“How wrong it is to cite the Romans at every turn!” wrote Francesco Guicciardini, contemporary critic of Machiavelli. “For any comparison [of Florence’s present to the Roman past],” Guicciardini explained, “it would be necessary to have a city with conditions like theirs, and then to govern it according to their example.”1 Thinking of Machiavelli’s ecstasy over the Roman example, Guiccardini cautioned: “One should not praise antiquity so far that one condemns all modern uses which were not current with the Romans, for experience has revealed many things not thought of by the ancients, and because, furthermore, their origins were different, certain things are needed by or suited to one country where they were not to others.”2 Here Guicciardini reflected the Renaissance humanist tradition of which he was a part– a tradition that embraced the idea of contexts producing different modes of life around the world, and throughout time. Out of this tradition came the Renaissance concept of linear and representational time, which has been one important assumption that drives our discipline.
In addition to criticizing Machiavelli’s love for all things Roman, Guicciardini attacked the accuracy of Machiavelli’s history. In his Considerations on the ‘Discourses’ of Machiavelli, Guicciardini questioned Machiavelli’s assertion that Roman generals did not believe in auguries, but simply used them to manipulate the people.3 He also questioned whether it was true, as Machiavelli asserted, that the Romans achieved most of their success through the use of deception and trickery.4 Guicciaridni failed to understand, however, that Machiavelli was mostly unconcerned with the accuracy of his history. In Discourses on Livy (1517), he complained that “the majority of those who read [antiquity] take pleasure only in the variety of events which history relates, without ever thinking of imitating the noble actions, deeming that not only difficult, but impossible; as though heaven, the sun, the elements, and men had changed the order of their motions and power, and were different from what they were in ancient times.”5
Today, Machiavelli’s idea that men and environment in the past were so different from the present that imitation would be impossible is an assumption that drives our discipline. But for Machiavelli, the purpose of history was to inspire, not necessarily to tell the truth. Above all, Machiavelli loved greatness and longed for great men in Florence as there had been in antiquity. He believed that stories from the past should, as Friedrich Nietzsche later wrote, “provide the occasion for and lend strength to the production of greatness.”6
Guicciardini’s commitment to historicism and his failure to understand the meaning and value of history for Machiavelli highlight several of the problems historians today have in discussing the idea of a usable past. The very question of a usable past– as we continuously frame it– is grounded in historicist assumptions– assumptions we must get past in order to understand and explain the value of our work. At our own peril, we pay far too little attention to the philosophy of history, and as a result, our ability to address questions about the use and abuse of history, and indeed, to be clear about “the assumptions that drive our discipline” is limited. What follows is my attempt to bring in several voices to force those who have made incisive contributions to the question of a usable past on this blog to be even more specific about language and meaning. In particular, we need to be much clearer about the concepts of “use,” of “history” and of “the past.”
We must be clear about to what end we want to “use” the past, if indeed that is a worthy goal. The examples provided in the conversations on this blog have been vague, but all suggest history used for political ends. We have, for example, invoked 1960s radicalism, Howard Zinn, the current economic crisis, and James Madison writing the Constitution. In his recent post, James Livingston wrote, “I’m worried that we’re not equipped, as historians, to offer our fellow citizens any guidance as they make their decisions on the Future.” Citizens, Livingston wrote. The implication here, as well as of the example of Madison considering the history of republics, is that history can only be useful, if at all, for the political man, for the Republic— America as a political organization, rather than as a culture, a spirit, or a way of being human (as, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lewis Mumford, and Van Wyk Brooks envisioned it). While it might be useful for gaining the ear– and purse– of private foundations or government sponsors to claim that history can be used to improve the Republic’s political future, is this really all we can imagine when we talk about the use of history?
