“The Historical Sense” – A Power Greater Than Myself
But the effect of her being (Dorothea Brooke) on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
By John M.
I got sober in 2007 at the age of 54 and, looking back, I cannot remember being anything other than agnostic or atheistic. And this is quite odd given that I was raised in an evangelical household: my mother was the secretary to the minister, my father an elder, and my two older sisters were believers, the oldest becoming an elder, like my father, at around the time the Presbyterian Church of Canada was allowing women into positions previously closed to them.
I really don’t know how I became agnostic so early in life and especially so given that I was raised in this environment. I was not particularly rebellious as a child or young man, nor as a child was I peculiarly intelligent enough to figure out on my own the arguments for and against a belief in God. Jesus seemed to be nice, but I just couldn’t feel my way into accepting him into my life as my Lord and Saviour (which was required of all born again Christians so duly raised by evangelicals).
At 26 I left the undecidability of my agnosticism behind and affirmed my atheism, inspired by the courses I had taken at university, particularly under the guidance of a few historians who further enhanced my understanding of post-enlightenment secularism at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
So, from the age of 26 to 54 when I got sober at a treatment centre, and then continuing with my sobriety in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, I came armed with the confidence of my atheistic views (albeit inversely disarmed of confidence in just about everything else).
For me, then, I was not going to allow anyone in AA, or any piece of AA literature, to move me from my atheism. Since I had been exposed to “demythologizing” religious texts in history and humanities classes at university, when I started to read the texts of Alcoholics Anonymous and The Twelve and Twelve, I was as indifferent to the God-language in them as I would be to any ancient text (sic!). AA literature only spoke to me in terms of my secular world-view – I wouldn’t allow these texts to speak to me in any other way!
In AA, however, we are invited to find a power greater than ourselves to restore our lost humanity, and it is also strongly suggested that the inability to do so will reduce our chances of a successful recovery. And so, given my field of study in college, it was a no-brainer for me – history was a power greater than myself. After all, history is kind of big – just like God – and it’s a whole lot bigger than any door knob.
By the way, I do not believe that in 11 1/2 years of recovery I have ever used the term “my higher power” – it has the strained imagery of a hierarchical medieval cosmology to it. Why not demystify it then? Well, I must confess that NFLers pointing to the heavens after a quarterback sack or a touchdown probably annoyed me enough to give up ever trying to demythologize “up there.”
It’s pretty obvious to me that “history” is a power greater than myself, but I want to qualify this by acknowledging that not all historical study is of equal value as a source of power. For instance, a meaningful event in history or a past successful social movement that is taken to be true for all times, that becomes frozen in time, and then, because of its staying-power, is rendered sacred and made to serve as an exemplar for all future times, not only becomes uninspiring and meaningless, but becomes dead history to those living in the present. A tradition’s refusal to adapt to changing times becomes decadent and atrophied, robbing its members of their own creativity, initiative and resourcefulness that should, rather, deepen their understanding of their own place in its history. (I think the reader knows where I am going with this.)
As an atheist in AA, I am often reminded of something the “death of God” philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, had to say on most topics and so the remainder of this essay will explore what I have learned from him as I relate it to AA. In his composition, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,”[i] he begins by quoting German polymath Johan Wolfgang Goethe – “… I hate everything that only instructs me without increasing or immediately stimulating my own activity” – Nietzsche then comments that historical “instruction” that does not generate an enthusiasm for life, and knowledge that restrains rather than promotes our activity is superfluous to our needs, and is often no more than a spectacle or entertainment lacking any real depth for those who view it, and a far cry from what Goethe demands: that our activity be increased or stimulated and not be an enervated exercise of diminishing returns.
Although I have not really come to the point of declaring AA meetings or conferences to be mere spectacles or entertainment, I do sometimes view at least aspects of traditional AA meetings as such, whereas I see and feel a vitality at secular meetings and conferences. Notwithstanding my admitted bias here, I confess that I have always been drawn to secular AA meetings because they seem more existential and authentic to me (and yes, ironically, more “spiritual”).
The secular membership of AA has, in my opinion, responded forcefully and effectively to questions of AA’s relevancy in the 21st century, and I suspect one of the main reasons is the impulse and drive by its members to redefine and internalize “a power greater than ourselves” in creative, impassioned, and meaningful ways. “Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us” – is but one historically inspired example.
In my case, reading as much AA literature as I could in my early years served me well in terms of my recovery given an enthusiasm for history. But, as my sober time in AA grew, I became more and more conscious of the need to apply to my understanding of recovery what Nietzsche calls “the historical sense.” In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche likens it to a “sixth sense” which is itself a novel historical development that only began to emerge, he claims, as recently as the 19th century[ii] (which I cannot go into any great detail here).[iii]
“The historical sense” at its most mature development, Nietzsche suggests, is a capacity for comprehending the past, present, and future by way of our willingness to integrate the past into a personal commitment to our present and future activities, resulting in a deep, rich, creative engagement with the world – one of numerous examples of what Nietzsche famously calls the “will to power.”
The following aphorism by Nietzsche offers the essence of what he means. However, to capture the poetry in Nietzsche’s prose and to grasp the richness of what he suggests is “the historical sense” in the context below – and what is for me the deeply felt concentration of a power greater than myself – I will have to quote a lengthy part of Nietzsche’s aphorism 337 from his text Joyful Wisdom entitled “Future ‘Humanity’.”
