On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life Quotes


This essay is also out of touch with the times because here I am trying for once to see as a contemporary disgrace, infirmity, and defect something for which our age is justifiably proud, its historical culture. For I believe, in fact, that we are all suffering from a consumptive historical fever and at least should recognize that we are afflicted with it.

Nietzsche, preface

Here Nietzsche acknowledges that he stands against the common narrative in the Western world, admitting that he is attempting to undermine something which has come to be revered. He's showing his hand before he begins his essay, expressing in the same paragraph his compelling urge to express his thoughts, even if they will be overwhelmed by the cultural norm.

Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus is neither melancholy nor weary. To witness this is difficult for man, because he boasts to himself that his human condition is better than the beast's and yet looks with jealousy at its happiness.... 

One day the man demands of the beast: 'Why do you not talk to me about your happiness and only gaze at me?' And the beast wants to answer, too, and says: 'That comes about because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say.' But by then the beast has already forgotten this reply and remains silent, so that the man keeps on wondering about it.

Nietzsche, 1.

This is an ironic retelling of the classical understanding that man's mind makes him above the beasts of the land. Yet, the mind is the source of the infinite dissatisfaction of man. Memory causes man to believe in a narrative, which if found to be meaningless, causes a deeper frustration than animals ever deal with. The frustrations that life brings to man cause him to look at the beast and wish he did not have rationality or language. We want to forget, and so we remember wrongly, according to an agenda to justify our existence to ourselves. 

In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we would have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one's self.

Nietzsche, 1.

This is the root of Nietzsche's argument against narrative history and a historical culture. In order to remove man's subjectivity from his retelling of history, we would have to account for man's ability to lie to himself about the fragility of his life in the scope of a potentially infinite obscurity. The matter of the fact is that man's ability to lie to himself might be infinite, so an 'objective' history becomes impossible, and the goal of history as a study itself is called into question. 

History belongs, above all, to the active and powerful man, the one who fights a great battle, who needs the exemplary men, teachers, and comforters and cannot find them among his contemporary companions.

Nietzsche, 2.

This quote represents Nietzsche's aggressive skepticism against anyone who asks another person to consider history in this way or that. Some people are skeptical of certain political biases, sure, but what Nietzsche is criticizing is not one point of view or another--it's the very question invoked by history itself. For Nietzsche, anyone who asks you to believe any historical view is selling something. Each political movement criticizes others, where as Nietzsche says that having any position about history, any political interests, any economic desires at all renders the study of history a subjective and unacademic pursuit. History is a political tool, not a valuable philosophical one. 

And might not an illusion have crept into even the highest interpretation of the word objectivity? For with this word, people understand a condition in the historian in which he looks at an event in all its motives and consequences with such purity that they have no effect at all on his subject.... However it is a myth that the picture which things bring out in a person constituted in this way reflects the empirical essence of  things.

Nietzsche, 6.

The very question goal of object history is self-defeating. If subjectivity includes any and all motives on the part of the historian, then no level of objectivity is possible. The study of history is essentially subjective and unempirical. Consider how difficult it is to even understand the thousands of forces that act on a person. It's wishful thinking to believe that someone can understand all these internal politics and even if they could, that they would be capable of turning them all off to offer a history that was truly objective. For Nietzsche, this is necessarily impossible. No one can truly maintain objectivity. 

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