History, Life, and Uses for Nietzsche


Nietzsche seems to mean by history something like memory or remembrance. In section 1 of his essay, he refers to animals as “unhistorical” things on account of the fact that they are continually forgetting what they have to say, so they ultimately say nothing at all (60-61). History is, like animal “rumination,” a re-digestion of past events (62). However, historical sense is present not only in individuals, but in peoples, cultures, and governments as well, meaning it can occur above individual memories to bolster or weaken cultural and national identities as well (62). History is a means of broadening one’s horizons; the ignorant person who knows little of history has a very narrow (albeit pleasant) perspective on the world, but an over-historical person may grow ill from the continual flux of his historical horizons (63). This, however, is really a definition of history in terms of how we study or relate to it. As for history itself, Nietzsche suggests that it is a series of negations (contra Hegelian dialectical resolution) or struggles “against history” (106). In other words, history develops according to those who momentarily step outside of history, who act “counter to [their] time” (60).


Nietzsche never makes a definitive statement regarding the content of ‘life’ in a positive way, but he does offer some clues. Life is understood in terms of health and sickness; historical oversaturation induces metaphorical stomach-pains (78), and suprahistorical men may grow nauseous from their wisdom (67). This degree of health determines the degree of activity of life, as a “driving power that insatiably thirsts for itself,” for continued life and activity (76). Activity may be understood more specifically as the “joys of creation and construction,” which distinguishes authentic activity from the banality which Nietzsche sees in modernist culture (82).


The question of how one should study and relate to history is foremost a matter of subordinating history to the activity of life, and not the other way around (67). He takes care to stress that the Kantian elevation of ‘pure knowledge’ above and beyond empirical life is functionally murder, a cold “settling of accounts” with life (67). Against this, Nietzsche proposes three distinct ‘species’ or methods of historical study, each corresponding to an important part of human will, and each being equally necessary for overall health and vigor. First, the ‘monumental’ species, corresponding to man’s capacity for activity and striving, (67) is concerned with the “peaks” of historical development, in which singular points of greatness burst momentarily from within broader mediocrity and attain timeless superiority (68-69). Monumental study aims to learn to be great from the great men and cultures of history. However, monumentalism in the hands of the unworthy or weak man risks effacing the singularity of these unique points of time by extracting from them abstract lessons or principles in ignorance of the particular circumstances which made them possible, separating the effect of greatness from its constitutive force (70-71).   Second, the ‘antiquarian’ species corresponds to drive that “preserves and reveres,” and corrals his backward glances around the general history of his individual or group identity, such as his family, church, or nationality (72-73). This love for one’s past permits a “simple feeling of pleasure and contentment” in dull and unremarkable times, because one feels part of something greater (73). However, too much of this makes a person short-sighted and blind to greatness, since they try to appreciate all of their history as “equally worthy of reverence” (74). Finally, the ‘critical’ species is tasked with correcting, so to speak, one’s memory to permit greater and more joyful life, exorcising parts of the past deemed unjust (76). Because all histories are mere interpretations, no one more ‘objective’ than any other (discussed in more detail in section 6), then it is entirely possible that one will inadvertently dissolve important, great parts of history; Nietzsche emphasizes, however, that there is no other way to instill new habits, instincts, natures, etc., and do away with older and weaker ones (76).

A good relation to history involves, firstly a historical sensibility which deploys monumental, antiquarian, and critical methods equally and appropriately, refusing to preference one over any other. This, however, is only half the battle, because too much history is destructive to existence, as illustrated for Nietzsche in the state of 19th century Germany: the consequences of such an ‘oversaturation’ are listed at the beginning of section 5. Because modern men came to feel overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and interminable contradiction and chaos of history, they began to develop a ‘science’ of history (presumably a reference to Hegel) which can “constrain and control” these rowdy elements (78). This, among other things, produces apathetic fatalism, destroys artistic creativity, bravery, and authentic senses of truth and justice, and makes man turn “inward” (a reference to Kant), forsaking the world of appearances and materiality (80-82). Nietzsche’s “antidote” is the cultivation of unhistorical (ahistorical) and suprahistorical, or that which is capable of divining “eternal and stable” truths of change and creativity (120). So, a good relationship to history balances a strong historical sense (which itself combines and effectively appropriates the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical) with the unhistorical and the suprahistorical.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Untimely Meditations. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.


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