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A Passion for the Past

The Greeks and Greek Civilization

Jacob Burckhardt, edited by Oswyn Murray, translated from the German by Sheila Stern
St. Martin’s, 449 pp., $27.95; $16.95 (paper)


In 1852, a youngish scholar from Basel, Jacob Burckhardt, inscribed a copy of his first substantial book, The Age of Constantine the Great, “with the greatest respect” to his teacher, Leopold von Ranke. The term Burckhardt wrote on the flyleaf—hochachtungsvoll—belonged to the German language’s ample repertoire of conventional salutations, but he used it with sincerity. In the 1840s he had studied history and art history in Berlin. As late as 1889, when Burckhardt followed a Basel custom and wrote the eulogy to be read aloud at his own memorial service, he eloquently recalled how he had “submitted two substantial pieces of work to Ranke’s seminar and received the great teacher’s approval as his reward.”1

Ranke, whose panoramic, colorful narrative histories of early modern European history had made him world-famous, showed mixed feelings as he examined his former student’s gift—a pioneering study in what would now be called the cultural history of late antiquity. The book aimed not to tell the story of Constantine’s life or to analyze his regime in detail, but to re-create the spiritual atmosphere of the age in which the Roman Empire became Christian. In a second note which Ranke entered under his student’s dedication, as a form of reply to it, he praised Burckhardt’s “noble treatment of art,” but complained that “he doesn’t go deeply enough into the historical questions.” In the end, he reflected, Burckhardt was simply “too clever.”2 Burckhardt’s new form of history—which would eventually yield brilliant books on the Italian Renaissance and the culture of ancient Greece—both fascinated and irritated the Altmeister who had trained him.

Burckhardt’s formal homage and Ranke’s dusty answer—both written on the flyleaf of Ranke’s presentation copy, and concealed for decades by the date stamp slip pasted into the book by the Syracuse University Library, which houses Ranke’s books—epitomize a great debate about the nature and purpose of history. The German-speaking world of the nineteenth century was obsessed with the study of the past. In the decades leading up to 1800, the neat clockwork monarchies of the Holy Roman Empire were already throwing gears and missing strokes. Unemployed intellectuals and starving peasants threatened the stable, meticulously policed social order which state and city governments had maintained for generations. After 1789, in the era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire, the entire German world heaved and shook. The nature of the past—and the relation between past and present—became newly urgent.

Universities welcomed new forms of historical research and historical thought—from the seminars, where eager young men were initiated into the new critical methods of Ranke and Niebuhr, to the lecture halls, which resounded with versions of Hegel’s dialectic. Many hoped for a restoration of the happy pre-revolutionary past. But liberals also embraced the burden of history in many forms. Heavy sets of Ranke that weighed down the dark wood shelves in their glass-fronted bookcases. Heavier pastiches of Periclean Athens, Hanseatic Germany, Renaissance Florence, and Baroque Rome housed their universities, parliaments, and theaters. Even as industrial development reshaped European cities, as city governments threw down ancient walls, carved broad boulevards through old neighborhoods, and hurled elegantly spare steel-framed bridges across rivers, Germans and Austrians built and rebuilt the magnificent, sometimes wildly out-of-scale imitations of the old forms that still amaze—and sometimes appall—strollers on the Vienna Ringstrasse and the central and western parts of Berlin.3

The German world’s pervasive passion for the past did not create anything like a consensus about its meaning. Religious and national differences dictated radically different criteria of evaluation. Historians debated everything from the meaning of events to the nature of history itself. A string of research centers took shape, as princes and ministers tried to show that they too, like the rulers of Prussia, appreciated the new learning. These cultivated local styles, sometimes radically different from one another. Technical debates about historical method could become as intense as discussions motivated by ideology—especially when careers were involved, as they often were.

No island in the archipelago of universities and societies that stretched across the German-speaking world flowered with more striking and colorful forms of history than Basel, the Swiss city from which Burckhardt came to Berlin. And no nineteenth-century historical debates would prove more complex or remain more instructive, even now, than those that periodically flared between the historians of the Swiss city of printers, dyers, and makers of silk ribbons and those of the ancient Prussian garrison town which became, in the later nineteenth century, a vast metropolis.

The contest seems terribly uneven. On the one side stands a single town with a few professors and independent scholars, most of them resolute individualists who had few disciples. On the other rises the metropolis of Berlin, already a city with a great intellectual tradition. Basel University was an old but no longer a famous institution, dominated by the local elite which supplied many of its professors. It had a mere hundred or so students, almost all from local families. Berlin University—a brand-new establishment, designed by Wilhelm von Humboldt to foster scholarly and scientific research—boasted some two thousand students. They flocked like moths to the great luminaries like Ranke, coming not only from outside Prussia but from outside the German-speaking world. Nineteenth-century Basel produced modest learned societies, which sponsored the study and publication of historical sources. Berlin—which housed not only a university, but an older and equally famous Academy of Sciences—sprouted large-scale collective enterprises like the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum—entire institutes designed to gather, edit, and comment on the sources of ancient and medieval history. These employed numerous young researchers, developing what came to be called “science as heavy industry”—a new form of intellectual work that resembled, in some ways, the real heavy industries being developed by Borsig, Siemens, and others. In Basel vs. Berlin, a featherweight confronted the heavyweight champion of the international world of learning.

