The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History

Nietzsche’s Quarrel with History

Are there any lessons left for history to teach us?

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche (detail), 1894, by Curt Stoeving (1863–1939); Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…. The past is never dead. It’s not even past…. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…. The angel of history,…his face…turned toward the past, is propelled into the future by a storm we call progress.… The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.11xThe quotes in this series are from, respectively, George Santayana, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walter Benjamin, and Martin Luther King Jr.

These insights about the power and invisible laws of history are what drew me into the study of the past. I believed that the knowledge of history was a skeleton key for unlocking secrets to greater peace, justice, and beauty in the world. That fantasy got extinguished in graduate school. The more knowledge I gained, the less credible this notion became. In time, I learned to lower my expectations, and I settled on a belief—or at least a desire—that history could provide widened horizons of connection and possibility, helping us get out of the narrow perspective of our now. I came to doubt any “use” of history, in the sense of thinking about it instrumentally. I prefer now to recommend history to my own students as an intellectual orientation, a daily practice, but not something they should try to “use” to achieve a goal.

It is probably enough to cite the most recent and obvious example of instrumentalized history: Vladimir Putin’s use of a highly stylized history to justify Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. Finger-pointing is not necessary, though, especially when we have plenty of examples here in the United States of the cramped, mean, grotesque—if less breathtakingly evil—uses of history. The fabled “history wars” of the 1990s are still with us. Banning books that offer an unwelcome historical narration is back in vogue. A once marginal “incredulity toward metanarratives” has now metastasized into a mainstream endorsement of “alternative facts” about the recent past.22xJean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv. First published 1979. Kellyanne Conway, remarks on Meet the Press, aired January 22, 2017, on NBC, And we cannot even figure out whether to narrate the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol as a violent insurrection or a legitimate expression of First Amendment rights.

Because the uses of history can so easily shade into abuses of them, it is tempting to turn to a text like Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1874 essay “Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben” (“On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”) to help us diagnose our current predicaments and navigate a way out of them.33xFriedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Essay first published 1874 as “Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben.” Just a glance at Nietzsche’s tract on history will show why readers for more than a century have tried to repurpose it to help them distinguish the pernicious from the productive in considering the presentness of the past. Plus, it’s an open secret that reading Nietzsche is fun. For those who haven’t spent time in his company lately, try opening any volume and flipping through it at random, and see if you can do it without experiencing, as John Cowper Powys once put it, “the old fatal intoxication.”44xJohn Cowper Powys, Enjoyment of Literature (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1938), 468. This early essay on history is pretty exhilarating. In it, Nietzsche was finding his singular voice, one that still has the power to slip through an invisible wrinkle in time and make it seem as though he is speaking directly, even urgently, to us and our moment.

What Nietzsche might have liked his future readers to forget is that even self-described “untimely” philosophers are products of their history. Nietzsche’s essay on history is one of his easier texts to read, yet the hardest to understand, because he wrote it less as a meditation on history as such than as a pointed manifesto against a very specific target: the history-besotted culture of the German Empire. While there is never a bad time to read Nietzsche’s evocative, provocative, and often hilarious “thoughts out of season,” we do well to remember that he was not writing to us.55xThoughts Out of Season is another popular translation of Unzeitgemäßen Betrachtungen, the title in the original German of Untimely Meditations. His agon was with his German contemporaries, who were occasionally repulsed by his genius, but more often simply unimpressed by it.

Here, a bit of stage setting is helpful. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” was originally planned as one of a series of thirteen essays, each on a different aspect of imperial Germany. But the project lost steam, as ambitious writing agendas tend to do, and Nietzsche ended up publishing only four of them under the title Unzeitgemäßen Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations). In addition to his essay on history, they included “David Strauss, The Confessor and the Writer” (1873), an attack on German “cultural philistinism”; “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1874), an examination of how “true education” works by a teacher’s lived example, not his instruction; and “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” (1876), the last hurrah of Nietzsche’s exaltation of the famed composer shortly before the spectacular breakup of their friendship. Nietzsche started writing “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History” at the age of twenty-nine while trying to recover from the damage to his academic reputation that resulted from the controversy his first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872), had stirred up among philologists. Nietzsche had had big dreams that The Birth of Tragedy would announce his grand entrance onto the academic stage. Instead, it was mercilessly and very publicly lambasted, in part for being insufficiently grounded in historical science. In the fall of 1873, only two students enrolled in Nietzsche’s philology course at the University of Basel. His undersubscribed lecture surely gave him more time to write his essay, but also more time to stew in his exasperation with the academic piety surrounding historicism. Nietzsche thus crafted this essay, like so many of his published works, at a moment of personal and professional crisis, which he interpreted as a larger cultural crisis that his philosophy needed to address.

