FRR Books Podcast: On The Advantage And Disadvantage Of History For Life by Friedrich Nietzsche

What is the point of studying history? The greatest argument I have heard is that if we know history we can change the future. Nietzsche makes this argument, but this ignores the fact that history is often a weight and a burden. Despite what most liberals believe, knowledge is not always 100% positive. Sloterdijk said that “Those who first uttered the phrase that knowledge is power didn’t mean only to make that equation, but to also intervene in the game of power.” This is the positive of knowing history, power! But, knowledge can also be a burden. Knowledge can function as a chain which limits us. What is heavier than history? It weighs not only on our minds, but our bodies. History is a given. We are shackled to the past by the libidinal economy of shared history and the history that lives in our bodies. I am against revolution because in my opinion no revolution has ever led to a society or situation which I find worth affirming, but should this limit me completely from any interest in revolution? I think so, but I am open to the idea that I am wrong. Can we view history from something other than a tautological mindset? Can we reject the gift of the given? What if we reject history, or change it?  What would that look like? What does it look like to make a history for ourselves? Can I view history from one of the many options Kundera provides for us:

“History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.”

How would a personal history tailored towards myself manifest?  I argue for the ahistorical.  I come from a long line of dissatisfaction…Of people born into a world in which they disagree and took action to create a unique life for themselves in this world they themselves didn’t take part in creating.  My historical dissidents are people like Oscar Wilde, Renzo Novatore, Milan Kundera, Angela Carter, Sam Delany, some of the pirates of Nassau…they are people who are MY chosen ancestors.  I arbitrarily create a fictitious history for myself, because the history given to me is also fictitious but pretends to be true.  I prefer to take away the truth element and allow myself a broader view of history and then carve out my ancestry within it.

Nietzsche lays out the three modes of history: antiquarian(love of the past), Monumental(holding up great men and events), and Critical(the ever present judging and valuing of past events). Antiquarians are fully immersed in the past and when they encounter a new moment that is “new history” they are incapable of differentiating that from a normal everyday event.  The antiquarian view of history is leveled, nothing is new, the past is glorious and all present events are an attempt to recreate a beautiful past, they are incapable of presence and of recognizing the value of the moment because each moment is tied so clearly to the superior past.  The present pales in comparison, so antiquarians are forced to focus on the future where the past can be recreated again.  The most obvious analogies here are among right wing Americans, anarcho-primitivists, Christians(any religion which had an eden or a fall), and some revolutionary anarchists.

Nietzsche speaks as a doctor and his critique comes from the original etymology of critique….the word critique has its roots in medical decision making.  He is expanding critique from the health of the body to the health of humans as a whole.  Nietzsche sees this decision making as action, where passivity is the enemy.  This shows the connection between the man of action and activism, and the mindset of the activist is that action is good.  Even if they have some critique, the drive is always towards action, because looking at the past we hold up our monumental figures in an antiquarian mindset as being “men of action.”  These are the driving forces of history(sorry Marxists) for antiquarians and monumentalists. They are what life is for, the high point of existence. I conceive of this in a different way.

Life is for life’s sake.  Life is meant to be lived or as Stirner argues, squandered.  My issue with activists is their abstracting of action and their altruism.  This comes from the socializing of children and the way we put so much history on children at a young age.  The history of their country and the world and society and the idea of progress that lead toward where things are right now.  History hobbles us from an early age.  We are taught history for a variety of societal reasons, the most important of which is to put us in service of history.  The main argument that Nietzsche makes is that he wants history to be in service of life.  “The age you live in does not wish to see you mature.”  We don’t have rituals, rights or passage, or meaningful ways to see ourselves grow.  Because of this, we have high school graduation, baptism, college, etc.  From this vantage point, we can look out at all of the self-help books and see the great opening in our lives for meaningful growth which is always going to be an abstraction if it exists in relation to mass society.

Nietzsche accidentally provides a great critique of justice because of the way he talks about desiring justice.  He believes in the superhuman ability to remove ourselves from humanity to make objective value judgments.  This is what social justice, any justice, requires.  It requires arbiters to decide what is fair.  The contradiction appears early in the essay where Nietzsche talks about a friend who died in his thirties as inarguable evidence that life is unfair.  The main problem I have with Nietzsche is his attempt to reclaim justice in the face of an obviously unfair world.  Nietzsche is living in mid to late 19th century where elites and aristocracy were viewed differently.  In a way he takes up the mantle of the aristocracy rising up to be great.  I struggle to see the difference between this and other forms of justice.  If anything, Nietzsche strives for more than activists of our day.  Aristocracy comes from the Greek and it means the best, so Nietzsche’s political desires, if I could assign any to him, would be a rule by the best.  Social Justice would be a rule by the many, by whatever the average human is.  I don’t see much value in either of these positions.  Both of these positions rely on compromise which is often described as two people coming to a decision where neither is fully satisfied.  Is this the best I can do?  Is this the best we can do?

