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  • History, Life, and Justice in Friedrich Nietzsche's Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben
  • Vanessa Lemm (bio)

In this famous essay dedicated to a consideration of the value of history, 1 Nietzsche claims to have detected in the superfluity of historical knowledge (Erkenntnis-Überfluss) a sickness and consuming fever that has befallen his contemporaries. What his contemporaries and, in general, modern humankind are lacking is an awareness of the genuine necessities (Notwendige), needs (Bedürfnisse), and requirements (Nöthe) of life (1997b/UB II Preface). 2 Nietzsche's thesis is that history is needed solely for the sake of life and action, and insofar as it serves and is employed in view of the construction of the future. As long as modern men fail to acknowledge this need for and value of history, historical knowledge inevitably leads to a degeneration of life.

Whereas historicism understands history as the objective knowledge of the past and sees in the necessity of the past the standard of the truth of historical knowledge, Nietzsche wants to shift historical knowledge away from science and toward life and action. For him, life entails a constructive [End Page 167] orientation toward the future that commits an injustice to the past. The historical knowledge of historicism claims to be true to the past and to do justice to the past. But, seen from the perspective of life, historical knowledge will have to become unjust to the past in view of being true to life and its future becoming. This essay explores the problem of how a historical knowledge that is inherently unjust can nonetheless provide the material for the constitution of a just order of life. As long as modern men fail to appreciate the injustice of historical knowledge, they also remain closed to the justice of life.

Nietzsche not only detects the symptoms of his age, he also sets out to cure modern men of the sickness of historicism. Against an overdose of historical knowledge, he prescribes the antidotes of the unhistorical, understood as the art and power of forgetfulness, and of the suprahistorical, understood as that which gives to reality the characteristic of the eternal exemplified in art and religion (1997b/UB II 10, KSA 1.330). Most needful is to follow the old maxim "Know yourself," which here is meant to recall one's genuine necessities (Notwendige) and needs (Bedürfnisse) (1997b/UB II 10, KSA 1.333). 3 In other words, a cure from the sickness of historical fever requires that modern men submit themselves to the government (Regierung) of life. Not surprisingly, the three forms of history that are in the service of life—the monumental, antiquarian, and critical forms of history—all respond to real life needs: the need to act and thrive, the need to preserve and revere, and the need to judge and condemn, respectively. Each of the three forms of history belongs to a certain soil and to a certain climate, and it is only in their own soil and climate that they can come into their own right (Recht) (1997b/UB II 2, KSA 1.264). For Nietzsche, becoming aware of the needs of life will lead to a valuable use of history in the service of life. Moreover, this use of the past for the sake of life and action is a form of justice. But how can history in the service of life be just or justified if or although, as Nietzsche says, every form of history in the service of life is inherently unjust? The past suffers as long as history stands under the rule of the needs of life and is dominated by its drives (1997b/UB II 3, KSA 1.267). This essay wishes to shed light on the relationship between life and justice in Nietzsche's new conception of history in the service of life. [End Page 168]

I. History and Justice in the Service of Life

To learn more about what Nietzsche means by "justice" or what justifies a form of history, one needs to turn to the sixth subsection of Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben. This section is dedicated to the...


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