Jacob Burckhardt- Transcending History

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  • International Phenomenological Society

    Jacob Burckhardt: Transcending HistoryAuthor(s): Albert SalomonReviewed work(s):Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Dec., 1945), pp. 225-269Published by: International Phenomenological SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2102884 .Accessed: 08/01/2012 07:59

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  • JACOB BURCKHARDT: TRANSCENDING HISTORY'

    Das schbnste Glilck des denkenden Menschen ist das Erforschliche erforscht zu haben unrd das Unerforschliche ruhig zu verehren. [Goethe]

    I. THE TYRANNY OF HISTORY

    It is almost an axiom in sociology that radical trends in human thought tend to provoke equally radical opposite attitudes. A most striking example is presented by the development of psychology. The radical insistence on a mechanistic and deterministic psychology brought forth the violent reaction of William James and Henri Bergson, who sought to vindicate the image of the spontaneous human personality. In sociology, we have witnessed time and again the renascence of voluntaristic theories in reaction to naturalistic and absolutely deterministic systems. Even more illuminating is the case of historiography. For centuries the uni- versities and the academies have been engaged in the study and interpreta- tion of history, accumulating vast funds of data, a veritable encyclopedia of the past, valuable in many respects. However, very early in history, rulers and ruled began to use or rather abuse these recollections of the past as a means of justifying their own claims for the future. For centuries individuals and groups had referred their needs and hopes to the perennial law of nature which is supposed to reflect the divine order in the world of man. The revolutionary peasants of the sixteenth century, the revolting feudal lords of the French Fronde, the armored revolutionists in Cromwell's army, all based their claims on the intelligible and unquestioned verities of a divine and natural law. With the rise of secular societies and the development of independent political institutions these ideas began to lose their old potency, making room for the feeling that the life of reason develops in the process of time and has no perennial being of its own. Since the seventeenth century, scientists and philosophers have been fervently proclaiming that truth is the daughter of time and that the moderns are superior to the ancients because of the tremendous progress of -the experi- mental sciences. The idea of progress became the substitute for the tradi- tion of the law of nature. It was first hailed by the scientists and humanists as the characteristic challenge of the intellectual to the pre-scientific obscurantism of the "dark ages." These intellectuals were the first to assume that the material content of historical time was the steady progress

    1 The author wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to Dr. Leo Strauss for some illuminating conversations related to the topic of this essay and his gratitude to Dr. W. Gurian, editor of the Review of Politics, for his gracious permission to quote some paragraphs from the author's article: "Crisis, History, and the Image of Man" (Review of Politics, October, 1940).

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  • 226 PHILOSOPHY AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL RESEARCH

    of knowledge and civilization. They praised the process of history as the most effective element in the growth of intellectual and moral en- lightenment and regarded their own efforts as decisive contributions towards the progress of "Reason." These ideas were eagerly grasped by the political and liberal intellectuals, particularly the American and the French, who applied them to the pressing social problems of their time. They postulated that progress of reason is the true content of the process of time that we call history. They insisted that only when we shall have applied the yardsticks of "reason" to all social problems and institutions shall we succeed in establishing the rule of happiness on earth. History ceased to mean the totality of the past, its deeds and achievements; its sphere was restricted to the development of pragmatic and scientific reason and to their realization within social and political institutions. History had become the knowledge of those trends which prepare situ- ations favorable to the aims of revolutionary groups in modern soci- eties. This new philosophy of history is the articulate expression of the secular and progressive societies of the modern world, a substitute for those past philosophies in which the human world was a part of the meaningful and intelligible whole of the universe.

    History as the philosophy of progress is an expression of the existential attitude of the rising liberal, progressive, and socialist movements of the nineteenth century. Whatever may be the shades of difference between Turgot-Condorcet's rationalistic eschatology, Hegel's dialectical agnosticism, Marx's dialectical economism, Comte's positivism and Spencer's evolutionism-they all have four features in common. First, all these systems assume to know the rational meaning of history. Second, they all are positive about the direction and the end toward which history is moving; they are sure that meaning and social action coincide in the immanence of the social process. Third, they all follow the same pro- cedure-they isolate particular tendencies within the universal whole which serve them as the foundation upon which to construct the unity of their historical system. They attain order and unity by referring human action and thought to an abstract principle which lends history the char- acter of a purposeful and moving spectacle. Philosophies and religions, states and mores, economic systems and moral systems appear as mani- festations of the same principle in the various stages of history. They all seem to emanate from the universal principle; history thus becomes a sort of philosophical totalitarianism which forces all the actions and thoughts of man into a predestined pattern. Finally, all these systems agree on the merely instrumental role of the individual in this process of history. They all postulate this anonymous and blind destiny; it does not matter much whether they call it absolute mind, forces of pro- duction, or spirit of positivism. In all these systems man is an instrument

  • JACOB BURCKHARDT: TRANSCENDING HISTORY 227

    and a blind tool of those enigmatic meanings that rule the historical process. Man exists only in his functional relationship to those abstract principles. He remains the puppet in a show the director of which is unknown; we know only the title of the play. These systems testify to the rise of new societies and of new types of behavior in the mobile world of technical efficiency. Some of those thinkers who were witnesses of the emergence of this new world were aware of its implications. Reflecting on the modernity of Beethoven's "overcrowded" music, Goethe regards it as a characteristic manifestation of the "new century."

    Today everything is "ultra." Everything is radical in thought and action. Nobody knows himself any more, nobody cares for the elements that constitute his sphere of life, nobody thinks of the materials of his work. We have lost the spontaneity of our way of life; irrational ways of conduct are abundant. Young men are stirred much too early in life and are then carried away by the maelstrom of the times. The world admires wealth and mobility. People are eager to compete for these goals. The different civili- zations strain to surpass each other in the building of railroads, docks, and other facilities of communication. This must eventually lead to a state of universal mediocrity. Indeed, this is the century of the quick mind, of the alert, smart and practical man. These men are equipped with a certain cleverness and deem themselves superior to the crowd though they them- selves are incapable of the highest and most sublime achievements. Let us persevere as much as possible in the spirit in which we have been brought up. We and a few others shall be the last of a period that will not return very soon.2

    A. De Tocqueville describes his times in almost the same terms. "We belong to a moral and intellectual family that is disappearing."3

    However, not all contemporaries of the "new times" accepted it in the spirit of elegiac resignation. Kierkegaard4 was the first to open the attack on the systems of Hegel and Marx. To him these pseudo-theologies were death traps threatening the very existence of the spontaneous human being. Socrates and Christ are the true images of the real and complete person as against the outward man whose existence assumes meaning only in terms of his institutions, churches, states, and societies. Kierkegaard raised his voice to protest against the degradation and dehumanization of man to which these modern philosophies of blind and arbitrary fatalism had subjected him. He ardently desired to save and restore the spiritual

    2 Goethe to Zelter: June 7, 1835. Correspondence with Zelter, et. Hecker, Leipzig, 1915, Vol. II, p. 339.

    3To A. M. Lanjuinais, March 10, 1859. Oeuvres and Correspondence, inedites d'Alexis de Tocqueville par G. de