Jacob Burckhardt and the Elusiveness of Historical Understanding

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
11 min readMay 26, 2024

Saturday 25 May 2024 is the 206th anniversary of the birth of Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (25 May 1818 to 08 August 1897), who was born in Basel, Switzerland, on this date in 1818.

Burckhardt was a student of Leopold von Ranke and a teacher of Friedrich Nietzsche, which places him in a particular lineage of Germanophone history and philosophy — in other words, both Burckhardt and his work in history themselves have histories, and these histories were intertwined with other related lineages. Burckhardt kept up a correspondence with this former student Nieztsche, and in a letter of 22 September 1886 to Burckhardt written from Sils Maria, Nietzsche said of himself and Burckhardt:

“I know nobody who shares with me as many prepossessions as you yourself; it seems to me that you have had the same problems in view — that you are working on the same problems in a similar way, perhaps even more forcefully and deeply than I, because you are less loquacious. But then I am younger… The mysterious conditions of any growth in culture, that extremely dubious relation between what is called the ‘improvement’ of man (or even ‘humanization’) and the enlargement of the human type, above all, the contradiction between every moral concept and every scientific concept of life — enough, enough — here is a problem which we fortunately share with not very many persons, living or dead.”

What exactly were these shared problems? Was Nietzsche thinking of himself as an historian and therefore sharing Burckhardt’s problems as an historian? Or was Nietzsche thinking of Burckhardt being an unprofessed philosopher who was engaged in the same problems that interested Nietzsche as a philosopher? Or was it something different, or something more? What united the thought of Burckhardt and Nietzsche?

A careful reading of the scholarly lineage of Ranke, Burckhardt, and Nietzsche will reveal both the continuities and the divergencies that constitute this particular tradition of Germanophone history and philosophy, but like everything else that participates in history, Burkhardt’s thought belonged to more than one tradition and can be categorized under more than one label. Hugh Trevor-Roper compared Lord Acton to Burckhardt and Alexis de Toqueville, saying that they,

“…belonged to that unfashionable élite of the nineteenth century, the aristocratic historical pessimists…” (Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History, with an Introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Fontana Library, 1960, p. 8)

This tradition of unfashionable elites has its own continuities and divergencies, as with the tradition defined by the lineage of Ranke to Burckhardt to Nietzsche. Nietzsche called Burckhardt a “radical nihilist” (Nietzsche on Burckhardt and Taine in a letter of 21 May 1887: “We are at root all three committed to one another, as three radical nihilists”). Alan Kahan has called Burckhardt an “aristocratic liberal” (Alan S. Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville), and here is yet another classification of Burckhardt from Thomas Albert Howard’s Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W. M. L. de Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness:

“Rooted in Basel’s conservative, religious heritage, Burckhardt’s pessimism has in fact a profoundly Christian — and explicitly premodern Christian — pedigree. It may be described as a secularized continuation of the idea of original sin, an abiding attachment to the orthodox world of his father. Burckhardt does not stress the ontological basis of this idea — human guilt and sin-consciousness — but rather its social consequences — the notion, as Linwood Urban states, that all human thought and action stem from ‘an inherited, bruised, and damaged nature that has distorted and perverted their wills and desires’.” (p. 158)

No doubt it would be a relatively straight-forward matter to find further categories that have been invoked in the attempt to pigeonhole Burckhardt’s elusive thought. We can all agree he was an historian, but he seems to have been more than a historian, but in what this “more” consists is not clear. We hesitate to call him a philosopher of history since Burckhardt himself explicitly disclaimed any philosophy of history: “we have nothing to do with the philosophy of history.” Nietzsche wrote of Burckhardt in a letter to Erwin Rohde during February 1872, “He, who keeps energetically at arm’s length everything philosophical and, above all, everything to do with philosophy of art…”

This theme of Burckhardt keeping philosophy at a distance is also found in Karl Löwith. The first chapter of Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History is concerned with Burckhardt, and there is something particularly appropriate in this. Löwith’s book is more a non-philosophy of history, or a denial of the very possibility of a philosophy of history, than a philosophy of history. Given Burckhardt’s elusiveness, and because of his explicit denial of having a philosophy of history, like Löwith I call Burckhardt a non-philosopher of history, along with Descartes and Simone Weil.

