On the Use and Abuse of History for Life  

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Man must have the strength to break up the past; and apply it too, in order to live. He must bring the past to the bar of judgment, interrogate it remorselessly, and finally condemn it. Every past is worth condemning: this is the rule in mortal affairs, which always contain a large measure of human power and human weakness. It is not justice that sits in judgment here; nor mercy that proclaims the verdict; but only life, the dim, driving force that insatiably desires—itself. Its sentence is always unmerciful, always unjust, as it never flows from a pure fountain of knowledge: though it would generally turn out the same, if Justice herself delivered it. “For everything that is born is worthy of being destroyed: better were it then that nothing should be born.”

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (1874, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben) is a text by Nietzsche, the second part of Untimely Meditations. The text offers — instead of the prevailing view of "knowledge as an end in itself" — an alternative way of reading history, one where living life becomes the primary concern; along with a description of how this might improve the health of a society. It also introduced an attack against the basic precepts of classic humanism.

In this essay, Nietzsche attacks both the historicism of man (the idea that man is created through history) and the idea that one can possibly have an objective concept of man, since a major aspect of man resides in his subjectivity. Nietzsche expands the idea that the essence of man dwells not inside of him, but rather above him, in the following essay, "Schopenhauer als Erzieher" ("Schopenhauer as Educator").

Glenn Most argues for the possible translation of the essay as "The Use and Abuse of History Departments for Life", as Nietzsche used the term Historie and not Geschichte. Furthermore, he alleges that this title may have its origins via Jacob Burckhardt, who would have referred to Leon Battista Alberti's treatise, De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (1428 — "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies"). Glenn Most argues that the untimeliness of Nietzsche here resides in calling to a return, beyond historicism, to Humboldt's humanism, and, maybe even beyond, to the first humanism of the Renaissance.

The problem of the "history-versus-life" contrariety which Nietzsche's essay raises has recently been revived in another essay reflecting on the nature of religiosity in Thucydides' History. Thucydides is shown to do exactly what Nietzsche asks of a historian: to offer a narrative about the emergence and decay of the healthy society, in this case, Greek society. The crux of what constitutes "health" is argued to hinge upon answering the question, what is religious?




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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