Our work in this course will consist in linking up a number of historical observations and enquiries to a series of half-random trains of thought.
After a general introduction defining what we shall take as falling within the scope of our enquiry, we shall speak of the three great powers, State, Religion and Culture, dealing first with their continuous and gradual interaction, and in particular with the influence of the one variable, Culture, on the two constants. We shall then discuss the accelerated movements of the whole process of history, the theory of crises and revolutions, as also of the occasional abrupt absorption of all other movements, the general ferment of all the rest of life, the ruptures and reactions — in short, everything that might be called the theory of storms. We shall then pass on to the condensations of the historical process, the concentration of movements in those great individuals, their prime movers and chief expression, in whom the old and the new meet for a moment and take on personal form. Finally, in a section on fortune and misfortune in world history, we shall seek to safeguard our impartiality against the invasion of history by desire.
It is not our purpose to give directions for the study of history in the scholar’s sense, but merely hints for the study of the historical aspect of the various domains of the intellectual world.
We shall, further, make no attempt at system, nor lay any claim to ‘historical principles’. On the contrary, we shall confine ourselves to observation, taking transverse sections of history in as many directions as possible. Above all, we have nothing to do with the philosophy of history.
To deal first with philosophy: if it grapples direct with the great riddle of life, it stands high above history, which at best pursues that goal imperfectly and indirectly.
But then it must be a genuine philosophy, that is a philosophy without bias, working by its own methods.
For the religious solution of the riddle belongs to a special domain and to a special inner faculty of man.
As regards the characteristics of the philosophy of history current hitherto, it followed in the wake of history, taking longitudinal sections. It proceeded chronologically.
In this way it sought to elicit a general scheme of world development generally in a highly optimistic sense.
Hegel, in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, tells us that the only idea which is ‘given’ in philosophy is the simple idea of reason, the idea that the world is rationally ordered: hence the history of the world is a rational process, and the conclusion yielded by world history must (sid) be that it was the rational, inevitable march of the world spirit — all of which, far from being ‘given’, should first have been proved. He speaks also of the ‘purpose of eternal wisdom’, and calls his study a theodicy by virtue of its recognition of the affirmative in which the negative (in popular parlance, evil) vanishes, subjected and overcome. He develops the fundamental idea that history is the record of the process by which mind becomes aware of its own significance; according to him, there is progress towards freedom. In the East, only one man was free, in classical antiquity, only a few, while modern times have set all men free. We even find him cautiously putting forward the doctrine of perfectibility, that is, our old familiar friend called progress.
We are not, however, privy to the purposes of eternal wisdom: they are beyond our ken. This bold assumption of a world plan leads to fallacies because it starts out from false premises.
The danger which lies in wait for all chronologically arranged philosophies of history is that they must, at best, degenerate into histories of civilizations (in which improper sense the term philosophy of history may be allowed to stand); otherwise, though claiming to pursue a world plan, they are coloured by preconceived ideas which the philosophers have imbibed since their infancy.
There is, however, one error which we must not impute to the philosophers alone, namely, that our time is the consummation of all time, or very nearly so, that the whole past may be regarded as fulfilled in us, while it, with us, existed for its own sake, for us, and for the future.
History from the religious standpoint has its special rights. Its great model is St Augustine’s City of God.
There are also other world forces which may interpret and exploit history for their own ends; socialism, for instance, with its history of the masses. We, however, shall start out from the one point accessible to us, the one eternal centre of all things — man, suffering, striving, doing, as he is and was and ever shall be. Hence our study will, in a certain sense, be pathological in kind.
The philosophers of history regard the past as a contrast to and preliminary stage of our own time as the full development. We shall study the recurrent, constant and typical as echoing in us and intelligible through us.
The philosophers, encumbered with speculations on origins, ought by rights to speak of the future. We can dispense with theories of origins, and no one can expect from us a theory of the end.
All the same, we are deeply indebted to the centaur, and it is a pleasure to come across him now and then on the fringe of the forest of historical study. Whatever his principles may have been, he has hewn some vast vistas through the forest and lent spice to history. We have only to think of Herder.
For that matter, every method is open to criticism, and none is universally valid. Every individual approaches this huge theme of contemplation in his own way, which may be his spiritual way through life: he may then shape his method as that way leads him.
Our task, therefore, being a modest one inasmuch as our train of thought lays no claim to system, we can (fortunately for us!) be thrifty. Not only may and must we leave out of account all hypothetical primitive conditions, all discussions of origins; we must also confine ourselves to the active races, and among these, to the peoples whose history yields us pictures of civilization which are sufficiently and indisputably distinct. Questions such as the influence of soil and climate, or of the movement of history from east to west, are introductory questions for the philosophers of history, but not for us, and hence quite outside our scope.
The same holds good for all cosmologies, theories of race, the geography of the three ancient continents, and so on.
The study of any other branch of knowledge may begin with origins, but not that of history. After all, our historical pictures are, for the most part, pure construction, as we shall see more particularly when we come to speak of the State. Indeed, they are mere reflections of ourselves. There is little value in conclusions drawn from people to people or from race to race. The origins we imagine we can demonstrate are in any case quite late stages. The Egyptian kingdom of Menes, for instance, points to a long and great previous history. How dark is our vision ol our contemporaries and neighbours, and how clear our vision of other races, etc.!
What is absolutely necessary here is a discussion of the great general task of the historian, of what we really have to do.
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 ot 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.
For the spirit knows change, but not mortality.
And beside the mutable there appears the multitudinous, the mosaic of peoples and civilizations, which we see mainly as mutual contrasts or complements. We should like to conceive a vast spiritual map on the projection of an immense ethnography, embracing both the material and the spiritual world and striving to do justice to all races, people, manners and religions together. Nevertheless, in late, derivative times, the pulse of humanity actually or seemingly beats in unison now and then, as it did in the religious movement of the sixth century BC, which spread from China to Ionia, and in the religious movement of Luther’s time in Germany and India.
