This paper was presented to the 12th annual conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, Glasgow University September 2002
Published in Nietzsche and Antiquity ed Paul Bishop, Boydell and Brewer- 2004
John S Moore
The return to the ancient Greeks is something Nietzsche, like many others before and some after him, long considered to be the special destiny of Germans. The aim may seem not altogether unreasonable, if ascribed to the perceived superiority of nineteenth century German scholarship rather than to racial qualities or some supposed metaphysical quality of the language. While the British may have thought of themselves as the true heirs of the ancient Greeks, following Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the Parthenon sculptures, it was the Germans who were developing the scholarship. German philology apparently brought the prospect of understanding what the Greeks really were like. But between us and the ancient world stood 2000 years of God. The world before Judaism and Christianity entices as in many respects a happy time. In Joyful Wisdom Nietzsche expresses the hope the Germans might live up to the original meaning of ‘Deutsche’, that is heathen, and consummate the work of Luther by becoming the first non Christian nation of modern Europe.
The proclamation that ‘God is dead’ opens up the prospect of a return to antiquity. Nietzsche has much more in mind than the mere institution of atheism, which would not by itself open such a prospect of recreating such happiness. The return to a pagan sense of life is not so easily accomplished. To recover the joyousness and creative excellence of the Greek achievement. would seemingly involve a more detailed unravelling of assumptions. There is an image of Greek life as something supremely creative, excellent, and pleasurable. That Christianity had brought about a depression of the human spirit was hardly an original view. The suggestion would not have been strange to readers of Lecky’s History of Morals form Augustus to Charlemagne, 1869, translated and widely used as a textbook in German universities Also from the 1860s were Swinburne’s famous lines:-
“Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
“We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death.”
Many would acknowledge that Christianity’s victory had meant repression both intellectual and instinctual. The God it sets over us and claims to interpret owes much to Plato. Christianity, Nietzsche tells us in the preface to Beyond Good and Evil, was Platonism for the masses. In some sense or other he thought Plato had taken a wrong turning. So much is clear. However, what exactly he might have meant by this has, like other parts of his philosophy, been subject to widely different interpretations. So what is his real objection to Plato’s thought, and what would he put in its place? Having unpicked the idea of God, to what could we revert? Should it be to something different in the way of metaphysics, or a far simpler return to roots? Heidegger appears to have understood going back to the Greeks in terms of a revival of pre-Socratic philosophy, seeing Nietzsche himself as a dead end, last of the heirs of Plato. Nevertheless it might seem that Heidegger himself owed a great deal to Nietzsche in formulating such an aim.
On another view there was indeed an understanding we can recapture, but it was rather Pindar than Parmenides, something like an identification with raw ambition. The competitive ideal of life extolled in Pindar was, according to Nietzsche, brought to a fuller development with Socrates. The glory of an Olympic victor pales before that of a conqueror of minds. Conscious will to power takes various forms; beyond the Pindaric hero there is Socrates. From the viewpoint of the enjoyment and the practice of power, the persuasion of others may well be a more satisfying exercise than the experience of a warlord. We are not to consider the power available to the barbarian to be so superior to that available to civilised men, though various purposes are served by the myths civilised men create about barbarians.
In Pindar a view of life as will to power and mutual striving is lyrically expressed. Nietzsche liked to see philosophy and its origin, certainly after Socrates, as rooted in this same approach to life. Accordingly we may include the formation of the God idea as the product and expression of this competitive will to power, rather than solely as a challenge and an alternative to that interpretation (which on another level it is). Its significance becomes clearer the more directly it is related to human ambition and mutual aggression.
In Daybreak Nietzsche asks rhetorically:- “He who does not hear the continual rejoicing which resounds through every speech and counter speech of a platonic dialogue, the rejoicing over the new invention of rational thinking, what does he understand of Plato, of the philosophy of antiquity?” With his portrayal of Socrates, Plato seems to have done more than almost anyone to promote the idea of philosophy as a matter of dispute and close argument. Tracing the origin of philosophy in mutual striving, we may look at the God idea under two opposed aspects. On the one hand it is an expression of creative power, traceable to Socrates’ and Plato’s solutions to various philosophical questions. The other face is the nihilistic slave God idea, God as an intolerable demand. This too has a platonic source. To Nietzsche it is the epitomisation of regrettable mental habits and practices which have become firmly established. It embodies one of the most effective weapons of moral coercion that it is possible to employ in the struggle of all against all.
