Date: Sun, 28 Dec 1997 11:09:45 -0800
Sender: PHILosophy OF HIstory and theoretical history <PHILOFHI@YORKU.CA>
From: Bertil Haggman <>
Subject: Jacob Burckhardt, Swiss Philosopher of History - 100th Anniversary of His Death 1897

Jacob Burckhardt, Swiss Philosopher of History—100th Anniversary of His Death 1897

By Bertil Haggman, 28 December 1997


A Few Reflections and Notes

Jacob Burckhardt's Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen were translated and published in English in the 1940s. The original version in German was published post-humously.

The book is based on lectures by Burckhardt in 1868 and 1871. The first four chapters are an ‘Introduction to the ‘Study of History’. It deals with the historical process and the three main forces that shape a civilization: State, Religion and Culture.

The establishment of a state or a religion is often the result of the displacement of a previous power that has become corrupt or decadent. It is often based on ideals to set up a new order. But the new order has to maintain itself in power. Therefore power in the end has a corrosive action on humanity. The role of the state is therefore to check factions, who want to gain power by the means of force, and to maintain a sense of security and continuity.

Religions, so Burckhardt, are the expression of human nature's eternal and indestructable meta- physical need. Religion is also a constant which seeks to maintain a stable and perdurable state of a civilization.

Change is the essence of history. Thus culture is the most important element of a civilization:

“Culture may be defined as the sum total of those mental developments which take place spontaneously and lay no claim to universal or compulsive authority….Its total external form…as distinguished from the State and Religion, is society in its broadest sense.” (p.140).

In a chapter on crisis of history JB discusses the accelerated movement of the process of history. It is when developments that normally take centuries pass by in a few months or even a few days.

Several parts of this section of the book is a warning to our time as JB has often been described as a prophetic philosopher of history. No doubt he saw in the 19th century the omens of coming ‘tremendous national wars’ (p.292), and an escalating concern for moneymaking and self-interest. JB's popularity in Britain and the United States to a great extent comes from his warnings of a coming struggle between freedom and the all powerful State as experienced in the struggle agains the totalitarian forces of fascism, national socialism and marxism-leninism.

Another important section in Force & Freedom, that on fortune and misfortune in history, deals with interpretation of history. Our study of the past must be free of egoism, ulterior motives and vain assumptions of superiority. Moral progress is relevant to the life of the individual and not to whole epochs. If, even in bygone times, men gave their lives for each other, we have not progressed since.

JB was critical of progress. His insight that power never yet improved a man made him well aware that progress is an ephemeral ideal based rather on wishful thinking than on actuality. He thus rejected an approach to history based on political events as such or study of powerful individuals. No doubt there are crucial developments in history that influence all subsequent periods but it is wrong to see progress in such events and deduce continuos improvements from them.


Bertil Haggman