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and the Challenge of Socrates In the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche builds on the notion of “slave morality” and ressentiment as discussed in the previous essay, and constructs what he believes to be the origin of guilt and “bad conscience.” Nietzsche disposes of the popular conception that guilt was borne out of a sense of moral wrongdoing, and strips away the husk of moral abstraction to arrive at the core truth – guilt is nothing more than a debtor’s fear of punishment for failing to repay his creditor. After proceeding to apply the “debtor-creditor” analogy to the creation and maintenance of societal mores and laws, Nietzsche arrives at two conclusions – firstly, society’s laws and mores are meant to condition the moral individual and force them to obey the laws, and secondly, a society’s strength will dictate the strength and frequency that punishment is meted out to those who violate the law. In Socrates, Nietzsche finds both an exemplar and a challenging anomaly. The trial and sentencing of Socrates exemplifies the correlation between strength of a society and strength and frequency of punishment. The “internalization” of Socrates, and what Nietzsche would declare to be a “bad conscience,” on the other hand, tests Nietzsche’s concept of justice and morality. Section ten of essay two begins as such, “As its power increases, a community ceases to take the individual’s transgressions so seriously because they can no longer be considered as dangerous and destructive to the whole as they were formerly.”1 Nietzsche would then lead us to believe that the converse is also true – a weak and fragile community would consider every infraction to be seriously detrimental to society’s order, and would, therefore, exact severe
The story of Euthyphro epitomizes the Athens’ newly found strict imposition of the law. Athenian society being terribly self-conscious of its own weakness. Euthyphro serves as an example as how law has come to supersede even the closest of familial ties. Nietzsche elaborates. The once great democracy of Athens was thrown into turmoil and tyranny after being defeated in the Peloponnesian War by the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League and the subsequent rule of the Thirty Tyrants. “As the power and self-confidence of a community increase.punishment on the culprit as a means of asserting (or reasserting) its fledgling hold on power. the penal law always becomes more moderate. he relies . Furthermore. but the Athenian people were stripped of their pride and found their beloved society in danger of collapse. Socrates’ objection to this is not lost on the reader. Socrates objects to this and finds it absurd to charge one’s own father with a heinous crime. The defeat was doubly costly as not only was Athens stripped of her mighty protective walls and all her territories. thirsted to reassert its power by imposing strict penalties on anyone who was believed to challenge their mores and norms. but is interpreted by the community as a rebellious rejection of society’s laws. At the time of Socrates’ trial and execution.”2 The Athens of Socrates’ day provides a fine example of a weak and imperiled society. By seeking to charge his own father with murder on the basis that the law commands him to do so. the political and social climate of post-war Athens was tense. In the wake of the defeat. every weakening or imperiling of the former brings with it a restoration of the harsher forms of the latter. Athens was in a state of destruction. when Euthyphro is pressed to explain his expertise on religion and piety. Socrates was perceived as a serious threat to the community of Athens as he questioned the status quo. Accordingly. to say the least. Euthyphro’s interpretation of the law is so strict that it discounts any possibility of negligence on his father’s behalf.
Yet. The defense of “it is because I said so. Nietzsche is essentially saying that society is based on tyranny of the minority. however. Being charged with the crime of heresy. in this rejection. believing himself to be wise and holding atheist values as a natural philosopher. charging a fee.” Socrates rejects such a defense to the point that he deems Euthyphro to be a fool. unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. being a sophist. The charge of corrupting the youth.”3 With this.“it is because I said so. Socrates does more than reject the immediate argument. The trumped up charges brought against Socrates by his accusers are baseless and fraught with prejudice and fear. is difficult for him to disprove. With the aforementioned in mind. Athenian society is seeking to fulfill what Nietzsche calls the “right of masters”4 – the creation or affirmation of one’s power and authority over another through punishment – in light of its own weakness. organized for war and with the ability to organize. It is in this accusation alone. The oppression of the majority at the hands of the smaller. as the youth of the nobility do follow him around and mimic his “Socratic” method of taking nothing for granted and questioning everything he is confronted with. Socrates is accused of corrupting the youth. that Nietzsche would see as the reason Socrates was put to death. it becomes clear that through the trial and execution of Socrates. nearly every charge brought against him is unfounded and. As Socrates’ defense in the Apology shows. “a conqueror and master race which. Nietzsche describes the rise of the society as. will and power. for the most part. . he is actually rejecting how society functions. In part seventeen of essay two. yet more powerful nobility is nothing more than an affirmation of their own strength.” derives from the same affirmation of power.on an appeal to his own authority . simply untrue.
