Monday, January 28, 2019


Condemnation of the Past

Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), Reflections on History, tr. M.D.H. (1943; rpt. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1950), pp. 61-62 (footnote omitted):
Yet arguments based on the corruption, debauchery and more especially the violence of times past, or on the cruelty and perfidy of barbarians, are misleading. For we judge everything by that standard of security without which we could no longer exist, and condemn the past by pointing out that our atmosphere did not exist in it, forgetting that even now, the moment security is suspended—in war, for instance—every conceivable horror shows its head. Neither the spirit nor the brain of man has visibly developed in historical times, and his faculties were in any case complete long before then. Hence our assumption that we live in the age of moral progress is supremely ridiculous when we look back on those perilous times out of which the free strength of ideal desire rises to heaven in the lofty spires of a hundred cathedrals. The matter is made worse by our vulgar hatred of everything that is different, of the many-sidedness of life, of symbolic rites and privileges half or quite in abeyance, by our identification of the moral with the precise and our incapacity to understand the multifarious, the fortuitous. We need not wish ourselves back into the Middle Ages, but we should try to understand them.

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