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Nietzsche's Rereading of Plato - Catherin Zuckert

Nietzsche's Rereading of Plato - Catherin Zuckert

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Published by Paul Sid Wren
Nietzsche's Rereading of Plato

Author(s): Catherine Zuckert

Source: Political Theory, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1985), pp. 213-238

Nietzsche's Rereading of Plato

Author(s): Catherine Zuckert

Source: Political Theory, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1985), pp. 213-238

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Published by: Paul Sid Wren on Jan 13, 2014
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CA THERINE ZUCKER T Carleton College z
HILOSOPHY TRADITIONALLY has been understood as the search for truth or wisdom. But, Nietzsche argues as early as The Birth of Tragedy, with Kant that search culminates only in the "knowledge" that we cannot know. How then can we understand this apparently sisyphean endeavor? In attempting to answer this question, Nietzsche reexamines the origins of the Western philosophic tradition in the works of Plato and his peculiar "hero," Socrates. During the course of his life's reflections, Nietzsche comes to suspect that Platonic doctrines, like "the idea of the Good" and the "immortal soul," constitute public teachings that Plato himself did not believe and that, therefore, differ markedly from Plato's own activity or philosophy properly understood. To the extent to which later philosophers built on or extended the Platonic theory of ideas, they built on a falsification, a "noble lie" or mythos, that Plato intentionally fabricated not merely to protect philosophy from political persecution but primarily to give philosophy political influ- ence. If Nietzsche's suspicion is correct, Western philosophy since Plato has proceeded on a misperception of its own origin and essential nature and must, therefore, be radically reinterpreted in light of its political origins and goals. Nietzsche's rereading of Plato is thus important, first, because it raises questions about the adequacy of the traditional understanding of philosophy and its historical development. Nietzsche would lead us to read not only Plato himself but all of Plato's successors in a most untraditional way. Second, Nietzsche's reinterpretation of Platonic philosophy brings the affirmative conclusion of his own reinterpreta- tion of Western philosophy to the fore and makes it more concrete. If there is no incorporeal, eternal, unchanging "truth," as Nietzsche
POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 13 No. 2, May 1985 213-238 1985 Sage Publications, Inc. 213
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claims, all meaning, wholeness, or completeness must assume a particular, emphatically corporeal and historical form: That is, it occurs and can only occur in an individual human being. As the only form of self-fulfilling human activity, philosophy represents the only possible source of justification for all other forms of human life; and Plato offers perhaps the only example besides Nietzsche himself. Nietzsche's challenge to the traditional understanding of philosophy is both more radical and more positive than his followers realize when they emphasize his critique of otherworldly ideas or "metaphysics."I Nietzsche suggests that there is a life truly worth living-the life of philosophy, properly understood-here and now. Third, Nietzsche's rereading of Plato explicitly raises the question of the proper relation between politics and philosophy, because Nietzsche argues that Plato intentionally hid the true nature of his own activity behind the skeptical, plebian mask of Socrates and his nihilistic metaphysical doctrines in order to have a political effect. Does political philosophy necessarily involve lying, as Nietzsche's critique of Plato suggests?2 Does Nietzsche himself escape the need for public teaching only by giving up all concern for the fate of the many nonphilosophers, by giving up politics altogether?3 Nietzsche does not come to his new reading of Plato immediately. Rather, in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche identifies Socrates as the " vortex or turning-point of so-called world history" who corrupted "the typical Hellenic youth," "the divine Plato."4 Socrates destroyed the tragic insight with his demand that everything be intelligible, but he created a new illusion to replace the tragic insight-the illusion that man could not only attain knowledge but also correct his exis- tence with the knowledge he attained. Plato merely followed Socrates in making poetry subservient to philosophy. As the destroyer of tragedy, Socrates appears to represent an essentially negative, critical, and destructive force. Claiming to have no knowledge himself, he only asks questions; he "was the only one who acknowledged to himself that he knew nothing."' "We are offered a key to the character of Socrates," Nietzsche suggests, "by the wonderful phenomenon known as 'the daimonion of Socrates.'... This voice, whenever it comes, always dissuades";6 it never prompts Socrates to act. Yet Nietzsche observes that the image of Socrates presented in the Platonic writings has a definitely positive, preser- vative rather than negative or destructive effect.
For if we imagine that whole incalculable sum of energy used up for this world tendency had been used not in the service of knowledge but forthe practical, i.e.,
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Zuckert / REREADING PLATO 215 egoistic aims of individuals and peoples, then we realize that in that case universal wars of annihilation and continual migrations of peoples would probably have weakened the instinctive lust for life to such an extent that suicide would have become a general custom. .. a practical pessimism that [has been] in the world wherever art did not appear in some form-especially as religion and science.7
By initiating the search for knowledge, Socrates gives men a new reason to live. Rather than represent he antithesis of art, it seems upon further examination hat Socrates represents a new kind of art. Modern men know that Socrates and the philosophic way of life he represents constitute an illusion, because we have learned from Kant that the search for knowledge culminates only in the knowledge that we cannot know. The source or nature of this illusory search or knowledge is not so clear, however.
[Tlhe logical drive that became manifest in Socrates ... displays a natural power such as we encounter to our awed amazement only in the very greatest instinctive forces. Anyone who, through the Platonic writings, has experienced even a breath of the divine naivete and sureness of the Socratic way of life, will also feel how the enormous driving-wheel of logical Socratism is in motion, as it were, behind Socrates, and that it must be viewed through Socrates as through a shadow.8
Socrates himself seems aware of the instinctive or nonconscious character of his activity when he insists on his divine calling. At the end of his life, moreover, Socrates himself appears to suspect that there is something missing in his own activity. "As he tells his friends in prison, there often came to him one and the same dream apparition, which always said the same thing to him: Socrates, practice music."' So in prison, Socrates finally composes a prelude to Apollo and turns a few Aesopian fables into verse: "Perhaps-thus he must have asked himself-. . . there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled? Perhaps art is even a necessary correla- tive of, and supplement for science?"9 Socrates himself thus points toward the need to complete or complement philosophy with art for philosophy to understand ts own source and nature. The disjunction between poetry and philosophy so strongly urged in The Republic, Nietzsche suggests, ultimately is false. As Nietzsche writes explicitly of "the Platonic Socrates, and as he calls longingly for the emergence of a " Socrates who practices
t seems curious hat Nietzsche does not pay more attention to the author of the new form of art that makes Socrates its dialectical
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