Nietzsche vs. Socrates

If Nietzsche and Socrates had a boxing match, I guess we would have to dress Plato in Socrates’ trunks. (Of course, we assume that Socrates was in Plato’s trunks at some point. Plato and Xenophon, his students, both confirm that young men challenged Socrates’ celebrated powers of appetite suppression….not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I digress.

Nietzsche is fighting for Earth, Plato for Heaven.

Socrates’ faith in the afterlife and trust in the divine voices that instructed him (recounted by Plato in the Apology of Socrates) place his ultimate concern with otherworldliness, a trait ridiculed by Aristophanes in his depiction of Socrates in “The Clouds.”

Second, the theory of Platonic forms creates a metaphysics by which eternal ideas form the ground of being, so to speak, rendering ordinary reality as an imperfect outgrowth, or a kind of fall, from the abstract ideal.

Third, Socrates’ description of the Republic (in the book of same name by Plato) seems to prohibit the discovery of new knowledge or the advancement of science and the arts, thereby trading progress for stability, worldly discovery for immortality, and ultimately favoring ascetic stasis over desire and competition. The philosopher-kings were to live simply with little money and the Republic itself was not to take profit from war. Socrates himself was an ascetic wizard, able to go without food longer than his fellow soldiers and to march on ice with bare feet. He was often late for dinner parties after being lost in thought. An awful lot like the Laputa in Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels who must be routinely whacked on their heads in order to wake up from their endless thinking.

Nietzsche picked a fight with Socrates/Plato. He detested Socrates and wrote a great deal about Ancient Greece. In Twilight of the Idols, he uses Socrates’ famed ugliness as part of an ad hominem attack, a logical fallacy Nietzsche specialized in. However, his primary argument against Socrates is that the Athenian was decadent, both in method and message. Nietzsche thinks the dialectic is baseless entertainment at best, reason-based tyranny at worst, and that, well, Socrates is a buffoon. This is what he actually says, at least in the esteemed Walter Kaufmann’s translation.

Nietzsche places ultimate concern in this-worldliness, in the human, all-too human, to use his phrasing. The mission is not to escape to, or put hope in some abstract realm, but to take delight in the endless transactions of the things of this world. Yes-saying, as opposed to No-saying.

There is, certainly, something of this Yes-saying throughout  Nietzsche’s work, in particular with the theory of Eternal Recurrence, which, if true, forces us to embrace everything about this existence because a) it’s all there is, and, b) more importantly, every single facet of your life will repeat itself infinitely. Better get used to it.

But aside from this theory, the eternally-ill Nietzsche placed great emphasis on health, energy, strength, and passion, all delights to be enjoyed here, as part of a quest to perfect the human (all content later warped by his Nazi sister; Nietzsche’s was a virulent anti-anti-Semitic. He broke off his friendship with Wagner in part because of Wagner’s growing anti-Semitism and dumbed-down neo-Romantic nationalism).

In fact, the Ubermensch (or Overman) is, as Nietzsche describes it, “man finally overcoming man,” which is curious phrasing suggestive a physical transformation, not a heavenly or angelic one. In fact, he writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that just as man laughs at monkeys, so too someday will the Overman laugh at man. These are purely evolutionary terms, though indicative of a transformative leap.  This is, I would suggest, a this-wordly form of spirituality, not a valueless nihilism, but something of a prescription for what ails us.

Nietzsche would have nothing to do with mythological religion, but he is very much a religious writer, or at least a religious writer in the process of inventing his own religion, left incomplete in The Will to Power, which he never finished before his ill-health (likely caused by a syphilitic condition) drove him into catatonic madness.

I think Nietzsche is just one of many writers whose emphasis on what we could call “human potential” has them looking for solutions here in the  functional world, not in some metaphysical abstract realm. Not on a cloudy mountain peak safely removed from the snares of world, ala Han Shan.

The irony, in Nietzsche’s case, is that he lived a rather removed, ascetic lifestyle, but this was due to his ill-health, which forced him to quit his university post, relocate to Switzerland, and live a discipled, inactive life. His writings, on the contrary, preach a passionate embrace of this world. Socrates, of course, lived his teaching amongst people, in the open air, it seems, but his ideas emphasize another world.

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  1. Patrick K.

     /  September 16, 2013

    In Kaufmann’s biography of Nietzsche it says that, “Nietzsche’s admiration for Socrates is a focal point of his thought and reflects his views of reason and morality as well as the image of man he envisaged.” He has a whole chapter called Nietzsche’s Admiration for Socrates. It even says a quote from Beyond Good and Evil which states, “Short of the value-creating philosopher of the future who has never yet existed- and does not exist today- there is none greater than Socrates.” Nietzsche may have thought that Socrates was a decadent but he thought everyone was a decadent including himself. The book quotes many times a passage from The Case of Wagner, “I am no less than Wagner a child of this age, that is, a decadent; but I comprehend this, I resist it. The philosopher in me resisted.” Nietzsche also thought that Socrates resisted the decadence of his age and respected him immensely for that. Kaufmann’s book, Nietzsche, also says in this chapter that, “Far more significant is the fact that, just as in Nietzsche’s first book, Socratism is considered dialectically as something necessary- in fact, as the very force that saved Western civilization from an otherwise inescapable destruction.” To be honest I don’t fully understand why he called Socrates a buffoon, hence why I looked this up and found this article, but it says in the biography that, “In the Twilight of the Idols, Socrates had been called a buffoon: now “buffoon” and “satyr” (a term the Platonic Alcebiades had used to picture Socrates) become idealized conceptions.” He goes on to quote a passage in Ecce Homo where Nietzsche is speaking of Shakespeare, “what must a man have suffered to find it so very necessary to be a buffoon.” Right after that he quotes another passage in Ecce Homo where Nietzsche writes, “I do not want to be a saint, Rather a buffoon. Perhaps I am a buffoon.” I think the reason why he calls people buffoons is because they are different but that’s just what i came up with so far. The biography says this about Nietzsche’s resignation of being a professor, “Nietzsche, who wrote his most important books in privacy, had given ill health as his reason for resigning his professorship at Basel; but his state of health was connected with his inability to reconcile his university career with his writings. The essay on Schopenhauer was published when he was still a professor, and he made it clear then and there that he felt any compromise with the existing order prevented a thinker from ‘following the truth in all hide-outs.’ ” He also criticized Kant and Hegel for their devotion to the universities rather than to truth. I’ll finish with a quote by Nietzsche, “One generally mistakes me: I confess it; also I should be done a great service if someone else were to defend and define me against these mistakes.”

    • Thank you so much. I’m going to track down Kaufmann’s chapter. My post is entirely based on N’s The Problem of Socrates, which I read as a complete take down. Fascinating. I’ll revisit this after reading the chapter. Thanks!


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