This time out I have a few thoughts on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Uses and Abuses of History for Life,” today the most popular of the philosopher’s “Untimely Meditations.” Reading the afterward to my translation I noticed that, at the time—1874—the essay hit the market with a dull thud. Nietzsche never much liked the essay at all, thinking it some of his weakest writing. These days, in a neat historical irony, historians tend to read “Uses and Abuses” first and the other ones later—if it all. When we do read the other ones, it’s primarily for reasons of specialized interest, at least from what I know to be anecdotally true. I thought it might be interesting to outline his argument in the piece while offering a commentary along the way. I suspect this will take up a few posts.
First and foremost, for Nietzsche, an excess of history made historical study mostly superfluous, a sort of luxury, knowledge for knowledge’s sake rather than for life itself. Nietzsche used any number of colorful metaphors in the essay, bodily or medical tropes especially. History appeared in the essay as a “hypertrophied” virtue, a kind of bloated knowledge organ, metastasized as part of a more general cultural sickness in Germany. If history was a sickness, a proper diagnosis required we know what doctors might call its etiology, where it came from, its fundamental causes. This is one of the more delightful parts of the essay, because Nietzsche first takes the reader back to a serious consideration of just what history is, abruptly shifting voice, taking on a kind of quasi-oracular tone. I’ll quote him because I love this part:
Observe the herd as it grazes past you; it cannot distinguish yesterday from today, leaps about, eats, sleeps, digests, leaps some more, and carries on like this from morning to night and from day to day, tethered by the short leash of its pleasures and displeasures to the stake of the moment, and thus it is neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard on the human being to observe this, because he boasts about the superiority of his humanity over animals and yet looks enviously upon their happiness—for the one and the only thing that he desires is to live like an animal, neither bored nor in pain, and yet he desires this in vain, because he does not desire it the same way as does the animal. The human being might ask the animal: “Why do you just look at me like that instead of telling me about your happiness?” The animal wanted to answer, “Because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say”—but it had already forgotten this answer and hence said nothing, so that the human being was left to wonder. (87)
The herd is ahistorical in other words. Nietzsche’s point here was a familiar one, that human identity is tied to memory. He described our memory as an inescapable “chain that runs” with us. The problem was that the chain of memory had become too burdensome. It had become a drag on action, making us miserable. To act, we had to forget, even feel ahistorically. So if the herd was ahistorical, existing in a kind of present of always-having-already-forgot, then the other side was the ability to remember everything, which would be exhausting. Nietzsche’s point was that it was impossible to live at all if we didn’t forget some things.
The question became where to draw the horizon between forgetting and remembering. We needed history, but we also needed the ahistorical sensibility if we meant to act, or “step out onto the threshold of the moment.” Nietzsche thought great deeds or great historical events happened like this. The ahistorical acted as a kind of springboard for beginning something new. It was akin to what the philosopher William James, borrowing from Fitz-James Stephen in “The Will to Believe,” called “a leap in the darkness,” because when we acted we never knew for certain if those after us would judge our deeds just or unjust.
To me this is trickier than it appears. The analogy with James is both helpful and unhelpful. Nietzsche isn’t simply making an epistemological claim about how we actually come to believe in things, but something a bit more radical: the basis for human action in the first place. It could be a matter of translation, but it’s sometimes unclear if he means every human activity or something more like “deeds” ultimately remembered. One can read him either way, but the latter makes most sense. In any case, his perspective on its face seems to be an antifoundational or certainly anti-philosophical claim: rationalizations follow actions rather than precede them. At a fundamental level, history is just those rationalizations, the after-the-event analysis or explanation of the event in question. According to that measure, action happens on the pulse, before thinking, or for that matter, memory, kicks in. Nietzsche grounds action in being and becoming itself, presumably. Paradoxically, the historical always arises from out of the ahistorical. Without deeds there can be no history because there would be nothing to remember, but without forgetting, there can be no deeds in the first place. This is why I’m increasingly convinced that he means by “action” something like “deeds” or, given the animal examples he uses, “instinct” (he does use the phrase “first instinct” later on in the essay). History and historical thinking is at bottom an activity, but not necessarily a deed, and surely not instinctual in the strictest sense.
All of this makes me think of a “bypath” taken by the narrator in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Departing from the story to discuss Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, the narrator considers whether Nelson doomed his fleet by risking himself unnecessarily and even irrationally, ultimately dying gloriously. If he had lived then the crew would have followed his orders to take anchor, sparing countless lives lost when a horrible storm hit in the aftermath of the battle.
