History as a Bunch of Flowers
- The Greeks and Greek Civilisation by Jacob Burckhardt, edited by Oswyn Murray, translated by Sheila Stern
HarperCollins, 449 pp, £24.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 00 255855 6
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
suspicious of all formulas, and it delights in exposing the paradoxes contained in every attempt to capture experience in language. It tends to dispose the fruits of consciousness in aphorisms, apothegms, gnomic utterances which turn back upon themselves and dissolve their own apparent truth and inadequacy. In the end, it conceives the world as trapped within a prison made of language, the world as a ‘forest of symbols’. It sees no way out of this forest, and so it contents itself with the explosion of all formulas, all myths.
It is, to say the least, provocative to imply that the earnest, left-sympathising and occasionally self-righteous principles of Post-Modernist history are foreshadowed in the views of this playful reactionary, who abhorred the French Revolution, newspapers, America, democracy and the noisy nervousness of the Jews. Instead of an insistence on the radical Otherness of the past, Burckhardt offers the ironic distance of a connoisseur. Instead of a Foucauldian assault on claims to truth, a gentlemanly disdain for the Prussian document-diggers. Instead of a deconstruction of the present, an incitement, as he admits in a letter to Nietzsche, to amateurism. Instead of a strenuous effort to be conscious of the place from which the author speaks, a celebration of the subjective point of view: ‘To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a given civilisation present a different picture ... it is unavoidable that individual judgment and feeling should tell every moment both on the writer and on the reader.’ This is History to soothe the bourgeois breast, History as music, History as poetry, History as a bunch of flowers.
Hayden White sees serious consequences in a history so lacking in seriousness. Marxist and other critics of Post-Modernist history claim it encourages political apathy. A Post-Modernist Burckhardt can be used to provide some kind of virtual historical proof. For Burckhardt is widely credited with predicting the rise of totalitarianism, or at least of an oppressive tyranny of the masses arising, most probably in Germany, out of the destruction of Continental wars, but instead of combating such a destiny, his counsel was to sit it out, working to preserve the best of civilisation until the clouds dispersed, like a monk in the Dark Ages. Just as Lukács saw Schopenhauer as the ideologue of bourgeois complacency, White sees his disciple, Burckhardt, as a diffident Cassandra, a far-sighted ostrich who could see what was coming to the world, but could scarcely be bothered even to flap his wings:
From his vantage-point on the Upper Rhine he looked down upon Europe rushing to its doom ... But he refused to enter the struggle himself ... Burckhardt regarded his own withdrawal from the world as an act which absolved him from any further responsibility for the coming chaos. Actually it merely reflected that failure of nerve in the European man of culture which in the end left unopposed the forces that would ultimately plunge European civilisation into the abyss of totalitarian terror ... He thought he saw the way the world was tending, but he lacked the will to oppose that tendency in any active way.
This seems a bit harsh.
Leaving aside the question of whether Burckhardt could and should have tried to save the world, how is it possible that a man born in 1818, a man regarded as deeply conservative, can sound so thoroughly modern in 1998? Despite his long career he failed to found any School to speak of. He has been most consistently influential, thanks largely to the Warburg, in the history of the history of art, but he himself tended to see art as an autonomous zone, at its best when free of the weight of society, politics and religion. He omitted art from his study of the Italian Renaissance and his sections on Greek art have been excluded from the current translation on the grounds that they reflect an old-fashioned approach, appealing to ‘timeless models, unrelated to the society that produced them’. Indeed, his most distinguished pupil, Heinrich Wölfflin, pioneered the formal ‘scientific’ analysis of painting which encouraged the appreciation of art without reference to cultural context. Burckhardt is interested in artists as members of a particular society and in their products as representative of a particular worldview, but when he turns to consider their art as art he falls back on the clichés of freedom, transcendence and genius.
