The Seed of All Thought: Nietzsche’s “The Uses and Disadvantages of History For Life” By Barry Stephenson

VOLUME IX, ISSUES I & II, FALL 2015 – SPRING 2016


If this book [Genealogy of Morals] is incomprehensible to anyone and jars on his ears, the fault, it seems to me, is not necessarily mine. It is clear enough, assuming, as I do
assume, that one has first read my earlier writings and not spared some trouble in doing
so: for they are, indeed, not easy to penetrate (GM, Preface, § 8).

Continuities. If one takes the above epigraph seriously, plunging at random into Nietzsche’s corpus is the wrong move indeed. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style and not always clear organization seem to support a reading that dives in and out of his various works. But Nietzsche does claim continuity to his thought and work, suggesting that to understand him we ought to read him as he wished to be read, from beginning to end. My concern here then is with the early Nietzsche, specifically the second of his four Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” (HL). Written almost two years after The Birth of Tragedy, HL is a far less journalistic piece than the first “untimely meditation” on David Strauss, and develops an issue that Nietzsche had been intensely wrestling with at the time, namely, the “question of whether historical knowledge is a good or bad thing.” My aim is to demonstrate continuities in Nietzsche’s corpus. The central concerns and ideas commonly associated with Nietzsche’s mature thought—the death of God, the will to power, the eternal recurrence, the übermensch, the revaluation of values—these are each present in HL in seed form. A demonstration of the continuities between HL and Nietzsche’s later thought aids our understanding and appreciation of Nietzsche’s later works; moreover, a demonstration of these continuities refutes postmodern approaches to reading Nietzsche. A second, related aim is to zero-in on the seemingly simple phrase in the title of Nietzsche’s essay, ‘for Life.’ The evaluative criterion Nietzsche offers for judging historical studies in HL is the degree to which the historian “serves life,” and this evaluative standard becomes a leitmotif running through Nietzsche’s works. It is not, however, at all obvious what Nietzsche means by “for life.” I shall argue that Nietzsche’s demand in HL that history serve life prefigures and is continuous with Nietzsche’s imperative in his later works (such as the Gay Science and Ecce Homo) that “One Becomes What One Is.”

History and Identity. Nietzsche’s meditation on the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is concerned with our relationship to the past. Nietzsche is clearly on the attack in this essay, and his target is historicism, the pride and quintessence of nineteenth-century German intellectual life and thought. Historical studies in Nietzsche’s day were rooted in a zeal for the discovery of truth (equated with what “really” happened), coupled with a strong distaste for subjectivity. A central claim of historicism was that the nature or essence of an individual, a nation, or a culture should be embodied in—or identified with—its history; hence the view that the identity of cultural phenomena can only be revealed through a careful, detailed historical contextualization. In HL, Nietzsche argues against this historicist tradition of locating a sense of individual and cultural identity in the gaze into the mirror of the past. Anchoring ourselves in the past does not provide us with a foundation for a healthy life; on the contrary, Nietzsche wants to argue, the purely historical glance robs us of a life-affirming relationship to the world. “We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate—a phenomenon we are forced to acknowledge, painful though it may be, in the face of striking symptoms of our age” (HL, Foreword). For Nietzsche, the search for a life-enhancing identity is not a question of submitting to the enclosing horizon of history, but rather of transcending this historical horizon by creating horizons of one’s own. Nietzsche thus distinguishes three attitudes (or “senses”) toward the past—the historical, the unhistorical, and the suprahistorical—along with three modes of conducting historical study—the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. A judicious balance between these attitudes and modes will set one in the proper relation to history, and history will thereby serve life, rather than strangulate it.

The historical sense is an awareness of the past as a formative influence on identity and culture. The historical is necessary for life; if we failed to remember the past we would be paralyzed and would have to constantly relearn the simplest of tasks and endlessly revisit painful mistakes. But Nietzsche sees “an excess of history” as problematic; preoccupation with historical research limits creative potential and the ability to make decisions. What is needed is the “ability to forget,” which is what Nietzsche means by the “unhistorical.” If we could not forget the past, we would be forever incapacitated to deal with present circumstances. We need to learn “to forget at the right time” and to “remember at the right time.” Nietzsche emphasizes that both “the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people, and of a culture” (§1). The suprahistorical, as I argue below, is an early version of the will to power, an attempt to mediate the historical and unhistorical senses.

The three kinds (or modes) of historical study that Nietzsche delineates are the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical. Monumental history is basically concerned with the heroes of the past, the great figures who stand out and above their contemporaries and thus provide us with inspiration and the comfort and exhilaration of looking at greatness incarnate. The danger here is that the demand for truth is often sacrificed, and monumental history risks becoming “free poetic invention.” Antiquarian history “preserves and reveres” the past (§2). The past, owing to its age and grandeur, is worthy of our respect, even veneration. But antiquarian history, which tends toward the unhistorical, loses objectivity. Critical history approaches objective study, but with an eye to critiquing and condemning the stupidities, injustices, and errors of the past. Insofar as critical history tend to identify with the historical sense, an over valuation of its importance blocks the creative use of the past for the purpose of life in the present. Nietzsche speaks of the “genuine historian,” whose task is to judiciously balance the historical with the unhistorical and the three modes of doing history.

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