Age of the Sage site banner

Leopold von Ranke's
perspective of history

Leopold von Ranke - Historicism

The son of an attorney, and a scion of an old Lutheran theological family, Leopold von Ranke was born in Wiehe, Thuringia, in December 1795 and later became a famous German historian and educator. Thuringia was then part of the Kingdom of Saxony but was awarded to Prussia by the peace terms of 1815 at the close of the Napoleonic wars.

Ranke attended the famous Pforta private school and, after further study at the Universities of Leipzig and Halle, he worked as a schoolmaster teaching Greek and Roman classics at the Gymnasium in Frankfort-on-the-oder; this post being one held within the Prussian system. It was only whilst employed as a schoolmaster at Frankfurt that he began to consider attempting to become seriously involved in historical studies initially with the view to improving his knowledge of the classical ages in order to be a better teacher.

His first book, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494-1514 (1824) written at Frankfort, included an appended section entitled Zur Kritik neuerer Geschictschreiber (critique of modern historical writing) that presented a convincing criticism of contemporary historiography condemning its reliance on tradition and proposed, instead, his own more objective method. Ranke's aim was to reconstruct the unique periods of the past as they actually were and to avoid injecting the history of former times with the spirit of the present; this approach to historiography is known as Historicism.
Ranke intended that his perspective of history would be applicable to modern history - Barthold Niebuhr had already pioneered a scientific method of historical investigation to be applied to ancient history. As a student Ranke had studied, and been greatly impressed by Niebuhr's Roman History - he acknowledged a debt to Niebuhr whose approach had been a source of backround inspiration.

Ranke distrusted historical textbooks and turned, at every convenient opportunity, to the study of more original sources. This method Ranke later developed to feature a primarily reliance on the "narratives of eye-witnesses and the most genuine immediate documents." He considered that "the strict presentation of the facts, contingent and unattractive though they may be, is undoubtedly the supreme law."

Ranke's Zur Kritik neuerer Geschictschreiber was favourably noticed by the Prussian minister of education and, in 1825, he was rewarded with a supernumerary professorship at the University of Berlin that initiated what were to become more than fifty years of association between Ranke and that University.
This appointment brought with it opportunities of access to the Prussian royal library.

Further studies resulted in Ranke's second book on the Ottomans and the Spanish monarchy and the quality of this work invited the continued favour of the Prussian authority which agreed to facilitate Ranke's studies being further undertaken in archives in Vienna. From these times (1827) Ranke was enabled, by the support of Gentz, to gain the protection of the powerful Austrian minister Metternich and this was to allow him very wide access to archived materials and thereby to gain very valuable information from Venetian and other sources located in Vienna.
Between 1828-31 Ranke pursued his lonely, sincere, and path-breaking studies, in the Italian peninsula where Metternich's influence had the power to open every door except those in the Vatican.
Most of these archived sources had not been seriously accessed by any historical scholar in the past and Ranke's researches in Vienna and the Italian peninsula provided the material for some of the most respected historical writing of the age.

The Prussian authority sought to employ Ranke's talents, for a time, in the editorship of the Historische-Politische-Zeitschrift, a periodical that was intended to help to defend the Prussian Government against the rising tide of liberal and democratic opinion. In this role, which lasted some four years, Ranke produced some of the best political thought that had appeared in the Germanies for a long time. Two famous essays The Great Powers, which surveys great power rivalry, and A Political Conversation, which treats with the nature of the state and its relationship with the citizen, date from this period.
A talent for historical and political scholarship proved, however, to be somewhat ill matched to the intended task of impairing the effectiveness of the expression of democratic aspirations.
Ranke was thus able to return to historical study and authorship.

His subsequent works cover the histories of the major European countries and include the History of the Popes During the 16th and 17th Centuries (1834-36), History of the Reformation in Germany (1839-47), Civil Wars and Monarchy in France in the 16th and 17th Centuries (1852).

He was awarded the security, and much enhanced salary, of a full professorship in Berlin in 1837 and was appointed as Prussian historiographer by King Frederick William IV in 1841.

He died in May, 1886 at the age of 91; the last ten years of his life having been given over to a Weltgeschichte (universal history) that Ranke had been able to bring, over nine volumes, to the end of the 15th century at the time of his death.

As a historian, Ranke's perspective of history attempted to put aside prevailing theories and prejudices and by the scrupulous use of primary sources to present an unvarnished picture of the facts. Nevertheless, because he viewed political power as the principal agent in history he tended to emphasize political history, dwelling upon the deeds of kings and leaders and ignoring economic and social forces.
A famous educator, he introduced the seminar as a method of teaching history and trained a generation of influential scholars. Since Ranke's time the seminar method of teaching history has become very widely adopted.
At the time of his death Ranke was regarded as the foremost historian in the world. Ranke's method of Historicism has largely pioneered the modern insistence on rigorously analyzing firsthand documentation. He has variously been described as "The greatest German historian", "The Father of the objective writing of history", and "The founder of the science of history."

Ranke does occasionally adopt a literary approach in his writing of history that tends to build up to a presentation of historical climaxes and also to build up certain historical figures whose contributions are deemed to be particularly significant. This adds to the readability and the drama of Ranke's works but it may not be strictly true that such literary effectiveness is fully in line with history "as it had really been."

Ranke aimed at an universal or world view of history, but his basic mood was nationalistic and conservative, accepting of monarchy and sincerely religious, the massive changes after the French Revolution are hardly discussed. Ranke seems to have seen the role of liberalism as being perhaps confined to the calling of the attention of statesmen to wrongs that needed correction.

His books on Prussian history contained, with no intention for it to be used for propaganda purposes, the seeds for a Prussian national German picture of history. This legacy compels one to critical reflection, but at the same time it points to a flourishing time in historical research at the Berlin University, started by Ranke, which above all Max Lenz and Friedrich Meinecke were able to continue.

Leopold von Ranke quotes

"You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was."

"From the particular, one can carefully and boldly move up to the general; from general theories, there is no way of looking at the particular."

"I see the time approaching when we shall base modern history, no longer on the reports even of contemporary historians, except insofar as they were in the possession of personal and immediate knowledge of facts; and still less on work yet more remote from the source; but rather on the narratives of eyewitnesses, and on genuine and original documents."

page content divider


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
at Age-of-the-Sage

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.