Nietzsche and the Ancients: Against Fear as a Way of Life

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Plato is boring. In the end, I have a deep distrust of Plato: I find him […] at odds with the basic Hellenic instincts, […] moralistic, […] proleptically Christian…

I have spent the last several articles attempting to depict the various ways in which—from genealogy to a debunking of moral progressivism—Friedrich Nietzsche attempts to overturn the Platonic tradition of wisdom/morality as a form of unthinking cowardice and idolatry. I should say that I like and have learned a lot from Plato, and I think that Nietzsche has, too. But Nietzsche is tired of that positive and optimistic view of Plato that philosophers endlessly trumpet (though now the opposite is true). In this article I shall unfold the picture of Nietzsche and the ancients that one finds in Twilight of the Idols. Nietzsche intends that his Twilight be a twilight of a certain idolatry about Platonic wisdom. He uses inferences about the philosopher’s degenerate body to argue that, if there is any wisdom to be found in the ancients, then that wisdom is not to be found in Plato.

The final chapter of Twilight is called “What I Owe the Ancients”. If not Plato, then who are Nietzsche’s core classical influences? How does the range of his classical education allow him to arrive at this ‘idiosyncratic’ view of Greek and Roman culture? What is the core of this Greco-Roman wisdom? (And how can anyone not steeped in the classics as a discipline actually have a meta-analytic view of what Western wisdom is to begin with?) How can one think critically about the true nature of wisdom when Platonic styled philosophy is ‘to be received as wise’ as such? Nietzsche disputes this reception by way of retrievals from various classical authors—like Thucydides, Horace, and Sallust. It is not just that Plato is not wise: Plato is hardly even Greek.

I should say: even professional philosophers today have taken Nietzsche’s criticisms of Plato at face value and used them as excuses for their own failure to engage with Greco-Roman culture. This is stupid. Nietzcshe’s criticism is built on a continuous and sincere engagement with Greek and Roman texts. It’s often the case that a professor or a student will think that, because Nietzsche insults x, I can insult x, too. Remember that Nietzsche was a classics professor: he only knows what is wrong with Plato by means of what is right with other classical authors. Moreover, he made those arguments in a time of Plato-worship… perhaps against his own Plato-worship. Any inference on top of Nietzschean insights that is made without a serious engagement with the classical world is likely to have embarrassing or otherwise damaging results. A more commendable attitude: as Nietzsche developed original insights by careful study, so can I.

So, Platonism is the negative ideal that serves as a backdrop for the views that Nietzsche would like to defend. Nietzsche above all is given to Roman martial values that one finds in Roman historiography and ‘court’ poetry. He cites two Roman authors in particular: Sallust, the Roman historian responsible for Bellum Catilinae and De Bello Jugurthino, and Horace, the Roman lyric poet.

How can each of these authors compete with Platonism? Nietzsche finds in Sallust an epigrammarian, one who writes concise, severe, and economical prose. In Horace, he finds this same force and economy in every word, every concept, every image. I should characterize Horace as having a remarkable gift for spiritual and psychological balance. My recent translation of Horace’s Ode 1.4 on the coming of spring is an example of this. Nietzsche writes of Horace: “Certain languages cannot even want what Horace is able to accomplish.” …But let me solidify Nietzsche’s reasons for flagging these two authors by offering an aspect of what each author is like.

a) Sallust. How to enter Sallust’s lengthy and complex histories? I should like to draw Sallust’s own comparison between Greek and Roman culture. For Sallust, the Romans differ from the Greeks in the way in which their ablest men employ their minds. The best Greeks say; the best Romans do. (Ch. 8) That sublimation of intellectual strength into the practical world leads the early Romans to develop a vigorous and harmonious body politic. A key Nietzschean theme: the priority of praxis over theory.

Another angle: the decline of Roman virtues as opposed to moral progressivism. Sallust observes that a pathetic kind of ambition—one that honors glory and power even at the expense of honor itself—eventually corroded Roman values. Roman politicians and statesmen became willing to do any dishonorable action in the service of values that were originally noble. Stealing credit, lying, deception, cowardice—killing one’s fellow citizen: it came only to matter that you received the honors, not that you deserved them. Another key Nietzschean theme: a refutation of ‘moral progressivism’—the strange idea that life just keeps getting morally better—by the assertion of the exact opposite: that life keeps getting morally worse. The social norms that held Roman society together have degenerated to the point where only a severe autocracy suffices to maintain order.

