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Nietzsche Contra Socrates

July 29, 2012

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 (see here) 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.

Related Post:

Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Morality: An Analysis

Nietzsche On The Eternal Recurrence & The Affirmation of Life

Nietzsche on “What is Noble” Part One & Part Two


[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] See the provided link on Nietzsche master-slave morality for a comprehensive analysis of the concept.

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

[12] Ibid, section 6.

[13] Ibid, section 11.

[14] Ibid.

From → Nietzsche, Philosophy

9 Comments
  1. It is apparent to me that while Nietzsche is trying to chastise Socrates and his contemporaries, as well as his own contemporary philosophers, he is falling into the same ideological mistake he is trying to fight in the first place.
    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 Apollonian dream from their aimless wanderings.[6]- At the same time considering Nietzsche’s background as far as religion is concerned, it’s seems very odd he would push forth the idea of myth as means to create a sound foundation, while forgetting that once a myth is created it is almost certain it will become reality and agreed upon as truth and used as a model for the rest of the plebeian horde. Also Nietzsche seems to be under the false belief that myth does not constitute a danger to humanity as long as it’s under careful check in reminding others that it is simply just so, a myth and nothing more. This flaw in judgment and e determination on his part to simplify this point (the myth creation) seems rather infantile almost to the brink of naiveté, something no serious philosopher should ever fall prey of.
    “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)” I understand his need to fight dependency, but the replacement he suggests is in itself a dangerous one, for human history has shown time and time again what myth can become and hence change the very core of those who created it, thus changing the common man (plebes). He seems to be arrogantly blinded by an ideal of what the human race needs in order for it to thrive. He’s almost delusional to the point of climax in the way he describes such belief in myth. There’s almost something erotic coming from his statements on myth and the Apollonian dream. Is it possible our philosopher is trying debunk someone else’s work and at the same time tryin to satisfy e personal urge for return back to romanticism, even though such an ideal has long been dead and buried?
    If Nietzsche is so concerned with lifting up of the human spirit, why is it than he uses old blue prints of a time which has long been dead? Could it be that he himself as fallen prey of some diluted romanticism of his own, believing that by looking back he is actually moving forward?
    “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] – Didn’t Nietzsche himself try to tear down many old beliefs for the sole purpose of erecting his own ideal of the New Man? Hasn’t his previous work on Morals and Virtue tried to accomplish the philosopher’s own belief on what is moral and virtuous? So why now tear down a model of dialectical method for the sole purpose of setting himself to be the savior of human race’s right to be instinctive and away from any rationale?
    It is apparent to me Nietzsche’s issue with Socrates is more a personal one that that of a philosopher’s duty to be truthful. Proof of such attitude of self-righteousness comes from his own words on Socrates
    “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 is so self-evident in regards to his “fear” that dialectics brings plebeians to the top, which goes against his Master & Slave mentality and writings. Thus our philosopher fights back that notion as repulsive to his ideal of a better man.
    A noble taste could never be vanquished just because dialectics comes into the equation, far from it. It is dialectics which brings the human race closer to perfection by taking in consideration all sides of a matter and using reasoning to bring order to chaos, which otherwise would be insured if such behavior were left unchecked and untamed by reason.
    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]
    If Nietzsche is so concerned with faults in judgment of Socrates, he sure seems to have no other alternative to the latter’s logic but only to diffuse his ideas. Nietzsche once more seems to fall prey of his own idolatry of right and wrong, good and evil by simply stating the obvious on two accounts; 1) Socrates is wrong in his attitude and perception towards reason and dialectics and 2) Nietzsche himself doesn’t seem to be able to bring the very thing he accuses Socrates for, a new system in order to help better the human race, or in this case the Greeks.
    It’s quite a grave error in judgment to be so eloquent about someone else’s shortcomings and nearsightedness, yet be just as less helpful in this regard as the very person/idea he is fighting against.
    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]
    Isn’t this an oxymoronic idea set forth by our philosopher who equates happiness and virtue to go hand in hand with instinct? If history of the human race is any indication to our philosopher he should know that instinct goes against morals, virtues and happiness. Though in defense to instincts, I do agree they bring temporary happiness if fulfilled, yet that is short lived and decays fast, turning into a concoction of greed, jealousy, rage and above all absolute egomaniac behavior.
    In equating dialectics and rationale to a mere disease Nietzsche seems to forget his own shortcomings when it comes to his own idealism of return to virtue and wisdom.
    The only thing I can say in defense to Nietzsche’s rationale in the subject matter is that just as he is part of the human race, and such race has an innate inclination towards irrationality, egotism, and self-righteousness, so it is understandable that Nietzsche himself would ultimately succumb to those very same inclinations he is fighting against. It is possible that any person be that plebe or philosopher, can and has been guilty of duality in thinking and reasoning depending on the situation, in accordance with his own personal beliefs. It is this duality which ultimately undermines any philosopher alas becoming a slave of his own persona, and thus forgetting rationale.
    Nietzsche, as much as any other philosopher, or any common human being, was never immune to his own persona. All that fire and fury, was as much an element of his own psyche and system of beliefs as it was a way to reaffirm himself on the philosophical stage.

