“Incidentally, I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity. ” These are Goethe’s words. With them, as with a heartfelt expression of Ceterum censeo [I judge otherwise], our consideration of the worth and the worthlessness of history may begin. For this work is to set down why, in the spirit of Goethe’s saying, we must seriously despise instruction without vitality, knowledge which enervates activity, and history as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury, because we lack what is still most essential to us and because what is superfluous is hostile to what is essential.
To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it, no matter how elegantly he may look down on our coarse and graceless needs and distresses. That is, we need it for life and action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and action or merely for glossing over the egotistical life and the cowardly bad act. We wish to use history only insofar as it serves living. But there is a degree of doing history and a valuing of it through which life atrophies and degenerates.
To bring this phenomenon to light as a remarkable symptom of our time is every bit as necessary as it may be painful. I have tried to describe a feeling which has often enough tormented me. I take my revenge on this feeling when I expose it to the general public. Perhaps with such a description someone or other will have reason to point out to me that he also knows this particular sensation but that I have not felt it with sufficient purity and naturalness and definitely have not expressed myself with the appropriate certainty and mature experience.
Perhaps one or two will respond in this way. However, most people will tell me that this feeling is totally wrong, unnatural, abominable, and absolutely forbidden, that with it, in fact, I have shown myself unworthy of the powerful historical tendency of the times, as it has been, by common knowledge, observed for the past two generations, particularly among the Germans.
Whatever the reaction, now that I dare to expose myself with this natural description of my feeling, common decency will be fostered rather than shamed, because I am providing many opportunities for a contemporary tendency like the reaction just mentioned to make polite pronouncements. Moreover, I obtain for myself something of even more value to me than respectability: I become publicly instructed and set straight about our times. This essay is also out of touch with the times because here I am trying for once to see as a contemporary disgrace, infirmity, and defect something of which our age is justifiably proud, its historical culture.
For I believe, in fact, that we are all suffering from a consumptive historical fever and at the very least should recognize that we are afflicted with it. If Goethe with good reason said that with our virtues we simultaneously cultivate our faults and if, as everyone knows, a hypertrophic virtue (as the historical sense of our age appears to me to be) can serve to destroy a people just as well as a hypertrophic vice, then people may make allowance for me this once.
Also in my defense I should not conceal the fact that the experiences which aroused these feelings of torment in me I have derived for the most part from myself and only from others for the purpose of comparison and that, insofar as I am a student more of ancient times, particularly the Greeks, I come as a child in these present times to such anachronistic experiences concerning myself.
But I must be allowed to ascribe this much to myself on account of my profession as a classical philologue, for I would not know what sense classical philology would have in our age unless it is to be effective by its inappropriateness for the times, that is, in opposition to the age, thus working on the age, and, we hope, for the benefit of a coming time. Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is.
It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus neither melancholy nor weary. To witness this is hard for man, because he boasts to himself that his human race is better than the beast and yet looks with jealousy at its happiness. For he wishes only to live like the beast, neither weary nor amid pains, and he wants it in vain, because he does not will it as the animal does. One day the man demands of the beast: “Why do you not talk to me about your happiness and only gaze at me? The beast wants to answer, too, and say: “That comes about because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say. ”
But by then the beast has already forgotten this reply and remains silent, so that the man wonders on once more. But he also wonders about himself, that he is not able to learn to forget and that he always hangs onto past things. No matter how far or how fast he runs, this chain runs with him. It is something amazing: the moment, in one sudden motion there, in one sudden motion gone, before nothing, afterwards nothing, nevertheless comes back again as a ghost and disturbs the tranquility of each later moment.
A leaf is continuously released from the roll of time, falls out, flutters away–and suddenly flutters back again into the man’s lap. For the man says, “I remember,” and envies the beast, which immediately forgets and sees each moment really perish, sink back in cloud and night, and vanish forever. , for it gets up in the present like a number without any odd fraction left over; it does not know how to play a part, hides nothing, and appears in each moment exactly and entirely what it is. Thus a beast can be nothing other than honest.
By contrast, the human being resists the large and ever increasing burden of the past, which pushes him down or bows him over. It makes his way difficult, like an invisible and dark burden which he can for appearances’ sake even deny, and which he is only too happy to deny in his interactions with his peers, in order to awaken their envy. Thus, it moves him, as if he remembered a lost paradise, to see the grazing herd or, something more closely familiar, the child, which does not yet have a past to deny and plays in blissful blindness between the fences of the past and the future. Nonetheless this game must be upset for the child.
He will be summoned all too soon out of his forgetfulness. For he learns to understand the expression “It was,” that password with which struggle, suffering, and weariness come over human beings, so as to remind him what his existence basically is–a never completed past tense. If death finally brings the longed for forgetting, it nevertheless thereby destroys present existence and thus impresses its seal on the knowledge that existence is only an uninterrupted living in the past [Gewesensein], something which exists for the purpose of self-denial, self-destruction, and self-contradiction.
If happiness or if, in some sense or other, a reaching out for new happiness is what holds the living onto life and pushes them forward into life, then perhaps no philosopher has more justification than the cynic. For the happiness of the beast, like that of the complete cynic, is the living proof of the rightness of cynicism. The smallest happiness, if only it is uninterrupted and creates happiness, is incomparably more happiness than the greatest which comes only as an episode, as it were, like a mood, as a fantastic interruption between nothing but boredom, cupidity, and deprivation.
However, with the smallest and with the greatest good fortune, happiness becomes happiness in the same way: through forgetting or, to express the matter in a more scholarly fashion, through the capacity, for as long as the happiness lasts, to sense things unhistorically. The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness or fear, will never know what happiness is.