As for the rest of Clio’s various brood, the major figures in new history, new historicism and new cultural history have been aware of his existence. Lucien Febvre, a founder of the Annales school, considered him a master, and he not only foreshadows but is cited by Green-blatt, Foucault and, most sympathetically, Geertz. In the genealogy of cultural history, however, Burckhardt may turn out to be something of a marsupial wolf. The major branches in the lineage of Post-Modernist history follow a very different line, through Foucault, structuralism and anthropology, with their ultimate foundations not in Burckhardt but in his younger, more scientific contemporaries, the arch-positivist Emile Durkheim and that other Swiss monument whose lectures were nearly lost to us, Ferdinand de Saussure, men of very different interests, much more serious and objective, and of a much more rigorous bent.
Durkheim’s study of suicide, for instance, a foundation-stone of modern sociology, couldn’t be further from Burckhardt’s treatment of the same phenomenon among the Greeks, although it appeared in the year of Burckhardt’s death. Durkheim produces a taxonomy of self-killing, distinguishing positive and negative acts and direct and indirect modes, making use of both individual cases and statistics. He tries to isolate social factors from psychopathological and hereditary ones, noting that the famously neurotic Jews have a low suicide-rate. He discusses the possibility of imitation, either as contagion or epidemic, and dismisses it. Eventually, he manages to isolate and focus on anomic suicide, a characteristic of modern society and of the disintegration of the ties that bind individuals to the group, a kind of suicide that responds most obviously to economic crises or the divorce rate. Burckhardt, on the other hand, sees suicide as a characteristic feature of a pre-industrialised culture with a powerful sense of the fragility of the human condition, treating the Greek penchant for it as a consequence of ideas about life and death, youth and old age, which are traceable through their cultural productions, as if action, representation and represented action are all simply reflections of a worldview. For Burckhardt, suicide is not a response to the breakdown of norms but proof of their pervasive power.
As for his method, it appears casual in the extreme. He accepts without demur stories of euthanasia in Marseille and on the island of Keos (not Chios – the translator has erred), although he does wonder, casually, why accounts of the latter should be inconsistent when the island was so close to Athens. He notes that Plato’s account of Socrates’ death produced at least one suicide in admiring imitation and that the Roman puritan Cato was reading it before he, too, topped himself. ‘In modern times,’ he continues,
suicides in particular places have sometimes spread as though by infection, so it should cause no surprise if the same thing happened in Greek cities. An epidemic of this kind once afflicted the girls of Miletus, and was attributed to a morbid influence in the air; all of a sudden they longed for death, and many strangled themselves. The pleas and tears of their parents and friends had no effect, and they evaded the closest surveillance, until a clever man suggested a public edict stating that those who died in this way must be carried naked through the agora; this put an end to the problem.
It is this kind of anecdote, recounted so coolly or callously, and so at odds with what we know of his own quiet lifestyle that led Peter Gay to describe Burckhardt as an intellectual voluptuary.
The founders of the new history may have seen a foreshadowing in Burckhardt, but it was Durkheim they modelled themselves on. The latter’s objective approach, which demanded a hard society of hard social facts for his hard scientific methods to uncover, provided a more attractive model than Burckhardt’s soft, subjective impressionism. Burckhardt treats the Greek worldview as something which makes itself known in the course of his reading and spends his time tracking its consequences through time-zones and groups and different cultural forms, like a novelist of character or social mores. Modern cultural historians, on the other hand, work in a more inquisitorial mode, like writers of thrillers or whodunnits, starting with a problem – the King’s Touch, a Cat Massacre, the Return of Martin Guerre – and elucidating a cultural background, the scene of the crime, which will allow it to make sense, a history of the intelligible, as Barthes put it. So whereas Burckhardt begins by telling us that the Greeks were pessimistic and suicidal and loved showing off, and ends with a preposterous scene of suicidal exhibitionism when a philosopher sets fire to himself at the Olympic Games, Schama begins his investigation into the mental geography of the Dutch with a woman quietly and insanely sweeping a dirtless stoop and tries to understand how she was arrived at. Burckhardt watches his Greeks go, gradually, off their collective rockers, as spirit is dislocated and tics become extravagant lunacy – we recall the series of letters he was receiving from Nietzsche – while Schama charts the formation of a cultural context in which his mad char makes perfect sense.
