Perhaps one of his most important essays by Friedrich Nietzsche for anyone concerned with history and the study thereof is his “The Use and Abuse of History for Life” in his Untimely Meditations (sometimes published as Thoughts out of Season). Now, the focus of this work is the study of history “for life.” It is important that history serves life. Because, well… what’s the point of anything if it does not serve life?
In this work, Nietzsche will outline three types of studies of history: monumental, antiquarian, and critical. The monumental is the reverence for the past, and this has its uses. Monumental history serves life by inspiring us to live this life and make it grand for ourselves. A monument that exemplifies hate, enslavement, death, and ruin… well, that’s not conducive to life, and so we don’t need such things from history. Being concerned with “what would the Founding Fathers say?” monumentalizes their outdated opinions and shuts down anything new for life. It reveres the old just because it is old, and focuses on what was, and does not support the changing tides of the present, and therefore is no longer conducive to life going into the future.
The second, the antiquarian method, is about the preservation of the past. This certainly has its uses. It preserves the past for us to have today. It is concerned with accuracy, rather than mythologization. However, it can become dangerous when it is only concerned with pure accuracy, basically making mummies. In which event, the antiquarian method functions to serve death, not life. Think of instances of items of exotic cultures that are still in use today by the cultures where they originate, but they sit in a museum where no one can use it. There was an instance recently where a woman from Southeast Asia saw a statue of a god that her people still worship today, and so she began to do a dance in reverence to the god. Then one of the security guards told her to stop and leave. This is exactly what Nietzsche warned of when it came to the antiquarian approach. We can’t use it, though it could be useful to life, it must be quietly pondered over as a curiosity, and not something to be actively engaged.
I will return to the third method, the critical method in a moment, because it is this second type of approach to history that I think Freemasonry today falls into.
In a previous essay I wrote for this blog on Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty, I described letter-perfect rituals as being like a mummy in a museum. And this is exactly what I meant, in a very Nietzschean sense. What does doing letter-perfect ritual serve for the life of our fraternity? Or any of the brothers, especially the candidate? It only serves the ego of the brother delivering the letter-perfect ritual. If ritual is only meant to be absorbed perfectly and regurgitated perfectly, then what is it serving, other than itself? It is not alive. In that essay, I advocated for more tolerance of embellishments, ad hoc, improvised ritual, which is continuously changing and transforming, like a living thing.
Take for instance a piece of ritual that gets on my nerves: “Murder and treason excepted.” Who says things like this anymore? No one. To quote Tyler Durden: “Don’t do it the way those dead people do it!” And there’s a good reason to change the wording here. For one, today when we want to “except” something, we put it before the object, not after. Second, today when we want to “accept” something we frequently put it after the object. And “except” and “accept” sound pretty similar. I have known a few candidates who realized while they were learning their catechism that it was “excepted,” and they felt embarrassed that they actually said “accepted” during the obligation. So why don’t we switch it to “except murder and treason”? Is it really that big of a deal? Is that not more conducive to the way our living language functions today better than the way those dead people did it?
Of course, it does not just stop with ritual. Why do we repeatedly refer back to the language of the Constitution as composed by Desaguliers (erroneously attributed to Anderson)? Does worrying about what a bunch of dead people wanted for the fraternity really serve the life of the fraternity today? The Constitution of 1723 will be invoked to deny persons of color or homosexuals from being made Masons, but no one bats an eye when it is pointed out that the 1723 Constitution allows Entered Apprentices and Fellow Crafts to vote. The question should not be “What would Anderson say?” but “Is this conducive to the life of Freemasonry and its members?”
This is where the critical historical method comes in. It allows for mythologization, it allows for innovation, and it allows for growth. Yet, this too has a danger: because critical history is always judging, it will constantly moralize the past based on the morals of the present. Think of instances of people calling for the atrocities committed in the past, such as genocide, enslavement, colonization, et cetera to be apologized for and reparations made. In a way, acknowledging the truth of the past is important, as this is what antiquarian history is about, and memorializing it allows us to never forget such things happened, in the hopes that such monuments will serve life by not allowing them to happen again.