Every historian should read and re-read Nietzsche’s Use and Abuse of History for Life, at least once a year. In this piece, beginning with the title, Nietzsche is clear about what he means when he talks about the “use” of history. Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche believed the purpose of history was to inspire greatness in the present. History should serve life. If a worship of the past began to stifle greatness in the present, history was abused and life was diseased. If, however, the past was historicized to death, if a concern for scientific truth caused historians to reduce greatness in the past to a product of circumstance, then history was also abused and would proclaim along with science, “fiat veritas, pereat vita!” (let there be truth and may life perish!).7
Thus, while Nietzsche was wary of too great an admiration for the past, he also condemned historicism for killing the potential of history to inspire life. The historical sense, he complained, was “to lose [the] sense of surprise, no longer to be excessively astonished by anything, finally to tolerate everything.”8 Through an excess of this historical sense, Nietzsche warned, “the belief, harmful at any time, in the old age of mankind is implanted, the belief of being a latecomer and epigone; through this excess an age acquires the dangerous disposition of irony with regard to itself and from this the still more dangerous one of cynicism: in this, however, it ripens even more into the clever egoistic practice though which the vital strength is paralyzed and finally destroyed.”9
Francesco Guicciardini and James Madison looked to a history of republics to help protect their own republics. Both thinkers found serious problems in the potential of history to guide the present. Machiavelli and Nietzsche, however, both anti-historicists, looked to history for purposes that transcended the political– to inspire individual greatness, to revitalize culture, to invigorate life.
“It almost seems as though the task were to guard history so nothing could come of it but stories, but by no means history-making events!” lamented Nietzsche, echoing Machiavelli’s complaint about how his contemporaries read antiquity.10 “If, on the other hand,” Nietzsche asserted, “you live yourselves into the history of great men you will learn from it a highest commandment, to become ripe and to flee from that paralyzing educational constraint of the age, which sees its advantage in preventing your becoming ripe, in order to rule and to exploit you unripe ones.” “Satisfy your souls on Plutrach and dare to believe in yourselves when you believe in his heroes,” demanded Nietzsche.11
This vision of history sounds similar to the Howard Zinn-style history that Livingston criticized in his recent post. While Zinn, unlike Machiavelli and Nietzsche, had a political goal in mind, he wrote a history of heroic acts of resistance, which Livingston worries, as Guicciardini worried about Rome, “can’t be reproduced.” Livingston’s anxiety about the pastness of the past suggests that, contrary to his claims, he in fact ascribes to the most basic assumption of our discipline. “Alperovitz, Ludlow, me, yeah, we’re symptoms—probably not cures—of some disease,” writes Livingston. The disease is historicism, or an excess of historical thinking, as Nietzsche would put it. Although Livingston claims to challenge the most entrenched assumptions of the historical discipline, he seems to me to represent traditional historicist thinking: the past is separate, lost, dead, and it would be a fallacy (though oh-so-tempting!) to apply it to the present.
Furthermore, our focus on the political use of history limits our ability to think creatively about the way we write history and about the potential for radical change in the present. As long as radical change simply means a restructuring of our political system, there is little hope for any significant change or for history to play a meaningful role in modern life. Instead, I would like to see historians discuss the potential of history to enrich our souls, guide our longings, and broaden our imagination of what is possible (“So this has existed– once, at least– and is therefore a possibility, this way of life, this way of looking at the human scene,” wrote Nietzche).12 I want history for the full man or woman, not just the citizen. This kind of history will be useful, even in a world in which “reality” is under attack, as Ben Alpers discusses.
“A world of total epistemic warfare is a world in which the past will become dramatically less usable,” Alpers wrote in his post, in response to philosopher Peter Ludlow’s discussion of the “war on reality.” Of course, the best example of what Ludlow has in mind is Ron Suskind’s famous encounter with an aide now identified as Karl Rove:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”13
It pains me to say this, but Rove’s language echoes Nietzsche. The focus on “acting” as opposed to “studying,” the idea of creating reality, the repetition of “judicious” and “judiciously,” and the implication that truth is a guiding star for those who slavishly record facts and do not act…. these are themes that appear and reappear throughout Use and Abuse. Alpers is right that a particular, scientific, historical way of looking at the past will “become dramatically less usable,” as the Karl Roves continue their war against the “reality-based community.” However, history as Nietzsche envisioned it: inspiring, invigorating, and not primarily concerned with objective truth, could provide the only way to directly address Rove’s threat. “Objectivity and justice have nothing to do with each other,” Nietzsche reminds us.14 Nietzsche’s brand of history, unhindered by Livingston’s and others’ historicist concerns, could provide a viable alternative in the “epistemic war” that Alpers and Ludlow describe.