Even professedly atheistic science is still in thrall to the Platonic/Christian God, in the form of an uncriticised idea of ‘moral truth’ which ‘enchants and inspires’ (see the preface to Daybreak). In Joyful Wisdom, in a passage he reiterates in Genealogy of Morals he writes that:- “even we knowing ones of today, the godless and anti-metaphysical, still take our fire from the conflagration kindled by a belief a millennium old, the Christian belief, that was also the belief of Plato, that God is truth, that truth is divine . But what if this itself always becomes more untrustworthy, what if nothing any longer proves itself divine, except it be error blindness and falsehood;- what if God himself turns out to be our most persistent lie?”
Notoriously there is a tyrannical strain in Plato which excites resistance. This is at its worst in Laws, supposedly his last book, where Socrates is not even mentioned. Many readers have deplored Plato’s totalitarianism and his justification of religious persecution. Plato puts across his objectives in terms of an interest of all, as if they derive from a unitary vision of truth, justice and freedom. Will to Power §972 refers to “Plato, for instance, when he persuaded himself that ‘the good’ as he wanted it, was not Plato’s good, but ‘the good in itself’, the eternal treasure which a certain man of the name of Plato had chanced to find on his way!” Among all perspectives his is presented as the only authenticating one, with its claim to ‘truth’. One demands that other people accept one’s own idea on the ground that it derives from ‘the ideal’ and thereby embodies truth, justice etc. We are tempted to blame Plato for not sticking to his own rational standard. Like an overmighty politician his ambition and intellectual strength lead him away from the aristocratic republic of free argument towards the establishment of a sort of personal despotism. He wishes to form humanity after his own image.
Nietzsche floated the presumably anachronistic suggestion that Plato came across the Jews in Egypt and learned something from them . The idea of the one right dogma slots in with Plato’s vision. Direct visionary intuition into truth has been identified as an oriental, that is an un-Greek idea. That was the pre philosophical way of getting wisdom. But here is something much more than a mere reversion to barbarism. The essence of the Platonic fallacy is in the nihilism which supports such a claim. Nihilism is described by Nietzsche as the idea that there is no truth. It may seem paradoxical to accuse Plato of this. But it is the absence of recognised truth on the ordinary everyday understanding that leaves the path open for dogmatic claims. If there is no truth, then anything can be truth.
Faced with the Babel presented by the innumerable different ideas of justice to be found in the world, we may seek some means of deciding what we are to go along with. Aiming to influence our decision are those who know exactly what they want and are determined the rest of us should accede to it. In their programme to persuade us, they seek first to undermine any appeal to objective fact, calculating that in such a climate they will be able to win because no one else will have any firm ground to stand on. Theirs is a God that embodies just this nihilistic will to authority. Told you can believe anything, why should you refuse to swallow this? There may be a suggestion that it rises superior out of chaos, that it embodies a quality of ‘sublimity’, sign and proof of its right to command us spiritually. But once we identify the refined weapons of the weak, the God of the dialecticians, designed specifically to take advantage of confusion, God himself comes across as a nihilistic idea
It is this dogmatic demand, the weapon put into the service of claims that are often highly presumptuous and exceptionable, that is the biggest objection to Plato’s Ideal and the God that embodies it. There are people with an overwhelming desire that some demand be accepted, whether they speak for established power and authority, or for a passionate reforming ambition. In the modern world, both the latest policies of government and the shrill certainties of ressentiment may equally aspire to the universal moral authority formerly held by religion. Every rhetorical device may be employed to that end, all propaganda, all dialectical wiles. If there is no truth, how may such passion be resisted? Nietzsche has his own resentment, in that he abhors some of these claims, heartily despises the suggestion he must go along with their presumption. So wherein lies the remedy?
Against the God of monotheism we might want to consider possible alternative myths, different gods perhaps. Rather than the intolerant and oppressive God of the Jews and Christians, we might favour a more congenial one, such as, for example, the Gnostic God of the Pleroma that subsists above the mendacious and malignant Ialdabaoth worshipped by the ignorant. The quest for gnostic style liberation offers a myth that strikingly illuminates the human condition from the perspective of will to power. Itself claiming a good basis in Plato, such a doctrine might be taken as a Nietzschean value, even as the Nietzschean alternative or revaluation of values. But that would be to miss Nietzsche’s most original argument, his claim to expose the lies and falsifications in the position of his opponents.
