Reading Nietzsche is not always the easiest thing to do. He is the okra of philosophers, and his moments of lyricism are offset by yawpish moments like this one from “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life”:
Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again: and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. Man may well ask the animal: why do you not speak of me of your happiness but only look at me? The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say – but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so that man could only wonder. But he also wondered about himself, that he cannot learn to forget but always remains attached to the past: however far and fast he runs, the chain runs with him.” (translated by Peter Preuss)
No points for the Mise-en-scène, but Nietzsche is just about to make an important point: namely, that unlike the animals, we are self-conscious creatures who are attached to the past: “However fast we run, the chain runs with us.” The chain is memory. Just when we think we’ve shaken it, “the spectre comes back to disturb the calm of a later moment.”
Nietzsche’s “No” to history comes from the schoolhouse, where the young are subjected to the givens of a catalog, offered up as facts, but are really nothing more than the concrete of national prejudices, the residue of wounded pride, battles won, ground gained. His contempt for history taught and learned this way is exquisite: he laments how facts, “rolled into ugly clumps,” are then thrust out as food for the youthful soul. Who can blame the thirteen year-old for resisting it by showing “a blasé indifference [to history]” from boyhood on. (ADHfL, 41, 42).
I was pondering this way of doing history in connection with a project I am working on, a history of Christian ideas about marriage. The subject is timely since the opponents of civil same-sex unions almost always have a relatively high view of the “institution of matrimony” that was not at all typical of the Church of the first eleven centuries. It is odd to me–or perhaps not odd at all–that in the century when marriage is at its most optional and vulnerable as a sacred compact, its sanctity–or at least its traditionally “high” social status–is being invoked by the very people who have been excluded from its grace.
Nietzsche did not think that the history of a subject was a good means of settling disputes about a subject. Many of the people I know, when they tell me they “like history too,” especially my hair-cutter, will then go on to say they collect World War II paraphernalia, or quarters, or pottery from the Old Queen’s reign. What they really like are relics that tie them to events from the past–for whatever reason. But all the relics in the world, and all the histories of warfare from Marathon to Waterloo do not explain or solve war, or (assuming a distinction) marriage. That is why Nietzsche worries about the packaged certainties offered to schoolchildren as a history of their nation, or religion, or family pedigree. That kind of history is almost always designed to shape minds and bend wills, rather than strengthen them. It is one of the reasons, and perhaps in some sections of America the only reason, that school boards still take an interest in how history is taught. They mean our history.
Peter Preuss, the learned translator of the works of Nietzsche’s Untimely Observations (from his early period) boils it all down to what three post-Kantian philosophers were trying to say in different ways: As the self-conscious animal, life is not something that happens to man. It is something he creates: “Life is a task.” Hegel turns this task into something sublime;Kierkegaard turns it inward; Heidegger sees it as preparation, a quest for authentic Being. Nietzsche, more radically than any of the others, sees human life within history. The bit above, about the animals, is his way of saying that human beings are historical in a way that animals are not: “Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, human or divine,” and unlike the animals “he produces his own nature,” at least in part.
“History is the activity of producing that nature within the limitations of [his] situation. History is the record of this self production. It is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into a present which anticipates the future. With a total absence of this activity, man would fall short of humanity. History is necessary.” (Preuss, Intod. 1, 2)
One can quibble with Nietzsche’s emphasis on the existential role of history. Is all history biography? Can general principles ever be educed from individual records, from the products of self-discovery or self realization? Is there any role at all for Nietzsche’s ogre, the “disinterested scholar.”
The clue is the between-state that we find ourselves in, as being not the children of a higher being, not endowed with rights of any sort (at least none that matter), purely–like our animal brethren–natural and materially wrought, but with a power to remember, symbolize and shape the past. This means of course that history can never be thoroughly demythologized because its earliest form is the compact between memory and story. The story itself is not what the “modern,” self-confident scientific history of Nietzsche’s day was offering. The source-based work of scholars like von Ranke, which periodized and typified history and offered “solutions” to conundrums like the history of the renaissance papacy, was of no interest at all to Nietzsche, who hoped that the scientific methods of his day would be seen as a kind of superstition.
In his later work, especially Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche would return to the theme of history in a more pessimistic way. But even in the early work he is concerned with its power: “Unrestrained” history–a pure historicism that pulls no punches, leaves no myth unploughed and nothing to be guessed at, is “always annihilating.” It is a drive unto itself, a drive for explanation. It is inherently destructive, “for if no constructive drive is active behind the historical drive, if one does not destroy and clear away so that a future already alive in our hope may build its house on cleared ground, if justice alone rules, then the creative instinct is enfeebled and discouraged.”
History can express this destructive drive in any direction, toward any object susceptible of historical study: marriage, art, the history of nations, morals, literature, warfare.
But of the subjects over which history can wield its authority, none is more vulnerable to destruction, Nietzsche thought, than religion. Perhaps that is because religion belongs to the genealogy of history (as it does to science and philosophy). Whatever Nietzsche would later think about the process of destruction, his early work finds a kind of piety and regret close to the surface:
“A religion, which is to be transformed into historical knowledge, a religion which is to be thoroughly known in a scientific way, will in the end also be annihilated. The reason [for this] is that the historical audit always brings to light much that is false, crude, inhuman, absurd, violent, [such] that the attitude of pious illusion in which alone all that wants to live can live is necessarily dispelled. Only with love, however, only surrounded by the shadow of the illusion of love can man create. That is, only with an unconditional faith in something that is perfect and righteous.” (38-9)
Hence the dilemma. History is necessary. But for creativity to operate, so must love.
It comes down in the long run to what you are willing to ignore, pass over, or forgive for the sake of creativity which is rooted in the illusion of love. It isn’t that history (or science) can’t chop religion down to size: it can, because it has the power and the tools to do so. It’s a question of whether–in chopping away at the trees to clear the field–you have a house to build or simply enjoy the sound of an axe as it bites the wood.