Even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy. Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming. He will, like the true pupil of Heraclitus, finally hardly dare any more to lift his finger.
Forgetting belongs to all action, just as both light and darkness belong in the life of all organic things. A person who wanted to feel utterly and only historically would be like someone who was forced to abstain from sleep, or like the beast that is to continue its life only from rumination to constantly repeated rumination. For this reason, it is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates; however, it is generally completely impossible to live without forgetting.
Or, to explain myself more clearly concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and finally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture. In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is.
I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one’s self. There are people who possess so little of this force that they bleed to death incurably from a single experience, a single pain, often even from a single tender injustice, as from a really small bloody scratch.
On the other hand, there are people whom the wildest and most horrific accidents in life and even actions of their own wickedness injure so little that right in the middle of these experiences or shortly after they bring the issue to a reasonable state of well being with a sort of quiet conscience. The stronger the roots which the inner nature of a person has, the more he will appropriate or forcibly take from the past. And if we imagine the most powerful and immense nature, then we would recognize there that for it there would be no frontier at all beyond which the historical sense would be able to work as an injurious overseer.
Everything in the past, in its own and in the most alien, this nature would draw upon, take it into itself, and, as it were, transform into blood. What such a nature does not subjugate it knows how to forget. It is there no more. The horizon is closed completely, and nothing can recall that there still are men, passions, instruction, and purposes beyond it. This is a general principle: each living being can become healthy, strong, and fertile only within a horizon. If he is incapable of drawing a horizon around himself and too egotistical to enclose his own view within an alien one, then he wastes away there, pale or weary, to an early death.
Cheerfulness, good conscience, joyful action, trust in what is to come–all that depends, with the individual as with a people, on the following facts: that there is a line which divides the observable brightness from the unilluminated darkness, that we know how to forget at the right time just as well as we remember at the right time, that we feel with powerful instinct the time when we must perceive historically and when unhistorically. This is the specific principle which the reader is invited to consider: that for the health of a single individual, a people, and a culture the unhistorical and the historical are equally essential.
At this point everyone brings up the comment that a person’s historical knowledge and feeling can be very limited, his horizon hemmed in like that of an inhabitant of an Alpine valley; in every judgment he might set down an injustice and in every experience a mistake, which he was the first to make, and nevertheless in spite of all injustice and every mistake he stands there in invincible health and vigour and fills every eye with joy, while close beside him the far more just and scholarly person grows ill and collapses, because the lines of his horizon are always being shifted about restlessly, because he cannot wriggle himself out of the much softer nets of his justices and truths to strong willing and desiring. By contrast, we saw the beast, which is completely unhistorical and which lives almost in the middle of a sort of horizon of points, and yet exists with a certain happiness, at least without weariness and pretence. Thus, we will have to assess the capacity of being able to feel to a certain degree unhistorically as more important and more basic, to the extent that in it lies the foundation above which something right, healthy, and great, something truly human, can generally first grow.
The unhistorical is like an enveloping atmosphere in which life generates itself alone, only to disappear again with the destruction of this atmosphere. The truth is that, in the process by which the human being, in thinking, reflecting, comparing, separating, and combining, first limits that unhistorical sense, the process in which inside that surrounding misty cloud a bright gleaming beam of light arises, only then, through the power of using the past for living and making history out of what has happened, does a person first become a person. But in an excess of history the human being stops once again; without that cover of the unhistorical he would never have started or dared to start.
Where do the actions come from which men are capable of doing without previously having gone into that misty patch of the unhistorical? Or to set pictures to one side and to grasp an example for illustration: we picture a man whom a violent passion, for a woman or for a great idea, shakes up and draws forward. How his world is changed for him! Looking backwards, he feels blind; listening to the side he hears the strangeness like a dull sound empty of meaning. What he is generally aware of he has never yet perceived as so true, so perceptibly close, coloured, resounding, illuminated, as if he is comprehending with all the senses simultaneously. All his estimates of worth are altered and devalued.
He is unable any longer to value so much, because he can hardly feel it any more. He asks himself whether he has been the fool of strange words and strange opinions for long. He is surprised that his memory turns tirelessly in a circle but is nevertheless too weak and tired to make a single leap out of this circle. It is the most unjust condition of the world, narrow, thankless with respect to the past, blind to what has passed, deaf to warnings, a small living vortex in a dead sea of night and forgetting: nevertheless this condition–unhistorical, thoroughly anti-historical–is the birthing womb not only of an unjust deed but much more of every just deed.
And no artist would achieve his picture, no field marshal his victory, and no people its freedom, without previously having desired and striven for them in that sort of unhistorical condition. As the active person, according to what Goethe said, is always without conscience, so he is also always without knowledge. He forgets most things in order to do one thing; he is unjust towards what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of what is to come into being now. So every active person loves his deed infinitely more than it deserves to be loved, and the best deeds happen in such a excess of love that they would certainly have to be unworthy of this love, even if their worth were otherwise incalculably great.
Should a person be in a position to catch in many examples the scent of this unhistorical atmosphere, in which every great historical event arose, and to breathe it in, then such a person might perhaps be able, as a knowledgeable being, to elevate himself up to a superhistorical standpoint, in the way Niebuhr once described a possible result of historical research: “In one thing at least,” he says, “is history, clearly and thoroughly grasped, useful, the fact that one knows, as even the greatest and highest spirits of our human race do not know, how their eyes have acquired by chance the way in which they see and the way in which they forcefully demand that everyone see, forcefully because the intensity of their awareness is particularly great. Someone who has not, through many examples, precisely determined, known, and grasped this point is overthrown by the appearance of a mighty spirit who in a given shape presents the highest form of passionate dedication. ” We could call such a standpoint superhistorical, because a person who assumes such a stance could feel no more temptation to continue living and to participate in history.
