Leopold von Ranke
The Historian Must be Old
The diary entry containing these extracts was made in January 1877, six years after Ranke's retirement, and nine years before his death. His wife had died six years earlier. Half blind, he was left alone with his books, dependent on readers and scribes for his ability to continue his researches.
The proverb tells us that poets are born. Not only in the arts, but even in some scholarly fields, young men develop into full bloom, or at least display their originality. Musicians and mathematicians have the expectation of attaining eminence in early years. But a historian must be old, not only because of the immeasurable extent of his field of study, but because of the insight into the historical process which a long life confers, especially under changing conditions.
It would hardly be bearable for him to have only a short span of experience. For his personal development requires that great events complete their course before his eyes, that others collapse, that new forms be attempted.
Ranke himself met this standard. During his lifetime he had seen the rise and fall of the French New Order in Europe under Napoleon, and the unification of the German States under Bismarck.
1 August 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to History Page