Tag Archives: Jacob Burckhardt

Thinking History

When I was in the fifth grade I told my parents I was going to be a historian. My favorite period was World War II, because when I was in grammar school the original first person POV recounts of war heroes or of being in occupied France or working in the resistance were coming out. I remember reading the harrowing story of Douglas Bader , how he lost his legs in a training accident but it allowed him to turn a one eighty faster and not black out because his blood

my 1972 Spitfire Mark IV was golden saffron

my 1972 Spitfire Mark IV was golden saffron–and threw a rod at just over the warranty mileage.

didn’t go clear to his feet.  He was the whole reason I bought a Triumph Spitfire in the late 70s. But no, I did not have the intellectual rigor or the ambition toward high grades, I simply wanted to know history–all of it. When I was in college those were the only programs I was interested in, the history ones and anything ancillary to history, like urban geography–now that was a blast. But, I digress.

One of the requirements of a BA in history at CalState Northridge was to participate in a seminar class and write a thesis. Because of reading so much history up to this point I was less interested in a particular period than I was in the idea of history, the theory of writing history, what it meant, not only to me, but to anyone else. How they used it. How it came to be identified. Was it truly the victor who wrote the history? I was stymied until my professor–who later hated my paper–recommended Jacob Christoph Burckhardt and I started doing some research. I remember my professor talking about the fact that Burckhardt was the one who named the period Renaissance. How cool!

As I recall, Burckhardt was a terrible historian, but what fascinated me was his writing on history. He was distinctly Swiss, distinctly European, at a time when conservative could mean

my 1968 used copy

my 1968 used copy

culturally and not politically conservative. As I look back through  FORCE AND FREEDOM , Reflections on History by Jacob Burckhardt, I see my notes and what it was that drew me into his writing.  Though Protestant, his view of Roman Catholicism was that ‘Rome at least [able to] set other goals than those of power and comfort, steadily opposed the increasingly totalitarian claims of national states and maintained the intelligently realistic view of human nature which Burckhardt considered essential to political responsibility.’ He felt that liberals wanted people to think all things were possible and most people think possible means the material. Liberalism meant no sense of responsibility, no respect, no inner acceptance of the readiness to renounce for the good of the whole. He felt that democratic programs would eventually fall to ruthless military authority–that democracy eventually offered an over-developed state machine that would seize and exploit the state and thus the people, this was despotism built brick by brick, a paradigm exemplified by the straight line from the French Revolution to the Napoleonic Empire. Ah, history. How you look to repeat and repeat and repeat. Again, I digress.

Burckhardt felt that ‘historical consciousness is what distinguishes the civilized man from he barbarian, and that the race has a sacred duty to preserve the memory of it’s greatest trials and triumphs.’

Until I returned to Burckhardt’s book lately, life had run by and through me for so long I forgot why my love of history. It reminded me of what  Linda Sue Park said during a non-fiction session at SCBWI LA; she was only interested in truth’, and that each of us writing narrative nonfiction need to ‘be honest with self’ and ‘passionate for the topic.’

As I document my journey to, hopefully, publication of the narrative nonfiction I have optimistically entitled SACRED TRUST, The Congo from Leopold II to Dag Hammarskjöld I hope the best of it is in the nature of Burckhardt’s  ‘sacred duty to preserve the memory of it’s greatest trials and triumphs.


Hyperbole. A dictionary defines hyperbole as exaggerated statements, not meant to be taken literally. When I was in school, hyperbole meant we understood that the stories in the bible were to show the awesomeness of God. We read books like Werner Keller’s book, The Bible As History,  an academic study, not a quick read, but interesting. So, did the Red Sea really part for the fleeing Israelites? Probably not. More likely the water level was very low, the Israelites were able to ford the sea and the Egyptian charioteers’ wheels stuck in the muddy sea floor. A bit of hyperbole to get across the point of God saving the people of Israel, history written in supposedly simple stories.

Today, the news is being written large, in a 24/7, five-hundred channel world, where the rush to name events comes in at the penultimate level. The news channels create logos for each of the big events that catalyze us with a common bond, a bond that lasts as long as the headline remains the top story. Did this start with September 11, 2001? Has this evolved as the way to deal with events in the twenty-first century?  You have to wonder at the low-key ‘Troubles’ in Ireland, Na Trioblóidí, in Irish, certainly a violent conflict. Now, ‘Troubles’ seems so calm.

We have been jolted, pierced and bombarded with news. It’s almost too much to bear. And there seems to be no end to it. It’s still news, but we treat it like history. I wonder if there will ever be a book, The Media as History?  A book about events labeled at their most extreme; it is a crisis, a tragedy, a catastrophe, a calamity. And we precede those labels with adjectives; worst, appalling, horrid, ramping up the tension and the stress. Does this create something in the brain, blindsiding us from a sober look at the events, inhibiting an intelligent discussion of the causes and the effects, limiting our reasoning ability?

“Memory is tyrannical,” is a quote by Professor Rosenstock-Huessy. My BA thesis was on Jacob Christoph Burckhardt, a Swiss Professor of History, lousy historian, great philosopher of history and I came across the Rosenstock-Huessy quote in my research. If you study history, you know you get history after memory, when we’ve moved past the personally known, past the individual point of view. Yes, memory is tyrannical, but so is the media today.