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Source: Foreword to the Liberty Fund edition of The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt,
Selected, editied, and translated by Alexander Dru (1955) (Indianapolis:
Liberty Fund, 2000). By Alberto R. Coll, Naval War College, 2000.). The book can be orderd from Liberty Fund's online
In the opening years of the twenty-first century, why should anyone bother
to read the letters of an art history professor from the late 1800s? Whatever
answer one gives, the reason has something to do with the qualities of Jacob
Burckhardt's mind and its capacity to illumine some of the best and most beautiful
things in Western civilization. To the contemporary reader, Burckhardt speaks
as convincingly about the value of beauty, contemplation, and freedom as he
did to his increasingly harried age. In many ways, we need his voice today even
more urgently than we did a century ago.
The core of Burckhardt's life was his love of beauty. Indeed, one of his signal
contributions to the tradition of freedom in Western civilization, and to conservative
thought, was the line he drew between beauty and freedom. Like another great
contemporary conservative, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Burckhardt recognized that man's
love of, and impulse toward, beauty is a powerful force that ultimately leads
man to affirm the worth of his spirit, his individuality, and the existential
necessity of freedom. The strongest roots of freedom, and of human liberty,
Burckhardt's life spanned the nineteenth century (1818-1897). After a careful
study of the entire corpus of Burckhardt's extensive correspondence, Professor
Alexander Dru published in 1955 this selection covering his life from the age
of twenty until a few months before his death. The selected letters give the
reader a comprehensive view of Burckhardt's life, the evolution of his thinking,
and his chief concerns. Reading these letters, one is impressed by the remarkable
continuities in Burckhardt's out look and the consistent themes that undergird
He was deeply conservative by nature. Even in his youth, when along with his
friends he was captivated by the strong currents of romanticism and idealism,
he never succumbed to democratic liberalism or the modern belief in progress.
While studying for the ministry he ceased to be an orthodox Christian, but to
the end of his life he retained an appreciation for the Christian message of
original sin, combined with utter contempt for liberal theologians who kept
teaching at seminaries and leading congregations long after they had stopped
believing. Burckhardt was proud to be, as he put it, "an honest heretic."
His main quarrel with the churches throughout his lifetime was that they, along
with everyone else, had succumbed to the optimistic illusions of the nineteenth
But Burckhardt's conservatism was neither ideological nor extreme. He despised
extremes of every kind. When he was asked to become the editor of the local
conservative newspaper, he accepted the job, in his own words, "mainly
in order to exterminate by slow degrees the odious sympathy that exists among
the ruling clique here for absolutism of every kind (e.g., the Russian) and
on the other hand to come out against our raucous Swiss Radicals, which last
I find precisely as repellent as the former." In keeping with his dislike
of abstractions and ideologies, he wrote to a friend that he wanted to get away
from "the 'ists' and 'isms' of every kind."
His conservatism often slipped into pessimism, and Burckhardt is often described,
even by many of his admirers, as one of the great "pessimists" in
the modern Western tradition. This characterization must be applied to him with
care, but it is not far off the mark. It is true that he enjoyed life, especially
the pleasures of aesthetic contemplation. He loved few things more than his
long walks in the woods and mountains of Switzerland and Germany; his recurring
pilgrimages through Italy, where he relished exploring the ancient architectural
and artistic glories; and a hearty meal followed by a good wine and his favorite
cigar. Although he never married, he was fond of his nephews and nieces and
their children, and he believed that, in spite of the crisis that was about
to shake European civilization, the younger generations would survive and manage
to build a new order.
But in discussing politics Burckhardt was unabashedly pessimistic and unwilling
to give modernity or modern liberalism credit for anything good. He was viscerally
opposed to mass suffrage, modern public education, women in scholarship, and
public health insurance, and he thought little about alternatives for dealing
with the massive social problems developing in the second half of the nineteenth
century. As he advanced in years, Burckhardt became more alarmed at the catastrophe
he foresaw looming in the not-too-distant future. Unlike the pro-Enlightenment
Edward Gibbon, who argued that the collapse of the Roman Empire coincided with
"the triumph of barbarism and religion," Burckhardt thought that the
decline of European civilization would be accompanied by the triumph of barbarism,
commerce, and science.
