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.”


Some First Thoughts

Ciao, world!

Because this is my first post on this blog, I’ll establish some helpful facts about who I am, what I do, and what you can learn about from this website. From then, I’ll write an introduction of sorts.

Who I am. My name is Andrew. I live in Chicago and I am a doctoral student in the Department of English at Northwestern University. Before coming here to work with Northwestern’s Renaissance specialists, I lived and studied in Boston (where I earned my B.A.) and North Carolina (my home state, where I also earned my M.A.).

What I do. I often think about language and literature, but I really like to read and study old books. More specifically, I examine artifacts published in Europe between 1500 and 1700. I’ve been involved already in the “bookish” academic groups at both the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC and Rare Book School at UVa. Nowadays you can often find me propping up a seventeenth-century folio in the reading room at Chicago’s Newberry Library. (I’ve also begun a collection of unusual, autographed, or hard-to-find books, centered mainly around a few first-edition Hemingways – but nothing too rare, really.) In the spirit of my book-historical approach, I am also getting involved with a few online textual analysis tools (I’ll mention these later).

What you can learn, or find out. The title of this blog is “Vade mecum,” which is Latin for “go-with-me.” In that sense, this website is designed to be a handy and useful window into the wonderful world of rare books (mostly in the Chicago area, mostly at the Newberry) and the oddities I encounter there. I’m therefore writing somewhat in the tradition of the Folger Library’s blog The Collation (which I highly recommend). If you’re involved in an academic community somehow, then you might learn about a particular artifact that could be of interest for your research. If you’re simply a lover of books and curious about the mysteries (and often, headaches) associated with dusty, hands-on archival research, well, this place is for you, too.

Something of an introduction.  We live in a remarkable time as human beings. I’ll clarify with the help of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared. . . . This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

The “age of Revolution” is a very compelling idea. Elizabeth Eisenstein, a historian of early modern printing, commented on one revolution in particular, the “print revolution,” and suggested in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) that the invention of printing was responsible for remarkable and momentous developments in religious, scientific, and cultural history. However, as scholars since have noted, the introduction of moveable type did not fully supplant or render useless the “technologies” of manuscript culture. Scribal culture and print culture complemented each other in significant ways, no matter how important the introduction of moveable type was. Both of these communication “technologies” – and it is essential to think of them as technologies – had distinct characteristics that rendered them more or less private, authentic, or valuable, depending on the context at hand. My account here is heretical in its simplicity, but I only mean to show that during the Renaissance, print could be simultaneously praised as a heavenly gift from God and scorned as a promiscuous cheapening of the authentic. In Emerson’s words, it was a time when the old and the new stood side by side, an “age of Revolution.”

My reasons for keeping this blog call to my mind a number of similar issues that attended early modern writers and thinkers. In our own “age of Revolution,” the “Information Age,” as some have called it, we are witnessing our own historically contingent configuration of the Renaissance’s “stigma of print.” Except now, this time, the tension lies not between the manuscript and the printed book, but between the printed book and the e-book (or Nook, or Kindle, or iPad – the picture is obviously complex). Advertisements, conversations I overhear on the train, small-talk on frivolous TV morning shows – they all provide evidence that this is the case. 400 years after Shakespeare’s time, we are undergoing an important and uncomfortable change in communication technology. The president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon, recently published his anxieties about this transition on the AHA website. Cronon seems to join a number of scholars who have declared the physical book “dead” in an era that is increasingly digital, increasingly immaterial, and threatening to our sense of self. But – returning to Emerson – if we know what to do with the age of Revolution, it is a very good time to live in.

I hope it is a very good time to live in. I write from a somewhat vexed position as a graduate student in the humanities during a particularly challenging economic period in American history. The academy is changing, many think for the worse, into a neoliberal system characterized by videotaped lectures and adjunct faculty positions. I admit these frustrations, and I obviously do not approve of some of the truly shameful budgeting decisions in the public university system (If you’re interested in this, read Christopher Newfield’s book). But, if we know what to do, I think that there is a way to navigate a transition that is not an overnight change but a gradual movement. Things can change for the better in the academy, but we must first be vigilant and knowledgeable about the conditions of scholarly communication today (not in the sense that we must all become computer programmers – more on this later, maybe).

So, my decision to write this blog comes in part from a recognition that academic research, like journalism, is undergoing some important changes that, in a way, establish us as kindred spirits with writers of the Renaissance – men and women to whom the printed book was not an invisible container of authentic words, but a material technology with recognizable properties beyond the meaning of the words within. But if that seems too ambitious, I also want to use this space to share some photographs, thoughts, and suppositions about the dusty volumes in the archive in the hopes that someone might be as curious or intrigued as I am about that amazing technological device- the Renaissance book. Which, to me, is very much alive.