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The Detached Vision

Basel during the Herbstmesse. Moritz Frei / Shutterstock

It is the measure of how nearly the voice of poetry has been silenced that we require utterances to be “messages” and great men to be “law-givers.” Oracular pronouncement is expected from every seedy politician, and even the poor don is not exempt. Burckhardt himself has been credited with a “message”: he has been recognized as a fortune-teller whose predictions have either come true or are on the way to being fulfilled; and, I suppose, the Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen was the occasion of this recognition. That this should have happened in Germany in the early ’30s in respect of a book already known there for a generation, is not altogether surprising. Circumstances then called attention to things Burckhardt had written half a century earlier, and aut prophetes aut nullus has long been the rule among that perplexed people. And when in 1943 the book was translated into English as Reflections on History, perhaps our mood also encouraged us to listen only for the voice of prophecy: the innocent delight with which the schoolboy long ago discovered and devoured The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was suppressed by a censorious memory. Nevertheless, it was a mistake, an intellectual disorder; and Mr. Alexander Dru, in his selection and translation of some of Burckhardt’s letters, has provided English readers with a much needed specific.

For what the Letters reveal is not a man with a “message” but a man keenly aware of what was afoot in his time and blessed with resources which enabled him to accommodate himself to his situation; not a visionary (like Nietzsche) who came and saw, was disgusted, said so and made known the cure, but a man who meditated much upon the scene before him and, when he found it not altogether to his liking, remained not indifferent but unperturbed. In short, the Burckhardt who appears here is something much more significant than the messenger he was being turned into: a character admirable for its integrity and restraint, and one supremely adapted to its situation. “As a teacher and professor,” he says (writing to Nietzsche in 1875), he understood his task to be that of “leading people on to acquire a personal possession of the past… I wanted them to be capable of picking the fruits themselves; I never dreamt of training scholars and disciples in the narrower sense, but only wanted to make every member of my audience feel and know that everyone may and must appropriate those aspects of the past which appeal to him personally, and that there might be happiness in doing so.” And his disposition as a teacher towards his pupils was also his disposition as a writer of books and of letters, whatever the topic he touched.

Situated at Basle as a professor of history and of the history of art, with connections in Germany, Italy, France, and England, he looked out upon the European scene, meditating upon what passed. There was much that he was glad not to be involved in; but there was little that did not have the power of drawing him to the window. The period of his observation covered the last six decades of the 19th century, and he must be counted as an observer not less acute than the best of his time–than, for example, de Tocqueville or Renan or Sorel–with a quality of his own that sprang from his temperament rather than from any acquired point of view or system of beliefs. In place of Nietzsche’s or Dostoevsky’s erratic and pathological sensitiveness, he displays a steady and lucid perception of the way things were going; he was “weather-wise,” not on account of a rheumatic shoulder, but from the constant practice of observing the signs.

What he saw was not very much to his liking: it was the destruction of almost everything he valued most highly. He perceived a world in the grip of a passion for “prosperity,” which sacrificed everything to “the practical sense of the nineteenth century.” It was a world proliferating with desires and in love with luxury. But it was also a world in which actual prosperity was breeding a profound desire for “security” and uniformity, a love of mediocrity and a deep hostility to everything that was not commonplace. It was from these roots that he saw “the coming age of barbarism” springing up. This, I think, was an acute observation; only Sorel perceived this subtle change of mood from “prosperity” to “security” as clearly as Burckhardt and saw where it might lead–to “an era of wars.” But further, what might to some extent have mitigated this movement–government–was beginning to suffer the same corruption. “Politics are at last entering upon a great new phase and have become ‘the peoples’ politics’.” Nevertheless “the century is not made for genuine democracy”; the authority of governments having disintegrated, what was taking its place was the exercise of naked power. But, as he observed, the source of power was now the masses, who consequently were becoming the new despots. But the “despotism” of the masses is a back-handed sort of despotism; they are helpless despots without initiative of their own. What is being imposed upon the world is not the desires and beliefs of the masses, for they have none and wait to be informed about what to believe and what to desire, being moved only by a disposition to demand that “something shall always be happening, otherwise they don’t believe ‘progress’ is going on.” These rois fainéants fall into the hands of “the first swine who comes along” to tell them what to think and then to speak in their name, of “leaders” who seek and win power by fulfilling (or pretending to fulfill) expectations that they themselves have provoked. And the end of it all is the collapse of this tyrant mass, whose passion for uniformity and security delivers them into the hands of the rulers they have themselves evoked. Writing in 1870 of Germany, Burckhardt observes: “After people had been played about with for two decades and always egged on to will and to want something, suddenly a really first-class ‘willer’ appeared at Sadowa; and since then, exhausted by their former effort of will, they have collapsed at his feet and want what he wants and just thank God that there is someone to give them the direction.” And in this manner, the military machine becomes the model of all government, the vocabulary of war imposes itself upon politics, and an exclusive passion for “security” generates absolute insecurity.

