Plato vs Nietzsche: An ontological analysis.

Dhruva O’Shea
Nov 6, 2018 · 9 min read

Essay question: Explicate Plato’s theory of Forms in light of Nietzsche’s attack on ‘other worldliness’. Does Plato’s theory survive this criticism? Explain your position.

Introduction

In this essay I will discuss Plato’s Theory of Forms and Nietzsche’s criticism of it in relation to his attack on dogmatic “otherworldly” theories. The primary text I will use from Plato is the Phaedo, and from Nietzsche it is Beyond Good and Evil. Firstly, I will discuss how Plato developed his Theory of Forms, through Socrates’ autobiography, during dialogue with Simmias and Cebes; a dialogue on the eternality of the soul. I will then discuss Nietzsche’s rejection of Plato’s theory, and briefly provide my own position at the end.

A note before we begin: When reading Plato’s dialogues, we see that Plato uses the mouth Socrates to present his philosophy. It is therefore difficult to know for certain how much of what we read is Plato’s own ideas and how much is from the lips of the actual person Socrates. Because of this I must make it clear that when I use the name “Socrates” in this essay, I am referring the Plato’s rendition of Socrates.

Setting the stage

To set the scene for the exposition of Plato’s Theory of Forms we should know that Socrates has been sentenced to death for “rejecting the gods of the state” and for “corrupting the youth”. The Phaedo is the final conversation between Socrates and his disciples as he is preparing to drink the hemlock. Although Plato was not actually present during the conversation, he did know some who were, and it is through them, and the fictional character Phaedo, that Plato presents this Socratic dialogue.

Socrates had been training his disciples in philosophy and caring for the soul, but with the death of their beloved teacher soon approaching, they had doubts arising within their minds about what was going to happen to Socrates after death; they had doubts about the eternality of the soul. Of course, their doubts where not only for the soul of Socrates, but for their own souls also. Although they walked confidently alongside Socrates while he was roaming the streets of Athens doing philosophical surgery on innocent towns people, now that he will no longer be with them, their doubts arise. The discussion that ensues is regarding the nature of the soul; whether the soul is material and temporary, or spiritual and eternal.

Socrates gives four arguments for the eternality of the soul, the final of which introduces the Theory of Forms. The first three arguments, The Cyclical Argument, The Theory of Recollection Argument and The Affinity Argument, all appear before The Doctrines Concerning the Body and Soul (DCBS). In the DCBS, Socrates says that the soul must leave the body at death because, although the body parts are still present after a person dies, a person is clearly gone when they are dead – there is no person there – and Socrates goes on to say that the goal of life, or at least for the goal of the philosopher, is to care for the soul through philosophy so that the soul can leave pure.[1] Nietzsche has a major contension on this claim because he sees this as robbing a person from the pleasures of life in pursuit of something un-natural and even unreal. Indeed, we can see that Simmias and Cebes not only found Socrates’ claim insufficiently founded,[2] they also had the similar kind of doubts as Nietzsche or any person concerned by the decision to sacrifice the immediate bodily pleasures in pursuit of something ethereal; something that might in fact not even exist. Addressing Socrates with their concerns, Simmias and Cebes put forward one objection each.

Simmias’ objection, “The Harmony and the Lyre”,[3] in which Simmias describes the soul as the harmony produced by a lyre, disappears when the lyre is destroyed. When all the materials, the wood, the strings, are in a particular state, the state of a stringed and tuned instrument, we get beautiful harmonies and these harmonies can be likened to an epiphenomenal soul be produced temporarily by material elements. But, when the lyre is destroyed, then there can no longer be harmony. The harmony is gone even though the materials remain. Cebes’ objection is in a sense quite similar to Simmias’ in that the soul relies on the material body to exist, but the difference being that he thinks it is possible for the soul to reside in more than one body consecutively. His concern, therefore, is of the possibility that the soul itself eventually gets weak and cannot take on new bodies; just like the last cloak of cloak maker outlives the clock maker.

The birth of The Forms

It is in the Socrates’ fourth argument, the Argument from Form of Life, that Plato introduces his Theory of Forms. The way Socrates does this is by telling a kind of autobiography. When Socrates was young, he tells us, he was a natural scientist looking for the causes of things. In his searching he discovered that there are two main explanations for the cause of an action or an event. The first was the mechanical cause; a mechanical cause is something like saying that muscles and tendons opened a door. But this only describes the physical cause of an event and it leaves out any reason or purpose for the action, which is the second main cause discovered by Socrates’. The second cause is conscious will, the desire, or the intention of an individual, which is the reason given by a person for the action. For example, with the opening of the door, I could say that the cause for the door being opened was that “I wanted to let some air in”.

After finding the absence of a connection between these two causes, Socrates concluded that not only were these two causes contradictory and irreconcilable, but also neither was sufficient for explaining action and events on their own.[4] For this reason, Socrates turned to speculation and theory, and in doing so turns away from the physical world and towards the soul and asks the question afresh. What is causality? What is a cause as such? Plato was obsessed with the question of how it is even possible to do science, and this is what led him to the Theory of Forms.

