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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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