Again, just in these snapshots there are two key Nietzschean themes: one, praxis over theory; two, the refutation of moral progressivism.

b) Horace. Again, on Horace there are multiple angles. But we can find our way into Nietzsche by turning to Ode 1.11:

dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

“Even as we speak, begrudging time will slip away. Use this hour, minimally faithful in tomorrow.” Horace the poet: psychological tight-rope walker / spiritual magi. The true disciple of Horace resonates with his own finitude in a way that renders him entirely present in the material world; he understands the inevitability of his own death so resolutely that having shallow emotions never even occurs to him; he is so in tune with his own mortality that he won’t even waste his time reading Horace to remind himself of it. In Nietzschean terms, the Horatian says yes to life—confronts the material world on its own terms; by contrast, the Platonic intellectual creates an ‘Other World’ that is nothing but a retreat from it.

So much for the Roman authors: what about the Greek? Nietzsche does not think that the Greeks can teach as much as the Romans do. And Plato is no exception. The quote that begins this article already describes Nietzsche’s view. As I have just mentioned, Plato turns himself away from the political and practical and into the space of ideals—control, neurosis. Τύχη (Fortuna) is too fickle for the kind of permanence and constancy that Plato seeks as an emotional and spiritual support. For Nietzsche, Plato cannot bear to look at life as it comes to him. Too much angst, too much chaos—not intelligible; not controllable; better to flee; shame-existence.

Nietzsche thinks that there is a twofold cure for the Platonic philosophizing: Thucydides and Niccolo Machiavelli. The latter of course is not an ancient, so I won’t talk about him in this article. But Thucydides, for Nietzsche, represents the sophist’s culture, who weaponize rhetoric for their own immediate political purposes. Their arguments always come with ulterior motives. Nietzsche sees Thucydides as brave in the face of reality, of disaster, in a way that renders him powerful over that reality even in defeat. Plato, however, retreats from anguish into the ideal where no anguish can harm him.

Nietzsche tells us earlier in Twilight that “Morality needs to be shot at.” Plato, for Nietzsche, is a poison-mixer because he anoints as a spiritual ideal what Nietzsche would reduce to a retreat from an engagement with life. Nietzsche thinks that the intellectual spawn of this flight from reality intensifies the pre-existing decadence that leads to the pain to begin with.

Life, instead, should be faced tragically and, if according to any metaphysics, to a metaphysics of becoming. The tragic sense of life as becoming involves “saying yes to life even in its strangest and harshest problems.” Openness to what is, whatever it is vs. a flight into a realm of false safety that is comprised of nothing other than a collection of utterances made by sick and mutilated human bodies.

The Dionysian instinct constitutes an excess of vitality that is so inexhaustible that it can afford to sacrifice itself eternally. That there be an ultimate and static ‘real’ world—Nietzsche’s view of Platonism—is a sort of travesty in the literary sense of what human existence really is. It is a failure to find one’s joyful place within an ever-changing world—to recognize that this abundant γένεσις can afford to let one suffer. For Spinoza, the cognition of becoming as able to house one’s bile and anxiety renders that bile and anxiety an ironic source of joy. As Nietzsche explains in The Gay Science, those painful episodes of becoming entail spiritual transformations that open up new possibilities of feeling, seeing, and doing. But it would be mistaken to expect any payout for having suffered other than to actualize a possible engagement with life on its own terms.

Nietzsche and the Ancients: Against Fear as a Way of Life
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Nietzsche and the Ancients: Against Fear as a Way of Life
Nietzsche and the Ancients. Confront life on life's terms. Even when those terms seem perverse and brutal. Sallust, Horace, Thucydides.
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1 thought on “Nietzsche and the Ancients: Against Fear as a Way of Life”

  1. THis is good but the idea that Nietzsche does not see value in Greek thinkers because he has issues with Plato is off the wall. He believes the seed of western thought was in the Presocratics. So what he is seeing echoed or reflected in Thucydides is from that source. Also, as Kaufman pointed out, he believes Tragedy is central to understanding where and how things went wrong in Greece. Aueschylus and Sophocles established a culture for the ages, Euripides tore it down, as part of the same desires that drove Plato.


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