When I look at this age with the eye of a distant future, I find nothing so remarkable in the man of the present day as his peculiar virtue and sickness called “the historical sense.” It is a tendency to something quite new and foreign in history…. He who knows how to regard the history of man in its entirety as his own history,* feels in the immense generalization all the grief of the invalid who thinks of health, of the old man who thinks of the dream of his youth, of the lover who is robbed of his beloved, of the martyr whose ideal is destroyed, of the hero on the evening of the indecisive battle which has brought him wounds and the loss of a friend. But to bear this immense sum of grief of all kinds, to be able to bear it, and yet still be the hero who at the commencement of a second day of battle greets the dawn and his happiness, as one who has an horizon of centuries before and behind him, as the heir of all nobility, of all past intellect, and the obligatory heir (as the noblest) of all the old nobles; while at the same time the first of a new nobility, the equal of which has never been seen nor even dreamt of: to take all this upon his soul, the oldest, the newest, the losses, hopes, conquests, and victories of mankind: to have all this at last in one soul, and to comprise it in one feeling: this would necessarily furnish a happiness which man has not hitherto known, a God’s happiness, full of power and love, full of tears and laughter, a happiness which, like the sun in the evening, continually gives of its inexhaustible riches and empties into the sea, and like the sun, too, feels itself richest when even the poorest fisherman rows with golden oars! This divine feeling might then be called humanity![iv] [*bolds – originally italics – are Nietzsche’s]
“We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it,” so we are told in the “promises” of the Big Book. “The historical sense” with Nietzsche, just as I believe for AA, recognizes that we must come to terms with the pain, sorrow, shame, guilt – the overall “wreckage of the past” – in order to move us into a recovered future. “The historical sense” involves the recognition of our previous illness from our alcoholism inextricably linked with what we resolve to do, and the actions we take to get healthy. It always sees both the good and the bad together, and the “bad” is as important as the “good.” Not to see a past we would rather forget involves unhealthy psychological repression, yet, on the other hand, we are rendered passive and inactive if we are left paralyzed by a fixation on a lamentable past.
Finally, and briefly, one other aspect of history that Nietzsche noted can be subject to distortion is to see history solely as “monumental,” that is, the work of historical figures on the world stage documented by historians and biographers as well as, in our day, a global wide network of multimedia organizations. But recall the epigraph at the top of this essay and we are reminded of a subtle historicity particularly salient to Alcoholics Anonymous. The beautiful phrasing in George Eliot’s passage concludes her masterpiece, Middlemarch, by celebrating the quiet life of her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, who like innumerable people throughout history never get accorded historical fame, but who nonetheless, in their anonymity, have contributed to the betterment of our lives as we know it today.
“The historical sense” which Nietzsche observes is peculiar to modernity as a “sixth sense” is a heightened consciousness enabling us to recognize and appreciate, and be grateful for, the “unhistorical” lives of anonymous people who, through their quiet accomplishments, affected everyone around them and helped make others’ lives better or helped them become better persons.
Bill W. and others entered the history books by their involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous; most of us in AA will not. And that’s fine because most of us know and are grateful for those who helped us and perhaps made us better persons all because of a community of anonymous alcoholics, both past and present.
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 59.
[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1966), section 224, pp. 151-153.
[iii] In very general terms the 19th century saw the dramatic development of a post-enlightenment secularization in the fields of science, economics, aesthetics, politics and social theory in relation to the waning influence of a religiously structured universe typified by pre-enlightenment history. Nietzsche is probably gesturing to this in an unquoted part of aphorism 337 that I use below where he qualifies what he says about the newness of “the historical sense”: “It almost seems to us as if it were not the question of a new sentiment, but of the decline of all old sentiments….” [Nietzsche’s italics]
[iv] Friedrich Nietzsche, Joyful Wisdom, trans. Thomas Common (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.,1979), section 337, pp. 263 – 265. For both the religious or secular literalists reading this, you can be sure that Nietzsche’s use of “God” and the “divine” are metaphors. The gender bias in this passage was, of course, typical of the 19th and most of the 20th century.
John got sober in 2007 at the age of 54. Twenty-One days at the Renascent Treatment Centre in Toronto kickstarted his journey of continuous sobriety into the present day. He took AA seriously when he heard speaker after speaker say that they never felt comfortable in their own skin long before they took their first drink. In John’s opinion, the key to both physical and emotional sobriety is the acknowledgement in the Big Book: “Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions.” (p. 64).
John served as a General Service Representative (GSR) for his first home group and then for his secular home group which he and a few others started north of Toronto in 2012.
He has written eight previous articles for AA Agnostica over the years:
- Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power (27 July 2011);
- You Cannot NOT Interpret the Steps (12 October 2011);
- Thinking About Christopher Hitchens (19 February 2012);
- My 10 Favourite Recovery Websites (24 February 2013);
- All Paths to Recovery are Cause for Celebration (18 August 2013);
- The Sober Truth (16 April 2014);
- Experiencing Spirituality (4 June 2014);
- Ernest Kurtz: The Historian as Storyteller and Healer (22 January 2015).