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On the Usefulness and Disadvantage of History for Life , by Friedrich Nietzsche

Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben - Friedrich Nietzsche

Between 1872, when his first book Die Geburt der Tragödie appeared, and 1876, when he left the University of Basel to write in Italy, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote an enormous amount of prose, most of which he did not bring to a satisfactory completion. However, he did publish, singly, a series of short books/pamphlets he called Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Untimely Considerations), which at one point he had projected to include as many as 21 parts. In the end, he published 4.

It is of note that during the manic phases of his manic-depressive cycles he viewed these publications as a process of tearing down the many aspects of 19th century life he hated, a clearing away of encrustations to enable him to see clearly the visions he knew were going to come (he already had intimations of them, but these he kept in his notebooks and did not publish).

One of the Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen I find interesting is Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben (On the Usefulness and Disadvantage of History for Life).(*) For Nietzsche historians' history was one of these encrustations which had to be chipped away. As one of my esteemed GRamazon friends has pointed out in a review of this book, in the early 21st century almost nobody knows or gives a damn about (historians') history, so now Nietzsche would be preaching to the choir. Of course, precisely the same people wouldn't give a damn about Nietzsche, either.

In view of the fact that the word "historicism" has been used in a dozen mutually contradictory ways since Karl Popper took up the word (and incorrectly ascribed his meaning of the word to Hegel), I won't use it. I doubt the word has any fixed meaning now, except in the discourse of certain schools of adepts among each other. I have read claims that in this text Nietzsche made the first criticism of historicism. Maybe, if you search around in the many meanings of that word, this could even be true. But what did he actually say?

He begins by explaining why both forgetting and remembering are necessary for mankind. Why remembering the right things at the right times is necessary is clear; but he sees forgetting the past and entering fully into the moment are necessary both to experience happiness and to act. Mankind needs history - memory - but not too much.

He then distinguishes three kinds of history, which he calls the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical. The first is necessary for the doers and the mighty, in order for them to learn from the past acts and examples of similar men. And this is good for life because only such men can make changes for the better (he says). Nietzsche sees in this kind of history something eternal and über-historical (manifestations of Greatness, of Genius), and this almost immediately after distancing himself from über-historical thinkers who see the eternal in every moment (a point of view he seems to associate with Eastern thought). This is curious because it is evident from the longing in his description of these mighty doers (and from his other writings) that he wants to be among them; he also uses almost the same language in describing the disdain both feel for their own bodies. I suppose he views the "Eastern" kind as passive and inactive, and those attributes he finds repugnant.

However, a focus on this one kind of history, while good for the small number of powerful doers, is bad for history and most everyone else - it reduces history to a few special cases surrounding a few special men and leads to illusions and false analogies. We all know how this kind of history has been misused.

The antiquarian history is that of the conservatives and the pious - those who look with faithful love to whence they came and wish to preserve that for those who will follow. This is the history for almost everyone (for the "less gifted" as he says); this is the history of Blut und Boden; this is the history which keeps most people contentedly in one place, preventing dissatisfied searches for greener pastures which would lead to conflict. (Except that it didn't always, as we know all too well.)

This kind of history is too narrow, too provincial, too limited in ways we are all so well aware of that I will leave it at that.

The critical history is not what one would expect. It is not the history of the critical, judging intellectual, far from it. It is the critical, judging history of life itself, which, right or wrong, just or not, puts an end to everything that emerges into existence, whether it be an individual, a mountain, or the Roman Empire. Of course, this critical history can manifest itself through the actions of men. It is necessary for renewal, though he finds the renewal to be generally weaker than the healthy form of the original, at least in the case of human societies.

Clearly, critical history is harmful where it is not absolutely needed.

One must admit that this is an idiosyncratic division of history into types. These types of history all serve life, though they can also hurt it, as mentioned. But all are to be contrasted with the history of the historian, whose science has stepped between life and history and cut their bonds. Here Nietzsche is revisiting in some detail a thesis he already touched upon in Die Geburt der Tragödie: science and its concomitant abstraction have sucked the lifeblood, the instincts, out of modern man. He is skinning just one of their manifestations in this text, the history of the historian, but he is whetting his knife for them all. 

He details five ways this history is inimical and dangerous to life: it weakens personality through overexposure to foreign cultures and history (I should have about zero personality by now, if this thesis is correct); it gives the illusion that the current culture has the greatest virtue and justice; the instincts are destroyed and both the individual and the whole cannot fully ripen; it gives the illusion that one is late-born, that one is an epigone; it leads mankind into self-irony, cynicism and egotism.(**) He gives a lengthy discussion of each of these points, taking the opportunity to knee many of his most despised objects - bureaucrats, functionaries, contemporary philosophers, historians' pretensions to objectivity, etc. - in the groin.

Reading over the other reviews of this book, it is clear that each reader has his own Nietzsche. I don't agree with many of his philosophical opinions, and I abhor his cult of genius. But then I am an early 21st century intellectual who has willingly, nay gleefully saturated himself with history and foreign cultures and is disdainful of the antiquarian history into which he was born. I am his Flachkopf made corporeal. And yet I still am reading his texts, because, as I briefly indicated in another review, Nietzsche went where no one else before him went, and he never came back. He went there with a megalomaniacal verve and an astounding prose style. Some of the things he told us on the way are valuable; the course of his travels to wherever he went is fascinating. 

A word concerning Nietzsche's prose style: In this text Nietzsche jettisons the purple Romantic prose of his previous writings and offers us something closely approximating his mature style - a fluid, flexible, eloquent prose strongly influenced by Greco-Roman writers. For in this and all subsequent texts Nietzsche is not writing for an academic audience, but rather for a general educated readership, as did those earlier writers. And as they did, Nietzsche tries to make his points to such a audience by telling little stories, using extended metaphors, etc. He even uses a quote from Jonathan Swift to generate a belly laugh and to reduce a target ad absurdum. When he starts going on about the "German soul" or about how his ideas are manly and those of the objects of his criticism are feminine, my eyes begin to glaze over, but, otherwise, even when I object to the content, he holds my attention beautifully.


(*) This book has been translated into English under at least two different titles: On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life and On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. I suppose the translators wanted to have a certain parallelism in their titles which Nietzsche did not have in his - he went with alliteration.

(**) Is it not the case that nearly every one of these is manifested in our age, an age in which history, insofar as it is known to the general public at all, is known only under the guise of monumental, antiquarian or critical history? And if this is true, then what is left of the criticism Nietzsche levels at historians' history?