Why History is Necessary for Existential Meaning: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of History

Updated: Dec 20, 2021


Video from Empire of the Mind


"Genetics teach us that we are related profoundly to the things that have made us. You belong to what created you. There is no such thing as a self-made person. We are indeed beings that are made, coming into existence in steps, growing and maturing, but we do not make ourselves. We are made by others. Yes, we are agents who can act and choose, but we can only act with what we are given, and we can only choose in the unique matrix of special possibilities that is different for each of us. For anyone who feels the givenness of things—who feels that their life is a thing given them—that you come from somewhere, somewhere outside yourself, that you are not necessary or inevitable, that you are dependent in your whole being on 'the other'—if you feel this, you feel at the very least a sense of gratitude. When you are given a gift, there is always a sense of reciprocity attached. You are thankful, and you feel that you should reciprocate. At the most, you have a sense of profound union with the thing that made you. A oneness. There is a genetic relationship between you and the other thing. You are related. The same material, so to speak, is in both. And from this oneness, a sense of love, pride, and allegiance. The word Patriotism comes from the Greek word πατίς, the word for country, which grows from the same etymological tree as the word πατήρ, the word for father. Patris is the fatherland., and the idea of your country is conceptually identical with the father that begets you, creates you. You are made by your country. Your land and its way of life is in you, and you in it. Patriotism is not the same as nationalism, it is not about flag-waving and chanting or political involvement—it is firstly about a lively sense of the meaningfulness and value of the things around you, and your identity with them. Patriotism therefore is first and foremost an awareness of what has made you. Before we even talk about pride in our country or loyalty to our country, we have to be aware of ourselves and how our country has made us. Friedrich Nietzsche writes in his essay "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History" (from Untimely Meditations) that this awareness of where we have come from—what he calls antiquarian history—gives us a sense of union with the things around us, causing us to transcend ourselves and find meaning in life that goes far beyond ourselves. We get stronger, become passionate, and find motivation. When the things around us are meaningful, we are content and happy. The reality for most of us is that we must live somewhat banal lives. Most of us will not be the great men and women who form history like we talked about in the previous video. We will not be a Caesars or an Alexander, nor a Socrates, nor a Leonardo. We will not be adventurers or warriors. No songs will be sung of us. We will not draw the tide of men into our hands and write our will across the stars. Instead, we will be Walter Mittys. We will have to work our uninteresting jobs, live in our dull apartments and our cookie-cutter neighborhoods, and be very much like the not-so-interesting crowd all around us. If we are to have a sense of weighty significance, if we are to transcend our individuality, and feel that these forgettable lives of ours nevertheless have a significance beyond themselves, we must draw from the history of the places that we live. Without this sense of our past, and veneration for it, we succumb, says Nietzsche, to desires for expeditions and adventures. A nation that ceases to be faithful to its own origins is given over to a restless, cosmopolitan hunting after new and ever newer things. And this is precisely the condition of the modern west. Discontented with our homes, we long continuously, like a Quixote or, what is more telling, a Disney hero, for far off adventure. Whole generations have been trained by Disney to be discontent with their home, which, for what it is worth, was surely the opposite of Walt Disney's vision. It is no coincidence that the Magic Kingdom theme park, is profoundly American and profoundly in love with America. Antiquarian history preserves us, not as a dead animal is preserved in taxidermy, but as a green leaf is preserved by its connection to the stem, and branch, and trunk, and roots, and soil, and land. In the same way, we are preserved by a sense of connection with the things around us. Without a sense of where we come from and what has made us, without a feeling of our DNA being in the things around us, we wither and fade. So crack open a book, watch a documentary, learn history. Find your story in the things around you.' from video introduction.

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