Friday, 25 May 2012

Nietzsche and his Interpretation of the Greeks: Critical Essay



Friederich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was a German philosopher, cultural critic, and classical philologist: representing a profound interest in Greek antiquity, specifically in the context of 6th and 5th century Athens.  This was the pre-Socratic era, a Greece of tragedy and Homer (circa 850 BCE), not Alexander.[1] For Nietzsche, it was “an incomparable golden age,”[2] one that would also be symbolic of great failure. This essay deconstructs the methodology by which Nietzsche interprets thought and the cultural enterprises of the Greeks, especially in his text, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (1873).[3] To extend our understanding of Nietzsche and the ancient Greeks, we shall examine his theories regarding the artistic representation of “Dionysus & Apollo”, the philosophical legacy of Socrates, and finally the importance between the ancients and his theory of master-slave morality.[4] His interpretation became necessary in a modern context, as according to Nietzsche, “so much depends on the development of the Greek culture because our entire occidental world has received its initial stimuli from it.”[5]

Firstly, it is vital to re-emphasise the context that had preoccupied Nietzsche’s thoughts regarding the ancient Greeks – it is squarely the sixth and fifth centuries in Greece that are the primal ground for Nietzsche’s philosophy. Described as a “magnificent culture that would also be the site for a more spectacular and thought-provoking failure.”[6]
In his literature, including Twilight of the Idols and Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, it is the pre-Socratic mode that provides the realm of “instinctive real wisdom.” Nietzsche delineates on specific pre-Socratic writers including Anaxagoras and Heraclitus.[7] According to Nietzsche, these are the writers whom provided a philosophical backdrop for “Attic Tragedy” – the purest exhibitive art form to have ever come into being.[8]

In Nietzschean philosophy, the influence of the ancients cannot be underestimated. Human existence, a focal point of his theories and aesthetic phenomenon, is inextricably linked to characteristics of the golden age in Greek tragedy. This is where Nietzsche shares Aristotle’s view that Greek tragedy is symbolic of the epitome for artistic achievement, with an objective “to show how life, philosophy, and art may have a profound relationship to one another.”[9]

It is easy to place Nietzsche in an unbroken, if not gradually perpetuated, European tradition of rational historical interpretation. Although the long-standing mythologisation that the Greeks were responsible for the greatest culture the world had seen may not seem like a new phenomenon. His initial writings on this topic, as seen his first publication – The Birth of Tragedy[10] – were undeniably controversial and by no means the view of his contemporaries. He viewed their denial as a “deficiency of their insight, [that] expresses itself in their lack of understanding of antiquity… in their unjustified comparisons between their own time and antiquity.”[11] Nietzsche felt that the study of antiquity had a vital task of education. For scholars to hold the culture of the Greeks as a paradigm for his young German contemporaries “who might thus be persuaded to work toward a state of culture of their own.”[12]

Although Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks was an essay not published during Nietzsche’s own lifetime, it nonetheless contains various insights that go beyond the simple convergence of life, philosophy and art. The essay repeatedly posits pre-Socratic thinkers as pivotal in enabling tragedy to be represented in the artistic depiction of Dionysus and Apollo. These two art-deities, fundamentally the opposite of one another, offer the ultimate cohesion in Greek antiquity. Dionysus symbolises mankind’s urge to collectively shed itself of individuality – embodied in a libidinous frenzy of primordial emotion and “drunken revelry.”[13] On the other hand, Apollo stands for measure and civilised order. He is the embodiment of individuality. Rather than archaic, Apollo’s genius is plastic and architectonic.[14] They collectively represent “the spirit of tragedy.”[15] The Dionysian and Apollonian models are a significant part of Nietzsche’s empirical methodology – the models do not serve as historical creations or mythical deities – they are rather the evocation of archetypal configurations. Furthermore, the Dionysian and Apollonian models have found general acceptance in categorising cultural patterns that go far beyond the confines and times of Greek antiquity.

