THE ORIGINS OF PHILOSOPHY IN ENVY AND
John S Moore
Among the possible responses to the story of Socrates's life and death are various forms of ambivalence. To read a passage like his answer to the pleas of his friend Crito can provoke conflicting emotions. While his unconcern at his imminent execution must be admirable, more controversial is his acceptance of the verdict of his countrymen. In his enthusiasm for the laws of his city he implicitly reserves the right to condemn others. In this respect he seems no friend of liberty as it is usually understood today. If he had fled to Thebes or Thessaly, as his friends begged him to do, plenty of people would have supported his action. This seems to argue against the idea that the Greek's attachment to his city state was something essentially alien to the modern mentality.
A different form of ambivalence comes out in Hegel, who in his History of Philosophy approves both the condemnation of Socrates, as well as Socrates himself. He sees this conflict between two valid positions as tragedy. To a modern liberal, Hegel's view may reveal a typically sycophantic attitude towards authority. His peculiar conception of tragedy can seem ignoble, identifying with the chorus rather than with the hero. The very idea of thought evolving by means of contradiction can seem itself slavish, accepting the possibility of a complete change of mind, as a child might.
Nietzsche also expresses ambivalence. Though he is usually seen as strongly anti Socratic, we may still speak, to quote a chapter heading in Kaufmann's famous study, of 'Nietzsche's admiration for Socrates'. Both Nietzsche and Socrates denounce acquiescence in the dogmas of their age. Neither is tolerant of the complacent assumption of a right to one's own opinions. Arguing Socratically one finds fault, insisting on the need to be guided by sound concepts.
Socrates queried the dogmatic wisdom of the genius or sage, as well as the pronouncements of those who passed for the moral guides of his society. In establishing the necessity for rational argument, he set the foundations of future philosophy and science. Those with the power to influence opinion found their right to a respectful hearing radically undermined, as no opinion unprepared to defend itself in the face of dialectic was permitted to remain in place. The attack on authority is something with which Nietzsche must surely sympathise, for it is something he does himself. For the sage we can read Richard Wagner, for the sophists, the journalists of modern Europe, for Socratic dialectic, the doctrine of will to power.
If we follow Socrates we make reason our ultimate authority in all things. The worth of a conviction is not related to the intensity with which it is held. We can subject some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture to experimental investigation. This means questioning what, at our own stage of historical development, is assumed to be unchallengeable. This was Socrates's achievement in Greece and why he was such a central figure. In securing it his character was as important as his ideas. If the image we have of him is partly Plato's literary embellishment, this shows that Plato responded to the same needs.
However sound a thinker's arguments seem to himself, however deeply compelling his convictions, other people have their own concerns, with well defended opinions. In face of public indifference, to rely solely on the logic of his reasonings would lead to intolerable frustration. In addition to perfecting his ideas, Socrates needed to influence his contemporaries by working on them psychologically. This is one explanation for the dramatic structure he built of his personality. Passionately concerned to persuade, the ideas alone were not enough. His death played an important part in promoting his views. Martyrdom is historically one of the strongest arguments of all.
Strong reservations about Socrates's influence appear in Nietzsche's first book, the Birth of Tragedy. On the view put forward there, the curbing of the Dionysian, the spread of rationality, especially since the time of Socrates, up through the Alexandrian era, led to a progressive weakening of the springs of creativity, to decadence, shallow rationalism, and the eventual demise of the Hellenic spirit that thrived in tragedy and the presocratic philosophers. A similar process was occurring in modern western culture, as the onesided rationalism of the enlightenment culminated in such shallow schemes as utilitarianism, with its bland disregard of the instinctual basis of life.
Nietzsche continued to attack Socrates in his later works, though on shifting grounds. There were many in fifth century Athens who felt that it was rationalism itself that was destructive and dangerous, as men forsook the wisdom enshrined in tradition for the uncertainties of speculation. Himself associated with the sophist movement; Socrates was put to death for impiety and corrupting the morals of Athenian youth. Nietzsche saw him as the initiator of a decadent movement in a different sense, the subverter of the brilliant sophist culture, even if he was the saviour of Greek civilisation which had been set on a self destructive course.
Socrates took on the task of correcting the dangers of individualistic excess, not by a return to the traditional order, but by means of rational argument. He rejected the authority of the poets in saying, 'not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration'. In applying the methods of philosophy to ethical questions, he established a reputation as one of the most original and seminal minds in history.
