[No Comment ]What Is, and To What End Do We Study History? | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

What Is, and To What End Do We Study History?


It was the middle of 1789; it was in the old world, but on the cusp of a new one. The ancients would have called it a cæsura, a cutting or breaking point–between two worlds. The main scene of action was, of course, in France. There the king had convened the Estates General, but in the shortest time things were to develop in a way that neither he nor his ministers foresaw. The spirit of revolution would reach the European continent, and it would take a far more violent and frightening form than it had in North America. For a later generation of historians, this would mark the beginning of “modernity.” Nothing would be the same afterwards. The old world was dying.

But it was not just the old world that was dying – it was also the old way of viewing history.

Two Revolutions
And on this point, the break occurred, not on a tennis court in Paris, but in a humble lecture hall in a provincial university in the heart of Germany. In Jena. On a warm late spring evening, on May 26, 1789, a young man stepped to the podium in the lecturing auditorium used by Karl Leonhard Reinhold, the great apostle of Kantian philosophy, at the University of Jena, a small city in Thuringia. The speaker was a frail wisp of a man who had attracted broad curiosity—his name was Friedrich Schiller. He had gotten his academic training at a military academy, and he was trained as a doctor. But forsaking this, he turned to writing plays with mixed success, though the plays came to mark a literary period called “Sturm und Drang.” From this he had tried his hand as a writer of poetry, and then a novel in installments. Then he had been called to the University of Jena, where he announced his intention to give lectures. His subject, announced to general amazement, was history.


Schiller approached this lecture with timidity. “I am embarrassed to speak publicly,” he writes his friend Christian Gottfried Körner, “and I have to make a point of acquainting myself with enough of these faces in order to overcome my embarrassment as I speak in the public for the first time.” Notwithstanding that it starts at six in the evening, his inaugural lecture draws an overflow crowd—but then in Jena at this time it has few entertainments to compete with. “What is, and to what end does one study history?,” Schiller asked. Generally this work is seen as something of a minor piece in Schiller’s substantial literary and philosophical output; it’s viewed as something perhaps a bit quirky and neglected. Schiller is a philosopher, a poet, a dramatist, certainly. But a historian?

I’ve come to see it differently. Schiller’s approach to philosophy and to literature–his ideas about aesthetics and politics—all of this flows from this great inaugural lecture. This may be the greatest inaugural lecture given by any academic in the whole extended history of the universitas litterarum. Schiller launched his academic career on a very powerful and high note—it is not a beginning, but a mature and polished end product. It can, I think, be viewed as a key to understanding Schiller, the core thinking of Weimar classicism, and the transitional phase between the high Enlightenment and the Romanticist periods.

Farewell to the Rote Historian
But it is far more than this. Like no other writer of this period, Schiller points the way for a new Europe based on a transformed political and cultural order. When Europeans turned to Schiller for the text of their anthem, they chose well. Schiller is the philosopher-poet of the Europe that arose from the cinders of the Second World War. This Europe reflects his vision and his values to an astonishing degree—though it took 150 years for those ideas to be effectively realized and implemented, after many false and tragic starts and failings.

He begins with some obligatory words about the importance of his teaching mission, and then he takes a rather amazing swipe.

Who is less fortunate than the academic bureaucrat (Brotgelehrter)? He has lived, wagered and worked for no purpose; he searches for Truth for no purpose, if indeed Truth for him transforms itself into money, the praise of newspapers, and the favor of princes… Reprehensible man, who supplied with the noblest of all tools, with science and art, seeks nothing higher than a manual laborer outfitted with the poorest. In the realm of perfect freedom, he carries about him the soul of a slave!

(This blast will be returned in kind a few days later when the head of the History Department, could he be the Brotgelehrter that Schiller has in mind?, forbids him to appear anywhere using the title “professor of history.”) This attack is, however, not petty or even ad hominem, though it might have been so understood. Schiller is signaling his intention to blaze a new path moving outside of the realm of history as it was then understood, and towards a fusion of history and philosophy. History, he believes, is an essential tool that allows man to understand the world in which he lives and what is transpiring about him. It allows us to understand essential elements of the human character, how they interact and shape the course of the past and the future.

