Friedrich Nietzsche – On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874)

The second of the four Untimely Meditations, which was published in the first part of Nietzsche’s roughly triadic career, beginning with the radical condemnation of “science” in Birth of Tragedy and Untimely, moving to the more “empirical” middle period of Human, All too Human, Dawn of Day and The Gay Science (which ends in the realization that such activity has killed God, tragically), and then to the final period that brings the two early movements together: Beyond Good and Evil, Zarathustra, Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols.

The fundamental question of the meditation is summarized in the final, tenth section:

Now, is life to rule over knowledge, over science, or is knowledge to rule over life? Which of these two authorities is the higher and decisive one? No one will doubt: life is the higher, the ruling authority, for any knowledge which destroys life would also have destroyed itself. Knowledge presupposes life and so has the same interest in the preservation of life which every being has in its own continuing existence. (62)

Nietzsche is here referring to historical knowledge in particular–that is,  a relationship to historical existence that is either overly scientific-empirical (antiquarian) or overly monumental (a worship of great deeds that obliterates the complex causal chains leading to these “effects in themselves”). Both of these kinds of history need to be paired with a critical history, that belongs to man “in so far as he suffers and is in need of liberation” (14). Critical history is “the strength…to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by draggin it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it.” According to Nietzsche, “every past…is worth condemning” (21). Unlike the Hegelian tribunal of world-history, Nietzsche’s ultimate judge is life itself: “that dark, driving, insatiably self-desiring power” (22). This creates a “contradiction” between the chain of inherited values (first nature) and the attempt usurp or break this chain with a new vital  instinct (derived from life, after all) which Nietzsche calls “second nature.” A curious adumbration of both Lukcás and Adorno:

It is an attempt, as it were, a posteriori to give oneself a past from which one would like to have been descended in opposition to the past from which one is descended:–always a dangerous attempt because it is so difficult to find a limit in denying the past and because second natures are mostly feebler than the first. Too often we stop at knowing the good without doing it because we also know the better without being to do it. Yet here and there a victory is achieved nevertheless, and for fighters who use critical history for life there is even a remarkable consolation: namely, to know that this first nature also was, at some other time, a second nature and that every victorious second nature becomes a first. (22)

This critique of origins shows how Nietzsche is not simply involved in denial of the past, but is rather building a system through which the past can become legible in the present at all. It is precisely science, what he calls “historical education,” that blots out history by hypostasizing past events as knowable units of information. In Germany, for example, this manifests itself as a disjunction between inside and outside, or content and form, caused by an “excess of knowledge”: “indigestible knowledge stones” that cannot find any external form appropriate to their content. This explains the failure of the Germans to forge any national culture, supposedly. Opposed to this passive absorption of formless historical knowledge, Nietzsche puts forward an active history-making that is future oriented: The past always speaks as an oracle: only as master-builders of the future who know the present  will you understand it” (38). Creativity, the creative instinct, is primary.

This then turns into a critique of Hegelian history, primarily by questioning the concept of belatedness. Nietzsche eschews this “ironic” standpoint, which he points out, merely confirms the present as the pinnacle of history, and “all things after him are properly judged to be only a musical coda of the world-historical rondo” (47). On the contrary to this spirit-driven narrative, Nietzsche claims that history bears the “against history” within it–that is, those who “against the blind power of the actual” concerned themselves with the ought rather than the is. This is associated with the perpetual power of youth, which fights against “a certain excess of history” by trying deliberately to act “unhistorically” (57).

But this does not mean acting as if we were not bound by historical contingency. On the contrary, Acting ahistorically means precisely binding oneself to horizons that do not include the great chain of becoming that is “all of history”: “I demand that above all men must learn to live and use history only in the service of the life they have learned to live” (58). This means understanding life as “a craft which has to be learned from the beginning continuously practiced without stint if it is not to breed a crawling brood of botchers and babblers” (60)! Thus,

By the word ‘the unhistorical’ I denote the art and strength of being able to forget and enclose oneself in a limited horizon: ‘superhistorical; I call the powers which guide the eye away from becoming and toward that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, toward art and religion. (62)

Connect this quote with Deleuze’s claim from What is Philosophy?

Becoming does not belong to history. History still designates only the set of conditions, however recent they may be, from which one turns away in order to become, that is to say, in order to create something new.”[1]

[Need to map out the exact relationship between becoming and history for both Nietzsche and Deleuze.] Both claim for the human an ability to turn away from history, but for Nietzsche this entails a stabilization of the human as against history in the form of art. Deleuze locates becoming in that which transcends history. And we could add that this transcendence is precisely what perpetuates history itself (Marx). For Nietzsche, however, this rigorous self-limitation results in the “becoming human” and no longer “human aggregates” (64). This therefore is a “new and improved nature,” a second nature that has become a first.

[1] What is Philosophy?, 96.


On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Prauss (Hackett: Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1980)

One response to “Friedrich Nietzsche – On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874)

  1. Pingback: Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil (1886) | tastetowaste

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