Lionel Gossman is a (now emeritus) professor of Romance languages and literatures at Princeton, so one would not expect him to produce a 600 page history of the second city in the German speaking portion of Switzerland. Not only are most of the sources in German, but historians have a professional preparation which goes well beyond learning historical facts. Nonetheless, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt is, in my view, a very professional piece of historical work, and it is evident from the lengthy endnotes and bibliography that he did a good deal of original grunt work modern historians must do - he does not merely summarize the work of other historians.
The book is primarily a history of ideas in Basel in the late 19th century (along the lines of Carl Schorske's excellent book on Vienna), with particular focus on the historian/journalist/newspaper editor Jacob Burckhardt and the jurist/judge/anthropologist/historian/classical philologist Johann Jakob Bachofen. As he explains, Gossman initially intended to treat Friedrich Nietzsche and the theologian Franz Overbeck in equal detail, but the book grew out of bounds, so the latter two are discussed much more briefly in a single chapter. One of the primary tasks this book sets itself is to demonstrate how the thought of Bachofen and Burckhardt was influenced by and reflected the specific milieu into which they were born. Mission accomplished, Lionel.
Gossman really dug into the historian's task and provided an overview of Basel's social, economic and political development from the 15th century to the end of the 19th and great detail about the founding and history of the University of Basel, where all four main characters were professors. In the process the reader learns much about the economic and political evolution of the entire Rhine valley, as well as the history of Switzerland in general. The many notes and references have (unfortunately) drawn my attention to a huge number of books I'd like to read. This background material constitutes the first one-fourth of the text.
The second fourth is dedicated to Bachofen (1815–1887), not exactly a household name. He (like Burckhardt) was born into the interbred oligarchy running Basel and was extremely wealthy. Intellectually, Bachofen was in the second (or third?) generation of anti-Enlightenment-rationalism "historicists", whose worldview has been described as "reverence for the old, the ancestral, the product of organic evolution; sympathy for the truly popular, for tradition and national culture; recognition of the privilege of everything that has developed organically or has come to be historically over what has been artificially constructed; preference for the authentic and the original; love of the individual and particular; delight in diversity and plurality."
As a jurist and professor of law at the University of Basel, Bachofen "opposed the natural law theories of the Enlightenment and denied both the need and the possibility of a codification of German civil law..." To his teacher and one of the leaders of this historicist school, Friedrich Karl von Savigny, "a rationally grounded code of law was an impossibility, since law is an organic historical development and, like language, custom and political constitution, an integral part of a people." Because Bachofen remained close to Savigny for life and interacted with the leading proponents of Savigny's views across Europe, the reader is afforded a glimpse into the ideas and activities of a circle of influential men.
But Bachofen is remembered primarily as a theorist of primitive societies and matriarchy, as the coiner of the notion of Mutterrecht, and as an historian of ancient Greece and Rome, where instead of 5th century Athens and late Republican/Imperial Rome he was drawn to Argos and Mycenae, respectively the origins of Rome. In the former role he interacted with the founders of anthropology, but Gossman left me with no idea of the significance of that interaction. However, it does seem from the internet that some feminists refer to Bachofen with respect. (Certainly, he was full of praise for his idealized matriarchy.) In the latter role he, well before Nietzsche, vituperated against the historians and philologists who used "critical" methods in their study of Greco-Roman times; moreover, he wrote some books about Greco-Roman history and culture I now want to read. Although Gossman tells me that Bachofen was widely read for nearly a century, it appears that is no longer the case; getting my hands on Bachofen's Griechische Reise is clearly going to be difficult.
Though Bachofen was mildly reformist as a young man, the revolutions of 1848 assured that he was stock conservative for the second half of his life (he even inveighed against critics of superstition, because he felt that convincing the "simple folk" that their superstitions were unfounded was just a step away from convincing them that their religion - Bachofen was a Calvinist - was unfounded). Capitalism, revolution and democracy were all signs of decay for him. Nonetheless, he perceived very clearly and wrote against the reactionary consequences of the uprisings of '48, and he despised the "robber state" of Prussia.
Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) is surely better known. A few of his books are still read by nonspecialists and are in print. Burckhardt and Bachofen have a great deal in common, Romantic elitists to the core, stricken by the '48 revolutions and clamoring against materialism, socialism, triumphant progressivism and optimism; but Burckhardt rejected Christianity (Bachofen's fervent Christianity informs all of his writings) holding onto a notion of the divine, and, because he had a model before his eyes in a former teacher and lifelong friend, he refused to let disappointments and setbacks make himself bitter and withdraw, as did Bachofen.
Like Bachofen and Nietzsche, Burckhardt depised the professional academic cliques and specialization. After he returned to the University of Basel in 1858, he effectively stopped writing for publication, concentrating instead on his lectures and his public speaking series (a tradition in Basel). Most of his books were cobbled together posthumously from his lecture notes; over 100 pages of this book are given over to a discussion of these books. According to Gossman, it is Burckhardt's correspondence which is "perhaps his masterpiece."
Nowhere is the writing more lively, the language more racy and concrete, the imagination more rich and inventive, the wit sharper, or the observation more keen than in these texts intended for a privileged and intimate audience.
This is something to be looked into. As I plan to read/re-read a number of Burckhardt's books, I won't lengthen this review any further in this regard.
Most of the second half of this book is dedicated to Burckhardt, but there is a brief chapter on Nietzsche and Overbeck. Since I have written much about Nietzsche recently, and shall do so again in the near future, let me turn to Franz Camille Overbeck (1837-1905), the theologian and church historian.
As did Bachofen, Burckhardt and Nietzsche in philology, history and philosophy, Overbeck did in theology: he wrote vociferously against the prevailing currents. He was a nonbelieving theologian, a scholar and critic. Nevertheless, he wrote against the liberal theology then dominant in Germany, which was performing cartwheels in order to accommodate the contradictions between Christianity and the modern world. But the Pietists and orthodox Calvinists did not find much satisfaction, for Overbeck challenged all theology (an interesting position for a professor of theology) and "the very possibility of reconciling authentic Christianity with authentic modernity." But Gossman offers little of Overbeck's thought in this book.
Gossman closes the book by making the case that the four were much more than eccentric contrarians; they were the primary counterpole in the German speaking world to the dominant German school of historiography/political philosophy which provided the ideology for the second and then the third Reich. This was even explicitly recognized by a Nazi historian, Christoph Steding, who in 1938 published a 770 page diatribe against the Baslers, Das Reich und die Krankheit der europaeischen Kultur. It was also recognized by Friedrich Meinecke, the last great representative of that dominant school, who slowly went from tolerance of a minority position in 1906 to quasi-conversion in 1946.
All four Baslers saw the alliance of power and culture as a threat to genuine culture. And we have seen the laboratory of actual history confirm their fears to a degree they surely could not have anticipated...
Bachofen, Burckhardt, Overbeck and Nietzsche lamented "the disappearance of individuality and the banalization of moral and intellectual life under modern democracy and the modern centralized state." What would they say to our nearly global culture of uniformizing consumerism and video games, not to mention communication reduced to texting and tweeting?
With Benjamin Constant I affirm "La variété, c'est la vie, l'uniformité, c'est la mort."
While Basel in the Age of Burckhardt may not be of general interest, those with an interest in 19th century thought or an interest in the Confoederatio Helvetica will certainly find this well written book worth reading.