Burckhardt's Lectures on History at the University of Basel (18--)


1. Ancient History and its Scope.

As regards the scope of our subject, this may be observed: only the civilized nations, not the primitive ones, are part of history in a higher sense.  [...] Of the civilized peoples, our discipline does not embrace those whose culture did not flow into European civillization, for instance Japan and China. Of India, too, only the very oldest period concerns us- first, because of the Aryan tribal type shared with the Zend peoples, and then because of the contact with the Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, and others. Our subject is that past which is clearly connected with the present and with the future. Our guiding idea is the course of civilization, the succession of levels of culture... . Actually, one ought to stress especially those historical realities from which threads run to our own period and culture. 
There are more of them than one would think. The continuum is magnificient. The peoples around the Mediterranean and over to the Gulf of Persia are really one animate being, active humanity par excellence. In the Roman Empire, this being does attain a kind of unity. 

After renewed intermingling with the Germanic peoples, after another fifteen hundred or two thousand years, this active humanity strikes out anew, assimilates America for itself and is now about to open Asia thoroughly. How long will it be before all passive existences are subjected and penetrated by it? The non-Caucasion races offer resistence, give up, and die out. Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians have by now laid the foundations for this world-conquering power.

2. On the Intellectual indispensability of Studying Ancient History

Among all the fields of learning in the world there prevails, like a fundamental chord that keeps sounding through, the history of the ancient world, i.e., of all those peoples whose lives have flowed into ours. .
It would be idle to assume that after four centuries of humanism everything had been learned from the ancient world, all experiences and data had been utilized, and there were no longer anything to be gained there, so that one could content oneself with a knowledge of more modern times or, possibly, make a pitying or reluctant study of the Middle Ages and spend the time saved on more useful things.
We shall never be rid of antiquity as long as we do not become barbarians again. Barbarians and modern American men of culture live without consciousness of history. 

Are the three great ages of the world perhaps like the three times of day in the riddle of the Sphinx? They are, rather, a continual metempsychosis of acting and suffering man through countless incarnations. [...] ONce it is understood that there never were, nor ever will be, any happy, golden ages in a fanciful sense, one will remain free from the foolish overvaluation of some past, from senseless dispair of the present or fatuous hope for the future, but one will recognize in the contemplation of historical ages one of the noblest undertakings. It is the story of the life and suffering of mankind viewed as a whole. 
And yet antiquity has a great specific importance for us; our concept of the state derives from it; it is the birthplace of our religions and of the most permanent part of our civilization. Of its creation in form and writing a great deal is exemplary and unequalled. 

However, let us regard antiquity as merely the first act of the drama of man, to our eyes a tragedy with immeasurable exertion, guilt, and sorrow. And even though we are descended from peoples who were still slumbering in a state of childhood alongside the great civilized peoples of antiquity [the Teutonic Barbarians], yet we feel ourselves the true descendants of the latter, because their soul has passed over into us; their work, their mission, and their destiny live on in us. 

3. The Limits of Civilization and Barbarism

We can no more begin our presentation of history with the earlist state formations than with the transition from barbarism to civilization.

11. On the Middle Ages

The term 'Middle Ages' actually came into being as homage to antiquity. It means 'the middle period'. The Italians of the fifteenth century were already aware of this. (Is 'medium aevum' a translation of 'Mittelalter', 'moyen age'?)
In this designation there was expressed the concept of a very expendable thousand years which may have existed for the chastisement of mankind; this gave it the reputation of barbarism... . Something like impatience was felt toward the Middle Ages.
This view was expressed first in the designation and in the meaning of the Renaissance, then, too, especially in the name of the modern 'great power'..., and, finally, in the term 'world civilization.'

It was possible to misjudge the Middle Ages, to be sure, but in the long run one could not despise the period. The realization prevalied that our existence had its roots in it, even though modern culture was derived predominantly from antiquity. [...] On the whole, very strong and widespread prejudices against the Middle Ages have prevailed to this day, not to mention the more deeply entrenched ones.

...at our present moment in history, under the conditions of 1882, we have no business sitting in judgement on any past age-- now when from every side there are complaints about, and threats against, our general situation..., and the nations are pitted one against the other, armed to the teeth.
Now that we are convinced that our knowledge of the Middle Ages belongs among our dearest possession, that is, the great general knowledge about the continuation of the spirit which distinguishes us from the barbarians (including very modern ones), we had better omit any evaluation of the past according to our standards of happiness or unhappiness, since these are illusions.
Very peculiar is the interest of our time in all past things and its judgement of their relative intellectual value. [...] This much, however, remains certain: today's European humanity has had at least a long youth in the shape of the Middle Ages.

"In a letter to Goethe dated September 17, 1800, in which he comments on K. L. Woltmann's History of the Reformation, Schiller calls the history of the age of the Reformation 'subject matter which by its nature tends toward a petty, miserable detail and moves along at an infinitely lagging pace'. What matters is 'to organize [this material] into great, fruitful masses and to abstract its spirit with a few big strokes.'"

"...through religion's becoming more inward, the psychic element was developed more and in much wider circles."