But what makes these observations interesting is not that, read as predictions, they have in some part been fulfilled in the 20th century, but that, as Burckhardt understood them, they were merely reports of a situation before his eyes. He was not concerned with anything so nebulous as the “trend of events,” because he knew that events are the product of such complicated circumstances that fortune-telling about them was scarcely worthwhile. He admits to a penchant to “prophesying,” but he is not at all surprised when events rebuff his forecasts: it is remarkable how often, in these letters, he expects outbreaks of war which did not happen. To find in him a man who made some guesses, lucky or profound, about the way things were going is to mistake what he said. And to consider him wise because we have permitted to happen what he thought might happen is to pay ourselves an undeserved compliment through him.

Events he regarded as contingencies, never with certainty to be foreseen. What could however be observed, studied, and understood were propensities of the situation. And, although propensities are to be gathered from events, they are neither proved nor disproved by events. Moreover, it is just as interesting to observe the discrepancies between propensities and events as it is to observe the illustration of propensities in events. “Italy wanting to be a great power and a centralised military state,” he observes in 1878, “is such a colossal untruth that it is bound to incur punishment step by step.” All, then, that Burckhardt said might remain true and significant even if the 20th century had never known two world wars and the appearance of the so-called welfare state.

Now, whatever value we place upon Burckhardt’s observations, the fact remains that the situation in Europe was very little to his taste. Yet throughout his writings he preserved an extraordinary equanimity. And to those who take a not dissimilar view of the situation the secret of his equanimity is something to be curious about. Indeed, it is in this connection that he is credited with a “message.”

In such a situation equanimity might spring from sheer delight in decay (as Venice today can impose calm upon the observer, provoking neither regret nor disappointment), or from a belief that this is a particularly puzzling section of the spiral of “progress,” or from absence of interest in anything topical or transitory, from a belief in providence, from a doctrine of fatalism, or from an arrogant conviction that one has a remedy. But Burckhardt’s aequanimitas sprang form none of these sources. It was not that he had “hung up philosophy” as unequal to the situation: he never needed it. His resources lay, not in a theory or a faith, but in his temperament and his character. And what is remarkable is how early in life he found his character (almost as he came of age), how faithful he was to it, and how faultlessly he managed it. There is as little of the twice-born in Burckhardt as there is in Montaigne. At the age of 21 he speaks of his attitude as one of resignation; and as an old man, in spite of the vision of a Europe disposed more and more to fall into the hands of terribles simplificateurs, he says: “How the younger generation will survive, and build its nest, is something which, seeing the complete inconstancy of things, one ought not to worry too much about.” and on another occasion he says: “My attitude is willy-nilly ironical.”

These, however, are constructions, rationalizations. The truth is that Burckhardt and his circumstances were so exactly matched that, in order to avoid dismay, he needed only to remain faithful to himself. He grew up with his times; they presented him with a situation, but with no problem, no dilemma: life could not have been less a predicament for Burckhardt, and therefore he has no “message.” If the world were disposed to collapse, then, not belief, but courage was required; courage that exhibits itself first in a very modest view of one’s own importance and of the importance of the present state of the world, and secondly in a determination to enjoy while enjoyment is still possible, to preserve in oneself the remnants of a civilized life, to encourage others to do the same, and to give shelter to what might be allowed to reappear if events in the future took a different turn. This, as Burckhardt early understood, entailed a certain asceticism, an Epicurean detachment from “the enormously expensive life of the great cities and from the horrific luxury to which official literature and art are falling victim”; and he was able to achieve this detachment without any feeling of tension or resentment: it was a tactic, not a protest. He gave no hostages to his circumstances and could disregard their pressure. In short, the secret of Burckhardt’s equanimity is not, as has been suggested elsewhere, an unacknowledged dependence on the resources of Christian belief, or indeed on faith of any sort (even the belief that other times had been better or that there was a good time coming), but simply nerve–the nerve “to hold life here and now in no higher esteem than it deserves,” and yet to enjoy it. This character (its counterpart is to be found in Montaigne and in Vauvenargues), in which charity has survived the disappearance of faith and hope, is neither a nostrum to be peddled nor even a model capable of being copied; it is a spectacle to be observed and admired, even venerated: to be equal to one’s fortune and not to be humiliated by want of greater perfection is a rare achievement. Burckhardt possessed this character in a high degree and remarkably little qualified by the defects of coldness, egoism, and pride to which it is subject. He did not, of course, scorn small helps; it is a difficult character to sustain continuously, and he was lucky to find in Italy something to support it. But he was an âme forte, with none of the neurotic disposition that clutches at one support after another, resentful of ill-fortune, self-pitying, rocketing from optimism to pessimism and back again, and dependent in the end upon the illusion that the worst cannot happen. Yet this character remained in him a “gift” which never worked up into a “philosophy”; and therefore his gift is an “image” and not a “message.”

