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Category Archives: On History

…And, yet, despite all differences, one important point stands out. The road of Roman civilization was a road to barbarism. Will it turn out to be the same road we are on today?

Whatever historical comparison may afford for an understanding of the present crisis, it can give us no assurance regarding the latter’s outcome. The confident conclusion that things will right themselves somehow is not warranted by any historical parallel. We continue to push on into the unknown.

In this aspect also our time presents an important difference from earlier periods of violent cultural turmoil. In these earlier periods men have always seen the aim for which to strive and the means with which to pursue it, as fixed and positively determined. As we have said before, their aim was almost always to restore; a return to old perfection and purity. The ideal was retrospective. And not only the ideal but also the method by which to realise it. It lay in the acquisition and application of ancient wisdom and ancient virtue. The ancient wisdom, the ancient beauty, the ancient virtue, these were the wisdom, the beauty, and the virtue needed to bring to this world the order and serenity which earthly conditions allow. In dark times of decline the noblest spirits—think of a Boéthius—used to conserve the ancestral wisdom to pass it on to the coming generations for their guidance and instruction. Well may they be thankful for it; without Boéthius what would the Dark Ages have been? In rising times the lost wisdom was unearthed, not for the sake of disinterested knowledge alone, but to turn it to practical use; Roman Law, Aristotle. Thus Humanism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries spread before the world the rediscovered treasures of a purified antiquity as the everlasting model of knowledge and culture, a model to build on if not to swear by. Practically all conscious cultural striving of earlier periods has in one way or another been inspired with the principle of an exemplary past.

Such veneration of the past we no longer know. Where our time seeks, preserves, safeguards ancient beauty, wisdom and greatness, it does not do so, at least not in the first place, with the object of finding guidance. Even though we may rate older periods higher than the present, for their faith, their art and the solidity and soundness of their social forms, our cultural life is no longer directed towards the illusory ideal of reinstatement. We are neither able nor willing to look back. For us there are only the unknown distances ahead. For three centuries, since Bacon and Descartes, our face has been turned to the future. Humanity has to find its own way. The impulse to push on ever further can lead to extremes when it degenerates into a vain and restless hankering after novelty for the sake of novelty itself. The stronger spirits, however, do not fear a heavy load of ancient values in their onward stride.

We know it only too well: if we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it.


-Johan Huizinga (In the Shadow of Tomorrow, p.36-8)


PS. this is merely the end of this chapter…will post the rest when I have more time. And ultimately the whole book as it is not that easy to find nor does it seem to have yet been made available online.

Let us be strong, let us not forget where we came from and our debt owed to the past. We could not be where we are without the sacrifices, for us, of those noble men and women of the past. Even though they never could or would know us.


Decline of the critical spirit, weakening of judgment, perversion of the function of science, all point to a serious cultural disorder. To think, however, that in locating these symptoms one is attacking the evil at its roots, is to make a grave mistake. For already we hear the swelling chorus of objections from the self-styled bearers of a new culture: “But we do not want a tried and tested knowledge to rule us and to decide over our actions; our aim is not to think and to know but to live and to do.”

