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Summary Article: Burckhardt, Jacob
From The Classical Tradition

Translated by Patrick Baker

Swiss art and cultural historian (1818-1897). Along with Bachofen and Nietzsche, Burckhardt is one of the most important representatives of an anti-classicizing vision of antiquity in German-speaking areas, and he is among the first to apply the methods of cultural history to the study of antiquity in the 19th century.

Burckhardt owed his intellectual formation to the social, political, and cultural milieu of the Swiss city-state of Basel, where he was born. He initially wanted to become a minister, like his father, but his experience with historical and critical biblical scholarship caused him to abandon his study of theology. He turned instead to history and art history, which he studied in Bonn and Berlin under Welcker, Kugler, Ranke, Böckh, and Droysen. In his student years he had liberal political leanings. After his return to Switzerland he took a conservative turn as the politics editor for the Basler Zeitung (1844-1845), which made him the representative of an "aristocratic liberalism" (Kahan 1992). Burckhardt taught history and art history from 1854 to 1858 at the ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) in Zurich and from 1858 to 1893 at the University of Basel. He died in Basel in 1897.

Burckhardt's historical judgment is characterized by skepticism, irony, and laconism. In contrast to the historiography of his time, including both historicism and the Hegelian philosophy of history, he insisted on respecting the ambivalences and antinomies of historical development. He focused his attention on historical crises and the processes of transformation to which they gave rise. His judgments were informed by the critical stance he took to the modernizing trends of the 19th century: the movements for political and social emancipation brought about by the French Revolution; the rise of modern mass society; the decrease in importance of small, independent states with respect to the mighty nation-states; and the subordination of culture to the needs of the state and the economy in the wake of industrialization.

Burckhardt's criticism of modernity also molded his view of antiquity, and it brought him into conflict, as it did Nietzsche, with the classicism of Goethe and Winckelmann as well as with neohumanism in the tradition of Humboldt.

Burckhardt's importance as a historian lies in his development of a method of cultural history as an alternative to the strict narration of political events. He replaced the chronologically structured, linear historical narrative with a panoramic tableau of significant elements, out of which emerged the general picture of an epoch. Alongside the two other historical "forces," state and religion, Burckhardt theorized in his Reflections on History that "culture" (or "civilization") operated as the historically productive and symptomatic element: "its action on the two constants (state and religion) is one of perpetual modification and disintegration"; "it is the critic of both, the clock which tells the hour at which their form and substance no longer coincide" (93).

Burckhardt's study of antiquity was corner-and capstone to his work as a historian. His first book, The Age of Constantine the Great (1853), deals with the "end" of antiquity and its transformation in the transition to the Middle Ages. Late antiquity, whose formation Burckhardt puts in the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce, is depicted as a period of crisis but also of continuity for the European cultural tradition. The sum of Burckhardt's thought on the aims and methods of cultural history is found, after his exemplary Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), in his lectures on Greek cultural history (originally held in 1872, published between 1898 and 1902).

Besides its influential description of the polis—Burckhardt introduced the term into modern scholarship as a designation for the specific political and sociocultural organizing principle of Greek civilization—The Greeks and Greek Civilization brought together a plethora of new perspectives, judgments, and insights: for example, the emphasis on the fundamental importance of rhetoric for understanding ancient culture; a fair assessment of the Sophists; the identification of Roman philhellenism and of Rome's importance for the continued influence of Greek culture; the theory of agon as a dynamic element in Greek cultural development; insight into the correlation between cultural development and slavery; and the investigation of popular religion (dream interpretation, belief in spirits) and the relationship of the Greeks to the irrational.

Burckhardt's and Nietzsche's emphasis on the "dark sides" of ancient culture are in many respects complementary as critiques of historicism and philhellenism. Their views have been supplemented and carried forward by Erwin Rohde, Hermann Usener, and Aby Warburg, among others.

  • Bauer, S., Polisbild und Demokratieverständnis in Jacob Burckhardts "Griechischer Kulturgeschichte" (Basel2001).
  • Burckhardt, J., The Age of Constantine the Great trans. Hadas, Moses (New York1949); The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy trans. Middlemore, C. G. C. (New York1958); The Greeks and Greek Civilization trans. Sheila Stern, ed. Murray, Oswyn (London1998); Reflections on History trans. Hottinger, Marie D. (1943, repr. Indianapolis 1979); Werke 27 vols. (Munich2000--).
  • Burckhardt, L. and Gehrke, H. -J., Jacob Burckhardt und die Griechen (Basel2006).
  • Casaba, A. and Gossman, L., eds., Begegnungen mit Jacob Burckhardt/Encounters with Jacob Burckhardt (Basel2004).
  • Gossman, L., Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonal Ideas (Chicago2000).
  • Kaegi, W., Jacob Burckhardt: Eine Biographie 7 vols. (Basel 1947--1982).
  • Kahan, A., Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (New York1992).
B.V. R.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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