Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Book Review: On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life by F. Nietzsche

On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Peter Preuss

Friedrich Nietzsche's early work on the value of studying history balances between a pure, theoretical understanding and the then-contemporary understanding of history. When this was published in 1874, Germany was proud of its historical understanding of itself and the thorough education it provided to the general populace. According to Nietzsche, the predominant theory was Hegel's dialectic, where the World Spirit moves humanity through many stages of conflict, gradually improving human welfare to a culmination. Many considered late 1800s Germany to be the pinnacle of human development, an assessment Nietzsche did not share. So he spends the last half of this essay analyzing and debunking the importance of historical education to German society. He has a rather blistering attack on Hegel and people who follow his theories.

The earlier part of the essay is more theoretical, discussing how history can impact the way people live. He develops a tension between living historically and living unhistorically. Those who live purely with a historical understanding can gain benefits by seeing past figures as role models and past situations as successes or failures to be imitated or avoided. The problem is that a purely historical understanding eliminates the possibility of original thinking and creative actions. Many people look back to ancient Greece as a model of rational thought and activity, though clearly the Greeks didn't look for such role models in their history. So living historically is a two-edged sword. Living unhistorically allows one to forget the past and have that originality and creativity that is necessary for life to advance and improve, though such activities require a great deal of personal fortitude. This is also a two-edged sword.

Then he goes into how the current age is all about following the Hegelian dialectic and being satisfied with the status quo that rather than moving forward to greater things. His argument is entertainingly written but has less relevance today than it did in his time. The first half of the essay is more valuable and interesting now though it is less colorfully written.

This book was on my shelf of "books to be read and then kept or gotten rid of." While it does have some merits, I can't see myself rereading it ever nor do I see myself loaning it out to anyone. So it's going in the donation box.

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