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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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During the last fifty years the word “crisis” has
achieved a popularity among writers and their audi-
ences which stands in need of clarification. The prolif-
erated use of the term can be attributed neither to
vogue nor fad; it indicates, rather, an awareness of crisis
as a salient feature of contemporary consciousness.
However, the frequently indiscriminate use of the word
has resulted in considerable confusion as to its exact
meaning. Newspapers and magazines employ the ex-
pression to describe any change in human activities,
whether impending or completed, thus permitting it
to cover a multitude of topics from the production of
moving pictures to political action. Historians have
spoken of the Crisis of the English Aristocracy, or the
Crisis of the European Mind, or the Age of Crisis,
failing to give a precise meaning to the word, though
we are occasionally warned that such terms should not
glide inadvertently from the pen.

In view of the uncertainty pertaining to the word,
we must without delay reach some understanding of
the sense in which the expression is used. Even if there
were a tacit consensus as to the significance of the word
“crisis,” such elucidation would seem necessary. The
dictionary tells us that it is of Greek origin (κρίσις) and
carries the meaning, to separate or to divide. Three
different, though obviously related meanings are listed:
“1. the turning point in the course of a disease, when


it becomes clear whether the patient will recover or
die, 2. a turning point in the course of anything; deci-
sive or crucial time, stage or event, 3. a crucial situa-
tion; a situation whose outcome decides whether possi-
ble bad consequences will follow: as, an economic
crisis” (Webster's New World Dictionary, 1966).

A precise history of the word does not exist. Of the
three meanings given in Webster, the medical one was,
we should judge, the oldest. It was used frequently in
professional treatises and in literary descriptions to give
an account of human illness. The wider purport of the
word is of more recent usage and was rarely applied
before the end of the eighteenth century. Thomas Paine
wrote in 1776 about The American Crisis, saying,
“These are the times that try men's souls.”

Both his assertion and the date of his assertion are
significant. The end of the ancien régime in the West-
ern world was hastened by three great revolutions: the
American, the French, and the Industrial Revolutions.
Their impact on many observers was that of precip-
itous, even calamitous, change; in a word, crisis. Al-
though premonitions of even greater transformations
yet to come were voiced many times during the early
nineteenth century, no general theory of crisis had been
developed even by those thinkers most deeply con-
cerned with the future of European civilization, such
as Henri de Saint-Simon or Auguste Comte. It should
be noted, however, that the term was introduced and
acquired wider currency in the conceptual language
of economic analysis.

Although earlier centuries had experienced frequent
economic disturbances, it was only during the period
following the great revolutions that economists under-
took a preliminary analysis of what is today known
as “the business cycle.” It is in these descriptions and
dissections of the business cycles that we first encounter
a broader use of the term “crisis.” Theorists did not
at first distinguish between external influences, which
might produce a disruption of the economic process,
and internal causes produced by the dynamics of the
business cycle proper. Gradually, however, it came to
be recognized that the term “crisis” as used in eco-
nomic theory should be applied in a restricted sense
indicating the span of time required for the trans-
formation of extraordinary phenomena from a patho-
logical to a normal situation. Such a definition would
imply that a crisis is only a transitory occurrence, and
that after it has passed, the economy returns to a state
of health. Indeed, this was the conviction of most
economists of the nineteenth century, J. B. Say, for
instance, or J. C. L. S. de Sismondi, Thomas Malthus,
and J. S. Mill. The frequency of economic crises, oc-
curring in 1815, 1825, 1836, and 1847, seemed to
confirm this belief. Most economists were concerned
with locating the cause or causes of economic crises,
and they found them variously in overproduction,
underconsumption, disequilibrium of production and
consumption, oversaving, etc. Their findings might be
summed up in the epigrammatic remark of Clement
Juglar in Les Crises commerciales et leur retour péri-
odique en France, en Angleterre et aux États Unis

(Paris, 1862), that the only cause of depression was
prosperity; in other words, crises were natural phases
of the business cycle which ran its course in accordance
with its own laws and dynamics.

