by J.B. Sheeler

One of the most profoundly unsettling events in my life was the first time I read Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, a book written over twenty-five hundred years ago, and could immediately recognize its contents as if they were describing an event that had happened only two days ago. What was so disturbing about this experience was that, prior to this, I had more or less believed in the idea that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had warned would result from the Enlightenment conception of historical progress—that “formerly, all the world was mad.”[1] How could this be, though, if the individuals in this ancient text, their character and motivations, were so easily recognizable to me? What this seemed to suggest is that there must be some sort of unbroken continuity between us and them, and that what I took to be my “higher” view was perhaps nothing but an over-sophisticated arrogance. Maybe the past was mad—but if this parallelism that I had discovered was accurate, then so too are we!

As anyone living today can attest, this descriptor madness appears incontestable. Our immersive 24/7 newscycle continuously shoves all sorts of outrageous happenings down our throats that serve to confirm this assessment daily—this is even perhaps one of the last bipartisan opinions held by citizens in this country. Whether it is crazy “rednecks” at Trump rallies or crazy “SJWs” on college campuses, no matter which side of the throne one sits on, there seems to be no dearth of examples to verify that the world is, in fact, utterly psychotic. Yet what I have come to realize in the years since my startling revelation is that not all the world is insane, just different times and different places, and different people within those times and places. And we just happen to presently be living right in the midst of one of those eras. More than anything though, I have discovered that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that, while our particular historical moment may seem particularly vexing, this too shall pass.

Very few of those oh-so-infuriating events that we are constantly barraged with on our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls will be remembered in two days, let alone in twenty-five hundred years. While each new offense is sold to us as literally the end of the world, somehow this crazy ol’ pale blue dot continues spinning ‘round. This is not to discount the gravity of certain incidents occurring these days, but it does seem to call for some measure of discretion and sense of proportion. What this insight ultimately demands is that each of us learn to distinguish between that which ought to be cared about, and that which ought be abandoned to the heedless flow of time. Given that we live in a pluralistic society with competing and irreconcilable notions of what constitutes the good life, we must be able to discern between that which is truly outrageous and worthy of outrage, and that which is irritating but essentially tolerable.

There are various ways of cultivating this temperament: focus on enriching your interpersonal relationships, create beautiful art, work to improve your local community, or refrain from buying into abstract overarching narratives about the world, such as the “patriarchy” or the “New World Order.” The one I have found to be the most efficacious and the most necessary, as the foundation of many of the other techniques, is the study of history. If nothing else, it helps to put the cacophony of everyday life—the volume of which has been so amplified in recent years by social media—into perspective. The value of the day-to-day naturally becomes attenuated if one is able to exchange it for the long view of years, decades, centuries, or, if you are especially ambitious, millennia. It is a loss of this broad historical perspective that, I believe, underlies much of our strife today. So caught up in the myopia of current events and opinions, every incident has come to feel like a crisis of apocalyptic proportions.

II.

It was another one of Nietzsche’s works—an early essay (before he too descended into madness) entitled “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”—that first got me thinking about this problem. The piece was originally intended as a polemic against his fellow scholars who, in his opinion, had turned the study of history into a worthless endeavor. “It is possible” Nietzsche proclaims, to value that study “to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate—a phenomenon we are now forced to acknowledge, painful as this may be, in the face of certain striking symptoms of our age.”[2] Inquiry into history had become an entirely scientific activity: a cold, disinterested pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. For Nietzsche, though, the reason for studying history, and really the point of studying anything at all, was “for the sake of life and action”—that is, not for the sake of knowing, but for doing.[3]

This essay is contained in a collection that is generally translated today as Untimely Meditations, which is also a perfect description of what Nietzsche saw the value of history to fundamentally be. Despite being a renowned professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, he avowed to “not know what meaning classical studies could have for our time if they were not untimely—that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come.”[4] Old books, if properly engaged with, can be an antidote to the seemingly all-encompassing present, while creating the ground upon which a future can be built.

To this end, he delineates three different orientations towards history that one can hold: first is the monumental, which “pertains to a being who acts and strives;” second, the antiquarian, as “a being who preserves and reveres;” and finally, the critical, “a being who suffers and seeks deliverance.”[5] Each of these different ways of engaging with history, as his title suggests, have both a “use” and a corresponding “abuse” though. Different historical moments, and the individuals who compose them, require different approaches to the world depending on one’s character and place in society. Sometimes a clearing away is necessary, at others, a building up—but generally what is needed is a preserving, a storehouse by which we can escape from the present.

