Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Friedrich Nietzsche: History as Art

"History, in so far as it serves life, serves an unhistorical power."

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) once wrote: “I love the great despisers, for they are the great adorers, and arrows of longing for the other shore.” He was such a despiser, and such an arrow, and he has been loved by millions for his philosophical poetry. Anyone who has stared in complete disbelief at the invincible, triumphant stupidity of mass culture, or who has longed to do something noble with their lives, will find passages in his work to move them. To long for another shore in the face of such mindlessness is only human. But Nietzsche was an adorer no less than a despiser, and we may well wonder about the aristocratic ethos he held up for our adoration. Even as he wrote, an age of warrior heroes was already beginning—an age characterized by nothing so much as the herd amorality of hundreds of thousands of Nietzschlings in high office, each privately convinced that there was no sin but stupidity, no shame but defeat, and no problem that ruthlessness couldn’t overcome. Zarathustra would have found much to admire in the men who reduced a great civilization to ashes, and bequeathed to posterity a legacy of horror that will not soon be forgotten.

The nineteenth century was a great age for history, not only in Europe, but especially in Germany, which led the world in historical research at that time. Today, history does not have anything like the prestige that it then enjoyed. Nietzsche saw in that prestige a threat to the vitality and exuberance of life—always the central concern of his philosophy—for he worried that it tempted people to live vicariously in the past, rather than struggling and striving, as they should, for great things in the present. In his essay "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life" (1874), he asked his readers to consider cows—how they exist in an eternal present, unspoiled by anxiety over the future, or memory of the past. Like children, they have no history, and for that they would be grateful, if they knew what history was. But man does have a history—an awareness that he stands at the end of a vast chain of consequence which has produced him, how he does not know, and is taking him where he cannot say—and with this knowledge, he has a burden that needs to be overcome.

Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

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