In my class this morning, I gave my students a brief preview of Nietzsche’s writing, since he is the next philosopher we will be reading, and I thought I would share it here as well. I encourage you to read it to yourself in an appropriately dramatic, Olympian tone:
“But he <the human being> also wondered about himself, that he cannot learn to forget but always remains attached to the past: however far and fast he runs, the chain runs with him. It is astonishing: the moment, here in a wink, gone in a wink, nothing before and nothing after, returns nevertheless as a spectre to disturb the calm of a later moment. Again and again a page loosens in the scroll of time, drops out, and flutters away–and suddenly flutters back again into the man’s lap.” (On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss)
How poignant that is, even in translation–I’m constantly tempted to just spend all class reading Nietzsche to my students. His point here is how “historical” the human being is, down to his very core. Of course, because it is Nietzsche writing this, he gives it a negative formulation. It is generally not humanly possible to escape one’s past. The past constantly impacts the present. We are chained to it, weighed down by it.
To get a basic grasp of this, begin just by considering physical examples. You hurt your knee in high school, and after years of seeming to be fully healed, it suddenly begins to throb when the weather gets cold. You used LSD heavily, and now you have acid flashbacks. Your grandfather smoked a pipe, and now the smell of pipes gives you a feeling of safety.
But the past also shows up in other, less “physical” ways. You get married, but then you and your wife run into an ex-boyfriend of hers. Or you find pictures of your husband and his ex-girlfriend. It should be “ancient history” . . . but somehow it isn’t. Or to offer a darker example, you find yourself tormented by the continuing memory of the evil actions you committed in your past, which “pop up” out of nowhere to spoil the innocence of the present moment. (This is, incidentally, the aspect of abortion that Hollywood refuses to acknowledge in its selective presentation of reality to us–even the physically safest abortion (for the mother, that is) is in no way psychologically safe. The guilt of abortion has a corrosive effect on those involved, both women AND men, for the remainders of their lives. But don’t go looking for that in a movie anytime soon.)
Nietzsche diagnoses the “liveliness of the past” for us as a human problem. But he doesn’t really have a good solution, other than to attempt to ignore the aspects of our history that do not serve our present purposes–an attempt Nietzsche himself knew could never quite succeed. I would submit, however, to Nietzsche’s great horror, that a more helpful solution to the problem is found in the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Church. In Confession, the Catholic acknowledges his past in a concrete way before God, in order that this past can begin to be transformed. Sins forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation are no longer merely sins–they have become, more properly speaking, “sins of which I have been forgiven”–that is to say, occasions of God’s mercy toward us. With continued prayer, one can achieve great peace through this Sacrament. The narrative becomes less about the terrible things one has done, and more about the superabundant mercy of God.
All that is to say, the Church is old, and wise. If the past cannot be escaped, then it must be dealt with. Nietzsche and the Church both recognize the problem; but only the Church has a workable solution.