I mean by the title of this essay to allude to Nietzsche Contra Wagner and thereby to suggest the use which Nietzsche made of Renan in formulating some of his most distinctive thoughts. More specifically I suggest that Nietzsche's later view of history, especially as expressed in The Genealogy of Morals and The Antichrist, is a critique and parody of Renan's History of the Origins of Christianity. (I speak deliberately of Nietzsche's "view of history" rather than his "philosophy of history" because the latter phrase contains too many associations which Nietzsche's view rejects.) What is at issue is not a question of influence, as that term is usually understood, but rather the possibility of delineating in some detail the way in which Nietzsche formulated the models of genealogy (to speak now in his own terms) as more or less explicit alternatives to those of history. As Michel Foucault has suggested, The Genealogy of Morals is to be read not simply as one more historical essay on the origin and development of the moral ideas in the tradition of Buckle, Lecky, Spencer, and Mill. These English psychologists are criticized at the very beginning of Nietzsche's book for their philosophical and therefore unhistorical way of thinking. They search for an origin (Ursprung), a single basic principle or arche, which will illuminate an entire development. The appropriate genealogical metaphor is not origin but ancestry or heritage (Herkunft). In fact Nietzsche understands history as the philosophical pursuit of origins and genealogy as the discovery of tangled affiliations, dense roots, and hidden incestuous connections. Nietzsche's usage of "history" and "genealogy" is not always consistent, for he sometimes speaks of "history" alone when he means authentic, genealogical history - as in the seminal and summary declaration that "only that which has no history is definable". In what follows I shall be treating The Genealogy of Morals and some of Nietzsche's other later writings primarily as methodological tracts on history and genealogy; in this context Nietzsche's subtitle for the Genealogy, Eine Streitschrift (A Polemical Book) suggests that he is polemicizing not only against the values of Christianity, socialism, democracy, and the community of scientific inquirers, but also against a certain way of construing the beginnings, meaning, heritage, and affiliations of those values - that is, against an historical method which owes more to these values than it can in good conscience acknowledge. The historiographical distinctions between Nietzsche and Renan are connected with more general differences between them which have to do with the nature of narrative in general and with the role which literary, rhetorical, and theatrical models have to play in the construction of narrative. Renan's History is inconceivable apart from the models of narrative provided by French literature of the nineteenth century; Nietzsche's critique of "realistic" historical narrative through his attack on Renan is inseparable from his own criticism of the narrative mode which it shares with the literature of its time and place. The connection between aesthetics and history which is everywhere implicit in Renan becomes a subject of explicit discussion in Nietzsche. Historical or genealogical claims will appear to be inseparable from aesthetic values, especially in the case of the differing interests which the two narrators take in what we would today call the theater of cruelty.
Copyright © 1982 Wesleyan University. This article first appeared in History and Theory 21, no. 2 (May 1982): 193-222. doi:10.2307/2505244.
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Shapiro, Gary. "Nietzsche Contra Renan." History and Theory 21, no. 2 (May 1982): 193-222. doi:10.2307/2505244.