Maarten Maartensz

  Philosophy - Burckhardt - Notes










The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
by Jacob Burckhardt
                             Notes by Maarten Maartensz



For the principles by which and reasons for writing these notes to Jacob Burckhardt's "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy", see my Introduction.

The basic principle is easy: I write comments on selected passages from paragraphs to which the note of a certain number gives the comments, and I quote the passages I comment on in blue and indented. At the end of each comment there is a link back to the paragraph the comment is concerned with. 

I suppose my comments can be read independently from Burckhardt's text, but I also suppose that the reader has in fact read it.

Note 1-1-1:

the title of an essay:

The term "essay" means "sketch". Of course, Burckhardt uses an old rhetorical device to capture the reader's benevolence and knew himself to be one the great specialists in the field he was writing about. Even so, he also knew himself to be right in the sense that about such a vast subject as he was writing about - The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy - there is always very much to know and to read that even the greatest human specialist, finite individual as he must be, does not know and has not read.

This may seem obvious on one level, but to show the reader how complicated things really are in some very elementary mathematical terms, that do not relate directly to the Renaissance, though they could be easily applied to it, the following.

Supposing the reader will become 75 years, the number of seconds he will have lived equals about one third of the number of human beings who are now (2004) alife - all of whom hope to reach at least 75 in health, and to lead meanwhile a rich, variegated, rewarding, complicated life full of interactions with many othe human beings. For the numbers are these: seconds * minutes * hours * days * years =  60*60*24*365*75 =  2 365 200 000  (of which one sleeps about a third of the time) = approximately 1/3th of the present world population. (So one has no time in one's life to even shake hands with a small percentage of the present human world population.)

Supposing the reader to try to explain something that involves some 10 to 100 selected characteristics (as any real thing the reader can think of obviously does, for it has very many more characteristics) that may be differently ordered in terms of their relevant importance for what the readers tries to explain. Now, if each characteristic may have any place in the ranking of importance (which is just one simple aspect of what one is trying to explain) then there are for 10 characteristics 10! = 3 628 800 orderings of rankings, and for 100 a mere 100! = 93 326 215 443 944 152 681 699 238 856 266 700 490 715 968 264 381 621 468 592 963 895 217 599 993 229 915 608 941 463 976 156 518 286 253 697 920 827 223 758 251 185 210 916 864 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 =  9.33262154439441e157 orderings of rankings. (In case the reader does not know it: If n is a number, then n! = 1*2* ... *n.)

Therefore, to explain human beings and historical events, an enormous amount of selective abstraction, discriminate weighings, and careful judgment is necessary. Is it then possible to explain anything? Obviously, it is - it just needs a discerning mind, a rational method, and some luck.

The same situation exists, in principle, in physics and chemistry, though the objects of these sciences are less complicated than the objects of history or the social sciences, while the last couple of hundreds of years of modern science have shown the development of an enormous amount of human technology derived from physical and chemical knowledge. Therefore - whatever skeptics or relativists claim - it is humanly possible to explain at least some things with sufficient truthlikeness to be able to a base very succesful and effective technology - human artefacts - on the basis of these explanations.

But indeed, it took humankind some 500 centuries from cave paintings and the inventions of language, writing and reckoning to a working and technologically useful physics and chemistry. And nearly all of these centuries virtually all human beings had religious beliefs based on wishful thinking and fantasy.

To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a given civilization present a different picture:

Of course, but not each eye is equally well equipped to see, nor is the brain attached to the eye necessarily equipped with relevant knowledge, powers of rational thought, and cool careful judgment. 

it is unavoidable that individual judgement and feeling should tell every moment both on the writer and on the reader.:

This is true, and the main logical reason is that what one tries to judge - when judging human individuals in social action, individually and in mass - one judges something extra-ordinarily complicated, that involves many dimensions and types of presumed judgments and relevant knowledge.

It is the most serious difficulty of the history of civilization that a great intellectual process must be broken up into single, and often into what seem arbitrary categories in order to be in any way intelligible.:

This is again true: To understand individual events and processes a human mind needs to categorize them in terms of many kinds, and try to see which of these kinds of categories are most adequate to the known facts.  

a special work on the 'Art of the Renaissance':

Burckhardt wrote and published later the 'Cicerone', i.e. 'Guide' on the subject, which I unfortunately only know in an edition without illustrations.  Back.

