In “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” Nietzsche distinguishes between monumental history and critical history. Roughly speaking, monumental history builds up, while critical history tears down. Monumental historians celebrate the great figures of the past and their deeds. Critical historians show that neither they nor their deeds are as great as once believed.
The conservative academic Charles Kesler recently referred to the wave of unrest following the killing of George Floyd as “the 1619 riots,” with reference to the New York Times‘s 1619 Project. Whatever the broader merits of this phrasing, it seems correct to suggest an association between what Nietzsche called critical history, represented by the 1619 Project, and the current protests, which have lately culminated in a wave of iconoclasm. This iconoclasm has systematically targeted the physical embodiments of monumental history.
This recent toppling of statues across the country has presented us with visceral imagery of the struggle between the monumental and critical approaches. The critical sensibility is clearly winning. The monuments are coming down, with few bothering to protect them. That general indifference, perhaps more even than the enthusiasm of those doing the toppling, is clear evidence that this is an age with little enthusiasm for monumental history. The statues can be taken down in part because many of them have long been neglected, along with the public spaces they inhabit and the civic culture they once instantiated.
For Nietzsche, both monumental and critical history (as his title tells us) have their advantages and disadvantages. Monumental history, he argues, can inspire important undertakings in the present by commemorating the great deeds of the past. On the other hand, awe at the deeds of the past can overwhelm any sense of possibility in the present. Critical history, conversely, can be beneficial in clearing away the dead weight of the past. But it may also induce nihilistic paralysis: if the deeds of the past are all wretched, what can ever be achieved?
The most interesting feature of the current wave of iconoclasm is that it is directed not against a discrete set of monuments, as with the earlier dismantling of Confederate memorials, but increasingly against the entire class of historical statues as such. This looks like a repudiation of monumental history per se, but also of the central protagonist common to this sort of history.
The figures that these statues represent are “founders.” This is the mythical status that Columbus, Junípero Serra, and Washington share. Peter Thiel, the notorious Silicon Valley investor and student of René Girard, has used the latter’s theory of sacrificial scapegoating to illuminate the figure of the founder in mythological, historical, and contemporary contexts.
For the human population in general, Thiel observes, traits are distributed along a bell curve, with the majority of people exhibiting the “average” trait distributions somewhere in the middle of the curve. For “founders,” he argues, the bell curve is inverted: they are more likely to exhibit traits that at the extreme ends of the distribution, often in self-contradictory ways. Most relevantly here, Thiel claims that the “founder” is “an extreme insider and an extreme outsider.”
(It should be noted that Thiel does not differentiate between the “real” and “mythical” attributes of founders. In the end, the distinction doesn’t matter: to be a founder is to be the subject of myth, which in turn, influences the founder’s behavior and self-presentation.Thus, sorting out the actual from the mythological becomes impossible.)
To grasp this point, consider Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” a myth-making monumental history of sorts that seems like a surprising cultural document from today’s perspective. The musical sets out to celebrate Hamilton’s “outsider” (immigrant orphan of modest means) status as what made him an exemplary American and “insider.”
The specific biographical details are only incidental here. Thiel’s point is that founders achieve their status through features that set them apart – that make them “outsiders.” It is through this “outsider” positioning, that is, that they become the ultimate “insiders.” But in another twist, the power and status they achieve again sets them apart. This is due not just to who they are, but to the fact that they become the subject of myths that further exaggerate their traits.
The message of the campaign to tear down statues of “founders” is: you believed these were heroes, but they are criminals. But the hero/criminal dichotomy is already intrinsic to the figure of the founder. As Thiel points out, this dual character is ubiquitous in myth: Romulus murders Remus and founds Rome. Cain is a murderer and the founder of the first city. Oedipus saves and curses Thebes.
Moving from myth into history, the contradictions of the founder split into the divergent perspectives of monumental and critical history. Monumental history is a variety of secularized myth, while critical history is anti-myth. Where the monumental historian sees the hero, the critical historian sees the criminal. (Myths were perhaps wiser in their capacity to see both at once.)
Thiel argues that founders’ contradictory traits make them sacrificial victims in waiting. Sacrificial traditions involving scapegoat kings illustrate this principle, but Thiel notes that the same pattern persists: celebrities and leaders are the objects of public adoration at one moment, and the objects of universal opprobrium at the next. The extremes can always flip, allowing for the mythology’s instantaneous reversal. The founder’s self-contradictory insider/outsider status means that they can always be expelled back to the outside.
The implication of all this is that when we see the recent images of statues being brought low, we are seeing a version of a cycle that has repeated itself across history and far back into prehistory. This is the sacrificial cycle, which enthrones certain extreme figures at the center of the social order, and later sees those same figures brought down when that order begins to teeter. Of course, in the current moment this is taking place on the symbolic plane: the victims are not real individuals but representations of them.
Again, what we seem to be witnessing now is not the sacrificial destruction of a specific founder, but of the founder as such. This reflects the dominance of critical history. But perhaps the goal is not exactly to reject heroes, but to enshrine a very different sort of hero.
We should recall here the goal of the 1619 Project: to elaborate a new narrative of the nation’s founding. The “founders” are no longer the figures enshrined in the statues being dismantled, but the mostly anonymous victims of the slave trade. The aim here is not just critical history, but a sort of negative mythology, centered not on the deeds carried out by “great men” but on the sufferings of nameless ones.
Nietzsche might suggest that the link between critical history and negative mythology reveals the covert Christian spirit of both enterprises. For Nietzsche, Christianity is anti-monumental. Its central monument, the cross, represents not the active greatness of the mythical founder, but the excruciating torments of the victim. This is why he regarded Christianity, and the critical historical sensibility it inspired, as ultimately perverse and inimical to the spirit of “life.”
All of this suggests a new way of conceiving the culture war. The call to “make America great again” was a demand for a new monumental history. That it appeared mainly on cheap synthetic baseball caps should have always been a clear signal of the prospects of this enterprise. Critical history, deeply rooted in a secularized Christian sensibility, is the triumphant sensibility of the moment.
For Nietzsche, the purpose served by critical history would be to create space for new monumental history. This is a version of the sacrificial cycle. When the relics of monumental history have been cleared away, new myths arise to furnish a sense of collective purpose. But today, the acid bath of critical history seems fated to dissolve such myths before they can take hold. Whatever is elevated must be laid low. In this accelerated sacrificial cycle, only anti-myth can prevail.