An Interpretation of Nietzsche's On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life
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An Interpretation of Nietzsche's On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life

Anthony K. Jensen

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An Interpretation of Nietzsche's On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life

Anthony K. Jensen

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With his An Interpretation of Nietzsche's "On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life ", Anthony K. Jensen shows how 'timely' Nietzsche's second "Untimely Meditation" really is. This comprehensive and insightful study contextualizes and analyzes a wide range of Nietzsche's earlier thoughts about history: teleology, typology, psychology, memory, classical philology, Hegelianism, and the role historiography plays in modern culture. On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life is shown to be a 'timely' work, too, insofar as it weaves together a number of Nietzsche's most important influences and thematic directions at that time: ancient culture, science, epistemology, and the thought of Schopenhauer and Burckhardt. Rather than dismiss it as a mere 'early' work, Jensen shows how the text resonates in Nietzsche's later perspectivism, his theory of subjectivity, and Eternal Recurrence. And by using careful philological analysis of the text's composition history, Jensen is in position to fully elucidate and evaluate Nietzsche's arguments in their proper contexts. As such Jensen's Interpretation should restore Nietzsche's second "Untimely Meditation" to a prominent place among 19th Century philosophies of history.

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1 Text and Context

DOI: 10.4324/9781315746074-1

Personal Context

By the time he published On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life (hereafter HL) in 1874, Friedrich Nietzsche had been writing about history for more than half his life. As a boy he enrolled at the local preparatory school, Schulpforta, which was then renowned in Germany for having produced superb historians, among them none other than the country's greatest: Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), whom Nietzsche likely met at a school celebration in 1863.1 Nietzsche studied with Friedrich August Koberstein (1797–1870), a well-regarded historian of the German Romantics, as well as Diederich Volkmann (1838–1903) and Wilhelm Corssen (1820–1875), both philologists of respected standing. Among his very first student efforts was a multifaceted project on the historical reconstruction of the fabled Ostrogoth King Ermanarich and on the textual genesis of the poetic corpus of Theognis. Nietzsche also produced two short essays in April 1862 whose themes would occupy him well beyond his boyhood: Fate and History and On the Freedom of the Will and Fate. Both of these early essays are more tempting for their titles than interesting for their content, as one might expect of a seventeen-year-old. But what all of Nietzsche's youthful activities show is that from the very start his fascination with the past was not constrained, as it is in so many, to the realm of ‘what happened’. They indicate Nietzsche's characteristically philosophical desire to know why what happened did happen and how it is that the human mind can come to know and use what happened in the past in order to better understand and live within the present.
Having matriculated at the University of Bonn in 1864, Nietzsche studied with leading classical philologists like Friedrich Ritschl (1806–1876) and Otto Jahn (1813–1869). On the history of philosophy and Plato, he studied with Karl Schaarschmidt (1822–1909); on the history of politics he took a class with the founder of the historische Zeitschrift, Heinrich von Sybel (1817–1895).2 He originally enrolled as a theology student but soon changed to philology—to the consternation of his deeply religious mother. Nietzsche also joined a ‘Burschenschaft’, a sort of fraternity with roots in nationalism and liberalism, which led the erstwhile ‘little pastor’ (his childhood nickname) into an unaccustomed and uncomfortably beer-laden free-spiritedness and fiscal irresponsibility. The faculty of philology was meanwhile torn apart by the then infamous ‘Philologenskrieg’ (philologists’ war). To understand it and Nietzsche's place within it, some familiarization with the history of philology will be useful, which will illuminate Nietzsche's own developmental context when he composes HL.3
