Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W. M. L. de Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness

Here are some highlights from this 1999 book:

* IT is LARGELY TAKEN FOR GRANTED today that a greater historical sense or historical consciousness is a distinguishing feature of modern Western thought. To a large extent, this heightened sensitivity to history and to the “constructed” character of one’s ideas and beliefs – historicism as it is generally called and as I shall call it – first developed among German scholars, in universities and academies, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. At this time, it is said, a secular historical consciousness freed itself from long-standing theological conceptions of history.

* “A gradual reversal of roles” occurred by the nineteenth century, notes Jarausch, from “history as a handmaiden of theology” to history as a “dominant form of humanistic scholarship.”6
At the University of Gottingen in the eighteenth century, such scholars as Johann Christoph Gatterer and August Ludwig von Schlozer, began a melting down of historia sacra into secular world history.7
The tradition of universal history (Universalgeschichte), originally based on the four monarchies of the seventh chapter of Daniel and expressed best in the lectures of the Reformation humanist Philip Melanchthon and in Jacques-Benigne Bossuet’s Discours sur Vhistorie universelle, gradually separated itself from theological assumptions and biblical chronology.8
This process of secularization, which was largely complete by the early nineteenth century, paved the way for history’s
institutionalization and professionalization. In short, history became an autonomous Wissenschaft, and perspectives and methods drawn from history began to affect other areas of inquiry, notably theology and biblical criticism.

* Commenting on the emergence of “the modern secular personality,” Mircea Eliade makes a relevant observation: “Nonreligious man descends from homo religiosus.. . . [H]is formation begins with the situation assumed by his ancestors. . . . [H]e is an inheritor. He cannot utterly abolish the past, since he is himself the product of his past.”

* Historicism: “The Last Religion of the Educated” In nineteenth-century Germany, historical ways of understanding reality – or historicism (Historismus) – triumphed on an unprecedented scale.42 Although historicism cannot be defined as a strictly German phenomenon, as Friedrich Meinecke attempted to do in his Die Entstehung des Historismus,43 the German experience during the nineteenth century is nonetheless of crucial importance in understanding the historicization of human thought and its far-reaching influence on humanistic discourses in the Western world.44 Historicism bespeaks a “Weltanschauung,” observed Karl Mannheim, “which came into being after the religiously determined medieval picture of the world had disintegrated and when the subsequent Enlightenment, with its dominant idea of a supra-temporal Reason, had destroyed itself…. Historicism alone .. . provides us with a world view of the same universality as that of the religious world view of the past.”45 Historicism is not easily defined.

* This form of historicism, states Iggers, implies a certain epistemological idealism that posits the world as a concrete, meaningful whole. The general meaning of the world may be discovered by historians, but ascertaining the general proceeds by scrutinizing the individual.48

A second important meaning of historicism, and the one more relevant to the present study, grew out of the “crisis of historicism” literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historicism in this sense has come to be identified with relativism and the loss of faith in the values of modern Western culture. Ernst Troeltsch was the key delineator of this conception of historicism. In his Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), Troeltsch accepted historicism as a valid scholarly approach to cultural reality, yet believed that the study of history, far from constituting the key
to the acquisition of meaning (as in classical historicism), progressively showed the relativity and hence invalidity of the values and beliefs of Western culture. Nonetheless, Troeltsch accepted the conviction that all human ideas and values are historically conditioned and subject to change; he deemed this attitude the dominant and inescapable result of Western
thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.49

“Historical Wissenschaft” wrote Troeltsch, “has so fully and thoroughly worked out the genesis of our civilization, and has made all present conditions intelligible by tracing the history of their development, that all thinking is obliged to
become in some measure historical…. The consequence of this is, of course, a certain relativism, a mental complexity.”50
In the present study, I am primarily concerned with Troeltsch’s understanding of historicism, which I shall call “crisis historicism.” I should point out, however, that a strong interrelationship exists between crisis historicism and classical historicism.51

To a large degree, Troeltsch’s acceptance of insights and methods drawn from classical historicism led him to believe
that his own field, theology, could no longer postulate ahistorical, eternal verities. Moreover, when Burckhardt experienced a “crisis of historicism” – that is, when he decided that de Wette’s historical-critical approach to the
Bible had undermined his religious heritage – he turned to classical historicism, while at the University of Berlin, to authorize a new worldview.52 Simply put, in the 1830s Burckhardt experienced (as an emotional-religious crisis) precisely what Troeltsch described in the 1920s (as an intellectual inevitability).

