Jacob Burckhardt and the Crisis in Renaissance Humanities

There’s a crisis in the humanities today, they say. Read any article with the tagline “Just Don’t Go,” now a fixture among academic essays on the topic (perhaps the most famous examples come from William Pannapacker and Rebecca Schuman). The system is so broken, these scholars warn us, that it is better to avoid it altogether. After all, there are more than a few documented cases of adjunct instructors living from food stamps and laboring at multiple institutions for meager compensation. Additionally, scholars are often uprooted from their home regions today and led by the job market to small towns on the other side of the country. MOOCs and distance-learning modules are creeping into curricula, too. Commenting on related phenomena, Christopher Newfield has investigated some of the reasons for the decline of public higher education in Unmaking the Public University. He discovers that English departments are often betrayed financially in return for the low-overhead service and prestige they lend to the university in the first place. Most recently, this humanities crisis has been approached skeptically by Michael Bérubé (who has discussed enrollment) and optimistically by Wall Street Times writer Lee Siegel. The issue is undeniably real; the debate, heated.

Many of these writers have been at pains to emphasize, however, that today’s humanities crisis is not entirely new. The humanities, in truth, have often faced some kind of opposition at one time or another and have had to justify themselves to the public with vocabularies of utility and value. In fact, we can see this at work in the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt’s Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy). First published in 1860, it remains one of the most influential modern analyses of the Renaissance, and its theses about the emergence of the individual within the political and economic circumstances of c.14 and c.15 Italy remain important to historians and literary scholars today. Burckhardt’s book has been assessed and critiqued for over 150 years now, but its commentary upon the humanities crisis in the Renaissance are striking to the reader of today. (For the sake of ease, I’m going to provide quotations from S.G.C. Middlemore’s 1878 translation; my copy is 2nd ed., 9th imp.: London, 1928).

Buried in the middle of Burckhardt’s book is the chapter “Fall of the Humanists in the Sixteenth Century,” which offers a very bleak picture of the humanities indeed. The “poet-scholars” who revived antiquity and exercised great influence in the public and in aristocratic spheres of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were now struggling to explain their purpose. Often, they faced accusations of self-interest, dissipation, and atheism. “Why, it may be asked,” wonders Burckhardt, “were not these reproaches, whether true or false, heard sooner?'” The principal reasons, he answers, are deeply related to the printing industry:

[T]he spread of printed editions of the classics, and of large and well-arranged hand-books and dictionaries, went far to free the people from the necessity of personal intercourse with the humanists, and, as soon as they could be but partly dispensed with, the change in popular feeling became manifest. (272)

Possibly understood here as a means of “distance education,” printed books, especially hand-books and dictionaries, seemed to require less interaction between the public and humanists. I’m immediately reminded of titles including Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570), Claudius Hollyband’s The Italian Schoole-maister (1597), and Giovanni Torriano’s The Italian Tutor (1640), each of which seem to substitute a printed book for a classroom lesson. Rather than working together to overcome this technological challenge, however, Burckhardt’s poet-scholars attacked each other all the more viciously:

The first to make these charges were certainly the humanists themselves. Of all men who ever formed a class, they had the last sense of their common interests . . . . All means were held lawful, if one of them saw a change of supplanting another. From literary discussion they passed with astonishing suddenness to the fiercest and most groundless vituperation. Not satisfied with refuting, they sought to annihilate an opponent. (272-73)

Instead of collaborating, these scholars denigrated one another in a race for glory fueled in part by the vogue for bitter satire. More generally though, and more simply, Burckhardt says, the sixteenth century “had . . . grown tired of the type of the humanist” (273). The industry was, it seems, running out of steam. Although this may have been the case, and although anti-humanist complaints were justified in certain instances, Burckhardt presents three facts that

explain, and perhaps diminish, their [i.e. the humanists’] guilt: the overflowing excess of favour and fortune, when the luck was on their side: the uncertainty of the future, in which luxury or misery depended on the caprice of a patron or the malice of an enemy: and finally, the misleading influence of antiquity. (273-74)

To take up the life of a humanist in this era, Burckhardt continues, meant entering a career “of such a kind that only the strongest characters could pass through it unscathed” (274). Nevertheless, it still attracted precocious young men who were gifted learners and tempted them with the prospect of fame and fortune. The “life of the mind” or the “cult” of the humanities was just too good to resist. More common than fame or fortune for these students, however, was “a life of excitement and vicissitude . . . in which the most solid worth and learning were often pushed aside by superficial impudence” (274-75). Moreover, the humanist had little opportunity to settle down or to be at peace in a single place:

[T]he position of the humanist was almost incompatible with a fixed home, since it either made frequent changes of dwelling necessary for a livelihood, or so affected the mind of the individual that he could never be happy for long in one place. He grew tired of the people, and had no peace among the the enmities which he excited, while the people themselves in their turn demanded something new. (275)

In the remainder of the chapter, Burckhardt delivers specific examples of how these tendencies play out in the writings of Gyraldus, Piero Valeriano, Contarini, and Pomponius Laetus. Rather than recounting these anecdotal bits, I want to emphasize that Burckhardt’s account, composed during the mid-nineteenth century, delivers a picture of sixteenth-century Europe in which the humanist struggled to get by. The wide availability of printed books rendered his lectures and expertise less relevant or necessary. He faced opposition from the public, and was scorned as self-indulgent, extravagant, and atheistic. However, he also attacked and was attacked by other humanists in a heated race for influence and glory. Wandering up and down the country in search of stable income, the humanist ultimately found it difficult to settle in one place, and found himself disconnected from the public, which “demanded something new.” Burckhardt’s account is certainly too general to apply in all cases, of course. However, written at the beginning of modern institutional academic practice and addressing one of the most canonical periods in contemporary historical and literary scholarship, it merits a footnote today among the proliferating number of “Just Don’t Go’s” and essays on the “humanities crisis.”

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