Contrary to his usual portrayal as a disinterested aesthete, Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt is characterised as an original social and political thinker in Richard Sigurdson's timely book Jacob Burckhardt's Social and Political Thought. Burckhardt's thinking on a number of ideas - including the relationship between the individual and the mass, the tension between the ideals of equality and human excellence, and the role of the intellectual in the modern state - is the subject of insightful analysis, thus providing a rare investigation into Burckhardt's culture-critique of the nineteenth century. Other important aspects of Burckhardt's life that undoubtedly influenced both his historical and political thought, such as his ambiguous relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche, are carefully scrutinised in this groundbreaking analysis of the Swiss historian. Known primarily as an historian, Burckhardt's historical writings provide not only a powerful critique of his own times, but also a broad ranging political philosophy that can be placed within the larger German tradition of evaluating politics according to the values and standards of art and culture. Although Burckhardt himself expressed his scepticism towards general theories and claimed to be devoid of a personal philosophical position, through an examination of his works Sigurdson argues that both implicit and explicit political reflections and theories are recognisable.
"Liberalism" is widely used to describe a variety of social and political ideas, but has been an especially difficult concept for historians and political scientists to define. Burckhardt, Mill, and Tocqueville define one type of liberal thought. They share an aristocratic liberalism marked by distaste for the masses and the middle class, opposition to the commercial spirit, fear and contempt of mediocrity, and suspicion of the centralized state. Their fears are combined with an elevated ideal of human personality, an ideal which affirms modernity. All see their ideals threatened in the immediate future, and all hope to save European civilization from barbarism and militarism through some form of education, although all grow more pessimistic towards the end of their lives. Aristocratic Liberalism ignores the national boundaries that so often confine the history of political thought, and uses the perspective thus gained to establish a pan-European type of political thought. Going beyond Burckhardt, Mill, and Tocqueville, Aristocratic Liberalism argues for new ways of looking at nineteenth-century liberalism. It corrects many prevalent misconceptions about liberalism, and suggests new paths for arriving at a better understanding of the leading form of nineteenth-century political thought. The new Afterword by the author presents a novel description of liberal political language as the "discourse of capacity," and suggests that this kind of language is the common denominator of all forms of European liberalism in the nineteenth century. Aristocratic Liberalism will be valuable to students of history, political science, sociology, and political philosophy.
Although the term "liberalism" is widely used to describe a variety of social and political ideas, it has been an especially difficult concept for historians to define. Kahan makes significant progress toward a general definition, and illustrates a strategic type of liberalism by linking three great nineteenth-century thinkers in a single intellectual and ideological tradition, for which he has coined the term "aristocratic liberalism." Ignoring the national boundaries that often confine intellectual history, Kahan finds similarities in the thought of Burckhardt, Mill, and Tocqueville. Though none of these thinkers came from aristocratic backgrounds, Kahan shows how they shared a distaste for the masses and middle classes, a fear and contempt of mediocrity, a suspicion of the centralized state, an opposition to the commercial spirit, and a pessimism of varying degree about the possibility of implementing their goals in the near future. Kahan concludes his study by correcting prevalent misconceptions about nineteenth-century liberalism and by discussing a typology of liberalism that will undoubtedly spark much scholarly debate.