Nietzsche saw him as trying to curb the violence of instinct by means of argument. Socrates argued that the pursuit of socially desirable moral virtue necessarily follows from a direct understanding of one's own real interests, which turn out to be incompatible with the unrestrainedly egoistic passion which governed many of his contemporaries. Nietzsche saw one effect of this as to set up an artificial ideal by which real life was to be weighed and found wanting. The underlying motive of such a standard was to alter some of the power relationships within society. Those who attack established values may generally be thought of as suffering, in some way or other, from the existing order, and aiming to replace the old values with others more personally advantageous and congenial. Nietzsche lays stress on Socrates's physical ugliness and plebeian descent, factors contributing to a resentment of the existing order.
It is conceded that such complications add to the interest of life. As Plato portrays him, Socrates is greatly superior to his sophist opponents, and he seems to have raised rational discussion to a new level of effectiveness. Nietzsche says that he invented a new 'agon', a contest, a mental form of fencing or wrestling. The aristocratic happiness hymned by the poet Pindar was that of the Olympic victor, a conscious power ideal, achieved through formalised athletic contest. In the modern world we still have Olympic victors, as we still have dictators. We still have athletes who value athletic triumph above life and health. But many would say that such triumph palls beside that of a winner of minds by rational persuasion, such as Socrates. His standard of reference was argument rather than dogma, and his claim to our respect is based on his ability in this.
So it might on the face of it seem an obviously excellent thing that the ability to defend one's position logically should have become, with Socrates, a newly important factor in determining power and status. As with the older shift in power from chief to medicine man, it might seem highly desirable that power should be in the hands of the intelligent rather than the physically strong, rich and brutal. However, Nietzsche identifies dangers in setting up an ideal in criticism of what appear to be natural human responses and reactions. Given the Socratic reform, the requirement for rational justification, there is a danger that those in a weak position should succeed, by means of clever argument and propaganda, in so exalting the virtues and values of weakness as to paralyse the natural expression of strength.
On a superficial interpretation of his criticisms, Nietzsche wanted to invert this in favour of instinctual values. A crude Nietzschean might argue against Socrates's attempt to alter the pecking order of society in favour of the philosopher that it replicates priestly censorship, restricting natural aristocratic power. Against this one might object that philosophy itself can easily be thought of as the highest expression of aristocratic power. Excluding current standards and values from the power struggle hardly seems consistent with a noble ideal.
In a passage in one of his last books, Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche explains that Socratic dialectics cannot work as a cure for decadence because Socrates personally was himself extremely decadent, plagued, on his own admission, by abnormally vicious instincts, which he needed to bring under close control. Nietzsche wants to prove his own case in a way that he believes Socrates does not prove his. There are obvious parallels to be made between Nietzsche's own scheme and Socrates's rationalistic programme. So what does he mean by saying that Socrates was a typical decadent and therefore his programme could not have succeeded? Is it that Socrates meant to tyrannise like Wagner? Could Nietzsche do better than Socrates? In Socrates's day he was a pioneer, so influence of individual personality was so much the greater. Reason to a great extent just meant his will.
For all his changes of mind, Nietzsche's work can be seen as continuous, right from his first published writings. Certain core aims remained, though subject to constant clarification. He showed a progressive repudiation of unexamined authority, and particularly of the identifiable idea that one ought to submit to such authority. To understand what is most distinctive in him it is essential to remember his beginnings as a Wagnerite. Wagnerism he once felt to be identical with the master values he always supported. It was only later, looking closer, that he discerned in it submission and servitude. The reason for this change was that he had come to reject beliefs that he once held. Looking superficially, he saw in Wagnerism heroic freedom, and profound emotional liberation. With closer examination, these vanish, and it appears to contain an unwarranted demand to accept particular doctrines.
Nietzsche began his literary career with the Dionysian philosophy of the Birth of Tragedy. Everything after may be seen as a progressive clarification, taking the self conscious enjoyment he called affirmation as his central aim. With greater understanding the concepts deployed in his first book are insufficient to procure this, and the demand to retain them has a contrary effect. They reveal a repressive quality which was not seen before. To justify such perceptions, further concepts are needed. Such development was to culminate in the discovery of the will to power. The elucidation of concepts changes the feeling we have about them. The reason why some particular thought or idea appears oppressive is all to do with other things that appear to us to be true.
Here lies the relevance of the epigram that a will to a system is a lack of integrity. This statement is not meant as an attack on the idea of the unity of truth. It refers to a vice common in the history of thought, the erection of some inspiration of one's own into a dogmatic authority, so betraying the sceptical motive from which it originated. One prefers to shore up a theory identified with one's own prestige and authority, rather than pursuing the critical impulse to the point of maximum precision.
