Category: Persons

Nietzsche (and Plato)

In his function as philosopher and critic of religion, morals and civilization, Nietzsche exercised an enormous influence on 20th century thought. He considered Plato's work as the starting line of western metaphysics and criticised it strongly because of its impact and historical importance.

Introductory approaches

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) studied in depth Plato's body of work and classical literature in general in his capacity as a student of classical philology. The classics became the focus of his early academic affiliation as he was appointed to the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel at the significantly young age of 25. He stayed there until his premature resignation in 1879 which was due both to health reasons and a turn in his interests from classical philology to philosophy. He had already published The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872) where, under the influence of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), he described the ancient Greek world as a the field of a tragic confrontation between the Dionysian and Apollonian elements. The Dionysian stands for the ecstatic state induced by the uninhibited enjoyment of life whereas the Apollonian dimension is reducible to rationality, the self-limitations of the intellect and the pursuit of measure and harmony. Nietzsche regarded Euripides' tragedies and Socrates' philosophical pursuits as crucial to the ultimate prevalence of the Apollonian element. In a series of lectures from that period that were published posthumously under the title Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks Nietzsche looked back to the work of the pre-Socratic philosophers for evidence of the very same confrontation between the Apollonian and the Dionysian world spirits in an effort to locate this division in an era prior to its final resolution in Plato's work. A series a university lectures from the period 1871-1878 (published in 1995) present us with a wider and more substantial involvement with Plato's work.

In these lectures Nietzsche probes critically the most important contemporary interpretations of the Platonic corpus (e.g., Schleiermacher's) and counter-proposes his own innovative hermeneutic views. The most characteristic Nietzschean position in this respect holds that the Platonic dialogues lack dramatic value yet function as memorization means in the context of a cognitive procedure. However, in contrast with the quite simplified reductive reasoning that prevailed later on in his mature work, Nietzsche acknowledged at that stage the ingenuity of Plato's thought, argued for the priority of an ethical problematic and the primarily moral / ethical function of the Ideas, ascertained in the Platonic corpus the presence of central elements deriving from the pre-Socratic philosophers, and stressed continuously the influence that Heraclitus exercised on Plato in the face of an one-sided hypothesis exaggerating the Socratic impact.

"Platonism" as simplification

Nietzsche's intensive involvement with Plato's work lasted unceasingly from his first book (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872) until his final work published by himself (The Twilight of the Idols, 1889). Also, his drafts, notes and aphorisms contained in the extensive unpublished writings are packed with references to Plato. During the decade between his resignation from the university of Babel (1879) and his final mental collapse (1889) Nietzsche developed his own philosophical outlook at the core of which lies the necessity for an uninhibited affirmation of life and reality. Our world is meaningful and significant in itself without the contribution of principles that are extraneous to, or beyond it. Quite to the contrary, turning to a "beyond" in pursuit of such principles (God, immortality of the soul, moral laws, metaphysical presuppositions etc.) stalls the capacity of people to realise their own potential within the world.

Nietzsche ascribed the first, most characteristic and historically determining version of such as turn to the "beyond" to Plato's philosophy whose central tenet is the so-called teaching on the two worlds. Behind, above or beyond the realm of phenomena, which is accessible to the senses and subject to constant flux, lies the only truly real world: the unalterable and unadulterated world of the Ideas, which is accessible to the philosopher's intellect. The ontological and axiological priority of the Platonic world of the Ideas was seen by Nietzsche to exist in direct proportion to the degradation of the realm of perceptible phenomena, with the latter construed in theoretical and cognitive terms as a source of perpetual error and, in moral terms, as the field of subjection to the senses and bodily desires.

With Platonic philosophy starts a new period -not only with regard to the history of philosophy, but also concerning world history. This period, Nietzsche's argument goes, has no limits or ending, but lasts until the present day in the form of "Platonism." Since Plato, philosophy has tried to harness and classify an essentially chaotic universe that is always in flux, and has done so using intellectual constructions. Philosophy, according to Nietzsche, perpetually seeks an intelligible order and this pursuit springs from a deeply moralistic need to control and suppress desires and instincts. Nietzsche is interested not in the strictly philosophical meaning of the Platonic work but in its central and inaugural position with regard to the birth and consolidation of the European cultural reality. The term "Platonism" therefore comes to denote the evolution of Platonic philosophy into a broader moral, religious, ideological and political system with a world-historical impact. This system finds its natural culmination in contemporary "nihilism": the "devaluation of all values."

As Nietzsche claims, the entire conceptual framework of Western metaphysics has been grounded in Plato's work. Later on, Christianity lent it a more popular appeal, enriched it with egalitarian elements, the ascetic ideal and the purported value of "compassion." Plato's philosophical dualism , Nietzsche's argument goes, under the influence of Christian doctrines was transformed into the rigid dualism that draws a divisive line between the beyond of divine existence and the hither of the human "fallen" reality. Plato, according to Nietzsche, is in reality a proto-Christian philosopher bearing a heavy responsibility for the decline that ensued. At times, the allocation of responsibility shifts when Nietzsche voices the suspicion that Plato "was corrupted by the evil Socrates." Nietzsche saw in the disputed testimony that young Plato burnt his tragedies when he met Socrates the inexplicable submission of aristocracy to the world of the plebeians, the rejection of the aesthetic ideal and its replacement by a rational metaphysics. Occasionally, the old accusation concerning Plato's responsibility returns: "Plato is to blame for everything! He continues to be Europe's greatest blight."