There is a danger in overdoing the distinction. Historians do not really belong to separate species and the best cultural historians, Schama, Robert Darnton, Natalie Davis, Greenblatt etc share much with Burckhardt, not least an exceptional talent for history, but the difference, in most cases, is more than one of narrative order. There is a satisfaction, a feeling of truth in the posing and solving of such problems which evokes the image of doing experiments and coming up with results, or suddenly getting a joke. Burckhardt’s dubious anecdotes are believable because there are lots of parallels. Schama’s drowning cell is believable because it connects to a dominant ideology, a single, central, geographically-determined metaphor of what it means to be Dutch. Mentality is a dominant mind-set, a forceful system of belief, rather than mere habits of thought. Burckhardt’s anecdotes win their place because they fit like beeches in a broad-leaf forest. Schama’s drowning cell fits like a finger in a dyke.
Other historians of mentality go further, talking in terms of hard objects with an absolute value, situated in crystalline, even binary structures: ‘mental tools’, an Early Modern Self, systems of classification, necessities or unthinkables, a ‘cathedral of ideas’ or a prison of the mind as rigid as Braudel’s limiting geography and Foucault’s epistemological regimes. Language in particular has been invoked as a cultural equivalent of the biologists’ genetic code. Unbelief is not an option for Rabelais’s contemporaries, according to Febvre, because of the words available to them, and if historians have become wary of such simple proofs, the hard, the linguistic even, model of culture is still going strong. Foucault’s Greeks are transfixed grammatically into active and passive selves. Miss Smilla, meanwhile, finds she has a special feeling for icy precipitations thanks to the 400 (or 48 or seven) Inuit words for snow.
There is little sign of such determinism in Burckhardt. He is happy merely to describe. He does claim that the materials of cultural history ‘possess a primary degree of certainty’, but it remains for the historian to peruse them and pick out what seem to him their most distinctive characteristics. He conceives of a worldview not in terms of an immobile constraining or enabling structure but more traditionally, as a playground of dynamic forces, fashions and crazes, or of more or less well-worn paths in a pre-existing landscape, although, since Burckhardt’s view of the classical polis was generally negative, the metaphors in The Greeks and Greek Civilisation are rarely so neutral. Instead, agonism or rhetoric or malice or the institution of the ‘parasite’ (the uninvited guest) are like diseases that escape from their laboratories (athletic contests, law-courts, the comic theatre, the symposium) and ‘contaminate’ or ‘enfeeble’ or ‘poison’ other areas of life. The contrast with Durkheim’s sociology could not be more stark. Although he treats history in synchronic cross-sections, therefore, Burckhardt’s account of the currents of energy within and between those epochs still depends on the clichés of dissipation, dilution and adulteration: fundamentally, an etymological view of cultural change conceived as a distancing from origins or true ‘spirit’. This kind of disapproving language, moreover, makes it seem possible that Burckhardt had in mind something less orderly than the Third Reich when he made his dire prognostications about the future of Germany, something more like the Athenian democracy in the fourth century, perhaps, which he compares to the French Revolutionary Terror, or like today’s materialist, democratic, dumbed-down society. God knows what he might have campaigned for had he been politically more engaged. He even criticises Erasmus for daring to suggest that the money spent on the Certosa di Pavia should have been spent on the poor. It is Burckhardt’s refusal of the will to act on the field of History, his ‘complacency’, in other words, and not his politics or his apparent sympathies that enable us to remain fond of him, although of course it is disengagement in the first place which permits the irresponsible ferocity of his opinions.
What seems most modern in Burckhardt can be plausibly linked not to any precocity but to the deep-seated conservatism of the man and his environment. Carl Schorske has underlined how much he owed to Basle and the peculiar symbiosis of Town and Gown that had long been fostered there. Burckhardt lectured not only to undergraduates but to the grammar school and the public. It was above all with reference to his civic role that Johann Jacob Bachofen persuaded him to return in 1858, calling him ‘the darling of the public’ and urging him to ‘help to develop intellectual life’ in the city. Burckhardt’s single-minded commitment to education thereafter explains not only the size of the Griechische Kulturgeschichte, its charm and accessibility, his celebration of amateurism, dilettantism and the subjective point of view, but also the emphasis in his historical work on Bildung, or ‘formation’, as if he is trying urgently to cram the citizens of Basle with culture as an ark to float against the ignorant, destructive, imminently swelling tide. Burckhardt is not interdisciplinary so much as anti-disciplinary, closer to Voltaire and the Encyclopedists of the previous century, or even to playful, compromising humanists like Erasmus, a local hero, than to the founders of the human sciences. What distinguishes him from the philosophes, however, is his radical pessimism, which may have had its intellectual roots in Schopenhauer, but which was continually fed by his distaste for the modern world, with its newspapers, its industries, its disturbing proletariat and its blithe assumption of progress. For Burckhardt, the Enlightenment notion of history as advance had itself become a superstition. In his post-Revolutionary disillusionment, education is not so much an emancipation as a protective cocoon.
