Over at the Partially Examined Life

I’ve a piece up today at The Partially Examined Life on Nietzsche’s On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and whether it still holds up in a time in which our problem is not having an excess of historical awareness.

Money quote:

The real problem, it seems to me, is that the past always exists in a dialectical relationship with the present, whenever we do history. As thinking people, as feeling intellects, we cannot avoid the confrontation with the alterity of the past, which judges us much just as we judge it. If we make the past “live again,” it casts its aspersions upon the present. There are some historians who seem to feel its judgments particularly intensely, and to tend toward conservatism or reaction. A friend and mentor from grad school recalled for me doing research at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France one summer and eating his lunches with Leo Strauss, who was of a close age and, like himself, a brilliant intellectual historian who had fled Nazi Germany as a Jew, but Strauss was to the right, while my friend had wound up on the radical left. Nevertheless, I think the two men enjoyed each other’s company greatly. “What was he like?” I naturally asked. “I had the very strong impression,” my friend said, “that he was deeply unhappy with the modern world and wished that he could have lived in ancient Greece.”

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29 thoughts on “Over at the Partially Examined Life

  1. I’ve mulled over this for a day now. (and on Columbus Et Al Day, appropriately enough). I don’t agree with the postulate, “our culture’s lack of historical memory”.

    Take Columbus Day (please). It was a huge honking deal for the 400th anniversary, and as recently as the early 1980s was still a pretty significant event in the school year, but by the 500th anniversary, the wind had pretty much completely gone out of the sails of ‘celebration’ except in Italian American communities. (it could be, however, that perception is heavily colored by the difference between being in grade school and being in college).

    Nonetheless, we’re still fighting the US Civil War over flags and whatnot (one whatnot being Meryl Streep). If anything, the problem isn’t a lack of historical memory, it’s a panoply of historical memories, many mutually inconsistent.


  2. Rufus, I really wonder if “our problem is not having an excess of historical awareness.” In the places where the masses have a really strong historical awareness, what most people are aware is really national or tribal mythology rather than messy actual history. Its all our group against their group for what they did to do us for the most part. To use the most neutral example I can think of, look at the Balkans during most of the 20th century but especially after the fall of Communism. There was a lot of historical awareness of a sorts among national the populace of the Balkans but it tended involve a lot of tribal myth than actual history. The Serbs hated the Muslims for ruling over them for centuries, the Albanians and Bosnians despised the Serbs for dominating them, and the Croatians wanted an independence they dreamed about but never really had for most of their history unless you go way back. There was an element of truth in all of this histories but it tended to get overwhelmed by a lot of storytelling for some really atrocious real world consequences.

    I sometimes get frustrated with the lack of historical awareness among the general population but when you think about, widespread historical awareness never really works out the way that liberals want it to. We might wish that the average American or citizen of whatever other country had a better grasp of actual history and it’s importance but this tends to usually workout as more of a historical mythology than actual history. Sometimes this mythology is relatively harmless like with romantic views of the Wild West or Pilgrims and other times it is more deadly like with the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, or the dispute between the Tamils and Ceylonese in Sri Lanka. Maybe the best thing is that we have a populace that really doesn’t think that much about the past and is sort of content with the present.


  3. LeeEsq: Most Americans probably do not care one way or another because Columbus Day is just a day off for a lot of them.

    What I said above about your view of ‘most Americans’ being skewed? Copy and paste here.

    Out on this side of the country, pretty much no one has the day off.


    • Yeah, same in my neck of the woods. I don’t know anyone who cares about Columbus day, one way or the other, and the only reason for that is a non-reason: they simply don’t care.


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