The great exception to this interpretation was taken
by Karl Marx, who saw in economic crises one of the
characteristic features of the prevailing capitalistic
system which he considered of enormous significance.
Though Marx distinguished between general institu-
tional conditions that allow for cyclical movement of
the economy, and extempore conditions which actually
spark the outbreak of crises, he accepted the notion
of the periodical recurrence of crises as a matter of
course. The idea was first expressed in the Communist
(1848): “In these crises a great part not only
of the existing products, but also of the previously
created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.
Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of
momentary barbarism... industry and commerce
seem to be destroyed....” Furthermore, it was stated
that crises tend to become more and more destructive
in the course of capitalistic development, thus leading
to the final breakdown of bourgeois society in a
“super-crisis” from which the old society cannot re-
cover and during which the working class will seize
power through the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Marx restated his theory of crisis several times, espe-
cially in Das Kapital (1867-94), but he died before
he could clarify some of the ambiguities of his doctrine.
As Joseph Schumpeter has said in his History of Eco-
nomic Analysis
(p. 1131), it remains “the great unwrit-
ten chapter” of Marx's work. Consequently, his disciples
disagree in their interpretations of this cardinal point
in the Marxian theory. The crucial issue concerns the
prognostication of the nature of the final crisis, whether
it would be a violent overthrow of the existing order,
or a gradual transformation. Lenin, in Imperialism
(New York, 1939), assumed that a world war would
bring on the end-crisis from which the world revolution
would emerge with irrepressible force.

We need not delay over other details of the Marxian
crisis theory which are still under debate. Its value lies
not only in the explanation it offered for the cyclical
movements of the capitalistic economy, but even more
for allocating the latter in the framework of a universal
historical process, making the final crisis the decisive
step from man's pre-history to his history. Its limita-


tions should likewise be transparent. It is heavily
weighted toward the economic factors of history, thus
precluding any objective evaluation of crises that stem
from other sources. Finally, its eschatological deter-
minism forces the crisis phenomenon into the pattern
of a revolutionary development that allows of only one
solution. Nevertheless, it seemed the most plausible
explanation of the changes that took place in the world
during the nineteenth century, and it was given added
credence by the outbreak of the great depression of
1929. Since then, however, the resilience of the capi-
talistic economy in combination with the new Keynes-
ian theories has greatly weakened the influence of

Several thinkers and statesmen of the nineteenth
century felt, for different reasons, as did Marx, that
the Western world was in a cataclysmic state, and they
shared in his consciousness of crisis. Among them were
Metternich, de Tocqueville, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche,
and Henry Adams. Yet, strangely enough, none of these
developed a theory of crisis. The Swiss historian, Jakob
Burckhardt, would appear to be the only outstanding
thinker who accepted the gambit. Burckhardt was as
much concerned with the future of Europe (“Alt
Europa,” as he called it) as any one of the politicians,
historians, and philosophers we have mentioned. How-
ever, he was a historian by profession, and thought it
his duty to elucidate certain processes which had es-
caped the attention of other observers. He carried out
this self-imposed obligation in a course of lectures at
the University of Basel, first given in 1868. His notes
were published posthumously under the title, Reflec-
tions on World History
(Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtun-
), and included a chapter on historical crises.

The earlier lectures dealt with the three great forces
which make up the fabric of history: state, religion,
and culture. But Burckhardt goes on to contend that
these slow and lasting mutual influences and interac-
tions are accompanied by certain phenomena which
provoke an acceleration of the historical process. He
called them historical crises. Bypassing the crises of
primitive times, about which there is insufficient infor-
mation, Burckhardt begins his review with migratory
movements and invasions, such as the invasion of the
Roman empire by the Germanic tribes, the rise of
Islam, or the conquest of the Byzantine empire by the
Ottoman Turks. Movements like these are important
because they provoke a clash between old cultures and
young ethnic forces. Invasions may bring on rejuvena-
tion or barbarism, and, says Burckhardt, not every
invasion rejuvenates; only those that carry a youthful
race capable of assuming the culture of an older, al-
ready cultured race can do so. Clearly, as we might
expect from the historian of the Italian Renaissance,
Burckhardt's criterion is culture. He goes on to say that
there is a healthy barbarism just as there is a negative
and destructive one. Thus in exhausted civilizations a
crisis may bring out greatness, but it may be the
euphoric vigor of the dying.

