
But it is still arbitrary and dictated only by necessity to lift out of the great intellectual continuum of all things only one thing, out of all knowledge only one branch of knowledge, and to give it special treatment.
Actually, we ought to live constantly in the intuition of the world as a whole. But this would require a superhuman intelligence that would be above temporal succession and spatial limitation, and yet in constant contemplative communion with it, and, on top of that, in sympathy with it.
And when the starting and finishing points of a course have been established, the most arbitrary limitation has only begun.
To be sure, from presentation to presentation there has evolved a certain consensus of treatment, for large-scale classification, evaluation of data according to their significance or lack of it, but in the main this applies to objective facts only.
Now there arises the question as to the nature and quantity of what is to be imparted, according to what principle the lecturer should include or omit material. There is no uniform standard; in books standards differ greatly, on the platform they are limited. A writer has no necessary limits, but a speaker has.
And this is where arbitrariness inevitably enters into the selection. Of all scholarly disciplines history is the most unscientific, because it possesses or can possess least of all an assured, approved method of selection; that is, critical research has a very definite method, but the presentation of it has not.
It is on every occasion the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another.
Every historian will have a special selection, a different criterion for what is worth communicating, according to his nationality, subjectivity, training, and period.
Nevertheless, the chronological definition of this course has at least a relative justification. The Treaty of Vervins, with which we begin, marks a real intermission for all the chief peoples of Europe, such a suitable one as would not occur in history far and wide. And to conclude before the preliminaries to the French Revolution, perhaps with the Treaty of Hubertusburg, 1763, is imperative if a finish is to be made anywhere.
Starting with the last decades before the French Revolution, events and personalities are of a specifically new kind, even though their origin from what preceded may be quite apparent to us. The classes of men and the number of people that participate in things now become substantially different from what they were previously.
The Peace of Vervins and the time of Henry IV are the intermission between those two great periods of the Counter Reformation which may be named, after their main phenomena, those of the French religious wars and the Thirty Years’ War.
Today all merely political and especially military events of the past are reduced in value by the events of our times. If the quantitative differences among events are great, the qualitative ones are especially so.
At that time there was nothing but cabinet politics and cabinet wars. Now there are operative latent or open national movements and (to be sure, technically perfectly conceived and led) national wars and race wars (and in the end perhaps religious wars again).
About the wars of those times one has the feeling, right or wrong, that the rulers could have waged them or abstained from them. Of present-day wars we suspect that they are undertaken in order to cut off revolutions or to channel them, something that need not always be successful, of course. Hence the slight current interest in, e.g., the wars of Louis XIV, with the possible exception of those moments in which a real popular movement is discernible among his opponents or allies— Holland, and Spain in the War of Succession.
The relative contribution of the generals we cannot judge expertly, and we seldom get the expression of a great political tie-up with the military. Therefore anything military should be given only briefly, in the form of results; of the political elements, not every single intrigue should be noted, but only those in which there is expressed an agitation arising from actual conditions, one which has a connection with the past and the future.
It will thus be our main task here to bring world history as close to intellectual history as is possible; there is an abundance of means for this. Viewed superficially, the history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries deals only with power relationships, but the intellect is present as well.
To be omitted is the mere external debris of data, especially excerpts from dispatches and counter-dispatches. A subject worthier of consideration would be the cocky humor with which diplomacy and bold strokes alternate, particularly in the first decades of the eighteenth century; those were the times of Görtz, Dubois, Alberoni, and diplomats and courtiers of a similar kidney.
(III) This course is in the nature of an “entracte,” or, rather, an “interlude.”
In relation to the great beginnings of the modern world epoch after 1450 it is a continuation; in relation to the age of revolution it is only the termination of an earlier age and a preparation for the coming one. At the same time, however, it retains a wealth of specific interest. Not all ages can be of primary interest; the pulse beat of world history is a very uneven one. But here the movements are still powerful enough and the evidence for the entire external and spiritual existence is plentiful and, in part, of the highest caliber.
In relation to the sixteenth century, the seventeenth has been designated as retarding, as a reaction. There is an impatient point of view for which world history does not move rapidly enough and which holds, for instance, that as early as the sixteenth century complete modernity wanted to appear and should have done so, and that the fight against these forces was nothing but a wasted effort. People simply call something progress and then deplore its prolonged failure to appear.
