Tonsor, Stephen J.: Tradition and the Crisis of Western Culture

Jacob Burckhardt: Tradition and the Crisis of Western Culture

From Modern Age, a Quarterly Review, vol.39, winter 1997.

burckhardtBy the second half of the nineteenth century it was clear that the French Revolution had ushered in an era of cultural crisis unprecedented in nature. To a far greater extent than the Renaissance and Reformation the French Revolution broke the pattern of the past, overturned the previous religious, social and political order and promised a new and perfected humanity. The Jacobin terror, which became the revolution’s hallmark ushered in the tyranny of Napoleon. In the half century, which followed the French Revolution, wave after revolutionary wave challenged the stability of state and society in Europe and Latin America. Revolutionary equality became more important ideologically than liberty, and socialism promised the bright future, which the French Revolution failed to provide. The Restoration of the ancient order after 1815 was only partially successful and, although general war was avoided until 1914 and aristocratic society maintained a tenuous power in Europe, industrialization and urbanization continued the work of radical social transformation which the French Revolution had begun. Secular intellectuals who increasingly displaced the clergy carried forward the anti-religious ideology of the philosophes and their devotion to social transformation.

It was in this atmosphere that the great pessimistic philosophies of history were born-philosophies of history which were anti-progressive and conservative, anti-Hegelian, anti-Marxist and anti-democratic. But beyond a rejection of the progressivism and belief in social transformation which philosophies of history stemming from the thought of Kant and Hegel produced, the pessimist philosophers of history sought to explain the historical reasons for the crisis of European culture and to predict the path of historical development which this crisis would take.

Of course, until World War I the philosophers of progress and socialism dominated European thought even as Marxists, racists, and feminists still dominate faculties of history in American universities. Of the Whig interpretation of history, as David Cannadine so ably demonstrates in his recent biography, G.M. Trevelyan, “A Life in History”, only World War I shook the faith of Whiggery’s high priest in inevitable progress. However at the war’s end Trevelyan told his mother, “I believe democracy is on the march now, all along the line, the world’s great age begins anew.” “[The] despotisms of the ancient regime in Central and Eastern Europe” had at last been overthrown and this held out the prospect of a “new era”; a “bold adventure” (in European history might begin]. As Trevelyan was shortly to see, this “new era” saw the collapse of European culture and the rise of the dictators.

Following World War I the mood of Europe became pessimistic. No historian in the inter-war years enjoyed a wider reading public or sold more copies of his work than Oswald Spengler, the author of “The Decline of the West”. Following World War II Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History” found a similar wide readership and influence. These works continued and brought to full flower the pessimistic historical tradition which found its inception as a response to the French revolution.

Marx and Lenin saw the French Revolution, progressivism and the truncated and superficial philosophy of the philosophes as directly ancestral to the Russian Revolution. In 1989 that revolutionary tradition was swept away. Two hundred years of revolutionary agony died in a few months when the human mind once more looked upon the outlines of reality and achieved something resembling clarity. In the great political interregnum which has followed, in the light of the death of political ideas and political leadership which had developed in the Western world, it is false to speak of “the end of history.” It is far more accurate to speak of the death of humanity and particularly those humane values, which had their basis in Christianity and in Western rationalism. Suddenly the pessimism of Lasaulx, of Burckhardt, of Nietzsche, of Spengler and of Toynbee appears to be more than justified. The world has literally cut itself adrift from meaning.

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