Last week in our Theories in Modernity class we looked at Nietzsche’s essay “On the Disadvantages of History For Life”. It was a really interesting piece because it brought up loads of interesting questions around our relationship to history. Nietzsche explores the effect history has on human beings. In this essay he is acknowledging the need for history in order to live an active life but he is also making the point that history can become a problem if we dwell on the past too much and forget to live.
He goes on to explain that for some people the past is something they cling onto so tight that it becomes a chain they cannot break free from. Its like a ghost that haunts the present and so there is no escape or peace from it. Nietzsche explains how children are not yet haunted by this ghost because they have not lived long enough to be concerned with the past. He describes how children “blissfully play between the hedges” of the past and the future for a little while however this blissful existence cannot last forever. Soon this forgetful stage fades away and they begin to learn about the past. This can be a source of great suffering and conflict for some.
Later in the essay Nietzsche begins to move away from the individual and begins to look at history in relation to society and the wider world. He looks at three different ways in which the world can use history. The first is the monumental. This approach to history is one where people put an enormous amount of significance on a particular figure or event in history. This focuses all the greatness on one thing and leaves no room for anything else. A Monumental approach to history can be useful as a source of inspiration for people going through hard times. They look to these figures or events and draw strength from them. This view of history can however become a problem when too much focus is put on an individual or event. People refuse to see any faults in these figures and only one side of the story gets told because there is no room for the other side. This so called greatness takes up all the room and history gets distorted.
The second is an antiquarian view of history. This approach causes people to look back and pine for a time gone by. People who adopt this approach tend to romanticise about the old times and long for a return to them. Of course we cannot turn back the clock and go back. Things naturally progress and change and as a result people who subscribe to this way of thinking often struggle with change and can feel left behind. Their loyalty is so tied to the past that they cannot open their mind to the possibility that lay ahead in the future. It also makes it difficult to enjoy the present if you are constantly thinking about the past. Nietzsche is not saying that man should forget where he came from but instead learn from the past and allow it to help him progress in life. Allow for new experiences as well as remembering the ones that have passed.
The third and final one that Nietzsche looks at is the critical view of history. This approach is I think the one that he wishes people to use when they think about history. This approach dismantles historic events within a country or culture and allows its members to examine it in a critical way. Some parts of this history may be difficult to look at and some people might not like to think of these events as part of their past but Nietzsche explains that this examination is necessary in order to grow and learn from the past. Nietzsche writes that violence and weakness have always played a role in the past even if human beings would prefer to forget it and focus on the more glorious parts of history. This critical examination is described as a dangerous but useful process. We have arrived at this point in part due to the events of the past. He explains that we cannot completely free ourselves from the chains of the past so the best we can do is use our knowledge of what happened to inform the present and try to create a better inheritance for the next generation. Nietzsche does not presume to know exactly the right balance between what people should remember and what they should let go of but he does say that every once in a while if we keep trying, a balance is struck that serves history and allows individuals and society the freedom to progress towards a fuller life.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” Nietzsche: Untimely Meditations. Ed 2. Danielle Brazeale. Cambridge. 1997. 59-77. Print