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A Usable Past

A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History

Copyright Date: 1990
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    A Usable Past
    Book Description:

    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 Pastis 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 inA Usable Pastare 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91014-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    The title of this collection is derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.”¹ 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...


    • 1 The Two Faces of Humanism: Stoicism and Augustinianism in Renaissance Thought
      (pp. 19-73)

      Recent emphasis, stemming primarily from the work of P. O. Kristeller, on the central importance of rhetoric for Renaissance humanism, has enabled us to understand the underlying unity of a singularly complex movement; and it has proved singularly fruitful for Renaissance scholarship. At the same time, since this approach depends on the identification of a kind of lowest common denominator for humanism, it may also have the unintended effect of reducing our perception of its rich variety and thus of limiting our grasp of its historical significance. I should like, accordingly, to begin with Kristeller’s fundamental insight, but then to...

    • 2 Changing Assumptions in Later Renaissance Culture
      (pp. 74-96)

      The familiar notion of a “later” Renaissance immediately presents itself as an innocent effort at chronological arrangement, as a convenience for determining relationships in time. But of course it is much more. It calls upon us to distinguish the differing characteristics of successive moments, to trace a process of development from inception to maturity and possibly on to decline; and it introduces the complicated problem of the relations between Italy and the Northern Renaissance.¹ It is thus closely connected with one of the most fruitful tendencies in all aspects of modern Renaissance scholarship: the effort to distinguish stages in a...

    • 3 The Venetian Interdict and the Problem of Order
      (pp. 97-111)

      Central to the great upheavals marking the transition between the medieval and the modern world were profound disagreements about the nature of order, whether in the social and political realm, in the church, in the cosmos, or in the exalted spheres of metaphysics. High medieval culture, broadly speaking, had tended toward a unified and hierarchical conception of order which assigned to all men, experiences, places, things, and ideas their appropriate positions in a vast, graded system of values. Conversely the attack on medieval civilization at its deepest level, operating simultaneously in both the material and ideal realms, was directed at...

    • 4 The Secularization of Society in the Seventeenth Century
      (pp. 112-128)

      The subject of this report may, on first inspection, have an excessively familiar look. Secularization, like the rise of the middle class with which it is often associated,¹ has served for generations to describe a process perceived as crucial to the emergence of the modern world. It has not, however, occupied a very prominent or general place in studies dealing with the seventeenth century; hence this paper may be an opportunity to take a fresh look at a number of problems, among them the place assigned to the seventeenth century in recent historical thought. On this point I will observe...

    • 5 Lawyers and Early Modern Culture
      (pp. 129-154)

      Although European historians have increasingly recognized the impact of large-scale change or significant events on human culture, they have paid little attention to the importance of the less dramatic aspects of social experience for shaping the attitudes of men. The result has been, for most of us, a schism between social and intellectual history that has impoverished both. As Frederic C. Lane has reminded us, the routine tasks of daily life are likely to impress those engaged in them with a profound sense of what the world and especially men are like and to produce patterns of expectation and systems...


    • 6 Anxiety and the Formation of Early Modern Culture
      (pp. 157-189)

      All men may be anxious; but it is commonly observed that some are more anxious than others, both individually and in groups. It is widely believed, for example, that our own age is a time of peculiar anxiety.¹ But though this impression may derive less from the considered views of professional historians than from the general distress of the later twentieth century, it is obviously a historical judgment; it implies that various moments in the past can be contrasted in terms of the degree of anxiety they exhibit.

      But systematic elaboration of such contrast is difficult. “Anxiety” is itself a...

    • 7 The Politics of Commynes
      (pp. 190-208)

      A major problem for the historian of political thought in the period of the Renaissance is to trace the transition from the religious, idealistic, or constitutional ideas of the Middle Ages to the secular, realistic, or absolutist views of the early modern era.¹ A decade ago Felix Gilbert discussed this problem in connection with humanist political thought and its background in Italian political conditions.² But this evolution in political ideas was not confined to Italy, and this article proposes to examine the process in a writer from across the Alps, Philippe de Commynes.

      Commynes has certain advantages as a case...

    • 8 Postel and the Significance of Renaissance Cabalism
      (pp. 209-224)

      One of the most extraordinary and yet obscure currents in the intellectual history of the Renaissance was the interest of Christian thinkers in the Jewish cabala. This concern extended from Pico’s attempt to absorb cabala into a Christian synthesis of universal knowledge at the end of the fifteenth century well into the seventeenth, and included writers and scholars from every major European country. Yet, in spite of the wide distribution of cabalistic interest in both time and space, the problem of explaining the movement, in the sense of relating it to the general concerns of its historical setting, has not...

    • 9 Renaissance and Reformation: An Essay on Their Affinities and Connections
      (pp. 225-246)

      Since the peculiar mixture of responsibility and presumption in the title of my paper will scarcely have escaped the notice of this distinguished audience, I feel some need to explain at the outset that it represents an assignment on the part of those who planned our meeting. The significance of the problems to which it points is suggested by the great historians who have grappled with it in the past, albeit (a fact that should constitute something of a warning) with somewhat contrary results, among them Michelet, Dilthey, and Troeltsch.¹ Its practical importance lies in the need of most of...

    • 10 Venice, Spain, and the Papacy: Paolo Sarpi and the Renaissance Tradition
      (pp. 247-265)

      Although Paolo Sarpi is one of the great figures of the seventeenth century, not only of Italy, but of all Europe, and although many historians, Italian and non-Italian, have studied his career and thought, he remains an enigma and a subject of controversy. It is true that we have good editions of his most important writings and an increasing body of information concerning his life and surroundings. Yet there is still no satisfactory general work on Sarpi, nor is there any generally accepted interpretation of his personality, his thought, and his purposes.

