Nietzsche’s Friend Jacob Burckhardt: How a Conservative 19th Century Historian Anticipated ‘Poliitcally Correct’ views of Antiquity.

I’ve just started reading The Greeks and Greek Civilization by Jakob Burckhardt. Burckhardt was a friend and colleague of Friedrich Nietzsche at the University of Basle. Unlike Nietzsche, Burkhardt was a native of Basle. He turned down the chance to succeed to Leopold Von Ranke’s chair in Berlin. Ranke was a great historian, who preached objectivity and the importance of archives, but also wrote history from the point of view of the Prussian dynasty. Burckhardt rejected Ranke’s Prussian-German nationalism, but from a conservative point of view. In this he followed the precedent of Goethe. The emphasis Burckhardt puts on the individual above national state ideology also gives him a liberal aspect, like Nietzsche. They were both suspicious of democracy and mass culture, from the point of view of an individualism which stands above conservative tradition, particularly in its religious aspects. At the very least Nietzsche and Burckhardt turn conservative tradition into an instrument of individualism, and Nietzsche certainly found it possible to take the same view of democracy. Both of the Basle Professors shared an early enthusiasms for the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Both were attacked by the brilliant but narrow minded philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Mollendorf.

I was previously familiar with Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which looks at the individualism of the Renaissance as a movement in politics and statecraft as a well as art, and which clearly bears comparison with Nietzsche. In fact both books by Burckhardt are essential companions to Nietzsche’s philosophy (that is not to say they are the same in all respects).

The focus of today’s post is the way in which Burckhardt anticipates attitudes to antiquity from a ‘politically correct’ point of view since Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. I do not have a firm view right now of Black Athena, or any text influenced by it. I may return to this in the future, all I have to say for now is that I am sure that Bernal addressed issues that need to be addressed about the place of Greek antiquity in the broader antique world. It may or may not distort history for political reasons. It may or may not mix such distortions with valid points.

The issues that are associated with Bernal and his followers that matter regardless of the value of what they wrote: the Greek polis (city state) follows the example of earlier states in the Near East; there are ways in which aspects of Ancient Greek thought that take things from the Near East: some aspects of Near Eastern culture and thought were in advance of Greek culture and thought in antiquity.

Where does Burckhardt come in?
1. The Greek polis, to some degree, was preceded by Phoenician city states in which the supreme power of rulers was limited by an aristocratic council.
2. Ancient Greek culture took many things from the Ancient Assyrians and Egyptians.
3. Ancient Greek culture seemed immature to the Ancient Egyptians due to its faith in immediacy and lack of any real transcendence of perception.
4. Ancient Greek culture had an instrumental attitude to truth and oath taking whoch shocked other Antique peoples and this is not just a case of seeing the worst in another culture.

Burckhardt emphasised other things that undermine the idealisation of Ancient Greece, particularly the view of the polis as the goal of human existence. Burckhardt emphasises that the polis emerges from extreme violence on villagers. A polis was formed by forcing inhabitants in a group of villages to leave their homes and live within fortified walls. The reasons for this were militaristic. The process in which villagers were forced to live in a polis in constant military conflict with rivals is what lies behind Greek myths of sacrifice (voluntary and involuntary) to the interests of the state and the harsh punishment of critics of the state. Villagers had the cruel experience for Ancient Greeks of being torn from the graves of their ancestors. Legal codes were designed for the aristocracy who struggled to protect original laws against amendment and addition by the people. ‘Democracy’ was based on one group forcing itself on other peoples and subordinating them to itself. This could happen because citizenship excluded slaves and those of foreign origin, as well as women. Greek gods were immoral and this limited Ancient Greek moral understanding, which included obsessions with revenge, though this was mitigated to some degree by philosophy. However, even philosophical ethics was primarily concerned with the health of the individual self, not obligations to others.


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