But judging the past based on our morals today does not suit Nietzsche. It is not conducive to life, because judging history is something that only God can do, and… well… God is dead (according to Nietzsche). Critiquing the past is necessary because it allows us to grow and to learn, but if we do too much of it, it destroys all of history, because we have erased everything due to our judgments today.
Let’s use Christopher Columbus as an example. Those who critique the past view him with absolute disdain, and our current morals lead to the need to villainize him in every way possible, which ends up destroying history. Take for instance a meme you might have seen that attempts to demonstrate that Columbus and his crew brought syphilis back to Europe, because alpacas carry syphilis, thus insinuating that Columbus… yep, you get it. However, while alpacas do carry syphilis, so do goats, cattle, sheep, and pretty much any hoofed animal carries syphilis, and those were already in Europe. The need to condemn Columbus in every way possible ends up destroying history because it has over-critiqued. That’s not to say Columbus was a bright and shining example of the best human ever born — far from it. He and his crew did some atrocious things. Acknowledging those things is important, but not at the expense of destroying history, especially if it does not serve life. What does it serve to say that Columbus committed bestiality? It doesn’t. And this is the danger of critical history.
For Nietzsche, it is important to be a little “mad.” You can’t be purely scientific, making mummies, or destroying with endless critiques. We need a little bit of both creativity and accuracy, fact and myth — the historian should be both a saint and a sinner. A mix of monumental, antiquarian, and critical history is needed, and being purely of one method over another is dangerous, as described above.
This is a perspective to consider the next time you may deal with situations in which an old Past Master says, “Back in my day, we…” They are monumentalizing their history, expecting things from the past to never change. They invoke the past, their past, and shut down anything new. It is not inspiring for the life of the fraternity going into the future. In fact, saying “Back in my day…” really just serves to make everyone feel bad that anything ever changed.
So, keep this all in mind the next time someone criticizes you for messing up a word in your ritual. Ask them what does letter-perfect ritual serve? What good does it do other than to serve itself, a means to an end, and not an end of means? Why can’t a word or phrase change from time to time?
And I myself am pretty critical of Masonic history. From time to time I do “Mythbusting” for the Whence Came You? podcast. From time to time I get a response from a brother that I am destroying the myths Masons love so dearly. Sometimes I am okay with the myths. Such as the Temple Legend that is described by Rudolf Steiner. I am not okay with him claiming it belongs to Masons and Rosicrucians. It was inspired by Masonry, but it is a narrative of poetic beauty and suffering, belonging to the poet Gérard de Nerval. We should interpret Masonry through de Nerval’s vision, and not the other way around. Yet, other times I am not okay with the myths, such as that of the forget-me-not, because it attempts to — ironically — forget the past and replace actual history with some feel-good story of poor, pitiful Masonry that was too weak to sustain itself against the violent tide of fascism. When, in fact, most German Masons renounced Masonry and signed with the National Socialist Party.
I am not a purist. I endeavor to be Nietzschean in my approach to history, namely, being a little “schizo” (to crib Deleuze and Guattari), and mixing all three methods together. Such provides a good balance for the Masonic fraternity, keeping it in check against stagnation, as well as against making Freemasonry into a perfectly preserved mummy, but also not destroying its history entirely. But what is always most important that we always bear in mind: is our approach to Masonic history and culture conducive to the life of the fraternity and its members? If it’s not, then it should not concern us. If it is, it is worth fighting for and engaging in.
tl;dr history should serve life, our life today.
Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7, and serves as the Secretary-Recorder of all three. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister), and is a member of Gofannin Council No. 315 AMD and Kincora Council No. 8 Knight Masons. He is a facilitator for the Masonic Legacy Society, is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.