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Friday, 26 February 2010

History Primer: Nietzsche on History and Life

A sense of history is central to Nietzsche's understanding of morality. Here I look at his second 'Untimely Meditation' which distinguished between what he called the monumental, antiquarian and critical approaches to history.

German Historiology
To many Germans of the Second Reich, the Prussian victory of 1871 (1) seemed to vindicate their sense of 'world historic' destiny, (2) which had been prepared and awakened by the Hegelian school of historiology in the first half of that century.
To Hegel there was a definite providential plan which saw the inexorable unfolding of Geist up through the ages of the nations, culminating in the Prussian State (3) as its ultimate realisation. (4)
1) 1879: France declares war on Prussia ... 1871: German troops enter Paris. Treaty concluded and ratified by French Assembly (from Putnam's Handbook of Universal History, 1914)
2) "World History - as distinct from history, which refers to all events, not just the development of freedom" referring to Hegel's 'Philosophy of History'. [Hughes-Warrington p. 146]
3) The so-called "dialectic of the spirit of the nations" [Editor's Introduction, Burckhardt p. xix]
4) Butler p. 135

Philosophy and History
Leopold von Ranke
Hegel died in 1831, but his many followers elaborated on his blueprint where philosophy and historiography merged. (5) Historians who regarded Hegelianism as 'bad history' (6) presented rival approaches such as the meticulous and archival-based work of Leopold von Ranke (7) with the result that historiology became an 'exclusively sovereign power' (8) above that of art, religion and philosophy itself. (9)
While Hegelian historicism (10) had fewer detractors among philosophers, the lonely figure of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in Germany must be noted. He chided the Hegelians that they should read some Plato to discover that philosophy is concerned only with those things which are 'unchangeable and lasting' - i.e., with the unhistorical. (11)
5) Hegel's Historicism, in Beiser p. 272
6) "Some have dismissed Hegel on the grounds that he manipulated historical data in order to fit in with his philosophical ideas." [Hughes-Warrington p. 146]
7) Ranke (1795-1886) "laid claim to producing an account of history 'as it really was'." [Burckhardt p. xx]
8) Mugge p. 119
9) "In Germany ... history replaced philosophy as the fundamental science of human nature and explanation of all human society." [Burckhardt ib.]
10) 'Historicism' is the view that the course of events in history are governed by general laws. [Mautner p. 250]
11) Heller p. 68

Nietzsche and History
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) discovered the work of Schopenhauer in 1865 and quickly became an adherent, (12) and in 1869 - at the unusually young age of twenty-four - he was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basle. (13) Among his colleagues there was the much older professor of history, Jacob Burckhardt, who shared his enthusiasm for Schopenhauer - the two became close friends. (14)
After his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1871) caused controversy amongst classical philologists, (15) Nietzsche decided to turn social critic and planned a series of 'Untimely' essays (16) which would examine the state of contemporary German culture. (17) The second essay of the series, On the the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (18) marked the first fundamental challenge to the premisses of historicism (19) - and yet so pervasive was the culture of history at the time that the essay met with a deafening silence. (20)
12) Kaufmann p. 32
13) Halevy p. 67
14) Burckhardt thought that the high expectations placed upon the 'prodigy' Nietzsche undermined his health [Kohler p. 16]
15) cf. Hollingdale pp. 84-90
16) Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen (1873-5) variously translated as 'Untimely Meditations', 'Unfashionable Observations' etc. - Four Betrachtungen were published, although thirteen were originally planned [Diethe p. 215, see also Hollingdale p. 106 and 'Translator's Afterword' to Nietzsche 1995 p. 365].
17) 'Trans. Afterword', Nietzsche 1995 p. 396
18) Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben appeared as a pamphlet in February 1874 [cf. Hollingdale p. ix]
19) Burckhardt p. xxii
20) "No one spoke of his book." Halevy p. 158

The Effect of History
The work wanted to examine the very value of historiology (21) and opined that - Germany in particular - was suffering from "a consuming historical fever." [H8] Because 'forgetting' is essential to action and happiness, [H9-10] "an excess of history is detrimental to life." [H14]
The damage that Nietzsche recognises is fivefold:
weakened personality,
arrogance of the present age over others,
immaturity of instincts,
belief that one is a perpetual late-comer, and
a propensity towards cynicism. [H28] (22)
The central paradox of the essay is that, while mankind needs to have a consciousness of his history [H7] in order to be human, an excessive or inappropriate concern with that sense of his own history actually prevents him from living fully;
"History, so far as it serves life, serves an unhistorical power." [H14]
21) Nietzsche 1980 p. 7 - this edition will be hereafter referred to in the text as H, along with the page number, and be given in square brackets.
22) Mugge p. 118

