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Nietzsche’s Platonism

The title of this post is intended partially as a joke—it is difficult to think of many philosophers less Platonistic than Nietzsche, whose philosophy is routinely aimed at cutting down Plato’s metaphysical bloat and the morality that Nietzsche would argue underlies it. Nonetheless, I do intend the title to be taken seriously. I think that, in his writing, Nietzsche employs a type of “theory” of recollection, one radically different from Plato’s to be sure, and that understanding this (and how it differs from Plato’s) will lead to a more fruitful engagement with Nietzsche’s style. I had the idea for this post while reading Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, but I think it applies more broadly. I hope to explain why Nietzsche’s writing will frustrate those seeking primarily to find arguments in his work, and why such frustration is, I believe, largely unwarranted.

Nietzsche, in his works, rarely if ever presents an argument alongside or embedded within extensive commentary and analysis. Rather, he often categorically states some (usually controversial) claim, or, if he does give an argument, it is usually only a sketch founded on other controversial claims. Given how much time Nietzsche spends hammering home the ramifications of his views, one might expect him to spend more time establishing them. Now, there is one obvious reason for the structure of Nietzsche’s works, one related to my main point, but not what I will focus on. Nietzsche was a master stylist with a remarkably fluid writing style—he was probably the best philosophical writer. Nietzsche once remarked something along the lines of, “most philosophers are bad writers because they tell us not only their thoughts, but also the thinking of their thoughts.” We are spared the thinking of Nietzsche’s thoughts in part out of aesthetic considerations. This will be rightly unsatisfying to the person who looks to Nietzsche for arguments. If Nietzsche desires to persuade us of his positions, to earn our assent to them, then he ought sacrifice some stylistic beauty for the sake of shoring up his arguments. I maintain, however, that this is not Nietzsche’s goal, and that fleshing out his arguments would in fact make Nietzsche’s books weaker and less effective.

Plato’s theory of recollection roughly states that people, before they were born, possessed all knowledge. At birth, however, this knowledge is lost, and all that we call learning is merely recollecting of what we’ve forgotten. Plato is focused not on knowledge of contingent, earthly things, but rather with knowledge of the Forms, of logic, of mathematics, and of any other perfect, eternal truths. Teaching is thus an act of reminding one of eternal truths he has already grasps (Plato illustrates this with a truly horrid example of Socrates helping a young boy to “recollect” geometry). Nietzsche, of course, rabidly attacks both the idea of eternal truths and of eternal souls to grasp them. This would seem to make the theory of recollection entirely unavailable to Nietzsche. I propose, however, that his works exemplify a non-metaphysical analog of Plato’s theory: they serve in large part to remind people of what they already know. The truths may be contingent and earthly, but they are recollected all the same, and this paves the way for the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy: his “revaluation of all values.”

Nietzsche, in The Gay Science and elsewhere, proclaims, “God is dead!” This is not a declaration of atheism, but a comment on the relationship to religion in 19th century Europe: it is dying out. Advances in scientific thought, the Englightenment, Kant’s attacks on the ontological argument, materialism—all have eroded the ability for one to both think critically and believe. The religious spirit, Nietzsche claims, is losing it’s grip on European minds. In attacking notions of free will and God’s existence (to pick two major examples), Nietzsche is to an extent merely capturing what he sees as the current direction in which thought is moving (though of course he agrees with this movement to an extent, and then goes beyond it). Note that Nietzsche thought his books could be properly read only by a limited audience, and I expect that his ideal audience would have been precisely those people who acutely felt the break with religion in their own thought. This audience, then, will already have arrived at many of the same conclusions as Nietzsche at many points, and he is helping them to recollect these conclusions, in order that they might explore their ramifications.

Thus Nietzsche’s are thoughts we (the readers) already have, and he is merely reminding us, and sketching the arguments that got us there. To what end? Plato thought that right knowledge leads necessarily to right action. For Nietzsche, this is not so. He writes, “Is the ‘terrible’ truth not that no amount of knowledge about an act ever suffices to ensure its performance, that the space between knowledge and action has never yet been bridged even in one single instance” (Daybreak, 116, Hollingdale translation). Even if we know that Christianity’s justifications for morality are bunk, we are still tempted to view morality in a fundamentally Christian way. The Christian virtues have seeped into us, and cordon off our dangerous knowledge, saving action from that knowledge’s “pernicious” influence. Right thought does not lead to right action—and it is action that Nietzsche cares most about. To change the orientation through which we approach life thus requires not careful argument, but careful arrangement and forceful presentation of claims we already recognize but have not fully absorbed. Thus Nietzsche focuses his efforts primarily on exploring e.g. the implications of God’s nonexistence, rather than yet again tearing down the ontological argument. He drives home the blow to our conception of personal responsibility that comes with a materialistic worldview, rather than agonizing over the arguments for materialism.

