Burckhardt’s Pessimistic Conservatism

Related Links:

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, are spiritual.

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 this outlook.

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 century.

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 Europe.

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 individuals.

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 build anew.

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 importance.


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 catalog.

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 catalog.

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 driving forces."

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 Hopkins University.

Works about the Author

Lionel Grossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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 Press, 1986).

Political Thought