Theory of The Three Kinds
Hegel had distinguished three different 'modes' of historiography:
Reflective, and
These were three stages, each one a successive and therefore higher form than the one that precedes it, with its zenith - philosophical history - being the Hegelian. (23)
Burckhardt, who studied under Ranke, managed to combine the precise archival approach to history with a poetic flair he derived from Goethe. (24)
Dismissing the Hegelian notion of history as a "progress towards freedom," (25) he rather structured history into 'three great powers';
Religion, and
Culture (26)
i.e., synchronically rather than diachronically (27), an almost unhistorical approach to history. (28)
Nietzsche, too, chose to structure history into what he called 'three kinds';
Antiquarian, and
Critical [H14]
Note that these are based on different types of human temperament and existence. The person who is "active and striving" possesses monumental history, while the one "preserves and admires" owns antiquarian history. Critical history though, belongs to those who "suffer" and are "in need of liberation." [ib.]
These kinds or "species" (29) of historiology grow only out of the corresponding human types just as a certain plant can grow only in a certain type of 'soil'. To try and 'transplant' monumental history in, say, one who 'suffers' would cause 'much harm'. [H18] Nietzsche then extrapolates from a type of man to a people, a culture - "eines Volkes, einer Cultur." [H14]
Reactions to Nietzsche's 'three kinds' have been varied. Heidegger believed that with it Nietzsche had profoundly touched upon "the historicality of Dasein." (30) While Kaufmann - probably the most influential Nietzsche commentator and translator in the Anglophone world post-WWII - had little time for them, thinking that the other categories in the work of historical, unhistorical and supra-historical were far more important. (31)
In the first full-length monograph on Nietzsche's philosophy, Lou Salome not only recognised the importance of this essay and of its three kinds, but compared the latter to the three periods of Nietzsche's work - early, middle and late - which she established. (32) While this may be somewhat fanciful, it is certainly true that the essay has many implications for Nietzsche's middle and later periods, as we shall see.
23) Hughes-Warrington pp. 147-8
24) Brown p. 20
25) ib. p. 24
26) Burckhardt p. xxiii
27) ib. p. xxiv
28) Heller p. 65
29) Taylor p. 142 
30) Heidegger p. 448
31) Kaufman pp. 122-3
32) Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken (1894) Salome pp. 42-5

Nietzsche began making notes for the essay in the autumn of 1873 onwards, (33) and from these notebooks we can get an idea of how he developed his theory of 'three kinds'.
At first, there were only two: the monumental (first called 'the classical'), and the antiquarian. The classical wants to use and transfigure the past to serve the present as its "archetype", while the antiquarian wants the past 'as it really was';
"The needs of life demand the classical, the needs of truth the antiquarian." (34)
Here is another important theme: history that serves truth may actually be less useful to life than a history that serves illusion. [H39]
In the notebooks he says, with some disapprobation, that the "modern historian" is "an amalgamation" of both the classical (or monumental) and the antiquarian. (35) And this might apply to Burckhardt, whose work urged the contemplation (36) of greatness, (37) but could not (or cared not) to explain how change occurred in history.
33) Nietzsche 1995 p. 403
34) Nietzsche 1999 p. 202
35) They should be either one of the other - but totally, according to Nietzsche [Nietzsche 1999 pp. 206-7]
36) Heller p. 74
37) Burckhardt p. xxiv



Nietzsche, in emphasising action over contemplation [H7] (38) needed to find a third kind of historiology to account for change - and he found this in critical history.
Burckhardt recognised that Nietzsche was dissatisfied with his static 'powers', and had thrown up "questions and lamentations." (39) Indeed, critical history itself was the province of he who - stifled by stagnation and inaction - wants to destroy all barriers to 'ripe' life.
38) Burckhardt p. xxiv
39) ib. p. xxv


In this very essay Nietzsche is the critic who is bringing all forms of historicism to a "bar of judgement" which is not "justice", but life itself - a life which knows and cares nothing for fairness and pity, [H22] and is nothing but - as he will put it in his later works - 'the will to power'. (40)
This emphasis on vitalism influenced the Lebensphilosophie movement (41) which flourished in the 1880s right into the 20th century, this essay being an "important inspiration" to it. (42)
40) In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 13 [Nietzsche 1998 p. 15]
41) Diethe p. 142
42) Aschheim p. 13

