On The Advantage And Disadvantage Of History For Life Summary

Friedrich Nietzsche

On The Advantage And Disadvantage Of History For Life

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On The Advantage And Disadvantage Of History For Life Summary

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Seminal German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche published On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life in 1874. Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben in the original German, the work is also often translated as “The Use and Misuse of History for Life.” The seventy-page work is packed with philosophical inquiries into the role historical knowledge plays in an individual’s life and how this knowledge can best be used to improve one’s wellbeing. It is the second work in a series called Untimely Meditations, named after Nietzsche’s belief that the past should actively disrupt the present. The work has been influential in fields such as social and literary studies for asking the central question, “How does history help us in day-to-day life?” Prominent French writer Michael Foucault cited the essay as the most important influence on his work analyzing power structures.

History for Life uses many of the themes Nietzsche developed in his other works, such as slave morality, the obligation to live dangerously, and the need to work hard against those passions that are detrimental to one’s highest goals. It adds to these concerns asking: what is the nature of authority in history; when should one forget history; how can history be used to produce better public policies for the future?

In the preface, Nietzsche maintains that universities should focus on making history alive and relevant to students rather than treat it as a pure science. “We require history for life and action,” he writes, implying that history shouldn’t be learned by rote and engaged as a dainty topic, but wrestled with.

Nietzsche considers the differences between humans and animals in the start of chapter one. Animals live in the present and aren’t bogged down with notions of the past; they live “unhistorically.” But for humans, the past constantly follows them. Because of this great consciousness, the fate of humans isn’t all that rosy: our knowledge of existence is sudden, and we may be the only living beings in the world to understand what death means. To be truly happy is a fleeting sensation and can only be accomplished by momentarily forgetting history. This occurs within people and within cultures at large.

Nietzsche calls this ability to balance between remembering and forgetting “plastic power.” This is the ability to accept history but not be bogged down by it; to remain balanced and resilient through the lessons one learns. Nietzsche writes that one can’t have too much or too little plastic power. Someone with zero plastic power would never learn from his mistakes, would be selfish all the time, and a burden for the planet. One with too much plastic power may be so burdened by his relation to history that he grows overly pessimistic and quits trying to have an impact on the present. For a life of clear conscience where one has hope for the future and is of good cheer on the daily, one has to learn “to forget at the right time as well as to remember at the right time.”

When history is studied in order to benefit one’s life, one can gain a “super-historical” view of history. In this view, one doesn’t take history all that seriously; one no longer views major historical figures as gods, but as men and women working through real concerns with above-average skill and consciousness; the super-historical person does not have out-sized hopes for the future; in fact, he views the past and the present as basically the same thing.

With the super-historical stance being the ideal, do we need to carry with us knowledge of the past? Nietzsche answers this by looking at the various ways one may use history in his personal life. He divides these plans of history-usage into the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. When these modes are used positively, they are applied to benefit the present and the future, and not as a sample for a “crowd of pure thinkers who only contemplate life.” However, these modes of historical relationship can also be used to negatively impact the future if we bind the present by past standards.

In the monumental style, people can gain inspiration for their lives by thinking of monumental moments or great people in history who inspire “faith in humanity.” Recalling past great events or great people (i.e., Da Vinci, Goethe, Socrates) can lead one to execute great actions.
Monumental history is concerned with “effects in themselves,” that is, the spectacle of action that occurred at a specific moment in humanity’s timeline. People should understand, however, that the great men of the past cannot be imitated; one must form one’s own unique trajectory. Progressions in culture, also, should not be inhibited by what came before.

An antiquarian approach to history is what traditional scholars of history engage in. In this conception, one learns about one’s surrounding town and ancestors and feels more firmly rooted in one’s origins. This extra rootedness provides more freedom.

However, Nietzsche warns that being too immersed in a single time period can lead to an over-fawning, uncritical worship of that age. Over-reverence for the past can also make it more difficult to contribute to the present period or see what was actually wrong with that time period.

The last major relation one can have to history, in Nietzsche’s view, is critical. This mode is best used for people who are currently oppressed and wish to change the future by condemning the past. It can be considered to be the opposite of the antiquarian view of history. The greatest danger of the critical mode is that it can blindside us to how the forms we reject may have been instrumental in our current formation.

Nietzsche contends that knowledge isn’t always a good thing. The truth can inhibit our growth. With regards to the past, Nietzsche suggests that historians should spend their time analyzing ways to benefit their community and nation; sometimes that means looking at the past, but they should also not hesitate to analyze the present.