The use of history

In his “Untimely Meditation” on history, Nietzsche described people who view history as a progression toward some end goal as “historical” thinkers for whom “looking to the past impels them towards the future and fires their … hope that what they want will still happen…. These historical men believe that the meaning of existence will come more and more to light in the course of its process….”  He distinguished the “suprahistorical” thinker, “who sees no salvation in the process and for whom, rather, the world is complete and reaches its finality at each and every moment.”  In other words, “the past and the present are one” and despite “their diversity, identical in all that is typical….”

With the subtlety that imbues all his work, Nietzsche at once critiques the conventional view, history as progress, yet warns against the more enlightened view, progress as fiction:  “Our valuation of the historical may be only an occidental prejudice:  but let us at least make progress within this prejudice….  Let us at least learn better how to employ history for the purpose of life!  Then we will gladly acknowledge that the suprahistorical outlook possesses more wisdom than we do, provided we can only be sure that we possess more life….”

Domination, for example, has taken and will continue to take on new form after new form in human history, yet remains domination, universal and ubiquitous; indeed, history itself is domination’s most powerful form.  This suprahistorical view, however, leads to the hopelessness and nausea of nihilism, and contrary to popular misconception, Nietzsche was no nihilist, or at least his every word discloses a valiant aspiration to overcome the danger of nihilism.  Nietzsche challenges us to use history for life, to take the injustice of domination and “to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken moulds.”  Even if history should teach us that the task is hopeless, that we are powerless against the all-destroying force of history, let us in defiance learn the opposite, that we have the power to “dominate and direct” history by a “higher force” — life itself.

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