* In 1886, the philosopher Henry Sidgwick stated the matter succinctly in the journal Mind: “It seems to me that the historical study of human beliefs in some very important departments of thought – such as ethics, politics, and theology – does tend to be connected with a general skepticism as to the validity of the doctrines studied. . .. [Skepticism] partly tends to result from the historical study, because of the vast and bewildering variety of conflicting beliefs . . . which this study marshals before us. The student’s own most fundamental and most cherished convictions seem forced, as it were, to step down from their secure pedestals, and to take their places in the endless line that is marching past. . . . Thus to the historian . . . the whole defiling train of beliefs tends to become something from which he sits apart, every portion of which has lost power to hold his own reason in the grip of true conviction: for peace’s sake, he accepts the beliefs that are pressed on him by public opinion in his own age and country; but in his heart he believes in nothing but history.”

Yet even belief in history must be sacrificed to history. The conception of history that emerged from post-Enlightenment, elite European culture has no privileged observer status. The inevitability of cultural relativism articulated by Troeltsch and others, moreover, is logically – if not epistemologically – self-destroying: if all truth is culture-specific, so is
the truth of cultural relative analysis. Hence it cannot be said to be true. This is certainly not to undervalue the insights of historical analysis but rather to point out that its underlying attitude toward history is, by its own criteria, itself a product of its times, thereby demonstrating the inescapability of its own historical relativity. This contention should raise a significant hesitation concerning the universality and long-term relevance of the modern historicist attitude.

* Secularization, Modernity, and Theology. Historians are confronted with a Janus-like phenomenon when they attempt to interpret the nature of religion in nineteenth-century Europe.70 On the one hand, the nineteenth century was a time in which religious devotion played a vital role in the social world, especially in education and politics. At the same time,
however, the era witnessed unprecedented processes of secularization, chiefly in urban areas and among the intelligentsia.71 Put differently, the nineteenth century may be closer to the Middle Ages than the present is, but it was certainly not the Middle Ages.

The case of Protestantism is of particular significance. The sociologists Peter L. Berger and James D. Hunter have noted that of all the world religions, Protestantism has confronted modernity more intensely and for a longer time. “In theology,” notes Hunter, “the Protestant case is paradigmatic; throughout the nineteenth century and indeed to the present, Protestant theology has attempted to come to grips with secular intellectual thought, the diffusion of secular consciousness among the wider population, and the churches’ increasingly limited role in the social world.” If one
concedes this point, Protestantism’s protracted struggle against (and accommodation to) modernity may be exemplary for understanding the theological enterprise generally in the modern world.7

* the intellectual legacy of the Reformation already carried the seeds of secularization. Not only did the Reformation
question ecclesiastical control and diminish sacerdotalism and sacramentalism, but on a cognitive level the importance of independent inquiry into the Bible (sola scriptura and ad fontes) set the precedent for a later, more pervasive, faith-threatening conception of Kritik.74 Nearly all nineteenthcentury liberal German theologians saw themselves not as debunkers of religion but as faithful torchbearers of the Reformation. Schleiermacher claimed that the Reformation had first suggested an “eternal treaty” between living Christian faith and independent scientific research.75 De Wette praised the Reformation for its “scholarly striving” and legitimized his own criticism because “Protestantism in its first appearance placed historical criticism in the service of genuine faith.”76

The secularizing consequences of nineteenth-century criticism should thus be regarded not as arising outside of Protestantism but rather as profoundly and problematically embedded in it. “Teachers in the Protestant theological faculty,” noted Berlin historian Friedrich Paulsen in 1902, “assume a fundamentally different attitude [from their Catholic counterparts]: they do not aim to be servants of the church, but first of all servants of science (Wissenschaft), servants of the church only through science (Wissenschaft).”

