Bachofen, Burckhardt, Overbeck
In 1869, the twenty-five-year-old Nietzsche delivered his inaugural address at the University of Basel, where he would work for the next decade with mixed success as a classical philologist. His topic was one that had been discussed ad nauseam in the field over several decades, namely, the authorship of the two greatest works of classical literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey. For the better part of 2,000 years, history had presumed that a single author had been the creator of both works, and that this author was named Homer. Nietzsche’s ostensible task was to articulate something about the historical personality of this ‘Homer.’ The problem is, we know next to nothing about Homer that can be proven, determined, or demonstrated philologically. In fact, the very first scholar to have called himself a classical philologist, Friedrich August Wolf, made his reputation by challenging the unity of the Iliad and Odyssey and, beyond that, by denying any single person named Homer wrote either of them. Stylistically and syntactically, the two epics are simply not consistent with one another, or even internally consistent in terms of the composition of each work’s composite parts. A philologist sees the inherent inconsistencies as one reason, among others, to think that there was more than one author of the works, and that they were perhaps written at different times. Wolf s thesis was that the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey was none other than the people ofGreece, through a long, complicated, sometimes inconsistent, and largely anonymous rhapsodic tradition. The people, not anyone named Homer, ‘wrote’ those epics.
Nietzsche found this an intriguing philological position — from a psychological standpoint. In truth, there is as little positive evidence that the common people composed the books as there is of a single Homer. From a purely philological standpoint, there really is no ‘solution' to the so-called ‘Homeric Question.' The judgment to assign such a world-historical accomplishment to the common people reflects two non-philological presuppositions. The first is that groups are every bit as capable as great persons of creating truly great things. Nietzsche’s psychological analysis of this presumption’s general appeal in the academy is clear: “The masses have never experienced more flattering treatment than in thus having the laurel of genius set upon their empty heads. It was imagined that new shells were forming round a small kernel, so to speak, and that those pieces of popular poetry originated like avalanches, in the drift and flow of tradition.”110 The second presumption is that personalities are consistent. We instinctually want our historical personalities to be a unity, straightforward and easy to understand. We want to prove historically that this is what the person was, did, and that there is an understandable reason as to why they did what they did. But this is precisely what Nietzsche, in his inaugural address, thinks scientific historical research cannot demonstrate. “People now study biographical details, environment, acquaintances, contemporary events, and believe that by mixing all these ingredients together they will be able to manufacture the wished-for individuality. But they forget that the punctum saliens, the indefinable individual characteristics, can never be obtained from a compound of this nature.”111 The personality of Homer is not a historical argument, but what Nietzsche names an ‘aesthetic judgment.' From out of the dynamic of psychological drives, instincts, and unconscious motivations, the historian engages in selecting and valuing, in highlighting, foregrounding, and orienting for a single perspective a single coherent portrait of personality. And this is precisely what is done with Homer.
KGW 11/1, 262.
“Homer as the composer of the Iliad and the Odyssey is not a historical tradition, but an aesthetic judgment.”'
Although a neophyte in academic politics at the time of this address, Nietzsche, the ‘untimely’ ‘wanderer’ himself, had rather cleverly situated himself in the political, historical, and aesthetic leanings of his new time and place. For Basel, since the European upheavals of 1848, was a stronghold of anti-progressive, anti-egalitarian, anti-nationalistic political sentiment, a bastion of anti-scientistic fact-grubbing historiography, and an outspoken paladin of the aesthetic apprehension of culture as a formative step in human cultivation. Basel was, in short, a neo-humanist challenge to the universities of Germany and a conservative entrenchment against its progressive ‘barbarism.’ Those Nietzschean critiques of scientistic and teleological historiography we have already seen were in many ways anticipated by Basel’s older generation: Bachofen and Burckhardt, and carried forth alongside Nietzsche by his close friend Franz Overbeck.
