On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life Irony
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Written by Mason Tabor
The irony of human happiness
The essay begins by asking the reader to consider how content animals seem to be in their disability to think, remember or communicate. Each thought is fleeting, as they immediately forget what they wanted to say. This means that each animal is unable to develop complex ideas, identities or desires, whereas the human is cursed with consciousness. This is ironic because the very qualities that had been heralded as man's higher calling, his 'image of God,' are by nature frustrating and depressing. If man had an inherent value and his life a meaning, then consciousness would be a beautiful manner through which man could revel in his existence. But instead, we use our minds to worry and despair, wandering through our life looking for a meaning that might just be a lie we constructed so we don't self-destruct.
The irony of the unaffected historian
Even the goal of objectivity is a subjective endeavor. So, how can a historian even hope for an objective history? For Nietzsche, he can't; it's impossible from the get-go. For him, acknowledging that everyone has an agenda is the first step in social awareness. This means that one is only qualified to study history once they realize that its essentially a meaningless task. The goal of the historian is to create a meaningful narrative to achieve his own interests--meaning that history is only meaningful as a way to express current interests. That is, history is basically rhetoric, and the most effective minds are able to reject the entire endeavor.
The irony of education
This irony, although prominent in Nietzsche's thoughts, has its roots all the way back in the writings of Plato. Plato shares Nietzsche's skepticism of people's political interests, arguing in book 8 of the Republic an argument which Nietzsche echoes: Man's search for meaning essentially amounts to our interpretations of shadows in Plato's cave. Even the most 'educated' man is essentially wasting his time learning systems that are not objecctively meaningful.
History in education has the same effect for Nietzsche. Someone who's really versed in history has no pragmatic advantage, except to push his own agendas through his own interpretation of history. At best, an 'educated' man might get to help create the dominant narrative, but that doesn't make his knowledge about history 'true'. In fact it seems to make it self-defeating.
For Nietzsche, the first step in becoming 'educated' is to throw off one's education and forget what the school teaches him about history. Education is awareness of one's assumptions and an elevation above the cultural assumptions of one's society. Undoing one's education is how one actually learns the objective truth of things.
The implicit irony of Nietzsche's position
It is possible that Nietzsche's point of view is self-defeating. If no one's narrative about history is to be trusted, then how should we view Nietzsche's own arguments? They are arguments about history just like classical history is, and he is certainly achieving an agenda through the essay, namely that we stand with his skepticism. But if the entire endeavor is meaningless, then it's not really clear how skepticism is pragmatically better than blind faith in someone's narrative.
This self-defeating also threatens his position about objectivity. His own subjective view about objectivity should imply that the reader not trust him about his thoughts about objectivity. That is: Nietzsche is saying that you can't trust anyone, but is asking us to trust his opinion about everyone else's trustworthiness. The danger of 'super-history' is that it might itself be a narrative with an agenda.
The irony of elevation
The way Nietzsche argues for ascension is ironic because it involves being wholly skeptical. This means that in order to find meaning, one has to acknowledge that history has no meaning. But at least the ignorant people have the benefit of believing something that provides their lives with meaning. Meanwhile, the truly educated person, by acknowledging the pointlessness of the endeavor removes all the benefits of the endeavor from his life. For Nietzsche, this is a nobel ascension, but for all practical intents, it's the most meaningless type of self awareness.
However, Nietzsche himself is well-aware of this. For a further discussion about the irony of enlightenment and elevation, confer with his Parable of a Madman, which portrays a Nietzschean übermensch-type, carrying a candle during the day, a metaphor for true enlightenment being crippling skepticism and distrust.
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