Equanimity In the Wreckage

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 5 2012 @ 8:52pm


The American Conservative, in its blog The Repository, features classic essays from half-forgotten conservative thinkers. Recently they ran Michael Oakeshott's sterling 1954 essay on Jacob Burckhardt, "The Detached Vision." These lines stand out:

If the world were disposed to collapse, … not belief, but courage was required; courage that exhibits itself first in a very modest view of one’s own importance and of the importance of the present state of the world, and secondly in a determination to enjoy while enjoyment is still possible, to preserve in oneself the remnants of a civilized life, to encourage others to do the same, and to give shelter to what might be allowed to reappear if events in the future took a different turn.Jacburc2

This, as Burckhardt early understood, entailed a certain asceticism, an Epicurean detachment from “the enormously expensive life of the great cities and from the horrific luxury to which official literature and art are falling victim”; and he was able to achieve this detachment without any feeling of tension or resentment: it was a tactic, not a protest. He gave no hostages to his circumstances and could disregard their pressure.

In short, the secret of Burckhardt’s equanimity is not, as has been suggested elsewhere, an unacknowledged dependence on the resources of Christian belief, or indeed on faith of any sort (even the belief that other times had been better or that there was a good time coming), but simply nerve–the nerve “to hold life here and now in no higher esteem than it deserves,” and yet to enjoy it. This character (its counterpart is to be found in Montaigne and in Vauvenargues), in which charity has survived the disappearance of faith and hope, is neither a nostrum to be peddled nor even a model capable of being copied; it is a spectacle to be observed and admired, even venerated: to be equal to one’s fortune and not to be humiliated by want of greater perfection is a rare achievement.

(Image: Jacob Burckhardt, 1892.)