Before he became committed to Wagner and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche's belief was in Protestant Christianity. His original dissidence, was in his rejection of this. The idea of Christianity came to be seen as a pressure to believe. Wagnerism and Hegelism, he eventually interpreted in a similar way. Progressively every unexamined subjection to received ideas is identified as oppressive. In rejecting the Christianity of his childhood in the light of a new standard he accepts as true, he identifies a force which has to be rejected.
His anti Christianity is remarkable mainly for its intensity. He does not see Christianity as just a false theory. From his perspective he finds something else in it, something quite other than how it appears to its believers. He is in continuous argument against doctrines that he rejects, seeing them not simply as rejected doctrines, but as seductive forces requiring constant vigilance, still threatening to demoralise. That he finds servility in these, is attributable to a progressive discrimination that does not eliminate the continuing pressure of the doctrine. You are unaware of its tyranny until you begin to move away from it. Then you come to see such tyranny as one of the most important elements in the life of the world. But this perspective has to root itself against the continually refined assaults of sophisticated argument.
Morality of the weak is Nietzsche's term for a vicious principle that operates as a demoralising inhibition. The insidious suggestion that attaches guilt to independent thought or action, appears to serve the interests of those in a weak position, as well as the tyrant who wants to maintain his authority. Such effects are only perceptible with discrimination. One may not perceive power as such when one has no motive to oppose it. Nietzsche as Wagnerite was subject to Wagner's power, but not to a morality of the weak, for his own desires were not repressed by his attachment. Only in becoming aware of the availability of alternative interpretations of the same experience would he see the restriction involved in submitting to this.
The position I am taking up here takes its departure from Nietzsche's interpretation of Socrates in terms of envy and resentment. It is often asserted that Nietzsche was consistently hostile to Socrates. His attitude was more complex. Even in 'The Birth of Tragedy', where Socrates is blamed for a shallow rationalism that destroyed the Aeschylean tradition, he is also seen as initiating the scientific movement, which is by no means something Nietzsche wishes to condemn unequivocally. A denunciation of Socrates perhaps makes sense on the Dionysian, Wagnerian, position with which Nietzsche was initially associated and which he came to repudiate in the strongest terms as he developed the idea of the will to power. On the will to power theory, to attack Socrates for exercising his will seems singularly pointless. What could be the ground for such an attack? From this perspective comes a more positive view of Socrates's vital importance for the whole course of western civilisation, both in the manner of his argument and the drama of his death.
Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols (p 34). 'To have to combat one's instincts, that is the formula for decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness & instinct are one'.
He is referring to Socrates, of whom he wrote a few lines previously:- (p32)- 'His case was after all only the extreme case, only the most obvious instance of what had at that time begun to be the universal exigency: that no one was any longer master of himself, that the instincts were becoming mutually antagonistic'.
It does not matter whether we think of Socrates's decadence as his vicious instincts, or the fact they needed to be controlled. The reason why Socrates own decadence prevents him from being able to cure decadence is that the results of his dialectical method were too dependent on his own personality. This is why his personal decadence is potentially harmful. The cure he offers depends upon submission to himself as doctor. Socratic dialectic, like Wagnerian art, means the domination of a particular mind.
With Plato this clever dialectics becomes revelation of 'truth'. The truth that is to be revealed is known to some extent by intuition as well as by rational argument. In Human All Too Human (§261), Nietzsche pointed out the tyrannical urges of the Greeks. Every Greek, he suggested, desired to tyrannise over other people. Philosophers too, desired this, which explains much in Plato. Only Solon said he despised individual tyranny, though he sublimated his tyranny as a lawgiver. Plato became frustrated and extremely embittered in old age, as a result of the thwarting of his tyrannical urge. Even his idea of the state as something that promotes virtue seems an unpleasant, oppressive and totalitarian thought, reached by a series of sophisms. Plato in Laws strikes us by the intensity of his will to control. Here he is less interested in an ideal of enlightenment. By Laws he seems to have shed Socrates in more ways than one.
In Plato the tyrannical motive gained through application of dialectic a new self assurance. Someone like St Augustine of Hippo may be considered the regrettable heir of this. If Socrates showed a way of subverting the classical from within, Augustine took it to its limit. However, this was far from the only way that Socrates's influence was exerted. One line may go - Plato, Neoplatonism, patristic theology, mediaeval Catholicism. But there is also a line, which includes Alcibiades, and the sceptics of the later academy like Carneades. We tend to think of Socrates as the moraliser Plato presents, but he insisted that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, as well as being very fond of Alcibiades.