Philology means the ‘love of words’. To the great shame of the contemporary university, today it has faded into near non-existence, along with its methodological rigor, demand for multiple-language mastery, and critical attitude toward both texts and traditions. But in Nietzsche's day, it was considered among the most rigorous and difficult courses of university study—where the very brightest students enrolled to become future educators and upper-echelon civil servants. As chemistry replaced alchemy and as astronomy replaced astrology, 19th Century philology was the scientific revolution in critical methods that replaced the sort of non-critical historiography that endured from Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) and the author of Exodus to Voltaire (1694–1778) and Rousseau (1712–1778). What philologists researched, primarily, were historical texts, most often religious or classical, and for that what was required was Ancient Greek, Latin, sometimes Hebrew, and, above all, the skills that enable one to look past inherited traditions of interpretation to that which was genuinely confirmable or discomfirmable. Philology represents a skeptical attitude toward the physical text as being the re-presentation of an author's thoughts.4 Texts have histories all their own, and especially with the texts of antiquity one must reckon the often tortuous process of editing, emending, excerpting, and sometimes even forging or plagiarizing that renders them into that which sits upon our shelves millennia later.
Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824) is the proper father of philology, as he was the first to declare it his field of study at the University of Göttingen in 1777. He introduced ‘critical’ methods into research—the demand for comparative analysis of various ancient and medieval manuscripts, and a resistance to any speculative interpretation about what an author or text ‘meant’ without first accounting for these changes. His Prolegomena to Homer (1795) is exemplary of the field insofar as Wolf was mostly able to demonstrate that someone named Homer could not have been the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Nietzsche's reading of Wolf was as wide as his influence was deep.5 In other publications at the time of HL, Wolf is praised to the point of being called by Nietzsche, “my great predecessor.”6 Wolf was the primary inspiration for Nietzsche's 1869 inaugural address at the University of Basel, “On the Personality of Homer.” His lectures on “The Encyclopedia of Classical Philology” (1871, possibly 1873/4) credit Wolf as the founder of strict historiographical methodology. His lecture series, “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” (1872), characterizes Wolf as one of few models of proper education and a sort of watermark of humanistic culture. Directly after HL, in Nietzsche's once planned but never completed “untimely meditation” entitled We Philologists (1875), Wolf's name is one of few associated with a healthy ideal of scholarship.7
A division emerged within the generation of philologists after Wolf: the ‘Critical’ school or ‘Sprachphilologie’ and the ‘Antiquarian’ school or ‘Sachphilologie’. The former, led by Gottfried Hermann (1772–1848) and Karl Lachmann (1793–1851) in Leipzig, concentrated on linguistic analysis at the conscious neglect of interpretation. Before fancying oneself to pronounce on an argument of Plato much less the ‘spirit’ of antiquity generally, one must be absolutely clear about the words of a particular manuscript. For only in the words are ideas communicated directly and verifiably. Given the conditions of ancient manuscripts and of the manuscripts made by medieval copyists, that task requires extraordinarily meticulous analysis to decipher what is originally an author's and what is added, subtracted, or altered in the millennia-long tradition of text production. Being scientific meant restraining interpretation to what evidence could directly and unarguably confirm or disconfirm—and that, for the Sprachphilologen, always meant the words of a text.
The latter school, led by August Boeckh (1785–1867) at Berlin and Friedrich Welcker (1784–1868) at Bonn, was equally serious about understanding antiquity; but they were open to the ‘things’ or ‘Sache’ of the past as well as the words. Limiting oneself to the authors of texts may teach us a great deal about what a few dozen wealthy and highly-educated men thought. For the rest of antiquity, we must look to vase paintings, temple architecture, playthings, jewelry, and whatever else archeology could unearth. Objects require interpretation in ways that words do not, and some of that interpretation may be speculative. Whatever uncertainty resulted, however, was repaid handsomely by the wealth of extra-textual information. Being scientific here meant being comprehensive: considering all the evidence available in an effort to exhaustively document the phenomenon under investigation.
