Nietzsche Contra Socrates

[A year ago, I published an eBook titled No Fear Nietzsche: A layman’s guide from Amor fati to Zarathustra, which set out to outline the basic themes of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Unfortunately, for the sake of brevity, a handful of essays were left out of the final draft.  “Nietzsche Contra Socrates was one of those essays, and because I still feel that it covers a lot of essential points of the man’s thought process I’ve decided to make it a post on my blog.]

Friedrich Nietzsche was by all accounts an admirer of the Hellenic aesthetic tradition, and would often refer to the ancient myths and tragedies to frame his own philosophy.  In the philosopher’s first—and self-admittedly flawed—book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche presents his views on the development of the ancient Greek dramas, characterizing its growth as an artistic desire to thwart the emergence of pessimism in human expression.[1]  He framed this artistic development in terms of the philosophical dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian elements.  Much can be written (and has been written) about these two elements as literary concepts, but the simplified idea is that there exists a delicate balance between the human striving for orderliness (the Apollonian element) in light of our innate attraction to chaotic irrationalities (the Dionysian element), in which the two sides are contingent on one another to create an essential harmony of human expression.[2]  Nietzsche considered the ancient Athenian dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles to be the epitome of this dynamic in aesthetic form; i.e. their works signal the birth of tragedy, in human art.[3]  To Nietzsche this development was the zenith of artistic creation, a perfect balance between opposing drives of the human instinct, whose blending satisfied the artist in man as a whole.  Since this time in antiquity, however, we have experienced a decline—a devolution—in the aesthetic development of man.  A loss that Nietzsche traces to one fundamental source: Socrates.

Unlike the tragic writings of Aeschylus and Sophocles—which (according to Nietzsche) took care to appeal to the spirit of man’s inner struggle with the pessimism of life—the writings of later authors (and even Socratic contemporary like Euripides) abandoned the emphasis on tragedy and the imaginative aspects of art, in favor of dry epistemological musings.  For Nietzsche, the influence of Socrates serves as the catalyst for this change—loss—in artistic focus:

Might not this very Socratism be a sign of decline, of weariness, of infection, of the anarchical dissolution of the instincts?  And the “Greek cheerfulness” of the later Greeks—merely the afterglow of the sunset.[4]

With Socrates came the appeal of approaching inquiries dialectically: reasoning through dialogue, in which opposing premises are examined, and cross-examined, to determine the merits of an argument by sifting out its contradictions and inconsistencies.  Nietzsche’s aversion to this style is its innate reductionism, which to him meant a deterioration of expression, rather than a progression.  Throughout much of his later philosophical career, Nietzsche chastises his contemporary philosophers for pointing out the faults of ancient and modern institutions (be they religious or secular), without bothering to erect alternative models in their place (as Nietzsche himself attempts to do with his analysis and critique of modern moral values in On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil).  Nietzsche identifies the Socratic Method as the inspiration for this deterioration in human creativity:

There is the understanding of Socratism:  Socrates is recognized for the first time as an instrument of Greek disintegration, as a typical decadent.  “Rationality” against instinct.  “Rationality” at any price as a dangerous force that undermines life.[5]

The obvious oddity readers see in the above quote is Nietzsche’s apparent disdain for “rationality”, and the implication that too much of it undermines life.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche recognizes mankind’s irrationalities as an essential part of its humanity.  Thus, to seek to annihilate irrationality, or ignore its presence in human consciousness, is to work against an instinctive part of human existence.  One needs to remember that, all in all, Nietzsche’s philosophy does not advocate for greater rationality, as much as it seeks to overturn the decadent value systems human beings readily accept as good without challenge.  In this regard, Nietzsche isn’t so much anti-irrationality, as he is anti-dependency.  In his eyes, despite his staunch godlessness, even the creation of myths to serve as the foundation upon which to build a greater human consciousness would not be unacceptable (albeit as long as the individuals who create the myth do not allow themselves to forget that their myths are fictitious frameworks, and therefore do not become servants to the beings they create):

Without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity:  only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement.  Myth alone saves all the powers of the imagination and of the Apollinian dream from their aimless wanderings.[6]