The next phenomenon Burckhardt considers as a
contributing factor in the coming of crises is war.
Inevitably his horizon here is the nineteenth century,
a century that accepted war as necessary and even
beneficial. Burckhardt admits to some of the standard
arguments of his age, but his overall evaluation is
skeptical and pessimistic. That wars may produce crises
could not be denied, but, “Men are men, in peace as
in war, and the wretchedness of earthly things lies
equally upon them both.”

In discussing wars as elements of crises, Burckhardt
makes an important distinction between surface crises
and genuine crises. For instance, he considered the
wars of his own century as surface crises only. He even
went so far as to describe the entire history of the
Roman empire, from Augustus to Constantine, as un-
touched by genuine crises. Genuine crises are rare, he
asserted; they should not be confused with civil or
religious disputes which fill the air with deafening
clamor and soon fade into oblivion. The test of the
genuine crisis is that it leads to vital transformations,
such as followed the invasion of the Roman empire
by the Germanic tribes.

The distinction between surface and genuine crises
is one of the significant contributions of Burckhardt's
study, as is also his differentiation between genuine
crises, abortive crises, and arrested crises. He asked the
questions asked by every historian: Why do certain
crises go unchecked?, Why do others fail to reach the
turning point and fizzle out?, and finally, Are there
some crises which could have been avoided, and if so,
how could this have been accomplished? Burckhardt's
originality lies not so much in the answers he offers
(they were necessarily conditioned by the scholarship
of his period), as in the queries he poses, for instance,
his assertion that the Reformation could have been
checked, and that the French Revolution might have
been moderated. However that may be, what counts
for our study of the problem of crisis is his observation
of the dynamics of the true or genuine crisis. Genuine
crises, he asserts, produce a sudden acceleration of the
historical process in a terrifying manner. Developments
which under “normal” circumstances might have ex-
tended over centuries, are completed in a matter of
months or weeks.

At this point it might seem as though Burckhardt
meant to identify crisis and revolution, but this would
be an erroneous assumption. According to him, every
revolution is a result of the interaction of one or several


crises, though it does not follow that every crisis leads
to or ends in revolution. Crisis is the general term, and
it encompasses revolution. There can be little doubt,
however, that many crises tend to unleash revolu-
tionary upheavals. As Burckhardt sees it, one of the
psychological motives for the eruption of crises is man's
perennial and deep-rooted desire for change. More-
over, he seeks revenge for his sufferings, and since he
“cannot reach the dead,” his blame falls on the existing
authorities. There are sufficient instances in the history
of communism and fascism to support Burckhardt's
observation. A blind coalition between all malcontents
combines with a radiant vision of the future: the bril-
liant farce of hope.

One further comment of Burckhardt's deserves our
attention. He maintains that the force and value of
a crisis cannot be assessed at the initial stage; a crisis
should not be appraised by its program but by the
quantity of explosive material at hand. The test of a
genuine crisis lies in its actual force under pressure.
Once again, he introduces here a new concept to clar-
ify his idea of the genuine crisis: “counterfeit crises”
are easily paralyzed; only the real ones will prevail.
In praise of crises, Burckhardt states that they are the
result of real passions and that passion is the mother
of great events.

Crises do not necessarily interfere with spiritual or
cultural achievements. Whereas continuity and tradi-
tion may induce a favorable climate for culture, man
may thereby be lured into a false security and his
intellectual life become a matter of routine. Crises,
argues Burckhardt, may be regarded as authentic signs
of vitality. “All spiritual growth,” he says, “takes place
by leaps and bounds, both in the individual and in the
community.” Moreover, crises should be regarded as
a proof of growth. Negatively speaking, they clear the
ground of institutions that have long since withered
away or of pseudo organizations which had no reason
to exist except as obstacles to excellence. In proof of
his point, Burckhardt says that The City of God would
never have been written had it not been for the col-
lapse of the Roman empire in Italy, and he adds that
the Divina Commedia was composed while Dante was
in exile. Crises teach men to distinguish between what
is trivial and what is fundamental in human life, and
he quotes Ernest Renan, who asserted that philosophy
has never flourished more freely than it did during the
great days of history. We may, however, be allowed
to question whether the great days of history are per-
force days of crisis. Crises may indeed fertilize human
thought, but they may also annihilate it.