The crisis, as he saw it, was that historical knowledge, instead of serving the present and the future, drained them of their vibrancy and vitality. This “oversaturation of an age with history,” this piety of “instruction without invigoration,” was both cause and effect. The fetishization of the past was the result of moderns’ “weakened personality,” which caused them to look backward in time for inspiration, guidance, and meaning, rather than deep inside themselves. Their obsession with history was also an effect of their cultural impotence. For Nietzsche, there was use for a historical consciousness, but never in excess: that is, when use slides into abuse, and the past becomes a “gravedigger” that buries the present alive.66xNietzsche, “Uses and Disadvantages,” 83, 59, 62.

Nietzsche was careful not to throw all forms of history into one indistinguishable heap. He differentiated three types: monumental, antiquarian, and critical history. To call any of them a “method” makes them seem more systematic than Nietzsche thought they were. Rather, each was a particular historical sensibility, an attitude, a temperament that he saw as dominant in German intellectual culture to the point of disfiguring the modern German personality.

Monumental history looks to the past to find models to revere. Though such an approach holds out the possibility of emulation, or even the allure of seeking to surpass past greatness, it too often defaults into crude hero-worship. Monumental history rejects the disappointments and pressures of the present by taking safe harbor in the imagined company of great figures of the past. It gives hope that this sort of greatness might still be possible in the modern world, and its study can be motivated by a fundamental—if flickering—faith in humanity. However, it ultimately ends up enervating rather than energizing the worshiper.

Antiquarian history, by contrast, is carried out by the pious collector of historical knowledge as artifacts, who pays homage to the past simply by virtue of its age. Antiquarian history “always possesses an extremely restricted field of vision…and the little it does see it sees much too close up and isolated,” making it incapable of drawing meaningful connections among the specimens it has hoarded. Unlike the monumentalist, the antiquarian is happy with the commonplace but thinks everything old is “equally worthy of reverence,” and therefore has no sense of proportion.77xIbid., 74.

Last in Nietzsche’s typology of histories is critical history. Anything with the word critical in it might seem to have been near and dear to Nietzsche’s heart. There are indeed passages in his characterization of critical history that sound as though he is taking a deep breath before belting out a “hallelujah.” “If he is to live,” Nietzsche stresses, “man must possess and…employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past…by bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it.” A critical analysis of history holds out the promise that one might root out the deficiencies of our “inborn heritage and implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that the first nature withers away.”88xIbid., 75–76. So far so good. But Nietzsche goes on to argue that the impulse toward critical history is driven by a zeal for condemnation masquerading as impartial justice.

All of these types of historical consciousness, in excess, eventually destroy their host, by stunting him, either making him feel belated in relation to the past or emboldening him (despite his depleted instincts) to sit in judgement of it. “We need history, certainly,” Nietzsche maintains, “but…for the sake of life and action…. We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life.” Nietzsche saw in all of these types of historical thinking a propensity for intellectual indigestion: “Modern man drags around with him a huge quantity of indigestible stones of knowledge, which then, as in the fairy tale, can sometimes be heard rumbling around inside him.… Knowledge, consumed for the greater part without hunger for it and even counter to one’s need…. Anyone observing this has only one wish, that such a culture should not perish of indigestion.” Nietzsche’s essay hinges on his exasperation with a culture capable of the “heights of…knowledge” only to be matched by “the depths of [its] incapacity for action.”99xIbid., 59, 78–79, 108. The intellectual “indigestion” helped explain the torpor. It must be hard to spring into action with a belly full of stones.