[T]hat for his bravado the victorious admiral [Nelson] might possibly have survived the battle, and so, instead of having his sagacious dying injunctions overruled by his immediate successor in command, he himself when the contest was decided might have brought his shattered fleet to anchor, a proceeding which might have avoided the deplorable loss of life by shipwreck in the elemental tempest that followed the martial one…But the might-have-been is but boggy ground to build on…Personal prudence, even when dictated by quite other than selfish considerations, surely is no special virtue in a military man; while excessive glory, impassioned by a less burning impulse, the honest sense of duty, is the first.
The speculation after the fact doesn’t matter all that much. The historians who would judge after the event must face the unavoidable fact that the hero was immortalized in “epics and dramas.” Tennyson immortalized Nelson as “the greatest sailor since our world began” the narrator reminds us, for “in such lines the poet but embodies in verse those exaltations of sentiment that a nature like Nelson, the opportunity being given, vitalizes into acts.” So I think this is what Nietzsche meant by the fundamental “injustice” of the ahistorical. It was imprudent and impassioned by motives other than the urge to explain. Nietzsche didn’t put it precisely this way, but the ahistorical could mean a disregard for life itself, because death is a kind of always-already-having-forgotten.
Nietzsche did imagine a god-like “suprahistorical” being who understood the ahistorical grounding for all human action, that variety of being-in-itself, but he realized that no one was really like that. We humans were ultimately historical beings, and so we thought in terms of processes. We could never recover the animal’s bliss in the herd. It was too late for modern humans to go back. That which came before helped us to understand the present and look forward into the future. Stuck with history, hopefully we might put it in the service of life, which meant the tough work of discerning what needed remembering and what needed forgetting. Negotiating this horizon between forgetting and remembering, the ahistorical and the historical for Nietzsche required a more precise typology or set of classifications. There were three basic kinds of historical consciousness: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. Each one could be a history for life, but once the mode or tendency got excessive, it damaged a people or inhibited action.
The monumental form of history was roughly the old “great man” version of history. Heroic deeds done by human beings across the span of time had eternal lessons for us. The monumentalist placed great faith in humanity, because, knowing that people had done great things before, it followed that they were capable of doing great things again. It generalized, or “deceive[d] by means of analogies” in this way. It commemorated great acts by doing lots of forgetting. A pitfall was that it could become pure fiction. George Washington, for example, might become Parson Weems’ fabled character, who, upon felling the cherry tree, could not tell a lie. The greater problem was that the monumentalist got stuck, because, after all, if this or that hero or thinker or artist of the past was so great, then how on earth could anything as great or greater ever come into being again? Why even try? Why should anyone sculpt in marble again since Michelangelo trod the earth already? In their excessive moods, monumentalists actually hated greatness, because they didn’t really want it to come into being again.
Antiquarians, for their part, were best when they recovered a past frequently overwritten, when, out of love for their people, home or ancestry, they reminded us that the stories of those who came before, while they may seem simple or local, nonetheless rooted us to a common past. I think much of the history of the American South arises from this impulse, as, in a positive sense, do certain features of African American history or women’s history. Historians operate in this mode all of the time, especially in those moments when we bemoan the fact that this or that person or story is often forgotten and shouldn’t be. The problem came when the antiquarian missed the forest for the trees, when, in their detailed obsessiveness, they failed to distinguish the important from the unimportant. After all, being the history of my house or my place, everything must have been important, and so everything must be recovered. It was a kind of piety that could become self-satisfied egotism, a mania for collecting things and archiving them, a desire to assemble and archive everything, to take pleasure, for example in “bibliographical minutiae.”
The final form of historical consciousness, the critical variety, attacked the excesses of the monumentalists and the antiquarians by shattering or condemning the past. Critical history stood in judgment, and its judgment was always unjust because it says “For everything that comes into being is worthy of perishing. Thus it would be better if nothing came into being” (107). The problem here was clear enough: as much as we might like to create a totally new beginning for ourselves or what Nietzsche called a “second nature” the fact was we were stuck with the past we inherited, and having destroyed the past, now with no examples from which to draw, a second nature would always be weaker than the first.
In a rare mood of moderation, Nietzsche concluded that we needed a balance of all three of these modes of historical consciousness—monumental, antiquarian, and critical—while avoiding their excesses. In the right measure, the resources of the three kinds of historical consciousness had been enormously valuable in many lives. But Nietzsche felt that in his own time, history no longer served life at all in Germany in particular. The bulk of the essay concerned that problem. And this is where Nietzsche really got cracking. I’ll pick up the story next time out.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Utility and Liability of History for Life,” in Unfashionable Observations, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol.2 (Stanford UP, 1995), 85-167. Succeeding references parenthetical.
 Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Stories (Penguin Classics), 306. Emphasis Melville.
 Ibid, 307.