Nietzsche’s primary interest is in reigniting the creative spark humanity has lost.  In many ways, the philosopher’s critiques of religion, politics, and social values, stems from this underlying desire to awake a nobler spirit in man, that recognizes the power of his imaginative capabilities as a basic part of reality, and not something that needs to either be granted dominance over the person (“faith”) or sought to be exorcised (“rationalism”).  This is where the need for the Dionysian element in aesthetic expression comes in, to sooth the pangs of the monotonous and orderly; to overcome pessimism as the pre-Socratic Athenians had done, and provide a pleasant melody of Dionysian ecstasy and chaos in concurrence with Apollonian realism for the human form to sway to carelessly (in other words, turn the one-man play called life into an enchanting opera).

For Nietzsche it is a matter of principle—wanting to elevate the human psyche to the pinnacle of life affirmation—in contrast to the philosophy of someone like Socrates, whose method Nietzsche equates with doubt and disintegration:  “Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths — a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life.”[7]  Socrates does not, in Nietzsche’s view, contribute to the betterment of the individuals he engages, but only seeks to tear them down; treating their values as symptoms of a faulty mind, but then refusing to erect a sturdier value model by hiding under the garb of self-righteous ignorance:

For a philosopher to object to putting a value on life is an objection others make against him, a question mark concerning his wisdom, an un-wisdom. Indeed? All these great wise men — they were not only decadents but not wise at all.[8]

Nietzsche proposes that the reason Socrates never issued any moral values of his own, wasn’t because he was too wise to know better, but because he was too incompetent to even attempt it.  Thus, his oft-heralded ignorance is not, in Nietzsche’s view, a modest form of wisdom; it is a result of his lowly plebeian mentality.[9]  Nietzsche’s master-slave morality is relevant in his denunciation of Socrates, due to the philosopher’s belief that the Athenian was a vital influence that set the stage for the slave-revolt in morality to occur, which set a trend wherein the decadent and impotent of society decreed terms of moral conduct to the nobler value-creators, in order to morally elevate themselves above their creative superiors[10]:  “With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of logical argument. What really happened there? Above all, a noble taste is vanquished; with dialectics the plebs come to the top.”[11]  [Nietzsche would also argue that this set the stage in the ancient world for the rise and dominance of, what he would call, the greatest of slave-moralities in human history: Abrahamic monotheism, as best characterized by the Christian faith.]

Nietzsche takes a great deal of issue with Socrates’ dialectic mode of argumentation.  As mentioned, he sees it as solely a means of placing the burden of constructing something of substance on one’s opponent, while the dialectician—i.e. Socrates—can indolently wallow around, without offering anything concrete to replace or correct the identified inconsistencies and irrationalities that have just been debunked.  The logical arguments derived from the Socratic Method are thereby equally valueless for Nietzsche:

Nothing is easier to nullify than a logical argument: the tedium of long speeches proves this. It is a kind of self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. Unless one has to insist on what is already one’s right, there is no use for it.[12]

I personally feel that Nietzsche is overreaching the faults with the Socratic Method, due to the fact that pointing out the flaws in someone else’s premises does not immediately commit a person to constructing a better alternative to replace the insufficient proposition; simply saying “I don’t know the right answer in lieu of insufficient data, but the inconsistencies in your argument are too great for me to ignore” is not an invalid response to a dubious claim.  For example, 2400 years ago there existed two competing hypothesis in ancient Greece about the cause of bodily ailments.  One proposed that it was due to supernatural forces (i.e. curses) plaguing the soul of the victim, the other proposed it was due to a naturalistic unbalance between the four humors that make up the human body; both hypothesis are now discredited, and disease is treated as having nothing to do with curses or “humors”, hence the individual who refrained from constructing an alternative but nevertheless logically deduced both explanation as inconsistent and irrational, would still (in my opinion) hold the more respectable position.

