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Nietzsche’s Boasts and Socrates’ Irony

I’ve written two posts about Nietzsche’s relations to Plato and Plato’s Socrates, both of which involved arguments aimed at showing that Nietzsche borrowed a great deal from Plato in terms of both style and content. (It is worth commenting that Nietzsche and Plato are two philosophers whose content is inseparable from their style: you cannot understand what they are saying without understanding how they say it. Careful reading for content will reveal a justification of their style, and careful study of their style will enhance their content.) But while Nietzsche clearly did learn a great deal from Plato’s lap, he did ultimately see Socrates as an enemy (which does not mean he did not see him as a good friend—see the marvelous passage in part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra where Zarathustra discusses friends and enemies). As such, it is also worthwhile to consider how Nietzsche sets himself apart from Plato/Socrates, not just in terms of content, but in terms of style as well. This post is an attempt to do that. It is only a starting point, an attempt to characterize a certain aspect of Nietzsche’s work and to begin to think about its possible significance.

Nietzsche boasts, and Socrates is ironic. These facts are immediately noticeable to any reader of Nietzsche or Plato. Nietzsche seems to have a comically overinflated view of his own worth, whereas Plato’s Socrates starts most of his dialogues by pretending that he is stupid and his interlocutor wise, when just the reverse is true. One way of dodging the hard question of explaining these stylistic choices, at least in the case of Nietzsche, is to suggest that he simply had an extremely high opinion of himself (probably true), and that this colored his writing. But Nietzsche reflected often about his own style, and it is (I think) implausible to suggest that Nietzsche did not have a particular purpose in mind when he made such bold claims. To understand this purpose, it will be helpful to first attempt to understand why Socrates is ironic; I wish to suggest that Nietzsche’s boasts are precisely an attempt to portray himself as the opposite sort of character as Socrates.

Jerrald Ranta, in an essay on Plato’s Ion (“The Drama of Plato’s ‘Ion’”), argues that Plato portrays Socrates and his interlocutor (Ion) as variants of character-types common in ancient Greek comedy. On the one hand there is the Eiron, the ironical man “who masks his batteries of deceit behind a show of ordinary good nature… but lets you see all the while that he could enlighten you if he chose, and so makes a mock of you” (Ranta quotes from Francis Cornford’s The Origin of Attic Comedy). Opposite the Eiron is the Alazon, the boastful swaggerer “who interrupts sacrifice, cooking, or feast, and claims an undeserved share in the fruits of victory” (Cornford again). Or, more simply: “While the Impostor claims to possess higher qualities than he has, the Ironical man is given to making himself out worse than he is” (Cornford). Both are “impudent and absurd pretenders” (Cornford).

In Plato, Alazon is “constantly coupled” with the word for ‘liar’—in short the Alazon is an opponent of the very love of wisdom that Socrates promotes. Socrates’ interlocutors all act as if they have some special knowledge (of what is good, true, beautiful, etc.), and in this way they resemble the Alazon. Hence it is natural for Plato to portray Socrates as an Eiron who baits them, pretends to flatter them while dismissing his own worth, only to end up making a mockery of them. Socrates is not purely an Eiron in the classic sense, however. The Eiron and the Alazon traditionally stand as opposite extremes around the (Aristotelian) mean of truthfulness. Socrates, however, aims at truth, and insofar as he plays the Eiron it is a mask he wears to bait people to truthfulness, to as it were trick them into the philosophical, examined, truthful life.

In Nietzsche, for all his proto-postmodern critiques of the notion of truth, there is a similarly high value placed on truthfulness and honesty. What I want to suggest is that, just as Socrates attempts to bait people into truthfulness (as Socrates conceives it) by acting the part of the Eiron, so Nietzsche attempts to bait people into his own form of truthfulness by playing the part of the Alazon, the impostor, the boastful swaggerer.