All of this to achieve a revaluation of all values, as he described the goal of his philosophy. By reminding us of what we already know in the right way, Nietzsche strives to break us free of patterns of thought and action that are pernicious holdouts from Christianity. Making his works more academic and dry by fleshing out argument sketches that serve merely as reminders would work directly contrary to the goals of Nietzsche’s works. Nietzsche asks of his readers: you know this (you have reasoned in the way I outline here)—but can you live it? I would not expect people for whom God is not dead to come away from Nietzsche as atheists (unless perhaps they took the time to flesh out his argument sketches and evaluate them for themselves). I imagine they would find his works rather foreign, as if Nietzsche wasn’t talking to them at all. In many ways, he wasn’t.

  1. 2013/05/07 at 15:20

    I really enjoyed reading this article. As a budding Nietzsche enthusiast, it’s great to read you because you are familiar with his works and can link them in an interesting way to other philosophers. I really am too much in awe to comment, but I will give it a try.
    I think it’s a sensible way to look at Nietzsche as talking to the audience that mattered to him. I see your point where you describe Nietzsche as reminding people of what they already know, in a sense, like Plato. I keep coming back to my personal experience of reading Nietzsche from a perspective of instinct. In a way, that aims to clear the slate of everything that is superimposed, from the self, to values, to culture and religion. To knowledge even, because Nietzsche would not be afraid to doubt physics and mathematics like everything else. There is really not much that remains. Not even a stable, individual human nature. Everything is flux, the driving force is the will to power in what Tongue Sandwich described today (“Have your power and eat it.”) as “a myriad of instantiations and overcomings.”
    If you look at it that way, it makes perfect sense not to bother too much with argumentation, because all it would add is semantics and an excuse for people not to look into the abyss. In relation to that, it’s interesting how Nietzsche described his own atheism to stem ‘from instinct’. It’s probably the only thing he would really trust.

  2. 2013/05/07 at 16:03

    I appreciate the kind words, but I want to try to temper them a bit. 😛 I’ve only been reading Nietzsche for a few years (maybe three or so), and I am constantly finding problems with my interpretations (including this one). So I deserve not awe but close scrutiny and criticism.

    I think you are on to something when you speak about Nietzsche’s doubting and his attempt to clear the slate of what is superimposed, but I think it’s important not to make this vision too Cartesian. Descarte tried to sweep away everything, all at once, and build back up from nothing. Nietzsche was, of course, quite skeptical of this foundationalist project. How does his project get off the ground, then? I think a very important passage here is the three metamorphoses passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Before one is a lion, doubting everything, clearing the slate, one must be a camel, a load-bearing animal, whose load here of course is received values. This stage is what allows for the revaluation of all values. For that, one must have old values to work with. Nietzsche’s method of doubt involves a stage with a method of trust, and I think that’s crucially important.

    I also would be a bit skeptical of speaking of these values being “superimposed” on the self, since this supposes a clear distinction between the self and what is external to it, as if you could isolate the pure self and then determine what elements are impositions. But Nietzsche is also skeptical of the existence of a unified, indivisible self, and he recognizes that it is precisely “imposed” values, etc. that let us have a self (of a Nietzschean sort) at all. This again points to the importance of the camel phase—without it there is no self and no instincts at all. Where did Nietzsche get his “instincts”, after all? Schopenhauer, Comte, Darwin, Pascal, Wagner, Plato, Christianity, etc. That context, those impositions, made Nietzsche and his delirious instincts possible. (Tangent: One of my favorite passages of Nietzsche is the one, early in Beyond Good and Evil, where he chides “clumsy naturalists” for losing the concept of the ‘soul’ or ‘self’ every time they touch it. Nietzsche skepticism about the concept did not call for abolishment, but revision. I wish contemporary atheists would read and re-read this passage.)

    Nietzsche’s relation to knowledge, and math and physics, is incredibly difficult, not least because he seems to take numerous different positions on the subject. Ultimately I don’t know how skeptical of physics and math he would in terms of content. Certainly he would praise their exactness (in I believe The Gay Science he calls science the “exactest humanizing” of nature) and rigor. I’ve been reading Beckett a lot lately, and I think Beckett has one way of understanding such suspicion that might be congenial to Nietzsche: “That’s suspicious, or rather would be if I still hoped to obtain, from these revelations to come, some truth of more value than those I have been plastered with ever since they took it into their heads I had better exist.” (The Unnamable, 330) Here, the plethora of truths (from physics, from daily life, etc.) we are plastered with are of little value. We hope for deeper, more valuable truths from revelation (shades of religion), but such revelations cannot be trusted, not in this day and age, for God is dead. I think this is congenial to Nietzsche’s view. And it’s interesting to note that the deep “truth” of the eternal recurrence is proclaimed, in The Gay Science by a demon. It is a revelation, but from a source that cannot be trusted.