But we also need to be more precise by what we mean when we use the word “history.” To this end, it might be helpful to examine Warren I. Susman’s “History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past,” published in the American Quarterly in 1964. In this piece, Susman defines myth as the foundation of an unchanging society, and history as the foundation for coherence in a constantly changing society. For Susman, history in a dynamic society can also help point the way toward the future– the “use” of history most invoked in our discussion on this blog.15 Susman denies that myth and history are mutually exclusive, and proceeds to analyze periods of American thought in terms of the relationship between myth and history in those periods. “Myths often propose fundamental goals; history often defines and illuminates basic processes in achieving those goals,” Susman writes.16
Susman believes the period between 1890 and 1940 was a period of great faith in history, a faith that also nourished myth. Historians like Carl Becker and Charles Beard believed that a particular view of history could encourage particular solutions to present problems. Van Wyk Brooks and Lewis Mumford believed that a revitalized– indeed, mythic– view of American literature in the past could lead to a more fruitful American literary culture in their present. “The culture of America in the period between 1890 and 1940,” argues Susman, “was based in large measure on a view of the importance of history in solving human problems on every level and on a firm commitment to the special role that the intellectual might develop for himself in a world in which he felt alien as a critic of the official ideology and champion of the truer meaning of the nation.” “Toward the end of this period,” Susman continues, “what Richard Chase has called The Quest for Myth again became a major occupational and imaginative concern for many artists and intellectuals.”17
Yet Susman characterizes the 1940s, 50s, and 60s as an “ahistorical” period. By “ahistorical” he does not mean anti-historicist, but rather a period of little faith in the value of history to guide the present. “In our own day history has become once again the enemy, useful only if it points up the mythic tragedy of our inability to solve our problems in any meaningful sense,” he claims.18 “We are left,” Susman concludes, “with a mythic past, an anxious present, and an anti-utopian, Orwellian future.”19 Susman names Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr as two examples of individuals who have used history to describe their world, but who have little faith in history to provide lessons that can meaningfully contribute to a better future.
If we take Susman’s analysis seriously, the anxiety Ben Alpers identified in Alperovitz, Ludlow, and Livingston may be a continuation of the same anxiety Susman found in Schlesinger and Niebuhr. Livingston suggests that historians ask whether and how, for example, the cultural and intellectual practices of the 1920s were new. We might similarly ask if and how contemporary skepticism about the use of history represents new ideas or challenges the old assumptions of our discipline, or if it represents the doubts and anxieties that habitually plague historicism.
In addition, Susman’s article can help remind us to be specific in our use of the word “history.” Susman develops the concepts of history-as-myth, history in the service of myth, and history as opposed to myth. In our discussions on this blog, history is sometimes synonymous with “the past” and sometimes refers to narratives about the past. I thought we were all sick of hearing that history doesn’t teach anything, but historians use history to create lessons. But again and again I still read the phrase “the lessons of history” or “history teaches…” This confusion hurts our ability to discuss the meaning and value of our work.
We could also be more precise about what we mean when we invoke “the past.” As someone pointed out in the discussion comments on this question of a usable past, whose past are we invoking? Do we mean the distant past, or a past very close and accessible to us. Do we mean to invoke the past as the clear foundations of our present, or is the past an alien land, the value of which lies in its distance from our own time? “The historian must have the strength to recast the well known into something never heard before and to proclaim the general so simply and profoundly that one overlooks its simplicity because of its profundity and its profundity because of its simplicity,” Nietzsche declared in Use and Abuse.20
“The Past is, in fact, behind us,” asserts Livingston in his post, further establishing his historicist view-point. But it is important to recognize how many thinkers throughout history have protested against this idea. “The day of Herman Melville’s vision is now in the beginning,” Lewis Mumford proclaimed at the end of his 1929 biography of Melville. “It hangs like a cloud over the horizon at dawn; and as the sun rises, it will become more radiant, and more a part of the living day.”21 Was he crazy? Perhaps. As crazy as Faulkner, and a number of other thinkers and artists who emphatically claimed that the past was not, in fact, behind them, but rather manifest all around. What does this mean?