But the struggle against Plato, or—to speak plainer, and for the "people"—the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity (for Christianity is Platonism for the "people") produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously;  (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Introduction).
Divergences and breaches

As is obvious, this interpretation of Plato is more of a caricature than an accurate description of the Greek philosopher's work and intentions. It bypasses, for example, the fact that the Platonic philosophy of the Ideas is presented in Phaedo and elsewhere as a "work hypothesis" which aims at the conception and understanding of becoming and the realm of phenomena. Nevertheless, it is hard for Nietzsche to hide his profound -to the point of envy- admiration for Plato's work and personality. The Platonic philosophy appears frequently in Nietzsche's work as a synthesis that proves the deeply artistic physiognomy of its creator despite his choosing to cover up this profoundly artistic nature and even ban poets from his Republic. An emblematic note entry from 1886/87 reads as follows: "Being the artist that he was, Plato essentially preferred Appearance over Being [...] But he was so convinced as to the value of Appearance that he bestowed it with the attributes of "Being," "cause," "truth." At other times, Nietzsche expresses doubts as to whether Plato truly believed in what he taught, whereas he calls both Plato and Socrates "great dissenters and admirable innovators." But even Zarathustra's very figure is invented by Nietzsche in terms of an antipode to the platonic Socrates. He is made to inherit Socrates' dramatic function and embody similar philosophical claims despite the fact that he chooses to move away from the public realm, the "agora," and keep away from people.

In wider terms, Nietzsche's mature phase is distinguished by a critical, if not censorious and aggressive, take on philosophical tradition. One's own purpose in their involvement with it, according to Nietzsche, should be the reconstruction of a genealogy of the intellectual forms that the subjection of the human race to metaphysical principles assumed over the course of two millennia. This argument was necessary in light of the purported overthrow of traditional values that Nietzsche aimed for and prepared by means of his new philosophy. This philosophy transpires as the very opposite of traditional philosophy and has quite naturally been called "inverted Platonism." This overthrow is often presented in terms of a return from Platonism to the tragic thought of the pre-Socratics.

The historical genealogy of metaphysics, but also the possibility of its overcoming, are presented in Nietzsche's usual aphoristic manner in the six theses expounded in a celebrated fragment from 1888 bearing the title: "How the 'real world' has finally become a myth. The history of a delusion." The pursuit of a "real," that is, metaphysical world, commences with Plato: "the real world, accessible to the wise man, the pious, the virtuous" - or, as this reasoning is translated by Nietzsche, "I, Plato, am the truth." The sixth thesis has an almost celebratory character: " We have abolished the real world - which world has been left behind? the world of phenomena, perhaps? And yet, no! We abolished that one, too, along with the real world." Philosophy ceases to be the pursuit of objective truth, to take oath to spirit and intellect. It shapes up, on the contrary, as an artistic endeavour in constant awareness of perspectivism, that is, the relativity of all values and positions. Philosophy is now aware of the fact that man, as incomplete being, has access only to that part of reality that is accessible through a particular perspective. And this despite the tendency to overlook the limitations that this limited perspective imposes and regard it as an absolute form of knowledge.

In the twentieth century, Nietzschean critique has had a impact on other versions of critique directed towards Plato's philosophy, such as those of Heidegger and Derrida. In general, Nietzsche's reading of Plato has had a direct bearing on those approaches that, contrary to the perspectives that were grounded in the analytical philosophy, stressed the fundamental, albeit not so explicitly expressed, parameters of the Platonic philosophy, rather than the specific arguments shaping up in the dialogues. It is, nevertheless, telling that Heidegger, while adopting Nietzsche's construal of Western metaphysics as the offspring of Platonism, extended the whole schema so as to include Nietzsche himself by presenting him as the "last metaphysician."

Author: Panagiotis Thanassas
  • Zuckert, C. Political Theory. 1985.
  • Bremer, D. "Platonisches, Antiplatonisches. Aspekte der Platon-Rezeption in Nietzsches Versuch einer Wiederherstellung des frühgriechischen Daseinsverständnisses." Nietzsche-Studien 8 (1979)
  • Rosen, S, The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry: Studies in Ancient Thought - “Remarks on Nietzsche’s ‘Platonism,”. New York, 1993.
  • Sallis, J. Platonic Legacies (Nietzsche’s Platonism). Albany, 2004.
  • Wiehl, R. "Nietzsches Anti-Platonismus." Courtine, J.-F. , Brague, R. eds. Herméneutique et ontologie: Melanges en hommage a Pierre Aubenque, phronimos anêr. Paris, 1990.
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