Why was Socrates such a dividing figure in Nietzsche’s interpretation and beliefs on the ancients? Also, where do we place the origin of Greek reformation that never eventuated, or failed? Socrates was known by Nietzsche as a figure who saw “the attainment of knowledge as a pursuit of the upmost importance.”[16] It was also the abandonment of the Dionysian drive toward Christianity; or, “Platonism for the masses.”[17] It is with Socrates that the relevancy of Greek tragedy itself comes into question. Socrates was the precursor to Christianity that marked an end to Nietzsche’s idealisation of ancient Greece. Even more so, the impact of Socrates-Plato stands in stark opposition of “pure Hellenic history” that fails to represent the Greek spirit in all its glory – as epitomised in the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles.[18] In regards to Socrates’ status, Nietzsche made the pronouncement that: “I understand the earlier philosophers as being the forerunners of a Greek reformation but not as forerunners of Socrates.”[19] This would cement his place as a haunting and shadowy presence in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

If Nietzsche (and his followers), accept Greece as the site of unprecedented clarity and excellence – it hence must also be understood as the “dark, equivocal ground on which such blossoms once flourished.”[20] It was his opinion that “indescribable riches were lost to us when the culture had perished,”[21] Regardless, the power behind Nietzsche’s interpretation and pronouncement exerts late and decadent forms of Hellenism with the greatest historical force.

An overwhelming majority of scholars have focused their attention toward The Birth of Tragedy (1872) as the source to interpret Nietzsche’s views regarding antiquity and artistic production. It certainly has strengths in establishing the claim that the “essential origins of tragedy stem for archaic Greek culture,”[22] yet, it is plagued with contrariness, an overabundance of material and numerous incongruities. For example, the text often demonstrates an incoherent style. Although the book represents an unparalleled innovation in the interpretation of art within the western tradition: Nietzsche does not bother to provide textual citations for a great deal of his sources. In addition to a lack of critical engagement with the work of Schopenhauer – who might evidently provide a stronger theoretical basis of the Apollonian/ Dionysian dichotomy.  


As previously discussed, the Dionysian/ Apollonian dichotomy has long served as the mediator between Apollonian Individuality and Dionysian archaic and libidinous conformity in philosophical thought. For Nietzsche, a key influence in his studies was the investigation of individual motivation by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Hegel, writing before Schopenhauer, popularised the concept of Zeitgeist – by definition, the idea of societies collective consciousness in a particularly defining spirit or mood in history. Schopenhauer, educated on the theories of both Kant and Hegel, criticised their basic “logical optimism”[23] and the belief that Individual morality, in the Apollonian sense, could be determined by society and reason. In his publication, Will to live (Wille zum Leben, 1818),[24] Schopenhauer hypothesises that mankind is instinctually directed by their primordial human desires. This is a human desire characterised as futile, directionless, illogical, and overall, this was the basic trait of all human action in the world. This was again popularised by Kant as the “thing-in-itself.” It is subsequently evident that this idea of Will – the metaphysical existence that dictates the actions of the individual (and all visual phenomenon) – was deeply embedded in Nietzsche’s philosophy. The dual influence of these key figures alone would be replicated in Nietzsche’s genealogical account of master-slave morality – underpinned and frequently associated with Homeric Greece.

