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…

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