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  • Jacob Burckhardt, Religion, and the Historiography of “Crisis” and “Transition”
  • Thomas Albert Howard*

A great historical subject, the representation of which should be the high point of a historian’s life, must cohere sympathetically and mysteriously to the author’s innermost being.

Jacob Burckhardt 1

If you are to venture to interpret the past you can do so only out of the fullest exertion of the vigor of the present: only when you can put forth your ... qualities in all their strength will you divine what is worth knowing and preserving in the past.

Friedrich Nietzsche 2

The renowned nineteenth-century Swiss-German historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) was a masterful historian of crises and transitional periods. Two of his major works, The Age of Constantine the Great (1852) and The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), bear out this claim. In his Constantine Burckhardt deals with the transition from late pagan antiquity to the early Christian Middle Ages, and in his more famous Renaissance he deals with the transition from the late Middle Ages to the beginnings of secular modernity. In the [End Page 149] latter, as is well known, he established one of the most compelling and creative theses in the history of modern historiography, virtually creating the “idea of the Renaissance” that has long influenced both scholarly and popular conceptions of that period. 3

What elicited Burckhardt’s interest in crises and transitions in general and in these two periods of crisis and transition in particular? In this article, I shall argue that there is a strong relationship between Burckhardt’s own historical experience in the early and mid-nineteenth century and his choice of subject and mode of analysis in these two monumental works. In theoretical terms one observes a “dialectical” form of objectivity in the execution of Burckhardt’s historiographical tasks: a structural affinity or kinship between subject (Burckhardt, his historical experience) and object (late antiquity, Renaissance) predisposes Burckhardt to his theme/argument and thus provides a key to understanding the genesis and the character of insights that he offers in these two works. 4 To establish this point I shall focus on the category of religion, on Burckhardt’s own experience of questions of religious truth and skepticism in the nineteenth century, and on his treatment of religion in these two works.

The Young Jacob Burckhardt and Religion

Religion is a crucial but often neglected aspect of Jacob Burckhardt’s thought. 5 Like a number of nineteenth-century German intellectuals, Burckhardt was a Pfarrersohn, a “pastor’s son.” 6 He grew up in a profoundly conservative Protestant environment in Basel, nicknamed “pious Basel” for its dogged resistance to the “ideas of 1789” and for its earlier heritage of Reformation and pietist religiosity. During Burckhardt’s youth in fact, his father was a children’s minister and head-deacon (Obersthelfer) before becoming in 1838 the city cathedral’s Antistes, the highest and most prestigious ecclesiastical office in Basel. In short, as his biographer Werner Kaegi has noted, Burckhardt’s early [End Page 150] upbringing and education were strongly shaped by the world of his father, a world of “old Protestant piety.” 7

Following his father’s example, Burckhardt started out on the clerical track, studying theology at the University of Basel. However, during his Theologie-studium (1837–39) he experienced a profound crisis of faith brought on by an encounter with German historical biblical criticism and liberal theology represented in the person of W. M. L. de Wette (1780–1848). A radical theologian and biblical scholar, de Wette had wound up in Basel in 1822 after being dismissed from the University of Berlin for holding views considered heterodox and politically threatening by the conservative Prussian government. 8 In a letter to his friend Johannes Riggenbach written in August 1838 Burckhardt tells how de Wette’s critical theology had unseated his faith. “In my eyes,” Burckhardt wrote,

de Wette’s system grows in stature every day; one simply must follow him, there is no alternative; but every day a part of our traditional church doctrine melts away under his hand. Today, finally, I realized that he regards the birth of Christ simply as a myth...

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