Man is a historic animal

In Aristotle’s Politics, we are told that “man is by nature a political animal.” So too, man is a historic animal, as Friedrich Nietzsche argues in his essay, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”:

Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal. A human being may well ask an animal: ‘Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?’ The animal would like to answer, and say: ‘The reason is I always forget what I was going to say’ – but then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent: so that the human being was left wondering.

But he also wonders at himself, that he cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past: however far and fast he may run, this chain runs with him. And it is a matter for wonder: a moment, now here and then gone, nothing before it came, again nothing after it has gone, nonetheless returns as a ghost and disturbs the peace of a later moment. A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away – and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says ‘I remember’ and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever. Thus the animal lives unhistorically: for it is contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left over; it does not know how to dissimulate, it conceals nothing and at every instant appears wholly as what it is; it can therefore never be anything but honest. Man, on the other hand, braces himself against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark, invisible burden which he can sometimes appear to disown and which in traffic with his fellow men he is only too glad to disown, so as to excite their envy. That is why it affects him like a vision of lost paradise to see the herds grazing or, in closer proximity to him, a child which, having as yet nothing of the past to shake off, plays in blissful blindness between the hedges of the past and future. Yet its play must be disturbed; all too soon it will be called out of its state of forgetfulness. Then it will learn to understand the phrase ‘it was’: that password which gives conflict, suffering and satiety access to man so as to remind him what his existence fundamentally is – an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one. If death at least brings the desired forgetting, by that act it at the same time extinguishes the present and all existence and therewith sets the seal on the knowledge that existence is only an uninterrupted has-been, a thing that lives by negating, consuming and contradicting itself. 

Man, forever bound to the chain of history, envies the cow and child because they “play in blissful blindness between the hedges of the past and future,” neither encumbered by what happened or anxious about what may happen. Their happiness is attributable to “a state of forgetfulness” in the present, as Nietzsche further explains:

In the case of the smallest or the greatest happiness, however, it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration. He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past, who cannot stand balanced like a goddess of victory without growing dizzy and afraid, will never know what happiness is – worse, he will never do anything to make others happy. 

As a Christian reader, I wonder if we can discern the existence of God by using Nietzsche’s argument about happiness. Man’s unhappiness relates to his inability to forget; by contrast, the cow or child’s happiness relates to their ability to forget. Put differently, remembrance brings pain, whereas ignorance brings pleasure. But is there a being who neither remembers nor ignores? Unbounded by the horizon of time, such a being would be supremely happy, far more than an oblivious cow or inexperienced child. Enter God, who exists in an eternal present, as John Calvin wrote in The Institutes of Christian Religion

When we attribute prescience to God, we mean that all things always were, and ever continue, under his eye; that to his knowledge there is no past or future, but all things are present, and indeed so present, that it is not merely the idea of them that is before him (as those objects are which we retain in our memory), but that he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection.

Where man is historic and the cow or child is unhistoric, we could say that God is suprahistoric because he abides in blissful sight above the hedges of the past and future. What makes for the greatest happiness, then, is not the ability to forget, as Nietzsche contends, but the ability for “immediate inspection.” God alone has this ability. But insofar as man participates in the life of God, he too will experience the happiness that is God. He will see in part as God sees in full, embracing  “all the vistas of the future and the past” in “the simplicity of a continual present,” as Boethius puts it in The Consolation of Philosophy. Whatever enters man’s field of vision right now is pregnant with eternity.

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One thought on “Man is a historic animal

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I think that this is a very insightful reading of Nietzsche that puts his argumentation in the context of Christianity – which is helpful for a Christian reader (let me just add that I have absolutely no experience with Nietzsche).

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