Yet, throughout the nineteenth century, theological faculties of both confessions experienced a general decline in prestige and student interest. The fate of theology in this respect is a telling testimony of secularization. At Protestant universities in Germany, for example, the number of theology students declined from nearly one-third of the student body in 1830 to only 13.6 percent in 1892. Catholic universities witnessed a proportional drop: from 11.4 percent in 1830 to a meager 4.8 percent in 1892.78 At the University of Berlin, theology professors made up 22 percent of the total professoriate in 1810, but only 4 percent a century later.79 Considering the previous cultural supremacy of theology in the Middle Ages, its ebbing prestige in modern times – both as a general form of knowledge and as a fixture in university curricula – suggests a truly momentous cultural transformation.80

* Revelation-based claims were increasingly overshadowed by scientific and historical treatments of the social world. In 1902, Berlin historian Paulsen assessed the beleaguered situation of theology in Germany: “But it is more than doubtful whether modern times would give it [theology] that place [of honor among the sciences.] It is now scarcely mentioned in the same breath with the sciences, the peculiar pride of the present day. Numerous representatives of a scientific radicalism are inclined to exclude it all together, or to relegate it to the past. Theology, they assert, is a science of things of which we know nothing….”

* After World War I, there even arose a movement in Germany to abolish theological study in the university altogether. The theologian Adolf Harnack was the key figure who challenged this view and fought for the continuing legitimacy of theology. Interestingly, Harnack’s defense was strongly conditioned by his own cultural-epistemic situation. Instead of defending theology qua theology, Harnack argued that theology should be maintained because of the weight of its historical significance. In Harnack, Peter Berger once noted, theology became “a primarily historical discipline.”

* As theology diminished in the university setting, so did the plausibility of worldviews legitimized by religious presuppositions. As Berger has noted, institutions of knowledge in modern societies have played a crucial role in the secularizing process, initiating a general crisis of theology, in which religious institutions and individuals face the problem of “how to keep going in a milieu that no longer takes for granted their definitions of reality.”89 The German scene confirms this picture. “Just as theology has lost the first place among the sciences,” noted Paulsen in 1902, “so also has the clerical position forfeited its former position as the chief profession, to which the supervision of all human affairs .. . [was once] trusted.”

* the fissuring of Christianity’s cultural hegemony in the late early modern period opened up, in Blumenberg’s view, a cultural space for the emergence of more compelling solutions to problems posed by history.9

* Just as much of Christian thought developed from Judaic and Greek ideas and beliefs, so also has modernity developed from Christianity.

* “There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”
– American theologian, commenting on his impressions of German academic theology, c. 1835.

* Old Testament scholar Julius Wellhausen was fond of arguing that biblical criticism operated by and large independently of philosophical concerns. “Philosophy,” Wellhausen wrote, “does not precede but follows [biblical criticism], in that it seeks to evaluate and systematize that which it has not itself discovered.” Wellhausen’s own positivism led him, I believe, to regard his own field as the truly scientific field of discovery and the vaguer field of philosophy as derivative.

* In Theodor, de Wette writes: “The result of the theological studies of the first year was, in Theodor’s case, that his former convictions concerning the origin of Christianity were shattered. The holy atmosphere of glory, which had hitherto surrounded the life of Jesus and the whole evangelical history, disappeared; but instead of satisfactory historical insight, he had acquired only doubt, uncertainty, and incoherence of opinion.”

* He learned to translate the doctrines of his youth – conversion, rebirth, grace, the love of God and Christ, and so on – into Kantian philosophical language.

* “So went our friend [Theodor],” de Wette continues, “forward upon the path of doubt. He often felt dizzy when he looked down, from the steep summit which he had reached, into the narrow, quiet valley of his childhood’s faith . . . [But] a bold spirit kept up his heart.”

* In Das Leben Jesu (1835), D. E Strauss explained the miracles of Jesus as culturally conditioned “myths” with a hitherto unheard-of skeptical consistency and literary elegance. He argued that historical-critical exegesis must be wholly prior to dogma and that the latter must be based on the former’s independent findings.

* The Pentateuch was Israel’s “national epic,” which de Wette likened to the epics of ancient Greece and Rome. As literature (Dichtung), the Old Testament was a poor historical source (Geschichtsquelle) in de Wette’s judgment: “one cannot learn history from it.. . [but] can learn about the spirit and character of the poet.

