Nietzsche on History: notes from Untimely Meditations

June 18, 2012 — Leave a comment

Overarching Question: How does Nietzsche think history should be used to advance life? Is his position convincing?

What’s the problem Nietzsche is trying to solve?

How does he propose to solve it?

Does his solution work?

Text: Untimely Meditations: On the uses and disadvantages of history for life

History must not be a costly superfluity and luxury. It must not merely instruct but invigorate. “[…] the superfluous is the enemy of the necessary.” (p59)

Nietzsche asserts that we need history, but not for idle knowledge. He addressing symptoms of his own time, and in particular the character of the movement of German thought in the generations leading up to him. Goethe asserts:

“when we cultivate our virtues we at the same time cultivate our faults.” (P60)

Nietzsche seems to be saying there is a historical interest that permeates German culture, potentially to its detriment. He recognizes himself as a classicist and therefore a historian, though claims that classical studies are untimely in that they counter our own time, thereby acting on it, hopefully, for the benefit of a time to come.

Nietzsche attributes the cow in the field ‘happiness’ as it has no memory. It does not know what is meant by yesterday or today. Man is tied to a chain of memories, which equal a chain of moments, for which each moment significantly disturbs the peace of a later moment. Thus the animal lives unhistorically. Man lives historically:

“Man, on the other hand, braces himself against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark, invisible burden which he can sometimes appear to disown and which in traffic with his fellow men he is only to glad to disown, so as to excite their envy.” (p61)


“In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness, however, it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in a more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration.” (P62)

On forgetting, and perhaps Nietzsche will extend this thought from the individual to the collective:

“Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming: like a true pupil of Heraclitus, he would in the end hardly dare to raise his finger. Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic.” (p62)

The basic thesis:

“[…] there is a degree of sleeplessness, of rumination, of the historical sense, which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing, whether this living thing be a man or a people or a culture.” (p62)

How great is the plastic power of a man, a people, a culture? There has to be a way to determine this. Plastic power means the capacity for self-correction and growth, to be able to heal wounds, develop wisdom etc.

The strength of a man’s inner-most roots determine his assimilation of things of the past. The most powerful nature, the most powerful set of roots, would be characterised by the fact that it would not recognize the boundary at which the historical sense began to overwhelm it. If a culture let’s past transgressions prevent it from acting into the future, historical conscience has become a debilitating force. A weak person will be destroyed by one single bad/painful event.

“That which such a nature (the powerful man) cannot subdue it knows how to forget; it no longer exists, the horizon is rounded and closed, and there is nothing left to suggest there are people, passions, teachings, goals lying beyond it.” (p63)

Proposition and thesis number two:

“[…] the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people, and of a culture.” (p63)

A man’s horizon of history and knowledge does not determine his happiness nor social acceptance. An unwieldy horizon may cause sickness and collapse. (Nietzsche’s own sentiment to sickness always shining through)

“Is it true that only by imposing limits on this unhistorical element by thinking, reflecting, comparing, distinguishing, drawing conclusions, only through the appearance within that encompassing cloud of a vivid flash of light – thus only through the power of employing the past for the purposes of life and of again introducing into history that which has been done and is gone – did man become man: but with an excess of history man again ceases to exist, and without that envelope of the unhistorical he would never have begun or dared to begin. What deed would man be capable of if he had not first entered into that vaporous region of the unhistorical?” (p64)

Humans can only act without conscience and knowledge. A goal must be striven for in an unhistorical condition. A human must love his deed more than the deed deserves to be loved; the finest deeds take place in such an abundance of love.

The Supra-historical vantage:

An intensity of consciousness which is exceptionally great. The viewer from this vantage point could no longer have any temptation to go on living, nor participate in history. (p65) He would recognize the necessary unhistorical condition for action: “[…] to answer his own question as to how or to what end life is lived.” (p65)

The historical being: “[…] believe[s] that the meaning of existence will come more and more to light in the course of its process […]” (p65)

The supra-historical man sees no salvation in the process of existence. the world is complete and reaches its finality at each and every moment. Therefore there is little to be found in the past, or in projection to the future. The supra-historical man is one of revelation of the present moment.

For the supra-historical man: “the past and the present are one, that is to say, with all their diversity identical in all that is typical and, as the omnipresence of imperishable types, a motionless structure of a value that cannot alter and a significance that is always the same.” (p66)

However, our (normal people) un-wisdom is conducive to life and at any rate indeed has a future. Life and wisdom are the antithesis of one another.

Knowledge and history:

“A historical phenomenon, known clearly and completely and resolved into a phenomenon of knowledge, is, for him who has perceived it, dead: for he has recognized in it the delusion, the injustice, the blind passion, and in general the whole earthly and darkening horizon of this phenomenon, and has thereby also understood its power in history. This power has now lost its hold over him insofar as he is a man of knowledge: but perhaps it has not done so insofar as he is a man involved in life.” (p67)

The study of history must be supplementary to a culture that is regardless evolving, dominated and directed by a higher force, not dominated and directed by history.

Here is the logic against history as a science: for history must be in the service of the unhistorical action oriented movement of culture. Therefore, history is subordinate to such forward progression. Science is the aim at a conclusion for life, a settling of accounts, and history leads to degeneration of life, and eventually of itself. History is in the service of unhistorical power. Unhistorical power is the cradle of the scientific urge. Therefore, the scientific urge and history do not belong together.

