Age of the Sage site banner

Leopold von Ranke

A brief biography of historian
Leopold von Ranke

The son of an attorney, and a scion of an old Lutheran theological family, Leopold von Ranke was born in Wiehe, Thuringia, in December 1795 and later became a famous German historian and educator. Thuringia was then part of the Kingdom of Saxony but was awarded to Prussia by the peace terms of 1815 at the close of the Napoleonic wars.

Ranke attended the famous Pforta private school and, after further study at the Universities of Leipzig and Halle, he worked as a schoolmaster teaching Greek and Roman classics at the Gymnasium in Frankfort-on-the-oder; this post being one held within the Prussian system. It was only whilst employed as a schoolmaster at Frankfurt that he began to consider attempting to become seriously involved in historical studies initially with the view to improving his knowledge of the classical ages in order to be a better teacher.

His first book, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494-1514 (1824) written at Frankfort, included an appended section entitled Zur Kritik neuerer Geschictschreiber (critique of modern historical writing) that presented a convincing criticism of contemporary historiography condemning its reliance on tradition and proposed, instead, Ranke's own more objective method. Ranke's aim was to reconstruct the unique periods of the past as they actually were and to avoid injecting the history of former times with the spirit of the present; this approach to historiography is known as historicism.
Ranke intended that his method would be applicable to modern history - Barthold Niebuhr had already pioneered a scientific method of historical investigation to be applied to ancient history. As a student Ranke had studied, and been greatly impressed by Niebuhr's Roman History - he acknowledged a debt to Niebuhr whose approach had been a source of backround inspiration.

Ranke distrusted historical textbooks and turned, at every convenient opportunity, to the study of more original sources. This method Ranke later developed to feature a primarily reliance on the "narratives of eye-witnesses and the most genuine immediate documents." He considered that "the strict presentation of the facts, contingent and unattractive though they may be, is undoubtedly the supreme law."

Ranke's Zur Kritik neuerer Geschictschreiber was favourably noticed by the Prussian minister of education and, in 1825, he was rewarded with a supernumerary professorship at the University of Berlin that initiated what were to become more than fifty years of association between Ranke and that University.
This appointment brought with it opportunities of access to the Prussian royal library.

Further studies resulted in Ranke's second book on the Ottomans and the Spanish monarchy and the quality of this work invited the continued favour of the Prussian authority which agreed to facilitate Ranke's studies being further undertaken in archives in Vienna. From these times (1827) Ranke was enabled, by the support of Gentz, to gain the protection of the powerful Austrian minister Metternich and this was to allow him very wide access to archived materials and thereby to gain very valuable information from Venetian and other sources located in Vienna.
Between 1828-31 Ranke pursued his lonely, sincere, and path-breaking studies, in the Italian peninsula where Metternich's influence had the power to open every door except those in the Vatican.
Most of these archived sources had not been seriously accessed by any historical scholar in the past and Ranke's researches in Vienna and the Italian peninsula provided the material for some of the most respected historical writing of the age.

The Prussian authority sought to employ Ranke's talents, for a time, in the editorship of the Historische-Politische-Zeitschrift, a periodical that was intended to help to defend the Prussian Government against the rising tide of liberal and democratic opinion. In this role, which lasted some four years, Ranke produced some of the best political thought that had appeared in the Germanies for a long time. Two famous essays The Great Powers, which surveys great power rivalry, and A Political Conversation, which treats with the nature of the state and its relationship with the citizen, date from this period.
A talent for historical and political scholarship proved, however, to be somewhat ill matched to the intended task of impairing the effectiveness of the expression of democratic aspirations.
Ranke was thus able to return to historical study and authorship.

His subsequent works cover the histories of the major European countries and include the History of the Popes During the 16th and 17th Centuries (1834-36), History of the Reformation in Germany (1839-47), Civil Wars and Monarchy in France in the 16th and 17th Centuries (1852).

He was awarded the security, and much enhanced salary, of a full professorship in Berlin in 1837 and was appointed as Prussian historiographer by King Frederick William IV in 1841.

He died in May, 1886 at the age of 91; the last ten years of his life having been given over to a Weltgeschichte (universal history) that Ranke had been able to bring, over nine volumes, to the end of the 15th century at the time of his death.

As a historian, Ranke attempted to put aside prevailing theories and prejudices and by the scrupulous use of primary sources to present an unvarnished picture of the facts. Nevertheless, because he viewed political power as the principal agent in history he tended to emphasize political history, dwelling upon the deeds of kings and leaders and ignoring economic and social forces.
A famous educator, he introduced the seminar as a method of teaching history and trained a generation of influential scholars. Since Ranke's time the seminar method of teaching history has become very widely adopted.
At the time of his death Ranke was regarded as the foremost historian in the world. Ranke's method of historicism has largely pioneered the modern insistence on rigorously analyzing firsthand documentation. He has variously been described as "The greatest German historian", "The father of the objective writing of history", and "The founder of the science of history."