Some might want to understand rejection of Plato in terms of a desire to return to the state of affairs before Plato wrote, as if Plato had never written. There is a crudely reactionary quality to such an unlikely programme. Before Plato the world was open to Plato, to close it against him would require a new doctrine. Suppose we decide his arguments were empty and those he attacked were right, to uphold such a view completely transforms the latter. Some treat Nietzsche as an anti-Plato, as well as an Antichrist, invoking him for a sort of multicultural pluralism. There is an obvious appeal to the young of an attack on father figure Plato, it speaks to the kind of desire young people have to legitimise all kinds of alternative perspectives. In support of this is the idea of the decline that takes place with age, and also that the passion of youth brings a potentially greater happiness than anything available later, even if it is hardly ever fulfilled.
Perspectivism, taken as a supposedly Nietzschean dogma to the effect that all perspectives are valid may appeal to some as an attractive alternative to God. Not only is there little basis for such a move beyond assertion, but validating everything is actually what is most to be avoided. Overemphasis on Nietzsche’s perspectivism, with its visual metaphor may suggest that he thinks different ‘looks’ are all valid, and any number of different ones may be compatible. Yet commonly a position is far more than just a look, in that it involves demonstrably false claims. The will to power perspective candidly admits to roots in raw ambition and desire based on personal interest. It convicts other perspectives of falsification, targeting especially such as make appeal to an ideal standard of freedom, justice or truth. Nietzsche’s own perspective asserts itself as an interest but does not claim to be an interest of all. Concepts of justice and truth do not need such authentication, they are part of the context in which we all live. In a healthy state there is no opposition between desire and interest.
Perspectivism does not have to be taken as a way of authenticating all sorts of different views and opinions. In the chapter On the Sublime Men Zarathustra tells us that all life is a dispute about taste, and Nietzsche has no intention of letting us out of this. He has his own strong views for which he wishes to fight, and for positions which would negate his own, he aims to uncover their errors and deceptions. This does not suggest a project to reverse Plato, backtracking and trying an alternative set of presuppositions, rather to confront and argue him out.
The way to undo the corruption introduced by Plato does involve reaffirmation of a classical value. By analogy with athletic competition, Nietzsche upholds the ancient idea of life as conflict, as agon, which is to be erotically celebrated and enjoyed. Such is eristic, after the good Eris mentioned in Homer’s Contest. This is not just a proposed ideal, but something in which he is already completely immersed. He is engaged in continuous argument against his adversaries. This is still what he is doing when he turns savagely on Plato in Twilight of the Idols and accuses him of wrecking the splendid agonal culture. We can see how the openness of this competitive spirit is handicapped when all competition has to be mediated through some dogma, even should it be an attractive one. Nietzsche’s remedy is to express and communicate the objection, and discover specific errors involved in the nihilistic doctrine that there is no truth. He seeks out mistakes of psychology, definite tendencies to lie and mislead. Truth emerges in the objective facts that have been overlooked and which it is the most compelling interest of dissidence to uncover.
Nietzsche’s religious opinions have an evidently personal character. “If there were gods how could I bear not to be a god?” asks Zarathustra, “Therefore there are no gods”. The origin of his objection to Plato is to be found in his own feeling, not from some insight or vision into an overall picture he claims the right to call ‘justice’ or ‘the truth’. To say that what drives him is a biographical question, is by no means to invalidate or relativise his conclusions. It is in such competitive feeling and mutual resentment, that we can trace the origin of philosophy together with other creative achievement. Nietzsche’s interpretation of the tyrannical urge owed much to his experience of Wagner, whom he also described as a tyrant. He resents the coercive claim in a position that tries to rule out the possibility of his sort of protest.
In insisting on selfish motives, Nietzsche is not advocating crime, or trying to subvert society. Concepts of morality and justice may be explained in terms of desire and the conflict of interest, as forms of life, without need of philosophical authentication. In reducing everything to desire, he would deny that he is removing some linchpin of social order, an essential cement that holds off chaos. People dispute whether anyone really is guided and restrained by morality, or whether moral ideas are only the expression of desire and interest. Nietzsche’s view is that someone who argues for a moralistic view of life, as if only that can protect us against intolerable evil, is essentially to be thought of as expressing his ambition for his own ideas. Some criminals may be attracted to Nietzsche, but the picture of the will as basically a criminal will, is not one Nietzsche endorses.
It would be a grotesque simplification of the will to power doctrine to read it as asserting that everything a philosopher wants, he wants only because he wants to impose his power upon others. Everything is will to power, but the tyrannical urge is not universal. Pure tyranny is not even desirable from the viewpoint of the tyrant, the obvious lesson of Hegel’s master and slave dialectic. Desiring power one will need something over which to exercise it. Enjoyment of power does not necessarily entail the arbitrary character of the tyrant. Of course there are other factors in Plato and what he led to. In attributing the motive behind a thought as will to power, we bracket out all more detailed and specific descriptions of motivation. This is far from to deny the truth or meaningfulness of such descriptions. The claim is that the will to power perspective offers a way of uncovering psychological realities. In Plato’s case we see ambition in a raw and unmediated state. The reason why Plato wants so much of what he wants is to do with the unfettered nature of his desire. His philosophy is like an artistic creation. He lived early enough to play the artist tyrant, with a blank canvas.
