History as a Bunch of Flowers

James Davidson

Some classicists were, I suspect, completely unaware that the author of The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy had written anything at all on the Greeks, and many (myself included) knew not much more than that. In the unlikely event that an allusion to his work is used to ambush you at a conference or a seminar, look nonplussed, mutter a sentence or two from which only the words ‘bourgeois individualism’, ‘Curiosity Shop’ and ‘Spirit of the Age!’ can be clearly heard and move on to the next question. In the unlikely event that the questioner asks you to speak up, simply repeat the procedure, adding the words ‘Swiss’ and ‘dilettante’; perhaps, if you are feeling energetic, quoting Braudel’s description of his work as ‘aérienne’ and ‘suspendue’.

Such condescension has a long and distinguished pedigree. The first (posthumous) publication of the lectures entitled Greek Cultural History (1898-1902) produced a chorus of loud indifference from the likes of Theodor Mommsen, Julius Beloch, Eduard Meyer and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, alleging that Burckhardt had written a non-existent book – ‘incapable of saying anything either of Greek religion or of the Greek state which deserves a hearing’ – on a non-existent subject: ‘The Greece of Burckhardt no more exists than that of the classical aesthetes.’ Burckhardt was not fond of the scholarly guild and their conferences ‘where they go and sniff each other like dogs’, and not only anticipated these criticisms – ‘my dubious views would be severely handled by the viri eruditissimi’ – but seemed to agree with them: ‘I am a heretic and an ignoramus.’ He ordered the destruction ‘unconditionally’ of his lecture-notes: ‘the mistaken belief that I was to publish a history of Greek culture derives from a work of the unfortunate Professor Nietzsche, who now lives in a lunatic asylum.’

That the viri eruditissimi bothered to criticise him is a testament to Burckhardt’s popularity and his reputation. It was a long time since he had published a proper monograph, but people had fond memories of Cicerone (1854), a guide to the treasures of Italy, which went through seven editions in his lifetime, and although The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), on which his current reputation largely depends, had at first sold sluggishly, it was beginning by now to be recognised as a classic both at home and abroad. He was academically respectable as well as renowned, and had been recommended for a chair in Munich by no less a referee than Leopold von Ranke, to whom, methodologically, he is often opposed – he later turned down von Ranke’s own vacated chair in Berlin. The fans of the lectures on Greek culture may have been dilettantes, but they were dilettantes of the highest order, including both Nietzsche and Freud. Indeed, Nietzsche’s flatteries became so extravagant – ‘that profoundest student of Greek culture now living’, ‘our great teacher’, ‘I would rather be a professor at Basle than God’ – that the object of them felt obliged to raise the question of the philosopher’s sanity with one of his friends leading to Nietzsche’s hospitalisation in 1889. Burckhardt’s self-deprecation may not always have been in earnest, but he was modest enough to see that the philosopher’s effusiveness had crossed a line. ‘There is nothing in the world I fear more,’ he wrote, ‘than being overestimated.’

Reading Greek Cultural History a century later, it seems clear the professionals were mistaken, while Nietzsche’s judgment seems quite sound. Astonishment is perhaps the most immediate response to this selection, which amounts to barely a quarter of the original. On the most basic level of achievement, Burckhardt has assimilated a vast range of ancient sources, from the most familiar to the most neglected and obscure. Even a very learned historian will learn something and most will discover a great deal. Despite the scale of the enterprise, I noticed no errors and where he summarises a speech or a text I think I know, he usually seems to get the point more easily than more recent students. It is much more than an omnium gatherum, however. The main lines of the organising architecture are always apparent and the theme of Greek ‘ways of thinking’ is always to the fore. The agonistic, competitive spirit, for instance, a running motif, is illustrated with examples which extend from Homer, Pindar, Plato and Thucydides to an altar at Olympia to appease a malevolent hero who causes chariots to crash, and a carpet-maker who weaves a boastful piece of self-aggrandisement into the textile itself. The cult of youth is illustrated by both a discussion of old age in Plato’s Republic and an anecdote from Aelian about the dyeing of grey hair. The awareness of mortality even in the midst of jollity is illustrated by passages from the great tragedians and a later epigram: ‘Give me the sweet goblet, made from earth, as I am; that earth in which I shall lie again when I am dead.’ These characteristics of the Greek worldview are always sharply drawn, almost to the point of caricature. Sometimes you feel Burckhardt has overdone it, but the impression is vivid and unmistakable, and the great array of sources cited in support cannot easily be ignored. Burckhardt’s Greeks may never have existed but they seem terribly real.