The Philosophical Spirit
Against the rote academic, Schiller gives us the philosophical spirit (der philosophische Kopf), the audience he seeks for his lecture. The philosophical spirit is moved by a continuous questioning, a love for the acquisition of knowledge, but an overarching skepticism about the process. The process is key; the consciousness of human fraility and the limitations on human ability; the recognition of the need continuously to reexamine premises and to take nothing for granted. The philosophical disposition of Schiller is essentially the perspective that Lessing announced in Anti-Goetze. It is the creed of humble skepticism:

If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say, Father, I will take this–the pure Truth is for You alone.

For Schiller, history provides the essential proof of the dynamic nature of humankind. Its history has been the steady tale of spiritual and intellectual evolution. Humankind in its earliest recorded form, in Schiller’s metaphor, childhood, is of which to be embarrassed. Schiller is moved by Rousseau, certainly, but he ridicules Rousseau’s core idea that man’s natural state is one of rapturous unity with nature. For Schiller, the Hobbesian vision is more to the point. Man was in his earliest manifestation the prisoner of primitive drives and desires; he was moved by fear and hostility towards his environment and his fellow man. The long, slow process of civilization has been a process of sublimation of these drives through the establishment of a moral, then a legal code and order.

The Mosaic Mission
Schiller sees this clearly—in the history of ancient Greece, for instance, in its transition from a barbarous past with the specter of human sacrifice, to a period of brutal wars, to the gradual emergence of a notion of hospitality, to the classical age of Pericles. But more importantly, also in the annals of the Biblical world. With Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Gottfried Herder and others, he was consumed with a fascination for religious history. How, he asked, did Judaism emerge as the first monotheistic religion—was it the first? Was Christianity another natural evolution from that? Did this suggest that religious belief was not likely to be static, but rather something which would evolve?

Shortly after his inaugural lecture, this was to be one of Schiller’s earliest themes of research (“On the Mosaic Mission”). He came to a sharp focus on the period of the Egyptian captivity. The Biblical sources reflect that the Jews were not monotheistic before the passage to Egypt, but that they emerged from Egypt with a covenant with one God and the cognizable parameters of a religion. And Schiller postulates from this that the actual birth of monotheism would be found somewhere in Egypt; that it was imported out of Egypt back to Israel at the conclusion of the captivity, portrayed in such colorful and prophetic terms by the Biblical texts. This was an amazingly adventurous approach because Schiller had no basis for his thesis—he was making brilliant inferences from the available facts, but he had no direct evidence for it. Indeed, it would be more than a century before archaeologists would confirm that Schiller was correct: a monotheistic culture had arisen and bloomed in Egypt alongside of and in tension with the traditional religious system. Schiller’s notion that this formed the developmental matrix for Mosaic Judaism is now broadly accepted. But Schiller’s view of the core world-historical role of the Jews is often overlooked:

It is vital that we recognize the essential world-historical role of the Hebrew nation, that we see past all the petty and evil attempts at diminishment, to which this people is so accustomed; we must be just in our assessments.

The Central Questions
But this only serves to demonstrate that we are today the product of what has passed before us. Our individual and social connections to the past are critical, for without an understanding of them, we cannot understand ourselves. Thus history is the key to three questions: Where did we come from? Who are we? And where are we going? History, properly understood, affords no ultimate answers to any of these questions, but the constant process of asking, probing, learning and asking again is the only way by which man can move forward, surmounting his own limitations and foibles.

Even as we find ourselves, assembled together this evening, sharing certain bonds of a national culture, with its language and its moral values, its bourgeois prejudices, together with a certain measure of freedom of conscience—this is the result of a series of historical events which have preceded us: in a sense the totality of human history up to this point has been necessary in order to explain just this one moment.

But Schiller is not interested in a passive understanding. For him the historical is an important foundation for animating principles.

A noble longing must take hold of us, demanding that we look to our own means for a way to make our contribution, however modest, to the rich legacy of truth, morality and freedom which our predecessors have passed to us, and which we should, richly improved, make our contribution to this intransitory chain through which all of humankind is united, and in the process securing our fleeting existence.

