January 20, 2014

The uses of history: reflections on Nietzsche and Martin Luther King Jr.

I've been running around too much lately to come up with a fresh post, but here's one from MLK Day six years ago. Parts of it are fortunately dated (ending the Iraq war), but most holds up.

El Cabrero has been thinking about the uses of history lately. This seems like a fitting topic on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had some interesting things to say on this topic in his essay "On the uses and disadvantages of history for life" in his Untimely Meditations.

As the title of the essay suggests, Nietzsche wasn't interested in history as a social science or academic discipline but rather in how people can make use of history for their own purposes, and specifically to enhance human vitality.

The essay begins with a quote from Goethe:

"In any case, I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity."

Thinking about history has some risk since life requires both remembering and forgetting and we can suffer from both a scarcity and a surplus of historical awareness. We can get lost in the past to the detriment of the present.

Nietzsche identified three ways in which history could serve to enhance human life:

*There is a need to revere, conserve and treasure those things of the past that give people a sense of identity. He called this the antiquarian approach.

*For oppressed people, there is at times a need to "break up and dissolve a part of the past...bringing it before a tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it..." He called this the critical approach.

*For those who aspire to making their own mark on history, the past can contain inspiring examples of the deeds of others. From these, we learn "that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again..." He calls this the monumentalistic conception of history.

In the context of remembering the life and work of Dr. King and the tens of thousands of others who made huge gains for civil rights and social justice, the latter approach can be most useful to our life today. It would be tragic to allow this huge struggle to simply become a pious memory instead of a goad to action.

Here is one way to think about the legacy of Dr. King and others in Nietzsche's monumentalistic manner:

Once upon a time not too long ago, a relatively small number of people, in spite of all their human limitations, made a huge difference to the nation and the world against all odds. The fact that it was done is proof that it can be done.

That's the awareness we need to bring to the struggle for a living wage for working people. As Dr. King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,

There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.

That's the awareness we need to bring to the struggle to restore the rights of workers to organize, a struggle for which King literally gave his life in Memphis.

That's the awareness that we need to bring to the struggle to end the unnecessary war in Iraq and reshape America's domestic and foreign agenda. As King said,

There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

In other words, don't just remember the past, use it as an inspiration. Other people, who were just as screwed up as we are, did pretty damn good. It's our turn.

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