Here we have the pivotal point of the present crisis of civilization: the conflict between knowing and being, between intelligence and existence. There is nothing novel about it. The essential insufficiency of our understanding was already realised in the earliest days of philosophy. The reality in and through which we live is in its essence unknowable, inaccessible to the processes of the mind, absolutely disparate from thought. In the first half of the nineteenth century this old truth, already understood by a Nicolaus Cusanus, is taken up again by Kierkegaard, whose philosophy centres upon the antithesis of existing and thinking. It served him to found his faith all the more firmly. It was not until much later that other thinkers forced this thought on to tracks away from God and let it derail in nihilism and despair, or in worship of earthly life. Nietzsche, deeply convinced of man’s tragic exile from truth and interpreting the will to life as will to power, repudiated the intellectual principle with all the poetical vigour of his genius. Pragmatism deprived the concept truth of its claim to absolute validity by placing it in the flow of time. To the pragmatists truth is what has essential validity for those professing it. Something is true when and in so far as it is valid for a particular time. A crude mind could easily think: something is valid, therefore it is true. A truth-concept reduced to only relative value was bound to bring a kind of ideological egalitarianism, an abolition of all differences of rank and value of ideas, in its wake. Sociological thinkers like Max Weber, Max Scheler, Karl Mannheim and Oswald Spengler have of late introduced the term of the Seinsverbundenheit des Denkens, which may be very imperfectly rendered with “the environment or life-conditioned nature of thought.” The concept itself makes them next-door neighbours to historical materialism, which is professedly anti-intellectual. Thus the tendencies of a whole age which, to avoid the vagueness of “anti-intellectual,” we venture to call anti-noetic, merged into a mighty stream which shortly was to threaten what were long thought to be insurmountable barriers of intellectual culture. It was Georges Sorel who, in his Réflexions sur la Violence, formulated the practical political consequences of all this, thereby becoming the spiritual father of all modern dictatorships.

But it is not only the dictators and their followers who desire the subjugation of the will to knowledge to the vital impulse. We have here the most fundamental element of the cultural crisis as a whole. This revulsion of the spirit is the essential process dominating the situation in which we find ourselves to-day.

Was it philosophical thought which led the way and society which followed? Or do we have to reverse the order and admit that it is a case of thought dancing to the tune of life? The doctrine itself which subjugates knowledge to life seems to impose the latter view.

Have earlier generations ever renounced the intellectual principle in this way? It seems impossible to find historical parallels. Systematic philosophical and practical anti-intellectualism such as we are witnessing, appears to be something truly novel in the history of human culture. To be sure, the past has often known reactions of thought whereby a too exclusive primacy of the understanding was succeeded by a revindication of the will. This is what happened, for instance, when the thought of Duns Scotus took its place beside that of Thomas Aquinas. These spiritual reactions, however, were not concerned with practical life or the worldly order but with the Faith, the striving for the ultimate meaning of life. And this striving itself always remained an “apprehending,” however far reason was left behind. The modern mind too often confuses intellectualism with rationalism. Even those forms of approach which, transgressing the purely intellectual, were intended to attain through insight and contemplation what was inaccessible to the understanding, always remained directed towards knowledge of truth. The Greek or the Indian word for it, gnosis or jnâna, makes it clear enough that even the purest mysticism remains a “knowing.” It is always the spirit which moves in the world of the intelligible. To have truth was always the ideal. There are no instances known to me of cultures having forsaken Truth or renounced the understanding in its widest sense.

When earlier currents of thought repudiated allegiance to Reason it was always in favour of the super-rational. What parades as the culture of today does not only disavow Reason but also the knowable itself, and this in favour of the sub-rational, the passions and the instincts. It votes for the will, not in the sense of Duns Scotus, however, but for the will to worldly power, for “existence,” for “blood and soil,” instead of “understanding” and “spirit.”

-Johan Huizinga (In the Shadow of Tomorrow, p.99-104)

If we offend against “history” by removing documents and representations from their cultural context, we hope to compensate by correlating our archetypal investigation with a “psychohistory,” that is to say, with the stages in the development of the human psyche. Taking the development of consciousness as the decisive phenomena of human history, we arrive at an arrangement of the phenomena that does not, to be sure, coincide with the usual sequence of historical events, but makes possible the psychological orientation we require.

The old interpretation of history as a straight line, leading from prehistory through antiquity and the Middle Ages to modern times, is no longer accepted. It has given way to a historical consciousness that looks upon the various coexistent and successive cultures as individualities and not as links in a continuous chain. This view makes it possible to do justice to the individual character of each culture, but it is also a symptom of the decline of the ordering principle that had hitherto enabled European, Christian mankind to regard itself as the culmination and climax of human development. Once the idea of a universal mankind, embracing all the multiplicity of cultures, religions, and historical epochs, came within the scope of men’s minds, the naive Western view of history for which the Near East was quite secondary, while Asia, America, and Africa merited scarcely any attention, became untenable.