Why might Nietzsche do this? One reason is to set himself opposite Socrates, to take Socrates as an opponent. But why do so in just this way? To understand that we need to think about how Socrates and Nietzsche think about truth.

For Socrates, truth, wisdom, beauty, the good, etc. are universal forms (or are they the same form?). They are eternal, timeless; they have a stable Being beyond the endlessly changing Becoming of the material world. To aim at truth or wisdom is to aim at knowledge of the forms. Now in this respect it is worth remembering Socrates’ famous claim to know only that he knows nothing. In the Symposium, Socrates diagnoses love as a form of desire, and argues that one can only desire what one lacks. Recalling that philosophy is literally love of wisdom, the philosophical life can only be a life in which one desires wisdom—and thus a life in which one lacks wisdom. Socrates, as the paradigmatic philosopher, liver of the examined life, lover of wisdom, by his very own arguments really must know nothing. He doesn’t know the forms, but he loves them and strives to know them. In that respect there is a deep truthfulness to his playing the Eiron: while he clearly is putting his interlocutors on by pretending to know less than them, he is on the other hand not lying when he claims not to know. That he doesn’t know is, indeed, the only thing that he does know. Socrates puts on a mask to play the Eiron, but he puts it on because it fits. In a certain sense, the philosophical life, for Socrates, must be ironical. To this I need only add some brief emphasis to the fact that the forms, because they are eternal and timeless, are the same for all people. No matter who lives the philosophical life, they aim after the same forms.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, sees this striving after a world beyond the material world as a sickness, a lack of vitality. Recall from my previous post on Nietzsche and Socrates that Nietzsche sees the sort of wisdom Socrates promotes as merely a “small reason”, and in its place he advocates the “great reason” of the body. For Nietzsche, there is nothing beyond what is bodily and material, no world beyond this one. There are no immutable forms. There is no Truth, only my truth and your truth. (I assume anyone reading this is intelligent enough not to see this as a ripe opportunity to get offended on behalf of the objectivity of scientific inquiry, and to recognize that doing so would be entirely missing the point.) For Socrates, it can sensibly be said that there is some one thing that it is to live the examined life, to be truthful (Truthful). For Nietzsche, however, there is no sensible single way to be truthful. It may still be a great virtue to live truthfully, to dive into the deep, murky waters of truth, no matter what horrible creatures one may find, but what this is is no longer the same thing for everybody.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s project, just like Socrates’, is to say something about how people ought to live. Nietzsche believes he has discovered something true and valuable about the sort of life that is worth living—it is precisely because of this that he can set himself opposed to Socrates at all. What he opposes is Socrates’ vision of the life worth living. It is not so much that Nietzsche thinks the examined life is not worth living (surely Nietzsche lived an examined life to a greater extent than most), but he is nonetheless an opponent of Socrates.

This tension in Nietzsche’s project—that the very truth he wants to tell seems to preclude truth-telling altogether, or at least to preclude truth-telling with the aim to convince and persuade—lies at the very root of Nietzsche’s life work, and Nietzsche recognized this. Where Socrates falls short of the universal, eternal truth he wishes to tell, and is thus naturally suited to the position of an Eiron, Nietzsche oversteps the bounds of what his personal, historically conditioned truth will allow him to tell, and so becomes like an Alazon. Just as Socrates is distinct from the traditional Eiron in that he is motivated ultimately by truthfulness, so is Nietzsche an Alazon who exceeds the truth only in order to “seduce” and “elevate” people to it. Truthfulness lies behind both Socrates’ and Nietzsche’s distortions of truth.

