Up till now, for two hundred years, people in England have imagined that every problem could be solved through Freedom, and could let opposites correct one another in the free interplay of argument. But what now? The great harm was begun in the last century, mainly through Rousseau, with his doctrine of the goodness of human nature. Out of this plebs and educated alike distilled the doctrine of the golden age that was to come quite infallibly, provided people were left alone. The result, as every child knows, was the complete disintegration of the idea of authority in the heads of mortals, whereupon of course, we periodically fall victims to sheer power. In the meanwhile, the idea of the natural goodness of man has turned, among the intelligent strata of Europe, into the idea of progress, i.e. undisturbed money-making and modern comforts, with philanthropy as a sop to conscience....

The only conceivable salvation would be for this insane optimism, great and small, to disappear from peoples’ brains. But then our present-day Christianity is not equal to the task it has gone in for and got mixed up with optimism for the last two hundred years. A change will and must come, but after God knows how much suffering.
- Jacob Burckhardt, letter to Von Preen. 2 July 1871. (The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, translated by Alexander Dru, p. 147.)

See also: Stephen J. Tonsor, Jacob Burckhardt: Tradition and the Crisis of Western Culture (pdf). Modern Age, Winter 1997.


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