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 his "Reflections on History" describe 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 is "The Civilization
of the Renaissance in Italy."
Alberto R. Coll is Professor of Law and Director of the European
Legal Studies Program at DePaul University.
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