“What is important for us?” asked a young Van Wyck Brooks in 1918, then still in the springtime of his long career as a historian and literary critic. “The past is an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals; it opens of itself at the touch of desire.” Brooks made an impassioned plea for a form of history bound not by inert facts and impersonal scholarship but one driven by a creative impulse to revive the spiritual welfare of the nation. “For the spiritual past has no objective reality,” he reminded, “it yields only what we are able to look for in it.” What Brooks looked for—and what his generation of young intellectuals and progressive historians set about writing—was what he called a usable past.
Brooks’s search for a usable past was, in part, a rebuke of the arid historicism that had for decades prevailed throughout the transatlantic world of ideas. The master critic of that world was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose 1874 essay, “The Use and Abuse of History for Life,” provides the inspiration (not to mention the title) of this issue’s theme. The essays therein variously critique one or more of the three types of historiography that the great German thinker described: the monumental, which celebrates the great deeds of the past as patriotic inspiration of the contemporary nation; the antiquarian, which looks back on the past with nostalgia and pious reverence; the critical, which seeks a radical break from the past by exposing its injustices, corruptions, and other failings. Each approach, in Nietzsche's view, has its merits and its shortcomings, but each can be used in service of renewal—for the purpose of life today.
Any invitation to the uses of history, however, should be accompanied by a warning about the dangers of making history too immediately useful—which is to say, too instrumental. By the time the esteemed Southern historian C. Vann Woodward took the lectern as president at the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association, he could look back on more than two decades of almost uninterrupted growth in higher education and at a profession that had become complacent in its search for a usable past. Alarmed by what he called an “instrumentalist view of historiography” then rising in popularity and using “history as an instrument of political or social action,” Woodward took aim at those who assumed it was the duty of the historian “to discover, record, and celebrate” certain American values. What Woodward had grown ambivalent about was the allure of “presentism” in the study of history, even if it was a feature of the intellectuals’ understandable desire to use their knowledge to change the world and, for lack of a less naive phrasing, make it a better place.
But history is far too important a thing to be reduced to the special possession of a class of experts, however well or ineptly they study it. Indeed, as the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs put it in his magisterial Historical Consciousness: Or, The Remembered Past (1968), “We are, all, historians now.” Lukacs argued that a new form of modern thinking arose in the nineteenth century, one that sought to “study everything (including history) through its historical development.” So Jean-Baptiste Lamarck came to see biology not as something static but as a product of evolutionary inheritance across vast stretches of time. So, too, John Henry Newman came to see Christian theology not as something “believed everywhere, always, and by all,” but as a product of dogmatic development. As Dutch historian Johan Huizinga put it in 1934, “Historical thinking has entered our very blood.” Lukacs called this modern form of thinking “historical consciousness.”
For Lukacs, the study of history went astray not by way of presentism but through various forms of neo-positivism that treat the past as something objectively knowable. As he put it, historical memory involves “understanding beyond accuracy.” It is “a preoccupation with problems rather than with periods, an exploration in depth rather than in width, a constant rethinking of the past, involving qualities rather than capacities of memory.” But as Lukacs knew, the search for a usable past was also likely to reduce or cheapen human experience. “The very purpose of historical knowledge is…a certain kind of understanding,” he wrote, insisting that, at its best, it was the contemplation of human perception.
Since many of us today find ourselves disconnected from the places, people, and cultural memory that give context and meaning to human life, we look to history to find out what is missing—and to imagine what to do. We even call upon history to be the judge and final arbiter of our times and ourselves. Our greatest conflicts, from the legitimacy of the liberal international order and the sustainability of capitalism to the meaning of the family and national self-understanding are litigated through histories of class, politics, gender, and the state. It is no accident that, on the eve of the invasion in February of this year, Vladimir Putin gave a late-night speech that rewrote the history of the modern state of Ukraine. History matters; Putin understands that much.
If history has its uses—as the thematic essays in this issue variously demonstrate—then its abuses are manifold. And not just among the Putins of the world. The abuses are most evident when history is used for the purposes of shoring up the positions of the powerful or of playing ally to activists, technocrats, advertisers, or ideologues who have grown accustomed to cheapening the human experience. When history is pursued on such evidently instrumentalist terms instead of under the humanistic auspices of seeking wisdom and understanding and, yes, a usable past, then something vital is lost.