As I said, Nietzsche recognizes this aspect of his work. One powerful illustration of this comes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra, in part one of the work, goes around making speeches, much as Jesus went around giving sermons. But where Jesus could be comfortable having disciples and followers, the very possibility of a disciple is ruled out by the content of Zarathustra’s speeches. Zarathustra preaches a certain set of values, one of which is mistrust of all values—and if this is to have any bite it must extend even to those values expounded by Zarathustra himself. Zarathustra addresses this tension at several points (e.g. when he advises those who hear his message to follow him—wherever they want), nowhere more prominently than at the very end of part one. There, as Zarathustra speaks to his disciples before returning to his cave, he admonishes them to forget him, to reject him—only then will he return to them. On the analysis I’ve been developing here, he tells them to recognize that he is merely an Alazon, a boaster, an impostor—they must find the truth themselves, and that means discovering Zarathustra for what he is.

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Rashomon and the Act of Understanding

What is it to understand? There is no unitary answer. I might understand an utterance, meaning that I know what the speaker was trying to say. Or I might understand a scientific theory, meaning that I know how to describe relevant real-world systems using its terms, and how to predict and control them on that basis. Perhaps I understand how some machine works: I know how the parts interact so that the machine can serve its function. And so on. There are numerous different types of understanding, connected in various ways to different types of knowing how and knowing that. (For those unfamiliar with the distinction, an example: I might know that a bicycle has two tires but nonetheless not know how to ride a bike.)

I suspect that there is a natural inclination to privilege the knowing that implicated in understanding, to see it as prior to/more important than the knowing how. One reason for this is that we frequently expect someone who claims to understand something to explain it, and giving an explanation requires knowledge that. If someone were to say, “I understand,” but, when pressed, failed to give a coherent explanation evincing his understanding, we would naturally be skeptical that she really did understand.

It is, however, nothing more than a prejudice to think that all understanding requires knowledge that. To make some small progress in breaking the hold this prejudice has upon us, I want to give an analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which is an exploration of a man’s attempt to understand a terrible and seemingly incomprehensible event. Throughout the film, all attempts to arrive at clear knowledge are stymied, but by the end, it is clear that man does understand. This understanding implicates no knowledge that—it manifests itself in a choice, an action—and nothing more. Fair warning: what follows contains spoilers.

The film opens with a series of static shots of a temple in heavy rain. Two men, a monk and a peasant, sit inside, hunched over and clearly troubled. The first words in the film come from the peasant: “I don’t understand… I just don’t understand.” The monk says nothing in reply, but the look he gives the peasant reveals that he is just as disconcerted. A third man takes shelter from the rain, and is greeted by a repetition: “I just don’t understand.” With the question “what’s wrong”, the attempt to understand begins.

The peasant tells of how he came across a dead body in the woods, and later attended the trial of the suspected murderer. We hear three stories of the crime, each conflicting. What little we can garner with some certainty from them is this: a bandit came across a man and his wife, raped the wife and, in the aftermath, the husband somehow died. The bandit, the wife, and the husband all tell their own story of the event (the latter through a medium), each taking credit for killing the husband. The bandit claims to have killed him in a noble and vigorous swordfight; the wife claims to have killed him because, after she was raped, he looked upon her with cruelty, as if she was subhuman; the husband claims to have killed himself out of shame and humiliation. Each takes credit for the death in order to make him or herself look better: the other two were cowards, but I was brave and noble.

At this point, the nature of what the monk and peasant are trying to understand is this: A terrible crime has been committed, and those involved in the crime have lied about it to protect their dignity. But what really happened? Who, if anybody, actually did behave honorably? And, most importantly, how can I (the monk, the peasant) go on living my life in a world where this sort of depravity is possible? It is this last question that is central to the film. Thus far, at least, answering it seems centrally connected to ascertaining precisely what went on in the crime. If only we knew that, perhaps we could make some progress.

But there is a further kink in the story. After relating the three stories, the peasant’s disgust intensifies. Lies, all of it is lies. None of the stories told is true. Each is self-serving. He accuses both the husband and the wife of lying, for they claimed to kill the husband with a dagger—but, the peasant insists, “He was killed with a sword!” The third man in the temple is nothing if not shrewd, and he presses the peasant: how do you know? You must have seen it all happen, not simply come across it later as you claimed at the start. And so we hear a fourth story, the peasant’s, in which each character comes across as despicable. The bandit’s story was closest to the truth, but far from killing the husband after a valiant battle, he killed him while he was lying defenseless on the ground, and after what was nothing more than disorganized scrambling.

