Jacob Burckhardt ~ Historian
Jacob Burckhardt, later famous as a Renaissance Cultural
historian, was born in Basel, where his father was a minister in
the Reformed church, in May 1818. He himself embarked upon a
theological course in 1837 but changed to historical studies
being educated therein at the universities of Basel and Berlin
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
Whilst at Berlin he attended lectures delivered by Leopold von
Ranke. He also spent some of 1841 at Bonn where he was influenced
by the Art Historian Franz Kugler.
With the exception of three years (1855-58), during which he
taught at the Zürich Polytechnic Institute, he spent the
following half century (1843-93) as lecturer and, (from 1858), as
professor of the history of art and civilization at the
University of Basel. It was in this later period that Burckhardt
lost his faith but did not advertise this out of respect for his
Burckhardt is known to posterity as the Father of Cultural
History. While earlier historians had concentrated on political
and military history, Burckhardt discussed the total life of the
people, including religion, art and literature. He wrote "And all
things are sources - not only books, but the whole of life and
every kind of spiritual manifestation." At the age of nineteen
Burckhardt had made a trip to into the Italian peninsula and
subsequently maintained that he had found there "a core of
commitment around which his fantasies could crystalise." His
later career as an historian was to reflect this early
fascination with aspects of the history of the Italian
Burckhardt's first important work was The Age of Constantine
the Great (1852; trans. 1949), a study of the Roman Empire in the
4th century AD, in which he analyzed the decay of classical
civilization and the triumph of Christianity.
"What was intended was not a history of
the life and death of Constantine, nor yet an encyclopedia of all
worth-while information pertaining to his period. Rather were the
significant and essential characteristics of the contemporary
world to be outlined and shaped into a perspicious view of the
Burckhardt's Age of Constantine was followed by The Cicerone: A
Guide to the Works of Art in Italy (1855; trans. 1873), which
became extremely popular, The Civilization of the Renaissance in
Italy (1860; trans. 1878), his most famous work, and the History
of the Renaissance in Italy (1867).
It is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy on which
his reputation chiefly rests. In this work Burckhardt traced the
cultural patterns of transition from the medieval period to the
awakening of the modern spirit and creativity of the Renaissance.
He saw the transition as one from a society in which people were
primarily members of a class or community to a society that
idealized the self-conscious individual. The term Renaissance
suggesting a re-birth of individualistic accomplishment after a
long intermission since the Classical Age. The term itself had
been coined in this regard by the French historian Jules Michelet
A much quoted passage from The Civilization of the Renaissance
in Italy depicts a dramatic alteration in the outlook of many
"both sides of human consciousness - the
side turned to the world and that turned inward - lay, as it
were, beneath a common veil, dreaming or half awake. The veil was
woven of faith, childlike prejudices, and illusion; seen through
it, world and history appeared in strange hues; man recognized
himself only as a member of a race, a nation, a party, a
corporation, a family, or in some other general category. It was
in Italy that this veil first melted into thin air, and awakened
an objective perception and treatment of the state and all
things of this world in general; but by its side, and with full
power, there also arose the subjective; man becomes a
self-aware individual and recognises himself as
At the time Burkhardt wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance
in Italy there was little in the way of accepted knowledge about
what we today regard as "the Renaissance." His work was accepted
as demonstrating that the shift from corporate medieval society
to the modern spirit occurred in "Renaissance" Italy in the 14th
and 15th century and, to a great extent, moulded the modern
concept of the European Renaissance as a necessary and positive
break with the outlook and society that preceded it.
Burckhardt's work remains one of the most important on the
subject of the Renaissance. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga
called it, "that transcendent masterpiece." The first three parts
of the book are held to be especially good - readable and
interesting, profound and philosophical.
Whilst certain people flourished as individuals during the
Renaissance and, in cases, were responsible for artistic,
literary or scientific achievements that are recognised as
representing advances in their fields it was often the case that
other people were somewhat socially displaced by the advent of
the new, individualistic, milieu and found it to be something
they were effectively "compelled to endure."