For he would have recognized the single condition of every event, that blindness and injustice in the soul of the man of action. He himself would have been cured from now on of taking history excessively seriously. But in the process he would have learned, for every person and for every experience, among the Greeks or Turks, from a moment of the first or the nineteenth century, to answer for himself the question how and why they conducted their lives. Anyone who asks his acquaintances whether they would like to live through the last ten or twenty years again will easily perceive which of them has been previously educated for that superhistorical point of view. For they will probably all answer “No! “, but they will substantiate that “No! differently, some of them perhaps with the confident hope “But the next twenty years will be better. ” Those are the ones of whom David Hume mockingly says: What the first sprightly running could not give. We will call these the historical people.
The glance into the past pushes them into the future, fires their spirit to take up life for a longer time yet, kindles the hope that justice may still come and that happiness may sit behind the mountain towards which they are walking. These historical people believe that the meaning of existence will come increasingly to light in the course of its process. Therefore they look backwards only to understand the present by considering previous process and to learn to desire the future more keenly.
In spite of all their history, they do not understand at all how unhistorically they think and act and also how their concern with history stands, not in service to pure knowledge, but to living. But that question whose first answer we have heard can be answered again in a different way, that is, once more with a “No! ” but with a “No! ” that has a different grounding. The denial comes from the superhistorical person, who does not see healing in the process and for whom the world is much more complete and at its end in every moment. What could ten new years teach that the past ten years has not been able to teach! Now, whether the meaning of the theory is happiness, resignation, virtue, or repentance, on that issue the superhistorical people have not been united.
But contrary to all the historical ways of considering the past, they do come to full unanimity on the following principle: the past and the present are one and the same, that is, in all their multiplicity typically identical and, as unchanging types everywhere present, they are a motionless picture of immutable values and eternally similar meaning. As the hundreds of different languages correspond to the same typically permanent needs of people, so that someone who understood these needs could learn nothing new from all the languages, so the superhistorical thinker illuminates for himself all the histories of people and of individuals from within, guessing like a clairvoyant the original sense of the different hieroglyphics and gradually even growing tired of avoiding the constantly new streams of written signals streaming forth.
For, in the endless excess of what is happening, how is he not finally to reach saturation, supersaturation, and, yes, even revulsion, so that the most daring ones are perhaps finally ready, with Giacomo Leopardi, to say to their heart of your striving, and the earth deserves not a sigh. Pain and boredom is our being and the world is excrement, –nothing else. Calm yourself. However, let us leave the superhistorical people to their revulsion and their wisdom. Today for once we would much rather become joyful in our hearts with our lack of wisdom and make the day happy for ourselves as active and progressive people, as men who revere the process.
Let our evaluation of the historical be only a western bias, if only from within this bias we at least move forward and not do remain still, if only we always just learn better to carry on history for the purposes of living! For we will happily concede that the superhistorical people possess more wisdom than we do, so long, that is, as we may be confident that we possess more life than they do. For thus at any rate our lack of wisdom will have more of a future than their wisdom. Moreover, so as to remove the slightest doubt about the meaning of this contrast between living and wisdom, I will reinforce my argument with a method well established from time immemorial: I will immediately establish a few theses. A historical phenomenon, purely and completely known and resolved into an object of knowledge, is, for the person who has recognized it, dead.
In it the person perceives the delusion, the injustice, the blind suffering, and generally the entire temporal dark horizon of that phenomenon and, at the same time, in the process he perceives his own historical power. This power has now become for him, as a knower, powerless, but perhaps not yet for him as a living person. History, conceived as pure knowledge, once it becomes sovereign, would be a kind of conclusion to living and a final reckoning for humanity. Only when historical culture is ruled and led by a higher force and does not itself govern and lead does it bring with it a powerful new stream of life, a developing culture for example, something healthy with future promise.
Insofar as history stands in the service of life, it stands in the service of an unhistorical power and will therefore, in this subordinate position, never be able to (and should never be able to) become pure science, something like mathematics. However, the problem to what degree living requires the services of history generally is one of the most important questions and concerns with respect to the health of a human being, a people, or a culture. For with a certain excess of history, living crumbles away and degenerates. Moreover, history itself also degenerates through this decay. However, the fact that living requires the services of history must be just as clearly understood as the principle, which will be demonstrated later, that an excess of history harms the living person.
In three respects history belongs to the living person: it belongs to him as an active and striving person; it belongs to him as a person who preserves and admires; it belongs to him as a suffering person in need of emancipation. This trinity of relationships corresponds to a trinity of methods for history, to the extent that one may make the distinctions, a monumental method, an antiquarian method, and a critical method History belongs, above all, to the active and powerful man, the man who fights one great battle, who needs the exemplary men, teachers, and comforters and cannot find them among his contemporary companions. Thus, history belongs to Schiller: for our age is so bad, said Goethe, that the poet no longer encounters any useful nature in the human life surrounding him.
Looking back to the active men, Polybius calls political history an example of the right preparation for ruling a state and the most outstanding teacher, something which, through the memory of other people’s accidents, advises us to bear with resolution the changes in our happiness. Anyone who has learned to recognize the sense of history in this way must get annoyed to see inquisitive travelers or painstaking micrologists climbing all over the pyramids of the great things of the past. There, in the place where he finds the stimulation to breath deeply and to make things better, he does not wish to come across an idler who strolls around, greedy for distraction or stimulation, as among the accumulated art treasures of a gallery.
