Nietzsche “On the use and abuse of history for life”

Nietzsche divides “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” into 10 sections. I summarize and comment on the forward and first six sections here. Yet, before I begin, I think it will be useful to contextualize this text. This work was written in 1873, two years after the German Empire was formed under the leadership of Otto Von Bismarck and his authoritarian practice known as realpolitik. Realpolitik was a political practice that took practical actions to secure national interests with little regard for the ideological principles, morals and ethics of the populace. Under Bismarck’s rule, Germany became a leading industrial power. Bismarck also attempted to engender a German national culture under the Prussian ideology. According to Christian Emden’s 2006 article titled “Toward a Critical Historicism: History and Politics in Nietzsche’s Second ‘Untimely Meditation,’” specific historical foundation myths, exemplified by a multitude of public monuments and commemorations in the 1870s, played a significant role in developing the public and political imagination of a new German state. Understanding this intellectual context in which Nietzsche crafted “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” helps us understand some of the specific allusions he makes in his text and the reasons why he feels so strongly about the need to be leary of history used for nationalistic purposes that do not serve the best interests of people living in the present.

Link to Edmend’s article:

  • http://journals.cambridge.org.libezproxy2.syr.edu/download.php?file=%2FMIH%2FMIH3_01%2FS1479244305000582a.pdf&code=8c5ace9f6cfdba81d36eebf438633b36
  • Warning: Long summary ahead. Skip to end for questions I think would be interesting to blog about…

    In the first six sections of “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” Nietzsche explores the worth and worthlessness of history and argues that history must serve the interests of the living. Nietzsche begins by reminding his reader about the role both remembering and forgetting play in the lives of individuals, communities, and cultures. He claims that because we must use the past for living and make history out of what has happened in order to become a person, to live as a person, we must not abuse historical knowledge. We need to understand the role the unhistorical and super-historical can play in maintaining a contemporary life that isn’t a slave to historicism. There is power to forgetting the past and not taking history to seriously. Nietzsche values history but claims we must not be slaves to it.

    Much history, according to Nietzsche, is told through the method of monumentalism and antiquarianism and criticism.

    I. The Monumental Method

    Those who find no inspiration in daily life look to history—monumentalize it—for inspiration and motivation; they use it as a driving force in other words. Political historians employ this method often. They claim to monumentalize history for the good of collective. By building monuments for instance, we are proclaiming: We will be great by making greatness exist once again! Greatness perseveres! Live by example and we shall excel!

    Nietzsche asks, however, can the past truly be replicated by monumentalizing? Can the greatness that once was become again in same fashion? Not unless we distort the past in order to gain the same effect (6). What we do when we try to relive the past or to recreate the cause to invoke the same great effect is really just attempt to revive the effects. For to repeat the cause that lead to the effect in past is impossible to duplicate. There is no repeating history. And when we try to repeat history, all we end up doing is destroying history through distortion, alteration, reinterpretation….all we end up really doing is creating a mythic fiction, especially if we create a monumental history without antiquarian or critical methods. For “monumental history deceived through its analogies” (6).

    Thought –provoking quote:

    “monumental history is the theatrical costume in which they pretend that their hate for the powerful and the great of their time is a fulfilling admiration for the strong and the great of past times. In this, through disguise they invert the real sense of that method of historical observation into its opposite…Their motto: let the dead bury the living” (7).

    III. The Antiquarian Method

    The antiquarian is the one who admires the past and wants to preserve it. He looks back at the amazing lives of the past and feels part of that great history. He inherits the virtues of the past; he is tradition embodied. Nietzsche says the most valued type of the antiquarian way of doing history is the one who reveres the modest past and the simple life. For they as heirs of the noblest past have a “real historical sense” (8). But this type of history that is performed to serve life and drive life forward is also problematic. That problem is that when one admires and tries to preserve the past, the antiquarian is looking back on the past with rose colored lenses because of a “restricted field of vision” (8). Also, the antiquarian “assigns to the things of the past no difference in value and proportion which would distinguish things form each other fairly, but measures things by the proportions of the antiquarian individual or people looking back into the past” (8).