With the discovery of the collective unconscious as the common psychic foundation of mankind and with the insight that the relation of consciousness to the unconscious determines the character of a cultural phase or of a culture, modern man has gained a new point of orientation. The development of consciousness, from almost total containment in the unconscious in primitive man to the Western form of consciousness, has been glimpsed as the central factor in human history as a whole. For this orientation, the various cultures are merely phases in this basic trend of psychic life: the development of consciousness, which, without being the conscious goal of the individual cultures or of human culture as a whole, can be shown to be operative in every culture and age.

The tendency toward the light, which C. G. Jung once called human heliotropism, has in the long run proved stronger than all the forces of darkness that have striven to extinguish consciousness. In the broad view, epochs seemingly characterized by a regression of consciousness may almost always be recognized as transitional stages necessary to further development.

For the psychological study of human history, the primordial era refers then to the time when the unconscious was predominant and consciousness was weak. The modern era signifies a time of developed consciousness and of a productive bond between consciousness and unconscious. In other words, the normative development of the individual from containment in the unconscious to the development of consciousness presents an analogy to the collective development of mankind. In the system of coordinates representing psychohistorical development, later periods may therefore, as we said, represent an early state of consciousness and early epochs a mature level. Thus, for example, the relatively late monuments of the monolithic culture of England and France are psychologically much “earlier” than the Egyptian monuments that preceded them by thousands of years. And in an epoch of modern history, regressive collective tendencies may appear, which threaten to annul the arduously acquired development of the individual and the individual consciousness, and to bring back an earlier stage of human history.

Erich Neumann (The Great Mother, p. 89-91)

And now we come to the real distinguishing feature which essentially separates barbarism from culture; the only reason it cannot serve us as a guiding rod or for the determination of the beginning is that the documentary evidence is inadequate. It is the question: Where does mere living in the present, such as the savage does, cease, and where does life in the past and the present, i.e. differentiating comparison, begin? When does the mere present, devoid of history, end?

Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History, p. 5)

We have spoken of the age-old impulse to abandon culture, to flee from the present day and its misery. In times such as these the impulse comes over us now and then more powerfully than ever. What will be the refuge? There are still a number of roads open. Though the past no longer proffers us the lively dream of a peaceful perfection that may perhaps return in the future, ancient beauty and wisdom still grants sweet forgetfulness to the person who seeks it. Does the future have more to offer? We can observe this raging world from an absurd distance and say that it will take three thousand years for all the madness of the present conflict, the stupidity and the terror, the fate of states and nations, the very cultural values that now seem the highest stake to have become just as unimportant to humanity as the wars of Assyria are today. This is no consolation; that, too, is mere forgetfulness. And such resignation can also be achieved from a briefer distance: we can view all this through the eyes of those who have fallen. That is still the shortest road to liberation. The person who wants to abandon today, with its heavy burden of history, has to abandon life. But the person who wants to carry that burden and still climb upward finds a fourth open: that of the simple act — it makes no difference whether in the trenches or in any other serious work. Giving of oneself is the end and the beginning of every philosophy of life. Liberation is to be found not in the abandonment of culture, but in the abandonment of one’s own ego.

– Johan Huizinga (Men and Ideas, p. 96)

1. The discipline of history is suffering from the defect that the issues are insufficiently formulated.

… In the historical discipline, with its necessarily unsystematical character, currents in thought are constantly moving in divergent directions. Only a very few of all these studies seem to point back toward a central core of knowledge. Here the critical scholar voices his opposition, expressing the opinion that they do. Every monograph, he says, is a “preliminary study ” for later integration. The material has still not been made sufficiently available, and there has still not been enough critical sifting. Before the major problems can be taken up a great deal more of the details will have to be determined. We are providing the building stones. We are the willing hewers of wood and drawers of water. But our doubts respond: you are creating an illusion of humble unselfishness for the sake of others’ future profit. But when the master builder comes he will find most of the stones you have laid ready for him unusable. You are not hewing and chipping but polishing and filing. And you are doing it because you are not strong enough for more vigorous labor.