But, after all, Burckhardt was not only an observer of the contemporary scene; he was a scholar and an historian. And the Letters reveal him to have been acutely aware of his particular talents, and to have been content to cultivate them without wishing they were larger or other that they were. Here, also, was equanimity. And what is interesting to observe is how even his technique as an historian is naive, not an acquisition but generated from his native cast of mind and accepted without misgiving. In a pretentious man, or in one less gifted, this might have led to disaster; but in him the result justified the incaution of following “the way that came naturally” to him.

Burckhardt had learned from Ranke, but he was a pupil who took only what he knew how to use. He recognized (even at the age of 24) that his métier did not lie in the patient establishment of an obscure course of events. He did not despise this sort of engagement, but he knew it was not for him. And of it, he disclaimed any faculty for philosophical reflection or abstract thought. “I never,” he says, “had any thought that was not connected with something external.” Consequently, both paths that lay before the historian at that time were closed to him: the paths of historismus where Ranke led; and the path of speculation, muddied by the tramplings of the Hegelians, but still distinguishable and still respectable.

But, as a young man, he discovered in himself a propensity for “reverie,” of which he became “wary,” fearing that he might fall victim to it. But turning to history as an escape, he found a remedy, in which what he had taken for a disease was transformed into an activity appropriate to his peculiar talents and which he could engage in without misgiving. “I can do nothing unless I start from contemplation (Anschauung),” he says; and what he meant by “contemplation” is “reverie” upon which order and direction has been imposed by scholarly habits. When he writes of this activity there are acknowledged echoes of Schopenhauer; and it was a word Goethe had been fond of, meaning by it an intuitive mental process in which the general was discerned in the particular. And these connections lead Burckhardt to understand history as “for the greater part, poetry,” and even to venture upon a speculative identification of history and poetry. But this is not the direction in which we need follow him: history as contemplation has a much more immediate spring in Burckhardt, and ends in something much less high falutin’.

“My entire historical work,” he says, “like my passion for travel, my mania for natural scenery and my interest in art, springs from an enormous thirst for contemplation.” Burckhardt’s genius lay in seeing and in making images. And when he turned to history as an escape from “reverie,” he turned, not away from images, but towards more substantial and more coherent images that gave him greater satisfaction. And to assert that history is poetry was to assert, not a general theory, but an attitude native to himself. Moreover, since the activity which he felt to belong to him was Anschauung, its pursuit led not to a narrative in which the past appeared as a succession of pictures and to vulgar “pictorial” writing, but to the composition of a picture, the realization of an image. He searched always for the picture, the image which the facta composed, and he speaks of the discovery of this image as the “prize,” the reward of contemplation. But what he was in search of was not a mere generality, but the propensities as situation, and the facta were used as the evidence of these propensities. In short, what he looked for, and was interested in, in the past was what held his attention in the present–not a course of events, but the dispositions revealed in events. And as an historian, what he has left us are studies of the characters of two ages–Renaissance Italy and the Age of Constantine the Great–in which events are presented as emblems of the propensities of these situations. And for his pupils, his lectures were, as Wolflin (his successor at Basle) said, “lessons in contemplation.”

Burckhardt as an observer of the contemporary scene and Burckhardt as an historian are, then, the same man–a profoundly thoughtful man, but one who owed as small a debt as may be to theory. His virtues were his own; there was nothing in him that was not first-hand. And the springs of his intellectual activity were, in both respects, almost physical. His contemplation began as an activity of the eye, began in his delight in the sights of the world, and from this he composed his images. Similarly his moral attitude began in the nerve to enjoy what still remained to be enjoyed, without bitterness or complaint on account of its evanescence. He knew a barbarian when he saw one, and he believe the situation to be disposed towards barbarism; but his judgements were, as an historian’s should be, appraisals and not imputations.

Originally published in Encounter, June 1954.

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was an English philosopherand author ofOn Human Conduct, among other works.

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