If one asks such people whether they are satisfied with the goals now attained, they have a thousand different opinions, especially about the desirability of what has already been attained or is in process of coming into being, and one could invite them to agree for the time being on one opinion in this regard at least. And along with them there are other people, those who want still more.
But for the present, history will do well to turn its back completely on mere desiderata and devote itself to contemplating and depicting as objectively as possible past struggles, conflicts, and multiplicity.
For the life of the West is struggle.
As far as he is personally concerned, a historian may not be able to separate himself from the struggle of his locality. As a man existing in time he must desire and represent some definite thing, but as an historian he must maintain a loftier view.
A great many people get beside themselves if someone else has a different opinion and want to convert the other fellow as soon as they see a corner of his coat. But if one becomes silent or continues to express different opinions, one enjoys their hate or their pity, depending on their temperament. To be sure, we admit that forces opposed to our taste are forces as well, because they are palpably in front of us, but we do this with unspeakable wailing and abuse.
The meddling of values in world history is as if in the sea of time one wave wanted to shout insults against all the other waves.
(IV) [May 5, 1873.] The character of the spirit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is determined by the classes which were at that time the principal participants, and by the contemporary way of life in general.
Most important, the state, with a few exceptions, is absolutistic or administered absolutistically. It is the time of authority rather than majority. Changes are not easily conceivable. Any striving for change is considered a crime as a matter of course, even in the non-monarchic states; in this respect, aristocracies are just as inexorable. Everything is calculated to last forever. People know nothing as yet of the mutability of all conditions.
The classes are still separated by different rights. The only thing that encompasses all classes, the religions, is even in the eighteenth century somewhat in decline among the upper classes.
Real estate is still generally non-transferable; capital, i.e., disposable values, is still in very moderate supply and of little service to industry.
Despite all velleities toward the mercantile system on the part of individual states, the general tenor of life is still far from being an industrial one (the consequences of what people would like are often not even thought out; e.g., customs boundaries continue to exist within the great states themselves). The biggest business at the time is the overseas trade of some few colonial powers, not yet industry as such, as an untrammeled activity, an absolute material exploitation of the world. And where it does exist it is not yet in control and cannot unleash its fearsome competitive system on the nations.
The middle class as a political force, e.g., in the German imperial cities and elsewhere, had either died out or shrunk completely. In art, literature, and way of life it does not set the tone anywhere, with the possible exception of Holland, but receives it from the other classes, whereas in the Middle Ages it had a culture of its own. And even in Holland the life of the upper classes is not so very bourgeois, but more aristocratic than is usually assumed.
The predominant character of society is determined by aristocratic revenues, ground rents, state and army offices which belong to the particular caste, and ecclesiastical income. In individual instances, especially in weaker states, such an aristocracy becomes subject to corruption by foreign cabinets out of a desire for display (Sweden, at times even England), and in the strongest states it is certainly highly dependent on its own potentate; almost nowhere is it an element of political freedom any more, except for the better times of the English nobility. But its social significance was still very great, greater even than it had been around 1500. For at that time there still existed a bourgeois culture in the North and an aristocratic-bourgeois one in Italy. Above all, this aristocratic society is still Western and not merely national. The aristocrats are still as close to one another throughout Europe as they are to their own states.
Their life is made up of leisure and the activities that are considered aristocratic, like military service, individual heroism, famous love affairs. Despite the often very dissolute living, social intercourse in the eighteenth century is more refined, more generous, and intellectually livelier than it has ever been since. People still have time to read, i.e., for lively intellectual intercourse. They have not yet surrendered to business.
Talent, no matter where it may come from, easily finds patronage, positions, and a wealth of occupations. Here all arrogance ceases, because people really want to have enjoyment.
Scholarship is partly in the hands of secure corporations, partly in those of independent dilettantes.
At length, to be sure, this nobility, because of all its noble leisure and abstract generosity, comes upon liberal principles and begins to take the real institutions of the state lightly. This lends it one last, exceedingly noble resplendence. Meanwhile, to be sure, other strata, together with their “public opinion,” have started to take control of matters.
It was for this aristocratic class, in the main, and not as yet for publishers and a mass public, that artists wrote, created literature, composed, painted, and so on. Also, the whole incipient opposition in the state and the innovations in all intellectual matters are essentially in their hands.
