Nietzsche and Methods of History – Being Active

Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History

Nietzsche and Methods of History - Being Active

In John Armstrong’s short book, “Life Lessons From Nietzsche”, extracts from the nineteenth century philosopher are used to provide honest consolation. Today, I found a strong sense of honest consolation in the chapter which looked at Nietzsche’s essay, “Use & Abuse of History”. The importance of the essay is how it addresses the need to balance three …“methods for history, to the extent that one may make the distinctions, a monumental method, an antiquarian method, and a critical method”. It does well in explaining why historians disagree with different views in the use of history. Nietzsche points to a conflict of purpose, but offers a purposeful hope that we can bring the three perspectives together.

Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History
Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History

I was encouraged on this day when I found myself in an unpleasant disputation over history management. I was given comfort in the words of Nietzsche on the monumental method, which I suggest, is about valuing history for the sake of ‘history’, highlighting the importance of history for living humanity as a whole, rather than history for the sake of preserving the past in all its actual details (an antiquarian method), or history for the sake of changing the past into a new future (a critical method). The following passage is a translation from Ian C. Johnston and a text amended in part by The Nietzsche Channel (Nietzsche, Use & Abuse of History, p. 7). The translation in the John Armstrong’s short book reads easier but I cannot vouch for the translation; it is not identified in the Macmillan paperback, and possibly Armstrong’s paraphrase. Remember that Nietzsche is here talking about the historian, or one who seeks history, as a ‘man of action’ and the reference to ‘active and powerful man’ should not be confused with any idea of a ‘strong man of history’ (e.g. Bismarck in the case of Nietzsche’s opposition to such militarism, Hitler in the case of Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, and her fascist distortions of such passages, or perhaps, the political rhetoric we find in Tump’s ‘twits’). Please overlook the masculine tone in the language, the message still stands well, albeit from the un-feminist Nietzsche. The passage:

“History belongs, above all, to the active and powerful man, the man who fights one great battle, who needs the exemplary men, teachers, and comforters and cannot find them among his contemporary companions. Thus, history belongs to Schiller: for our age is so bad, said Goethe, that the poet no longer encounters any useful nature in the human life surrounding him. Looking back to the active men, Polybius calls political history an example of the right preparation for ruling a state and the most outstanding teacher, something which, through the memory of other people's accidents, advises us to bear with resolution the changes in our happiness. Anyone who has learned to recognize the sense of history in this way must get annoyed to see inquisitive travelers or painstaking micrologists climbing all over the pyramids of the great things of the past. There, in the place where he finds the stimulation to breath deeply and to make things better, he does not wish to come across an idler who strolls around, greedy for distraction or stimulation, as among the accumulated art treasures of a gallery. In order not to despair and feel disgust in the midst of weak and hopeless idlers, surrounded by apparently active, but really only agitated and fidgeting companions, the active man looks behind him and interrupts the path to his goal to take a momentary deep breath. His purpose is some happiness or other, perhaps not his own, often that of a people or of humanity collectively. He runs back away from resignation and uses history as a way of fighting resignation. For the most part, no reward beckons him on, other than fame, that is, becoming a candidate for an honored place in the temple of history, where he himself can be, in his turn, a teacher, consoler, and advisor for those who come later. For his orders state: whatever once was able to expand the idea of ‘Human being’ and to define it more beautifully must constantly be present in order that it always keeps its potential.”

From this translation, and John Armstrong’s treatment of the passage, what I gain is the best approach for a historian, or another seeker of history, is that, notwithstanding the important balance between the three methods of history, is action for historical purpose. History, for the good of humanity, cannot be seen as an idle interest in the past – history as entertainment, gossip, curiosity, everything that may give colour to life but there is nothing of the serious love and passionate embrace for finding meaning in our humanity. At a time when history is reduced to war commemoration, novels, films, and other subjectivist mirrors, we need to understand that what is momentum is what makes us human, and this includes what is the ‘ordinary’ struggle to life – the extraordinariness of ordinary life looked backwards.

The accumulation of the three methods comes in this following passage (Nietzsche, Use & Abuse of History, pp. 13- 14):

“These are the services which history can carry out for living. Every person and every people, according to its goals, forces, and needs, uses a certain knowledge of the past, sometimes as monumental history, sometimes as antiquarian history, and sometimes as critical history, but not as a crowd of pure thinkers only watching life closely, not as people eager for knowledge, individuals only satisfied by knowledge, for whom an increase of understanding is the only goal, but always only for the purpose of living and, in addition, under the command and the highest guidance of this life. This is the natural relationship to history of an age, a culture, and a people: summoned up by hunger, regulated by the degree of the need, held to limits by the plastic power within, the understanding of the past is desired at all times to serve the future and the present, not to weaken the present, not to uproot a forceful living future. That all is simple, as the truth is simple, and is also immediately convincing for anyone who does not begin by letting himself be guided by historical proof.”

“And now for a quick look at our time! We are frightened and run back. Where is all the clarity, all the naturalness and purity of that connection between life and history? How confusedly, excessively, and anxiously this problem now streams before our eyes! Does the fault lie with us, the observers? Or has the constellation of life and history altered, because a powerful and hostile star has interposed itself between them? Other people might point out that we have seen things incorrectly, but we want to state what we think we see. In any case, such a star has come in between, an illuminating and beautiful star. The constellation has truly changed through science, through the demand that history is to be a science. Now not only does life no longer rule and control knowledge about the past, but also all the border markings have been ripped up, and everything that used to exist has come crashing down onto people. As far back as there has been a coming into being, far back into the endless depths, all perspectives have also shifted. No generation ever saw such an immense spectacle as is shown now by the science of universal becoming, by history. Of course, history even shows this with the dangerous boldness of its motto: Fiat veritas, pereat vita [let the truth be done and let life perish].”

Indeed, this is momentous.

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Neville Buch

Professional Historian at Qld Historians
Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He is a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch is the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and is a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.

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Neville Buch
Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He is a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch is the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and is a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
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