History is subordinate to an unhistorical power, in the service of life. The question of degree with regards to historical consciousness is the important area of thought.

History pertains to the living man in three respects:

as a being who acts and strives
as a being who preserves and reveres
as a being who suffers and seeks deliverance

This corresponds to three species of history:


“That the great moments in the struggle of the human individual constitute a chain, that this chain unites mankind across the millennia like a range of human mountain peaks, that the summit of such a long-ago moment shall be for me still living, bright and great – that is the fundamental idea of the faith in humanity which finds expression in the demand for a monumental history.” (p68)

Cultural need for monumental history:

“In this transfigured form, fame is something more than the tastiest morsel of our egoism, as Schopenhauer called it: it is the belief in the solidarity and continuity of the greatness of all ages and a protest against the passing away of generations and the transitoriness of things.” (p69)

Greatness that once existed can exist again. Monumental history serves as a reminder to the project of civilization that which has been possible.

A hint at the eternal recurrence:

“Only if, when the fifth act of the earth’s drama ended, the whole play every time began again from the beginning, if it was certain that the same complex of motives, the same deus ex machina, the same catastrophe were repeated at definite intervals, could the man of power venture to desire monumental history in full icon-like veracity, that is to say with every individual peculiarity depicted in precise detail: but that will no doubt happen only when the astronomers have again become astrologers. Until that time, monumental history will have no use for that absolute veracity: it will always have to deal in approximations and generalities, in making what is dissimilar look similar; it will always have to diminish the differences of motives and instigations so as to exhibit the effectus monumentally, that is to say as something exemplary and worthy of imitation, at the expense of the causae: so that, since it as far as possible ignores causes, one might with only slight exaggeration call it a collection of ‘effects in themselves’, of events which will produce an effect upon all future ages.” (p70)

“As long as the soul of historiography lies in the great stimuli that a man of power derives from it, as long as the past has to be described as worthy of imitation, as imitable and possible for a second time, it of course incurs the danger of becoming somewhat distorted, beautified and coming close to free poetic convention; there have been ages, indeed, which were quite incapable of distinguishing between a monumentalized past and a mythical fiction, because precisely the same stimuli can be derived from the one world as from the other.” (p70)

Monumental history is mythologized, “individual embellished facts rise out of it like islands.” (p71)

Monumental history is dangerous as it creates a false vision of destiny. Through it the courageous are inspired to foolhardiness, and the inspired to fanaticism. (p71) Through it empires are destroyed, wars and revolutions launched; there are effects without sufficient cause; “Effects in themselves”. (p71)

Monumental history has a paralysis effect: while any art, because contemporary, which is not yet monumental, seems unnecessary and unattractive and lacking in authority conferred by history, the monumental cannot be repeated and so connoisseurs of art do away with art all together. New greatness cannot emerge as greatness already exists. Nietzsche recognizes this as a psychological disposition:

“Monumental history is the masquerade costume in which their hatred of the great and powerful of their own age is disguised as satiated admiration for the great and powerful of past ages, and muffled in which they invert the real meaning of that mode of regarding history into its opposite; whether they are aware of it or not, they act as though their motto were: let the dead bury the living.” (p72)

So there are two concerns here: what monumental history actually is, and its subsequent use and misuse in society.

Antiquarian history: Talking about the man who preserves and reveres, to whom history belongs in second place: “By tending with care that which has existed from of old, he wants to preserve for those who shall come into existence after him the conditions under which he himself came into existence – and thus he serves life.” (p73) Ancestral goods, the inheritance of history possess this soul, rather than he they. Nietzsche relates this antiquarian sentiment with the health of a culture and nation. He says that this history can help a people be comfortable with their domestic situation, environment and companions; that his is healthy for a community. When a nation is seized by the desire expedition and adventure: “the condition a nation gets into when it has ceased to be faithful to its own origins and is given over to a restless, cosmopolitan hunting after new and ever newer things.” (p74)

“[…] the tree is aware of its roots to a greater degree than it is able to see them; but this awareness judges how big they are from the size and strength of its visible branches. If, however, the tree is in error as to this, how greatly it will be in error regarding all the rest of the forest around it!” (p74)

Nietzsche also likens antiquarian historical sentiment with relativism, where field of vision is restricted, and what can be seen is close up and isolated, thus distinguishing between things in a way that does justice to them is distorted: there is a lack of discrimination of value and proportion.

“Antiquarian history itself degenerates from the moment it is no longer animated and inspired by the fresh life of the present. Its piety withers away, the habit of scholarliness continues without it and rotates in egoistic self-satisfaction around its own axis.” (p75)

Antiquarian history knows how to preserve but not engender life. It hinders any form resolve to attempt something new.

Critical history: “he who is oppressed by a present need, and who wants to throw off this burden at any cost.” (p72)

History becomes a ‘devastating weed’ through the thoughtless transplantation of each species history: “the critic without need, the antiquary without piety, the man who recognizes greatness but cannot himself do great things.” (p72)

In section 4 Nietzsche comes to frame the problem he recognizes in his contemporary context. The natural relationship of a nation, culture and age to its history is characterized by desire only in the service of the future and the present. Nietzsche claims that this natural relationship, that history serve the future and the present, has been disturbed by the demand that history should be a science: historicism.

“[…] all that has ever been rushes upon mankind.” (p77)


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