In order not to despair and feel disgust in the midst of weak and hopeless idlers, surrounded by apparently active, but really only agitated and fidgeting companions, the active man looks behind him and interrupts the path to his goal to take a momentary deep breath. His purpose is some happiness or other, perhaps not his own, often that of a people or of humanity collectively. He runs back away from resignation and uses history as a way of fighting resignation. For the most part, no reward beckons him on, other than fame, that is, becoming a candidate for an honoured place in the temple of history, where he himself can be, in his turn, a teacher, consoler, and advisor for those who come later.
For his orders state: whatever once was able to expand the idea of “Human being” and to define it more beautifully must constantly be present in order that it always keeps its potential. The greatest moments in the struggle of single individuals make up a chain, in which a range of mountains of humanity are joined over thousands of years. For me the loftiest thing of such a moment from the distant past is bright and great–that is the basic idea of the faith in humanity which expresses itself in the demand for a monumental history. However, with this demand that greatness should be eternal there is immediately ignited the most dreadful struggle. For everything else still living cries out no. The monumental should not be created–that is opposition’s cry.
The dull habit, the small and the base, filling all corners of the world, like a heavy atmosphere clouding around everything great, casts itself as a barrier, deceiving, dampening and suffocating along the road which greatness has to go toward immortality. This way, however, leads through human minds! Through the minds of anxious and short-lived animals, who always come back to the same needs and who with difficulty postpone their destruction for a little while. As a first priority they want only one thing: to live at any price. Who might suppose among them the difficult torch race of monumental history, through which alone greatness lives once more!
Nevertheless, a few of them always wake up again, those who, by a look back at past greatness and strengthened by their observation, feel so blessed, as if the life of human beings is a beautiful thing, as if it is indeed the most beautiful fruit of this bitter plant to know that in earlier times once one man went through this existence proud and strong, another with profundity, a third with pity and a desire to help–all however leaving behind one teaching: that the person lives most beautifully who does not reflect upon existence. If the common man considers this time span with such melancholy seriousness and longing, those men on their way to immorality and to monumental history knew how to bring to life an Olympian laughter or at least a lofty scorn. Often they climbed with irony into their graves, for what was there of them to bury! Surely only what had always impressed them as cinders, garbage, vanity, animality and what now sinks into oblivion, long after it was exposed to their contempt. But one thing will live, the monogram of their very own essence, a work, a deed, an uncommon inspiration, a creation. That will live, because no later world can do without it.
In this most blessed form fame is indeed something more that the expensive piece of our amour propre, as Schopenhauer has called it. It is the belief in the unity and continuity of the greatness of all times. It is a protest against the changes of the generations and transience! Now, what purpose is served for contemporary man by the monumental consideration of the past, busying ourselves with the classics and rarities of earlier times? He derives from that the fact that the greatness which was once there at all events once was possible and therefore will really be possible once again. He goes along his path more bravely, for now the doubt which falls over him in weaker hours, that he might perhaps be wishing for the impossible, is beaten back from the field.
Let us assume that somebody believes it would take no more than a hundred productive men, effective people brought up in a new spirit, to get rid of what has become trendy in German culture right now , how must it strengthen him to perceive that the culture of the Renaissance raised itself on the shoulders of such a crowd of a hundred men. Nevertheless, to learn right away something new from the same example, how fleeting and weak, how imprecise that comparison would be! If the comparison is to carry out this powerful effect, how much of the difference will be missed in the process. How forcefully must the individuality of the past be wrenched into a general shape, with all its sharp corners and angles broken off for the sake of the correspondence!
In fact, basically something that once was possible could appear possible a second time only if the Pythagoreans were correct in thinking that with the same constellations of the celestial bodies the same phenomena on the Earth had to repeat themselves, even in the small single particulars, so that when the stars have a certain position relative to each other, a Stoic and an Epicurean will, in an eternal recurrence, unite and assassinate Caesar, and with another stellar position Columbus will eternally rediscover America. Only if the Earth were always to begin its theatrical performance once again after the fifth act, if it were certain that the same knot of motives, the same deus ex machina, the same catastrophe returned in the same determined interval, could the powerful man desire monumental history in complete iconic truth, that is, each fact in its precisely described characteristics and unity, and probably not before the time when astronomers have once again become astrologers.
Until that time monumental history will not be able to produce that full truthfulness. It will always bring closer what is unlike, generalize, and finally make things equal. It will always tone down the difference in motives and events, in order to set down the monumental effectus [effect], that is, the exemplary effect worthy of imitation, at the cost of the causae [cause]. Thus, because monumental history turns away as much as possible from the cause, we can call it a collection of “effects in themselves” with less exaggeration than calling it events which will have an effect on all ages. What is celebrated in folk festivals and in religious or military remembrance days is basically such an “effect in itself. It is the thing which does not let the ambitious sleep, which for the enterprising lies like an amulet on the heart, but it is not the true historical interconnection between cause and effect, which fully recognized, would only prove that never again could anything completely the same fall out in the dice throw of future contingency.
As long as the soul of historical writing lies in the great driving impulses which a powerful man derives from it, as long as the past must be written about as worthy of imitation, as capable of being imitated, with the possibility of a second occurrence, history is definitely in danger of becoming something altered, reinterpreted into something more beautiful, and thus coming close to free poeticizing. Indeed, there are times which one cannot distinguish at all between a monumental history and a mythic fiction, because from a single world one of these impulses can be derived as easily as the other.
Thus, if the monumental consideration of the past rules over the other forms of analyzing it, I mean, over the antiquarian and the critical methods, then the past itself suffers harm. Really large parts of it are forgotten, despised, and flow forth like an uninterrupted gray flood, and only a few embellished facts raise themselves up above, like islands. Something unnatural and miraculous strikes our vision of the remarkable person who becomes especially visible, just like the golden hips which the pupils of Pythagoras wished to attribute to their master. Monumental history deceives through its analogies. It attracts the spirited man to daring acts with its seductive similarities and the enthusiastic man to fanaticism.
