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Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Use and Abuse of History for Life


“Incidentally, I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity.” These are Goethe’s words. With them, as with a heartfelt expression of Ceterum censeo, our consideration of the worth and the worthlessness of history may begin.[1] For this work is to set down why, in the spirit of Goethe’s words, we must in all seriousness despise instruction without vitality, knowledge which enervates activity, and history as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury, because we still lack what is still most essential to us and because what is superfluous is hostile to what is essential. To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it, no matter how elegantly he may look down on our coarse and graceless needs and distresses. That is, we need it for life and for action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and from action or for merely glossing over the egotistical life and the cowardly bad act. We wish to serve history only insofar as it serves living. But there is a degree of doing history and valuing it through which life atrophies and degenerates. To bring this phenomenon to light as a remarkable symptom of our time is now every bit as necessary as it may be painful.

I have tried to describe a feeling which has often enough tormented me. I take my revenge on this feeling when I expose it to the general public. Perhaps with such a description someone or other will have reason to point out to me that he also knows this sensation but that I have not felt it with sufficient purity and naturalness and definitely have not expressed myself with the appropriate certainty and mature experience. Perhaps one or two will respond in this way. However, most people will tell me that this feeling is totally wrong, unnatural, abominable, and absolutely for-bidden, that with it, in fact, I have shown myself unworthy of the powerful historical tendency of the times, as it has been, by common knowledge, observed for the past two generations, particularly among the Germans. Whatever the reaction, now that I dare to expose myself with this natural description of my feeling, common decency will be fostered rather than shamed, because I am providing an opportunity for many people to make polite pronouncements about a contemporary trend like the one just men-tioned. Moreover, I obtain for myself something of even more value to me than respectability: I become publicly instructed and set straight about our times.

This essay is also out of touch with the times because here I am trying for once to see as a contemporary disgrace, infirmity, and defect something of which our age is justifiably proud, its historical culture. For I believe, in fact, that we are all suffering from a consumptive historical fever and at least should recognize that we are afflicted with it. If Goethe with good reason said that with our virtues we simultaneously cultivate our faults as well and if, as everyone knows, a hypertrophic virtue—as the historical sense of our age appears to me to be—can serve to destroy a people just as well as a hypertrophic vice, then people may make allowance for me just this once. Also, in my defence I should not conceal the fact that the experiences which aroused in me these feelings of torment I have derived for the most part from myself and from others only for the purpose of comparison and that, insofar as I am a student of more ancient times, particularly the Greeks, I come as a child of these present times to such anachronistic experiences concerning myself. But I must be allowed to ascribe this much to myself on account of my profession as a classical philologist, for I would not know what sense classical philology would have in our age unless it is to be effective by its inappropriateness for the times, that is, in opposition to the age, thus working on the age, and, we hope, for the benefit of a coming time.


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 is neither melancholy nor weary. To witness this is difficult for man, because he boasts to himself that his human condition is better than the beast’s and yet looks with jealousy at its happiness. For he wishes only to live like the beast, neither weary with things nor in pain, and yet he wants it in vain, because he does not desire 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 keeps on wondering about it.

But he also wonders about himself, that he is not able to learn to forget and that he always hangs onto the past. No matter how far or how fast he may run, the 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 a 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 beast lives unhistorically. For it goes into 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. And so a beast can be nothing other than honest. The human being, by contrast, braces himself against 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 weight, which he can for appearances’ sake at some point deny and which he is only too happy to deny in his interactions with his peers, in order to awaken their envy. Therefore, it moves him, as if he imagined 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 future. Nonetheless, this game must be upset for the child. It will be summoned all too soon out of its forgetfulness. For it learns to understand the expression “It was,” that password with which struggle, suffering, and weariness come over human beings, so as to remind it what its existence basically is—a past tense that is never over and done with. If death finally brings the longed-for forget-ting, nevertheless, in the process, at the same moment it destroys the present and life and thus impresses its seal on that knowledge that existence is only an uninterrupted living in the past [Gewesensein], something which exists for the purpose of self-denial, self-destruction, and self-contradiction.

If happiness or a reaching out for new happiness is in some sense or other what holds the living person onto life and pushes him forward into con-tinued living, 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 makes one happy, is incomparably more happiness than the greatest which comes only as an episode, as a mood, so to speak, as an amazing interruption between nothing but boredom, desire, and deprivation. However, with the smallest and with the greatest happiness there is always one way in which happiness becomes happiness: through the ability to forget or, to express the matter in a more scholarly fashion, through the capacity, for as long as the happiness lasts, to sense things unhistorically. Anyone who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of stand-ing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness and fear, will never know what happiness is, and, 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 every-thing 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.[2] Forgetting belongs to all action, just as not only light but also darkness belong in the life of all organic things. A person who wanted to feel utterly and only historically would be like someone who had been forced to abstain from sleep or like the beast that is to continue its life only from rumination to constantly repeated rumination. And so it is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates, but it is completely and utterly impossible to live at all without forgetting. Or, to explain myself even more simply concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which something living comes to harm and finally perishes, whether it is a person or a people or a cul-ture.