So the critical historian must be ready to destroy a past life, a "first nature", so that a new life and a "second nature" might be created - and indeed, every first nature was a second nature at one time. [H22]
And this is the usefulness of the critical. But it is also a great "danger" as its inherent self-destructiveness could spell the end for life itself. [ib.]
As Nietzsche was later to describe himself;
"I am not a man - I am dynamite!" (43)
43) In his 'autobiography', Ecce Homo (1888), published posthumously in 1908 [Nietzsche 2007 p. 88]


The natural conservative needs antiquarian history if he reveres his own heritage. He will lovingly tend and husband his ancestral inheritance; he will engage in local history, local festivities and be at one with it all;
"he will greet the soul of his people as his own soul even across the wide, obscuring and confusing centuries." [H19]
And when this kind of historiology is found amongst a whole people - even though they be simple and poor - they will be content with their lot, never wanting to leave the warmth of their own hearths and the loving security of their kindred. [H20]
Here history serves life, although it is easy to see how this kind can also - when taken to excess - paralyse life. Only the old and the traditional becomes respected, while any innovation is rejected out-of-hand. Then the juices begin to dry up and things become sterile, because this kind "merely understands how to preserve life, not how to generate it." [H21]
The symptoms are well-known: 'Egyptianism' and a preference fro the museum. Rituals are doggedly adhered to even when they have long become meaningless and irrelevant.

Those whose tendency is towards the monumental in history are able to take the great examples of the past and use them in the present to create the future. They know that if greatness was possible once, then it can be repeated again today and tomorrow. They have the courage to do great things. They are strong men and fighters who require similar exemplars from history for them not only to emulate but to find camaraderie with as they gaze - from peak to peak - across the mountain range of the ages. [H15]
And just as they have little concern for what goes on in the valleys, so too do they have scant regard for the historical truth of their models. Nor do they bother themselves with the 'causes and effects' of such things, or whether 'chance' may have played a role in the past. For they are like artists, and they fashion the world to their own plan.
"Thus, whenever the monumental vision of the past rules over other ways of looking at the past, I mean the antiquarian and the critical, that past itself suffers damage." [H17]
Taken to excess, the monumental leads to fanaticism, megalomania, madness and the wanton catastrophe of revolution due to its wilful distortion of reality. [ib.]

The Right Type
If, on the other hand, the monumental is taken up by those who are of the wrong type (e.g., the inactive), then one might have a similar result to that of an excess of the antiquarian. A 'canon' of those great men of the past is set up with which to denigrate any great men of the present. [H18]
Here, as elsewhere, only critical history is capable of liberating life from such a deadlock.

Eternal Return
In connection with monumental history Nietzsche mentions the Pythagorean notion of an exact repetition of past events. Known as the eternal recurrence of the same, it will become central to his late philosophy. (44) The monumental desire that great men recur eternally (45) can certainly be linked to his later evocation of the Overhuman. (46)
44) In The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche writes of this "heaviest weight" (the penultimate aphorism (341) of Book IV). The final aphorism of the same book (342) introduces Zarathustra, and the notion of the eternal recurrence is central to Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra [Nietzsche 2001 pp. 194-5]
45) Taylor p. 143
46) The 'Uebermensch', of course - Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5) has "I teach you the Overhuman. The human is something that shall be overcome." [Nietzsche 2005 p. 11]

Genealogy and Foucault
Critical history would seem to be the starting point for Nietzsche's later project of 'genealogy' which sought to expose the illusions of (Christian) morality by demonstrating its 'shameful' origins. (47)
Foucault takes this up and suggests that Nietzsche's genealogy makes use of all three kinds of history, stating that monumentalism is reversed into a "parodic double" while the antiquarian is reversed into a "systematic dissociation." And critical history is said to be taken to its extreme, that of a "sacrifice of the subject" (which is after all just the excess which Nietzsche warns against). (48)
I think these points apply more to Foucault's own use of Nietzsche than to Nietzsche himself, as Nietzsche always affirms an alternative to that which he is 'deconstructing' without any sense of 'parody';
"      'Beyond Good and Evil' ...
"At least does not mean 'Beyond Good and Bad'." (49)
Nietzsche's belief that the "goal of humanity" lay "in its highest specimens" [H53] never waned throughout his career, and he saw a balance between the constructive and destructive aspects of his three kinds of history as a way of affirming that goal.
47) In On The Genealogy of Morality (1887) he wrote, "Some training in history soon transformed my problem into another: under what conditions did man invent the value judgements good and evil?" [Nietzsche 1994 p. 5]
48) 'Nietzsche, Genealogy and History' in Foucault pp. 94-5
49) Nietzsche 1994 p. 36

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Taylor, Q. The Republic of Genius Rochester 1997

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