If we imagine this history really in the hands and heads of the talented egoists and the wild crowds of evil rascals, then empires are destroyed, leaders assassinated, wars and revolutions instigated, and the number of the historical “effects in themselves,” that is, the effects without adequate causes, increased once more. No matter how much monumental history can serve to remind us of the injuries among great and active people, whether for better or worse, that is what it first brings about when the impotent and inactive empower themselves with it and serve it. Let us take the simplest and most frequent example. If we imagine to ourselves uncultured and weakly cultured natures energized and armed by monumental cultural history, against whom will they now direct their weapons?
Against their hereditary enemies, the strong cultural spirits and also against the only ones who are able to learn truly from that history, that is, for life, and to convert what they have learned into an noble practice. For them the path will be blocked and the air darkened, if we dance around a half-understood monument of some great past or other like truly zealous idolaters, as if we wanted to state: “See, that is the true and real culture. What concern of yours is becoming and willing! ” Apparently this dancing swarm possess even the privilege of good taste. The creative man always stands at a disadvantage with respect to the man who only looks on and does not play his own hand, as for example in all times the political know-it-all was wiser, more just, and more considerate than the ruling statesman.
If we want to transfer into the area of culture the customs of popular agreement and the popular majority and, as it were, to require the artist to stand in his own defense before the forum of the artistically inert types, then we can take an oath in advance that he will be condemned, not in spite of but just because his judges have solemnly proclaimed the canon of monumental culture (that is, in accordance with the given explanation, culture which in all ages “has had effects”). Whereas, for the judges everything which is not yet monumental, because it is contemporary, lacks, first, the need for history, second, the clear inclination toward history, and third, the very authority of history. On the other hand, their instinct tells them that culture can be struck dead by culture. The monumental is definitely not to rise up once more. And for that their instinct uses precisely what has the authority of the monumental from the past. So they are knowledgeable about culture because they generally like to get rid of culture. They behave as if they were doctors, while basically they are only concerned with mixing poisons.
Thus, they develop their languages and their taste, in order to explain in their discriminating way why they so persistently disapprove of all offerings of more nourishing cultural food. For they do not want greatness to arise. Their method is to say: “See greatness is already there! ” In truth, this greatness that is already there is of as little concern to them as what arises out of it. Of that their life bears witness. Monumental history is the theatrical costume in which they pretend that their hate for the powerful and the great of their time is a fulfilling admiration for the strong and the great of past times. In this, through disguise they invert the real sense of that method of historical observation into its opposite.
Whether they know it or not, they certainly act as if their motto were: let the dead bury the living. Each of the three existing types of history is only exactly right for a single area and a single climate; on every other one it grows up into a destructive weed. If a man who wants to create greatness uses the past, then he will empower himself through monumental history. On the other hand, the man who wishes to emphasize the customary and traditionally valued cultivates the past as an antiquarian historian. Only the man whose breast is oppressed by a present need and who wants to cast off his load at any price has a need for critical history, that is, history which sits in judgment and passes judgment.
From the thoughtless transplanting of plants stem many ills: the critical man without need, the antiquarian without reverence, and the student of greatness without the ability for greatness are the sort who are receptive to weeds estranged from their natural mother earth and therefore degenerate growths. History belongs secondly to the man who preserves and honours, to the person who with faith and love looks back in the direction from which he has come, where he has been. Through this reverence he, as it were, gives thanks for his existence. While he nurtures with a gentle hand what has stood from time immemorial, he want to preserve the conditions under which he came into existence for those who are to come after him. And so he serves life. His possession of his ancestors’ goods changes the ideas in such a soul, for those goods are far more likely to take possession of his soul.
The small, limited, crumbling, and archaic keep their own worth and integrity, because the conserving and honouring soul of the antiquarian man settles on these things and there prepares for itself a secret nest. The history of his city becomes for him the history of his own self. He understands the walls, the turreted gate, the dictate of the city council, and the folk festival, like an illustrated diary of his youth, and he rediscovers for himself in all this his force, his purpose, his passion, his opinion, his foolishness, and his bad habits. He says to himself, here one could live, for here one may live, and here one can go on living, because we endure and do not collapse overnight.
Thus, with this “We” he looks back over the past amazing lives of individuals and feels himself like the spirit of the house, the generation, and the city. From time to time he personally greets from the far away, obscure, and confused centuries the soul of a people as his own soul, with a feeling of completion and premonition, a scent of almost lost tracks, an instinctively correct reading even of a past which has been written over, a swift understanding of the erased and reused parchments (which have, in fact, been erased and written over many times). These are his gifts and his virtues. With them stands Goethe in front of the memorial to Erwin von Steinbach. In the storm of his feeling the veil of the historical cloud spread out between them was torn apart.
He saw the German work for the first time once more, “working from the strong rough German soul. ” Such a sense and attraction led the Italians of the Renaissance and reawoke in their poets the old Italian genius, to a “wonderfully renewed sound of the ancient lyre,” as Jakob Burckhardt says. But that antiquarian historical sense of reverence has the highest value when it infuses into the modest, raw, even meagre conditions in which an individual or a people live a simple moving feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, in the way, for example, Niebuhr admitted with honest sincerity he could live happily on moor and heath among free farmers who had a history, without missing art.