Much of Plato’s philosophy has its origin in the shortcomings of the city state, in the frustration of the will that is experienced by those of original and independent mind. This would presumably apply to those committed to the Socratic programme of disputation faced with the doxa or opinion in which they are invited to acquiesce, for all its promise of power. The Socratic motive puts them at odds with the authority of the democracy, with its oppressive demand to submit to an ever changing doctrine. In the very rejection of current society, official reality, there is felt a need to insist upon a pure alternative idea, upon a reality which is outside and above the given doxa. In this move we may trace the origin of the whole religious history of the west. Here is the source of this idea of religious truth, which comes to be most tyrannically conceived. On the basis of this Platonic thought derives a long tradition of contemplative mysticism. We may see how deep study, like Heidegger’s, of a mystic like Meister Eckhart, might well provoke intriguing speculations as to how it might all have been different.
In Human all too Human §261, Nietzsche wrote of the tyrannical urges of the Greeks. Every Greek, he suggested, desired to tyrannise over other people. Philosophers too desired this and this explains much in Plato. Only Solon said he despised individual tyranny, though he sublimated his tyranny as a lawgiver. Plato became frustrated and extremely embittered in old age, he says, as a result of the thwarting of his political ambition. We might see this as a limitation of the classical culture, and by extension of the renaissance that imitated it. Nietzsche admits to his own raw ambition rooted in personal factors. Inspired by this he challenges Plato and takes on his argument. For Plato himself the God idea would not be experienced as repressive, it was the perfect expression for his own despotic will. The nasty old men in Laws agree that no old person doubts the truth of religion. Against God Nietzsche pits the Ubermensch. We may see this as an attack not on Plato’s whole achievement but on what was tyrannical in him. We can hardly take a purely hostile attitudes to someone who has been so seminal and creative. We do not simply reject him to return to the chaos of opinion.
Plato’s tyrannical tendency is the source of much that is repellent, not just in Plato but in a great part of the tradition to which he gave rise. Nietzsche’s objection to it is not rooted in some abstract principle like a prohibition on tyrannising, but in the way it conflicts with his own feeling and ambition. His remedy is honesty about will to power. With the aristocratic republic of the intellect we set up barriers to dogmatic assertion being accepted as truth. These barriers are formed not by theories, but by truths in the most ordinary sense of the word. The assumption of spiritual authority represents denial of my own power and my own desire. To refute it I must insist upon that from which its proponents avert their eyes.
First Nietzsche needs to outline his desires and objectives, which is what he does in Zarathustra, his answer to the Bible. His programme for the reform of civilisation will follow Plato’s example and begin by trying to get people to share his own tastes and understanding, not from any virtuous principle of benevolence (still less malevolence), but from a most self-conscious will to power. In renouncing tyranny he is far from renouncing the aim of making others like himself. Of course he would like others to accept his objection to the God of the Jews and Christians. What he wants of people is ultimately reducible to his own desire.
This naturally relates to his own position in the world. Though opposing the claim of the old against the young and disdaining Plato’s old men, he would not give uncritical support to the demands of rebellious youth. For Nietzsche there is much to value and also much folly to deplore in the rebellion of the young. Extreme individualism may easily turn into its opposite. One suspects this is an issue of which Plato may have had some understanding, having once been himself the rebellious young man.. What happened in Athens prefigured what was to happen in other times and places. There are aspects of youthful energy Nietzsche would want to encourage as well as those he would want to resist or rechannel.
His aim is very far from that of wanting simply to undo Plato and happily acquiesce in every ugly form of city state decadence he had been concerned to overcome. In Plato there is much that is very attractive as well as what is hateful. Much of what he says is far from the mere will to triumph of a party, rather enriching human experience by opening new possibilities of understanding and enjoyment. We may identify what is hateful as something quite specific. This does not mean replacing Plato’s dogma by an alternative one that legitimises relativistic chaos. We need to concentrate specifically on the unacceptable claims it supports, always bearing in the back of the mind the objections one has to tendentious and coercive moral and political demands. A Nietzschean is most likely to feel a lot of sympathy for Plato’s frustration with the ruling power, while rejecting his solution. Nietzsche wants to fight Plato on his own ground, exposing the hidden dishonesties involved in the coercive societies of The Republic and The Laws.