Burckhardt himself was a historian, so with him we can play the game of the practicing historian who eschews philosophy, or perhaps who is too busy with history to spare the time to reflect on his discipline. Of Burckhardt Löwith wrote:

“…there is some kind of permanence in the very flux of history, namely, its continuity. This is the only principle discernible in Burckhardt’s Reflections on History, the one thin thread that holds together his observations after he has dismissed the systematic interpretations by philosophy and theology. The whole significance of history depends for Burckhardt on continuity as the common standard of all particular historical evaluations. If a radical crisis really disrupted history’s continuity, it would be the end of a historical epoch, but not a ‘historical’ crisis.” (p. 21)

Continuity, then, is the slender thread of Burckhardt’s conception of history. Later in the same chapter Löwith notes the inadequacy of this minimalist philosophy of history:

“…on the basis of such an outlook, neither a philosophy nor a theology of history can be constructed. The thin thread of mere continuity, without beginning, progress, and end, does not support such a system.” (p. 26)

This serves Löwith’s end as a denial of the possibility of a legitimate philosophy of history, but, still, we come back to Burckhardt and time and again find insights into history that we do not find elsewhere. It is in the nature of the rational mind to seek order and pattern, so we naturally seek order and pattern in the thought of Burckhardt no less than philosophers of history seek to find order and pattern in the events of history.

Less timid in finding a definite point of view in Burckhardt than Löwith is Egon Flaig, who finds in Burckhardt three premises that formed his conception of history, as well as his warning to the world concerning the history yet to come:

“Burckhardt’s conception of contemporary history revolves around three premises. He postulates, first, that no distinction exists between ‘radical’ and ‘representative’ democracy; any kind of ‘restraint’ that the principle of representation might impose on the will of the masses ultimately fails to be effective due to the basic sovereignty of the people in all types of democratic government; secondly, that political equality inevitably produces the desire for social equality, and that the fight for social equality that ensues throws society into class struggles; and thirdly, that class struggles dramatically lower the moral standard of society as a whole: they generate a historical constellation in which social life falls increasingly under the sway of base material motives that lack any cultural dimension whatsoever; at that point, the danger arises that outright civil wars will tear the very fabric of society into pieces.” (“Philosophy of History and Theory of Historiography in Jacob Burckhardt” by Egon Flaig, included in The Discovery of Historicity in German Idealism and Historism, edited by Peter Koslowski, p. 80)

In several places Burckhardt forecast difficult times ahead for Europe — perhaps this is understood to be the “pessimism” that is frequently attributed to him — but Burckhardt also saw that there would be recovery after the difficult times. There is a famous passage from one of Burckhardt’s letters (to Hermann Schauenburg on 28 February 1846) which both warns of times to come, but also looks forward to what can be rebuilt from the ashes:

“…before universal barbarism breaks in (and for the moment I can foresee nothing else) I want to debauch myself with a real eyeful of aristocratic culture, so that, when the social revolution has exhausted itself for a moment, I shall be able to take an active part in the inevitable restoration — ‘if the Lord wills, and we live’, of course. Just wait and you will see the sort of spirits that are going to rise out of the ground during the next twenty years! Those that now hop about in front of the curtain, the communist poets and painters and their like, are mere Bajazzi, just preparing the public. You none of you know as yet what the people are, and how easily they turn into a barbarian horde. You don’t know what a tyranny is going to be exercised on the spirit on the pretext that culture is the secret ally of capital, that must be destroyed. Those who hope to direct the movement with the help of their philosophy, and keep it on the right lines, seem to me completely idiotic. They are the Feuillants of the coming movement, and like the French Revolution it will develop like a natural phenomenon, involving everything that is hellish in human nature. I do not want to experience those times, unless I am obliged to do so; for I want to help to save things, as far as my humble station allows. For you I have no fears; I know well enough on which side events will find you. We may all perish; but at least I want to discover the interest for which I am to perish, namely, the old culture of Europe. It seems to me as though, when the time comes, we should meet in the same holy company. Shake yourself free from your illusions, Hermann! Out of the storm a new existence will arise, formed, that is, upon old and new foundations; that is your place and not in the forefront of irresponsible action. Our destiny is to help build anew when the crisis is past.”