How could history better serve living than by the fact that it thus links the less favoured races and people to their home region and home traditions, keeps them settled there, and prevents them from roaming around and from competition and warfare, looking for something better in foreign places? Sometimes it seems as if it is an obstinate lack of understanding which keeps individuals, as it were, screwed tight to these companions and surroundings, to this arduous daily routine, to these bare mountain ridges, but it is the most healthy lack of understanding, the most beneficial to the community, as anyone knows who has clearly experienced the frightening effects of an adventurous desire to wander away, sometimes even among entire hordes of people, or who sees nearby the condition of a people which has lost faith in its ancient history and has fallen into a restless cosmopolitan choice and a constant search for novelty after novelty.
The opposite feeling, the sense of well being of a tree for its roots, the happiness to know oneself in a manner not entirely arbitrary and accidental, but as someone who has grown out of a past, as an heir, flower, and fruit, and thus to have one’s existence excused, indeed justified, this is what people nowadays lovingly describe as the real historical sense. Now, that is naturally not the condition in which a person would be most capable of dissolving the past into pure knowledge. Thus, also we perceive here what we discerned in connection with monumental history, that the past itself suffers, so long as history serves life and is ruled by the drive to live. To speak with some freedom in the illustration, the tree feels its roots more than it can see them. The extent of this feeling, however, is measured by the size and force of its visible branches. If the tree makes a mistake here, then how mistaken it will be about the entire forest around it!
From that forest the tree only knows and feels something insofar as this hinders or helps it, but not otherwise. The antiquarian sense of a person, a civic community, an entire people always has a very highly restricted field of vision. It does not perceive most things at all, and the few things which it does perceive it looks at far too closely and in isolation. It cannot measure it and therefore takes everything as equally important. Thus, for the antiquarian sense each single thing is too important. For it assigns to the things of the past no difference in value and proportion which would distinguish things from each other fairly, but measures things by the proportions of the antiquarian individual or people looking back into the past.
Here there is always the imminent danger that at some point everything old and past, especially what still enters a particular field of vision, is taken as equally worthy of reverence but that everything which does not fit this respect for ancient things, like the new and the coming into being, is rejected and treated as hostile. So even the Greeks tolerated the hieratic style of their plastic arts alongside the free and the great styles, indeed, they not only tolerated later the pointed noses and the frosty smiles, but made them into an elegant fashion. When the sense of a people is hardened like this, when history serves the life of the past in such a way that it buries further living, especially higher living, when the historical sense no longer conserves life, but mummifies it, then the tree dies unnaturally, from the top gradually down to the roots, and at last the roots themselves are generally destroyed.
Antiquarian history itself degenerates in that moment when it no longer inspires and fills with enthusiasm the fresh life of the present. Then reverence withers away. The scholarly habit lives on without it and orbits in an egotistical and self-satisfied manner around its own centre. Then we get a glimpse of the wretched drama of a blind mania for collecting, a restless compiling together of everything that ever existed. The man envelops himself in a mouldy smell. With the antiquarian style, he manages to corrupt a significant talent, a noble need, into an insatiable new lust, a desire for everything really old. Often he sinks so deep that he is finally satisfied with that nourishment and takes pleasure in gobbling up for himself the dust of biographical quisquilien [rubbish].
But even when this degeneration does not enter into it, when antiquarian history does not lose the basis upon which it alone can take root as a cure for living, enough dangers still remain, especially if it becomes too powerful and grows over the other ways of dealing with the past. Antiquarian history knows only how to preserve life, not how to generate it. Therefore, it always undervalues what is coming into being, because it has no instinctive feel for it, as, for example, monumental history has. Thus, antiquarian history hinders the powerful willing of new things; it cripples the active man, who always, as an active person, will and must set aside reverence to some extent.
The fact that something has become old now gives birth to the demand that it must be immortal, for when a man reckons what every such ancient fact, an old custom of his fathers, a religious belief, an inherited political right, has undergone throughout its existence, what sum of reverence and admiration from individuals and generations ever since, then it seems presumptuous or even criminal to replace such an antiquity with something new and to set up in opposition to such a numerous cluster of revered and admired things the single fact of what is coming into being and what is present. method of analyzing the past is quite often necessary for human beings, alongside the monumental and the antiquarian: the critical method. Once again this is in the service of living. A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. He manages to do this by dragging the past before the court of justice, investigating it meticulously, and finally condemning it. That past is worthy of condemnation; for that is how it stands with human things: in them human force and weakness have always been strong.
Here it is not righteousness which sits in the judgment seat or, even less, mercy which announces judgment, but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiable self-desiring force. Its judgment is always unmerciful, always unjust, because it never emerges from a pure spring of knowledge, but in most cases the judgment would be like that anyway, even if righteousness itself were to utter it. “For everything that arises is worth destroying. Therefore, it would be better that nothing arose. ” It requires a great deal of power to be able to live and to forget just how much life and being unjust are one and the same. Luther himself once voiced the opinion that the world only came into being through the forgetfulness of God; if God had thought about “heavy artillery,” he would never have made the world.
From time to time, however, this same life, which uses forgetting, demands the temporary destruction of this forgetfulness. For it should be made quite clear how unjust the existence of something or other is, a right, a caste, a dynasty, for example, and how this thing merits destruction. For when its past is analyzed critically, then we grasp with a knife at its roots and go cruelly beyond all reverence. It is always a dangerous process, that is, a dangerous process for life itself. And people or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. For since we are now the products of earlier generations, we are also the products of their aberrations, passions, mistakes, and even crimes.
It is impossible to loose oneself from this chain entirely. When we condemn that confusion and consider ourselves released from it, then we have not overcome the fact that we are derived from it. In the best case, we bring the matter to a conflict between our inherited customary nature and our knowledge, in fact, even to a war between a new strict discipline and how we have been brought up and what we have inherited from time immemorial. We cultivate a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that the first nature atrophies. It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past a posteriori [after the fact], out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended.