    This post was somewhat facetious in comparing Nietzsche to Plato (my later posts comparing them are more serious), but still has some merit. Nietzsche is, I think, fundamentally trying to change one’s attitude, one’s orientation. He’s trying to get people to confront themselves. Getting people to do that is not best accomplished by arguments that strive to efface any trace of the subjective, at least insofar as they can. Those may be reveal truths, but paltry truths, truths of little value. They get what value they have from those healthy individuals who trust, as you said, their instincts—they get their value from a life. Nietzsche said again and again that he wanted a person’s life to be a justification for the world—including for such truths. (Which doesn’t mean that such truths are true because of a life, but they get their value because of a life.)

    Emerson has a lovely comment in a similar vein in one of his journals, in which he says that (ideally) every person ought to write her/his own textbooks of geology, biology, physics, ethics, etc., because only then would the order and selection be appropriate to that person’s life. (Going pack to the point about the omnipresence of selectivity I made over on your blog earlier.)

    Thanks for the excellent comment. As you can see, it sparked a lot of thinking, which makes it the best kind of comment.

  3. 2013/05/09 at 07:33

    Thank you for your answer. I am pleased that somebody with your knowledge and insight takes time to write to me. And that is not false modesty on my part: my instincts are not something I’m especially proud of, it’s all I’ve got to bring to the table.
    I am all with you when you write about Nietzsche’s view of the self and values being part of that because there is no clearly distinct self. I actually agree with that image of a self.
    On science, I am not exactly sure. But that is because there do seem to be so many positions to be found. I think Nietzsche lived in a time when people expected nothing less than miracles and definitive answers from science and I think his ideas went against that current. Not that I can prove it. I don’t even have a relevant quote at the ready!
    I really like your point on the revelation of eternal recurrence being proclaimed by a demon and the significance of that. Something to ponder over, indeed…
    I will be back to read your other articles. – No praise needed!

  4. 2013/05/09 at 08:44

    I certainly don’t think I summed up Nietzsche’s view on science and knowledge accurately in my last reply—one strand of it at best. (It also seems to have shifted from a more reverent to a more skeptical view between Human, All Too Human and his later works. And it’s further a question how both of these later positions relate to the extreme skepticism of “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”.)

    I think a lot of people still expect miracles and definitive answers from the sciences, and in that respect it’s worthwhile to return to Nietzsche’s critiques. I think the end of his On the Genealogy of Morals is actually quite prescient about contemporary attitudes toward science.

    • 2013/05/09 at 09:45

      Thank you for mentioning that. I think this is interesting, so I will look it up.
      Incidentally, this time I could answer your comment directly from the e-mail. So maybe it does work.

  5. 2013/05/09 at 10:40

    If I may share just a silly thought, I was just re-reading the passage on eternal recurrence and as you said, the message comes from a devil, but in it Zarathustra himself also plays a part (…and even this moment, and I myself…) and then the person would either “curse the demon who spoke thus” or answer him: “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!”
    Tongue Sandwich once said to me that he interpreted this passage as a sort of ‘test’. To determine if the person reading it was ready to accept eternal recurrence (called the ultimate eternal confirmation and seal).
    So in that case it might question the reader’s ability to see a god in a devil. It might even be Dionysus, or Zarathustra, or Nietzsche.

    • 2013/05/09 at 10:57

      Ugh, just wrote a long comment and lost it. The short version:

      The bit you quoted (“even this moment” &c.) is the demon himself speaking. So the demon is saying that even this moment (of you learning about the recurrence) will return. This matters because it means that the recurrence will include the part of your life where you didn’t know about the recurrence, and you have to will that, too.

      I agree with Tongue Sandwich that it’s a test. Ideally you would read the passage not as it’s presented, as a “what if”, but experience the passage as your learning about the recurrence, and then feeling it on you as the heaviest weight. One reason why I said on your blog that I only think about it intellectually is that I’ve never had this sort of experience with it.

      Lastly, I think you’re right that Nietzsche wants you to see the divine in the demonic. He didn’t want to lose the divine any more than the soul, but he wanted to bring it down to earth. So the soul becomes drives—and drives, in Christian theology (and in Plato) would be base instincts to be overcome by reason/faith in God/what have you. But now we are supposed to find the divine in these “demonic” aspects of ourselves.

      I may have figured out how to reply directly; let’s see if it works.

    • 2013/05/09 at 11:10

      Ow, I’m sorry to hear that!
      But at least I got this reply. Actually, I have not had that experience with eternal recurrence, but I did have an experience with amor fati. (Going into the weird stuff now, I am usually quite a rational being). And that is part of me calling myself a believer, in the Nietzschean sense, of course. So it doesn’t really mean anything. 🙂
      I agree with you on the divine and the soul. I really like how you describe that.

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