    What is also of consequence is that things of past have greater value than things of present. “When the sense of a people is hardened like this, when history serves the life of the past in such a way that it buries further living, especially higher living, when the historical sense no longer conserves life, but mummifies it, then the tree dies unnaturally, from the top gradually down to the roots themselves are generally destroyed” (8).
    Furthermore, Nietzsche claims the antiquarian may know how to preserve life, but she certainly doesn’t know how to generate life, as she always undervalues what is emergent. It paralyzes the present with reluctance to replace the old with the new (9).

    This is why the critical method must accompany the monumental and antiquarian methods of historiography: condemnation of past is useful for the present. Yet, just because we destroy the admirable past does not mean we cannot escape the past; for we derive from the past (9). Nonetheless, to be critical gives us the chance to “give oneself, as it were, a past a posteriori (after the fact), out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended” (9). We create a second nature of ourselves and in doing so, we come to realize that “first nature was at one time or another once the second nature and that every victorious second nature becomes a first nature” (9). In other words, if I am interpreting this correctly, by being critical of the past, by widening our historical glance to find the “bad” as well as the “good,” which is our second nature, being critical will be the first nature of the next generation. We pass on the habit of critique rather than blind antiquarian fantasies. We take off the rose colored glasses in hopes of the next generation living a better life—one that is critical and healthy.

    IV

    To use history to serve the living, we must practice all three kinds of history but not for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge. Nor can we practice history as a science. In modern culture, Nietzsche says, to be educated one must have historical knowledge, cultural knowledge. Yet though modern educated man has inner knowledge of history does not make us “civilized” in our actions. We live in an era when we can ignore the atrocities and injustices of the present just as long as we are “cultured” through historical education. The consequence is a split between our inner and outer selves. We have lost our integrity at the expense of becoming “educated” (10).

    Nietzsche expresses his frustrations with modern German life—its conventionality, apathy, imitation, immediate gratification, mass consumption and production, contentment based on the “perfect” form with a weak inner life even though the educated seem to project strong inner knowledge. German thought and feelings may seem noble, but actions do not reflect much inner wisdom. He fears that “Germans feel abstractedly; we have all been corrupted by history” (11). Rather than seek political reunification, we should be seeking “the unity of German spirit and life after the destruction of the opposition of form and content, of the inner life and convention” (11).

    V

    Nietzsche identifies five dangers of supersaturated historical age:

    1. as already explored, Inner/outer conflict; 2. weakened personality; perpetuated fantasy of culture’s self-righteousness; 3. individual progress hindered as their instincts are disrupted; 4. old age of history take root, proliferation of belief that we are late arrivals; 5. cynicism leads to egotistical practices, which stunts forces of life.

    Nietzsche describes the weakened personality as—loss of instinct, rise of timidity; self-doubt; too much scholarship disconnected from social reality creates a life of abstraction; we mask ourselves as professors, politicians, scholars, poets. We are no longer free; only “anxiously disguised universal people”; loss of individuality; what good is common culture based on masquerades and lies? Loss of humanity; instead we become “thinking, speaking, writing machines” (12). One consequence is that “history itself remains perfectly objective and protected by precisely the sort of people who could never create history themselves….” (12). Furthermore, “the historical education of our critics no longer permits an influence on our real, understanding, namely an influence of life and action” (13). Criticism never stops and only leads to more criticism (13). Objective science destroys history’s ability to shape real life.

    very interesting line: “In this excess of their critical ejaculations, in the lack of control over themselves, i whaqt the Romans call impotentia [impotence], the weakness of the modern personality reveals itself”

    VI

    In this section, Neitzsche explores the empirical practice of writing objective histories. He claims that objective historiography is claimed to be just but declares that objectivity and just “have nothing to do with each other” (14). He deplores how historians claim that they are representing history from an objective indifferent stance. He claims “You can interpret the past only on the basis of the highest power of the present. Only in the strongest tension of your noblest characteristics will you surmise what from the past is great and worth knowing and preserving” (15). “The person of experience and reflection writes history” (16).

