On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life

by Alexandria Miller

Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (in the original German, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben), written in 1874 as part of his second “Untimely Meditation,” has been read not only as an essay on the crisis of historical culture, but also as a rather timely reaction “to a crisis within the political culture of the new German nation state after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.”[1]  According to some scholars, this close relationship between politics and history is the focal point for Nietzsche’s historical critique of modernity (Emden 3).  His criticism is in the recognition “that the power of the past to enforce its claims on the future always forms a threat to the project of modernism”; essentially, Nietzsche’s argument–that history is required for life–is itself a danger to modernity.[2]  In the same sense, according to literary critic Paul de Man, Nietzsche’s essay is clearly modernist as its “description of the contradictory relationship between history and modernity captures the essence of literature and perhaps the modern predicament per se” (Gooding-Williams 102).

The Context of Germany

The new German Empire that emerged from the Franco-Prussian War was “a modern nation state that was still busy defining what it meant to be a ‘nation'”–an increase in historical knowledge began to dominate public interest “without [Germans] being able to relate this wealth of information to their own cultural conditions” (Emden 10).  As a result, “epic accounts of the perceived ‘German’ past… began to shape the public imagination to an unprecedented degree” (Emden 11).  This in turn led to the undefined nation linking itself with its historical consciousness rather than a new, unified cultural identity.  Nietzsche uses this fact as the motivation behind his essay, illustrating how “modernity’s oversaturation with history provides definite prescriptions for placing history in the service of human excellence.”  Nietzsche makes the bold observation of a “truth-in-need” about the contemporary German people and the “imagined community of a German ‘nation’” (Emden 14):

we are without culture, still more, we are spoiled for living, for correct and simple seeing and hearing, for the happy grasping of the nearest and natural, and so far do not even have the foundation of a culture because we ourselves are not convinced of having a true life in us.[3]

As the only possible remedy to this issue, Nietzsche advises “against the historical education of modern youth” (Nietzsche 58, original italics), as it is currently this education which fills the youth’s head “with an enormous number of concepts which are drawn from the highly mediate knowledge of past ages and peoples, not from the immediate perception of life” (Nietzsche 60).  Instead, he suggests that youth learn how to be both unhistorical (as defined earlier) and superhistorical, a condition in which one is guided “away from becoming and toward that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, toward art and religion” (Nietzsche 62, original italics).  These two methods of using history in the service of life—both the becoming life and the enduring life—provide the individual with the conviction of a heightened sense of life, rather than merely an existence defined by the past.  In the end, Nietzsche argues, when the youth is finally able to cure itself from the historical malady of the time, “they have become human again and have ceased to be humanoid aggregates” and they will once again employ “culture as the accord of life” (Nietzsche 64, original italics).

The Function of History

One of the most critical clarifications to understand in Nietzsche’s essay is that his discussion is on history’s service to life: “Historical education is wholesome and promising for the future only in the service of a powerful new life-giving influence” (Nietzsche 12). This is the only purpose for which history should be employed; furthermore, this purpose is not merely an option, but a demand, and it cannot be fulfilled without the use of history. To be more explicit, Nietzsche believes that “the capacity to build a new future depends on our ability to see a fundamental continuity with the strengths of the past”; the motive behind his essay is revealed through his further belief that “it is this which is lacking in Modernity, and which results in a lack of direction, an ignorance of where we have come from and of where we are going.”[4]  His aim is to direct society towards the proper usage of history, which would fulfill its function of serving life. In addition, by emphasizing the view that history is not an end in itself, but rather a means to serving life, Nietzsche illustrates how history can be used as a tool for modernity.

Historical and Unhistorical

While he claims the necessity of history for life—that is, that man is a historical being—Nietzsche also emphasizes the importance of “the capacity to live unhistorically,” or simply, the ability to forget (Nietzsche 9, original italics).  He uses the example of the animal, a beast that differs from man in its nature as a forgetful being with the ability to constantly live in the present.  This ability to relieve the weight of the past through forgetfulness is inherently necessary to the experience of happiness: “Whoever cannot settle on the threshold of the moment forgetful of the whole past… will never know what happiness is” (Nietzsche 9).  This ability to forget is determined by the plastic power of man, which enables man to appropriate the elements of the past that are life-serving and forget those that are not and therefore are unnecessary and harmful.  In turn, this distinction between the incorporated past and the discarded past forms the man’s personal horizon—a limitation only within which the following scenario is possible:

As the man of action… is always without conscience, so he is also without knowledge; he forgets a great deal to do one thing, he is unjust to what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of that which is to become. So the agent loves his deed infinitely more than it deserves to be loved: and the best deeds occur in such an exuberance of love… (Nietzsche 12)

In order for modernity to be a successful rupture from the past, man must know when to suspend the influence of the past and be able to move beyond it; this ability to only look forward is necessary for the new directions that modernity calls for.

