Lionel Gossman
Basel in the Age of Burckhardt

'The remarkable peculiarity of the entire phenomenon of Greek pessimism becomes fully perceptible in the light of the strong optimism of the Greek temperament, which is thoroughly creative, plastic, turned toward the world and which, in addition, can appreciate—on the surface—the use and enjoyment of the passing moment' (9:358 [98])

Taxing oneself to the utmost, struggling to reach the very limits of one's capacity, was not incompatible among the early Greeks with pessimism. On the contrary, it was the heroic response of a lively and gifted people—as, mutatis mutandis, it might be seen to have been Buckhardt's own response to the century of Blood and Iron. Democracy, however, aggravated the hardships that human life itself invariably brings by undermining the ideals that had stimulated men to make enormous efforts, despite hardship, for the sake of goals they believed reached beyond themselves. As the old unity in the polis of state, culture, and religion disintegrated and as society fell under the sway of a greedy and resentful populace and the demagogues expert at manipulating its passions, gifted and noble-minded individuals withdrew in ever larger numbers from all participation in public life.

In contrast to most advocates of democracy, who envisage the individual in a democratic society as an active, participating citizen, Burckhardt held that disengagement from the polls and from politics—Apolitie, to use his own term, 'the turning away from the state of many decent and in particular many talented citizens' (8:259)—is an inevitable, not a fortuitous feature of democracies.

Two figures—both from the fifth century and both, significantly, described as 'philosophers'—are evoked in a preliminary review of the phenomenon: Heraclitus of Ephesos and Timon of Athens—a philosopher and a 'well-known, noble-minded, philosophically cultivated and at one time generous citizen who came to hate his city because of the ingratitude of friends and proteges' (11:200 [233]). Those two figures are emblematic, for Burckhardt, both of the citizen who withdraws from the polls and of the very force that destroyed the polis. For philosophy could not but be hostile to the pessimistic, agonistic worldview that characterized the polis in its heyday. Philosophy, Burckhardt held—like Nietzsche—is ultimately optimistic. With the help of its sister disciplines—sophistic, rhetoric, and science—it believes it can achieve mastery and control and it rejects the fatalistic, often tragic view of the world communicated in and through myth. Critical, abstract thought, corroding all naive belief and reverence, is understood in The Cultural History of Greece to both accompany and promote democracy and to be thus itself partly responsible for the descent into demagogy which led to aggravated persecution of philosophers.

With the exception of a very early period when they were advisers and wise men in the state, philosophers, we are told, had consistently been critics and enemies of myth (10:348), which, as Burckhardt never tired of repeating, is the heart and soul of the polls. The very earliest physical speculations already marked a 'break with myth' (10:297). Heraclitus, as we saw, 'did not disguise his hatred of Homer and his world of gods' (10:297). For it was clear that the advancement of philosophy was conditional on the destruction of myth. But if 'philosophy is essentially the act of breaking through myth' (11:261 [271]), it is also at the same time the destroyer of the polis.

Understandably, the polls was cool to philosophers. It 'required of its citizens other things than knowledge,' and no idea is more alien to the ancient Greeks than that the state should be involved in promoting knowledge. Pervading as it did every aspect of life, the polls in its heyday did not need to exercise 'tyranny through the school' and left the education of citizens to be carried out in the home or in private institutions (10:342). Burckhardt's own sympathy for a form of education that reflects and communicates a culture rather than a state ideology, in modern times as well as in antiquity, is well documented, especially in his correspondence, and probably expressed the outlook of the Basel patrician, to whom Bildung or culture is not something to be systematically imparted or redistributed but something closer to a family inheritance. When it attempts to manipulate Bildung and subordinate it to its own ends, the state destroys it, according to Burckhardt, no less effectively than it destroys art when it attempts to turn it into an instrument of propaganda.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.