Nietzsche v. Socrates

The following is a compilation of my notes of our in class discussions of about what Nietzsche said about Socrates from German 580 under Dr. Richard Block. Many of these interpretations are Dr. Blocks.

Nietzsche in his book The Birth of Tragedy is very critical of Socrates, the “non-mystical man,” for thinking that he can understand the world through logic. “Virtue is knowledge; sin arises only from ignorance; the virtuous person is the happy person” (Nietzsche, section 13). Nietzsche felt that this was the death of tragedy. In his essay, On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense, Nietzsche explains that one cannot truly understand how the world works, as we understand the world through metaphor. To deconstruct a metaphor and then explain the results, one must create a new metaphor.

Nietzsche noted that the oracle of Delphi called Socrates the wisest person in the world. Something which Socrates himself humbly acknowledged in that “he was the only person to assert that he knew nothing.” For him this indicated that he did know that he didn’t know everything as opposed to the “the greatest statesmen, orators, poets, and artists, (in Athens) everywhere he ran into people who imagined they knew things” (Nietzsche, section 13). This could possibly be a point where Socrates and Nietzsche could agree with each other, except for the reason which Nietzsche attributes to Socrates giving: that the experts “only based their knowledge of instinct. “with this expression we touch upon” as Nietzsche says “the heart and center of the Socratic attitude.”

Nietzsche points out a hypocritical aspect of Socrates, in that “(u)nder special circumstances, in which his immense reasoning power was gripped by doubt” Socrates’ daimonon, his inner mystical voice would appear and “sounded a cautionary note” (Nietzsche, section 13). The instinctive inner consciousness stood up to Socrates reasoning mind as a hindrance.

This instinctive inner voice is important, because for Nietzsche “instinct is the truly creative and affirming power, and consciousness acts as a critical and cautioning reaction” (Nietzsche, section 13). Whereas “in Socrates instinct becomes the critic, consciousness becomes the creator” (Nietzsche, section 13).

According to Nietzsche, Socrates was not a fan of tragedy. In Socrates’ eye “the beautiful madness of artistic enthusiasm never glowed” (Nietzsche, section 14). Nietzsche argues that “it was impossible for [Socrates] to peer into the Dionysian abyss with a feeling of pleasure” (Nietzsche, section 14). Nietzsche argues that “[l]ike Plato, [Socrates] assigned it [tragedy] to the arts of cosmetics, which present only what is pleasant, not what is useful.”

“The Apollonian attitude metamorphosed into logical systematizing (Socratian?), just as we noticed something similar with Euripides and, in addition, the Dionysian was transformed into naturalistic emotions.”

Socrates, the dialectical hero in Platonic drama, reminds us of the changed nature of the Euripidean hero, who has to defend his actions with reasons and counter-reasons and thus often runs the risk of losing our tragic sympathy.

Optimistic dialectic, with its syllogistic whip, drove music out of tragedy; that is, it destroyed the essence of tragedy, which can be interpreted only as a manifestation and representation of Dionysian states, as a perceptible symbolizing of music, as the dream world of a Dionysian intoxication.

And so, while it’s true that the most immediate effect of the Socratic drive was to bring about the subversion of Dionysian tragedy, a profound living experience of Socrates himself forces us to the question of whether there must necessarily be only an antithetical relationship between Socrates and art and whether the birth of an “artistic Socrates” is in general an inherent contradiction. (Nietzsche, section 14).

Where Nietzsche began to soften on Socrates is when “that despotic logician (Socrates) now and then had the feeling of a gap, of an emptiness, of a partial reproach, of a duty he had perhaps neglected.” In a “dream apparition” he often heard the words, “Socrates, practice music!” “He calmed himself, right up to his last days, with the interpretation that his practice of philosophy was the highest musical art and believed that it was incorrect that a divinity would remind him of ‘common, popular music’.”

In prison, he began to practice music and Socrates realized that there were things that pure logic could not help him to understand. For Nietzsche, Socrates’ “Apollonian insight that, […] he did not understand a noble divine image and was in danger of sinning against a divinity—through his failure to understand” (Nietzsche, section 14). Nietzsche argues that “Socrates’ dream vision” indicates “his thinking about something perhaps beyond the borders of his logical nature.”


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