However, Nietzsche’s disdain for depending on logical analysis to define reality does have some merit, especially if one applies it to the philosophical traditions that emerged out of the Socratic influence.  Nietzsche makes the bold statement that “Nothing is easier to nullify than a logical argument”, which is certainly true considering that in order for any logical argument to work (in particular syllogisms) the participants have to agree on the terms and definitions, and their usage, lest a philosophical deadlock occurs (as it usually does with two competing philosophical positions).  As a point of example, Aristotle logically proved that the earth is stationary and the sun rotates around it; he was still wrong, no matter how rational or consistent his premises were at the time.  Aristotle also logically proved that heavier objects fall to the ground faster than lighter objects; he was wrong about this, too, for the same reasons he was wrong about almost everything he wrote about the physical world.  Nietzsche probably considered the viability of Socrates’ dialectical method similarly flawed, in that Socrates is setting the terms of the discussion, while never committing to any concrete ideas.  The reason for this, Nietzsche proposes, is that Socrates had no other means by which to engage the intellectuals around him, other than by reducing their values to mere whims and fancies, while elevating his own in the name of “reason” and “rationality”.  And he could do this solely because he set up every argument with the premise that his approach was by default the proper way to reason:

I have explained how Socrates fascinated his audience: he seemed to be a physician, a savior. Is it necessary to go on to demonstrate the error in his faith in “rationality at any price”? It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence by waging war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change the form of decadence, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.[13]

For Nietzsche, Socrates sought to ostracize man’s instinctive attraction to the aesthetic virtues in life, causing them to be deemed as mere irrationalities.  The problem with this is that it ignores a vital component of the human experience, in that our species is not primarily an agent of rationality—which can be sifted out through dialectical reasoning—and to define our intrinsic irrational tendencies as inconsequential hurdles in any given discussion prevents one from reaching a true point of higher awareness, as it assumes that man will ideally arrive at a rational conclusion if he only removes his aesthetic subjectivity from the equation.  Nietzsche sees this as not only false, but crippling, because it forces man to turn against a powerful force that composes his humanity—his instinct:

All this was a kind of disease, merely a disease, and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness. To have to fight the instincts — that is the definition of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.[14]

Nietzsche wishes to uplift the human spirit to a higher plane of life affirmation, to nurture his rational side and satisfy his irrational instincts, just as he envisions the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles to have done to soothe the pessimism apparent in their surroundings.  Although taking the fact that man is more a reasoning rather than a reasonable animal into account is, in itself, a worthy consideration when constructing a value system, one needs to also take great care not to get subdued by one’s passions when evaluating realty, since our passions are far more intoxicating to our senses and egos than the uncompromising facts encompassing the apathetic world around us.  But perhaps that’s where the Apollonian element comes in to check its Dionysian counterpart; making order amidst chaos, and using chaos to create order.


[1] Nietzsche’s characterization of the ancient Athenians as being innately pessimistic was at complete odds with the viewpoint of his contemporaries in academia, the majority of which denounced The Birth of Tragedy shortly after its initial publication. In 1886, Nietzsche republished the work with a scathing self-critique about the prose’s immaturity and hasty generalizations, but doubled-down on his original characterization of the ancient Greek dramatists as pessimists by adding the subtitle, “Hellenism and Pessimism,” to the republished edition.

[2] It needs to be remembered that, for the sake of brevity, this is a very simplified descriptions of a very complex philosophical concept.  I will not be dwelling too much on the Apollonian & Dionysian dynamic here, because it is tangential to the main premise of this essay, not to mention it is a literary device Nietzsche himself largely abandoned fairly soon after publishing The Birth of Tragedy; therefore, the various intricacies have little influence on Nietzsche primary philosophical contributions.

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  The Birth of Tragedy (1872), section 19.

[4] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, “Attempt at Self-Criticism” (1886), section 1.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Ecce Homo, “The Birth of Tragedy” (written 1888, published 1908), section 1.

[6] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (1872), section 23.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem With Socrates” (1888), section 1.

[8] Ibid, section 2.

[9] Ibid, section 3.

[10] Saintevic, Sascha.  No Fear Nietzsche: A layman’s guide from Amor Fati to Zarathustra (2015), Part Five: “Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Moralities”.

[11] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem With Socrates” section 5.

[12] Ibid, section 6.

[13] Ibid, section 11.

[14] Ibid.

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