Today, it seems that America is suffering from far too great an application of Nietzsche’s third attitude—the critical. This approach is necessary when a society is suffering from too much history and being crushed by the weight of the past. However, I believe that currently we are experiencing the exact opposite dilemma. Unlike Nietzsche’s “last men” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, who believe that “formerly, all the world was mad” and themselves to be so “clever” because their educations have taught them “all that has ever happened,” our current pedagogy has left us with an extreme deficit of historical knowledge—yet with the same conclusion. Critical history is “always a dangerous process, especially so for life,” Nietzsche cautions, because it “takes a knife to its roots [and] cruelly tramples over every kind of piety.”[6] Although periodically it may be necessary to take a scalpel to the past and remove a cancer from one’s society—so that the body may remain healthy and grow—playing with knives is always risky business.

III.

For the last one hundred years or so, many intellectuals in universities in America and throughout the West have been deeply committed to this purification process—only not with the requisite scalpel, but with a machete. The tumult we are witnessing today on college campuses and social media, and increasingly in the streets, is merely the most visible iteration of this project. This is not to say that there were not some things, even some cancers, that needed to be removed. But whereas a scalpel is used for the preservation of a body, a machete can only maim or kill.

The main goal of this educational movement has always been to dehistoricize us—that is, to wholly emancipate us from our old historical forms and ideas. Because our enlightened schoolmasters believe the past to have been entirely “mad” (read: “racist,” “sexist,” “imperialist,” “hierarchical,” etc.), there is obviously nothing of value to be found there, so why bother? Ironically though, the more we cultivate this ignorance of the past—of how our government was designed and why; of what particular factors formed our nation’s character; of the complicated and nuanced personalities of our heroes and villains—the more inescapable (for being entirely unseen) these influences become.

The remedy Nietzsche suggests for a culture suffering from an abuse of this deconstructive, dispiriting approach to history is a prioritization of the first type mentioned above: the monumental. Those who act in this capacity possess a fundamental “faith in humanity,” he contends, for they know that greatness once existed in human history, and they will be damned if it will not exist once again.[7] Their ultimate motivation is to perpetuate “the solidarity and continuity of the greatness of all ages and protest against the passing away of generations in the transitoriness of things.”[8] They are creators who, out of the raw clay of history, seek to construct a more vibrant and vital future. It is their knowledge of the past, their untimeliness, that ends up making them the most timely of all. They are the architects who must reconstruct on the sites cleared by the critical demolitionists. “But it is only in love,” Nietzsche holds, “that man is creative.”[9]

And those who most revere the past are the antiquarians: those “who look back to whence they have come, to where they came into being, with love and loyalty.”[10]They are the preservers of the healthy parts of the body, of that which remains after the removal of the cancer. Those of this orientation have an innate ability “to feel their way back and sense how things were, to detect traces almost extinguished.”[11] They serve life by preparing the ground for the towering structures that are to be built by the monumentalists, by locating and safeguarding the material with which these structures are created, and, finally, by living in and loving the world filled up by them. Without the antiquarians, there would be no history: plenty of things may still be done, but none remembered or cared about. They act as a stopgap between the momentary and the eternal by preserving the works that make up our world. Deprived of their efforts, there would be nothing for the critics to deconstruct.

IV.

In that book that once so shook my world, Thucydides proposes to give “a clear view of what happened in the past and what—the human condition being what it is—can be expected to happen again sometime in the future in similar or much the same ways.”[12] Furthermore, he maintains, “it will have served its purpose well enough if it is judged useful” by the generations that follow him—that is, if it is utilized, as Nietzsche recommends, “for the sake of life and action.” It is in this spirit that I have tried to read works of the past: to unite them with the present, in pursuit of the future. While this has taught me that nothing ever really changes, it has also revealed to me fundamentally different ways of thinking and being in the world. Though the human clay remains the same, the different forms it can take are nearly limitless.

Again, I do not mean to deny that there is much to be concerned with (or even outraged over), or to say that there are not certain elements of our society that need to be confronted. However, we do a great disservice to both our ancestors and ourselves by trying to completely erase the past from our memories. As Nietzsche also recognized, “It is not possible wholly to free oneself from [earlier generations],” for “we originate in them.”[13]Lately, we have become amazingly adept at razing monuments, but no longer know how to raise them. How could we, when it is now thought unproblematic to believe that everything is problematic? Unlike Nietzsche, who saw that all human things tend to have both uses and abuses, that a mixture of good and evil thoroughly pervades our world, we demand moral and ideological purity. But I assure you, this madness too shall pass.

J.B. Sheeler is a writer and filmmaker based out of the Washington, DC area. An alumnus of the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, he is currently working on his first book, as well as a video series, Higher Gossip, about 20th century philosophic thought in America.

Notes:

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue, Part 5.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. Daniel Breazeale (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 59.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 60.
[5] Ibid., 67.
[6] Ibid., 76.
[7] Ibid., 68.
[8] Ibid., 69.
[9] Ibid., 95.
[10] Ibid., 72.
[11] Ibid., 73.
[12] Thucydides, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, trans. Jeremy Mynott (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1.22.
[13] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, 76.