Viewed as a whole, what Burckhardt gives us is less
an anatomy of crisis than a typology of crisis. As such
it has lasting value and may be used as a foundation
for those crises which Burckhardt did not adequately
analyze or which have been clarified by later events.
Thus, the Reformation must be seen, regardless of
Burckhardt's evaluation, as a chain reaction of crises.
The personal crisis of Luther led to his confrontation
with the authorities of the Old Church, and eventually
his reforms engulfed the politics and the economy, first
of Germany, and finally of nearly all Europe. Viewed
from close range, a crisis often turns out to be com-
posed of two or more interlocking crises in which the
strongest element subdues the others or drives them
underground, where they may live a subterranean
existence and emerge again at a more propitious mo-
ment. Nor is it always an easy matter to determine
the moment when a crisis has come to the end of its
course. For instance, it would be fair to say that the
Reformation had spent itself in Germany by 1648,
whereas it was still vigorous in England and in the
New World.

The Protestant Reformation did not overthrow the
reign of the Papacy; it can be said, rather, that, since
its triumph in the eleventh century, it has weathered
all crises that threatened its existence, but that the
marks left upon the institution are clearly visible.

It is worthy of note that Burckhardt in his treatment
of historical crises never refers to the Renaissance,
though he was without doubt the most outstanding
historian of that period during the past century. Fur-
thermore, his own treatment of the Renaissance seems
to suggest that he did in truth see it as the end-crisis
of the medieval world and as the nativity of modern
man. We do not know what moved him to exclude
the Renaissance from his analysis, but whatever the
reason may be, he thereby came closer to the contem-
porary view of the Renaissance than might have been

After a long debate about the origins, the character,
and the impact of the Renaissance, most historians of
today would agree that it should not be treated as a
genuine crisis in the Burckhardtian sense. Certain his-
torians have argued that the term “Renaissance” should
be eliminated entirely (F. Heer); some emphasize the
gradual transformation of the world from medieval
times to the present (C. H. Haskins, J. Huizinga); still
others point to the persistence of the Latin tradition
which permeated literary expression throughout the
Middle Ages, delivering itself to the future without
benefit of crises (E. R. Curtius, 1954). These views
support the belief that the Renaissance cannot be pre-
sented as a sudden break with the medieval perspec-
tive, but should rather be looked upon as a constant
ground swell, reaching such proportions by 1500 that


we are obliged to acknowledge a fundamental change
in man's outlook upon himself and upon the world.
Needless to say, violent upheavals occurred, and the
struggle between the republican ideal prevailing in
Florence and Venice, and the absolutism to which the
rulers of Milan aspired created a favorable climate for
the rise of the new humanism (H. Baron, 1955).

Nevertheless, these sporadic events do not permit
us to classify the Renaissance under the heading of
crisis. If we accept this stricture, we may be able to
arrive at a more concise use of the word “crisis” than
is commonly accepted: only a precipitous change over
a short span of time affecting the very vitals of institu-
tions, mores, modes of thought and feeling, power
structures, and economic organizations, may rightly be
termed a “crisis.”

Economic and political crises are most easily de-
tected, perhaps because they affect the lives of more
people more directly and more brutally than intellec-
tual or emotional changes. It does not follow, however,
that they are always understood as such. More often
than not, economic crises can only be properly under-
stood in retrospect; take for instance the economic
changes which took place after the Black Death in
Europe, or the price revolution of the sixteenth cen-
tury, which left observers completely bewildered. Po-
litical upheavals, on the other hand, seem less opaque
and less difficult to group under the heading of crisis.
But here, too, we should beware of hasty generaliza-
tions which stamp every change with the trademark
of crisis. Political crises may be more readily recogniz-
able because they have a greater degree of visibility;
their protagonists attract the limelight in history and
provoke a more complete documentation both of the
actual events and of the motives behind them.