You can read this as pessimism or as optimism as you prefer. It is only from the Enlightenment perspective that insists that all history must be progress, which is a nearly universal presupposition that Burckhardt seems to be escaped, that a near-term catastrophe is problematic, even if it is dressed up in the most seductive slogans as it unfolds, and is eventually superseded by restoration and rebuilding.

The most famous work of Burckhardt is unquestionably The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, originally published in 1860 as Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien. In the title of the book is “Renaissance.” Burckhardt did not write The Civilization of Early Modern Italy (nor indeed Die Kultur des frühneuzeitlichen Italiens), but this change came long after Burckhardt’s time. Western historians have traditionally worked from a tripartite periodization of western history into ancient, medieval and modern, with modern history further subdivided into the renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the romantic era, the modernity.

These familiar periodizations are rife with ambiguity. “Modern” can mean the period following romanticism, or it can mean the entire period since the end of the middle ages. The re-Christening of the beginnings of modernism as “early modern” usually covers the period 1500–1800, and so includes not only the renaissance, but also the Reformation and much of the Enlightenment.

Burckhardt’s work brought the idea of the renaissance, and especially the Italian renaissance, to prominence, and partly this was the fact of his historically isolating some persons and events in Italy and grouping them together in the periodization of the renaissance. Historians in the twentieth century began to de-emphasize the renaissance and preferred the “early modern” nomenclature, but works like Burckhardt’s, and Walter Pater’s The Renaissance will not allow the idea of the renaissance as a distinctive period in history to be entirely lost. Of periodization Burckhardt says in the Introduction to The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy:

“It is the most serious difficulty of the history of civilisation that a great intellectual process must be broken up into single, and often into what seem arbitrary categories, in order to be in any way intelligible.”

Periodization and continuity are two forces in tension in history. The historian needs to legitimize the period he has chosen to narrate, erecting a periodization, or relying on an existing periodization, but also needs to show the continuity within the period in question, as well as the continuity that connects a given period to the period that preceded it and to the period that follows it. In this passage Burckhardt says that periods seem like arbitrary categories, implying that there may be a reality behind the seeming, which sets up the possibility of a metaphysics of history that can make a distinction between historical appearance and historical reality. (I discussed some of these problems of periodization in my episode on Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux.)

The source of most of Burckhardt’s thought on history apart from the actual histories he wrote of Constantine the Great and the Italian renaissance are lecture notes posthumously published as Reflections on History (Weltgeschictliche Betrachtungen); these writings have been published under many titles. They include a short work of interconnected remarks known as “On Fortune and Misfortune in History,” which is perhaps the most compact expression of Burckhardt’s views, and it is an enigmatic as the rest of his work. Here again we find a reflection upon continuity:

“The most justified indictments which we seem to have the right to bring against fate are those which concern the destruction of great works of art and literature. We might possibly be ready to forego the learning of the ancient world, the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum; we have enough to do to cope with the learning of modern times, but we mourn for the supreme poets whose works have been lost, and the historians too represent an irreparable loss because the continuity of intellectual tradition has become fragmentary over long and important periods. But that continuity is a prime concern of man’s earthly life, and a metaphysical proof of the significance of its duration, for whether a spiritual continuity existed without our knowledge, in an organ unknown to us, we cannot tell, and in any case cannot imagine it, hence we most urgently desire that the awareness of that continuity should remain living in our minds.”

And we find such frankly philosophical remarks as the following:

“Since mind, like matter, is mutable, and the changes of time bear away ceaselessly the forms which are the vesture of material as of spiritual life, the task of history as a whole is to show its twin aspects, distinct yet identical, proceeding from the fact that, firstly, the spiritual, in whatever domain it is perceived, has a historical aspect under which it appears as change, as the contingent, as a passing moment which forms part of a vast whole beyond our power to divine, and that, secondly, every event has a spiritual aspect by which it partakes of immortality.”

Much could be made of these and other passages for anyone who wished to read Burckhardt carefully and to recover from his scattered observations a coherent conception of history. There are many constructions that we could build on this tentative and uncertain foundation, but Burckhardt chose not to build further on these thoughts. Perhaps the value of Burckhardt’s perspective is to be found in the ambiguity of his engagement with the larger concepts of history. Every explicit claim is countered by another claim of apparently equal weight. This is how the historian weighs history. He takes a position neither for nor against the process of history. He sees the spectacle of history, and, if he is true to the discipline, he sees it for what it is.