It is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker than the first. Too often what remains is a case of someone who understands the good without doing it, because we also understand what is better without being able to do it. But here and there victory is nevertheless achieved, and for the combatants, for those who make use of critical history for their own living, there is even a remarkable consolation, namely, they know that that first nature was at one time or another once a second nature and that every victorious second nature becomes a first nature. These are the services which history can carry out for living.
Every person and every people, according to its goals, forces, and needs, uses a certain knowledge of the past, sometimes as monumental history, sometimes as antiquarian history, and sometimes as critical history, but not as a crowd of pure thinkers only watching life closely, not as people eager for knowledge, individuals only satisfied by knowledge, for whom an increase of understanding is the only goal, but always only for the purpose of living and, in addition, under the command and the highest guidance of this life. This is the natural relationship to history of an age, a culture, and a people: summoned up by hunger, regulated by the degree of the need, held to limits by the plastic power within, the understanding of the past is desired at all times to serve the future and the present, not to weaken the present, not to uproot a forceful living future. That all is simple, as the truth is simple, and is also immediately convincing for anyone who does not begin by letting himself be guided by historical proof. And now for a quick look at our time! We are frightened and run back.
Where is all the clarity, all the naturalness and purity of that connection between life and history? How confusedly, excessively, and anxiously this problem now streams before our eyes! Does the fault lie with us, the observers? Or has the constellation of life and history altered, because a powerful and hostile star has interposed itself between them? Other people might point out that we have seen things incorrectly, but we want to state what we think we see. In any case, such a star has come in between, an illuminating and beautiful star. The constellation has truly changed through science, through the demand that history is to be a science.
Now not only does life no longer rule and control knowledge about the past, but also all the border markings have been ripped up, and everything that used to exist has come crashing down onto people. As far back as there has been a coming into being, far back into the endless depths, all perspectives have also shifted. No generation ever saw such an immense spectacle as is shown now by the science of universal becoming, by history. Of course, history even shows this with the dangerous boldness of its motto: Fiat veritas, pereat vita [let the truth be done and let life perish]. Let us picture to ourselves the spiritual result produced by this process in the soul of the modern man. Historical knowledge streams out of invincible sources always renewing itself with more. Strange and disconnected things push forward.
Memory opens all its gates and is nevertheless not open wide enough. Nature strives its utmost to receive these strange guests, to arrange and honour them. But these are at war with each other, and it appears necessary to overcome them forcibly, in order not to destroy oneself in their conflict. Habituation to such a disorderly, stormy, and warring household gradually becomes a second nature, although it is immediately beyond question that this second nature is much weaker, much more restless, and completely less healthy than the first. Modern man finally drags a huge crowd of indigestible rocks of knowledge around inside him, which then occasionally audibly bang around in his body, as it says in fairy tales.
Through this noise the most characteristic property of this modern man reveals itself: the remarkable conflict on the inside, to which nothing on the outside corresponds, and an outside to which nothing inside corresponds, a conflict of which ancient peoples were ignorant. Knowledge, taken up to excess without hunger, even in opposition to any need, now works no longer as something which reorganizes, a motivation driving outwards. It stays hidden in a certain chaotic inner world, which that modern man describes with a strange pride as an “Inwardness” peculiar to him. Thus, people say that we have the content and that only the form is lacking. But with respect to everything alive this is a totally improper contradiction.
For our modern culture is not alive, simply because it does let itself be understood without that contradiction; that is, it is really no true culture, but only a way of knowing about culture. There remain in it thoughts of culture, feelings of culture, but no cultural imperatives come from it. In contrast to this, what really motivates and moves outward into action then often amounts to not much more than a trivial convention, a pathetic imitation, or even a raw grimace. At that point the inner feeling is probably asleep, like the snake which has swallowed an entire rabbit and then lies down contentedly still in the sunlight and avoids all movements other than the most essential.
The inner process, that is now the entire business, that essentially is “Culture. ” And everyone who wanders by has only one wish, that such a culture does not collapse from indigestion. Think, for example, of a Greek going past such a culture. He would perceive that for more recent people “educated” and “historically educated” appear to be mentioned very closely together, as if they are one and the same and are distinguished only by the number of words. If he talked of his own principle that it is possible for an individual to be very educated and nevertheless not to be historically educated at all, then people would think they had not heard him correctly and shake their heads.
That famous people of a not too distant past, I mean those very Greeks, had in the period of their greatest power an unhistorical sense tried and tested in rough times. A contemporary man magically taken back into that world would presumably find the Greeks very uneducated. In that reaction, of course, the secret of modern education, so painstakingly disguised, would be exposed to public laughter. For we modern people have nothing at all which comes from us. Only because we fill and overfill ourselves with foreign ages, customs, arts, philosophies, religions, and discoveries do we become something worthy of consideration, that is, like wandering encyclopaedias, as some ancient Greek lost our time would put it.
However, people come across all the value of encyclopaedias only in what is inside, in the contents, not in what is on the outside or in the binding and on the cover. Thus, all modern education is essentially inner. The bookbinder has printed on the outside something to this effect: Handbook of inner education for external barbarians. In fact, this contrast between inner and outer makes the outer even more barbaric than it would have to be, if a rough people were evolving out of it only according to their basic needs. For what means does nature still have at its disposal to deal with the super-abundance forcing itself outward? Only one means, to take it as lightly as possible in order to shove it aside again quickly and dispose of it.
