The Trouble with History
Not only is Nietzsche's contribution to the assault on metaphysics widely recognized, it is taken for granted that, as one aspect of that assault, he denigrated "history," helping to undermine the premium on historical modes of understanding characteristic of the nineteenth century. Around the turn of the century, Dilthey warned against the shortsighted denigration of historical consciousness that he found in Nietzsche and the developing vogue of Nietzsche's thought. From then on, Nietzsche's emphasis on self-creation, his critique of "the will to truth," his aestheticist talk of the fictions we create in order to live in the face of blank becoming—all have seemed to suggest that his thought was fundamentally antihistorical.
It is certainly true that Nietzsche inveighed against the historical sense as inimical to vitality and creativity. In Beyond Good and Evil , for example, he associated history with the faddish borrowing from any and all historical periods that seemed characteristic of his own century and that stood in sharp contrast
to the self-affirmation he valued. He had in mind, for example, the copying and emphasis on revival in architecture that later drew the wrath of pioneering modernists like Walter Gropius. But historical-mindedness covers a multitude of possibilities, and Nietzsche sensed that what remains as the metaphysical tradition dissolves is precisely history. As he experienced it, however, history in a postmetaphysical mode was anything but sustaining or reassuring.
In attacking nineteenth-century historical-mindedness, Nietzsche was not simply shifting the focus from public to private, from historical copying to individual self-creation, from historical consciousness to some subjective time consciousness or concern with one's personal past. It was the relationship between these two levels—the public-historical and the personal-individual—that he found decisive. Through the categories of his maturity—amor fati (loving one's fate), eternal recurrence, the innocence of becoming—Nietzsche was seeking to envision a mode of individual experience emptied of the troubling mode of historical consciousness that first seemed to follow from the waning of metaphysics.
Even as a young scholar, Nietzsche was restive with the dominant historicist imperatives of his own time, especially as embodied in philology, his own academic specialty. His first major work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), flew in the face of the notion that we study the past for its own sake, apart from some contemporary concern. Nietzsche sensed that historical inquiry and understanding were necessarily bound up with the living of the present inquirer. Precisely because history was not the province of a past readily distinguishable from the present, historical inquiry might have a deeper contemporary relevance than the standard justifications and imperatives suggested. As the other side of the coin, however, if history was not confined to the past, it entailed risks; it could be corrosive.
Nietzsche's untimely meditation "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" (1874) has come to be associated especially with one, relatively familiar antihistorical theme. What he found disadvantageous for life in his own time was especially a passive, vulgar-Hegelian endorsement of the actual and a sense of coming late, of living when little of moment was left to be done. In this double sense, a premium on history undermined the sense of possibility necessary for ongoing creative energy.
This baggage surrounding history was part of what troubled Nietzsche, but an emphasis on this theme has diverted attention from a preoccupation that was also evident in this early meditation and that proved deeper, dominating his subsequent intellectual quest. We moderns, Nietzsche tells us, are caught up in "the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been." History
dissolves everything "that possesses life," just as it had, partly through the agency of David Friedrich Strauss, the Christianity in which Nietzsche himself had been raised. And this makes for the "dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away." There may have been something great and noble about, for example, the founding of Christianity, but between Christianity's founding and its historical success "there lies a very dark and earthy stratum of passion, error, thirst for power and honor." Nietzsche experienced, in a deeply personal way, the corrosiveness of historical understanding—what it means to grasp things, perhaps even all things, as contingent historical products.
The problem was that historical inquiry reveals, not the reason for things, but the lack of reason, the sheer contingency of everything that has resulted historically. Nietzsche was clearly appalled as he began to sense that our world has resulted from nothing but history, which, in turn, is nothing but this freakish concatenation of lies, errors, and self-serving actions. History, he says, "always brings to light so much that is false, crude, inhuman, absurd, violent that the mood of pious illusion in which alone anything that wants to live can live necessarily crumbles away." From this perspective, insofar as the hypertrophy of historical-mindedness threatened to undermine action, it was not because history makes us complacent but because it undermines even the foothold for commitment. Yet apparently nothing could resist the corrosive historical treatment; by Nietzsche's time, history had become a maelstrom sucking everything in. What had seemed the true world now appeared as but a layering of human contrivances in a field of sheer becoming.
So the world was coming to seem nothing but history, but this was obviously not Hegel's sort of history, because the process seemed utterly without the higher-order rationality and necessity that Hegel had posited. To understand the world historically is not to grasp some justifying reason but to realize that things would not have to be this way at all. The fact that our reality has turned out, so far, to be this way and not some other way comes to seem a billion-to-one fluke, honeycombed with absurdity.
This sense of reality collapsing into the mere contingency of history remained fundamental to Nietzsche's experience and intellectual enterprise. In his notes of the mid-1880s, he remarked that "the victory of a moral ideal is achieved by the same 'immoral' means as every victory: force, lies, slander, injustice"—to which he subsequently added the marginal gloss, "unsparing honesty." Such honesty compels us to recognize that the whole of our world is
woven around such capriciousness and contingency. And he was struck with how much is crushed, stifled, lost, as any particular world comes to be.
To emphasize contingency was to dissociate origins from meaning, purpose, reality, truth. Nietzsche's way of answering his own question in Daybreak is typical: "How did rationality arrive in the world? Irrationally, as might be expected: by a chance accident." He asserted the implications most fully in On the Genealogy of Morals .
The cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master , and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous "meaning" and "purpose" are necessarily obscured and even obliterated.
"Genealogy" would be Nietzsche's way of analyzing what has "somehow come into being," what has happened between that "origin" and the present. And his premium on genealogy was not to dismiss history but to take history more seriously—radically and deeply seriously. However, because history is not some orderly process of development implicit in the origins, but merely contingent, accidental, capricious, there can be no shortcut to suprahistorical understanding. The genealogical understanding of anything that "is" requires painstaking analysis.
Though some of his preoccupations were novel, Nietzsche was concerned with history in something like the conventional sense when he wrote "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." At issue was not just empty, neutral "becoming" but history, with a determinate content; capricious though our history has been, it has resulted in something in particular, in this and not that. And the fruit of historical inquiry was not some sort of fiction or "lie" but plain old historical truth. Indeed, the problem with history was precisely that it uncovered the historical truth of things present—a problem because the unvarnished truth proves disillusioning, nauseating, and thus inimical to further action.
At this point, Nietzsche's antidotes to the disadvantageous effects of historical-mindedness were relatively conventional and did not directly address the most troubling aspects of the hypertrophy of history. He spoke of constructing history selectively, in such a way as to enhance life; he spoke of forgetting, by moving away from any cultural premium on empirical
historiography; he valued those great individuals who "do not carry forward any kind of process but live contemporaneously with each other," in an exalted dialogue across history. By communing with the like-minded over time, the life-affirming individual seems to deny time and history altogether.
But Nietzsche also responded in more innovative ways, first by turning the tables and historicizing historical-mindedness itself. The nineteenth-century premium on historical understanding stemmed from a sense of coming late that was itself historically specific, not suprahistorically privileged. At first, this insight seemed reassuring. Despite the nineteenth-century tendency, we apparently do not have to think historically and thereby experience the world as freakish and jerry-built. Once the ideal of truth is similarly historicized, the historical accounts that result from our historicizing way of accounting for things come to seem but one set among the innumerable fictions that human beings impose on empty becoming.