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Ep. 300: Nietzsche on Relating to History (Part One)

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast
Mark Linsenmayer

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In this special live-streamed show, we discuss Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” (1874), which is Untimely Meditations #2, featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.

What is the healthiest way to relate to our history? More generally, should we live lives driven purely by reason, which includes a mature awareness of as much of our culture’s intellectual history as possible? Or is it in fact necessary in order to do anything great to willfully ignore most of what came before?

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Nietzsche of course doesn’t want us to be ignorant of history, but he’s against what was considered a “scientific” take on history in his time, which (influenced by Hegel) is a matter of seeing history as great forces pushing history forward. This leads to seeing oneself in the present as merely a cog in a historical machine with no free will and no real power to affect things. Whether or not it’s true, action requires that we believe that we are free and efficacious.

Nietzsche identifies three approaches to history which are all useful in their place but oppressive if one pursues them too consistently:

  • Monumental history recognizes the actions of great individuals in the past. This can inspire us to great things or it can weigh us down by taking that greatness as something that we in the present can never live up to and must just bow down before.
  • Antiquarian history is scholarly history as you’d ordinarily think of it: Taking a keen interest in the past qua past. This roots us to our homeland and so gives our lives situatedness and meaning, but it also tends to make us too focused on the history of our little piece of ground and too uncritical and equalizing about all aspects of that history. We might pursue tradition for tradition’s sake, which again, devalues our capabilities in the present. Everything new is dismissed as a deviation from the past.
  • Critical history unlike the other two types allows us to cast judgment on history, which for Nietzsche is good, as he is a big proponent of having the courage to be a judge. There are always errors in the past which we can see and (try to) learn not to repeat. However, we can see how being too critical throws out the baby with the bathwater. To modernize the lesson: Yes, Aristotle and Kant were racist, but does that mean that we shouldn’t read them?

Buy Untimely Meditations or read this essay online. The secondary source that we refer to is Anthony K. Jensen’s An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.”

You may wish to listen to some of our previous episodes on Nietzsche, particularly the ones on the two works written just before this one: The Birth of Tragedy and “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense.”

Image by Genevieve Arnold. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.