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From Medieval Mnemonics to a Social Construction of Memory - page 9 / 23





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Friedrich Nietzsche was born 128 years after Leibniz’s death. Nietzsche, like Leibniz, spent much of his life critiquing philosophical, scientific, cultural, and metaphysical social developments. Nietzsche’s writings are colored by the effects of his lifetime struggles with illness and communicate powerfully a con- cern with the tenuousness of life, with “life” over and above science and histori- ography. The German thinker granted an indomitable significance to chaos even in a rational scientific world, studying the relationship between weakness (or ill- ness) and power (or strength) and the importance of forgetting. Nietzsche com- pensated for his own lack of physical health by developing his mental capabili- ties, using his own experienced discrepancy between mental and physical as a lens for his writings. In an essay titled “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Nietzsche (1874/1983) argued against the scientific rational- ization of history:

Thus the historical sense makes its servants passive and retrospective; almost the only time the sufferer from the fever of history becomes active is when this sense is in abeyance through momentary forgetfulness—though even then, as soon as the act is finished he at once dissects it, prevents it from producing any further effects by analyzing it, and finally skins it for the purpose of “historical study.” (p. 102)

Nietzsche (1874/1983) wrote that “a degree of sleeplessness, rumination and the historical sense . . . is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing, whether this living thing be a man or a people or a culture” (p. 62). Nietzsche thought it good that people know when to forget and remember “at the right time” (p. 63) and that without the unhistorical moment, “man again ceases to exist and with- out that envelope of the unhistorical he would never have begun or dared to begin” (p. 64). He wrote that if history were used as a pure science, it would be a conclusion to life. History, Nietzsche observed, must be only an “attendant to life” that is “directed by a higher force, rather than used in the service of domination” (p. 67).

Nietzsche (1874/1983) saw benefits in social forgetfulness as a way to cre- ativeness and freedom in a world derived again and again from “highly indirect knowledge of past ages and peoples, not from direct observation of life” (p. 118). He took seriously the concept of eternal return (there are a finite number of things and events, yet infinite time, so all combinations of things shall be repeated). The concept appears in Nietzsche’s (1964) book Thus Spake Zarathustra, particularly in the fourth part. In his introduction to the book, D. Aiken (1964) discussed Nietzsche’s tormented regard for “eternal recurrence.” Rejecting the idea of evolution, or historical process, yet perplexed by the nag- ging question of how humans live fully for the present without the encumbrance of the past made Nietzsche “authentically a harbinger of existentialism” (Aiken, 1964, p. xv), although different from other existentialists and far more lonely. Aiken concluded that Nietzsche’s categorical imperative is to live each moment as if one could will the moment to return. The idea of eternal return

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