And now the central phenomenon of history. A historical power, supremely justified in its own time, comes into being; all possible forms of earthly life, political organizations, privileged classes, a religion closely knit together with secular life, great possessions, a complete code of manners, a definite conception of law, are developed out of it or associated with it, and in time came to regard themselves as props of that power or even as the sole possible exponents of the moral forces of the epoch. But the spirit works in the depths. Such forms of life may resist change, but the breach comes, whether by revolution or gradual decay, bringing with it the breakdown of moral systems and religions, the apparent downfall of that power, or even the end of the world. But all the time the spirit is building a new house whose outward casing will, in time, suffer the same fate. Faced with historical forces of such a kind, the contemporary individual feels utterly helpless; as a rule he falls into the bondage either of the aggressor or of the defender. Few are the contemporaries who can attain an Archimedean point outside events, and are able to ‘overcome in the spirit’. Nor is the satisfaction of those who do so, perhaps, very great. They can hardly restrain a rueful feeling as they look back on all the rest, whom they have had to leave in bondage. Not until much later can the mind soar in perfect freedom over such a past.
What issues from this main phenomenon is historical life, rolling on in a thousand forms, complex, in all manner of disguises, bond and free, speaking now through the masses, now through individuals, now in hopeful, now in hopeless mood, setting up and destroying states, religions, civilizations, now a dark enigma to itself, moved by inchoate feelings born of imagination rather than thought, now companioned only by thought, or again filled with isolated premonitions of what is fulfilled long afterwards.
While, as men of a definite epoch, we must inevitably pay our passive tribute to historical life, we must at the same time approach it in a spirit of contemplation.
And now let us remember all we owe to the past as a spiritual continuum which forms part of our supreme spiritual heritage. Anything which can in the remotest way serve our knowledge of it must be collected, whatever toil it may cost and with all the resources at our disposal, until we are able to reconstruct whole spiritual horizons of the past.
The attitude of every century to this heritage is itself knowledge, that is, a novum which the next generation will, in its turn, add to its own heritage as something which belongs to history, i.e. which has been superseded ...
Here we must... consider the relation between the two poles, knowledge and opinion. Even in history, our desire for knowledge is often baulked by a thickset hedge of opinions which seek to pass themselves off as records. Nor can we ever rid ourselves entirely of the views of our own time and personality, and here, perhaps, is the worst enemy of knowledge. The clearest proof of this is this: as soon as history approaches our century and our worthy selves we find everything more ‘interesting’; in actual fact it is we who are more ‘interested’.
Yet another enemy is the darkness of the future in the fate of the individual and of the community; yet we keep our gaze fixed steadily on that darkness, into which the countless threads of the past stretch out, distinct and evident to our prophetic souls, yet beyond our power to follow.
If history is ever to help us to solve even an infinitesimal part of the great and grievous riddle of life, we must quit the regions of personal and temporal foreboding for a sphere in which our view is not forthwith dimmed by self. It may be that a calmer consideration from a greater distance may yield a first hint of the true nature of life on earth, and, fortunately for us, ancient history has preserved a few records in which we can closely follow growth, bloom and decay in outstanding historical events and in intellectual, political and economic conditions in every direction. The best example is Athens.
Intentions, however, arc particularly prone to make their appearance in the guise of patriotism, so that true knowledge finds its chief rival in our preoccupation with the history of our own country.
There are certainly things in which the history of a man’s own country will always take precedence, and it is our bounden duty to occupy ourselves with it.
Yet is should always be balanced by some other great line of study, if only because it is so intimately interwoven with our desires and fears, and because the bias it imparts to our mind is always towards intentions and away from knowledge.
Its greater intelligibility is merely apparent, and arises in part from an optical illusion, namely our own much livelier readiness to understand, which may go hand in hand with great blindness.
Our imagined patriotism is often mere pride towards other peoples, and just for that reason lies outside of the path of truth. Even worse, it may be no more than a kind of partisanship within our own national circle; indeed, it often consists simply in causing pain to others. History of that kind is journalism.
Vehement proclamations of metaphysical notions, vehement definitions of good and right, condemning everything outside their limits as high treason, may subsist side by side with the most platitudinous round of life and money-making. Beyond the blind praise of our country, another and more onerous duty is incumbent upon us as citizens, namely to educate ourselves to be comprehending human beings, for whom truth and the kinship with things of the spirit is the supreme good, and who can elicit our true duty as citizens from that knowledge, even if it were not innate in us.
In the realm of thought, it is supremely just and right that all frontiers should be swept away. There is too little of high spiritual value strewn over the earth for any epoch to say: we are utterly self-sufficient; or even: we prefer our own. That is not even the case with the products of industry, where, given equal quality, and due account being taken of customs dues and freight charges, people simply take the cheaper, or, if the price is the same, the better. In the realm of mind we must simply strive for the higher, the highest we can attain.
The truest study of our national history will be that which considers our own country in parallels and in relation to world history and its laws, as a part of a great whole, illumined by the same heavenly bodies as have shone upon other times and other peoples, threatened with the same pitfalls and one day to be engulfed in the same eternal night and perpetuated in the same great universal tradition.
Ultimately, our pursuit of true knowledge will make it necessary for us to eliminate the notions of fortune and misfortune in history ... Our immediate task is to deal with the peculiar qualifications of our times for the study of history, which compensate these defects and dangers.
Jacob Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (written c.1872), n.p., 1906. Excerpts from the introduction to Reflections on History, translated by M.D.H., London, 1943, pp. 15-23.