Our view must become accustomed to this nature of the intellectual life in those times.
The states are organized along class lines, approximating the so-called constitutional state, with safeguards for the individual in respect to life, property, and freedom of action. The class state was realized in some measure of completeness only in Holland and England, amidst great struggles. Here the opinion prevailed that the internal and external strength of the nation was substantially connected with it.
In Germany at the beginning of the seventeenth century there were very strong revolutionary classes only in Austria. In the other states the class system was already very weakened and the princes were actually close to absolutism. In the Thirty Years’ War the class system in both regions really goes under and at best survives formally. Later the model of Louis XIV—people imitated his sultanism at least—and the princely type of the eighteenth century held full sway. Finally we see the most brilliant handling of absolutism in Frederick the Great, as the highest example of what can be achieved with a submissive and admiring people.
Apart from Holland and England, the universal opinion is that only absolutism gives strength to the state and knows how to govern.
In Scandinavia, Denmark becomes an absolutist state out of revulsion against the power of the nobility. In Sweden, on the other hand, the latter maintains itself and in the most depraved form, too, with Charles XI as the sole interruption. There is venality toward the outside and, after the end of Charles XII, complete impotence. In Poland, all “misfortune,” i.e., all political powerlessness, is obviously due to the aristocratic government; it is regarded as a model of the way a state should not be.
Italy has a completely absolutist government, with the exception of Venice, which has every reason to remain quiet. Italy passively bears the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the 1730’s, and the War of the Austrian Succession, with all their consequences. Countries silently pass over into the hands of other masters (Italy in consequence of the War of the Spanish Succession, etc.).
Spain is internally absolutist under the last Hapsburgs. In part it is already under the pressure of the approaching problem of the succession. But it is powerless against its own tools and elements; the machinery of the state stands still. Under the Bourbons there appear absolutist beginnings of reform and renewed self-assertion in European politics.
The power of the Ottomans is clearly on the wane after the period of the Kuprili (second half of the seventeenth century) and they are incapable of making new attacks upon Europe.
Finally, Russia before and after Peter the Great. Here there is effective an absolutism which suddenly becomes aware of its potential strength and observes a certain system toward Ottomans and Europeans. For the time being the Russian people with its hatred has been silenced completely.
European politics and the supposed balance of power are characterized by a desire for expansion, but this is not yet done in the name of nations, but for the time being only in order to gain more subjects and revenues. From the conflicts of these absolutisms which mistake power for happiness there emerges the idea of a supposed balance of power.
The major achievement is that France is periodically told to keep within its bounds. This is a typically European matter: against a one- sided dominance all the others rise. Europe wants to remain varied.
Negotiations include tariff problems; in fact, here and there they are already of predominant importance.
The rulers in general equate power with good fortune and the peoples at least equate impotence with misfortune, because it tempts powerful neighbors to invade and constantly steal land.
All states in general, however, are still based on authority, even where decisions are actually made by majorities, for these are not yet head- count majorities.
THE GREAT POWER AND INDUSTRY
The first thing everywhere is the desire of the rulers themselves to get money; the merchants and industrialists are supposed to be chiefly tax channels. The Islamitic states of the Middle Ages and the Italian states from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries laid the groundwork for this; fiscal management has been developed into a science.
Real property gradually ceases to be the sole basis for existence, although it is still enormously predominant and safeguarded. There arise great fortunes and businesses that are independent of it. Trade and commerce gradually lose their rather local character and there begins a greater concern with distant places.
With the oceanic peoples there is added the exploitation of their colonies; these are still regarded entirely as the possession of the mother country. However, it takes a long time for the so-called normal cycle to occur: importation of colonial raw materials and forced consumption of the products of domestic industry by the colonies.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries colonization increases. Great French territories are created in North America and later in India; in addition to this are the Dutch occupations in the East and West Indies. Only England establishes larger English populations in distant areas, because they do not settle in tropical regions and many more Englishmen than Frenchmen emigrate.
Spain fades away, not only because of taxes, the mortmain, the monasteries, and other things, but because of its completely unindustrial mentality in a Europe which was otherwise becoming industrial.
France has its miseries. There rules a king who is terribly wasteful and eager for conquest and devours more than his Colbert can supply him, with the utmost overstraining of the country; and yet he is an envied model for other dynasts. The Colbert system which conceives of industry as an enriching force gains European validity. However, the industrialists are not as yet the ruling class here, nor are they in England.