One modern view (see Gerald Bruns) influenced by Gadamer's hermeneutics, is to view Socrates primarily as explicating the oracle's judgement that he was the wisest of men, and the effects of his daimon. His being was given by the oracle, and this is something he needs to explicate. This we might call his will to truth. This is a different angle from the Nietzschean. It sees Socrates as if equipped with a destiny, over which he has little choice. Such a view takes him away from the aggressive will to power where Nietzsche places him.
Dislike of established power and desire to overcome it can be recognised as entirely acceptable motives. To hold that all resentment is intrinsically falsifying is mere mystification. Where envy and resentment lead to falsification, they are to be deplored. Directed against unsubstantiated authority, they provide a motive to uncover new truth by showing the untenability of some accepted position. Where this can be demonstrated there is a clear advance in knowledge.
On Nietzsche's mature interpretation, Socrates was engaged in a comparable project to his own, that of trying to overcome the decadence of his society. Nietzsche claimed to be able to explain why Socrates could not and did not succeed. Socrates's method of argument, in those early days, rather than establishing objective standards, only succeeded in replicating an aspect of his own personality, his personal solution of moral restraint, the only way in which he could flourish. Whoever argued with Socrates would be dominated by his superior cleverness. Because he was personally decadent, he was no suitable model.
Nietzsche's own proposal is not open to the same objection, despite often-expressed opinions to the contrary. The decadence he was essentially concerned to combat, the threat that he envisaged, was demoralisation through morality of the weak. The undermining of strength comes about through falsification of reality, dishonest limitation of possibility. In a decadent culture, the pressure is on for you to embrace and affirm inferiority and mediocrity, so denying and betraying your own knowledge. The solution is the perspective of universal will to power, that exposes the falsification that has taken place. Such a perspective is independent of whatever personal defects pertain to the person who conceives it.
The objection to Socrates is not that he resented authority and wanted to replace it with true knowledge, it is that true knowledge is not what he achieved. Reason = virtue = happiness is not a sound equation. What passed for knowledge was only imitation of himself. This is the only reason why his personal decadence is an issue. In resisting authority in the furtherance of one's own ambition, resentment is an acceptable motive. There is no need to differentiate between types of resentment, some of which are intrinsically good and some of which bad, as some Nietzsche commentators have done, shifts to which they are led by abandoning the concept of truth.
Understanding where Socrates went wrong is an important key to Nietzsche's idea of a solution. Nietzsche does not simply invert Socrates's position and tell everyone to follow their impulses. He has no interest in you following your impulses where they are hostile to his own achievement. He does not propose, as an alternative to Socratic restraint, some abstract idea of nature or liberation. Freedom to say and think what you like is limited by what you admit to be true. The standard Nietzsche wants to establish is a knowledge that thwarts the expression of some people's ambition to tyrannise and falsify. I am aware that this is almost the mirror image of many current interpretations.
To some it will seem outrageous to trace the motive for philosophy in envy and resentment. What about solving philosophical problems? The point to be made is that if we accept the authority expected of us there are no remaining philosophical problems. We accept the solutions of our elders and betters, learning to think what we are told we ought to think. Those envious persons who resent the authority of established wisdom, refuse to do this. The assumption of sage like wisdom is characteristic of certain schools of philosophy today. There is pressure to accept the authority of the guru or pundit. There is no progress unless this is challenged to defend itself by sound argument. Arbitrary speculation may give us thought as brilliant and fascinating as the best of the presocratic philosophies. Where it remains poetry one can respect and admire it. Resentment arises when it makes demands on our belief. Nietzsche emphasised how Wagner's undeniable power to transport his devotees into a wonderful world owed as much to his contentious claims as a prophet as to his many artistic talents.
The twentieth century has seen some opposition to Socrates and what he is thought to have achieved. There are those who want to undo what he did, from the author of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', to a major figure like Heidegger. Some want to enlist Nietzsche in service of such an end, seeing him as unequivocally on the side of the creative genius against the restraining reason. But this is where he started from, and from where he was all the time moving away. Nietzsche had studied the creative genius at close range in Wagner. He identified a tyrannical and deceiving urge, which he considered unhealthy. Similar considerations explain what made Socrates decadent, and the significance of his decadence. A 'healthy' person in this sense is content with an open expression of desire. He does not mean to deceive or to be deceived.