Amazingly, David managed at least a draw with Goliath. The great industrial enterprises of scholarship founded in Berlin have proved their value. The sources they gathered and edited remain essential for anyone working on ancient and medieval history, and their necessary activities continue today. But the Basel scholars, sitting on their little stools, created new perspectives for historians and for practitioners of other human sciences. To this day, we respect the great Berliners, Ranke and Theodor Mommsen. But we ask, and try to answer, Burckhardt’s questions.

Lionel Gossman and Oswyn Murray—two very distinguished but very different scholars—have set out to reveal to English and American readers some of the new shapes of history that came into existence in nineteenth-century Basel. Gossman, an erudite comparatist and intellectual historian, has explored the development of historical research and writing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, producing insightful and elegant studies of Gibbon, Michelet, and the French antiquary La Curne de Sainte Palaye. He has now set the work of two great Basel scholars, Burckhardt and Johann Jacob Bachofen, into a richly detailed context. He reviews at length the city’s economic, social, and cultural history, as well as the development of the historical disciplines his heroes practiced, and uses all of these factors to account for their achievements.

Murray, a pioneering student of Greek society and culture, has also done highly original work on the history of scholarship, in both the ancient and the modern world. Working in collaboration with the translator Sheila Stern, he has made available a partial but reliable translation of Burckhardt’s last, unfinished masterpiece, The Cultural History of Greece. In his compact, well-informed introduction, Murray shows that the Basel scholar rethought Greek history from its foundations. He refused to envision the ancient Greeks in the terms of Neo-Hellenic orthodoxy which were repeated in lectures at every high school and embodied in the plaster Venus on every bourgeois mantelpiece. His imaginary Greece had no sunlit landscape in the style of Puvis de Chavannes, no population of cheerful nymphs and athletes. Burckhardt’s Greeks were clear-eyed pessimists; they had understood “what it is to be human in the modern sense, and to live in the present without hope for the future.” They had dedicated themselves to a lifetime of desperate competition, athletic and artistic, with all comers—though they knew that even the victories that brought an instantaneous fierce joy and won the celebratory poems of Pindar could not yield contentment, when “the whole of life” was concentrated “on a few seconds of terrible tension.” Burckhardt’s Greeks often resembled Nietzsche’s, as Murray shows; no wonder that the younger man greatly admired his older colleague when he began his own brief career as a professor of classical philology in 1869.

Bachofen and Burckhardt emerged, as Gossman makes clear, from the same small, protean group: Basel’s powerful urban elite, a group that remained immensely wealthy and powerful in the nineteenth century, but that saw its political control over the canton gradually slip away as Basel lost its hinterland and then became part of the new federal Switzerland. The tight little walled city which patrician councils had ruled with a watchmaker’s precision, regulating everything from sewage disposal to working hours, never lost its individuality, but gradually became a large industrial center with a wretched, disease-prone population.

The new railways thrust their way in, filling the quiet old city with their melancholy new noises and bringing Basel into close contact with relatively nearby foreign cities like Strasbourg and Tübingen—as well as with the more distant vortices of social and political change, Berlin and Paris. New markets yielded new wealth—but also enticed Basel industrialists to sell the techniques that had once been theirs alone and to move their factories outside the city. Harry Lime, in his famous speech in The Third Man, dismissed Switzerland as the country without a history, which had enjoyed peace for a thousand years and had accordingly produced only the cuckoo clock. In fact, the problem of historical change—the problem that thrust itself on the attention of German and Austrian historians when the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire demolished their old regimes—proved equally inescapable, on a lesser scale, for the Swiss.

Though Bachofen and Burckhardt both came from elite families, their circumstances differed widely: Bachofen was a very rich man, born in a magnificent baroque villa, while Burckhardt came from a modest branch of two rich clans. Both, however, benefited from the excellent education made available to small numbers of boys at the Gymnasium and the Pädagogium—a remarkable institution where university teachers gave courses to boys in their late teens. Both were inspired by their émigré teachers, onetime liberals and radicals from Italy and Germany. And both felt drawn to pursue their interests at that magnetically attractive center of the academic universe, Berlin, where Bachofen studied the history of law with Friedrich Karl von Savigny and Burckhardt studied history, art history, and classical philology with Ranke, Franz Kugler, and August Böckh.

  1. 1

    Jacob Burckhardt, “Lebensrückschau,” Die Kunst der Betrachtung, edited by H. Ritter (Cologne: DuMont, 1997), p. 16.

  2. 2

    Ranke’s copy is now in the Syracuse University Library, Ra937.08 B94.

  3. 3

    See Carl E. Schorske, Thinking with History (Princeton University Press, 1998).

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