From this perspective, his study of the agonistic spirit has broader implications. He took on the Greeks at a time when they were beginning to attract unprecedented admiration. Even Athenian democracy was winning applause in some quarters. Moreover, competition in the form of Social Darwinism or free trade was one of the central platforms of a dominant 19th-century worldview, protecting against decadence, generating growth and prosperity, and connecting capitalism to nature, fitness and tested truth. As a plausible meeting point for democratic practices, competition and the Greeks, the agon began to take on a strategic ideological potential that still has some force – in an early Tory Party commercial for Thatcherism, for instance, where the nations of the world were shown competing in some kind of economic Olympic Games, the British contestant weighted down by the encumbrances of the socialised state and lagging until the Tories come along and perform an instant liposuction, magically lightening the load; or in Geoffrey Lloyd’s recent critique of the notion of mentality (Demystifying Mentalities, translated into French more drastically as Pour en finir avec les mentalités), which nevertheless salvages the agon, connecting the social practices it encouraged with the scientific rationalism of Greek philosophy and democracy.
When Burckhardt introduces the agon he seems at first to be about to embark on a similar project: ‘the agon was a motive power known to no other people ... capable of working upon the will and the potentialities of every individual ... In the Asiatic cultures, despotism and the caste system were almost completely opposed to such activities.’ But he seems determined to stop the cohorts of Western liberal ideology from joining forces. The agon, rather like the Balinese cockfight, is cut off from reality, a thing in itself. At its most authentic in the archaic period, it is an aristocratic activity fundamentally opposed to anything banausic or practical, which is why the warlike world of the Homeric heroes is not truly agonistic: ‘Men engaged in war have no need of jousting.’ He emphasises above all its formal structure and the importance of audiences and judges, seeing the agon as a performance space for impressing people and showing off rather than as a testing-ground to discover real superiority or practical truth. He is also anxious to disassociate it from the values of the present: ‘ “the longing for fame” in adult life has been replaced by something very remote from it, which is business competition’; ‘what was valued in life would be sought in successful competition with others, but not in industrial competition.’ By giving so much emphasis to the agon, Burckhardt is historicising competition (both ancient and modern), placing it firmly in the realm of culture, performance and appearance. In a late 19th-century context this is surely a deliberate attempt to undermine the Panglossian certainties of business and its myths of progress, bounty and necessity. A lover of tranquillity and a hater of noise, Burckhardt was not about to concede any automatic benefit to struggle and strife.
It is easy to account for his peculiarity in terms of a series of opportune refusals, a refusal of optimism, a refusal of Hegelian historicism, a refusal of Positivism (and positivism), a refusal of pretensions to scientific objectivity, a refusal of professionalism, a refusal of the modernist will to Change etc, but it would be unfair to fix only on his recalcitrance. In support of his apostasy he deployed a series of extravagantly overlapping metaphors, of the historian as an observer or a connoisseur, of the object of his gaze as a work of art, or as a work of art filled, rather like Watteau’s L’Enseigne de Gersaint, with works of art, and of his History as a work of art in its own right, ‘poetry in the highest possible degree’. Such a view might be criticised as fundamentally egoist; but Burckhardt insisted The Civilisation of the Renaissance was merely a Versuch, an Essay in the proper sense of the term, and repeats at the beginning of his Greek Cultural History that the course is a tentative piece of work, that he is to be understood as a fellow student, that he is no expert. We might easily disregard such claims as insincere, yet the hegemony of the Rankean school in history and of ‘scientific’ philology in Classics and the sense of fragility that imbues his discourse throughout – his casual exposition, his uninhibited parading of subjective opinions, his transparency, his bathos, his jokes – should lead us to take Burckhardt’s humility more seriously, a humility both in respect of his audience and his Greeks. He does not litter his work with first person singulars, but we are never allowed to forget the author’s mediating presence. For a 19th-century historian to write as Burckhardt writes involved real risks. Indeed, the initially poor response to The Civilisation of the Renaissance has been ascribed precisely to its apparent lack of professional seriousness.
