A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History

A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History

A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History

A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History


The essays assembled here represent forty years of reflection about the European cultural past by an eminent historian. The volume concentrates on the Renaissance and Reformation, while providing a lens through which to view problems of perennial interest. A Usable Past is a book of unusual scope, touching on such topics as political thought and historiography, metaphysical and practical conceptions of order, the relevance of Renaissance humanism to Protestant thought, the secularization of European culture, the contributions of particular professional groups to European civilization, and the teaching of history.

The essays in A Usable Past are unified by a set of common concerns. William Bouwsma has always resisted the pretensions to science that have shaped much recent historical scholarship and made the work of historians increasingly specialized and inaccessible to lay readers. Following Friedrich Nietzsche, he argues that since history is a kind of public utility, historical research should contribute to the self-understanding of society.


The title of this eollection is derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” the central argument of this passionate work, judiciously qualified, reflects my own deepest convictions about the value of historical scholarship. Nietzsche opened his essay with a quotation from Goethe: “I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.” This meant to him that a vital historiography must serve the “life and action” of society. There is, Nietzsche argued, a “natural relationship of an age, a culture, a nation with its history—evoked by hunger, regulated by the extent of its need,” but “always and only for the ends of life and thus also under the domination and supreme direction of these ends.” History, in this view, much like water and electricity, is a public utility.

This means in the first place that history is not the private preserve of professional historians, just as divinity, law, and medicine do not “belong” to clergymen, lawyers, and physicians. Like other professional groups, historians are properly the servants of a public that needs historical perspective to understand itself and its values, and perhaps also to acknowledge its limitations and its guilt. Historians have an obligation, I believe, to meet public needs of this kind.

This view of the relation between historiography and society largely explains the sort of history to which I have devoted most of my career, although the way in which I have described my work has changed somewhat over the years. As a graduate student and during the earlier years of my professional career, I thought of myself as an intellectual historian. Gradually, however, the idealism underlying this notion gave way to a growing historicism, and I began to recognize that the con-

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