Johann Jacob Bachofen, who attended Nietzsche’s inaugural lecture, was the elder statesman of the group, and was for some time along with his wife on quite friendly terms with Nietzsche. And long before his junior colleague, Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (1861) described the evolution of the civilized ‘Winckelmannian’ Greek culture as an ‘Apollonian’ phase coming out of an earlier and much darker ‘Dionysian’ phase. The path by which the historian could reach such a conclusion was not travelled by picking apart elemental aspects of the past in the way of those critical philologists whom Nietzsche derided; for Bachofen, too, the historian must be constituted by a certain psychological dynamic, a properly aligned historical sense. Above all,
[h]e must not let himself be ruled by the views of the nineteenth century, but must appropriate those of the Romans, and see with their eyes. [...]! reject so-called scientific criticism, which measures the life and deeds of a noble people, filled with the idea of God, by the decadent and corrupt views of a decadent and corrupt age ... What would the Middle Ages of the German nation look like if their faith and their deeds were analyzed into dust by the modern spirit?
And, like Nietzsche, Bachofen thought the Berlin and Leipzig schools of philology, and their ‘historical-school’ counterparts Mommsen and Niebuhr - those “wolves of the north” - were to blame for the scientistic and anti-mythological tenor of modern historiography. This came into particularly clear focus during the heated debate between Mommsen and Bachofen on the foundations of Rome. For Bachofen, myth and religion, those power plays ofthe dark and irrational, were the genuine foundation of the empire. For Mommsen, Rome was a rational, objective unification of European tribes, a noble attempt at a curiously proto-Prussian globalization politics under the banner of a liberal constitutional monarchy. This image Mommsen erected upon an utterly massive fundament of ‘objective’ evidence like archive records, official transcripts, and government transactions, which enabled him to produce an allegedly ‘unbiased,’ ‘subject-free’ representation of the past. But in doing so, he also cultivated a kind of ascetic ideal by trying to ‘excise’ the subjective element from their interpretations. Not only is this epistemologically impossible, as we will show in the next chapter, the ‘objective ideal’ of historiographical inquiry represents a symptom of psychological decay. Scientific historiography, for Nietzsche,
inexorably interprets epochs, peoples, man, all with reference to this one goal, it allows no other construction [Auslegung], honors no other goal, and rejects, denies, affirms, confirms only with reference to its interpretation [Interpretation] (- and was there ever a more thought-out system of interpretation?) ... all our modern science is witness to that - modern science which, as a genuine philosophy of reality [Wirklichkeits-Philosophie] obviously believes only in itself.
Historical optimists such as Hartmann and Strauss, on the other hand, are little more than philistines. As Bachofen argues, “[t]hey propose to make antiquity intelligible by measuring it according to the popular ideas of our present days. They only see themselves in the creations of the past.” The true historian for Bachofen and Nietzsche must look upon the past with the aim of fashioning himself into a noble image rather than furnishing for himself a comfortable career. The ‘Brotgelerhte,’ a favorite term of Schopenhauer that is echoed first by Bachofen and later by Nietzsche, possesses the wrong spirit for making the proper use of the past.
Jacob Burckhardt followed Bachofen’s view of critical history as a necessary correction of romantic historiography and also as a potentially detrimental step in the development of an individual scholar and, eventually, in the development of culture. Burckhardt writes, in a way we have already seen Nietzsche echo, “Scholarship is exhausted by our contemporary historical and antiquarian literature; we by contrast advocate science as a means of cultivation and a source of joy throughout life.” The concern is not to report the past with an unattainable degree of objectivity, “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist,” as Burckhardt’s teacher and Nietzsche’s fellow Schulpforta alumnus Leopold von Ranke demanded. Rather, “a single source happily chosen can,” for Burckhardt, “do duty for a whole multitude of possible other sources, since he who is really determined to learn, that is, to become rich in spirit, can by a simple function of his mind, discern and feel the general in the particular.” In his desire to cultivate his sense for feeling the spirit of antiquity, Burckhardt reflected the influence of his other great teacher, who, as we saw, was the first to challenge the methods and aims of Sprachphilologie: the classicist August Boeckh. Nietzsche, the student of Ritschl, and representative of his master’s attempt to bridge Sprach- and Sachphilologie, would become increasingly critical of the Hermannian school, as we have also seen, while working in proximity with Burckhardt.