      In the past, attempts to interpret his career...

    • 11 Venice and the Political Education of Europe
      (pp. 266-292)

      Renaissance Florence has long been considered the origin in European history of a concern with politics as an autonomous study. Faced with the problems of governing a turbulent but independent republic, anxious to insure her survival in a precarious world that seemed to be ruled only by power, and nourished by the rediscovered political culture of antiquity, thoughtful Florentines, in a process that reached a climax with Machiavclli and Guicciardini, began to articulate realistic principles of political effectiveness and to define its limits. In this sense Florence contributed to the education of modern Europe as a congeries of particular powers,...


    • 12 Three Types of Historiography in Post-Renaissance Italy
      (pp. 295-307)

      Italy between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries was not a unity in any significant respect, but, perhaps even more than in the preceding age, only a collection of localities differing widely in economic and social structure, political organization, traditions, culture, and speed and direction of development. Profitable discussion of Italian affairs in this period must therefore make careful distinctions of place. This caveat is, indeed, particularly true for the period following the Peace of Bologna, early in 1530, which brought to an end the Italian phase of the Hapsburg-Valois wars; it marked the conclusion of a long ordeal which,...

    • 13 Gallicanism and the Nature of Christendom
      (pp. 308-324)

      Over forty years ago Lueien Febvre insisted on the crucial importance of distinguishing betweenreligiousandecclesiasticalhistory, between powerful spiritual movements related to the major currents of European social and political development and the particular events and institutional forms through which, almost incidentally, they may find expression. The Reformation, in Febvre’s perspective, was thus a movement of European scope that brought into focus, in areas destined to stay Catholic as well as in those that broke away from the medieval church, tendencies that had been gathering force for centuries. The problem for the historian, he suggested, was to identify...

    • 14 The Waning of the Middle Ages Revisited
      (pp. 325-335)

      We have come a long way since Bury informed us so firmly that history is a science, no more and no less. Historiography has now become so various and eclectic that it is often difficult to see it as the expression of any specific discipline; historians today seem to be united only by some common concern with the past and by a common allegiance, at least in principle, to respect for evidence, the exercise of critical intelligence, and openness of mind. They differ, on the whole amicably, about the questions they ask; and in answering these questions they draw freely...

    • 15 From History of Ideas to History of Meaning
      (pp. 336-347)

      Intellectual history, until recently, was regarded with particular respect. It was probably the most interdisciplinary area of historical study and therefore seemed both unusually demanding and unusually prestigious. It was considered important. But during the last two decades, the impression has grown among historians that the kinds of material likely to be studied by intellectual historians are not very useful for telling us what we most need to know about the past.¹

      As those of us who scrutinize the small number of job listings for our students have observed, intellectual history seems now to be considered less essential to the...

    • 16 The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History
      (pp. 348-366)

      I should like to discuss a remarkable historiographical event—an event so recent that it may have escaped general notice, yet of considerable importance both for historians and for the larger culture of which we are a part. This event is the collapse of the traditional dramatic organization of Western history. We have long depended upon it, as inhabitants of the modern world, to put the present into some distant temporal perspective and, as professional historians pursuing our particular investigations, to provide us with some sense of how the various fields of history are related to each other as parts...


    • 17 Models of the Educated Man
      (pp. 369-384)

      Those of us who are troubled by the confusion in contemporary education, perhaps especially if we continue to believe in a liberal or general education, are sometimes tempted to look to the past for guidance. But the lessons of history are rarely unambiguous. For one thing, its messages are various. Like Scripture, it can generally be made to support what we want it to support; and in the case of education, the Western cultural tradition incorporates not just one but a whole scries of educational ideals, which rest on quite different assumptions and point in different directions. Beyond this, however,...

    • 18 Socrates and the Confusion of the Humanities
      (pp. 385-396)

      The impression that the humanities are now in special trouble—perhaps even, as we sometimes say, in a “crisis”—is widespread among teachers in the traditional humanistic disciplines, and it is doubtless true that we have immediate grounds for concern. After a period of remarkable expansion and exuberance in higher education, when there were students enough for us all, enrollments are declining; and students, worried about the future, seem to be drifting into programs better designed to prepare them for jobs than anything we have to offer. This essay is directed, however, not to this immediately distressing situation, but to...

    • 19 Christian Adulthood
      (pp. 397-418)

      The elasticity of Christianity, as it has accommodated itself to two thousand years of cultural change, is well known; and it poses special problems for the identification of a peculiarly “Christian” conception of what it means to be an adult. It is also likely to make any attempt at such definition seem arbitrary. I shall nevertheless try to show in this essay that Christianity does contain a characteristic conception of healthy human maturity, but to do so it will be necessary to distinguish between what I shall callhistoricalandnormativeChristianity. Historical Christianity reflects the composite of those cultural...

  9. V. CODA

    • 20 The History Teacher as Mediator
      (pp. 421-430)

      It is a curious reflection on the historical profession that I have only once been invited to express my views about the teaching of history. There is something distinctly odd about this. Our society, after all, supports us not simply because we are historians, but primarily because we areteachersof history. It does so on the assumption that we are the guardians, not simply of a professional discipline, but of something that, in a deep sense, belongs to society itself, something precious and even essential to its life, with which we have been entrusted not only to preserve and...

  10. Index
    (pp. 431-445)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 446-446)