    • First of all allow me to just say that I appreciate the time and thought you put into your comment, which is a very well-written analysis all onto itself, and speaking as an instructor–nice job. I think you nailed it fairly well by identifying Nietzsche with the romanticism tradition, rather than what he considers to be the cold, mechanical rationalism of the Enlightenment (Nietzsche was actually very dismissive of Enlightenment thinkers and philosophies in general, which often held up Socrates as an intellectual forerunner to rational thought). To Nietzsche Socrates appeared to be catalyst of a certain group of intellectual masturbators who happily deconstructed other people’s ideas, but did not build up an alternative in its place; thereby avoiding equal scrutiny of their own ideas, by disingenuously never presenting any. This is where, I believe, Nietzsche’s emphasis on not wanting to abandon the aesthetics (i.e. the Dionysian element) in favor of pure rationalism stems from: his desire to not just destroy bad values, but create new ones in their place. To accomplish this he was convinced one needed to go further then what the Socratic method offered. Unfortunately, in this attempt he at times committed, what are in my opinion, several intellectual failings himself. Although I could speak of this for hours, I have no intention of boring you with repetitions of the essay you just read, as well as the points you yourself have already finely stated in your comment. Suffice to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay and it stands as a nice followup to the greater discussion at hand.

      • I’m surprised and delighted you actually enjoyed reading my comment. I’ve never thought of myself as a very articulate person, though I try my best to do so in order to get my point across.
        Secondly, the subject matter you wrote about is very interesting as I mentioned in my reblog which brought forth something I had never heard before and consequently certain emotions towards Nietzsche which was my idol as a teenager, but now he’s become highly debatable in my point of view.
        Thirdly, I would love to hear more about this subject and never for a second think you’re boring me. Reading your assays (as I’ve probably mentioned before) is very stimulating to me, because it allows me to learn and venture into areas I’ve never done before, and at the same time get out of myself and my comfort zone by allowing analytic thinking which I crave for so much.
        Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I really appreciate it, you’re one of the very few people in a long time which has allowed me to broaden my point of view and at the same time allow me an outlet to also express mine.

      • Thank you for the blush-inducing compliments; your words are too kind. My main motivation for writing my Nietzsche essays (and adopting the man as my contra-namesake) has always been two-fold: 1. Correct the undue demonization and outright libel that’s been unfairly leveled against the man’s character and philosophy (usually by misunderstanding of the complex subject-matter he raises, or my intentional misinterpreting the man’s words because of a personal dislike of his philosophy’s greater implications). Nietzsche made a lot of worthwhile contributions to intellectual and social thought that I believe ought to be read and analyzed seriously and sincerely. 2. On the flip side, correct the unwarranted idolization that has been carried out by his admirers, usually by either softening Nietzsche’s message to make him sounds like a champion of modern ideals (he actually loathed both modern democratic and egalitarian ideals, and though that individualism was reserved only for a select few, whose “noble” character was innate to them alone and could not be learned by those who lacked it) or ignoring some of the inconsistencies and lapses in logic the man exhibited in crucial parts of his philosophy. In short, I’m the AntiNietzsche, precisely because I’m working to humanize Nietzsche; out from the depths of hell and the heavens above, his detractors and admirers have respectively place him in.

        …With the occasional dick joke tossed around here and there. :D

      • I wish there more people like you who make others think, interpret and push themselves out of their comfort zone of ignorance and bigotry. There are many philosophers who’s collection of works I read as teenager between the ages of 16-17 right when I also discovered I was gay, which makes sense when you think of it. I had no other role models, so philosophers became my role models. I barely remember what I read in those years, but I do remember the feeling works of Nietzsche, Voltaire, Bacon and many others left on me.
        What I liked about Nietzsche at the time (though this collection and analysis of his work and others was written in the 1940s and I might say now with certainty was biased considering the time), was the idea of the superman, who rises above all others and is the epitome of strength, determination and above all has almost god like attributes, which elevate him above all other men (can you see a bit of megalomania rising within me at the time?).
        I wish there were others out there who dealt with other philosophers in the same way, in order to gain a better perspective of their work.
        One thing I can say in defense not just of Nietzsche per-se but also for the rest of the brilliant minds from antiquity to 19th and 20th century is that they are had their flaws in judgement. How could they not, they were human after all? Something I’ve noticed in myself, which most times, though very good at analyzing a situation in a logical manner, I’m at odds with what I state, biased, and above all full of contradictions, which seems to be an attribute of all philosophers. This is not to say I consider myself one, far from it.

  2. Rich permalink

    Dear X,

    Really enjoyed your discussion of Nietzsche and Socrates. I find reading your essays as I attempt to read N very useful indeed. I also really enjoyed reading Professor Ian Johnston’s essay on N. at his Johnstonia website. Also a good frame of reference. Finally, I would agree with you that N. seems to be a tad hard on Socrates in that, after exposing the inconsistences of his opponent’s belief system, Socrates doesn’t offer a better one himself.

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