Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nietzsche - On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life

Wrote a summary of Nietzsche's work On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. I really like the his argument but its somewhat difficult to decipher so I thought i'd post this for those of you interested in getting an idea of this work.

Nietzsche: On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life

Neitzche beings his paper by positing several contradictions, and working through the method of adopting personages, exemplifies how knowledge of this contradiction could work to serve life. History must serve life, he asserts, but it also must help us forget, because forgetting is what makes life possible. What Neitzsche is attempting to do here is to make us conscious of the constructed nature of history, which, while negating any notion of absolute truth, is nonetheless, necessary for the construction of the present and thus the construction of life. Delineation of the past and the world around us is central to existence; however, it also produces a falsification of the past, a discriminated version of the truth. So if history cannot be said then to serve the absolute truth then it must be made to serve life, for it is necessary to life. Through the various personages he invokes, the ways in which history and forgetting can be used to serve life is revealed.

The first personages Nietzsche invokes are the basic units of man and animal to exemplify the fundamental distinction between their experiences of memory and history. Animals, he asserts live unhistorically, the animal is “contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left over, it does not know how to dissimulate, it conceals nothing and at every instant appears wholly as what it is; it can therefore never be anything but honest” . Man, however “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, so as to excite their envy.” Therefore, to Nietzsche man is in a fundamental sense burdened by his own history. Constantly in dialogue with both the past and the present, he is unable unlike the animal, to experience a pure present, to exist in an absolute sense of presentness. Thus, man is envious of the animal’s ability to forget, for the animal can exist in the pure happiness and simplicity of a moment without its memory hearkening back to the consequences of yesterday’s actions and horrors.

But how does forgetting result in happiness? Nietzsche tells us that “if a man could not forget he would 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.” That is to say, that without forgetting man would be in constant rumination and would be unable to embrace life and action so as to be happy. On the other hand, if man is constantly able to forget, through strength of will or heart, then man would be unable to feel the morality of their actions and would exist without the acknowledgement of the consequences of action. Man cannot exist unhistorically because man is rooted and situated in history through the consequences of the previous and historical actions of man. Can one escape the past then through the act of death, that is to say a transformation to a state of nonexistence? Nietzsche asserts that death brings no solace; “if death at last brings the desired forgetting, by that act it at the same time extinguishes the present and all existence and therewith sets the seal on the knowledge that existence is only an uninterrupted has-been, a thing that lives by negating, consuming and contradicting itself.” In this statement, he is saying that through death one cannot escape the past and that it is impossible to live in the present alone because when we die our presentness dies as well and we enter the realm of the has-been, the past. This presents a theoretical double bind, we cannot escape the past through death yet we need to forget so as to live. Thus we need the past through the actions of delineation and selective forgetting to serve life. How can the past then be made to serve life? Nietzsche here employs three personages of history so as to illustrate how this can be made possible.

The first personage is that of the monumental man, that is to say a man of ‘deeds and power’, who has a monumental sense of history. Monumental history is for those “who need a teacher, models, and comforters, but to whom his contemporaries are no consolation.” History for such a man is an assurance of the ‘continuity of greatness’ which brings solace to the drab present and leads such a man astray from the natural condition of apathy. Such a man sees in this history of great men an escape from the temporality of the present, an option to go on living through posterity by becoming such a man, a monumental man of a monumental history. It is also a comfort, for it serves, as Nietzsche states “to show that greatness once existed and was possible and thus is possible again, helping in times of doubt” However, to view history as a lineage of great men is by nature an act of delineation and discrimination, a constructing of history into a monumental narrative and as a result the past suffers. “It is not the historical cause and effect that motivates them it is the ‘effect in themselves’ because then it is not viewed as being irreproducible.” Thus, the monumental man engages in an act of reframing history through a process of selective forgetting so as to forge the impossible assertion that ‘if it once was done, it could be done again’, with no consideration to the complexity of circumstances and context in forming these original moments of greatness . The monumental man is thus using active forgetting to justify action, and through that to serve life. Nietzsche however warns that this form of history, if used by a man incapable of engaging in the production of the monumental, could be used to deride his contemporaries who in fact seek the monumental in the present. To such a man, Nietzsche says “the monumental is never to be repeated, the contemporary is not yet monumental, seems to him unnecessary, unattractive and lacking in the authority conferred by history.” Thus, through such a misuse, the monumental sense of history which is necessary for actions of the monumental scale is used to the opposite effect and hinders progress and action. That is why a particular sense of history must belong to and only to a particular man.

The second personage is the antiquarian, who possesses an antiquarian sense of history. Such a man, Nietzsche tells us “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” The antiquarian is valuable to life in the sense that he/she helps create the sense of the ‘we’ and situates him/herself and their community in a specific historical moment and through that, makes themselves more content with the culture of their peoples, as they bear witness through such a history the richness of their past. Furthermore, it situates individuals and societies in a history instead of existing as arbitrary or accidental phenomena . In this way the antiquarian, like the monumental man transcends the transitoriness of individual existence by becoming aware of him/herself in history’s narrative. There is danger however, Nietzsche warns, when in this reverence of history the antiquarian is unable to discriminate the varying values of the historical. For then all things historical are at once valorized while the contemporary is devalued because it has yet to gain historical significance, and as a result progress is impeded. Nietzsche illustrates this with the metaphor of a tree; “when the study of history serves the life of the past in such a way that it undermines continuing and especially higher life, when the historical sense no longer conserves life but mummifies it, then the tree gradually dies unnaturally from the top downwards to the roots—and in the end the roots themselves perish.” Therefore, there is a necessity for a discriminatory and critical view of history so as to avoid the burial of the present.

This critical perspective is the third personage: the critical man with a critical sense of history. In order to live, man must be able to take this great heap of history, examine it and break it down to see the glaring and dreadful reality of human nature and history and condemn its tyranny. This task, however, is not a simple one, because it requires one not only to be self aware of oneself in history but also of the very constructed nature of this history. Nietzsche reiterates this point, “it requires a great deal of strength to be able to live and to forget the extent to which to live and to be unjust is one and the same thing.” However, one cannot simply condemn history and do away with it, for every individual and society originate in this history, as Nietzsche says, “we are also the outcome of their aberrations, passions and errors, and indeed of their crimes; it is not wholly possible to free oneself from this chain.” That is to say, by merely condemning these histories, one is at risk of repeating their atrocities as the nature which guided them, indeed guides our own actions. Instead Nietzsche argues for this critique of old habits to be informative of new habits, a second nature, which man can actively pursue so as to combat our first nature. Even in this possibility though Nietzsche warns that we are all too predisposed to abandoning our lofty ideals, our second nature, for the comfort of our first; however, with diligence in adhering to goals one can be comforted in knowing that “ this first nature was once second nature and that every victorious second nature will become a first.” Thus, a critical approach to history with an active engagement with both remembrance and forgetting, can guide man towards actions informed by this practice in the service of life.

1 comment:

  1. This was very informative and helpful, thank you!