* De Wette argued instead that the Old Testament is nothing more than a collection of myths and traditions; its authors were completely uninterested in presenting history “as it actually was.” “The Hebrew storyteller,” writes de Wette,
“is not a historian in an actual sense; he is a prophet and seer looking into the past.” Such a storyteller presents historical material only to awaken and animate religious concerns: “A complete and thoroughgoing criticism will show that not one of the historical books of the Old Testament has any historical value, and that they all more or less contain myths and traditions; and that we do not have from among any of the books of the Old Testament any real historical witnesses.”

* While criticizing the historical approach of the mythical school, de Wette importantly did not cast complete doubt on the possibility of historical knowledge. Rather, he claimed that the only method suitable for apprehending historical consciousness in the Old Testament was to approach it in its own terms – which were religious (and patently not historical) ones made accessible to the modern reader through poetry, art, and, above all, myth… he raised this antihistorical conception of Old Testament historical consciousness to a more general scholarly principle and asserted that when handling
history, modern theologians should only strive to awaken others to past forms of religious consciousness; they should not worry about pedantic facts. Moreover, since all of human history, according to de Wette, was a revelation of God, the goal of the historical interpreter should be to present the past as an ongoing religious poem. In short, only in aesthetic terms did de Wette deem it possible to understand the changing historical manifestations of the Hebrew religious spirit in the Old Testament.107
In his Dissertatio critica qua a prioribus Denteronomium pentateuchi libris diversum alias cuiusdam recentioris auctoris opus esse monstratur,108 de Wette investigated the book of Deuteronomy following the principles he laid down in the Aufforderung. He posited that Deuteronomy represented a religious meditation – not a historical account – and sought to demonstrate that it was written much later than the rest of the Pentateuch. He claimed that his findings refuted the orthodox notion of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.109 For subsequent Old Testament scholarship, the most important part of the dissertatio came in a lengthy footnote, in which de Wette suggested that a law book discovered in the temple by Josiah in 622 B.C. (II Kings 22) might have been Deuteronomy or a document on which Deuteronomy was based. De Wette reasoned that the later origins of Deuteronomy made sense because the command to sacrifice at a single sanctuary was unique to Deuteronomy. In Exodus 20:24-25, for example, a multiplicity of altar sites is implied. Deuteronomy also contradicted the behavior of Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon, who sacrificed wherever necessary without incurring divine disfavor. This practice continued after the completion of the temple by Solomon, until the reign of Josiah, when the law book (perhaps
Deuteronomy?) was discovered. Since Deuteronomy reflects the command to sacrifice at a single altar, this would date the book in the seventh century B.C., much later than the rest of the Pentateuch.110

De Wette concluded the dissertatio by pointing out that the paraphrased verses at the opening of Deuteronomy contradicted earlier passages in the Pentateuch. This demonstrated, according to de Wette, that Deuteronomy might have been written to correct earlier works in light of a new understanding of religion, one that reflected state centralization (in sacrificing
practices and in other matters) because of the completed temple in Jerusalem.111 Although de Wette was not the first scholar to suggest that important developments in Judaism took place after Moses, his dissertation was later acclaimed because he was the first to hint at a picture of Israel’s history that differed markedly from that offered in the Old Testament itself.

* de Wette sought to demonstrate that the fragments that made up the Pentateuch, especially the parts that suggested that Moses had introduced the laws and practices of sacrifice, were a composite of myths whose purpose was to express and legitimize the Hebrew religious outlook in the time of the late monarchy. The Pentateuch, like the stories of Homer or Ovid, according to de Wette, was a rich mythological account of Israel’s later religious identity and one largely devoid of verifiable factual history.

* “Facts [about many Old Testament personalities],” writes de Wette, “cannot be investigated; one can only observe
how they have been narrated.”

* Thus, de Wette ceased to treat the Pentateuch as a semi-accurate historical account. Instead, as Rogerson notes, he investigated the narrative structure of its “myths” for clues to make sense of Israel’s later history; he did this primarily by asking internal, textual questions.

* De Wette saw the Pentateuch as one might view Virgil’s Aeneid. Although there is little evidence for the historical veracity of this epic poem, it still offers important information about Roman political sensibilities during the time of Augustus. Likewise, through his appeal to myth, de Wette pointed out that the Pentateuch had (historical) implications for another period, namely that of the later Hebrew monarchy. Other scholars followed de Wette’s lead. Indeed, in attempting, through appeals to Romantic notions of poetry and myth, to safeguard the Bible from eighteenth-century rationalist criticism, de Wette in effect laid the groundwork for a radical shift in biblical criticism toward history’, but history of another kind – namely, the history of the texts themselves and their authors/editors and no longer of the events and the people which the texts narrated.

