"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.