We require history for life and action, not for the smug avoiding of life and action, or even to whitewash a selfish life and cowardly, bad acts. Only so far as history serves life will we serve it.
Whoever cannot settle on the threshold of the moment forgetful of the whole past, whoever is incapable of standing on a point like a goddess of victory without vertigo or fear, will never know what happiness is, and worse yet, will never do anything to make others happy.
All acting requires forgetting, as not only light but also darkness is required for life by all organisms.
The stronger the roots of the inmost nature of a man are, the more of the past will he appropriate or master; and were one to conceive the most powerful and colossal nature, it would be known by this, that for it there would be no limit at which the historical sense could overgrow and harm it; such a nature would draw its own as well as every alien past wholly into itself and transform it into blood, as it were.
And this is a general law; every living thing can become healthy, strong and fruitful only within a horizon;
Everyone will have made the following observation: a man’s historical knowledge and perception may be very limited, his horizon as restricted as that of a resident of an alpine valley, into every judgement he may introduce an injustice, into every experience the error of being the first to have that experience – and despite all injustice and error he stands firmly in indefatigable health and vigour, a pleasure to behold; while right beside him the man of greater justice and learning deteriorates and crumbles because the lines of his horizon restlesly shift again and again, because he cannot extricate himself from the much more delicate network of his justice and truths in order to engage in rude willing and desiring.
Only through the power to use the past for life and to refashion what has happened into history, does man become man.
Think of a man tossed and torn by a powerful passion for a woman or great thought… it is the most unjust condition in the world, narrow, ungrateful to the past, blind to dangers, deaf to warnings, a little living whirlpool in a dead sea of night and forgetting: and yet this condition – unhistorical, contra-historical through and through – is the cradle not only of an unjust, but rather of every just deed; and no artist will paint his picture, no general acheive victory nor any people its freedom without first having desired and striven for it in such an unhistorical condition.
Superhistorical men have never agreed whether the significance of the teaching is happiness or resignation, virtue or penance; but, opposed to all historical ways of viewing the past, they are quite unanimous in accepting the following proposition: the past and the present is one and the same, that is, typical alike in all manifold variety and, as omnipresence of imperishable types, a static structure of unchanged value and eternally the same meaning.
History belongs above all to the active and powerful man, to him who fights a great fight, who requires models, teachers and comforters and can not find them among his associates and contemporaries.
For his commandment reads: “What once was capable of magnifying the concept ‘man’ and of giving it a more beautiful content must be present eternally in order eternally to have this capacity.” That the great moments in the struggle of individuals form a chain, that in the high points of humanity are linked throughout the millennia, that what is highest in such a moment of the distant past be for me still alive, strong and great – this is the fundamental thought of the faith in humanity which is expressed in the demand for monumental historty. Precisely this demand however, that the great be eternal, occasions the most terrible conflict.
What is the advantage to the present individual, then, of the monumental view of the past, the concern with the classical and the rare of earlier times? It is the knowledge that the great which once existed was at least possible once and may well again be possible sometime; he goes his way more courageously, for now the doubt which assails him in moments of weakness, that he may perhaps want the impossible, has been conquered.
The creator has always been at a disadvantage to him who only looked on without even trying his hand; as at all times the armchair politician has been wiser, more just and judicious than the governing statesman.
This is how the connoisseurs are because they wish to eliminate art altogether; they give the appearance of physicians while their real intention is to dispense poisons; so they cultivate their tongue and their taste in order to explain fastidiously why they so insistently decline whatever nourishing artistic fare is offered them. For they do not want something great to be produced: their expedient is to say “see, the great already exists!” In truth they care as little about existing greatness as about greatness in the making: to which their life bears witness.
In the second place, then, history belongs to the preserving and revering soul – to him who with loyalty and love looks back on his own origins; through this reverence he, as it were, gives thanks for his existence. By tending with loving hands what has long survived he intends to preserve the conditions in which he grew up for those who will come after him – and so he serves life.
The small and limited, the decayed and obsolete receives its dignity and involability in that the preserving and revering soul of the antiquarian moves into these things and makes itself at home in the nest it builds there.
Here one could live, he says to himself, for here one can live and will be able to live, for we are tough and not to be uprooted over night. And so with this ‘We’, he looks beyond the ephemeral, curious, indivdiual life and feels like the spirit of the house, the generation, and the city.
But this antiquarian historical sense of reverence is of the highest value where it imbues modest, coarse, even wretched conditions in which a man or a people live with a simple touching feeling of pleasure and contentment;
How could history serve life bettern than by tying even less favoured generations and populations to their homeland and its customs, by making them sedentary and preventing their searching and contentiously fighting for something better in foreign lands?
The happiness of knowing oneself not to be wholly arbitrary and accidental, but rather as growing out of the past as its heir, flower and fruit and so to be exculpated, even justified, in one’s existence – this is what one now especially likes to call the proper historical sense.