* Finally, one would be hard pressed to extricate de Wette’s biblical critical concerns and methods from their immersion in broader intellectual and historical currents. Kant prompted de Wette to reject supernatural explanations; Schelling, and perhaps earlier Herder, equipped him with an aesthetic and mythical approach to the Old Testament. Biblical criticism in
the early nineteenth century (and today) was not an autonomous field of gradual scientific accretion, but a time-conditioned enterprise predicated on the attitudes and concerns of a specific cultural environment.

* To satisfy the sensibilities of lay listeners, a preacher, de Wette told Liicke, will inevitably compromise his absolute commitment to truth.

* History is an abyss in which Christianity has been catapulted quite against its will.
– Franz Overbeck, Christentum und Kultur

* once in Basel, de Wette accepted preaching and public speaking engagements. By doing so, in a reversal of his earlier Berlin views, he gradually arrived at the conviction that the interests of Christian truth were not served by confusing lay
audiences with sophisticated theological speculation. He therefore chose phrases that had common ground with orthodox views; he spoke of the nature of Christ simply as mysterious (geheimnisvoll). His more candid positions were reserved for university lectures and publications.

* de Wette argues that the doctrine of atonement – the view that Christ bore the guilt of human sin to fulfill the demands of Old Testament law – arose only after Christ’s death: “The Atonement cannot be proven based on Jesus’ statements. His death is only raised to such importance by the apostles.” That a historical Jesus suffered and died a blameless death, de Wette accepts. However, Jesus’ death should be understood in aesthetic terms. De Wette invokes his aesthetic subcategory of resignation (Resignation): Christ’s death was a beautiful example of virtue and submission to the will of God.

* The eternal ideas embedded in the Gospels, not the temporal details of the story, were what was essential for the “religious outlook.” In regard to the resurrection, de Wette writes that a “miraculous element remains even if we do not believe that Christ actually lived again.” Further, when one envisions the crucified Christ, this should not call a historical event or dogma to mind; rather one should see “an image of humanity purified by self-sacrifice.”

* The mythical worldview of the Gospel narrators, their traditions, religious sensibilities, and expectations rendered
genuine historical knowledge impossible. Strauss does not deny that historical events may lie behind the myths, but the narratives themselves are not to be regarded as historical formulations. Thus, Christianity cannot be traced to one individual. This conclusion, he claims, should effect an “internal liberation” from history and allow Christianity – finally – to be constructed on purely philosophical grounds.

* Contemporaries reacted to Strauss’s book with almost wholesale condemnation. As one commentator has noted, Das Leben Jesu was “thrown like a fire-bomb into the tinder-dry pietistic forest of Wiirttemberg.”100 But not only pietists were alarmed: Strauss’s book triggered critical responses from practically every theological outlook in Europe – orthodox, rationalist, and Hegelian alike. The book cost Strauss his teaching position at the University of Tubingen and in 1839 it cost him another at Zurich. De Wette was unique among established biblical critics in his positive reaction to Strauss.101
De Wette not only recognized the legitimacy of Strauss’s work but actually praised it…

* de Wette believed that the question of divinity was independent of historical criticism; the divine could be grasped only subjectively according to the principle of Ahnung, which equated history with symbol. To the end of his life, de Wette never wearied in his conviction that this Friesian concept could insulate the content of Christianity from historical criticism.

* Theologians of various stripes have attributed a certain inevitability to the appearance of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu in 1835. Although critical of Strauss, Hans Frei has argued that Strauss represented the decisive climax of eighteenth-century criticism by his reduction of the meaning of the Gospels to a historical understanding of its authors’ intentions.124
William Neil, more sympathetic to Strauss, noted that Strauss was the figure who finally cut the Gordian knot between rationalism and orthodoxy and “change [d] the entire direction of New Testament study for the rest of the century.”1

* Friedrich Vischer claimed in 1838 that the publication of Das Leben Jesu made Strauss one of those “representative men” who crystalize the collective consciousness of their generation… When dismissed from the Tubingen seminary, he stated to the director of studies that the views expressed in his book were “not merely the notions of one individual, but the conclusions of a whole direction of theological scholarship.” Abandoned by his peers, Strauss complained of being “vexed by my isolated position and annoyed with my friends that now, when the situation becomes serious, they suddenly leave the cart standing which for so long we all pulled together.”