For a brief moment, we can enjoy the illusion of having the true story, of knowing the true nature of the event the peasant is trying to understand, but this is swiftly undermined, for the third man finds a hole in this story, too: the dagger. What happened to the woman’s dagger? The peasant, it turns out, had taken it in order to sell it. The peasant’s story is as much a self-serving lie as the other three.

At this point, we might draw a negative moral from the film. Every story is selective, choosing which details to include and which to leave out (in addition to any explicit lies it might contain), and this selection is a matter of bias. Stories are invariably twisted to the ends of those who tell them.

This moral is more or less true, but the film is not over. I cited in another post David Foster Wallace’s excellent quote about the task of the artist: to locate and resuscitate the possibilities for being alive in dark times. Kurosawa has exposed the darkness of the times; it remains to show the possibilities for being alive. As I suggested earlier, it is this latter half of the task that is the central problem of understanding: what the peasant at root cannot understand is how he is to go on in a world where such self-serving distortion of the truth is rampant. How does this get resolved, if at all?

After the peasant’s tale is exposed for what it is, a child begins to cry. The three go to investigate. The monk picks up the child to protect it, while the third man steals its clothes. The peasant confronts him, but receives a devastating retort: this from the man who stole the dagger! Who are you to teach me about honor? The world is full of self-serving people, because all you can do is serve yourself. If you don’t, you are a fool, nothing more. Honor is beside the point. And off the man goes with the clothes.

The peasant and the monk remain, the monk cradling the child, the peasant looking as if he has been slapped. The peasant reaches for the child, and the monk recoils and adamantly claims that he will not let the peasant hurt the child. But, the peasant explains, he already has six children at home: what could another hurt? He only wants to provide for the child. The monk, with great relief, gives him the child—so the film ends.

What has happened? In the confrontation over the child’s clothes, the peasant has been forced to confront the fact that he, too, is a hypocrite, a liar, a selfish and self-serving man—as is everyone. The thief then suggests one way to live in a world defined by this fact: embrace it and try to maintain a place atop the pecking order. Be the one who tramples others, not the fool who lets himself be trampled. When the peasant reaches for the child, the monk assumes that the peasant has been persuaded by this suggestion.

The peasant’s actual motive, however, indicates that he rejects the thief’s way of life. He finally achieves the understanding that has been eluding him. He has found a way to be honorable in a world that mocks and punishes honor; he has discovered that there is a possibility of being human, no matter how dark the times.

What is this understanding he has achieved? It is not a bit of knowledge that. It is meaningless to know that such a possibility exists. The knowledge gets content only when it is manifested in action. There is no knowledge that such and such is the right way to live; there is only knowing how to live—or not knowing. If you asked the peasant to explain his understanding of the event, I have no doubt he could not give an answer in words.

Moreover, there is no resolved knowledge that about the crime itself. Each of the four stories is undermined, and shown to be subject to self-serving biases. I am inclined to think that the peasant’s story, supplemented with an account of his stealing the dagger, is roughly what happened—but only at a very rough grain. Were the three people involved in the crime all so dishonorable, or was that simply a projection of the peasant’s disgust? There is no way to say. The abstract form of the event, the plot outline, may be resolved, but the specifics are not. The peasant understands the event, but not because he can give an account of what happened. The one account he could give has been undermined. He understands because he knows how to live, how to go forward.

Understanding is an act.