History is therefore human history, the story of a great continuum of mankind. In a letter to his friend Ludwig Ferdinand Huber crafted a year earlier, Schiller had isolated three qualities which he felt would make for superior historiography. First, he valued a classical simplicity of exposition. In the conceptualization of the classical world that the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann has introduced to Europe, it valued a minimum of ornament—beauty was found in simplicity and clarity (Winckelmann had no idea, of course, that all those temples and statuary up on the Parthenon had been garishly painted in classical times.) Second, it required a laborious examination of the existing primary and secondary sources, and it required that this study be undertaken critically. And finally, and most importantly, it supposed a philosophical presentation, that is, that history must not be viewed as a simple chart of rulers and battles. Rather, special attention must be paid to the history of ideas and the role they play in animating people and their times.

Schiller and the Scottish Enlightenment
It is easy, I think, to see Schiller’s concept of world history as a logical development from predecessors, especially from Vico, Montesquieu, and then the philosophical historians with whom he stands in contemporaneous engagement: Mendelssohn, Lessing, Herder and Kant. However, the author of a fascinating new study of Schiller, Rüdiger Safranski, puts forward the thesis that there is a specific connection with the Edinburgh Enlightenment, and particularly David Hume and his less well known successor as librarian at the Faculty of Advocates, Adam Ferguson. Safranski has documented Schiller’s engagement with Ferguson and Hume during his time in a military school in Ludwigsburg, and his arguments are compelling—as is the totality of his book, Schiller oder die Erfindung des deutschen Idealismus. Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) is surely gloomier and more skeptical than Schiller’s writings, and reflects a decidedly more Calvinist conception of mankind’s abilities and destiny, but on the other hand, it does reflect many of the ideas later developed by Schiller.

Lycurgus, Philip II and Wallenstein: Three Variations on Tyrannical Personality
The historical approach sketched in Schiller’s inaugural lecture is not limited to history writing. In Schiller’s work it plays a focal role in drama, poems and other works. History informs art. In a sense what Schiller has done, especially in his dramatic works, is remarkably like Shakespeare—probably more than any other continental writer. He turns to history for a deeper understanding of complex personalities. But Schiller’s historical approach is far more impressive than the Bard’s—Schiller’s portraits are historically compelling as well as being psychologically masterful. Schiller is the philosopher-poet of freedom, but his most effective portraits are of tyrants, historical personages who are enemies of personal freedom. There are three portraits of particular appeal in this regard.

In an essay entitled “The Legislation of Lycurgus and Salon,” Schiller dissects the political culture of humankind’s first known totalitarian state, taking as a starting point the legends surrounding the Spartan king Lycurgus and his legal system. In this, Schiller sees the bitterest foe of human freedom.

Viewed in relation to its purposes, the legislation of Lycurgus is a masterpiece of political science and knowledge of human nature. He desired a powerful, unassailable start, firmly established on its own principles. Political effectiveness and permanence were the goal toward which he strove, and he attained this goal to the full extent possible under possible under the circumstances. But if one compares the purpose Lycurgus had in view with the purposes of mankind, then a deep abhorrence takes the place of the approbation which we felt at first glance. Anything may be sacrificed to the good of the state except that end for which the State serves as a means. The state is never an end in itself; it is important only as a condition under which the purpose of mankind can be attained, and this purpose is none other than the development of all man’s power, his progress and improvement. If a state prevents the development of the capacities which reside in man, if it interferes with the progress of the human spirit, then it is reprehensible and injurious, no matter how excellently devised, how perfect in its own way…
The state [of Lycurgus] could endure only under the one condition: that the spirit of the people remained quiescent. Hence it could be maintained only if it failed to achieve the highest, the sole purpose of a state.