In the generation that followed this split between Sach- and Sprach-Philologie, Nietzsche's teachers Friedrich Ritschl and Otto Jahn were the key figures.8 Ritschl was educated in Sprachphilologie under Hermann at Leipzig and Hermann's student Carl Christian Reisig (1792–1829) at Halle. But later, with his appointment at Bonn, Ritschl also became sympathetic to the hermeneutical leanings of his colleague Friedrich Welcker. Together they co-edited the Rheinisches Museum für Philologie from 1842 until Ritschl's departure to Leipzig in 1865. The longest running and best-respected journal in the field still today, it was founded by August Boeckh, Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831), and Christian August Brandis (1790–1867) in 1827. The fact that Ritschl was editing Boeckh's old journal with Boeckh's old student Welcker was itself a sign that the former battle-lines were being blurred. Such was a clear aim of Ritschl, who combined critical sprachphilologisch techniques with a pedagogy that demanded comprehensive cultural knowledge. In Ritschl's own words, linguistic “criticism and hermeneutics should look upon each other as builders on one and the same building.”9
Jahn was a Sachphilolog who developed personal ties to the Sprachphilologen in Leipzig. He had been educated by Boeckh in Berlin, and was close friends with Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), who would go on to become the greatest German historian of Rome. Jahn's first academic appointment was in the archeology department of Leipzig in 1847, where Gottfried Herman still taught and where his legacy still loomed large. During the series of conflicts that marred Germany in 1848, Jahn and Hermann's son-in-law Moritz Haupt (1808–1874) fought in the ‘bürgerliche Liberale’, whose defeat resulted in Jahn's forced capitulation of his post at Leipzig. In 1854, Ritschl tapped Jahn to come to Bonn in recognition of his undeniable talent, but their rather idiosyncratic personalities prevented anything like a warm friendship.
In 1864, the year of Nietzsche's arrival at Bonn, Jahn tried to recruit a Hermann student, the rather unheralded Hermann Sauppe (1809–1893), going over the head of his faculty and their leading light Ritschl to do so.10 What followed was the ‘Philologists’ War’, a nasty tragedy of errors, intrigues, and betrayals, the kind of which coldly breaks academic careers, with the result that Jahn was formally reprimanded even while Ritschl grabbed a post at Leipzig. As a student of both though an adherent of neither, Nietzsche was caught in the middle. He favored Jahn's side of the ‘war’ personally, but Ritschl's mode of scholarship intellectually. The more lasting impression, though, was a general disgust of academic politics.
Nietzsche transferred to Leipzig one year later, in some part because of Ritschl and in larger part for personal reasons. Upon arrival he founded the school's philology club and befriended the other rising star, Erwin Rohde (1845–1898), who would become one of the most influential scholars of the more esoteric aspects of ancient culture. Nietzsche's friendship with Rohde and the lessons he learned about professional scholarship would prove crucial to the conceptual development of HL. Nietzsche's “Dioscuri” brother, Rohde defended Birth of Tragedy from Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff's (1848–1931) infamous “Zukunftsphilologie” attack, and remained, long after Nietzsche did, a disciple of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860).11 Rohde helped Nietzsche prepare the page proofs of HL, though he was critical of its portrayal of the historical craft.12 By 1876, Rohde and Nietzsche had grown increasingly distant due in parts to their relationships with Wagner (1818–1883) and Schopenhauerianism, to Rohde's family life in Kiel, and even to their adamantly disjunctive attitudes toward the historian Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893).13 Their estrangement, though, did not lack attempts by both parties at sporadic reconciliations, including what has been claimed to be something of an ‘Ode to Rohde’, the poetic exchange between “light” and “dark” in HH II, Wanderer & his Shadow, 1.14
Nietzsche's talent for philology was evident: he published four articles15 and four book reviews as a student.16 The pieces show a marked preference for Sprachphilologie. None of them treats Greek culture as an aesthetic whole; none deals with any archeological evidence whatsoever. Especially in his pieces on Theognis and Diogenes Laertius, the focus is not on what the authors said so much as on whether they indeed said what the inherited texts portray them to have said. There is ample psychological speculation, to be sure; however, the spur that guides each piece is an apparent textual inconsistency that emerges during the transmission of texts from antiquity to the present. Nietzsche's contributions on these figures would have assured his reputation, albeit as a quite minor scholar, even had he never developed into a philosopher.17
When a position opened at the University of Basel, Ritschl wrote an ecstatic letter in support of his favorite student:
As many young scholars as I have seen developing under my supervision in the last 39 years, I have never known a young man, never tried to advance the career of anyone within my discipline, who so early and so young was as mature as this Nietzsche. […] He is the object of admiration and the leader (without wanting to be) of the entire philological world of Leipzig, who can hardly await the time when they will hear him as their docent. You will say that I am des...