The most important political crises are to be found
in the great revolutions; from them, as E. Rosenstock-
Huessy (Die europäischen..., 1961) has said, the
characteristics of the different European nations
emerged. There was the Papal Revolution of the
eleventh century, the English Revolution of the seven-
teenth century, the French Revolution, and the Russian
Revolution. This writer would rank the revolt of the
Netherlands and the American Revolution among the
genuine historical crises which fulfill the criteria we
have listed above. The revolution of 1848, however,
must be rejected; it was, in the felicitous phrase of
G. M. Trevelyan, “the turning point at which modern
history failed to turn” (Trevelyan, 1946). It was an
arrested crisis brought to fruition at a later date in those
countries affected by it.

Many of the revolutions and pronunciamentos in
Latin America and Africa are called revolutions,
whereas they are in reality only “counterfeit crises”
which do not result in a vital transformation of the
status quo, but merely a change of the guard with
promises which remain unfulfilled after victory has
been achieved.

The rise of the absolute monarchies in Europe, su-
perseding feudalism without destroying it, furnished
further examples of the genuine crisis. It is in the nature
of crises to change complexion in accordance to the
country in which they occur. Consequently the rise
of absolutism presents a different picture in Spain,
France, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and Russia. Yet
in every instance the concentration of power in the
hands of a dynasty supported by bureaucracy and
military power seems essential. The crisis character of
the situation lies in the political subjection of the no-
bility to the will of “The Prince” with the subsequent
economic and social changes effected thereby. In many
instances certain events marked the crisis, such as the
journée des dupes (“the day of fools”) by means of
which Richelieu cemented his power in France. Such
occurrences might be called sub-crises, since their full
meaning can be grasped only within the framework
of the greater genuine crisis.

Abortive political crises are frequent, though it is
not always easy to distinguish them from arrested
crises. The Russian revolution of 1905 might come
under either heading. On the other hand, La Fronde
is a classical example of the abortive crisis, as is also
the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831. Another abortive
crisis occurred in Prussia in 1819; it determined the
policy of that country for half a century and prevented
the liberalization of the state at a time when such a
move could have had a decisive influence on the des-
tiny of Germany.

Apprehension of the political crisis is not always
followed by comprehension. There are some which re-
semble earthquakes; they are felt by everyone, but they
defy explanation. The phenomenon of German national
socialism is a case in point. In spite of the large body
of literature on the subject, no convincing explanation
of this greatest retrogression in the history of Western
civilization has been provided thus far.

As we have said, wars must be counted among the
most important causes of historical crises, and this is
twice true. Wars may be themselves indicate a turning
point in history, and we regard the great battles as
engagements in which the survival of this or that power
was at stake; we recall the Spanish Armada, or the
battle of the White Mountain, or Trafalgar, the Battle
of the Marne in 1914, or, more recently, Stalingrad.
Yet wars spark crises in still another way. They release
economic, social, and moral forces of unforeseen power


and dimensions, which often make any return to the
status quo impossible. Karl Marx called them the ex-
press trains of history. Not every war, however, is a
genuine crisis; it may be a surface event or a counter-
feit crisis.

Special attention should be given to the effect that
technological changes produce on the course of history.
Here too, one must beware of generic statements. Not
all technological inventions have produced crises, and
much depends on the cultural environment in which
they occur. A comparison between Western and Chi-
nese technology would be very enlightening in this
respect. Yet, without question, technological discover-
ies or improvements must be counted among the prime
agents of precipitous change. For instance, the inven-
tion of gunpowder, of the compass and the printing
press, figure in every school book as instruments in the
fracture of the medieval mold. During the last two
centuries this process has continued with tremendous
speed. The advances in communication, the new mass
media, or the steady increase in firepower by the intro-
duction of nuclear weaponry have become matters of
almost daily acceptance. By themselves, these discov-
eries are rather symptoms of a long-lasting crisis than
crises themselves, and in many instances we shall have
to wait for their sequel. In other cases, the impact of
technological artifacts on society becomes clear at the
outset. The introduction of farm machinery deprived
the southern American Negro of his job. This led to
the migration of the Negro to the great industrial
centers of the North, the Midwest, and the West, and
the migration, in turn, contributed to the growth of
the “ghettoes.” Finally, the ghettoes provoked the
urban crisis which began in the 1960's to shake the
United States from one end to the other, causing in
its very beginnings a profound transformation of the
American society.