For Nietzsche, tyranny, will to deceive and unhealthiness are interrelated concepts. An ambition to impose one's own tastes on others, by deceiving them about other options that are available is tyrannical, dishonest and the mark of an unhealthy ambition. Such 'unhealthiness' is simply this, not a degenerative condition contaminating creative expression. The perspective of the will to power is meant to secure against it. It looks for the facts that undermine the tyranny of others. It does not set up a tyranny of its own. Thus inoculated we can accept Socrates.
Socrates is where philosophy proper begins, where a halt is put upon the power of the sage and his wisdom is challenged. What motive is clearer and more rational than a straightforward resentment of such authority? From the viewpoint of will to power it is more or less meaningless to deplore it. Where argument is good enough it compels. Thenceforth thought is constrained, progress in knowledge is possible, there is a check upon the unlimited power to create 'truth' by fiat. The desire to persuade, the pure Socratic impulse, this new agon, is an explicit desire for power. One tries to achieve influence over the minds of others by revealing the inconsistencies of their ideas. Argument is a channel for gaining power, the effort to change other people's patterns of thought into one's own patterns of thought.
With philosophy comes the idea of the unity of truth. Plato continues Socrates's aggressive impulse. The alternative is a non-aggressive vision that apparently involves subjection to some form of tradition. The earlier Greek culture that was replaced by the Socratic revolution arguably contained a traditional psychological wisdom, which was lost. While to admirers of Aeschylus this may seem a great shame, several of Aeschylus's plays have survived, and it is unhelpful to speculate whether there were any more works of genius likely from that quarter. If we project ourselves back into Socrates's particular time, we see the pretensions he faced, which have parallels in later ages. Perhaps the Aeschylean tradition might have continued, as something beautiful and profound. But we recall that many people today, including fascists and communists, also aim to create a profound and beautiful world. If we want to wreck their visions, it is not because we can prove, theoretically, that they are not beautiful or deep.
In modern civilisation various ideals of so called health are held up, against so called resentment. If we oppose them out of our own resentment and ambition, this too may further scientific progress. Even if is true that the scientific attitude has brought us to the edge of disaster, it still offers the terms in which we can think of possible ways forward. The scientific truth that emerges is what we appeal to in the case of argument. It is what ambition gets a hold on. Without such a reference point ambition hardly suffices for philosophy.
The point is not to go back to something presocratic. In our own situation we react against what offends us. To that extent we are 'reactive'. We want to overthrow our enemies, in the first place destroy their power over our own minds. We can hope to do this in a non-deceiving way, the way of discovery, rather than of obfuscation. Then, having satisfied our resentment, we may enjoy our triumph and relax, playfully yielding ourselves to whatever enjoyment is on offer, at least as much as that promised by the tyrannical system from which we have dissented. To accept happiness on our enemy's terms would be weak and submissive.
Not that we are to remain content with philosophy in its present practice. Traditionally philosophy proceeds by collapsing distinctions. Even much Nietzsche interpretation involves some typically philosophical idea such as that we can do without morality, or the concept of self or truth. Philosophy in this sense is 'paradoxical'. It still continues, despite heroic attempts to overcome it. The most ingenious solutions to philosophical problems can hardly be final when alternatives are always springing up. This presents a problem that Kant, Hegel, Hume, claimed to have faced and settled centuries ago. It refused to go away, and Wittgenstein was much concerned with it. The undecidability of metaphysics has been well established, and yet metaphysics still goes on as so much apparently futile argumentation. The motive to reach finality is a kind of aggression directed against intellectual authority, greater than that required to play the game and produce more competing theories. The resentment that initiated philosophy is also the striving to bring it to an end.
Nietzsche: - The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of
Morals. tr. Golffing. New York 1956
Human All Too Human. tr. Faber & Lehman.
Twilight of the Idols and the Antichrist.
tr. Hollingdale Harmondsworth (Penguin) 1968
The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner
tr. Kaufmann. New York 1967
Bruns, Gerald L: - Hermeneutics, Ancient and Modern.
New Haven. Yale University Press. 1992
Nehamas:- Nietzsche a Life as Literature.
Cambridge Mass. 1985
Kauffmann:- Nietzsche Philosopher Psychologist Antichrist
Plato:- The life and Death of Socrates tr. Tredennick
Harmondsworth (Penguin) 1969
The Collected Dialogues. ed Hamilton & Cairns
return to home page