– Johan Huizinga (Men and Ideas, p. 20)

We shall do without such historical decorative end pieces. Instead, we have a request to make of fate — a request for a feeling of duty for what lies before us each time, submission to the inevitable, and, when the great problems of existence confront us, a clear, unambiguous statement of these; finally, a request for as much sunshine in the life of an individual as is necessary to keep him alert for the fulfillment of his duty and his contemplation of the world.

– Jacob Burckhardt (Judgements on History and Historians, p. 259)

…Their life is made up of leisure and the activities that are considered aristocratic, like military service, individual heroism, famous love affairs. Despite the often very dissolute living, social intercourse in the eighteenth century is more refined, more generous, and intellectually livelier than it has ever been since. People still have time to read, i.e. for lively intellectual intercourse. They have not yet surrendered to business.

Talent, no matter where it may come from, easily finds patronage, positions, and a wealth of occupations. Here all arrogance ceases, because people really want to have enjoyment.

Scholarship is partly in the hands of secure corporations, partly in those of independent dilettantes.

At length, to be sure, this nobility, because of all its noble leisure and abstract generosity, comes upon liberal principles and begins to take the real institutions of the state lightly. This lends it one last, exceedingly noble resplendence. Meanwhile, to be sure, other strata, together with their ‘public opinion’, have started to take control of matters.

It was for this aristocratic class, in the main, and not as yet for publishers and a mass public, that artists wrote, created literature, composed, painted, and so on. Also, the whole incipient opposition in the state and the innovations and all intellectual matters are essentially in their hands.

Our view must become accustomed to this nature of the intellectual life in those times.


– Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History, p.184)

Our intellect, however, no matter how independent of the past it may behave in science and technology, is ever renewed and consecrated by the consciousness of its connection with the mind of the remotest times and civilization. Indeed, it gets to know itself and value its lofty nature only through comparison with that which it, the eternally unchanging, has been in all times.

– Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History)

At our universities, the historians like to dump the Ancient History course in the lap of philologists, and vice versa. Here and there it is treated like a poor old relation whom it would be a disgrace to let go to ruin entirely. But with the public at large antiquity is completely out of fashion, and the ‘culture’ which is supported by this public even feels hatred for it. Various faults of antiquity serve as a pretext. The real reason is conceit about modern communication and transport and the inventions of our century; then, too, there is the inability to distinguish technical and material greatness from the intellectual and moral kinds; and finally, the prevalent views about refinement of manners, philanthropy, and the like.

But what makes it generally impossible for the present-day average ‘educated’ man to find anything appealing in the ancient world is the total egoism of today’s private person who wants to exist as an individual and asks of the community only the greatest possible security for himself and his property, for which he pays his taxes amid sighs, and who also likes to attach himself to the community in a specific sense as an ‘official’.

On the other hand, the peoples of the ancient Orient, who lived tribally, impress us as races of which each individual is only a type, with the King has the highest type.

And even where the individual develops, especially since the Greeks, we still deal for a long time and essentially with types, e.g. The heroes, the lawgivers. They are, to be sure, depicted as great individuals, and this is borne out by feeling and tradition; but at the same time they are all the more fully types and condensations of the characteristic and the general. And last, the complete individual in antiquity is, above all, πολιτης [part of the state] to a degree of which we now, in the present mode of connection between the individual and the state, have no idea. Whenever one breaks with the πὁλεις (polis) or when it is lost, it is a tragedy every time.

Finally, today’s ‘educated’ men are firmly resolved to make a bargain, with whatever power, for their existence at any given time. There is an enormous veneration of life and property. There is a mass abdication, and not just on the part of the rulers! And there are numerous bargaining positions and concessions against the worst — and all this with great touchiness in matters of recognition and so-called honour.

With the ancients, on the contrary, it was all or nothing, with no fear of disaster. The fall of states, cities, and Kings was considered glorious. That is something utterly alien to us.

– Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History, #4.)