The urgency of Nietzsche’s essay comes from his frustration with what he regarded as a cultural crisis enveloping the young German nation-state soon after the Franco-Prussian War. During this period of political unification, industrial advance, and economic consolidation, Germans urgently, and unlike the people of other European powers, belatedly, sought to create cultural conditions strong enough to undergird their new nation. They did so by amplifying their intellectual tradition of historicism and using it to renarrate (in often epic terms) the traits, geographic conditions, past leaders, and forms of artistic expression revelatory of an organic “German” Geist that assured an internal unity and Germany’s success on the global stage. During the Gründerzeit (time of foundation), a national style took shape through a variety of historical revivals, the proliferation of historical associations and museums, the erection of national monuments, and a zeal in the academy to transfigure the humanistic and social-scientific disciplines into a species of historical science. These efforts left Nietzsche thoroughly unimpressed. Instead of seeing the emergence of a culture able to “organize the chaos,” he saw pathetic attempts to use the past as a gilded fig leaf to conceal its intellectual impotence.1010xIbid., 123.

To capture the full force of Nietzsche’s essay, the reader would do well to consider the particular historical context in which it was produced and with which it was picking a fight. Doing so does not diminish Nietzsche’s most provocative and tantalizing claims, but it does reveal them to be curious artifacts of a different world rather than an operational agenda for ours.

For starters, Nietzsche’s fight was with an overabundance of historical consciousness, but it is hard to see how that is our problem in the United States today. Certainly, he did not think it was a problem for the United States in his own time. When Nietzsche thought of America, he envisioned it much as Goethe did, who in 1827 rhapsodized, “America, you have it better / Than our continent, the old one / You have no decrepit castles / And no basalt.”1111xJohann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Den Vereinigten Staaten” (1827), in Goethe: Gedichte Vollständige Ausgabe [Goethe: Poems Complete Edition] (Stuttgart, Germany: J.G. Cotta, 1891), 1125. Nietzsche similarly envisioned Americans as a people blessedly unburdened by the past. At times he admired their youth and innocence, celebrated their “naiveté” and spirit of “letting-oneself-go.”1212xFriedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe [Collected Work: Critical Study Edition], ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 1999), 9, 7 [229]. Yet he also saw in Americans a “modern restlessness” and a people who were turning their “lack of repose…into a new barbarism.”1313xFriedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 132. First published in 1878 as Menschliches, allzumenschliches.

Our current debates over which historical monuments should stay up and which should be torn down, and which honorific names on buildings should remain intact and which should be chiseled away, suggest that Americans today are not blissfully free of all historical awareness (at least not of some of the marquee names and events of American history). But consider the growing trend to make Native American land acknowledgments part of an email signature line or a statement at the beginning of official public events, and what it confesses about Americans’ historical obliviousness. Land acknowledgments, often in simple, unadorned prose, identify an incontrovertible historical fact: namely, that land on which one’s institution (university, government agency, business, or organization) sits is the ancestral home of Native Americans, and one to which they still have legitimate claims. While many are caught in a battle of 1619 versus 1776, there is an ur-foundation of the United States that is uncontestable, yet barely noticed in mainstream discourse. This suggests that a deeply ingrained historical ignorance, not a pesky dominance of historical consciousness, is our problem.

As a result, when reading Nietzsche’s essay, we experience the shock of recognition not when he is describing a people ruined by excessive historical awareness but, rather, when he describes happy cattle in a pasture grazing blissfully unaware of “what is meant by yesterday or today.” Nietzsche’s carefree cow—which “lives unhistorically: for it is contained in the present”—looks a lot like the millions of Americans whose prevailing passion is to live for the now and thus do not know how history has, for example, conditioned structural inequalities, or how their patterns of consumption and waste are affecting the future viability of our planet.1414xNietzsche, “Uses and Disadvantages,” 61.

There is also a chasm between the ascendent status of “objectivity” in the study of history in Nietzsche’s Germany and its ever-declining reputation in the United States today, not only in history departments but also in the broader culture. Nietzsche let loose his disgust at the modern conceit of an “eternally subjectless” knowing. Leaving historical analysis to historians bent on “pure objectivity” was like welcoming a “race of eunuchs…[to] watch over the great historical world-harem.” “Being neuters, [they] take history for a neuter.” While Nietzsche thought that “pure objectivity” was pure fiction, his concern went deeper than that. He believed that the fascination with “cold, ineffectual knowledge” was born of presentism, in that it mistook the historian’s preferred norms of the moment for transhistorical truths. In addition, Nietzsche viewed the growing esteem for objectivity as a dodge: The modern “objective” historian pretended that “events impenetrable to him” were legible as “chance” rather than as a swarm of causes he could not identify. Further, he tried to pass off “necessity” as a legitimate explanation for changes, when it was merely indicative of his weak mind, “hovering as it does between tautology and nonsense.”1515xIbid., 87, 84, 86, 88, 91, 92.