The new tendency to cultivate an individualistic personality
and to seek to achieve, as an individual, resulted in many kinds
of self-expression some of them aggressive. It was in these times
that the Italian peninsula featured a number of "tyrant rulers"
and bands of often ill disciplined mercenary soldiers known as
condottieri who participated in diverse local wars
contested between the rulers of Italian states.
It often happened that an individuals desire to achieve
greatness as a ruler or to become famous as a condottieri
tended to disrupt the chances of a peaceful existence being
enjoyed many other persons. Several historians had opportunity to
record "striking and terrible" enterprises that were embarked
upon because of a "burning desire to do something great and
Individuality reached its zenith, according to Burckhardt, in
the Renaissance humanists, who turned their backs on
Christianity, revered the ancients, and tried to live and write
like the ancients.
Similarly in the visual arts for most of the next three
hundred years, the great artistic personalities of the sixteenth
centuries [Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian] loomed so
large that their predecessors seemed to belong to a forgotten
era. When they were finally rediscovered, people still
acknowledged the high Renaissance as the turning point by
referring to all painters before Raphael as 'the
Burckhardt established the thesis that Renaissance art
represented a break with the past, wherein representation became
scientific, realistic, individualistic and humane; the visual
analogue to the birth of the modern sensibility, one which left
behind the superstitious mindset of the Dark Ages. With
qualifications, that thesis remains more or less the rule in the
present, and is one reason that museums, such as the Uffizi in
Florence, generally display works of art chronologically: so
multitudes of students and aficionados can follow, with their own
eyes, the elevation of art from its Gothic, one dimensional,
iconic forms to its Renaissance, three dimensional,
If qualified historians no longer speak of the Dark Ages, they
still refer to the period before the fourteenth century as the
Middle Ages or the Mediaeval Era - with most of the pejorative
connotations of the Dark Ages still implied. They echo the
writers and historians of the early Renaissance, of Dante and
Petrarch and Alberti, who argued that the Renaissance generation
broke with the superstitions of the past, recovered the best of
the Classical world, and ushered in a new dawn of
Despite his interest in the dramatic, often extravagantly
violent or sensual, Renaissance era Burckhardt himself lived a
life of quiet routine in Basel. He refused many flattering
invitations to take up academic appointments in other
Universities and also declined invitations to give lectures. He
showed no particular enthusiasm for the encouragements that were
sometimes offered by family or friends that he enter into married
Jacob Burckhardt retired from teaching in 1893 and died in
Basel, August 1897.
Jacob Burckhardt quotes
"Thus what the word Renaissance really means is new birth to liberty—the spirit of mankind recovering consciousness and the power of self-determination,
recognizing the beauty of the outer world and of the body through art, liberating the reason in science and the conscience in religion, restoring culture to
the intelligence, and establishing the principle of political freedom."
"It is the historian's function, not to make us clever for the next time, but to make us wise forever."
"The biggest mischief in the past century has been perpetrated by Rousseau
with his doctrine of the goodness of human nature. The mob and the
intellectuals derived from it the vision of a Golden Age which would
arrive without fail once the noble human race could act according to its
"The more recently power has originated, the less it can remain stationary -
first because those who created it have become accustomed to rapid
further movement and because they are and will be innovators per se;
secondly, because the forces aroused or subdued by them can be employed
only through further acts."
"To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a great civilization present a different picture. In the wide ocean upon
which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for my work might easily, in other hands, not
only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead to essentially different conclusions."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential
to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.
In the later eighteen-twenties Ralph Waldo Emerson read, and was very significantly influenced by, a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.
A key section of Cousin's work reads as follows:
"What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man : evidently man and human nature.
There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity,
and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. …
… Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the
nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations."
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1829)
Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness.
(Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)
In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization.
(Journal entry of December, 1824)
Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books …
(This dates from January - February, 1828)
The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II
Plato, Socrates and Shakespeare endorse a 'Tripartite Soul' view of Human Nature. Platos' Republic
Popular European History pages
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy
of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is
illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by
nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,
the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every
faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;
all the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws. Each law
in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of
nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole
encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in
one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie
folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,
kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application
of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.