* The controversies that ensued were indeed of major proportions. Theological leaders throughout Germany engaged in a polemical warfare of a magnitude rivaling the period after the Reformation. In many ways the 1830s were even more dramatic, because Christianity itself – and not simply the question of which form of Christianity – was taken as one of the main
points under discussion. Further, the conflict was by no means confined to elite circles. Educated laypeople and average parishioners also became engaged in the knowledge-faith dilemma of their time. Horton Harris rightly remarks that “not only in the theological seminaries did the book produce a great sensation and continuing controversy over the problems which it raised, but [also] in every church, in every town, in an age when the church [still] formed the central position in the lives of the majority of the populace.”13

* The second quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented increase in the pursuit and prestige of Wissenschaft. German research and German university teaching rose during this time to the pinnacle of esteem. The founding of the University of Berlin and the attendant ideals of Humboldt, Fichte, Schleiermacher, and others were a catalyst in this process, for practically all German-speaking universities quickly adopted the “Berlin model.” Indeed, scholars felt a new, nonclerical sense of “calling” – ” Wissenschaft for the sake of Wissenshaft” as Max Weber would later describe it. The development of the new ideal of Wissenschaft, deeply rooted in neohumanist ideas and in quasi-Romantic notions of the power of human intelligence and creativity, had two principal characteristics: (1) the elevation of scholarly work to a form of moral obligation, and (2) a belief in the insufficiency of past forms of knowledge, and confidence in the individual scholar to improve and create new knowledge.

* “Wissenschaft became even the new measure for the question of meaning in life and happiness; the path of Wissenschaft
became the path to truth, freedom, and humanity.” “The ever expanding scope of truth .. . [and] the accumulation of knowledge was raised to the highest moral duty and became one of the highest forms of human existence, even something holy, a piece of immortality; it became the dominating passion, which disciplined the rest of one’s life ascetically.”135
McClelland writes that “scholars in Germany . .. were convinced that the knowledge of their predecessors was superficial at best, and that bold acts of intelligence and will by the single scholar could uncover the profound secrets of the human world and the universe beyond.”

* However important new institutional and scholarly imperatives may have been in shaping theology, the discussants at the time were by and large unconcerned with what many today might assume to be the socially dependent character of knowledge. Theologians saw themselves as pursuing truth, pure and simple. Their goal was to depict the world and God’s relation to
it in terms that reflected how things really were, even if this meant engaging in a rarefied scholarly idiom and disturbing the theologically timid. In this respect, mid-nineteenth-century debates are justifiably viewed as an autonomous realm of discourse and thus are best approached with an eye toward shedding light on the underlying intellectual presuppositions of the time…

… the correspondence theory of truth is perhaps the oldest theory of truth, owing its most common understanding to Aristotle. Truth consists of some form of correspondence between the world of thought and the world of things or between mind and matter. Nature is “out there,” completely independent of the mind that attempts to know it. To establish the truth of an assertion about the world, one must show a correlation between the rational categories about which the assertion is made and the apprehension of nature given in experience. This must be done apart from one’s own prejudices and beliefs. As the Dutch physiologist Jacob Moleschott wrote in 1867, “The scientist does not give in to the belief that he has created the law; he feels in his innermost being that the facts imposed it on him.”

* The correspondence theory of truth requires one to assume that what the mind conceives about the world is ontologically real. As both Karl Popper and Hilary Putnam have noted, it is a theory for the realist, since it allows one to speak of a reality apart from the theory and the theorist conceptualizing it. It entails, in other words, a strong metaphysical claim:
stating the truth is nothing less than establishing what actually exists. Accurate knowledge of nature is simultaneously the truth of nature.

* Jacob Burckhardt: “from our point of view Christianity has entered the realm of purely human periods of history.”

* Jacob: “the state incurs debts for politics, war, and other higher causes and ‘progress’…. The assumption is that the future will honor this relationship in perpetuity. The state has learned from the merchants and industrialists how to exploit credit; it defies the nation ever to let it go into bankruptcy. Alongside all swindlers the state now stands there as swindler-in-chief.”

