A not-unfounded sentiment it seems : many historians themselves have pointed this out (British curmudgeon William Moorehouse was fond of quipping history was nothing more than the 'gossip of winners') and Seneca even complained in Rome of the fruitless nostalgia and bookish banality of many scholars. The reach of historical romance often supercedes the good sense of its enthusiasts. However, the real problem arises when the cult of historical avowal begins to sap the dynamic intellect of a culture, and certain archaic affectations and anachronisms have risen powerfully in intellectual circles throughout history (such as when 15th c. Neapolitans played at being Pre-Socratic Greeks, or 19th c. Londoners tried to resurrect 14th c. Medieval Symbolism).

However, there's thankfully always someone articulate and intellectually-able enough to point out the danger of historical gloss and the myth of the 'Golden Age'. History can be a mirror of the present, but it can also be the pool of Narcissus. Friedrich Nietzsche, as an example, felt obliged to outline (at length) this threatening affectation ca. 1873 as he saw European scholars growing increasingly obsessed with the minutiae and endless extrapolation upon the past. If you've ever been accused of being endlessly apocryphal, overly Wagnerian (F. might have been thinking of his pal, W., when he wrote this) or you've had steely warning glances shot your way as you launched into a drunken digression about the horseshoes of the Mongolian nomads of the 12th century - well, fear not, Nietzsche has some advice for you - from his The Use and Abuse of History trans. Adrian Collins (NY : Merrill, 1957).
"We do need history, but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge, however grandly they may look down on our rude and unpicturesque requirements…we need it for life and action, not a convenient way to avoid life and action, or to excuse a selfish life and a cowardly or base activity. We should serve history only so far as it serves life." (3)

"It is a matter of wonder : the moment that is here and gone, that was nothing before and nothing after, returns like a specter to trouble the quiet of a later moment. A leaf is continually dropping out of the volume of time and fluttering away - and suddenly it flutters hand into your lap. Yet was always resist the great and continually increasing weight of the past; it presses us down and bows our shoulders and we travel always with this dark, invisible burden." (5)

"History is necessary above all to the man of action and intent, who fights a great fight and needs examples : teachers and comforters. For he cannot find them among his own contemporaries." (12)

"Monumental history lives by false analogy; it entices the brave to rashness, and the enthusiastic to fanaticism by its tempting comparisons…monumental history is the cloak under which hatred of present life and greatness masquerades as an admiration of the past. The real meaning of this view disguises as its opposite; whether they wish to admit it or no, they are acting as though their motto were : Let the Dead Bury the Living." (16-17)

"Antiquarian history degenerates from the moment that is no longer gives a soul and inspiration to the fresh life of the present…the horrid spectacle is seen of the mad collector raking over all the dust heaps of the past. He breathes a moldy air; the antiquarian habit may degrade a considerable talent, a real spiritual need in him, to a mere insatiable curiosity for everything old; he often sinks so low as to be satisfied with any food, and greedily devours all the scraps that fall from the bibliographical table." (20) (Note : Walter Benjamin wouldn't have appreciated this little dis very much.)

"Man must have the strength to break up the past, and apply it too, in order to live. He must bring the past of the bar of judgement, interrogate it remorselessly, and finally condemn it. Every past is worth condemning; this is the state of moral affairs…for as we are merely the results of a previous generation, we are also the result of their errors, passions and crimes; it is impossible to shake off this chain. Though we condemn the errors and think we have escaped them, we cannot escape the fact that we spring from them." (21)

"…we moderns have nothing of our own. We only become worthy of notice by filling ourselves to overflowing with foreign customs, arts, philosophies, religions and sciences; we are but wandering encyclopedias…" (24)

"To think objectively of history is the work of the dramatist : to think one thing with another, with presumption that the unity of plan must be put into the objects if it is not already there. So man veils and subdues the past, and expresses his impulse to art - but not his impulse to truth or justice. Objectivity and justice have nothing to do with each other." (38)

"Great learning and great shallowness go very well together under one hat. Thus history is to be written by those with experience and character. He who has not lived through something greater and nobler that most others will not be able to explain anything great or noble that came before them." (41)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.