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Prophet of Doom

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

Force and Freedom: Reflections on History. By Jacob Burckhardt. Pantheon Books. $3.50.

The position of Jacob Burckhardt among the great historians of the nineteenth century would alone make the publication of these lecture notes in their first English translation a literary event. It is all the more of an event because of the truly excellent sketch of Burckhardt with which the editor, James Hastings Nichols, prefaces the volume and because, one ought to add, of the physical beauty of the volume itself. Yet I do not think that “Force and Freedom: Reflections on History” will enhance the reputation of Burckhardt for those who may have known him only through his treatment of the Italian Renaissance, nor should it enhance the reputation of the nineteenth century. In saying this, I am trying to make due allowance for the fact that these “Reflections” are basically lecture notes.

It is true that Burckhardt, like Matthew Arnold, whom he so much resembled, was oppressively aware of the bankruptcy of our civilization, at a time when most intelligent persons stood awe-struck by the vistas of human perfectibility and progress that opened to their imagination. Burckhardt knew that the most superior technology could not erase original sin. His salty pessimism has about it, therefore, a kind of fundamental sanity. It was this sanity which gave him the insight to choose and analyze the declining times of Constantine. In the spirit of a Kant or a Plutarch he withdrew from the strident new Europe to his native Basel, the little, proud, provincial city that Treitschke called a “sulk-ing-corner.” Of course, almost any thoughtful adult looks sulky to a brutal child. Still, Burckhardt’s strictures come out as sulky protests too often, and too rarely reach the plane of tragic recognition.

In these papers, Burckhardt discusses the three powers in history, the state, religion, and culture, sweeping through the centuries for his examples. He discusses their reciprocal interaction; then the great crises of history; the great men; and lastly, fortune and misfortune in history. He hated the new Prussia; but his own style is notably Prussian. It exhibits the flashes of insight and the eye for the individual and unique that have so characterized German historiography, along with the heavy sarcasm and the voluntarism and irrationality that so often mar it. “What I tell you three times is true.” Perhaps, but it is harder to bully and blitz a human mind than a neighboring government. Did either Treitschke or Spengler ever really grasp this fact?

All this is true and yet Burckhardt is no mean prophet. It is, of course, easy to cull, from the predictions of a man who spoke much and wrote much, those which were gloomiest and which at the same time came true. But Burckhardt’s gloomy prophecies are far too specific in their nature to be explained by the law of averages. Here was a man who had thought deeply about the past and who assumed with Thucydides that, for anybody but a fool, the past does define the future. Today Burckhardt’s whole civilization is in flames. Burckhardt, for quite intelligible reasons, knew it would be. Could he then guess how high the flames would leap? Can we?


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