* what one sees in Burckhardt is…a deep-seated historical and cultural pessimism inherited from the idea of original sin.

* Scholars often note that Burckhardt’s cultural pessimism made him an anomaly among nineteenth-century historians and philosophers of history. In a century when progressive, evolutionary models of history reigned supreme, Burckhardt maintained that “progress .. . is intrinsically ridiculous, for greed and desire know no limits; one will always encounter a dissatisfied humanity.” Concerning Hegelian philosophy, Burckhardt warned his students that “this bold assumption of a world plan leads to fallacies because it starts out from false premises.” Similarly, Burckhardt doubted Rousseau’s “moral dream,” the “assumption that all men are by nature good.”

Although out of place in his own century, Burckhardt’s legacy has found a home in ours. I would even suggest that what Ranke has come to represent for the foundations of modern political historiography, Burckhardt has become for more recent cultural history, with its anti- or postmodern tendencies. His lack of system, his characteristic irony, his zeal for knowledge but willingness to voice epistemological shortcomings, and his preference for culture over politics have earned Burckhardt a near hagiographical status in the eyes of historians, philosophers, and others in Europe and America since the mid-twentieth century. Jorn Rusen, for instance, has celebrated Burckhardt’s moderate postmodernism, which, unlike the radical postmodernism of Nietzsche, should be “used as an historical mirror in which we can see what is wrong with our time.” Other critics have thought similarly; all agree that Burckhardt somehow transcended his time and became precociously critical of modernity.

* the encounter with de Wette profoundly disturbed Burckhardt, forcing him to confront his situation: he could neither
return to orthodoxy nor accept de Wette’s liberal Protestantism. As we have seen, Burckhardt sought to escape his predicament by not choosing between them and by turning instead to historical studies as his new “calling.”14
Yet the theological unrest never completely dissipated; Burckhardt retained an inclination to think in categories and language derived from the biblical-cultural heritage of “pious Basel.” His vow to remain an “honest heretic” even suggests a residual allegiance to his childhood faith – a faith no longer held, but one whose deep-seated presence revealed itself
in Burckhardt’s refusal to allow any compensatory teleological vision of history to fill its absence. The ruins of his faith, ramifying throughout his subsequent career, furnished him with an incredulity toward the optimizing tendencies and the epistemological confidence characteristic of Rankean, Hegelian, Comtean, and Marxian approaches to history alike –
in a word, to the very foundations of modern historical thinking.

* Christianity cannot be reduced to its eschatology. An equally important aspect of Christianity (especially in its orthodox Protestant expression) is its thorough pessimism concerning the things of this world.

* A particular understanding of history informed Burckhardt’s new calling in its nascent stages: his turn to history reflects predominantly an a posteriori (historical) appreciation of the individual rather than an idealist a priori (philosophical) preoccupation with the general or the speculative.

* As A THEOLOGY STUDENT at the University of Basel (1837-9), Jacob Burckhardt encountered the thought of de Wette. Burckhardt embraced wholeheartedly de Wette’s esprit critique, but soon came to question his reconstruction of Christian belief. Deeming it unintelligible on many points, Burckhardt vowed to be an “honest heretic” {ehrlicher Ketzer) instead.2
Indeed, the encounter with de Wette unsettled the young Burckhardt to such an extent that he experienced an intellectual and emotional “crisis” (his word) of faith, gave up theology altogether, and resolved to pursue historical studies at the University of Berlin. Significantly, his decision against theology was made at about the time that his father (Jakob
Burckhardt, Sr.) was elected Antistes, the highest ecclesiastical office in Basel, at the city cathedral.

* Burckhardt never found an “inner call.” “There is no revelation, that I know,” he wrote to Riggenbach, expressing a desire to “leave dogma and revelation on one side” and devote himself only to the historical aspect of theology.

* Burckhardt believed that the nineteenth century was awash with cheap optimism, an uncritical confidence in progressive forces reshaping history. He could not accept this optimism, convinced that progress was defined by political and economic leaders, who, despite allegiance to such ideals as popular sovereignty and social reform, were ultimately concupiscent human beings, inclined to the abuse of power.

* Burckhardt was equally critical of modern Christianity’s embrace of progress. By adapting itself to progressive ideologies, Christianity had compromised its pessimistic appraisal of human nature.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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