In Plato’s Republic the sophist Thrasymachus paints a portrait of ‘the unjust man’. Readers of Nietzsche may be struck by a certain resemblance to the Ubermensch. While it may well be true, as Plato argues, that Thrasymachus is wrong, and has quite failed to draw a picture of the highest happiness, it is worth asking why anyone might ever have thought otherwise. He expresses a kind of taboo breaking resistance to coercive morality. Even the unjust man is a dimension of present desire. That is to say his desirability is the expression of present needs, and represents a particular perspective. On this interpretation Thrasymachus is resisting something. He expresses, if incompetently, a sort of Nietzschean protest. To the question why the amoral tyrant might appear to embody the highest happiness, we say it does insofar as there is something he has overcome that needs to be overcome. Thrasymachus makes a valid point as well as an invalid one. Reason =virtue =happiness is not a sound equation. In the identification of the Ubermensch as the summit of human achievement there is some truth to be discovered that counters and undermines the moralising pretensions of orthodox religion.
Evoking the Ubermensch, who is a sort of tyrant, does not entail prostration before his despotic authority. In some moods at least, Nietzsche is hopeful that times have changed since Plato’s day, and confident that the threat of tyranny is receding and enough allies may be found. In Human all Too Human I §261 he writes:-
“What took place with the ancient Greeks (that each great thinker, believing he possessed absolute truth, became a tyrant, so that Greek intellectual history has had the violent, rash and dangerous character evident in its political history) was not exhausted with them. Many similar things have come to pass right up to the most recent times, although gradually less often and hardly any longer with the Greek philosophers’ pure, naïve conscience. For the opposite doctrine and scepticism have, on the whole, too powerful and loud a voice. The period of the spiritual tyrant is over. In the domain of higher culture there will of course always have to be an authority, but from now on this authority lies in the hands of the oligarchs of the spirit. Despite all spatial and political separation, they form a coherent society, whose members recognise and acknowledge one another whatever favourable or unfavourable estimations may circulate due to unfavourable public opinion and the judgements of the newspaper and magazine writers. The spiritual superiority which formerly caused division and enmity now tends to bind: How could individuals assert themselves and swim through life along their own way, against all currents, if they did not see their like living here and there under the same circumstances and grasp their hands in the struggle as much against the ochlocratic nature of superficial minds and superficial culture as against the occasional attempts to set up a tyranny with help of mass manipulation?”
Nietzsche’s argument is of course applicable to dogmatising interpretations of his own writings, and could even be turned against himself, if ever, relaxed from the competitive feeling that has driven him, he were tempted to play the tyrant on his own account.. Much of what he wrote can too easily be detached from the argumentative frame and used to construct new forms of dogmatism, which may be rich in possibilities but which arouse justifiable resentment for their arbitrary presumption. Reading him one may occasionally find it hard to resist the doubt that perhaps he really meant, as others would have it, the opposite of what we take him to have meant. In such a case his own argument can be employed against the confusion his words themselves induce. Certainly, by this standard, to present his ideas as philanthropy, to speak as if “‘the good’ as he wanted it, was not Nietzsche’s good, but ‘the good in itself’ (call it health or whatever), the eternal treasure which a certain man of the name of Nietzsche had chanced to find on his way!!” must be misrepresentation. If the period of the spiritual tyrant really were at an end, such ways of thinking should have no future.
Works by Nietzsche
Human All Too Human trans. Faber and Lehmann University of Nebraska 1984
Daybreak trans Hollingdale Cambridge University Press 1982
The Will to Power trans. Ludovici, Foulis London and Edinburgh 1911
Twilight of the Idols trans. Hollingdale Penguin books, Harmondsworth 1968
The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Kaufmann, Random House New York 1967
The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner trans. Kaufmann Random House New York 1967
Beyond Good and Evil trans. Cowan- Chicago 1955
The Joyful Wisdom trans. Thomas Common Frederick Ungar- New York 1970
Thus Spoke Zarathustra trans Hollingdale- Penguin books, Harmondsworth 1961
The Portable Nietzsche selected and translated by Walter Kaufmann- New York 1954
Lecky History of Morals form Augustus to Charlemagne, London 1869
Steiner George Heidegger Fontana London 1978
Plato – The Collected Dialogues ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntingdon Cairns Princeton 1961
Jonas Hans The Gnostic Religion Beacon Press Boston 1958
Kisiel- The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time- University of California Press 1995