Historian Eelco Runia has argued that it represents a longing for presence, an important part of lived experience that Runia believes historians have largely ignored. “Presence” is what Nietzsche desired when he cried, “Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to . . . bring back the whole past . . . and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. . . . Oh, that I might me reborn in a hundred beings!”22 A longing to access the presence of the past is also what Machiavelli expressed when he wrote:
“When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.”23
Runia argues that most existing historical scholarship has no interpretive framework for addressing presence, or that which is outside of time. Focusing on meaning, historians have ignored attempts to access presence.24 Livingston reflects historians’ focus on meaning over presence when he complains that history that focuses on heroic acts of resistance,“becomes an icon rather than a text, something to be worshipped rather than parsed.” No good Nietzschean would want history to be worshiped (at the expense of the present!) but indeed this is the language of presence, while “parsed” is the language of representation and meaning. Here again is another assumption that drives our discipline: meaning and representation can be analyzed and therefore have historical value, but presence, longing, enchantment, can not be and are therefore “ahistorical.” We must overcome this assumption to produce new scholarship that can speak to new forms of human experience and have the potential to bring about revolution in thought or culture.
As Tim Lacy pointed out, man is an historical being. But in his greatest moments he heroically (tragically?) tries not to be bound by time. I am not sure what Livingston’s vision for a new approach to history that could provide more value for the present is. I would suggest that radical change in the present will come not from trying to recreate the radical past (Zinn), nor from a radical break with the past altogether (Livingston?). Instead, change in the present– change the historian can uniquely contribute to– will come form radically reorganizing man’s relationship to time, the past, and history. Historicism gave us the last great social and political movements in history. It is time for historicism to make way for the future.
I suggest that historians focus on moments in the past when our subjects have protested against the tyranny of linear or representational time, when they have tried to forget, or to remember, when they have tried to escape into the past or to deny its pastness, to erase it altogether, or to live outside of time– when Thomas Paine declares, “We have it in our power to make the world anew;” when Lewis Mumford proclaims “Herman Melville’s world is our world;” when Goethe suggests that a universal man can don the “costume” of Roman, Greek, or Englishman; when Allan Bloom maintains that anyone, anywhere, can access “what is highest” through classic texts; when Nietzsche calls for biographies titled “Mr. So-and-So against his Times,” instead of “Mr. So-and-So and His Times;” when Jonathan Edwards concludes that “pastness is just a mode of ideas;” when Emerson writes, “When a thought of Plato becomes a thought to me, when a truth that fired the soul of Pindar fires mine, time is no more.”
Discussions thus far about the use of the past have maintained the old assumptions that guide our discipline including: linear/representational time, historicism, an emphasis on the political value of history, and a focus on meaning and representation over presence. We need to become comfortable getting outside some of these assumptions if we are to convince ourselves and our fellow man (and fellow citizens, sure) of the importance of our work. We need to break out of the mold of historicism and quit wringing our hands over the same questions about whether we can draw lessons from the past to politically alter the future. The first step to re-examining the assumptions and foundations of our discipline is to clarify our language. We must also become more comfortable with examining the theory and philosophy of history. Next month I am participating in the first conference “On the Future of the Theory and Philosophy of History” of the International Network for Theory of History. I hope to bring back insights to share and discuss on this blog.
1Guicciardini, Considerations on the ‘Discourses’ of Machiavelli, 113.
2Guicciardini, Ricordi, 69.
3Guicciardini, Considerations on the ‘Discourses’ of Machiavelli, 82.
5Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy 104.
6Friedrich Nietzche, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life, translated by Peter Preuss (Indianapoli: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980), 53.
12Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks translated by Marianne Cowan (Washington, DC: Eagle Publishing, 1998), 23-24.
13Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine (2004).
14Nietzsche, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life, 35.
15Warren I. Susman, “History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past,” American Quarterly Volume 16, Issue 2 (1964), 244.
21Lewis Mumford, HermanMelville (NewYork:Harcourt,BraceandCompany,Inc., 1929),386.
22Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, Inc., 1974), 215.
23Joshua Kaplan, “Political Theory: The Classic Texts and their Continuing Relevance,” The Modern Scholar (2005).
24 Eelco Runia, “Presence,” History and Theory vol. 45, issue 1 (2006), 1-29.