The metaphor of history as an ecphrasis turns out to be surprisingly productive, the impetus behind what is best and worst in Burckhardt, fixing him in the middle distance, at the same time both ‘essentially passive’ and ‘thoroughly objective’, as Peter Gay puts it. On the positive side, it manages to create a distance without opening up an exoticising, mystery-making gulf. Burckhardt’s relationship with his subject, as with his audience, is intimate but not, as with his audience, complicitous. This lends to his work a certain claustrophobic anxiety, as if you are listening to a guest loudly criticising the host’s furniture while he is out of the room. Ecphrasis keeps the historian moving over the surface of a period; the cultural phenomena he encounters can be reified and contemplated as things in themselves without recourse to a hidden depth or an underlying structure which the historian is required to penetrate. Mental structures for Burckhardt, rather like pictorial structures for Wölfflin, are to be discerned in phenomena – pattern, repetition, the habitual – not a secret cultural code. As soon as historians move from the passive to the active mode and from the spoken to the unspoken reality, they risk second-guessing their sources and projecting their own preconceptions of Otherness onto the void. If Burckhardt eschews alterity, however, cultural difference is always secure, since it is through specific details – hair-dye, dress, eating habits, drinking customs, games, manners – that cultures reveal themselves in all their specificity. At heart, the Greeks might well turn out to be Westerners or even proto-Anglo-Saxons, but we would realise immediately that we weren’t in Kansas any more if we got transported back in time. The descriptive mode also makes it easier for Burckhardt to juxtapose the good with the bad. His Greeks are not only more precisely drawn, but also more complex than they appear in some recent accounts.
At a higher level of analysis, the key to such a relentlessly shallow enterprise is its scale. A historian who claims simply to look for patterns in phenomena is obliged to assimilate as much as possible of the totality to guard against selectivity and to maintain a sense of proportion, an ambitious goal for any student of culture. Many modern accounts simply refer to Plato and Aristotle for ‘Greek’ ways of thinking, which is rather like reading Roger Scruton for a modern British worldview. Burckhardt is not about to make that error and warns against taking the views of philosophers as representative. The size of the Greek Cultural History and the range of the sources on which it depends is therefore a necessity: ‘Only long and varied reading can give assurance.’ When working on the Italian Renaissance, the amount of material and his new lecturing commitments led to a gradual contraction in the dimensions of the project, resulting in what he called ‘ “Renaissance fragments” on a greatly reduced scale’. In particular, a section on art itself was planned but never executed.
In the case of the Greeks, however, he had fewer texts and more time to read and reread them, devoting at least eight years to preparation. Thanks to this panoramic new recension we can see the Greeks themselves in the process of formation, taking shape as the historian approaches. The head-on assault on each topic recapitulates this initial coming to the subject. It is unlikely that such an ambitious exercise performed by such a sharp-eyed historian will ever be repeated. We might not agree with him, but the perspective Burckhardt brings to the subject should be treated as a valuable resource in its own right. For classicists, Burckhardt can play the same role as a perceptive stranger visiting a family for the first time, helping us to see what had been too obvious or routinely ignored – the elephant in the living-room, the purloined letters sitting invisibly on the mantelpiece. The patterns he sees in Greek sources are not the only ones and may sometimes be illusory, as he is the first to admit, but I trust the integrity with which he embarked on his enterprise. Of course he has blind-spots, particular sensitivities and preconceptions. His passivity is not that of a piece of light-sensitive paper, evenly impressionable all over, but his project at any rate, was broad enough not to be inherently distorting.