The French Revolution and its monarchic continuation by Napoleon have pointed up the model of Louis XIV and his system; before and alongside them there existed the imitating states. At the same time, after 1815 the model of England begins to be effective.
Europe becomes the mill for all five continents; industrial and political superiority are regarded as going hand in hand. Through the confiscation of church property, the abolition of mortmain, a huge mass of energy and property as well as the people living there become available to industry.
Machines and mass production gradually rise. The great capital needed for them is accumulated and there is a progressively smaller number of people governing their destiny. Competition and mutual throat-cutting set in.
At the same time, however, with J.-J. Rousseau and the French Revolution ideas of equality and human rights as well as the expression “existence worthy of a human being” begin to have an influence. The greatest political freedom is combined with the largest measure of economic dependence; the middle class declines perceptibly.
An absurdly lamentable addition to this is the fact that the state incurs those well-known debts for politics, wars, and other higher causes and “progress,” thus mortgaging future production with the claim that it was in part providing for it. The assumption is that the future will honor this relationship in perpetuity. The state has learned from the merchants and industrialists how to exploit credit; it defies the nation ever to let it go into bankruptcy.
Alongside all swindlers the state now stands there as swindler-in- chief.
First of all, thought and research (an intellectual situation which is enormously different from today’s, but had its raison d’être and its style): both are still impeded in many ways by the existing forces, especially narrow-minded creeds, and yet in essence they were not at all so restricted as is believed; a case in point is Leibnitz and the Théodicée. This is true if one admits that a thinker’s happiness is not yet absolutely bound up with a vociferous preaching of materialism and that the final reasons for existence are not decided by mere individual reflection, least of all with the right to coerce others.
Actually, the study of nature was, despite the story of Galileo, completely free, even in Catholic areas. In Spain, at any rate, it did not exist. In discoveries, to be sure, the nineteenth century and even the end of the eighteenth enormously outdistanced the two preceding centuries; the latter, however, may have had a greater appreciation of the blessings of scientific pursuits, as seems to be indicated by the large number of amateurs in physics and other sciences. Newton and the law of gravitation were of basic importance. In those times people were more disposed toward leisurely contemplation.
The history of that period is set forth in a great number of fairly well written works; it has a predominantly politico-military character and is colored by the nationality of the historian. In addition, there is a wealth of important and excellent memoirs.
Past historical research still follows ecclesiastical or legal interest; a magnificent collector’s spirit and often a very efficient critical mind are at work here. A very weak spot is research into origins in every sense. And yet even here there is the achievement of a man like Giambattista Vico.
Geography was still in its infancy; despite colonial life the earth was still known infinitely little as compared to present-day knowledge. But there was a good deal of interest at that time; the eighteenth century excelled in the eager reading of travel books. People were still able to master discoveries and knowledge, and in this area, too, had not yet been caught up in specialized research.
“Man” was known as well as we know him.
Universal knowledge was still possible at that time and in practice, too (Leibnitz). Collections and cabinets still contained, unseparated, objects of natural history, historical curios, and even works of art. The criterion of “rarity” was often decisive. Where the advancement of knowledge as such is concerned, present-day scientific methods are infinitely superior, because of the division of labor and the specialization ad infinitum. But today the faculty for all-encompassing presentation is probably found less and less frequently. And those polymaths and amateurs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may have derived more joy from their knowledge than today’s specialist does from his.
The secular basis for all scholarship was a teaching position or membership in a corporation which was usually still clerical. For bookdealers the main thing was the very great number of learned libraries, those of corporations as well as of wealthy collectors; the property in both categories was assured and indivisible, safeguarded by entail, among other things. In addition, there was the patronage of princes and important people, with the corresponding dedications.
On the other hand, there was as yet no relationship to an “educated public,” no concessions to its sympathies. There was no “critique of the daily press” to go with such a “public,” and thus no degradation. Patronage and dedications degraded a man less than do today’s concessions to the opinions and tastes of the masses.
Latin continued to be the language of scholarship, with its disadvantages as well as advantages; the latter are stressed especially in Schopenhauer. Think, for example, of the Latin of Francis Bacon. The desire to be effective through the vernacular does not assert itself until Thomasius and Voltaire.