of the negative implication that man may (and often does) acquire a “bad conscience. would have been tolerant of such rebellion. society saw itself as obligated to exact such a draconian penalty. the nobility find Socrates’ eccentricities threatening as they see their own children. mimicking his ways. Fearing that their children may one day overturn the society that they worked so hard to build and maintain (subjugating a majority is no easy task) it seems natural that they would want to “neutralize” any rabble-rousers who challenge their authority. however.” Nietzsche argues that society. Nietzsche. but rather. as the people of Athens needed to be reminded that they have a responsibility and duty to uphold the law of the land. The psychology of the accusers reveals them to be highly insecure in the face of Socrates’ “different” and non-conformist behavior. Yet there is more to the nobility’s decision to execute Socrates. Nietzsche does warn. Already insecure after losing the war. Man. keep his anger to himself.”5 Nietzsche claims that man develops a “bad conscience” because society forces him to rid . Yet how do we explain Socrates’ willingness and self-righteous duty to question the status quo? According to Nietzsche. dubs this process the “internalization of man. Socrates becomes an enemy of the wounded state. While Athens. Hence. hence. the future leaders of Athens. society and its laws were established to tame the bestial instinct of man and condition him to be a moral law-abiding individual.Through inspiring the children of the nobility to question the ways and beliefs of their parents. Through a Nietzschean lens. however. as a subjugator of instinctual free will. the political environment of Athens after the war is not one that can be as tolerant or forgiving. will not act out against such tyranny. prior to war. it becomes apparent why Socrates had to be put to death – he broke the law at a time when the laws were vulnerable. may inspire the creation of resentment in man towards the repression of his freedom.
himself of inherent impulses that would offer him pleasure if he were allowed to act purely on instinct. the greater society’s demands become. in turn. as any man with a “bad conscience” would. In doing so. Socrates does so through what could be considered a mission to check the power and views of society by questioning its rationale behind the choices it imposes on the people – societal accountability if you will. He believes that the people have the ability to hold society and the government accountable through questioning the logic of its leaders. Hence. He also rejects the ideal of justice in itself. Nietzsche believes in an oppressive society that comes to power through tyranny exerted by a minority on a majority. Socrates. the less a man can act on his instinct and the greater he internalizes his resentment and drive for base pleasure. and that he should not break society’s laws because society has ruled against him unfairly. and holds the basis of justice to be contingent upon the will of the ruling nobility. It is not a matter of Socrates being conditioned by society. He also accepts his part of the social contract. but actually acts upon his free will and challenges the society that seeks to limit him. This is where Nietzsche’s belief in a society by tyranny comes into direct opposition with Socrates’ belief in a primitive form of the social contract. it is a matter of how each thinker perceives justice and the basis for society. forces him to seek pleasure and rebellion internally. Socrates proves to be an enigma to Nietzsche as he internalizes his instinctual freedom. . Society designs mores and laws to eradicate such instinctual drives. on the other hand. which. rather. as exemplified in the Crito when he declares that injustice should not be met with further injustice. truly appreciates the democracy that he lives in (no matter how limited it appears to us today). he sees it as his duty – a divine one in his eyes – to check the power and legitimacy of Athenian laws and mores.
it will eventually be realized. Where Nietzsche sees man and its creation – society – as the highest power. Socrates sees the ideals of justice and the social contract. Here is where he is able to find solace in the fact that although injustice done unto him. regardless if the present leaders of society condones such unfairness. in itself. By cutting out the middleman of society. unclouded by society’s interpretations and contrivances. he is able to derive a notion of pure justice. End Notes .Socrates sees justice as the absolute determinant of right and wrong/good and bad. rather than society’s interpretation.
5 Ibid. Ed. New York: Vintage Books. 86.1 Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals. . On the Genealogy of Morals. Works Cited Nietzsche. and translated by Walter Kaufman. Friedrich. 1989. 3 Ibid. Ed. and translated by Walter Kaufman. 1989: 72. New York: Vintage Books. 2 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 84. Friedrich. 65.
Grube. Indianapolis. Five Dialogues.M. and translated by G.A. 2002. . Second Edition. Ed.Plato. Indiana: Hackett Publishing.
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