Two qualities, in particular, serve to distinguish him from even the best historians writing today: his frontal assault on the subject and his bathetic asides. He begins the section on Greek civilisation with a discussion of what the Greeks looked like. Clearly Greek sculpture does not represent your average Greek; yet, ‘a nation of ugly people would not have been able to produce this beauty merely by longing for it.’ He then turns to literary sources. The boastful, competitive Greeks cannot be trusted to give an honest account of their own attributes so Burckhardt records a late description from a Jewish treatise on physiognomy, which concludes: ‘they have the most beautiful eyes of any people in the world.’ He moves on to their vigour, citing a passage from the Iliad which describes Nestor, hot from the battle, exposing himself to the breezes of the shore, ‘to the horror of all present-day victims of rheumatism. We may well ask,’ he continues, ‘whether the ancients ever noticed a draught.’ At times this great lecturer sounds a little like Victoria Wood.

Immediately afterwards, he produces an unexpected disquisition on names and naming, an area of Greek culture which is only now beginning to attract the attention it deserves, noting how peculiar it is that we know the names of the dogs that ripped their master Actaeon to shreds, or of the two snakes that strangled Laocoön’s sons on the Trojan shore. In a later section, the Athenians are introduced in a similar style, starting with a rhetorical question not about their origins or institutions but their sources of self-esteem: ‘What were the things the Athenians were so conceited about?’ The answer runs from the discovery of cereal cultivation and the first use of olives and figs, to the drinking of spring water, the yoking of horses to carts and even standing up: ‘though the Greeks otherwise laid no great claim to inventiveness, Attica was traditionally credited with the inventions of civilisation to an extent positively insulting to all other nations and the rest of the Greeks ... In later times this was all made easy for the Athenians: the whole world sang their praises in a way that can only be compared with the nonsense that is nowadays talked about Paris.’ These changes of tone, the sudden plunge from the grandest to the most minor themes, the zooming in and out from the broadest panoramas to a particular carpet on a particular floor, the massiveness of his project and the lightness with which he accomplishes it, not to mention his vast knowledge, his clear style, his precision and his general surefootedness, are what make Burckhardt great in a way which is not so different from the way that Shakespeare is great or Rembrandt or Beethoven. He creates vast spaces in history, heights and depths, enormous ranges of pitch and timbre, sunny clearings in the midst of impenetrable gloom. Before his humble ghost alerts the men in white coats, however, perhaps I should move on.

One of Wilamowitz’s criticisms was that Burckhardt was at least fifty years out of date, and fifty years later Arnaldo Momigliano was still blaming him for breathing new life into the already elderly notion of zeitgeist. Yet Oswyn Murray is not alone in making Burckhardt a precursor of the historians of mentality whose broad school has so many disciples, and even, in his methodology, of what is called ‘Post-Modernist’ history. Certainly, it is not difficult to see his shadow looming over some of the classics which have been most influential among modern historians. Clifford Geertz’s treatment of the Balinese cockfight as a novel or a play, Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘self-fashioning’ or Foucault’s notion of the Greek Self as a ‘stylisation of freedom’, produced out of an ‘aesthetics of existence’. When Simon Schama, in the overture to The Embarrassment of Riches, finds himself rather unconcerned about the actual existence of ‘the drowning cell’, in which, according to travellers’ tales, the incorrigibly idle were required to pump themselves away from death – ‘drown or be Dutch’ – he seems to be following in Burckhardt’s footsteps: ‘Even where a reported act did not really occur ... the attitude that assumes it to have occurred ... retains its value by virtue of the typicality of the statement.’ Indeed, the reason Hayden White is so hard on Burckhardt is because he sees him as the first great exponent of an Ironic mode in history which has been dominant ever since. The burgher of Basle does indeed sound like a precocious Post-Modernist when White glosses Irony as

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