Burckhardt was Bachofen’s equal with respect to their shared pessimism about contemporary academic and political culture. But Burckhardt was more than a merely disgruntled observer of culture; he was, like the young Nietzsche, an anti-Hegelian disciple of Arthur Schopenhauer - so much so that his views “would never have been shaped without the philosophy of
Schopenhauer”125 - in two key ways. First, Burckhardt followed Schopenhauer’s criticism of the mass-culture optimism of the German nationalist universities. While Burckhardt was less radical than Nietzsche,126 especially concerning the value of sympathy,127 they shared a general dislike of the leftist Hegelian vision of the state as protector and guarantor of culture, of the Marxist hope for egalitarian working conditions, and an endorsement of great individuals as the remedy for socialist cultural decay and of the value of conflict as a condition of cultural flourishing.128 Nietzsche and Burckhardt both rejected the further spread of public education as a precursor to communism.129 On the contrary, society should be ordered so that the great majority work for the advantage of a few great individuals who are by nature disposed to make genuine contributions to culture.130 Such an individual must be, in Burckhardt’s own words, a freie Personlichkeit, a personality freed especially from service to any state or polity.131 “Singularity, Irreplaceability. The great man is one without whom the world would seem to us incomplete, since only through him are certain great deeds possible in his age and surroundings, and without him are unthinkable.”132 Nietzsche’s own elevation of the great man in his Basel years clearly ran counter to Schopenhauer’s dissolution of the self in aesthetic and ethical ecstasy, as did his endorsement of aristocratic Rangordnung counter Wagner’s liberal-anarchism. Burckhardt’s influence was likely a key factor in both.133
The second debt to Schopenhauerian philosophy concerns the by-now- familiar notion of historical Ideas, which Burckhardt, too, incorporated into his development of historical typology. Because, like Schopenhauer, Burckhardt believed that only the timeless and universal could attain to the level of truth, he explicitly sought to intuit that which was constant, universal, and typical from the welter of particular passing forms. Burckhardt’s masterly Cultural History of Greece, based on a series of lectures given during Nietzsche’s tenure at Basel, aimed at presenting “the history of Greek ways of thinking and intuiting [griechischen Denkweise und Anschauungen], to strive for knowledge of the lively powers [Krafte] of generation and corruption that were active in Greek life. Not narratively, but historically, and in the first place only insofar as their history constitutes a part of universal history have we observed the Greeks in their genuine environment.” That presentation cannot be achieved by scientific historiography, but by Anschauung. And as such the true historian should not concern herself with the mindless repetition of every unearthable piece of data in emulation of those sciences for which the credibility of a theory depends upon the exhaustiveness of its evidence and uniformity of coherent results. “The singular,” on the other hand, “the so-called event will only be mentioned as it bears witness to the general, not for its own sake.” To borrow a similar exhortation from Windelband, history should utilize those singulars only to present idiographic features of types. Similar to Windelband, too, for Burckhardt it is not the proper domain of history to prove or to demonstrate, much less to predict. Some facts simply are not worth knowing. Much more useful for its students would be a historiography that communicated an understanding or Verstehen about the general character of events and about the types of people who carried them out, or, in Windelband’s words, history should only choose its objects in “relation to some high standard of value in life.”139 Typological history seeks to present personalities and tendencies that represent tangible models, some to display a healthy set of virtues and some to ward off certain unhealthy character traits. Like a judge in Hades, the historian “[h]ighlights those facts which can establish a genuine inner connection with our own spirit, and to which we can relate in a real way either as a result of affinity or as a result of contrast and opposition. The rubbish is left aside.”
However true to the philosophy of Schopenhauer Burckhardt styled himself, his conception of the historian’s ability to intuit common formal and typological patterns within the myriad variegations of historical personages was closer to Goethe’s morphology than to Schopenhauer’s aesthetische Anschauung.For Goethe, the close observation of the biological development of organic objects, as much as the composition of the dramatic development of a literary character, allegedly reveals Urphanomene, the primary forms of the phenomenon which guide their inner development. In his dramatic works, Goethe sought to portray the Steigerung of typological characters like Werther, Tasso, or Goetz, whose development is not the alteration or transformation of character into something else but its ‘intensification’ over time. Burckhardt thought the historian’s task ran parallel insofar as the careful study of historical documents would reveal common typological traits among great people, the course of whose development only intensified what was necessarily there from the start. It was this Goethean quasi-phenomenological unfolding of an inner idea through a continuous focus on outward phenomenal qualities that Burckhardt considers the true work of the historian:
in the end what is constant [Konstante] appears bigger and more important than the momentary, a quality appears greater and more instructive [lehr- reicher] than a deed; since deeds are only singular expressions of its corresponding inner power which can bring itself forth new again. [. ..] But even if a reported deed didn’t happen just this way, or even at all, the Anschauung embodies it as something that happened or expresses its happening in a determinate form of its worth through what is typical [Typische] of its representation; the entire Greek tradition abounds in works of this kind. The constant, which emerges from this typical representation, is perhaps the truest "real-content” [“Realinhalt”] of the ancient world, if not to say antiquity. Here we become familiar with the eternal Greeks; we become familiar with a form instead of some individuals facts.