Ranke does occasionally adopt a literary approach in his writing of history that tends to build up to a presentation of historical climaxes and also to build up certain historical figures whose contributions are deemed to be particularly significant. This adds to the readability and the drama of Ranke's works but it may not be strictly true that such literary effectiveness is fully in line with history "as it had really been."

Ranke aimed at an universal or world view of history, but his basic mood was nationalistic and conservative, accepting of monarchy and sincerely religious, the massive changes after the French Revolution are hardly discussed. Ranke seems to have seen the role of liberalism as being perhaps confined to the calling of the attention of statesmen to wrongs that needed correction.

His books on Prussian history contained, with no intention for it to be used for propaganda purposes, the seeds for a Prussian national German picture of history. This legacy compels one to critical reflection, but at the same time it points to a flourishing time in historical research at the Berlin University, started by Ranke, which above all Max Lenz and Friedrich Meinecke were able to continue.

Leopold von Ranke quotes

"You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was."

"From the particular, one can carefully and boldly move up to the general; from general theories, there is no way of looking at the particular."

content alerter

Many of our visitors seem to find the content of one of our pages -

Which is about Human Nature, (and 'Very Possibly' related matters)

- to be particularly fascinating!!!

There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare

"…can we possibly refuse to admit that there exist in each of us the same generic parts and characteristics as are found in the state? For I presume the state has not received them from any other source. It would be ridiculous to imagine that the presence of the spirited element in cities is not to be traced to individuals, wherever this character is imputed to the people, as it is to the natives of Thrace, and Scythia, and generally speaking, of the northern countries; or the love of knowledge, which would be chiefly attributed to our own country; or the love of riches, which people would especially connect with the Phoenicians and the Egyptians.
From Plato's most famous work ~ The Republic ~ detailing conversations entered into by his friend, and teacher, Socrates

Please click for more detail . . .

Pythagoras was a prominent figure in the intellectual life of the Greek world of the sixth century B.C.
Alongside his genuine contributions to mathematics and geometry Pythogoras is also considered to have recognised that there was evidently a "Tripartite" complexity to Human Nature:-
 Pythagoras who, according to Heraclides of Pontus, the pupil of Plato and a learned man of the first rank, came, the story goes, to Philus and with a wealth of learning and words discussed certain subjects with Leon the ruler of the Philasians. And Leon after wondering at his talent and eloquence asked him to name the art in which he put most reliance. But Pythagoras said that for his part he had no acquaintance with any art, but was a philosopher. Leon was astonished at the novelty of the term and asked who philosophers were and in what they differed from the rest of the world.

 Pythagoras, the story continues, replied that the life of man seemed to him to resemble the festival which was celebrated with most magnificent games before a concourse collected from the whole of Greece. For at this festival some men whose bodies had been trained sought to win the glorious distinction of a crown, others were attracted by the prospect of making gains by buying or selling, whilst there was on the other hand a certain class, and that quite the best class of free-born men, who looked neither for applause no gain, but came for the sake of the spectacle and closely watched what was done and how it was done: So also we, as though we had come from some city to a kind of crowded festival, leaving in like fashion another life and nature of being, entered upon this life, and some were slaves of ambition, some of money; there were a special few who, counting all else as nothing, ardently contemplated the nature of things. These men he would call "lovers of wisdom" (for that is the meaning of the word philo-sopher).

page content divider

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization.
In William H. Gilman (ed.) The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol II, 1822-1826, 305

page content divider

In what is perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson's most famous essay - 'History' - we read such things as:-
… There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. …

… We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, -- must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. …

… In old Rome the public roads beginning at the Forum proceeded north, south, east, west, to the centre of every province of the empire, making each market-town of Persia, Spain, and Britain pervious to the soldiers of the capital: so out of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of man. A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air. He cannot live without a world. …

page content divider

"History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."
R. G. Collingwood

To access our page about Human Nature, (and 'Very Possibly' related matters), - please click here:-

Human Nature (and the Courses of History?)

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

Several pages on our site, treating with aspects of nineteenth century European history, have been favored with some degree of popularity, rank highly in some search engines, and receive many visitors.
The preparation of these pages was greatly influenced by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.

More insights into this "Philosophy of History" as recommended by Emerson, and the history pages so-prepared, are available to those sufficiently interested, from the links further down this page:-