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Reflections on World History , by Jacob Burckhardt

Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen - Jacob Burckhardt

Shortly after Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) returned from the ETH in Zürich to the University of Basel, he stopped writing books for publication. He gave a number of reasons for this, but the primary was that he wanted to decouple himself entirely from the world of professional historians. He was unhappy with the development of academic history in the German speaking world away from the neo-humanism of Herder and Goethe (of which he approved) to the worship of the notion of state evinced by the apologists for the second German empire (which he detested). So he stopped writing for professional journals, refused all invitations to lecture at other universities, declined all offers of professorships (including the offer to be Ranke's successor at the University of Berlin - by far the most prestigious academic position for a historian in the German speaking world). And he stopped writing books, for publishing books would generate criticism from professional historians which he would feel obliged to answer, thereby ensnaring him in a dialogue he refused to entame. He wrote only for his courses and for the public lecture series which were part of the cultural tradition in Basel. After his death, his nephew Jacob Oeri cobbled together books from his lecture notes.


The Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Reflections on World History) is one of these posthumous paste jobs and first appeared in 1905. Burckhardt's biographer, Werner Kaegi (who wrote an interesting postscript to this edition), makes the point that Burckhardt would not have approved of the title. Burckhardt rejected the then current notions of universal history, of teleological and speculative history, and "Weltgeschichte" evokes precisely those connotations. Indeed, Burckhardt writes in the Introduction


Wir verzichten ferner auf alles Systematische; wir machen keinen Anspruch auf "weltgeschichtliche Ideen", sondern begnügen uns mit Wahrnehmungen und geben Querdurchschnitte durch die Geschichte, und zwar in möglichst vielen Richtungen; wir geben vor allem keine Geschichtsphilosophie.


(We further renounce all systematics; we pretend to no "world historical ideas", but rather content ourselves with perceptions and give cross sections through history in as many directions as possible; above all, we give no philosophy of history.) 


Burckhardt also rejected Great Man history and the history of events, as he viewed both great men and events as highly singular and accidental - one-offs which may influence the course of history but are incapable of shedding light on the why's of history. For Burckhardt, the heart of history was to be found in the (nearly) "constant, the typical, that which repeats itself."


The text itself consists of six parts, of which three are foreign bodies. The introduction is a text written more than a decade before the lectures, and the last two parts were related talks Burckhardt gave in the public lecture series. Chapters 2 through 4 are taken from the lecture notes of one of his courses. What we have here is not a thematically unified book but something analogous to our contemporary collections of related journal articles well known academics can sometimes publish. Moreover, Burckhardt's lecture notes, like those of most professors, are not written out completely - they consist often enough of fragments of sentences, quotes, keywords, etc. So Oeri completed the fragments, not Burckhardt.(*) Moreover, Oeri dropped some of the politically hot items shortly before publication; these were restored in the edition I've read.(**)


Despite all this, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen was heavily read (after World War I, and particularly after World War II), and it is still in print in many languages. As so often for books of history, much of this success had political, not intellectual, grounds (does the book tell a story that fits in with the dominant political opinions?). Burckhardt's explicit warnings about the upcoming wars and the subservience of culture and religion to the state all came true to a degree even he could not have imagined. This kind of prescience must come from insights still of value for the future, no? 


The sources of this prescience, insofar as they are revealed in this text, prove themselves to be a modest humanism girded with a powerful skepticism, yielding a clearsightedness which was still somewhat clouded (in my view) by 19th century idealism - the word "Geist" arises often, though Burckhardt explicitly rejects the boundlessly overblown "Weltgeist" Hegel fantasized about - and by a social and cultural conservatism that expressed itself as elitist and antidemocratic. 


In Chapter 4 he discusses "historical crises," including the advantages and disadvantages of war. Here he addresses his view of the Franco-German war of 1870/71 and predicts in this chapter and again in the last chapter a new series of European wars. 


In Chapters 2 and 3 Burckhardt is primarily interested in the interactions and mutual influences of State, Religion and Culture - die drei Potenzen, as he calls them. In his view, the State and Religion are static, while Culture is mobile and developing. He begins by "defining" the three, which here means discussing in a very discursive manner some of the various forms each has taken. This taxonomy of states, religions and cultures seems deliberately tentative (and some of his remarks about non-European cultures raise my hackles). But he takes quite deliberate care to kick the 19th century in the shins as often as possible; like Nietzsche, he doesn't seem to like anything about it.(***)


Throughout the text Burckhardt wanders and digresses, throwing out interesting remarks right and left without supporting argument. But in some sections he focuses his mind and succeeds in doing more than intriguing (or annoying) the reader. I particularly appreciated the section entitled Zur geschichtlichen Betrachtung der Poesie, where he explains the historical significance and role of poetry. 

Just briefly, since this review is long despite all the remarks I've cut out, I'll mention that in this curious Sammelsurium there is a chapter on the individual and greatness and another on happiness and unhappiness in world history... This is a very idiosyncratic book. 


(*) However, several of Burckhardt's students have written approvingly of Oeri's ability to recall for them Burckhardt's manner of speech in lectures and private conversations.


(**) This edition also signals other changes Oeri made in Burckhardt's notes. By the way, the edition I read was published in the dtv-bibliothek in 1978.


(***) He also exercises his ire on the American upper classes, who renounced history and reduced art and poetry to a luxury. What would he say now, when history is a filmed costume drama, poetry is an irrelevance, and art is a "longterm investment"?