While Burckhardt's distrust of modern liberalism may have gone too far, his
general pessimism about the future of Western civilization and the consequences
of modern mass society were not unwarranted. He believed that the combination
of mass politics, the growth of democracy and egalitarianism, the collapse of
the authority of the Church and the aristocracy, and the domination of modern
life by the demands of economics, science, and technology would produce in the
course of time a brutal and barbaric tyranny with a horrifying grip on political
power. And indeed, only four short decades separated Burckhardt's life from
the construction of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau in the heart of civilized
As annoying as Burckhardt's persistent critique of egalitarianism, liberal
democracy, and industrial progress is bound to be for many readers, his legacy
is squarely in the tradition of ordered liberty and aristocratic liberalism
we associate with the names of Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jose Ortega
y Gasset, and Wilhelm Roepke. He distrusted the masses as inherently intolerant
of individual greatness and hostile to culture. He noted that the most significant
historical developments at the end of the eighteenth century were the advent
of mass politics and the belief that every man's opinion was of equal worth.
The long-term results of this would be the destruction of every vestige of traditional
authority, the cheapening of culture, the enthronement of mediocrity at all
levels of public life, and the eventual rise of "terribles simplificateurs"
the ruthless demagogues who would ride the waves of mass politics and culture
to set up a tyranny armed with all the instruments provided by large-scale industrial
capitalism, science, and technology.
Burckhardt also distrusted large institutions of every sort as inherently dehumanizing
and hostile to individual freedom. Any institution, religious or secular, that
became large and powerful enough fell, sooner or later, into the grip of what
he called one of the ghastliest idees fixes in history: the desire for
unity and conformity. Burckhardt loved small cities, small republics, and loose
private associations as nurturing of pluralism and liberty. His love of pluralism
was driven by his aesthetic recognition of the intrinsic beauty and wonder of
diversity, and the belief that freedom could thrive more easily in the soil
of diversity and decentralization than in uniformity.
Burckhardt was shocked by the ravages wrought on the created order by industrialization,
modern technology, and economic progress. He believed that Western civilization
since the seventeenth century had become dominated by acquisitiveness, and that
this acquisitiveness was the force behind the appalling despoliation of Europe's
forests, rivers, and ancient towns. The new cities, with their large, impersonal
size, industrial squalor, and high cost of living, were the antithesis of a
humane way of life. To the last, he retained a longing for a vanishing world
in which beauty would dominate the natural as well as the man-made landscape.
A lifelong bachelor who was inherently shy with women, Burckhardt considered
himself "a secular monk." He loved and praised the contemplative life
at a time when modern society was becoming inhospitable to it. One of his quarrels
with modernity was that its emerging mass society, and its acquisitive economic
system focused on efficiency and speed, was crowding out opportunities for solitude
and contemplation. He drew a sharp distinction between rational philosophy or
"speculation," connected with thinking about abstract ideas, and contemplation,
deriving from love of and wonder at the beauty and complexity of human beings
and their deeds. He saw himself as a contemplative historian rather than a philosophical
one. At the age of twenty-four, he confided to a friend,
You must long ago have recognized the one-sided bent of my nature towards
contemplation. My whole life long I have never yet thought philosophically,
and never had any thought at all that was not connected with something external.
I can do nothing unless I start out from contemplation.... What I build up
historically is not the result of criticism and Speculation, but on the contrary,
of imagination, which fills up the lacunae of contemplation.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Burckhardt did not see himself as mainly a technician.
