U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s so New about Historicist Anxiety over a Usable Past?

“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 daof HermaMelvillevision inow ithe beginning,” Lewis Mumford proclaimeathe end of his 1929 biography of MelvilleIt hangs like cloud ovethe horizon adawn; and athe sun rises, iwilbecommore radiantand more 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.

4Guicciardini, 113.

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.

7Nietzsche, 23.

8Nietzsche, 41.

9Nietzsche, 28.

10Nietzsche, 29.

11Nietzsche, 38.

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.

16Susman, 246.

17Susman, 259.

18Susman, 263.

19Susman, 262.

20Nietzsche, 37.

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.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Yeah, this is awesome. One of the best posts on this blog in a long time. I’ll make a few brief comments only, since any thorough response would be just as long.

    1) I’d be remiss not to mention Hegel, who notes early in the Philosophy of History that it’s one of the ironies of history that history’s chief lesson is that no one pays any attention to the lessons of history.

    2) Does expanding beyond the political uses of history require a quasi-Platonic turning away from or rejection of the political? And if so, is the rejection of historicism our emergence from the cave?

    3) Is there something inherent in history itself that pushes it towards the political, or is that merely an artifact of the way we conceive of history and utilize it? That’s a question that goes back to Herodotus and Thucydides, I know, but it always seems to come up.

    4) Why should we want to use the past? You mention presence: what sort of need does that fulfill? For the noumenal? For the eschatological? Does history function as a substitute for something else? For example, the way ideas of progress secularized Christian ideas of the millennium. Personally, I’m of the view that we use the past because of the kind of creatures we are. That is, being historical is part of human nature. Man is a historical being. But what does that mean?

    5) Rousseau, adapting the Eden myth, suggested that man’s emergence into history was the moment of his loss of innocence. Ever since we struggle to get out of history while also striving to bend it to our own ends. As nature, we’re both above it and part of it. That I think goes a long way towards explaining the symbiotic desires to find a usable past on the one hand and to escape it on the other.

    6) I’m uncertain how much a reorientation of history can be based on eschewing a linear conception of time. You suggest we look to figures who rebelled “against the tyranny of linear or representational time.” But that rebellion is itself a historical artefact. It’s only been around for a couple centuries, since linear temporality became the dominant paradigm, to coin a phrase. That doesn’t take us back far. To look at it another way, this is simple rephrasing the whole modernity/postmodernity question. Beyond that, how exactly does one escape from the linearity of time. One can certainly rebel against it, I suppose, but it’s still there. “I here now” is probably the single greatest determinant of all historical understanding. You can only be when you are, you can only have the perspective you have.

    7) On the whole, though, I agree that getting past the usability debate as framed by historicism would be a good thing for all concerned. I’m especially enthused by the call to turn to philosophy of history and the demand that historians clarify their terms. That can only have positive results.

    8) Having studied one of the most notorious episodes in which Machiavelli’s desire to emulate the ancients was put to use, I’m wholly on Guicciardini’s side (and extra bonus points for introducing him to the blog for the first time!). Maybe that’s the prejudice we need to overcome. If the past proves useless, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Heck, sometimes it’s a right blessing!

  2. Thank you, Erik! And, thanks, Varad, for this really interesting response! I would love to continue the conversation further, alone the lines you’ve suggested. Some thoughts for now….

    2) Absolutely about Plato, but not sure if the cave analogy works perfectly in this situation…

    3) Wonderful question. I would like to know what you and others think about it!

    4) I could speak for myself, why I’m an historian, why I love history, and why I want to “use” the past… or I could speak for a handful of mid-twentieth-century American intellectuals whose relationship to the past I have studied. Some of these intellectuals used the (American) past to situate themselves in a tradition so they would have a homeland, but a distant homeland that allowed them to maintain a critical stance toward the political and social climate of their present. Some of them simply fell in love with a novel, a writer, a thinker from the past and longed to bring back that book/person’s whole world. Some of them lived and worked in places obsessed with keeping the past alive through architecture, memorials, traditions (Harvard University, for example), and I argue this had a profound effect on the way they thought about man’s relationship to history. Then, of course, there’s Nietzsche’s beautiful aphorism, which I quoted in the post, about wanting to be reborn in different people. The past as a way to broaden human experience, I guess. So I can’t say why “humans” look to history, but I think, as historians, we can say why specific humans have turned to history (Edmund Wilson does this in the first chapters of To The Finland Station), and maybe we should do more of that to better understand our discipline and ourselves.

