Friday, 4 October 2019

On Nietzsche’s Political Attack on Socrates

In his first book The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche attacks Socrates, and explains the “problem of Socrates.” He disowned this work to a certain extent in this later years, but his later works show that there are many features in The Birth of Tragedy that he continued to maintain till the end of his career. Leo Strauss, in his Introduction to his 1966 book Socrates and Arisophanes, notes that Nietzsche’s attack on Socrates must be understood as primarily a political attack. Here’s an excerpt from Strauss’s Introduction:

"[According to Nietzsche, Socrates] is the prototype of the rationalist and therefore of the optimist, for optimism is not merely the belief that the world is the best possible world, but also the belief that the world can become the best of all imaginable worlds, or that the evils that belong to the best possible world can be rendered harmless by knowledge: thinking can not only fully understand being, but can even correct it; life can be guided by science; the living gods of myth can be replaced by a deus ex machina, i.e., the forces of nature as known and used in the service of "higher egoism." Rationalism is optimism, since it is the belief that reason's power is unlimited and essentially beneficent or that science can solve all riddles and loosen all chains. Rationalism is optimism, since the belief in causes depends on the belief in ends, or since rationalism presupposes the belief in the initial or final supremacy of the good. The full and ultimate consequences of the change effected or represented by Socrates appear only in the contemporary West: in the belief in universal enlightenment and therewith in the earthly happiness of all within a universal state, in utilitarianism, liberalism, democracy, pacifism, and socialism. Both these consequences and the insight into the essential limitation of science have shaken "Socratic culture" to its foundation: "The time of Socratic man has gone." There is then hope for a future beyond the peak of pre-Socratic culture, for a philosophy of the future that is no longer merely theoretical, but knowingly based on acts of the will or on decisions, and for a new kind of politics that includes as a matter of course "the merciless annihilation of everything degenerating and parasitical." Nietzsche himself has said that in order to understand a philosopher one acts soundly by first raising the question of the moral or political meaning of his metaphysical assertions. Hence it would seem that his attack on Socrates must be understood primarily as a political attack."

Nietzsche’s attack is not on the young Socrates that Aristophanes presents in his play The Clouds, but on the Platonic Socrates.

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