    Many questions are raised in this text concerning social history:

    How can we write social histories without falling victim to some of the pitfalls of monumental and antiquarian methods of doing history?

    Nietzsche obviously is bothered by the role empirical science and positivism is beginning to play in history. He seems concerned that scientific historical knowledge is shaping modern culture more than religion and art, which have been condemned to the subjective realm.
    In doing so, he creates a binary between science and history. What ramifications does the binary have on social history today? How is science related to social history? DeCerteau says history is scientific because writing history “establishes a ‘governance in nature’ in a way than concerns the relation of the past to the present” (72). What governance in nature will we create in writing social histories? What do we do with the awareness that we are establishing a governance?

    The issue of weighing the value of certain histories seems to be an important concern of Nietzsches. It is also an important matter for social history. How do we decide what histories to uncover? Are there certain social histories that deserve to be told more than others? That have greater value in our contemporary daily lives? What is our measuring stick? What should it be? DeCerteau asks this same question in his text.

    Thinking in terms of feminist geography in relation to social histories and Nietzsche’s point about the problem of restricted visions when researching and writing history, where do we draw the borders in researching and writing about social histories? Do we have a responsibility to connect local social histories with regional, national, or global political, economic, and social conditions? Why or why not? This question seems important; what Nietzsche seems to be advocating is a rhetorical understanding of history’s role in creating an imagined national community.

    What role would Nietzsche see scholarship in action play in the life/career of a historian?
    Would that help us avoid becoming “thinking, speaking, and writing machines”?

    Do objectivity and justice really have nothing to do with each other as Niezsche writes? Or does he set up a binary that needs complicating?

    Nietzsche says “the person of experience and reflection writes history.” Can we write histories from our desks? Is searching the archives enough to “accurately” represent social history or any history? What other experience(s) are necessary for writing social history? DeCerteau addresses the institutional control that archives exert. How are archives different from the bank of historical knowledge gathered in order to secure national interests? How do archives shape the public imagination? Whose interests do the archives serve?

    In section five, there is a very interesting passage. Nietzsche writes that history is a “race of eunachs” and that then goes on to say that ” and since the eternally feminie is never attracted to you, then you pull it down to yourselves and assume, since you are neuters, that history is also a neuter too.” In reviewing this passage, what do you make of this gendered discourse??

    Just some questions to think about…..Anyone out there??? It’s 3:30am….

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    41 Comments

    Filed under historiography exam

    41 responses to “Nietzsche “On the use and abuse of history for life”

    1. Hey L –
      I was reading this last night, too (though I didn’t quite make it to 3:30am, you animal!)…
      I’ll be blogging from where you’ve left off…
      In the meantime – I too was VERY intrigued by the gender discussion that appears for about a paragraph – which is followed directly by a discussion of history as a force that naturalizes harmony (p.32 in my printout). These two points give way to a discussion of historians as creators of generalities… which leads to a huge claim:
      “You can interpret the past only on the basis of the highest power of the present” (33). My question – how are these claims meant to progressively support this attention to power negotiations? So interesting to me that this section (section 6) links these ideas together spatially but not analytically.

    2. zstuckey

      Do objectivity and justice really have nothing to do with each other as Niezsche writes? Or does he set up a binary that needs complicating?–I asked a similar question. Of course! Complicate, collapse the binary. This issue of “justice” is already so complicated. Justice for whom? For Plato, justice meant something so different than what it means for us. For Plato, slavery was just. Class distinction was just so and so forth. Is there such a thing as objective justice? An essential quality of justice–like human rights and dignity for all! I know, this is an old discussion but I never feel finished with it. It brings up the question: what do we post-modernist do with social justice issues that require essential categories?

