The Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) is well known as the author of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which has remained in print since its publication in 1860. He is far less well known for his pioneering studies in ancient Greek history, which were an important influence on his most celebrated student, Friedrich Nietzsche, and which shaped the modernist view of Greek civilization not as an expression of the heights of human reason, but as an irrational and often dangerous construct. Burckhardt believed that the ancient Greeks' myth-laden view of their own past, full of sociopathic heroes and tragic victims, was an expression of this state of unreason: "The wildest variations and contradictions," he writes, "were not found at all disturbing."
Even less disturbing to the Greeks, he continues, was the systematic violence—and even human sacrifice—that erupted when a city like Athens wished to extend its territory or when a leader wished to extend his power. That violence, Burckhardt holds, was a natural result of the ancient Greeks' pursuit of honor, which accrued by facing and defeating danger. One such danger was the mere act of standing out in any way whatever, which could net a would-be hero a charge of being impious—witness, Burckhardt notes, the fates of Socrates and his contemporary Alcibiades. Drawing from examples of mythology, tragedy, oratory, and comedy, Burckhardt touches on themes such as Greek society's contempt for women and its apparent readiness to embrace all sorts of antidemocratic demagoguery—in the person, for instance, of the famed hero Lysander, who "combines depravity with natural gifts in a way that was typically Spartan and yet generally Greek." Burckhardt's deconstruction of classical history, ably edited by Oxford historian Oswyn Murray, reads as if it were written in our own time.
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Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) was one of the greatest historians of the nineteenth century. He was professor of History and the History of Art at the University of Basel from 1858 to 1893, and was a mentor to Friedrich Nietzsche.
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Dr. Oswyn Murray is CUF Lecturer in Ancient History, Faculty of Classics, at Oxford University, and director of an international project entitled Bibliotheca Academica Translationum, investigating the diffusion of classical studies through the translation of works of scholarship in Europe, 1700-1920.