In his view, the historian needed to master the technical fundamentals of historical
research and to be a specialist about at least one particular field. But he
also enjoyed taking a more comprehensive view of things even at the risk of
being accused of "amateurishness." As he was to admonish his students
in the lectures that were later published as Reflections on History,
"[a man] should be an amateur at as many points as possible.... Otherwise
he will remain ignorant in any field lying outside his own specialty and perhaps,
as a man, a barbarian." Many of these letters reflect that comprehensiveness,
and they reveal a capacious mind that, in spite of the prejudices of time and
place (Burckhardt never traveled outside Western Europe), was capable of immensely
thoughtful insights about times and places far removed from his own. Ultimately,
all of these insights flowed from his love of freedom and beauty and his deeply
humanistic appreciation for the mystery of human greatness and the worth of
Although he founded the discipline of art history, and his Civilization
of the Renaissance is still considered a most perceptive work, Burckhardt
is hardly popular with today's art historians and their deconstructionist colleagues.
He believed that not all art was equal, that great art was capable of expressing
universally valid truths, and that art and beauty were companions. Rather than
simply pouring out his or her feelings, the artist could aim "to transform
all suffering, all excitement into sheer beauty," even if one devoted "all
one's strength to doing so." Ultimately, the artist's greatest impulse
was love. As he advised a young friend, "Stick to the old idealist line;
only a scene that has somehow or other been loved by an artist can, in the long
run, win other people's affection."
In the course of these letters, as Burckhardt's life moves along, the reader
follows him in his successive peregrinations to the Italy he loved so profoundly,
tracing thereby the growth of the malaise affecting European civilization. In
the course of half a century the towns grew in wealth and size, the roads became
busier, many beautiful old buildings were demolished to make room for newer
ones, and the socialists became more numerous and radical. It hardly seemed
an improvement, but as Burckhardt noted, most Europeans - capitalists and socialists
alike - were eager to sacrifice the intangible cultural and aesthetic goods
of the older civilization for the sake of "sleep-through trains."
In the midst of these tumultuous changes in society, Burckhardt searched for
an anchor, "an Archimedean point" of existential detachment and serenity,
and he found it in the cultural and artistic treasures of the past. He was unsure
how many of these would survive the cataclysmic wars and upheavals he saw coming
soon, but he thought that enough might be left to inspire the human spirit to
So, how is one to think of Jacob Burckhardt and read his letters today? In
spite of the calamities of world war, revolution, and every other upheaval that
Burckhardt feared coming to pass in the first half of the twentieth century,
at the opening of the successive century the West has experienced another of
its periodic bouts of runaway optimism. The fall of communism, globalization,
the information revolution, and unparalleled advances in scientific and genetic
research all promise to bring about a radically new era of uninterrupted peace
and prosperity. In the midst of our heightened expectations we will want to
consider two questions posed by Burckhardt throughout these letters. First,
can man ever find permanent rest and equilibrium in history? And, second, how
are two of the fundamental qualities of a humane existence, beauty and freedom,
to be preserved in the midst of mass democracy, egalitarianism, and the worship
of economic growth? However we grapple with these two questions, Burckhardt's
writings will help to keep them constantly before us lest we forget their vital
Works by the Author
The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Painting in Italy (1855).
The Age of Constantine the Great (1853).
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).
A History of the Italian Renaissance (1867).
A History of Greek Culture (1898-1902).
Essays on the Cultural History of Italy (1898).
Reflections on History (1905).
The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, Selected, editied, and translated by Alexander
Dru (1955) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000). The book can be orderd from
Liberty Fund's online
Liberty Fund's catalog describes the book as follows:
As a rule, an author’s correspondence possesses only a secondary interest,
but Jacob Burckhardt’s letters are of primary interest to students of history
because of the nature of the man and of his major writings. Judgments on
History and Historians, for example, consists not of Burckhardt’s own
lectures, but of notes on his lectures by one of his greatest students. It is
because Burckhardt was a remarkably private man who believed that contemplation
was the key to insight into the nature of man and history, and because his approach
to the study of history was reflective rather than systematic or dogmatic, that
his letters possess a singular significance. For it is in his letters that Burckhardt
provides additional and even personal observations on his learned explorations
of antiquity, the Renaissance, and modern Europe, and it is in his letters that
Burckhardt muses on the consequences that he believed—and feared—awaited
a Europe that had given itself almost wholly to a rationalistic and materialistic
understanding of history and destiny.
