On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life

On the Proper Uses and Improper Abuses of History for the Existing Individual

Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life reads as a polemic against German historicism, the prevailing attitude of his time with respect to the value of history. Originally published as the second of four Untimely Meditations, this work offers a cultural critique that is in tension with what Nietzsche sees as the prevailing self-congratulatory spirit of an age paralyzed by its quest for a certain kind of knowledge and truth. From the failure of reason’s promise to deliver knowledge, the nineteenth century emerges with a view of historical knowledge as valuable in-and-for itself. Nietzsche’s criticism of the nineteenth century’s approach to history is derived from his belief that an objective, scientific approach to history is psychologically and ethically devastating to contemporary men. He objects to the metaphysical claim of historicism, so defined, for its tendency to alienate existing individuals from themselves. Echoing Kierkegaard’s characterization of objective truth as unsuitable for existing individuals – belittling such a total picture of reality as “a system – for God; but [not] for any existing spirit” – Nietzsche diagnoses the destructive effects of such an approach. Like...

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