Medical discoveries are in the same category, and
have had a far-reaching effect on the demographic
structure of the world. Overpopulation is at least in
part the result of medical advancements; on the other
hand, it is not at all certain that medical remedies will
be successful in checking the population explosion and
the specter of a world famine which for some holds
more frightening perspectives than a nuclear war. One
is tempted to speak of a suspended crisis.

Since technology is basically applied science, our
rapid survey must move into yet another field, namely
the cultural sciences. As we have noted above, the
permanent crisis in which we are forced to live has
produced a crisis-awareness. This has opened our eyes
to cultural changes and transitions which heretofore
escaped notice. Huizinga, in one such attempt, de-
scribed the forms of life, thought, and art in the four
teenth and fifteenth centuries in The Waning of the
Middle Ages
(1948), and Paul Hazard's La Crise de la
conscience européenne
(1935) is even more in line with
our reasoning.

In all probability, the First World War made the
Europeans aware that all was not well with their civi-
lization. A number of minds began to probe the depth
of the sickness that had come over Europe; Rudolf
Pannwitz's Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (1921),
was one of many efforts in this direction. It is impossi-
ble to say whether the general concern over the fate
of the occident inspired Hazard's enterprise, though
there are good reasons to think so. In the final chapter
of his book, he speaks of the genius of Europe which
is never content with itself, which at all times pursues
contradictory aims, one of truth and one of happiness,
whose labor is like the labor of Penelope, unravelling
at night what she had woven during the day. Yet the
immediate purpose of this remarkable work was a more
limited one: Hazard wanted to establish the moment
at which the European mind passed from its timid
beginnings in the Renaissance to a determined revision
of age-old prejudices and preconceived notions by
applying the new standards of critical, rational think-
ing. Hazard proved that the “moment” spanned the
years 1680 to 1715, that it provoked a violent clash
of ideas, and that modern ideas emerged triumphant
in the end, though some corners of Europe continued
to harbor the old ones. Hazard demonstrated that over
the thirty-five years to which his essay is limited there
occurred a lasting and vital transformation of the
European consciousness.

The word “crisis” seems to imply a break in conti-
nuity, but such breaks are often more apparent than
real. The crisis of the late seventeenth century had been
nourished by many subterranean waters until it finally
broke ground and reached the light where historical
decisions take place. Hazard is deeply conscious of this
continuity, and presents the crisis with all its real and
apparent contradictions.

The second cultural crisis—romanticism—of which
we now must speak, would have been fortunate to find
such a master analyst as Hazard; but although it caused
an enormous amount of literature and discussion, no
consensus emerged as to its origins, its essence, and
its scope. The historian is obliged to grope through
a labyrinthian profusion of scholarly effort to come to
grips with the phenomenon.

Romanticism presents a crisis that in many ways
parallels the one described by Hazard, but in other
respects it gives evidence of fundamental differences.
It too was European in scope, and was also accompa-
nied by a deep-reaching change in perspective for
almost all aspects of human life: poetry and philosophy,


music and painting, political thought and social ideals.
Yet any perusal of the literature devoted to its under-
standing shows the widest divergency. The movement
was at first called the romantic school, later the ro-
mantic protest. It was alternately praised and vilified,
its influence exaggerated or belittled. At the outset it
seemed clear that its origins lay around 1790, and that
its birth took place in Germany concurrently with the
other great revolution across the Rhine. However, its
beginnings have gradually been pushed back to 1750.
Preludes have been discovered that are called pre-
romanticism, and its origins have been traced back
to such movements as German Pietism and the French
and Spanish Quietism. To compound the difficulties,
scholars have failed to realize that romanticism could
not be comprehended simply by taking note of the
ideals it proclaimed or the political parties it espoused.
There was a conservative romanticism, just as there
was a liberal and a democratic one, and one could even
list a socialist one. But it is hopeless to arrive at any
definition of romanticism by regarding the objects it
emphasized or discovered, as for instance, the Middle
Ages, or folk poetry, or the Catholic Church. Thus we
come to the essential question: Was romanticism a
matter of being or seeing or both, and in what order?

