Judgments on History and Historians, by Jacob Burckhardt
Judgments on History and Historians is a collection of the author’s lecture notes for a history course he taught between 1865 and 1885. First appearing in German in the 1920s under the title Historische Fragmente (Historical Fragments), it was published in English in 1959. This edition by Liberty Fund is identical to the 1959 edition, with the exception of the superb new foreword by Alberto R. Cole of the US Naval War College, who provides readers an excellent synopsis of Burckhardt’s worldview.
Professor Cole observes that Burckhardt stood “unabashedly and defiantly” against the prevailing trends of his age, trends that continue today, but in vastly more potent form. Judgments on History and Historians is therefore, Cole writes, “a profoundly counter-cultural book.” Moreover, Burckhardt, so much wiser than most of his contemporaries, has been proven correct again and again. Were it possible for him to pay a visit to the present, a century after his death, he would doubtless shake his head knowingly since all of his apprehensions have come to pass. His warnings about a coming age of brazen demagogy, the perils engendered by mass man and mob rule, the drab human landscape fostered by egalitarianism, the suffocation of the things of the spirit under a thick blanket of vulgar commercialism, and the debilitating effects of state-sponsored welfarism — all of these were seen by him as symptomatic of a culture that had lost its bearings, like a runaway carriage careening down a hillside. All heralded a retreat from civilization, order, and liberty to unbridled barbarism.
Burckhardt is not an historian for those who nourish illusions about the upward march of progress and material prosperity. That is why he is regarded as a “pessimist” by most scholars. It may be more accurate to deem him a realist, however, since his study of history taught him the hard, fixed truths about mankind.
At the same time, Burckhardt’s “pessimism” is colored by what we may call cautious hope. On the one hand, the Zeitgeist gives little reason for confidence in the future, since it is obvious that the powers of darkness are gathering themselves around our civilization on all sides. Yet, Burckhardt believed, there remains a possibility that history might abruptly turn in another direction, as it has from time to time, and that the frightful spectre of totalitarianism might be dispelled or delayed. We must always, he counsels, “reckon with invisible forces, with miracles.”
Burckhardt’s histories are not diatribes or “calls to arms.” He was, let us be clear, a humble professor at a modest university in a small country, possessing not the slightest inkling of his own greatness or importance. He lectured for the sake of his students, to arouse in them a keener understanding, and deeper love, of history. Never did he imagine that his lecture notes would become classics, that they would be published in many languages and cherished by men long after his death. The notion of his becoming a lightning rod of controversy held no attraction for him, yet he was aware that his convictions were unpopular, and contradicted the “conventional wisdom” of the time. Consequently, his somber view of mankind, his mistrust of modernity, his fear for the future of his beloved European culture, and his “pessimism,” are dispersed within his commentaries, which in fact make these commentaries uniquely valuable and insightful. Burckhardt observes that modern centralized democracy and its collateral agents in high finance, big business, and the press, strive to manipulate the men whom they supposedly represent or serve, conducting them down predetermined paths. They exploit baser human instincts, thereby blinding people with passion in order to rob them of their freedom, especially freedom of mind and spirit.
The ceaseless promotion of “equality” is an example of this, for equality is a two-edged sword, Burckhardt writes, signifying the “abdication of the individual.” Centralized democracy ever seeks to make free men dependent on government for basic needs. “Once people have become accustomed to the state as the sole guardian of rights and public welfare,” Burckhardt remarks, “even the will to decentralize no longer helps.” People are made weak and flabby, so that they demand the expansion of government controls and “benefits.”
The author admonishes that “despite all the talk about freedom, peoples and governments demand unlimited state power internally.” Among other things, this leads to “an immeasurable increase of militarism and also a colossal increase in state debts, which is in striking contrast with the general mania for money-making and the desire for high living.” Ultimately, since they are comparatively comfortable, the people accept “voluntary servitude under individual leaders and usurpers; people no longer believe in principles, but from time to time they do believe in saviors. A new possibility of long despotism over weary people presents itself again and again.” I wholeheartedly recommend this edition of Judgments on History and Historians as well its companion volume, Burckhardt’s Reflections on History, also published by the Liberty Fund.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This review was originally published in the New American in 1999.