Forward \”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.