FREE CREATION: POETRY
Here one must start from its premises. A big reading public and a mania for reading either did not yet exist or were in their infancy. Boredom was not yet fought by reading. Thus Don Quixote becomes a ridiculous figure.
In his composition a writer nowhere had in mind his popularity or mass effectiveness, and there was no such thing as yet as a modern publisher who must count on these things. There still was no literary industry. All of Simplizius Simplizissimus is as though written for the author himself, with no thought of any reading public. The reading public was still relatively aristocratic and exclusive. Here, too, there was patronage on the part of important people and select circles. Women did little reading as yet.
Then, too, a writer did not write for a particular moment, a political or social mood of the hour, and thus did not become subject to the transitoriness of today’s productions.
Furthermore, the peoples were not yet being made lustful or terrorized through spiced-up depictions of the imagined life of big cities; these cities did not even exist in the present-day sense. Thus the picaresque novel was still entirely humorous and highly didactic. All of Don Quixote is set on highways and in solitary places.
On the whole, there was no whipping up of the sluggish imaginations of such people as are receptive only to the most adventurous and coarsest things and want to be continually amused or kept in suspense. There was as yet no production of reading fodder, i.e., no consideration for empty and substandard minds.
All in all, this is a truly refined literature, not one that merely pretends to be so; it depicts life in general the way a refined person wants it presented. It portrays people, therefore life among the people. On the other hand, it almost never gives a worm’s eye view of life among the aristocrats themselves, as does present-day literature.
This is the literature from Shakespeare to Voltaire, who still wrote entirely for the upper classes and has been understood and appreciated by the middle classes, too, only by virtue of his malice. There are a large number of books from that period which are still at least widely known, although the interest in them is predominantly historical.
In the field of poetry there is already a decided predominance of the theater in England, France, and Spain, with great, richly developed styles.
On the whole, the seventeenth century and a large part of the eighteenth are still times of strong feeling. Frequently, some general moral reservation is directly emphasized, albeit more often in the case of scabrous material.
Antiquity—essentially Roman antiquity—constitutes the general criterion of the excellent. Whoever does any writing knows and esteems it, even though he may betray it only indirectly, notably through lucidity.
The general advantage of that period over ours lies in the fact that it has claimed the attention of perceptive and appreciative people for one or two centuries, while our time faces a future in which perhaps precious little notice will be taken of anything past.
THE PLASTIC ARTS
The great main difference from present-day art lies in the obviousness of the subjects and in the homogeneous way of thinking of those who commissioned works of art. This way of thinking is still completely independent of any art journals. All information about the artists during their lifetime was conveyed by word of mouth or by letter. Recommendations from court to court and place to place were the decisive thing. The church painters were almost the only ones to become publicly known through their altar paintings and frescoes, and even this happened only in the Catholic countries. Critical articles on art were completely lacking. Only patrons, independent of anything printed, decided about secular commissions. There were no exhibitions whatever before the Paris Salon of the 1760’s with Diderot’s feuilletons. The accumulation of heterogeneous objects and their mutual murder through bedazzlement were still completely unknown. There was as yet no public and no public taste. The princely collections were not accessible to any “public,” but could be used by artists for study.
The subjects were predominantly religious, mythological-allegorical, or those of Dutch realism, especially in genre and landscape painting and allied subjects.
Only in France was there general direction from above and a predominant concentration of art around the court. Other princes were only on a par with wealthy art lovers. But Louis XIV was not even an art lover, because what would he have loved anyway?
To sum up: Nothing but patronage from above, and not by nouveaux riches. That way art was better off than it is with today’s support from below. There were a lot of painters who rose from the poorest classes through the help of higher-ups. Talented individuals were at least as sure of getting ahead as they are today, and were not nearly so much led astray as they are now when an artist has to devise his own subjects. In those times there occurred an ever new creation of actual given conditions.
It creates two great new forms, the oratorio and the opera. Its social significance varies greatly from nation to nation. Here and there it is no longer entirely ecclesiastical and courtly, but is fostered through associations, as yet only of select people. For on the whole it is still very much regarded as a real art.
From the end of the seventeenth century it rises spontaneously and very mightily in Italy and in the North (here especially Handel and Bach), and in the course of the eighteenth century it becomes the highest power in all contemporary art. The stylistic laws of music which were achieved at that time will, at least in broad outline, remain in force as long as our present tonal system.