From that arises a habit of not taking real things seriously any more. From that arises the “weak personality,” as a result of which reality and existence make only an insignificant impression. Finally people become constantly more venial and more comfortable and widen the disturbing gulf between content and form until they are insensitive to the barbarism, so long as the memory is always newly stimulated, so long as constantly new things worthy of knowledge flow by, which can be neatly packaged in the compartments of memory. The culture of a people, in contrast to that barbarism, was once described (and correctly so, in my view) as a unity of the artistic style in all expressions of the life of the people.
This description must not be misunderstood, as if the issue were an opposition between barbarism and a beautiful style. The people to whom we ascribe a culture should be only in a really vital unity and not so miserably split apart into inner and outer, into content and form. Anyone who wants to strive after and foster the culture of a people strives after and fosters this higher unity and, for the sake of a true education, works to destroy the modern notion of being educated. He dares to consider how the health of a people which has been disturbed by history could be restored, how the people could find their instinct once again and with that their integrity. Now I want to speak directly about us Germans of the present day.
It is our lot to suffer more than any other people from this weakness of the personality and from the contradiction between content and form. Form is commonly accepted by us Germans as a convention, as a disguise and a pretence, and is thus, when not hated, then at any rate not particularly loved. It would be even more just to say that we have an extraordinary anxiety with the word convention and also with the fact of convention. In this anxiety, the German abandoned the French school, for he wanted to become more natural and thereby more German. Now, however, he appears to have included in this “thereby” a running away from the school of convention.
Now he lets himself go how and where he has the mere desire to go, and basically imitates nervously whatever he wants in semi-forgetfulness of what in earlier times he imitated painstakingly and often happily. Thus, measured against earlier times, people still live according to a slipshod, incorrect French convention, as all our moving, standing, conversing, clothing, and dwelling demonstrate. While people believe they are escaping back to the natural, they only think about letting themselves go, about comfort, and about the smallest possible amount of self-control. Wander through a German city: everything is conventional, compared to the particular national characteristics of foreign cities.
This shows itself in negatives: all is colourless, worn out, badly copied, apathetic. Each man goes about as he wishes, but not with a forceful desire rich in ideas, but following the laws which the general haste, along with the general desire for comfort, establishes for the time being. A piece of clothing, whose invention required no brain power, whose manufacture took no time, one derived from foreigners and imitated as casually as possible, instantly counts among the Germans as a contribution to German national dress. The sense of form is disavowed with complete irony, for people have indeed the sense of the content. After all, they are the renowned people of the inward life.
However, there is a well known danger with this inwardness: the content itself, which people assume they cannot see at all from the outside, may one day happen to disappear. From the outside people would not notice either its absence or its earlier presence. But even if people think that, in any case, the German people are as far as possible from this danger; the foreigner will always have a certain justification when he levels the accusation at us that our inner life is too weak and unorganized to be effective on the outside and to give itself a shape. This inward life can to a rare degree prove delicately sensitive, serious, strong, and sincere, and perhaps even richer than the inward lives of other peoples.
But as a totality it remains weak, because all the beautiful threads are not tied together into a powerful knot. Thus, the visible act is not the total action and self-revelation of this inner life, but only a weak or crude attempt of a few strands or other to will something whose appearance might pass muster as the totality. Thus, one cannot judge the German according to a single action. As an individual he is still completely hidden after the action. As is well known, he must be measured by his thoughts and feelings, and they speak out nowadays in his books. If only these books did not awaken, in recent times more than ever, a doubt about whether the famous inner life is really still sitting in its inaccessible little temple.
It would be a horrible idea that one day it may have disappeared and now the only thing left behind is the externality, that arrogant, clumsy, and respectfully unkempt German externality. Almost as terrible as if that inner life, without people being able to see it, sat inside, counterfeit, coloured, painted over, and had become an actress, if not something worse, as, for example, Grillparzer, who stood on the sidelines as a quiet observer, appears to assume about his experience as a dramatist in the theatre: “We feel with abstractions,” he says, “we hardly know any more how feeling expresses itself among our contemporaries. We let our feelings jump about in ways they do not affect us any more. Shakespeare has destroyed everything new for us. ” This is a single example, perhaps too quickly generalized.
But how fearful would his justified generalization be if the individual cases should force themselves upon the observer far too frequently, how despairingly the statement would echo: We Germans feel abstractedly; we have all been corrupted by history. This statement would destroy at the root every hope for a future national culture. For that kind of hope grows out of the faith in the authenticity and the immediacy of German feeling, from the belief in the undamaged inner life. What is there still to be hoped for or to be believed, if the inner life has learned to leap about, to dance, to put on make up, and to express itself outwardly with abstraction and calculation and gradually to lose itself!
And how is the great productive spirit to maintain himself among a people no longer sure of its unified inner life, which falls apart into sections, with a miseducated and seduced inner life among the cultured, and an inadequate inner life among the uneducated? How is he to keep going if the unity of the people’s feeling gets lost, if, in addition, he knows that the very part which calls itself the educated portion of the people and which arrogates to itself the national artistic spirit is false and biased. Here and there the judgment and taste of individuals may themselves have become finer and more sublimated, but that is no compensation for him. It pains the productive spirit to have to speak, as it were, to one class and no longer to be necessary within his own people.
Perhaps he would sooner bury his treasure, since it disgusts him to be exquisitely patronized by one class, while his heart is full of pity for all. The instinct of the people no longer comes to meet him. It is useless to stretch out one’s arms toward it in yearning. What still remains for him, other than to turn his enthusiastic hate against that restricting prohibition, against the barriers erected in the so-called education of his people, in order at least, as a judge, to condemn what for him, the living and the producer of life, is destruction and degradation? Thus, he exchanges the deep understanding of his own fate for the divine pleasure of the creator and helper and finishes up a lonely philosopher, a supersaturated wise man.