The reason typology is so preferable to critical historiography is that genuine truth, as the adequate expression of the inner unchanging nature of the world, lies beyond the transcendental conditions of intellection, namely, space, time, and causality. Whether we can prove that such and such was the cause of event ‘x,’ whether we can accurately and precisely explicate when and where an event happened - these tasks pale in comparison to the value of an artful description that communicates the general and enduring spirit of the epochs and personalities under investigation. We saw already Nietzsche’s attempt to construct an atemporal aesthetic view of ‘the eternal essence of tragedy.’ And in 1874s, Schopenhauer als Erzieher, as part of a critique of the ‘historicizing’ Hegelians, he endorses the Schopenhauer- Goethe-Burckhardt line explicitly:
He who regards his life as no more than a point in the evolution ofa race or of a state or of a science, and thus regards himself as belonging wholly to the history of becoming, has not understood the lesson set him by existence and will have to learn it over again. This eternal becoming is a lying puppet-play in beholding which man forgets himself, the actual distraction which disperses the individual to the four winds, the endless stupid game which the great child, time, plays before us and with us. That heroism of truthfulness [Wahrhaftigkeit] consists in one day ceasing to be the toy it plays with. In becoming [Werden] everything is hollow, deceptive, shallow and worthy of our contempt; the enigma which man is to resolve he can resolve only in being [Sein], in being just-so [So], and not otherwise, in the imperishable.
Nietzsche and Burckhardt both believed, though Schopenhauer did not, that the proper study of history could reveal precisely that: typological traits within people, forms of personalities, and characteristics of epochs. As Burckhardt writes, “Our point of departure is the one and the only thing which lasts in history and is its only possible center: man, this suffering, striving and active being, as he is and was and will forever be.” And as Nietzsche echoes in his preface to his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, composed during his years at Basel, “I am going to emphasize only that point of each of their systems which constitutes a piece of Personlichkeit and hence belongs to that non-controvertible, non-discussable evidence which it is the task of history to preserve.” His assessment of the pre- Platonics is that they represent “pure types,” which it is his task to explicate even if there is no positive evidence for typological portrayals of Parmenides as a blood-sucking logical spider or Heraclitus as the contemplative artist who stands “above and at the same time inside his work.” Of Socrates “it is enough to recognize in him a type of existence unheard of before him: the type of the theoretical man.” The post-Platonic philosophers represent mixed types, confused characters. Throughout Nietzsche’s later historiographical accounts one finds types like the ‘democratic,’ the ‘priestly,’ and the ‘decadent.’ And for both Burckhardt and Nietzsche at this time what was most worthy of being taken up by history was never the common or mundane types of people, but the type of the ‘great man.’ For Burckhardt this mainly meant the leading figures of Renaissance Italy, while for Nietzsche, pre-Socratic Greeks appeared like giants calling to each other in the spirit of competition from atop high mountain peaks. Each thereby echoed Carlyle’s dictum, “the history of the world ... [i]s the biography of Great Men.”