Socrates believes he has found the ultimate cause; a world of absolutes in which objects of this world participate in. The way he shares this with us is by first asking us if we can conceive of absolute beauty, for example, and if indeed we agree with him that we can, he then explains that for him whenever he sees something beautiful, he sees that particular object participating in absolute goodness or absolute beauty.[5] Socrates tells Simmias and Cebes that, “in my own mind nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty… I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful… And that by greatness only great things become great and greater, and by smallness the less becomes less”.[6] In this way Socrates is makes the claim, that all things come into being through participation in their essence.[7] In other words, for Socrates, there is no way in which anything comes into existence except by participating in its essence. This participation implies a metaphysical dualism and it is my reading of the Phaedo that, for Plato, the soul is of the World of Forms and is therefore eternal.

Enter the Ubermensch

It is no secret that Nietzsche simultaneously adored and despised Plato. Being referred to at least thirty times in his Beyond Good and Evil, Plato clearly had a major influence on Nietzsche. Most of these mentions are Nietzsche attacking Plato as a philosopher, for example, calling him a “dogmatist” who introduced the “most dangerous of errors” namely “the invention of the pure spirit and the good in itself”, and these are only Nietzsche’s opening lines in the preface of the book.[8]

Nietzsche completely rejects the claims of absolutes, such as the absolute good, in favour of perspectivism. That is to say that, for Nietzsche, there is no intrinsic meaning or value in the world separate from a mind who has imposed it upon the world. In The Will to Power he says that “every belief is false because there simply is no true world”.[9] He thinks that “Plato meant to stand truth on its head” by denying perspectivism and Nietzsche goes as far as making the claim that Socrates did indeed corrupt the youth in Plato, and therefore deserved his hemlock.[10] These attempts to rationalise existence, and these calls to the otherworldliness to solve life’s problems; these calls that we find in Plato and in religions such as Christianity, which according to Nietzsche is “Platonism for the people”,[11] are “malicious philosophies” and are an act of “tyrants”.[12] They bring about the artificial suppression of the senses, of the passions, for something unreal, or not factually available to human experience, all for the sake of the rational necessity that comes with the desire to have power over particular things.[13] For Nietzsche, this attempt to capture the true world is an expression of the will to power.[14]

Their incompatibility

It is on this point of pleasure and fulfilment, it appears to me, that Plato and Nietzsche strongly disagree, and their philosophies becomes incompatible, at least at the level of analysis that I am conducting for this essay. For Plato, philosophy is the purification of the soul so that it can become free from the body, in which it is “glued”;[15] with each act on bodily pleasure or passions, being a nail that “rivets the soul to the body”.[16] This purification of ones ethereal self allows one to rejoice in the self, reunited in pure goodness, free from misidentification with matter. Plato would see bodily demands as not satisfying the soul, and he says that philosophy is “the practice of death”.[17] In contrast to Plato, Nietzsche encourages us to accept that the soul is not an eternal particle,[18] rather it is a combination of physical, mental and emotional processes; causing the self not being able to be isolated as one thing.[19] Nietzsche instead encourages us; to become free spirits, to make the most of this life in this world, to become life affirming, and to honour the will to power that we are ultimately products of and participators in.

Conclusion

I entered this task thinking I could build some kind of synthesis between the two polar-opposite views of Plato and Nietzsche, but I soon discovered that this, for me, would not be possible, given the time I allocated myself for the project and the word limit of this essay. In saying this though, I do believe it is possible, and I may attempt this as a future thesis. Indeed, we see many have grappled with the idea, and this might be because both views, taken on their own, intuitively feel incomplete. For Platonism we have the problem of dualism, or the problem of exactly is the line between spirit and matter; and for Nietzsche, we have the problem of the ever-transcendent self, i.e. no matter how much we know, there is always a knower of the known. But, because I could not achieve this synthesis on this occasion, I must take the position that Plato’s Theory of Forms does not survive Nietzsche’s criticism.

[1] Plato, Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1892, 80c-84b.

[2] Ibid, 84d.

[3] Plato, Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1892, 84c-86e.

[4] Plato, Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1892, 99c.

[5] Ibid, 100b-100c.

[6] Ibid, 100d-100e.

[7] Ibid, 1892, 100c.

[8] F. Nietzsche, R. Hollingdale & M. Tanner, Beyond Good And Evil, Penguin, London, 2003, Preface.

[9] F. Nietzsche, M. Scarpitti & R. Hill, The Will To Power, Penguin, London, 2017, 1:B:15,

[10] F. Nietzsche, R. Hollingdale & M. Tanner, Beyond Good And Evil, Penguin, London, 2003, Preface.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 1:7.

[13] B. Reginster, The Affirmation Of Life, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2008, pg 57.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Plato, Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1892, 82e.

[16] Plato, Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1892, 83d.

[17] Ibid, 81a.

[18] F. Nietzsche, R. Hollingdale & M. Tanner, Beyond Good And Evil, Penguin, London, 2003, 1:12.

[19] C. Janaway and S. Robertson, Nietzsche, Naturalism, And Normativity, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, p202–232.

Dhruva O’Shea

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Australian Yogi raised in the Gaudiya Vaisnava Bhakti yoga tradition, writing about philosophy and cultural anthropology.

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