History, in so far as it serves life, serves an unhistorical power. –Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) once wrote: “I love the great despisers, for they are the great adorers, and arrows of longing for the other shore.” He was such a despiser, and such an arrow, and he has been loved by millions for his philosophical poetry. Anyone who has stared in complete disbelief at the invincible, triumphant stupidity of mass culture, or who has longed to do something noble with their lives, will find passages in his work to move them. To long for another shore in the face of such mindlessness is only human. But Nietzsche was an adorer no less than a despiser, and we may well wonder about the aristocratic ethos he held up for our adoration. Even as he wrote, an age of warrior heroes was already beginning—an age characterized by nothing so much as the herd amorality of hundreds of thousands of Nietzschlings in high office, each privately convinced that there was no sin but stupidity, no shame but defeat, and no problem that ruthlessness couldn’t overcome. Zarathustra would have found much to admire in the men who reduced a great civilization to ashes, and bequeathed to posterity a legacy of horror that will not soon be forgotten.
The nineteenth century was a great age for history, not only in Europe, but especially in Germany, which led the world in historical research at that time. Today, history does not have anything like the prestige that it then enjoyed. Nietzsche saw in that prestige a threat to the vitality and exuberance of life—always the central concern of his philosophy—for he worried that it tempted people to live vicariously in the past, rather than struggling and striving, as they should, for great things in the present. In his essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1874), he asked his readers to consider cows—how they exist in an eternal present, unspoiled by anxiety over the future, or memory of the past. Like children, they have no history, and for that they would be grateful, if they knew what history was. But man does have a history—an awareness that he stands at the end of a vast chain of consequence which has produced him, how he does not know, and is taking him where he cannot say—and with this knowledge, he has a burden that needs to be overcome.
Nietzsche identified three types of history: monumental, antiquarian, and critical, each of which has their uses and abuses, and each of which must be brought into harmony with the others in order to serve, rather than to shackle, life. Monumental history is the kind that uses the past to inspire us to attempt great things. Popular histories of the American Revolution, of the founders, and of the Constitutional Convention, for instance, are usually monumental histories. There the great men of the past are held up for our admiration, and we learn by vicariously participating in their struggles, doubts, and triumphs, how to live our own lives. We take heart, he said, from “the knowledge that the great which once existed, was at least possible once, and may well again be possible some time.” However, monumental history has its drawbacks. By focusing on the grand scale—on the heroic—it obscures the mundane and the ignoble. A history of Thomas Jefferson, for instance, becomes somewhat less monumental when we include the story of Sally Hemings, or indeed of all the hapless, voiceless people who were enslaved to make his revolutionary career possible. We hear nothing of the losers in mundane history, only the winners, and we are always tacitly encouraged by such histories to think of ourselves as born winners, and to contemptuously brush aside the possibilities of defeat.
Antiquarian history is “history for its own sake,” the view that we study the past, not because it will do anything for us, but simply because we find it pleasurable to inhabit a lost world, which nevertheless lives on through us. Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, is antiquarian history—a town built for no other purpose than to serve as a living relic of life in mid-eighteenth-century America, and which is meant to bring Americans into a closer awareness of their past, simply because it is their past. The advantage of antiquarian history is that it fosters a sense of rootedness, of tradition, and teaches people to love their home and country. Its danger is that it tempts people to venerate anything old as good in and of itself, and can foster a narrow-minded suspicion about anything new, foreign, or different. Then history becomes the dead hand of the past, crushing the life that history is supposed to serve. “Then,” Nietzsche said, “you may well witness the repugnant spectacle of a blind lust for collecting—of a restless raking together of all that has once been.”
Critical history is more typical of scholarship than popular history or museum history. It engages with the past in order to interrogate it, and to see what in the past is worthy of continuation in the present, and what should be discarded as a mere relic—or, worse, an encumbrance. So, for instance, a history of the United States that showed the growth of federal over state power since the time of the Constitutional Convention, and of the power of the executive against the legislature within the federal government, is implicitly a criticism of the situation that pertains today, in which the Tenth Amendment is for all intents and purposes a dead letter, and the legislature a largely impotent institution.
Nietzsche felt that this type of history had completely overpowered the others, and that people were simply too enamored of facts for their own good. By puncturing the myths of monumental and antiquarian history, critical history destroyed everything that we intuitively identify with in the past, and its ability to impart meaning to our lives. It made people feel old, weary, confused, indifferent, and, in short, it stifled the life that history, like everything else, should serve. It would be better to live in an eternal moment of bovine carelessness, or the careless innocence of childhood, than to be weighed down by such history. If it was to be brought back into its proper relation to man—as his servant, rather than his master—much critical history would have to be deliberately forgotten. Men need the myths, and the forgetting, which such history deprives them of. According to Nietzsche, history, like everything else that ennobles life, should be an art, and it should be judged, not by its fidelity to the past, but by its fidelity to the present.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.