In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the bor-derline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we would have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one’s self. There are people who possess so little of this force that they bleed to death incurably from a single experience, a single pain, often even from a single tender injustice, as from a really small bloody scratch. On the other hand, there are people whom the wildest and most horrific accidents in life and even actions of their own wickedness injure so little that right in the middle of these experiences or shortly after they bring the issue to a reasonable state of well being and a sort of quiet conscience. The stronger the roots which the innermost nature of a person has, the more he will appropriate or forcibly take from the past. And if we were to imagine the most powerful and most immense nature, then we would recognize there that for it there would be no frontier at all over which the historical sense would be able to grow or cause damage. Everything in the past, in its own and in the most alien, this nature would draw upon, take it into itself, and, as it were, transform into blood. What such a nature does not subjugate it knows how to forget. It is there no more. The horizon is closed and complete, and nothing can recall that there still are men, passions, doctrines, and purposes beyond it. And this is a general principle: each living being can become healthy, strong, and fertile only within a horizon. If it is incapable of drawing a horizon around itself and too egotistical to enclose its own view within an alien one, then it wastes away there, pale or weary, to an early death. Cheerfulness, good conscience, joyful action, trust in what is to come—all these depend, with the individual as with a people, on the following facts: that there is a line which divides what is observable and bright from what is unilluminated and dark, that we know how to forget at the right time just as well as we remember at the right time, that we feel with powerful instinct the time when we must perceive historically and when unhistoric-ally. This is the specific principle which the reader is invited to consider: that for the health of a single individual, a people, and a culture the unhis-torical and the historical are equally essential.

Now, at this point everyone makes the initial observation that a person’s historical knowledge and feeling can be very limited, his horizon hemmed in like that of an inhabitant of an Alpine valley; in every judgment he might set down an injustice and in every experience he may mistakenly assume he was the first to have it, and nevertheless, in spite of all injustice and every mistake he stands there in invincible health and vigour and fills every eye with joy, while close beside him the far more just and scholarly person grows ill and collapses, because the lines of his horizon are always being shifted about restlessly once again, because he cannot wriggle out of the much softer nets of his justices and truths to strong willing and desir-ing. By contrast, we saw the beast, which is completely unhistorical and which lives almost in the middle of a sort of horizon of points, and yet which exists with a certain happiness, at least without weariness and pretense. Thus, we will have to assess the capacity of being able to feel to a certain degree unhistorically as more important and more basic, to the extent that in it lies the foundation above which something right, healthy, and great, something truly human, can generally first grow. The unhistor-ical is like an enveloping atmosphere in which alone life generates itself, only to disappear again with the destruction of this atmosphere. The truth is that, in the process by which the human being, in thinking, reflecting, comparing, separating, and combining, first limits that unhistorical ele-ment, the process by which inside that surrounding misty cloud a bright gleaming beam of light first arises, only then, through the power of using the past for living and making history again out of what has happened, does a person first become a person. But in an excess of history the human being stops once more; and without that cover of the unhistorical he would never have started and dared to start. Where do the actions occur which human beings are capable of doing without previously having gone into that misty patch of the unhistorical? Or to set pictures to one side and to grasp an example for illustration: imagine a man whom a violent passion, for a woman or for a great idea, shakes up and draws forward. How his world is changed for him! Looking backwards, he feels blind; listening to the side he hears the strangeness like a dull sound empty of meaning. What he is generally aware of he has never yet perceived as so true, so perceptibly close, coloured, resounding, illuminated, as if he is comprehending with all the senses simultaneously. All his estimates of worth are altered and devalued. He is unable any longer to value so many things, because he can hardly feel them any more. He asks himself whether he has been the fool of strange words and strange opinions all this time. He is surprised that his memory turns tirelessly in a circle but is nevertheless too weak and tired just to make a single leap out of this circle. It is the most unjust condition of the world, narrow, thankless with respect to the past, blind to dangers, deaf to warnings, a small living vor-tex in a dead sea of night and forgetting. But this condition—unhistorical, thoroughly anti-historical—is the birthing womb not only of an unjust deed but even more of every just deed, and no artist would achieve his picture, no field marshal his victory, and no people its freedom, without previously having desired and striven for them in that sort of unhistorical condition. As the active person, according to what Goethe said, is always without conscience, so he is also always without knowledge. He forgets most things in order to do one thing; he is unjust towards what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of what is to come into being now. So every active person loves his deed infinitely more than it deserves to be loved, and the best deeds happen in such a excess of love that they would certainly have to be unworthy of this love, even if their worth were otherwise incalculably great.

Should a person be in a position to sniff out and catch the fragrance in many examples of this unhistorical atmosphere, in which every great historical event has arisen, then such a person might perhaps be able, as a knowledgeable being, to elevate himself to a superhistorical standpoint, in the way Niebuhr once described it as a possible result of historical obser-vations: “In one thing at least,” he says, “is history, clearly and thoroughly grasped, useful, the fact that one knows, as even the greatest and highest spirits of our human race do not know, how their eyes have acquired by chance the way in which they see and the way in which they forcefully demand that everyone see, forcefully, that is, because the intensity of their awareness is particularly great. Someone who has not, through many illustrations, precisely determined, known, and grasped this point is over-thrown by the appearance of a mighty spirit who in a given shape presents the highest form of passionate dedication.”[3] We could call such a stand-


[1]Goethe: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1739-1842), Germany’s most famous literary genius; Ceterum censeo: “I judge otherwise,” a Latin expression made famous by Cato the Elder (c. 200 BC)  in his attacks on Carthage.

[2]Heraclitus: pre-Socratic Greek philosopher (c. 500 BC).  

[3]Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831), a prominent German statesman and historian.


Below is an excerpt of On the Use and Abuse of History by Friedrich Nietzsche as translated by Ian Johnston. To preview the book in pdf format, you can do so via our "Preview This Book" page here.