    6) This is an important question that I need to spend much more time thinking about. Right now all I can suggest is to follow thinkers, writers, and artists who have tried to present a alternative view of time, especially those who have addressed the very problem you described: how to balance a life in time with questions, longings, problems, “presence” that is outside of time.

    8) I have to thank my undergraduate adviser for the fact that I even know the name “Guicciardini”! I think he’s an interesting Renaissance humanist who sort of misunderstood the nuance in Machiavelli and never fully grasped that Machiavelli had articulated a philosophy of history radically different from his.

  3. I have read down to where you start discussing Susman, but have decided to comment on the opening section of the post before finishing the post.

    You write:
    “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.”

    First, I find the ‘vitalist’ current here to be somewhat troubling. What does it mean to “invigorate life”?

    Second, did Machiavelli’s purposes really “transcend the political”? Weren’t his purposes quintessentially political? Didn’t he think that Florence shd imitate the greatness of the ancient Romans b.c only in that way cd Florence become a truly strong, independent polity, able to navigate successfully in the byzantine and quite violent politics of the late-15th and early-16th-cent. Italian city-states? I admit that the only Machiavelli bk I know well is The Prince, but I think there is very little if any “transcending of the
    political” going on in The Prince. On the contrary, his whole thing is to establish the autonomy of “the political” as a practice separate from conventional notions of Christian morality.

    Finally, on the notion that Nietzsche could be an antidote to Rove — what?? You want to counter someone (Rove) who deprecates objective truth and brags about the ability of the powerful to create their own ‘reality’ with a thinker (Nietzsche) who… deprecates objective truth and celebrates individual “greatness” and the ability of the powerful to create their own reality. That’s a little too subtle, or something, for my taste.

    [I am sorry if this seems to be too sour or grumpily negative, because I do think the post (the part I have read) is well-written and thought-provoking. Now I will go finish it.]

    • Thanks, LFC,

      Of course Machiavelli was not completely unconcerned with the political. But it’s my interpretation that he was far less concerned with politics than with “greatness.” Politics was his job, how he kept from starving, but I think he often used politics as a canvas on which to shape ideas that transcended the political.

      Nietzsche’s “similarities” with Rove (thats an awful way of putting it, I know…) are precisely why I think his brand of history can be a viable counter to Rove. Historicist history, as Alpers and Ludlow point out, becomes meaningless in Rove’s world.

      • Re: The Prince, I would argue that this book, which Machiavelli wrote as an application for political employment, is really an assertion of man over Fortuna before it is an expression of a specific political program. I do think you are right to point out that for Machiavelli politics *meant* human will over Fortuna, that politics were important to Machiavelli as an assertion of human will against chance or environment. But I believe Machiavelli’s writings ultimately transcend specific political concerns, that he had goals and visions beyond the political organization of Florence, and that he often used political problems to work out the larger questions about man at the heart of his thought. If you don’t like that interpretation…. this is Machiavelli: there are 10,000 others! 😉

      • For more on the Rove issue, you might think of Stephen Colbert’s highly successful subversion-through-parody of Roveworld with his concept of “truthiness” and the Latin words “to seem rather than to be” displayed in his studio as an example of the kind of opposition I think stands a chance against Rove. The epistemic war he’s waging calls for new forms of political expression (Colbert) and new ways of writing history (Nietzsche? Maybe. But certainly something outside the old historicist paradigm).

  4. I have now read the rest of the post. Interesting. I find the invocation of “presence” a little vague.

    You say you propose to focus on moments when thinkers tried to escape the past or eliminate its pastness: Nietzsche wanting to be reborn in a hundred beings, Machiavelli putting on his robes and sitting down w the ancients, Emerson finding that “time is no more.”

    Uncharitably, perhaps, interpreted, this is a call to focus on moments when thinkers started to indulge the fantasy that they were walking the same paths or gardens (or whatever) that their heroes walked. And the Nietzsche quote about his all-encompassing greed that wants to be reborn in a hundred beings seems to me — quite ignorant when to comes to N., I admit — to almost cross the boundaries of fantasy into hallucination.

