On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life

Friedrich Nietzsche

“The surfeit of history of an age seems to me hostile and dangerous to life,” Nietzsche says midway through this, the second of his Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations), written only a year after his first book, The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1872. In this early work, Nietzsche warns his fellow 19th-century Europeans—newly drunk on the study of history—of the dangers of too much historical knowledge gained second-hand. These dangers, Nietzsche says, include the tendency to believe that we are late-comers, that everything has already been done; conversely that, with our knowledge we are the wisest of all ages; and the tendency to look backward for models on which to base our present conduct—in other words, imitation of dead heroes. Against this “decadent” reliance on dusty books, Nietzsche posits a “healthy-minded” psychological balance between digested historical knowledge and a kind of “willed forgetfulness”—that is, originality—in present-day conduct.
Despite the emphasis on history, one gets a glimmer here of Nietzsche’s later, fully developed Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life), in this case a sort of “history-for-life.” Also contained in this rich essay are other “seeds” of Nietzschean themes that would be explored in later works: eternal recurrence, the critique of Christianity and German chauvinism (and this was written only two years after the Prussian victory over France!). In his questioning of “objectivity” Nietzsche seems to be taking an historical/relativist position. His warning against the feeling of modern man that his is an inevitable “evening” time finds echoes (however differently asserted) in his alleged “disciple” Spengler. A sheer delight! TM

Publisher: Hackett
Paperback: 64 pages