Stan Grant writes:
“Our ‘historical fever’, Nietzsche said, ‘may bring about the decay of a people’.
If history becomes sovereign, he wrote, it ‘would constitute a kind of final closing out of the accounts of life for mankind’.
Isn’t this what we see in our world now?”
“We cannot just ‘move on’. We live in history. But history need not live in us.”
Reva Goujon in Forbes Magazine (Aug 29, 2017) saw this differently, “Nietzsche argues that the fundamental purpose of history should be for life. And as we live, we must understand our past without becoming enslaved to it.”
Taking what Reva Goujon says, Stan Grant is wrong. We are history, individually and collectively, personal history, a matter of Nietzschean perspectivism. That is not an ‘absolute relativism’ nor a ‘relative absolutism.’
Grant has fallen for the zeitgeist uncritically thinking through its ethos. However, what does Nietzsche say about history in ‘The Use and Abuse of History’:
“The stringent and profoundly serious consideration of the worthlessness of everything which has happened, of the way in which the world in its maturity is ready for judgment, has subsided to a skeptical consciousness that it is in any case good to know everything that has happened, because it is too late to do anything better. Thus the historical sense makes its servants passive and retrospective. Only in momentary forgetfulness, when that sense is intermittent, does the patient suffering from the historical fever become active, so that, as soon as the action is over and done with, he may seize his deed, through analytical consideration prevent any further effects, and finally flay it for ‘History.’ In this sense, we are still living in the Middle Ages, and history is always still a disguised theology, in exactly the same way that the reverence with which the unscientific laity treat the scientific caste is a reverence inherited from the clergy. What people in earlier times gave the church, people now give, although in scantier amounts, to science. However, the fact that people give was something the church achieved in earlier times, not something first done by the modern spirit, which, along with its other good characteristics, much rather has something stingy about it, as is well known, and is, so far as the pre-eminent virtue of generosity is concerned, a piker.
“Perhaps this observation is not pleasant, perhaps no more pleasant than that derivation of the excess of history from the medieval memento mori and from the hopelessness which Christianity carried in its heart concerning all future ages of earthly existence. But at any rate people should replace the explanation, which I have put down only hesitantly with better explanations. For the origin of historical education and its inherent and totally radical opposition to the spirit of a ‘new age,’ of a ‘modern consciousness’—this origin must itself be once again recognized historically. History must itself resolve the problem of history. Knowledge must turn its barbs against itself. This triple Must is the spiritual imperative of the ‘new age,’ if there is in it truly something new, powerful, vital, and original. Or if, to leave the Romance peoples out of consideration, it should be the case that we Germans, in all higher matters of culture, always have to be only the ‘followers’ just because that is the only thing we could be, as William Wackernagel once expressed it all too convincingly: ‘We Germans are a people of followers. With all our higher knowledge and even with our faith, we are always still followers of the old world. Even those who are hostile to that and certainly do not wish it breathe in the spirit of Christianity together with the immortal spirit of the old classical culture, and if anyone were to succeed in separating out these two elements from the living air which envelops the inner man, then not much would be left over with which one might still eke out a spiritual life.’”
Grant has completely misinterpreted Nietzsche in an honourable tribute to Desmond Tutu, but, nevertheless, distorting the understanding of the zeitgeist by uncritically absorbing its message, unfiltered as history. Listen to the words and the world of Nietzsche, Stan.
“For the origin of historical education and its inherent and totally radical opposition to the spirit of a “new age,” of a ‘modern consciousness’—this origin must itself be once again recognized historically. History must itself resolve the problem of history. Knowledge must turn its barbs against itself. This triple Must is the spiritual imperative of the ‘new age,’ if there is in it truly something new, powerful, vital, and original.”
The personal history of Nietzsche, given in his own words, does far better in the honour to Desmond Tutu.
Dr Neville Buch is an Australian intellectual historian.
For a better analysis of Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, see blog, Nietzsche and Methods of History – Being Active