In 1874, and indeed for the remainder of his productive years, Nietzsche fought the good fight to strip God, First Principles, and all a priori concepts of their intellectual and moral cachet, and to ensure that the modern fascination with objectivity did not sidle in to replace them. But for anyone who has spent time in a classroom with American college students lately, it is clear that what the historian Peter Novick called the “noble dream” of objectivity has little allure. Students today are savvy about an author’s “positionality,” the media’s “bothsidesism,” and the contention that “fake news” is a matter of perspective. We need not go so far as to conclude that this perspectival flexibility is an uncritical “moral relativism,” as Allan Bloom labeled it in his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. Nor do we have to singularly credit (or blame) the “Nietzscheanization” of the American academy for our students’ suspicion-turned-indifference to even the aspiration to objectivity.1616xPeter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 217. But surely Nietzsche himself would have been astonished to encounter a people not only devoid of any inclination to objectivity but also so seemingly indifferent to the implications of its absence.

There are still other reasons to find in Nietzsche’s “Uses and Disadvantages of History” an invaluable intellectual tonic, even if not a helpful roadmap for navigating either academic or popular historiography today. The task Nietzsche set for himself at the founding of imperial Germany was not to identify a mode of history for creating a great nation, a great culture, or even a great people. Despite his criticisms of monumental history, it is clear that when he thought about history, his mind was drawn not to events, modes of statecraft, material processes, or chronology, but to exemplary individuals. Nietzsche wanted to conceptualize the past in such a way that it would provide “strength for the production of the great man.” He claimed without apologies that “the goal of humanity…lie[s]…in its highest exemplars.” Nietzsche had no truck with “the masses,” whom he thought warranted attention only as “faded copies of great men produced on poor paper with worn-out plates, then as a force of resistance to great men, finally as instruments in the hands of great men.”1717xNietzsche,“Uses and Disadvantages,” 111, 113. With statements like these in 1874, Nietzsche was only clearing his throat for the more devastating things he would come to say about the ideals of democracy and equality over the next decades. We might acknowledge some merit in Nietzsche’s unapologetic aristocratic elitism: It is surely no small feat for a culture to produce a handful of superior human beings. But it is immeasurably more difficult to produce a culture that can both foster and safeguard democratic norms and institutions, as well as the human rights they are supposed to uphold.

Nietzsche was convinced that a culture too concerned with goodness would never be able to achieve greatness. He thought liberal democracy was inhospitable to the cultivation of exceptional human beings, distinguished by their artistic vision, intellectual daring, depth of soul, and nobility of character. Had he witnessed the twentieth century, he might have reconsidered his skepticism, as plenty of remarkable exemplars of human grandeur have been born, lived, and died in liberal democracies. The questions for us are therefore a little different: Is there a mode of history that can cultivate both the sort of human flourishing Nietzsche ached for and the concern for rights and equality he so reviled? For that matter, can a liberal democracy produce enough human greatness (or even good-enoughness) to ensure that liberal democracy is more than a blip, a noble but unviable experiment—that it can survive much longer in the twenty-first century? We don’t have answers to these questions yet; this history is still in the making.

Nevertheless, there are some timely insights for us today in what were untimely meditations for Nietzsche’s German readers in the late nineteenth century. For example, he emphasized how history, for good and ill, constructs our imagined communities. He recognized the allure, power, and danger of the ways in which history is used to create a corporate identity, whether it delineates the features of tribe, race, religious tradition, region, or nation.

