Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Civilized Human in a Brutish Age

Jacob Burckhardt was a nineteenth-century Swiss historian best known for big books on the cultural life of ancient Greece and  Renaissance Italy. He used his immersion in the past as a substitute for conventional religion, and for the faith in progress shared by many of his contemporaries. As his student Nietzsche sensed, he was very close to nihilism, but he kept himself out of despair by contemplating the glories and tragedies of our past. He was especially fascinated by characters who kept their minds on art or philosophy as states and societies collapsed around them. When he despaired of his own Europe, he read about men who had created great art or thought amid political and military disaster. Via Andrew Sullivan, this is from an essay that British conservative Michael Oakeshott wrote about Burckhardt in 1954:
If the world were disposed to collapse, ... not belief, but courage was required; courage that exhibits itself first in a very modest view of one’s own importance and of the importance of the present state of the world, and secondly in a determination to enjoy while enjoyment is still possible, to preserve in oneself the remnants of a civilized life, to encourage others to do the same, and to give shelter to what might be allowed to reappear if events in the future took a different turn.
I live in a comparatively prosperous, peaceful, and happy time, but even in our era the cause of civilization suffers defeats. At such times -- such as after 9-11, when Americans went crazy for war and retribution -- I react as Burckhardt did. I remind myself that this, too, will pass, and take solace from contemplating the things that endure. Our civilization has endured far worse crises than anything I have seen in my lifetime, and it goes on. I imagine how much worse it would have been to live through the 1930s, or 1348, or 410. And yet through it all, through pain and grief and loss, we create, we invent, we glorify. People who lived through war, anarchy, plague, pogrom, and collapse built cathedrals, wrote symphonies, and carved marble angels who long outlived their frail organic bodies. They got on with life. And that is what we must do, no matter how made or stupid or bestial the world around us becomes.

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