Note 1-1-2:

while in Germany it helped to maintain, at least outwardly, the unity of the empire, Italy had shaken it off almost entirely:

And the contrast between the two in fact is that in Italy the Renaissance arose, and in Germany it did not. The obvious reason, this suggests, is that in Italy there was no monolithic ruler with a monolithic ideology that repressed nearly all individual expression and thought, as there was normally in the Middle Ages in Europe.

a multitude of political units--republics and despots--in part of long standing, in part of recent origin, whose existence was founded simply on their power to maintain it.:

So, this was in one respect a situation like modern democracies: The absence of a single strong state with a monolithic religion (or ideology) made it possible for talented individuals to express themselves more or less freely, and be rewarded for the products of their talents.

The situation was unlike modern democracies in that there was, in Italy, no independent State maintaining a public law and trying to guarantee the peaceful intercourse, trade and exchange of opinions. Instead, there were very many principalities, usually connected to towns and cities with surrounding territory, where the rulers mostly could do and not do what they pleased, only 'checked and balanced' by unruly individuals in their own communities or rulers of the bordering territories. 

In them for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe, surrendered freely to its own instincts.

Namely, say: A spirit of freedom and independence, where individual talent could go far - but hardly effectively curbed or restrained by legal or moral notions. Also, as we shall see later on, what Burckhardt had in mind with "surrendered freely" was probably the Biblical diagnosis of most men: "disposed to do no good, capable of doing all evil".

And indeed, in one fairly clear sense the price of freedom is the competition of all against all, as the yield of despotism is the repression of all individual freedom that does not please the despot and his executive staff.

But, wherever this vicious tendency is overcome or in any way compensated, a new fact appears in history--the State as the outcome of reflection and calculation, the State as a work of art.

I think "State" is originally Italian in the intended sense: A body of men exercising the power in the community and organized to that purpose. And part of this "new fact" is that this State was a conscious design, and not a semi-automatic traditional growth, and that what a state could and should do was no longer derived from tradition or religion but from a cool appraisal of real facts and real interests, in the service of the state and the community of the state, and measured mostly only in terms of practical success in the maintenance and furthering of power and profit.

We shall limit ourselves to the consideration of the completer and more clearly defined type, which is offered by the despotic States.

This is well to keep in mind in the chapters that follow: Burckhardt will consider despotic states, because the tendencies he will speak of and is interested in are the clearest and easiest to recognize in these.  Back.

Note 1-1-3:

Frederick, the first ruler of the modern type who sat upon a throne, had early accustomed himself to a thoroughly objective treatment of affairs.

By "the first ruler of the modern type" Burckhardt means one who ruled not on the basis of tradition or religion but based on a cool appraisal of real facts and real interests, in the service of the state and himself, and measured mostly only in terms of practical success in the maintenance and furthering of power and profit.

Frederick's measures (especially after the year 1231) are aimed at the complete destruction of the feudal State, at the transformation of the people into a multitude destitute of will and of the means of resistance, but profitable in the utmost degree to the exchequer.  He centralized, in a manner hitherto unknown in the West, the whole judicial and political administration.

In short, Frederick created a police-state with himself as ruler - rather a lot like the police-states of Stalin, Hitler and Mao. It is interesting that Frederick seems to have been an atheist, and certainly did not believe the religious ideas he professed to maintain of acquire power. In this he was undoubtedly also like modern dictators and modern politicians, who rarely believe what they publicly assert, and assert what they do for the purpose of pleasing or misleading the population, and to acquire personal power and influence. (If they are to blame - as they are - one should not forget what makes this possible: The gullibility or wishful thinking of their publics.)

The taxes, based on a comprehensive assessment, and distributed in accordance with Mohammedan usages, were collected by those cruel and vexatious methods

These methods included torture. And indeed, any state and any government in the end is either based on taxes it imposes on its own population and succesfully gathers somehow, or on taxes it imposes on some subjugated population, or on both: Taxes are the life-blood of government. 

Here, in short, we find, not a people, but simply a disciplined multitude of subjects; who were forbidden, for example, to marry out of the country without special permission, and under no circumstances were allowed to study abroad. The University of Naples was the first we know of to restrict the freedom of study

As I remarked above: A police-state. In the police-states of Stalin and Mao the same was true: One was not even allowed to leave the city of which one was a citizen. (See e.g. Jung Chang's "Wild Swans", about life in China under Maoism.)