    I get the point that there are different ways of thinking about time and that historians should not necessarily be wedded to one particular view of time. But I think there may be a danger of starting with a critique of linear time and ending up with a celebration of irrationalism.

    • Yes, I am suggesting that historians focus more on moments when our subjects fantasize or imagine. That’s a part of human experience. We don’t have to reproduce Faulkner’s sense of time, or share Nietzsche’s or Machiavelli’s fantasies, or “celebrate irrationalism,” to acknowledge and critically examine their emotions, longings, and philosophy of history.

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments!

      • Rivka,
        Thanks for the replies.

        Just a quick reaction to what you say, above, on Machiavelli and The Prince. Yes, there are 10,000 interpretations, and I should not have suggested M. had no concerns beyond the immediate political problems of Florence. One can argue, as Pocock does in ‘The Machiavellian Moment,’ that M. is very concerned with issues of time and decay etc. (that’s vague but I’ll refer you to Pocock for the details since, speaking of time, I don’t have a lot of it today).

        I agree that part of what M. is concerned with is the “assertion of human will against chance or environment….”
        We are probably both thinking of ch.25 (e.g., “…fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but…she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern”; “fortune…demon-strates her power where virtue has not been put in order to resist her….”; Mansfield trans., p.98).

  5. Rivka,

    Fascinating post. Unlike many others, I found your use of evidence – and particularly of direct quotation – a bit confusing. Could you clarify your criticism in your own words?

    I agree that any future discussions of usable pasts – I use the plural here intentionally – will rest on a clarification of terms. I wonder a usable past for whom? And what is the usable past being used to accomplish? If history is to be instrumentalized in the way a usable past would probably be, we (as historians) need to be careful about to what end the past is being used to accomplish. There are obvious political pitfalls here for the left and right. Samantha Power’s usable past could lead to an American intervention in Syria on the grounds of preventing a genocide. Similarly, white supremacists have long tried to carve a useable past from the pre-Civil War South in order to resist legislation to enforce racial equality. Simply asking whether or not a usable past can be found – which I agree is almost always going to be “yes” whether for better or worse – is insufficient, we must have an eye toward what end the usable past is trying to bring into being.

    One final point, I find your suggestion “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” to be pretty unsatisfying. I think it erodes the important distinction between finding a usable past that is still firmly historically contextualized and one where past events become unmoored from their context and are allowed to drift into the present. The danger of a drifting usable past is that it may lead to contemporary users of the past to forget its warnings and lessons. There are many aspects of the global protests in 1968 which can and should be understood by protesters in Brazil, Syria, and elsewhere, but to ignore that the material and subjective conditions in those countries today are not the same as in 1968 could – and I think would – lead to tragic results.

    Regardless, one of the most thought-provoking pieces I have read in some time. Keep up the good work and do Brandeis proud!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response!

      Since you asked for clarification, briefly: my point is that I don’t see what is so new about Livingston’s desire for a (narrowly political) “usable” past, or his anxiety about the possibility of finding this usable past, and I don’t see where he challenges the assumptions that drive our discipline. You can see these same desires and doubts in a critique of Machiavelli from the 16th century, Nietzsche noticed it in the 19th century, and Susman found the same anxiety in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. I think the reason there’s nothing really new here is because Livingston’s desires and fears reflect standard historicist thinking, and I bring in Nietzsche’s Use and Abuse for its attention to the value and the dangers of historicism. I hope that helps.

      I’m surprised at your concern that if historians focus on moments in the past when our subjects have expressed curious philosophies of time or history, this will lead to an erosion of time or history in our scholarship. We don’t have to (probably shouldn’t) follow our subjects into all of their conclusions, and we can (should) maintain our position as historians, critically analyzing past thought about the nature of time and history (I always think of what Mark Hulliung told me: “you have to be able to really get inside a thinker’s head, but you also have to be able to pull back and stand outside them”). But it would be ahistorical to ignore thinkers in past who have expressed radical philosophies of history, just because they don’t fit with our assumptions.

      As for you last point… thank you for your kind words, and “truth, even unto its innermost parts,” right?!

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