The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt
As a rule, an author’s correspondence possesses only a secondary interest, but Jacob Burckhardt’s letters are of primary interest to students of history because of the nature of the man and of his major writings.Judgments on History and Historians,for example, consists not of Burckhardt’s own lectures, but of notes on his lectures by one of his greatest students. It is because Burckhardt was a remarkably private man who believed that contemplation was the key to insight into the nature of man and history, and because his approach to the study of history was reflective rather than systematic or dogmatic, that his letters possess a singular significance. For it is in his letters that Burckhardt provides additional and even personal observations on his learned explorations of antiquity, the Renaissance, and modern Europe, and it is in his letters that Burckhardt muses on the consequences that he believed—and feared—awaited a Europe that had given itself almost wholly to a rationalistic and materialistic understanding of history and destiny. For example, Burckhardt is widely known to have been the most renowned of the historians of the nineteenth century to predict, with astonishing accuracy, what we in our notice of hisReflections on Historydescribe as “the totalitarian direction that history could take”—and which history in fact did take in the twentieth century. It was in his letters, rather than in his lectures or longer works, that Burckhardt most directly addressed the currents of intellectual thought and social and political order—or disorder—of Europe in the nineteenth century. It was in his letters, for instance, that he warned that these currents portended the rise of a new kind of demagogue unique to the modern era. Such demagogues would, Burckhardt feared, respond to the complexities and confusions of modern life by becoming “terrible simplifiers,” marshaling masses of people into totalitarian regimes for simple solutions to complex challenges that would wreak havoc upon numerous countries and millions of lives.Thus, the letters constitute a text that complements Burckhardt’s larger works, including his most notable work,The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Not only are the letters addressed to some of the most important thinkers of the time (Nietzsche, Burckhardt’s younger colleague at the University of Basel, among them), but also they address the most pressing issues and the most important personages of the era. As the translator notes, the “letters, written from 1838 to 1897, have a lightness of touch, an informality and humor, and a breadth of vision that make one realize why he was the most civilized historian of his century. Their contents range across a vast field of interests. Art, architecture, history, poetry, music, religion—all stirred him to contagious enthusiasm. His travels led him to Italy, Germany, France, and England, and to his letters we owe delightful and penetrating insights into the character of each country.” Jacob Burckhardt(1818–1897) has been called “the most civilized historian of the nineteenth century,” and he was certainly one of the greatest historians of art and culture of his time. A professor at the University of Basel, Burckhardt was especially knowledgeable about the Renaissance, and his best-known work isThe Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Alberto R. Collis Professor of Law and Director of the European Legal Studies Program at DePaul University.