      In the likes of Laurie and Trish’s comment about gender, I wanted to point out the issue of Nietzche’s depiction of history as illness (oh, also i love his phrase “history as depiction”). Nietzche writes, “We, the historically ill.” What are the implications of pathologizing the way we do history?

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    4. Eileen E. Schell

      I found this to be an amazing summary and synthesis. I’ll be curious to see what we make of his categories monumental, antiquarian and critical histories in relation to the rhetorical histories we will read this term. My sense is that we have had all three types of histories in the field.

      I appreciate the context you have provided on Nietzsche’s Germany. I also think it’s worth examining what history and historiography look like from the vantage point of philosophy.

    5. The way in which N speaks about monumental history and monuments is interesting. The erection of monuments or monumentalizing in general, in his mind, indicate the memorialization of a great moment in the past. Through this monumentalization, we relive this great moment, and it provides us with the motivation to create/strive for more “greatness” in the present/future. He asks (via Laurie), can the past truly be replicated by monumentalizing? He says no because it distorts and destroys history. The idea of monumentalizing in this case is problematic. Ok, yes, I’ll buy that doing so is not a reproduction of exactly what happened, and yes, monumentalizing can distort or alter or reinterpret history. But who in the hell’s history is he talking about? Who’s to say what exactly happened, and whom it happened to? And how can history be interpreted in one way, and more importantly, how can monuments or material objects that signify the past be interpreted in one way? And do all monuments depict greatness? Can’t and don’t monuments or material objects serve as sites for voices that have been silenced in History (with a capital H)? I see monumentalizing as a critical method in itself, not in the way that N talks about it, but literally as a representation of a critical exploration of History, and a contribution to rethinking about the past not for the Collective, but for a community.
      On that note, what does N mean by critical method. Is this a method of forgetting? If so, why do we want to forget? What histories get to stay? And who determines all of this? And why must we use this lens with using the monumental and antiquarian lens? Do these defined categories work as ways to explore methods? Isn’t history in general borderless?

    6. What does it mean to do “critical history” in light of later ideas in N about “historical justice”? N argues that focusing on history as a restorative practice on reifies or dismantles it; therefore historical justice is argued to unravel the present. At the same time N spends a really short rift talking about doing history as a “creative art”… How are all of these concepts at play in a way that might explain/support N’s claims about objectivity, subjectivity, and retrospective thinking?

    7. Monica

      Great blog

    8. Heh I’m honestly the first reply to this incredible read?

    9. Biljana

      A very good analysis of Nietzsche’s thoughts on history can be found in Hayden White’s Metahistory. By monumental history N assumes presenting examples of heroes from the past. Curiously, I find that monumental and antiquarian methods of viewing history are overlapping in terms of remembering, whereas critical history aims at forgetting.

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    12. Kayce Basques

      You said: “In other words, if I am interpreting this correctly, by being critical of the past, by widening our historical glance to find the “bad” as well as the “good,” which is our second nature, being critical will be the first nature of the next generation. We pass on the habit of critique rather than blind antiquarian fantasies.”

      I interpreted that differently, or I am misunderstanding your use of habit (if you meant “an acquired, almost involuntary behavior pattern” then we have the same interpretation). Rather than the habit of the critique, the critique itself becomes the new nature; hence the second nature becomes the first nature. An example would be that condemnation of racism was once a second nature, voiced only by a small critical minority, and now it is the norm.

      Your article was great. Very lucid and concise and strikes some interesting questions. I am going to revisit this in a few days with some comments and questions of my own.

    13. Anonymous

      Rather a puerile set of observations. You have rather a long way to go….

    14. Anonymous

      what do you think of Ns view of modernity, and what do you think of his solution for it?

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    40. Hey – this helped a bunch in getting through the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.

      Thanks!

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