Nietzsche considered Burckhardt one of his models of a ‘healthy’ historical judgment, both at Basel and throughout the rest of his sane life. “Where are the historians who can regard things without being led around by general nonsense [Flausen]? I know of only one, Burckhardt.” He believed Burckhardt was not only a friend, but someone who shared his general project. As late as the publication ofBeyondGoodandEvil, Nietzsche would write to his former colleague, “I know no one who shares with me as many presuppositions as you; it seems to me that you have had the same problems in view - that you are laboring with the same problems in a similar way, perhaps even more forcefully and deeply than I.. ,” Yet Nietzsche cuts a rather pathetic figure here. While Burckhardt was meticulously cordial and a model of patience throughout their years of association, well known is the arm’s-length distance he simultaneously kept. Burckhardt’s predominant fear was that Nietzsche never intended to sound out idols with a tuning fork, but to destroy them with a sledgehammer. Especially worrisome was that same letter’s assumption that the two shared a conviction about the social (as opposed to cultural) character of a project seeking the “Vergrofierung des Typus Mensch.” Clear is Burckhardt’s discomfort, for example, following the publication of Human all-too-Human. “I have read and chewed through it [...] with new shock about the sheer abundance ofyour spirit. But it’s well known that I’ve never been initiated in the temple of genuine thinking, but have amused myself throughout my life in the courts and halls of the Peribolus [mich zeitlebens in Hofund Hallen des Peribolos ergoetzt], where the picturesque in the widest sense of the word still reigns.” Burckhardt claims to lament that he couldn’t come with Nietzsche on his path of spiritual development; in truth it is probably more accurate to say he didn’t want to.
Franz Overbeck, however, counts as one of the few who could remain friends with Nietzsche throughout his life. Arguably his companionship counts as the only one which endured in the face of genuine criticisms of Nietzsche’s project. Like his fellow Baslers, Overbeck thought historiography’s purpose was to critique modern times by highlighting a select aspect of the past to hold up as a challenging counter-image and exhortation. As they each raged against different manifestations of the optimistic- progressive egalitarianism trumpeted by state-run cultural institutions, Overbeck focused on the increasingly institutionalized aspects of then- contemporary liberal theology. An atheist like Nietzsche, Overbeck also had sympathies with the culture-transforming power of early, preinstitutionalized Christian symbols and myths, and considered its transfiguration of Jewish beliefs the single most important cultural Wende in world history. In his Ueber die Christlichkeit unserer heutigen Theologie (1873), St. Paul’s influence in synthesizing this Jewish revolutionary streak with established Roman customs, rites, and eventually laws is indicted as the first step toward what Christianity has degenerated into today: a mere spiritual rubber-stamp of modern liberal state-sponsored values and mores. And not only should Overbeck’s view of Christianity ring similar to Nietzsche’s admittedly more vitriolic and psychological critiques, the ‘genealogical’ manner of this development of contemporary Christian values should strike the reader of Overbeck as fundamentally similar to Nietzsche as well. For in contradistinction to the teleologists, who see today’s Christian institutions as a rational progression over, and as a clarification and more perfect expression of, what was nascent from the start, for Overbeck the history of the church follows no rational plan, but consists in a set of “palimpsestic overwritings of an original text that is no longer understood today.” Too many diverse cultural elements have been poured into modern Christian values for any hope for a coherent set of credos. The Church itself is a living, breathing organism with a vast and tortured history; even the attempt to codify its teachings into a single set of easy-to-remember slogans on the basis ofwhat its ‘true origins’ were trivializes the tremendous historical development that gave rise to it. A genealogical historiography of the Christian value system will simultaneously expose the long history of those over-writings as a turbulent series of less-than-holy developments and suggest the paucity of today’s values.
Summarizing the Basel school’s ‘historical sense’ in contradistinction to the ‘scientific’ school at Berlin, Overbeck writes, “Skepticism is the only proper attitude toward history because there is no certain knowledge.” The liberal reform the Berliners sought to build upon their historical ‘demonstrations’ must be viewed by equally skeptical eyes. This slogan is partly true for Nietzsche as well. But what marks Nietzsche as a philosopher of history and not just a cultural critic and no-saying skeptic about our knowledge of the past is precisely the two ways in which Overbeck’s words are only true in part. First, as we have seen already and will continue to see in the next chapter, Nietzsche investigates philosophically and not just culturally why historiography is in the shoddy condition it is. That is, he tries to explicate not only the psychological but also the epistemological and logical problems manifest in the historiography of his contemporaries. In this Nietzsche is clearly the greatest philosopher of history of the Basel school, though unarguably its least conventional historian. Second, Nietzsche attempts historical writings of his own that reflect those meta-historical convictions, two examples of which we will outline in Chapters 6 and 7. In this he is not a skeptic since he does maintain the truthfulness of his own historical judgments, even while denying the possibility of historical truth in the customary sense of a “correspondence with the real past.” Accordingly, our next chapter will deal less with the history and context of Nietzsche’s historiography and more with his meta-historical analyses of historical truth, objectivity, and explanation.