The ecphrastic method can also be seen behind Burckhardt’s failures. He puts so much energy into looking that he rarely seems to wonder why there is anything for him to look at in the first place. It is more than a coincidence that both the Renaissance Italians and the Ancient Greeks are portrayed as indiscriminate lovers of fame, as if they desired nothing more than to win a place in (Burckhardt’s) history. If he finds certain tropes of Greek discourse repetitive, how much more tedious they must have seemed to the Greeks themselves, for whom they represented nothing more, supposedly, than accepted truth. In many cases it is precisely because ideas or events are extraordinary, i.e. atypical, that someone bothers to write them down, which is to say that a culture’s monuments may stand at an oblique angle to its worldview and that the exhibitionism apparent in the figures who populate the historical landscape, and perhaps also their sense of mortality, may be a function of record itself. It is here that the charge of egoism has most force. Burckhardt seems to fall for the heuristic fantasy that the sources are there to tell him things, although it must be admitted that in the case of Ancient Greece, at least, the agon supplies a local context and a local gaze as an alibi for the historian’s own. Nevertheless, his understanding of textual taphonomics, of the peculiar circumstances that might have led these fragments of a worldview to be written down and preserved, is underdeveloped.
Moreover, his method tends to flatten out its object, as if all these texts and images belong to the same surface-plane. Burckhardt is guilty of homogenising the Greek worldview, making a star-map out of the Greek universe, full of (imaginary?) constellations, of failing to articulate clearly enough different voices and tones. This is not just the familiar problem that the sources represent a narrow section of the population, the free male élite. Although Burckhardt is distrustful of anything obviously rhetorical or philosophical, he does not seem terribly concerned about the peculiarities of other writers and genres as evidence for habits of thought, the tragicness of tragedy, the comicness of comedy, the epicness of epic. It is absurd, for instance, to treat the exceptional vigour and vitality possessed by Homer’s heroes as a general assumption of health. Whatever cultural history is, it is quite different from the study of discourse. For this reason I find it hard to understand that ‘primary degree of certainty’ on which Burckhardt insists, to locate the reality that cultural history describes. If habits of thought are indeed ‘facts’, they need to be assessed as rigorously or positively as the facts of politics, wars and dates.
The key lies in Burckhardt’s metaphysics. Following Schopenhauer, he sees the importance of Art in its universality and devotes an entire volume of the Greek Cultural History to this aspect. By the same logic, however, what is left when the transcendental has been isolated is the particular, the contingent, the distracting background noise of cultural time. To see Burckhardt as a contextualist is therefore to see only one side of the coin. We might in fact view the whole of The Civilisation of the Renaissance and most of the Griechische Kulturgeschichte as occupied primarily with residues, as rubbish-bins designed to free the sublime element in Art from the newspapery bits of culture. After all it was the age of Michelangelo and Raphael, the age of Sophocles and Homer that he chose to study. Perhaps it is the implicit contrast with the transcendental rather than any epistemological method that gives the impression of certainty, as if cultural specifics simply because of their specificity have a special relationship with the ‘real’.
In 1882 Burckhardt had a visit from Giovanni Morelli, an art historian who was the first to argue that the treatment of marginal details should be privileged over more central elements in deciding the attribution of a painting – toes rather than faces, ears rather than eyes, individual touches which ‘escaped’ without the artist’s being ‘aware of it’. Freud was one of his fans. Morelli found ‘old Jacob’ very welcoming and excited, talking as if he had consigned his book to memory, asking him a thousand questions. Three years later, Burckhardt gave his course on Greek Cultural History for the last time: ‘It consists,’ he claimed in the Introduction, ‘for the most part of material conveyed in an unintentional, disinterested or even involuntary way by sources and monuments; they betray their secrets unconsciously.’ Perhaps Burckhardt’s method is best understood as a method of attribution, the authentication of a cultural style. He accepts the casual nature of his materials. It is as marginalia that they possess such heuristic power.
If Burckhardt really is the founder of modern approaches to the Greek world the route between him and now is a long and uncertain one, but let’s not be too etymological about this. The search for origins is an inexact science at the best of times. Thanks to the efforts of Oswyn Murray and Sheila Stern, a Great Blue Whale is swimming for the first time in English waters. Tiddlers everywhere should be pleased to accept the invitation to swim in its posthumous wake.