Frederick traded on his own account in all parts of the Mediterranean, reserving to himself the monopoly of many commodities, and restricting in various ways the commerce of his subjects.

It is an interesting fact that many rulers assigned the monopoly of commodities to themselves for reasons of easy profit, and it is true that this is against "the principle of free trade" - but it is also true that effective free trade between states requires some form of international law to maintain it, and to counter the ever strong because profit-driven lust for monopoly of most traders, who tend to like to be free to do as they please and find profitable, while others must deal with them, they feel, according to principles of equity and justice.

Frederick, on the other hand, crowned his system of government by a religious inquisition, which will seem the more reprehensible when we remember that in the persons of the heretics he was persecuting the representatives of a free municipal life.

Burckhardt was a proud proponent of and firm believer in the virtues of "a free municipal life" and held it to be the foundation of individual freedom, the furthering of science and art, and the best way to guarantee social peace without state terrorism.

Part of this belief is in the virtues of small communities, because only in small communities will the citizens of the community have the necessary information and personal interest to rationally judge whoever is in power, while also in small communities the risk on a long-lasting terrorism of the government is far smaller than in large communities.

Lastly, the internal police, and the kernel of the army for foreign service, was composed of Saracens who had been brought over from Sicily to Nocera and Lucera--men who were deaf to the cry of misery and careless of the ban of the Church.

This is another feature of a police state: A feared police, with access to torture chambers, and effectively above the law and only controlled by the rulers, as the Gestapo in Hitler's Germany, and the KGB in Stalin's Russia.

Let me quote in this connection from Etienne de la Boétie's "Discours de la Servitude volontaire", while noting that De la Boétie's was Montaigne's friend, and the text is originally from the 16th Century, while I translate from a Dutch translation of it:

"And though it will not be readily believed, it remains true that there always are but four or five persons that keep a tyrant in power, four or five persons who keep the whole country in servitude. It has always been the case that five or six persons have the interest of the tyrant, and have gone to them from their own interest or whom he invited to share in his cruelty and pleasures, and to be the pimps of his perversions and the participants in the spoils of his plunders (..)
Those six have six hundred others below themselves who also profit. And those six hundred are to them what the six are for the tyrant.
These six hundred again have six thousand others below them, whom they made servants of the state, and to whom they have given the governance of provinces or made paymasters, to that they become partners in greed and cruelty (..)".

And thus it went for ages upon ages, in country upon country. One example of such a person are Stalin's henchmen, like Beria.  Back.

Note 1-1-4:

The conquests and usurpations which had hitherto taken place in the Middle Ages rested on real or pretended inheritance and other such claims, or else were effected against unbelievers and excommunicated persons. Here for the first time the attempt was openly made to found a throne by wholesale murder and endless barbarities, by the adoption in short, of any means with a view to nothing but the end pursued.

I doubt very much this was "for the first time" and it seems that, at least in politics and religion, human sentiments usually come down to, where Our Side is concerned, that anything will be permitted after the fact to the victor, and anything is permitted in fact that serves Our Side.

Even so, what Burckhardt may be quite right in is that many of the rulers of Renaissance had given up all morals and all religion, and where moved only by considerations of expediency, and only expedited what served their interests.  

None of his successors, not even Cesare Borgia, rivalled the colossal guilt of Ezzelino; but the example once set was not forgotten, and his fall led to no return of justice among the nations and served as no warning to future transgressors.

We will meet both on later pages, and will understand a little better why Burckhardt wrote of "colossal guilt". Meanwhile, it is an interesting fact that many modern historians like to withhold moral judgments from their published historical works, which may make these works seem more objective and less impassioned, but also makes them more tame and less honest, for obviously their judgment of values directed many of their choices, even if the traces are eradicated from the published text.  Back.

Note 1-1-5:

It was in vain at such a time that St. Thomas Aquinas, born subject of Frederick, set up the theory of a constitutional monarchy, in which the prince was to be supported by an upper house named by himself, and a representative body elected by the people. Such theories found no echo outside the lecture - room

This is possibly not quite so, as emerges from histories of Florence and Italy by Machiavelli and Guiccardini, for there is quite clear that quite ordinary folks at the times of Aquinas and Frederick were sometimes quite capable of expressing remarkably modern sounding democratic sentiments. But I cannot judge to what extent this would imply their support of a constitutional monarchy.  Back.



Maarten Maartensz       
last update: 17-Nov-2009