Here there is always one danger very near: the time will finally come when everything old and past which has not totally been lost sight of will simply be taken as equally venerable, while whatever does not approach the old with veneration, that is new and growing, will be rejected and treated with hostility.
When the sense of a people hardens in this way, when history serves past life so as to undermine further and especially higher life, when the historical sense no longer preserves life but mummifies it: then the tree dies unnaturally, beginning at the top and slowly dying towards the roots – and in the end the root itself grenerally decays.
Now piety withers away, scholorly habit endures without it and, egoistically complacent, revolves around its own centre. Then you may well witness the repugnant spectacle of blind lust for collecting, of a restless raking together of all that once has been.
The fact that something old now gives rise to the demand that it must be immortal.
Here it becomes clear how badly man needs, often enough, in addition to the monumental and antiquarian ways of seeing the past, a third kind, the critical: and this again in service of life as well. He must have the strength, and use it from time to time, to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgement, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it;
It is an attempt, as it were a posteriori to give oneself a past from which one would like to be descended: – always a dangerous attempt because second natures are mostly feebler than first.
Yet here and there a victory is acheived nevertheless, and for the fighters who use critical history for life there is even a remarkable consolation: namely, to know that this first nature also was, at some time or other, a second nature and that every victorious second nature becomes a first.
Each man and each people requires according to their goals, strengths and needs, a certain knowledge of the past, sometimes as monumental, sometimes as antiquarian, sometimes as critical history… but always only for the purpose of life and therefore also always under the rule and highest direction of that purpose.
Knowledge of the past is at all times desired only in the service of the future and the present.
Knowledge, taken in excess withough hunger, even contrary to need, no longer acts as a transforming motive impelling to action and remains hidden in a certain chaotic inner world which that modern man, with curious pride, calls his unique “inwardness”. He may then say that he has the content and that only the form is lacking; but in all living things this is quite an unseemly opposition. Our modern culture is nothing living just because it cannot be understood at all without that opposition, that is: it is no real culture at all but only a kind of knowledge about culture.
In the inner being sentiment may well sleep like a snake which, having swallowed whole rabbits, calmly lies in the sun and avoids all movement except the most necessary.
Everyone who passes by wishes only one thing, that such a culture not perish of indigestibility.
For from ourselves we moderns have nothing at all; only by filling and overfilling ourselve with alien ages, customs, arts, philosophies, religions and knowledge do we become something worthy of notice, namely walking encyclopedias.
The people that can be called cultured must in reality be a living unity and not fall apart so miserably into an inside and an outside, a content and form. If you want to strive for and promote the culture of a people, then strive for and promote this higher unity and work to annihilate modern pseudo-culture in favor of a true culture; dare to devote some thought to the problem of restoring the health of a people which has been impaired by history, to how it may recover its instincts and therewith its integrity.
What means shall he use? What is now left him but his deep knowledge: in expressing it, disseminating it, distributing it generously he hopes to plant a need: and from this strong need a strong deed will one day arise.
In this truth-in-need, however, our first generation must be raised; certainly it will suffer the most from this truth, for through it it must raise itself, and even itself against itself, into a new habit and nature out of an old and first nature and habit:
First give me life and I will make you a culture from it!
This same youth also guesses with the curative instinct of that same nature how that paradise is to be regained; it knows the ointments and medicines for the historical malady, for the excess of the historical: and what are they called?
Do not be surprised, they bear the names of poisons: the antidotes to the historical are called – the unhistorical and the superhistorical. With these names we return to the beginnings of our essay and to their calm.
By the word “unhistorical” I denote the art and the strength of being able to forget and to enclose oneself in a limited horizon: “superhistorical” I call the powers which guide the eye away from becoming and towards that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, towards art and religion.
It is possible that we, the historically sick, will also have to suffer from the antidotes. But that we suffer from them is no proof that the treatment is incorrect.
But at that final point in their cure they have become human again, and have ceased to be humanoid aggregates – that is something!
And how do we arrive at that goal? you will ask. Already at the beginning of a journey to that goal the Delphic god calls his motto to you: KNOW THYSELF. It is a hard motto: for the god “does not conceal and does not reveal, but only indicates” as Heraclitus has said. What does he point out to you?
The Greeks learned gradually to organize chaos by reflecting on themselves in accordance with the Delphic teaching, that is, by reflecting on their genuine needs, and letting their sham needs die out. Thus they took possession of themselves again; they did not long remain the overloaded heirs and epigoni of the whole orient; after a difficult struggle with themselves and through the practical interpretation of that motto they even became the happiest enrichers and increasers of the inherited treasure and the firstcomers and models of all coming cultured peoples.
This is the parable for each one of us: he must organize the chaos within himself by reflecting on his genuine needs.
Thus the Greek concept of culture – will be unveiled to him, the concept of culture as a new and improved nature, without inside and outside, without dissimulation and convention, of culture as the accord of life, thought, appearing and willing.
– All selections above by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Peter Preuss, and published by Hacket Publishing as “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life” in 1980. All selections and edits by yours truly, for my personal use and not meant for commercial distribution in any way.