The Spanish tyrant Philip II is arguably the most complex and brilliant of all of Schiller’s theatrical figures. He is portrayed dramatically in “Don Carlos,” perhaps the most important of Schiller’s plays, discussed in a series of philosophical essays and in an important review-essay. I have seen many performances of “Don Carlos” over the years, but the most masterful of all, and the most pathos-laden performance of Philip, was the one that Derek Jacoby brought to the London stage two years ago. Schiller is focused on the religious-conservative rationalization for human repression, an idea which reaches its peak in the famous scene with the Grand Inquisitor near the end of the play. This presentation knows only one near-equal in literature, which is Dostoyevsky’s reworking of the same concept in the Brothers Karamazov. But Schiller plums the depths of Philip’s character—what led to such remorseless repression? His analysis is an impressive classic:

Before observing his deeds, let us cast a brief glance into his soul and find there the key to his political life… He was no “people person,” because he never looked down from his Self, he looked only upwards. His faith was terrible and dark, because his God was a terrible creature. He had nothing more to receive from God, only to fear. To the lesser man, God may seem a comforter, a savior, but to him God was an image of anxieties, the painful and humiliating barrier to his human omnipotence. His awe in the face of God was all the more deep and internalized the less he shared it with other beings… Absolute rule is from the outset too strong a temptation for human pride, and too great a test for human power. The pursuit of happiness and the highest expanse of individual freedom may be paired with a great human spirit… But the goal of the despot… is uniformity, and to that end, human poverty and misery serve as essential means. Philip was therefore compelled to be still more of a despot than his father because his spirit was more constrained, or to put it differently, he was required to keep all the more anxiously to the accepted rules because he had been kept all the more distant from the companionship and ways of his fellow humans. And what did all this produce? For Philip the Second, there was no higher cause than the uniformity of faith and of the state, precisely because he would be unable to rule without them.


And finally we come to Wallenstein. This trilogy of plays is central to Schiller’s work. He is describing the birth of the modern European state system, the horror of religious warfare which gave rise to it. War may indeed be the father of many things, Schiller tells us, but those who launch wars in the expectation of the fulfillment of simple designs are fools. A powerful lesson for Americans and Britons today, lodged in a fool’s errand in the Middle East. Schiller reminds us of the essentially Saturnine and unpredictable quality of these wars. Horror and misery are certain; something positive may flow. But rarely if ever will it match human designs. And then he turns to the curious character of Wallenstein, the Bohemian nobleman who came to make princes, kings and emperors tremble, but who was himself the prisoner of remarkably primitive superstitions. With Wallenstein, Schiller issues a warning to posterity.

Beware of religious war, which knows no bounds and only brutality. Religious war breeds fanaticism, and fanaticism breeds violence with no conscience or limits. (Heads are rolling on the Place de la Concorde in Paris; is Schiller writing about the Thirty Years War—or is it the Revolution which is eating it own children, as Danton said?) Beware of the times when an old state system fails, when states go under and an old way of live falls to the wayside. This is the time of the opportunist, of the Wallenstein. He may offer a clear vision, a seeming dynamism—and this may be a great illusion. Is Wallenstein an example of human greatness? Or he is a simple opportunist? Schiller asks questions, compellingly. And his advice is that the only protection against the meteoric opportunist in time of crisis is skepticism—keep asking questions. Do not be taken in by charisma; least of all by charisma attached to power.

The Gospel of Freedom
And where is it all going, this pageant of history? We will never know the answer. But if we adhere rigidly to the truth, to a quest for the truth, Schiller tells us, we will move forward. The quality of our lives will improve in some ways; we will begin to approach freedom.

We live in an age in which prominent political figures toss the word “freedom” about continuously; the current occupant of the White House used it in a major address 28 times in 5 minutes. But most often the conduct of politicians reveals this as a political slogan denuded of serious content. For Schiller, freedom has a political, a philosophical and an aesthetical aspect. But it requires balance, the avoidance of extreme formulations, a recognition of human limits. Freedom implies obligations, to fellow man and to society. It requires a republican form of government built upon respect for fundamental rights of all citizens (Schiller is in the end a revolutionary–even as he felt the French Revolution went off the tracks, he greatly admired America’s).

It requires righteousness, namely that man treat his fellows with dignity and respect. It requires laws which are enlightened and fair, and accepted by society as such. It requires, critically, a strong sense of justice and political leaders who rigorously adhere to this. But in the end, freedom is an ideal and as such always ultimately beyond the grasp of humans. What counts therefore is having a clear concept of this ideal, and moving earnestly to achieve it.

For my friend and mentor Fritz Stern, who understands history much as Schiller did, and who brought the spirit of history back to the University of Jena in the spring of 2007.

More from