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Nietzsche’s Platonism II

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?…

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  1. 2013/03/29 at 14:21

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