The distinction has been made of late between in-
trinsic romanticism and historical romanticism
(Barzun), and this at least gives the basis for viewing
the historical romanticism of the period between 1750
and 1850 as a change in mood and temper before it
became a change in thought and ideas. Such shifts in
mood had occurred in Europe in earlier times and had
not always been recognized for what they were. In
the case of the romantic movement an emotional
subjectivism was brought to the fore, and it formed
the core of the entire trend and constituted the crite-
rion for the separation of the true romantic from the
fellow traveller, of which there were many. It merits
further study.

It is considerably more difficult to describe a third
crisis in the cultural evolution of Europe. There is some
reason to believe that it is still in process, and if this
be true, the historian can do little more than note some
of its aspects while its full impact is reserved for later
writers. Keeping these reservations in mind, it may be
said that around 1890 Europe entered into one of the
most profound transformations of its entire history.
There were those who interpreted the symptoms as
indications of a final breakdown; such were the apoca-
lyptic prophets Nikolai Danilewski (Rossiia I Europa,
1895) and Oswald Spengler (Der Untergang des
1918). More restrained minds contented
themselves with describing and analyzing the phenom-
ena as they were revealed to a critical mind. H. S.
Hughes undertook such a study in his Consciousness
and Society
(1958), and the present writer offered a
similar essay in Prophets of Yesterday (1961). There are
differences of opinion as to the chronology of the crisis
and about the comparative value of the contributions
made by the various European nations, but these are
minor matters. It is clear that the crisis was advanced
by a “cluster of geniuses” somewhat like that which
ushered in the crises of 1680 and 1790. To come upon
a common denominator for the crisis is more difficult.
Some observers have used the term, “the new irra-
tionalism,” and certainly this marks one, though not
all, of the decisive changes that took place. The crisis
of 1890 touches on the very vitals of the intellectual
life of the West, its attitude toward science, the hu-
manities, and religion, as well as toward poetry and
the arts.

Future historians may well see the two World Wars
with their social and economic concomitants as wave
movements in the great transformation that is taking
place at all corners of the earth. Few will doubt that
the crisis which has engulfed our century is a genuine
crisis in the Burckhardtian sense. One of its results
appears to be the emergence of a consciousness which
is learning or trying to learn a way of life that can
accommodate the antitheses of crisis. We are beginning
to wonder whether our destiny is to live under condi-
tions of permanent crisis throughout any predictable
future. The emergence of the New Physics, the experi-
mental way in which modern art changes its methods
and its goals every year, the questioning of historicism,
all would seem to prove that old concepts are failing
—i.e., that the idea of crisis is penetrating the most
varied fields of human activities.


The term “crisis” in its economic sense is discussed by
H. Herkner in the article “Krisen,” Handwörterbuch der
3rd ed. (Leipzig, 1910), VI, 253-76;
and by J. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New
York, 1955). Jakob Burckhardt's theory is presented in Welt-
geschichtliche Betrachtungen,
Vol. VII (Berlin and Leipzig,
1929); trans. J. Hastings Nichols as Force and Freedom,
Reflections on History
(Boston, 1964). See also: H. Baron,
The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, 2 vols. (Prince-
ton, 1955); E. R. Curtius, Europäische Literatur und Latein-
isches Mittelalter,
2nd ed. (Bern, 1954), trans. as European
Literature and the Latin Middle Ages
(Princeton, 1953); Paul
Hazard, La Crise de la conscience européene (Paris, 1935),
trans. as The European Mind (reprint New York); H. S.
Hughes, Consciousness and Society (New York, 1958); J.
Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (London, 1948;
New York, 1954); Gerhard Masur, Prophets of Yesterday
(New York, 1961); E. Rosenstock-Huessy, Die europäischen
Revolutionen und der Charakter der Nationen,
3rd ed.


(Stuttgart, 1961); G. M. Trevelyan, British History in the
Nineteenth Century and After
(1782-1919) (London, 1946),
p. 292.


[See also Cycles; Economic History; Historicism; Marxism; Revolution; Romanticism; War and Militarism.]