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Nietzsche’s Platonism II

2013/03/19 1 comment

Perhaps the most precise method of gauging Nietzsche’s respect for another human be­ing is to determine how often and how savagely Nietzsche critiques him. Nietzsche took as his lasting opponents only those who he felt were worthy of him—most prominently, Jesus and Socrates. Hence, when Nietzsche critiques someone, it is nearly always fruitful to ask, “yes, but what have you learned from him?” In that spirit, I want to explore a connection between the “The Problem of Socrates” section of Twilight of the Idols, in which Nietzsche asks after the cause of Socrates’ “bizarrest of equations,” and two of Zarathustra’s speeches in the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (supplemented by a passage in The Gay Science). I will be relying on the Hollingdale translation of Twilight (Penguin Classics), the Del Caro translation of Zarathustra (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), and the Nauckhoff translation of The Gay Science (Cambridge Texts, again). Context should suffice to make it clear to which works my page citations refer.

The second section of Twilight of the Idols is titled “The Problem of Socrates”, and after some meandering, Nietzsche approaches Socrates directly, portraying him as “exaggerated, buffo, caricature” and suggesting that he was décadent, here indicating the “dissoluteness and anarchy of his instincts” (41). This raises the central question of the section: Nietzsche seeks “to understand out of what idiosyncrasy that Socratic equation reason = virtue = happiness derives: that bizarrest of equations and one which has in particular all the instincts of the older Hellenes against it” (41). Nietzsche makes several suggestions as to what idiosyncrasy is the cause of that equation—recall that Nietzsche, of course, is not interested in the arguments for the position, but in the underlying physiology that would bring it about. (In the sections of Thus Spoke Zarathustra I will explore, he explicitly calls conscious reasoning merely one tool of the body’s “great reason” (23)—I will return to this thought later.) One suggestion is that it is a form of revenge; another is that is that it is a form of Socratic eroticism (consider Plato’s Symposium). The last suggestion, however, is the most important: it is a defense mechanism against the aforementioned dissoluteness of his instincts. Socrates “was in peril” and “had only one choice: either to perish or – be absurdly rational…” (43). This weakening and disharmony of the instincts could only be combatted in one way: by having reason fight and control the instincts. And thus there is Socrates’ formula: reason = virtue = happiness.

There is the critique: Socrates’ formula arose from his sickness, the disunity of his instincts. In the healthy nature, on the contrary, Nietzsche claims, “happiness and instinct are one” (45). But, keeping in mind that Nietzsche respected few if any people more than Socrates, we must ask what Nietzsche learned from him. I suggest he learned a great deal from Socrates’ bizarre equation. To elucidate just what he learned, I turn first to two speeches from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “On the Despisers of the Body” and “On the Passions of Pleasure and Pain”.

In the former speech, Nietzsche asserts the primacy of the body: “But the awakened, the knowing one says: body am I through and through, and nothing besides; and soul is just a word for something on the body” (23). The theory this claim embodies is that the source of human action is not some overarching soul, but a collection of possibly competing, possibly unified drives (or instincts). The “soul” as we use the term refers simply to that aspect of our bodies that is conscious, but this aspect is not the shepherd of the drives. Rather it is “a tool of your body” (23). “The body is a great reason,” and the soul or spirit is a “plaything of your great reason.” Hence Nietzsche’s emphasis on physiology over arguments: the arguments of our reasoning soul are ultimately mere playthings, tools serving the interests of our body. Nietzsche calls conscious reasoning, what Socrates so vociferously praised, as “small reason,” whereas “The body is a great reason, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, one herd and one shepherd” (23) The small reason “says I,” i.e. conceives itself as a controlling unity, whereas the great reason “does not say I, but does I” (23). And the body is rational: it employs the small reason, which is “A detour to my [the body’s] purpose” (23).