For example, Burckhardt is widely known to have been the most renowned of the
historians of the nineteenth century to predict, with astonishing accuracy,
what we in our notice of his Reflections on History describe as “the
totalitarian direction that history could take”—and which history
in fact did take in the twentieth century. It was in his letters, rather than
in his lectures or longer works, that Burckhardt most directly addressed the
currents of intellectual thought and social and political order—or disorder—of
Europe in the nineteenth century. It was in his letters, for instance, that
he warned that these currents portended the rise of a new kind of demagogue
unique to the modern era. Such demagogues would, Burckhardt feared, respond
to the complexities and confusions of modern life by becoming “terrible
simplifiers,” marshaling masses of people into totalitarian regimes for
simple solutions to complex challenges that would wreak havoc upon numerous
countries and millions of lives.Thus, the letters constitute a text that complements
Burckhardt’s larger works, including his most notable work, The Civilization
of the Renaissance in Italy. Not only are the letters addressed to some
of the most important thinkers of the time (Nietzsche, Burckhardt’s younger
colleague at the University of Basel, among them), but also they address the
most pressing issues and the most important personages of the era. As the translator
notes, the “letters, written from 1838 to 1897, have a lightness of touch,
an informality and humor, and a breadth of vision that make one realize why
he was the most civilized historian of his century. Their contents range across
a vast field of interests. Art, architecture, history, poetry, music, religion—all
stirred him to contagious enthusiasm. His travels led him to Italy, Germany,
France, and England, and to his letters we owe delightful and penetrating insights
into the character of each country.”
Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians, trans. Harry
Zohn, with a Foreword by Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
The book can be ordered from Liberty Fund's online
Liberty Fund's catalog describes the book as follows:
Renowned for his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) and
Reflections on History (1905) (published by Liberty Fund and available
from its online
catalog), Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) has well been described as "the
most civilized historian of the nineteenth century." Judgments on History
and Historians consists of records collected by Emil Dürr from Burckhardt's
lecture notes for history courses at the University of Basel from 1865 to 1885.
The 149 brief sections span five eras: Antiquity, the Middle Ages, History from
1450 to 1598, the History of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and the
Age of Revolution. As Walter Goetz observed of the work a generation ago, "It
is impossible to imagine a more profound introduction to world history and its
Alberto R. Coll is a Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States
Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.
Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History, trans. M.D. Hottinger (1943),
Introduction by Gottfried Dietze (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979). The Book
can be ordered from Liberty Fund's online
catalog. It is a translation of Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen
(1905). A previous American edition under the title Force and Freedom
appeared in 1943.
Liberty Fund's catalog describes the book as follows:
Almost alone among nineteenth-century historians, Jacob Burckhardt saw the
totalitarian direction that history could take. This book (first published in
English in 1943 as Force and Freedom) is a guide to the study and comprehension
of historical processes. Burckhardt makes a clear distinction between the state
and the voluntary activities of society. He focuses on the nature and reciprocal
interactions of the state, religion, and culture.
Gottfried Dietze is a Professor in the Political Science Department at Johns
Works about the Author
Lionel Grossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt (University of Chicago
Alan S. Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought
of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (Oxford
University Press, 1992).
Felix Gilbert, History: Politics or Culture? Reflections on Ranke and Burckhardt
(Princeton University Press, 1990).
Karl Weintraub, Visions of Culture: Voltaire, Guizot, Burckhardt, Lamprecht,
Huizinga, Ortega y Gasset (University of Chicago Press, 1966).
Wolfgang Mommsen, "Jacob Burckhardt" in Rediscoveries: Some Neglected
Modern European Political Thinkers, ed. John A. Hall (Oxford: Clarendon