Kinds of History

Nietzsche first analyzes the approach to history that he regards as the monumental view: examining the past with the explicit intent of finding models for one’s own life. The monumental past is concerned with the greatest moments in the history of humanity that serve to provide the reassurance that greatness has been previously attained and can possibly be again.  The second type of history is the antiquarian view: history that “belongs to the preserving and revering soul—to him who with loyalty and love looks back on his origins” and “gives thanks for his existence” (Nietzsche 19).  This antiquarian sense provides man with the assurance that his existence is neither arbitrary nor accidental, but rather a link in a chain of events extending from the past, and therefore, justified.

The third and final approach to history is the critical view, in which “[man] must have the strength… to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it” (Nietzsche 21).  Through this close analysis of history, it is possible for man to discover knowledge that conflicts with his nature; critical history then gives him the power to utilize this new knowledge to his advantage and “implant a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature so that the first nature withers away” (Nietzsche 22).

The proper usage of these three views of history indicates how Nietzsche believes history can, and should, be used in the service of modernity.  Monumental history should be used to discover “models to be emulated and surpassed,” rather than “to freeze a single image of excellence as divine and absolute, sternly prohibiting fresh acts of human courage and strength”; this allows history to empower the man of action through its exhibition of “the enduring truth about human excellence” and thereby encourages him to attain greatness (Berkowitz 15).  While the antiquarian approach requires an appreciation for the past, it does not demand immortality for something old simply because of its considerable age; this would make it seem “presumptuous or even impious to replace such an ancient thing with a new one”—a startling consequence for modernity that leads to the paralysis of the man of action (Nietzsche 21).  This prompts Nietzsche to outline the necessity of critical history, which once again frees the man of action and allows him to move forward towards growth and progress.

Excess History

Nietzsche begins his argument that a surplus of history is detrimental to life by discussing the term inwardness, which he defines as man’s “chaotic inner world” filled with “knowledge, taken in excess without hunger, even contrary to need” that “no longer acts as a transforming motive impelling to action and remains hidden” (Nietzsche 24).  This surfeit of knowledge is gathered and hoarded through the abuse of history, and results in a modern pseudo-culture comprised only of knowledge acquired purely for the sake of acquisition.  This mode of existence separates man into an inner content and an outer form—a disconnected composition that weakens the personality and forces the hollowed man to gradually become an actor in society.  Through “far-reaching consequences for politics and for social life in general,” this becomes a crisis of modernity: namely, that “all of us are no longer material for a society” (Ansell-Pearson 119, original italics). For Nietzsche, “man has value and meaning only insofar as he is a stone in a great edifice; and to this end he must be solid first of all, a ‘stone’—and above all not an actor!” (The Gay Science, section 356).  By turning himself into an actor, man relinquishes his value to society, hinders its internal support system, and decreases its ability for growth. Nietzsche continues his explication of how excess history eventually leads to the destruction of man through the following pattern: man comes to believe that he has the ability to render justice on earlier ages; man’s depleted instincts impair his maturity and growth; man suffers in believing that he is a latecomer in the lifespan of the world; man adopts views of irony and cynicism with regard to himself; and man eventually becomes egoistical to the point of paralysis and destruction.

  1. ↑ Christian J. Emden, “Toward a Critical Historicism: History and Politics in Nietzsche’s Second ‘Untimely Meditation’,” Modern Intellectual History, 3:1, (2006): 2. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  2. ↑ Robert Gooding-Williams, “Nietzsche’s Pursuit of Modernism,” New German Critique, 41, (Spring-Summer 1987): 102. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  3. ↑ Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980), 61, original italics. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  4. ↑ Keith Ansell-Pearson, “Nietzsche’s Post-Modern Identity: From Epoch to Ethos,” History of European Ideas, 20 (January 1995): 118. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.