In the next speech, “On the Passions of Pleasure and Pain,” Nietzsche discusses virtue. This virtue is a private virtue, ineffable and nameless—“Unspeakable and nameless is that which causes my soul agony and sweetness and is even the hunger of my entrails” (24). The virtue must be nameless, for once it is named, “you have her name in common with the people and have become the people and the herd with your virtue” (24). (Tangent: Nietzsche here seems to foreshadow Wittgenstein’s private language argument—he recognizes that what is named is thereby made public. Right angle. Return to circle.) How does this private virtue arise? “Once you had passions and named them evil. But now you have only your virtues: they grew out of your passions” (25). In short, this virtue is something that arises from the body. It is fundamentally of the body: it is an “earthly virtue” (25), and not a “divine law” or a “human statute and requirement” (24). Regarding virtue, Nietzsche has learned something from Socrates. Socrates makes much of the fact that one could be tortured and denied all earthly pleasures, yet, so long as he is virtuous, he would be happier than the richest, fattest, most content king. This is integral to his formula reason = virtue = happiness. For Nietzsche, too, virtue is imprudent: “there is little prudence in it and least of all the reason of the many” (25). What is left then, besides that this ineffable virtue is its own reward? So Nietzsche agrees at least that far with Socrates.

But that is a relatively small lesson to have learned, and I am after a larger fish. At this point it may be clear where I am heading—if it is, you will be aware that only one step remains. For this, I need to turn away from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and to The Gay Science. In the final passage of book one, in one of Nietzsche’s most striking passages, Nietzsche diagnoses those people who “have a yearning to suffer something in order to make their suffering a likely reason for action, for deeds” (64). These “distress-addicts”, Nietzsche suggests, do not “feel within themselves the power to do themselves good from within”—if they did, “they would know how to create their very own distress,” and hence their very own reasons for action (65). Nietzsche contrasts himself with these people: “Pardon me, my friends, I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall” (65). Nauckhoff notes about this passage that it plays on a German expression, “Don’t paint the devil on the wall’—because by doing so you will cause him to appear. So Nietzsche, by painting his happiness on the wall, has caused that happiness to appear. Because of the connection with the need for suffering as the goad to deeds, we should see Nietzsche’s painting as being done by his actions. In keeping with the thought that the body is a great reason (that “does I”) possessing an ineffable virtue, this painting of happiness must spring from that great reason, from that virtue.

From this, a Nietzschean equation emerges: reason = virtue = happiness! What Nietzsche learned from Socrates’ equation is no less than the equation itself. Socrates mistake was not the equation itself, but the distortions his sickness forced upon it. Socrates emphasized the small reason over the great reason, and since the small reason deals in words, with consciousness (which Nietzsche elsewhere, I forget where, analyzes as having arisen solely for the sake of communication), it deals with what is named and public, and so rules out the possibility of ineffable virtue. The result is, of course, a very different sort of happiness than Nietzsche’s. We could gloss the formulas, then:

Socrates: small reason = public virtue = (Socratic) happiness

Nietzsche: great reason = private virtue = (Nietzschean) happiness

Nonetheless, I think it is clear that Nietzsche is nonetheless clearly being quite Socratic when he discusses reason, virtue, and happiness, and their relation. Nietzsche is a Socrates-figure, and the question central to his philosophical project might be written: What if Socrates had been healthy?…

A quote from Tarkovsky

From a book of his interviews:

Q: In the opinion of some there is in The Sacrifice a certain Bergmanesque atmosphere. Do you acknowledge the Swedish director’s influence or is it due to the spiritual atmosphere of the location where the film was shot?

T: I don’t agree at all. When Bergman speaks of God it’s to say that he is silent, that he’s not there. Hence, there can be no comparison with me. These are just superficial criticisms, saying this because the lead actor also performs for Bergman, or because in my film there’s a Swedish landscape, none of them having understood anything about Bergman. And they must not know what existentialism is, since Bergman is much closer to Kierkegaard than to the problem of religion.

Given that my analysis of The Sacrifice relied heavily on Kierkegaard, I think this casts it seriously into doubt. It is possible that Tarkovsky misunderstood Kierkegaard, and that they really are sympathetic minds, but in any case I will have to think more about my understanding of The Sacrifice. Since that’s a good excuse to watch it more and write about it more, I can’t be too displeased.