Should we value the weak?  Nietzsche wants a society based on strength and leftists want a society based upon weakness.  This stems from the long time religious belief that the meek shall inherit the earth.  This requires arbiters, judges, and herd-solidarity to steal from Herman Broch.  Nietzsche respects the herd because it is strong, but it isn’t a strategy that he is interested in fully adopting, it is one that he is forced into because our entire society is based on herd-mentality.  This involves the ultimate compromise, sacrifice.  It is how we convince young people of every generation to go off to war and die for the strength and protection of their herd.  Nietzsche has to learn to love the fact that he hates being week to affirm his own life.  Nietzsche’s great man is not an individualist, he is part of a society of greater humans.  Here, he returns to vitalism as the doctor of culture providing us with philosophical tools to determine physical health and make decisions to make ourselves stronger.  Let us examine this more more closely by a longer and more direct look at Nietzsche’s argumentation:

Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus neither melancholy nor weary. To witness this is hard for man, because he boasts to himself that his human race is better than the beast and yet looks with jealousy at its happiness. For he wishes only to live like the beast, neither weary nor amid pains, and he wants it in vain, because he does not will it as the animal does. One day the man demands of the beast: “Why do you not talk to me about your happiness and only gaze at me?” The beast wants to answer, too, and say: “That comes about because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say.” But by then the beast has already forgotten this reply and remains silent, so that the man wonders on once more.

But he also wonders about himself, that he is not able to learn to forget and that he always hangs onto past things. No matter how far or how fast he runs, this chain runs with him. It is something amazing: the moment, in one sudden motion there, in one sudden motion gone, before nothing, afterwards nothing, nevertheless comes back again as a ghost and disturbs the tranquillity of each later moment. A leaf is continuously released from the roll of time, falls out, flutters away–and suddenly flutters back again into the man’s lap. For the man says, “I remember,” and envies the beast, which immediately forgets and sees each moment really perish, sink back in cloud and night, and vanish forever. Thus the animal lives unhistorically, for it gets up in the present like a number without any odd fraction left over; it does not know how to play a part, hides nothing, and appears in each moment exactly and entirely what it is.

Thus a beast can be nothing other than honest. By contrast, the human being resists the large and ever increasing burden of the past, which pushes him down or bows him over. It makes his way difficult, like an invisible and dark burden which he can for appearances’ sake even deny, and which he is only too happy to deny in his interactions with his peers, in order to awaken their envy. Thus, it moves him, as if he remembered a lost paradise, to see the grazing herd or, something more closely familiar, the child, which does not yet have a past to deny and plays in blissful blindness between the fences of the past and the future. Nonetheless this game must be upset for the child. He will be summoned all too soon out of his forgetfulness. For he learns to understand the expression “It was,” that password with which struggle, suffering, and weariness come over human beings, so as to remind him what his existence basically is–a never completed past tense. If death finally brings the longed for forgetting, it nevertheless thereby destroys present existence and thus impresses its seal on the knowledge that existence is only an uninterrupted living in the past, something which exists for the purpose of self-denial, self-destruction, and self-contradiction.

If happiness or if, in some sense or other, a reaching out for new happiness is what holds the living onto life and pushes them forward into life, then perhaps no philosopher has more justification than the cynic. For the happiness of the beast, like that of the complete cynic, is the living proof of the rightness of cynicism. The smallest happiness, if only it is uninterrupted and creates happiness, is incomparably more happiness than the greatest which comes only as an episode, as it were, like a mood, as a fantastic interruption between nothing but boredom, cupidity, and deprivation. However, with the smallest and with the greatest good fortune, happiness becomes happiness in the same way: through forgetting or, to express the matter in a more scholarly fashion, through the capacity, for as long as the happiness lasts, to sense things unhistorically. The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness or fear, will never know what happiness is. Even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy. Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming. He will, like the true pupil of Heraclitus, finally hardly dare any more to lift his finger. Forgetting belongs to all action, just as both light and darkness belong in the life of all organic things. A person who wanted to feel utterly and only historically would be like someone who was forced to abstain from sleep, or like the beast that is to continue its life only from rumination to constantly repeated rumination. For this reason, it is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates; however, it is generally completely impossible to live without forgetting. Or, to explain myself more clearly concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and finally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture.

Are we at the end of history?  It feels like this is our strongest cultural belief right now.  Whether it be the marxist belief that we are nearing the end of capitalism, currently living in post-modern-hyper-instertwhateveryoubelievemost convincing-capitalism, on our way toward the eden of communism, or anyone calling out for the climate apocalypse, many today believe we are near the end. This is a millennia old belief, and one that is both true and not true. The world is always ending, but of course it is always continuing. What is more important than this to me, is how we live within in the world. Do we live for happiness? Or is happiness something that was taken from us at our creation when we were imbued with consciousness, given histories, and forced to time-bind between past, present and future?

Our memories may take happiness away from us but they also take away our awareness. Memory is another form of forgetting, and how easily we forget to remember that! We hate other people because they fuck up our views of our stories. We are walking around with narratives and we want to be close to people who confirm the stories we are telling ourselves.  This is why it is so desirable to go along with society…because there is a huge group of people living the same story, even if that story is lowest common denominator.  To be historical one must social. To be ahistorical one must be asocial.

Delueze and Guattari want us to forget history because for them all history is fake history and they wants us to create a fake history where we are able to overcome the state by forgetting their history and creating a fake history.  Their issue is that our imagination is not strong enough for this.  I disagree and believe that human imagination knows no limits. I stand in the firmest of beliefs that everything exists because we can imagine it so. Dreams, realities, everything that we think or act into this world exists and because of this we still retain the ability to wage war with the given. This is what anarchy is to me, a war with not only the existent(for I can change the existent), but the given. I agree with Nietzsche that I can use history in service of my life. To do this means to wage war against both the existent and the given by creating my own fictions and bringing them into my world.

Voiced by: rydra wrong, nev, jewel, will, and john

editing and sound: rydra

words by: rydra

link to the essay and a weird studies podcast on the same episode: