Socrates a decadent?

Christine asked:

In his essay The Birth of Tragedy Fredrick Nietzsche has some fairly negative comments to make about Socrates. Based on Socrates’ Ideas do you think that Nietzsche’s remarks are fair and balanced?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Birth of Tragedy.

Within nature, there are two forces: The Appolinian and the Dionysian. The former gives form (Principium Individuationis) to nature, creating objects in the world and the world itself – including distinct human beings. The Dionysian is, following the insights of Arthur Schopenhauer in his The World as Will and Representation, the endless striving creative and destructive Will of nature that lies behind the appearance/ illusion of the Appolinian. The Dionysian is important for Nietzsche as it plays an important role in Hellenic culture, it furnishes Tragic art, Tragedy.

It is here, in states of heightened human experience reached in singing or dancing, Apollinian form breaks down. Dionysian revelry particularly in the Satyr chorus – melts the Appollinian Principium Individuationis. Accordingly, separate, individual human beings become at one in the Primal Unity (Ur-eine). The death of heroes such as Oedipus, reminds the participants of the terrible nature of the Dionysian, of the transient quality of life and the illusion of the Principium Individuationis. In such states, humans are identical with each other and, identical with Dionysian nature. Concepts and symbols germane to the Appollinian realm dissolve before the felt intensity of the Dionysian achieved by chourus, by music. There is a shared unity reminding each and all that eventually, we will each and all return to the Primal Oneness.

This is important for Nietzsche as it is by means of Tragic art and music that the essence of nature is experienced. Its conclusions are that life is terrible and yet, according to Nietzsche, the pre-Socratic Greeks celebrated and affirmed this. This is an act of primal, instinctive strength in the face of the absurd and the terrible.


“The irreverent idea that the great sages are types of decline first occurred to me precisely in a case where it is most strongly opposed by both scholarly and unscholarly prejudice I realized that Socrates and Plato were symptoms of degeneration, tools of the Greek dissolution, pseudo-Greek, anti-Greek (Birth of Tragedy, 1872). The consensus of the sages — I recognized this ever more clearly — proves least of all that they were right in what they agreed on: it shows rather that they themselves, these wisest men, shared some physiological attribute, and because of this adopted the same negative attitude to life — had to adopt it.” (Nietzsche. The Problem of Socrates. Twilight of the Idols)

For Nietzsche, Socrates and Plato, heralded as the great founders of Western Philosophy were on the contrary, representatives of physiological degeneration. Physiological degeneration is that state when the drives of a human being, or a collection of human beings are disaggregated, are in a state of chaos. This lowers the coherency and effectivity of Will to Power (which is inherent to each drive) leaving beings exhausted, weary of life: reactive. In a healthy human being, says Nietzsche, the drives are ordered hierarchically with the strongest drives/will to power marshalling and incorporating the weaker ones in its service. This provides for optimum will to power, provides for a strong, healthy, affirmative being/s. Valuations are expressive of the reactive/affirmative states respectively. If the drives are in chaos -’anarchy of the drives/will to power’ ensues with corresponding values of decline, exhaustion.

Nietzsche’s contention is that Socrates and Plato displayed such physiological degeneration and, like the slaves of the so-called slave revolt, need a panacea to address their degeneration. (see Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality) For the slaves, the panacea is Ressentiment. For Socrates and Plato, it is Reason/Nous. Yet their cure has led life awry, its has allowed errors to be taken for truths, for the earth and life to be devalued and the otherworldly to be valued more highly. This obsession with ‘Reason’ has been detrimental and misleading. (see ‘Reason In Philosophy, et alibi Twilight of the Idols). Subsequent thinkers follow on and endorse this trajectory: as A.N. Whitehead is said to have remarked ‘Western Philosophy is but footnotes to Plato…’ and Nietzsche cites the source of this mistake as lying primarily with Socrates.

Western Philosophy inverts the Earth and human life in seeking the meaning of it all as lying beyond it: in the Forms, in God and Heaven, in Thinking substance distinct from physical body yet able to access the Truth by means of Natural Reason and so on. Naturalism is neglected in preference for Metaphysics. Metaphysical system after Metaphysical system is constructed with no apparent progress made, as Kant highlighted with his own solution to the problem of Metaphysics.

Further, Nietzsche contends that such ideas have been harmful as they have prevented human beings from becoming greater than they actually are. This for Nietzsche, would be an Aristocratic society with everyone contented in their social position; mirroring his physiological view of the body informed by respective, hierarchical levels of Will to Power, as mentioned above. Noblesse Oblige… Instead, decadent inspired ideas have been hegemonic for over two thousand years suppressing difference, suppressing the expression of life with the prescriptins of ressentiment fuelled levelling. Natural instincts have been condemned as ‘Evil’ and wrong. Timidity, inhibition, the negation of natural life and strength (not to be conflated with the physical) is valued as ‘Good’ by the influence of ressentiment fuelled morality. He clearly attributes the influence of Socrates as significantly contributing to this. Hence Nietzsche strong disapprobation in The Birth of Tragedy and elsewhere.

Of course, Nietzsche is valuing Socrates from the standpoint of his own Philosophy. Nietzsche’s Philosophy — particularily his theories of Evolution and Physiology — is questionable, as I’ve written elsewhere:

Yet, he is not alone on revaluating the value of Reason. The value and consequences of ‘Reason’ has been evaluated and critiqued by other Philosophers such as Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Martin Heidegger. The latter who ironically, referred to Nietzsche as the ‘last Metaphysician’…

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