The tendency to construct histories by way of notions of affiliation and belonging is what we today recognize as “identity politics,” whether in distilled or somewhat diffuse form. Nietzsche understood these politics, but in different terms. He took, for example, the way one might approach “the history of his city [as]…the history of himself”:

He reads its walls, its towered gate, its rules and regulations, its holidays, like an illuminated diary of his youth and in all this he finds again himself, his force, his industry, his joy, his judgment, his folly and vices.… Thus with the aid of this “we” he looks beyond his own individual transitory existence and feels himself to be the spirit of his house, his race, his city. Sometimes he even greets the soul of his nation across the long dark centuries of confusion as his own soul.1818xIbid., 73.

Though this sort of “we” construction made Nietzsche uneasy, it has some benefits. It is, no doubt, why historical films and novels are such an effective mode of empathic storytelling, and why so many college students in the STEM disciplines are open to taking a history course as their one elective. In addition, if the appeal of discovering or constructing a “we” encourages people to widen their horizons to find some semblance of historical continuity and connection, that is surely of some value. At the very least, it is an antidote to cultural fare that shrinks our attention span to a 280-character tweet, and makes us think that Facebook “Likes” are a reasonable ersatz for human connection. More to the point, for Nietzsche, this resort to “we” was not in and of itself pernicious; it became so only if it was fueled by—or fostered—chauvinism and triumphalism. To be sure, using history to cultivate bonds of affiliation while not letting those bonds harden into smugness, ressentiment, and forms of political and legal exclusion is exceptionally difficult and rarely pulled off. That is why the stakes of using history wisely are so high.

The point of Nietzsche’s essay on history is not to downplay the importance of a historical consciousness, but—quite the opposite—to stress the centrality of healthy historical awareness to a culture’s integrity and vitality. For that reason, he thought that the task of creating and sustaining such a consciousness was supremely challenging. It surely will please the professional historian to learn that Nietzsche thought that only an “experienced and superior man” would be able to “organize the chaos” and “interpret the great and exalted things of the past.”1919xIbid., 94, 123, 94. More dauntingly, though, Nietzsche emphasized the demands of reckoning with history not as being but as continual becoming. By the time he wrote “Uses and Disadvantages,” he had spent the last twelve years preoccupied by the implications of human history unmoored from God. Indeed, in one of his first philosophical essays, “Fate and History: Thoughts” (1862), the seventeen-year-old Nietzsche had explored the terror and exhilaration of a post-theistic view of history as “eternal becoming” through stormy maritime images: “a struggling and undulating of the most diverse currents, ebbing and flowing,” “events whose whirlpool carries us away,” and “everything flowing into a monstrous ocean.”2020xFriedrich Nietzsche, “Fate and History: Thoughts” (1862), in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large, (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 12–15. The original is “Fatum und Geschichte: Gedanken” and was never published during his lifetime.

As Nietzsche grew older, he tested and reformulated his ideas not only about the dynamism, fluidity, and contingency of historical processes but also about the implications of these ideas for the human beings who were subjected to the same invisible forces of eternal becoming. His more mature works show us—not by exhortation but by example—one of the best things any historical consciousness could offer, then and now. Only after overcoming some of his revulsion toward historicism would he show its promise. It is this Nietzsche who made it his practice to genealogically reconstruct how a range of cherished moral beliefs and intellectual ideals, assumed to be timeless absolutes, were, in fact, products of a specific time and place. Nietzsche’s greatest breakthroughs involved using history to show the human fingerprints on concepts assumed to be sub specie aeternitatis. Thus, he showed how history can free us from false notions of determinism, and taught us to understand the plasticity of the past and to welcome our own plastic powers to remake meaning after the death of our gods.

In the end, Nietzsche’s most important insight about the uses and disadvantages of history for life is by now the most clichéd: namely, that history is nothing more, but also nothing less, than a human, all-too-human enterprise. It is not the raw stuff of the past—it is the connection we strive to make with the past. He helped to show that nothing in history happens by nature or necessity. And so it is not foreordained that those who cannot remember the past will be doomed to repeat it. We have no real reason to believe that there is an angel of history with his face turned toward the past any more than we have reason to believe he is watching over us. As much as we may wish otherwise, history gives us few reasons to believe that its moral arc bends toward justice. The lessons of history are that there are no timeless lessons waiting for us. Whatever lessons there are, they are the ones we ourselves must make, again and again, boats against the currents of chauvinism, ignorance, and indifference.