37 pages 1 hour read

Friedrich Nietzsche

On The Advantage And Disadvantage Of History For Life

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1874

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Written in 1874 as part of his second Untimely Meditation, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben or On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, considers the proper functioning of history in service to human (and specifically German) life and culture.

At the outset of his essay, Nietzsche distinguishes between advantageous and disadvantageous historical awareness. The “historical fever” in Germany at the time of writing is a disease in the culture. In the essay, his intention is to explicate its symptoms and antidotes.

Nietzsche opens Chapter 1 by claiming that what distinguishes humans from animals is the burden of memory. He discredits Barthold Georg Niebuhr’s theory of the utility of the superhistorical, the notion that modern man can assimilate history from an omniscient perspective and deploy its lessons. History is made blindly; thus, when most fully understood, it is “unhistorical.” When history serves life, it is therefore unhistorical, Nietzsche argues.

Nietzsche proceeds to identify three different kinds of history: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. A balance of all three is needed if history is to serve life. Monumental history runs the risk of mythologizing the past and can discourage monumental acts in the present. Antiquarian history similarly is so focused on conserving the past that the present suffers. Critical history breaks with the past but can become disorientated as a result.

Another disorientating influence on modern man is the overwhelming superfluity of knowledge. This is indigestible and creates a divide between form and content. This division in turn can impair a culture from the full expression of its qualities. In Chapter 5, Nietzsche expounds five problems that the overemphasis on history inflicts on contemporary society. All of them revolve around the falseness generated by an excess of knowledge, which in turn weakens society.

Chapter 6 is a discussion of justice and discernment. Nietzsche urges the restitution of truth, which exceeds and can cause disruption to the ego. Talented historians are rare, because objectivity is difficult and hampered by the mores of one’s age. Therefore, one should “set a great goal” to avoid wasting the present (43).

Chapter 7 takes up the theme of annihilating history, which kills the present with the “minutiae” of the past (45). Whereas great acts are always veiled by a certain “madness” (46), fixation on the details of the past leads to indifference and apathy.

Nietzsche proceeds to argue that the fatalism produced by the historical education is vestigial of Christian theology, which occupies a similar position in the culture. The reverence for history is a consequence of this link with religion, which was made via Hegelianism.

In the penultimate chapter of the essay, Nietzsche critiques the well-known ideas of Edouard von Hartmann. Hartmann’s concept of a “world process” is a “joke” for Nietzsche, for whom great actions take place in “timeless simultaneity” (58).

Returning in the final chapter to his original premises, Nietzsche’s prescription for the epidemic of historicism and its corrupting power on the youth is a return to the natural, by means of the unhistorical (forgetting) and superhistorical (eternal). This will offer hope and the ethical inspiration required for the foundation of a true culture.

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