On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life Themes
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Written by Mason Tabor
The distrust of historical narratives
Nietzsche overtly argues against the blind acceptance of any single perspective. This includes the distrust of political agendas, but extends past that, including a systematic distrust of memory as a force. The danger of studying history is that people become convinced of a type of cause-and-effect narrative that makes sense to people, but which in reality is a gross reduction. Because life is hyper-complex, any one story could have thousands of different narratives, and each would seem plausible. Whichever narrative is retold enough then dominates academically, until people believe it is true.
For Nietzsche, the dominant case of this was the Franco-Prussian war. In Germany, the discussion surrounding the war led to a unification of Germany and a strong nationalism that shifted political power in a way that made Nietzsche uncomfortable. He argues for people to ignore history wholesale except for the academically free-minded, who can study the narratives of history and rise above them, using history to achieve a progressive society.
Transcending the limitations of culture
This is a popular theme in Nietzsche's work. It's behind übermensch arguements in other works, along with the super-history argument in this essay. The system essentially amounts to man acknowledging the limitations of his culture and choosing deliberately to rise above them. The parable of the madman is a similar argument.
Nietzschean transcendence depends heavily on rejecting the truth of arguments that the culture accepts without questioning. Religion would be a good example in Nietzsche's work. He rejects Christianity without ever wondering about Christ's resurrection, arguing instead that religion itself is meaningless and destructive. He sees this as admirable and freeminded.
In this essay, the same argument is being made against history. History is challenged on two fronts. Firstly, that history itself is a necessarily subjective endeavor, and secondly, that history is essentially meaningless because it's pragmatic value depends on the current agendas of the ones telling the stories.
Objectivity vs. subjectivity
Classical history depends on the understanding that things happen in a series of causes and effects. If one can identify these effectively, then they can retell history in a way that preserves objectivity. For Nietzsche, objectivity is threatened twice. He rejects the idea that history follows a plot that can be traced through causes and effects. He also rejects the idea that any objectivity is maintained even in the most unburdened, detached history.
For Nietzsche, any time a human looks backward into the past, they are reinterpreting an imagined past. Memory is like dreaming, and we find meaning in history the same way some people look for revelation in their dreams. It's all subjective and futile.
On drawing meaning from the past
An essay concerned with the academic study of history wouldn't necessarily need to argue about memory from an essential/existential perspective, but Nietzsche quickly invokes such arguments. He argues that memory is destructive in man's quest for meaning, because man can create false versions of the past where meaning seems more readily apparent, leading to 'glory days' memories.
For Nietzsche, this is destructive because it makes the man believe falsely that life has meaning in a cause-and-effect way. For him, this is a blatant fallacy, a type of escapism from the true challenge of existence--that there has never been redemptive meaning in our experience. When we choose to remember events fondly, we set ourselves up to be disappointed by the objective senselessness of the human narrative.
History is not only impossible, it's also dangerous. It threatens to bring man down where he ought to be transcending the chaos through fearless acceptance of his own meaninglessness.
Modernism and the goal of education
Classically, education has been seen as the process through which people learn where they are in the narrative of history. For an argument which severely discounts the value of that history, education comes to mean something different. Instead of an awareness of the history of the western culture, education for Nietzsche denotes an awareness of the blindspots of one's culture.
Many people remember only Nietzsche's writings against the Christians, calling to mind his "God is dead" arguments. But, the fact is that Nietzsche rejects all cultural assumptions wholesale. History, politics, academia, literature--all this is skewed by man's futile search for meaning in a chaotic world. Becoming educated means that one does not need to maintain the normal perspective, but instead can reject it and stand alone, above his brainwashed culture.
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