The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote an essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” in his work Untimely Meditations (1873-1876). He develops a history of philosophy based on anthropology:
History pertains to the living man in three respects: it pertains to him as a being who acts and strives, as a being who preserves and reveres, as a being who suffers and seeks deliverance. This threefold relationship corresponds to three species of history – insofar as it is permissible to distinguish between a monumental, an antiquarian, and a critical species of history.
For each species of history, Nietzsche identifies a special danger. Here is the danger for critical history:
For since we are the outcome of earlier generations, we are also the outcome of their aberrations, passions and errors, and indeed of their crimes; it is not possibly wholly to free oneself from this chain. If we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free of them, this does not alter the fact that we originate in them. The best we can do is to confront our inherited and hereditary nature with our knowledge, and through a new, stern discipline combat our inborn heritage and implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that our first nature withers away. It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were a posteriori, a past in which one would like to originate in opposition to that in which one did originate: – always a dangerous attempt because it is so hard to know the limit to denial of the past and because second natures are usually weaker than first. What happens all too often is that we know the good but do not do it, because we also know the better but cannot do it. But here and there a victory is nonetheless achieved, and for the combatants, for those who employ critical history for the sake of life, there is even a noteworthy consolation: that of knowing that this first nature was once a second nature and that every victorious second nature will become a first.
Let me draw some parallels. Despite being a calcified atheist, Nietzsche seems to unwittingly affirm the Christian doctrine of original sin, which claims that the progeny of Adam are perverted by sin – or what he calls “aberrations, passions and errors.” So too, Nietzsche unwittingly aspires for the Christian hope of redemption, whereafter the sinner combats his “inborn heritage,” albeit through the implantation of “a new, stern discipline” rather than through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (Phil. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4). Whether the second nature is implanted (as Nietzsche would put it) or imputed (as Christians would put it), the predicament remains the same: “What happens all too often is that we know the good but do not do it, because we also know the better but cannot do it.” Now compare the philosopher’s words with the apostle’s words: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19). The resemblance is uncanny. Nietzsche and Paul both recognize that the first nature never withers away in toto; nevertheless, they insist that victory is achievable for the combatants.
If victory over the old self depended solely on the strength of my asceticism, I would despair because the law of sin dwells in my members, as Paul bemoans: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). In the very next verse of scripture, he exclaims, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25). What accounts for Paul’s sudden change of heart? He knows the Crucified makes impossible victory possible. Just as man was united to the first Adam in sin, he can be united to the second Adam in redemption. Christ guarantees a “victorious second nature” (Rom. 6:5-11). Why, then, is the Crucified not accepted by Nietzsche and other skeptics of the Cross? The answer: man prefers to bestow glory upon the heroic strength of the self rather than upon the heroic sacrifice of a Savior, who, by grace alone, rescued us from the ravages of our hereditary nature.