Nietzsche’s genealogical account of master-slave morality occupies a central place in his interpretation of the Greeks. In Beyond Good and Evil,[25] he begins by examining the dualistic morality and notion that there is a good/ evil binary in constant conflict with itself. It was aristocrats and numerous castes of ancient civilisation that provided him with this dual preference. Since there were no set moral laws, master-slave morality is presented as the original system of morality – frequently associated with Homeric Greece. This original form of morality, the organising principle for classical antiquity, generates the value judgement between good and bad. Further segmented into the categories of ‘life-affirming’ and ‘life-denying’. This is the difference between the qualities of the virtuous and that of the vanquished – the binary between wealth, strength, health and military prowess – juxtaposed against – poor, weak and sick; traits conventionally associated with slaves in ancient times. Conversely, slave-morality exists as a reaction to master-morality. This is equivalent to the greater contrast between good and evil. His formulation of slave-morality is pessimistic, or at the least, fearful. Values only exist to serve the existence of the “good-master,” made possible via the enslavement of the lower castes. Just as slave-mastery morality in critical in the interpretation of antiquity, it has simultaneously served as a narrative in Judeo-Christian traditions. To a larger extent, it has provided the framework for nihilism across Europe. According to Nietzsche, modern Europe and Christianity, “exist in a hypocritical state due to a tension between master and slave morality.”[26] To a varying degree, it would become emblematic of the values of most Europeans.

It is in another of Nietzsche’s essays that we find the final crux in Nietzsche’s interpretation of the ancients. His reflections in “What I Owe to the Ancients” from Twilight of the Idols (1888) have been essential for innumerable discussions into this line of thought. This is part of his universal aim to generate an open interface between the ancients and his own contemporary culture. The text openly examines the impact of particular philosophers (Socrates & Plato) on Nietzsche’s own intellectual development. Hence, Twilight of the Idols expresses a more mature interpretation of the ancients from the later period of Nietzsche’s productive career. Ultimately, Nietzsche’s prolonged attention to the ancients has proven itself successful – and as a result, it is difficult to overestimate Nietzsche’s “intellectual debt to philosophers in Greek antiquity.”[27]

In conclusion, we can see that in Nietzsche’s interpretation of the ancients (spanning his productive career), is based upon a profound admiration for ancient Greece in the 6th and 5th centuries. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks was his means of communicating an era defined by tragedy that was so integral to his writing. Nietzsche navigated the rise and climax of these pre-Socratic values, specifically the legacy of Anaxagoras and Heraclitus, to their subsequent fall from grace. This was in the persons of Socrates-Plato, and more so, to the great reformer who failed – Empedocles (circa 493 – 433 BCE). This “incomparable golden age”[28] illuminates Nietzsche’s incontrovertible belief in antiquity – an insight integral to making a fair assessment of his methodology and interpretation.


[1] In reference to the evolution and difference between Classical and Hellenistic ages of ancient Greece.
[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. 
Chicago: Regnery, 1962. Page. 5.
[3]Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. 
Chicago: Regnery, 1962. A publication based on the author’s unpublished book, written 1873.
[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. On the genealogy of morality & Beyond Good and Evil.
[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. Pg. 59.
[6] Ibid: 43.
[7] A belief that all matter was infinitely divisible and motionless until animated by mind (nous).
[8] The pinnacle of Great Athenian art.
[9] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. Pg. 12.
[10] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. 
 [11] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. Page. 9.
[12] Ibid: 5. “… a culture that he felt was sorely missed.”
[13] Ibid: 31.
[14] Ibid: 33. Having an clearly defined, and aesthetically pleasing, compositional structure.
{15} As recorded by Aeschylus and Sophocles.
[16] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Page. 16.
[17] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold. Kaufmann. Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. Introduction: page. 6.
[18] Coincides historically and “existentially” with the birth of Socratic thought.
[19] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. Pg. 13. 
[20] Ibid: 14.
[21] Ibid: 23.
[22] Ibid: 16.
[23] The will is identified with ultimate reality and happiness is only achieved by abnegating the will (as desire).
[24] Schopenhauer, Arthur, and Richard Taylor. The will to live; selected writings. 
New York: F. Ungar Pub. Company. 1967.
[25] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold. Kaufmann. Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
[26] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Keith Ansell-Pearson. On the genealogy of morality. Page. 19.
[27] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. “What I Owe to the Ancients”. Page. 2.
[28] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. 
Chicago: Regnery, 1962. Page. 5.

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