Nietzsche versus Socrates

“Socrates, to confess it frankly, is so close to me that almost always I fight a fight against him.”

K. J. L. Kjeldsen
Noontide Magazine


— Nietzsche (fragment, 1875)

Socrates (470–399 BC), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900 AD)

Alpha and Omega

No philosopher has been more revered throughout history than Socrates. He was an unpopular figure in his own time, because he challenged the artists, statesmen, and other philosophers of Athens to explain their reasoning for what they held to be true. His unmitigated skepticism soured the community against him, and led to Socrates’ eventual downfall — but it is for this same reason that Socrates has been immortalized.

The persona of Socrates and his arguments come to us primarily through the writings of his student, Plato. Contained therein is a jewel of world literature, a philosophical treasure trove. It is for this reason that A.N. Whitehead remarked that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Whitehead was not saying that Plato figured out all of philosophy. The ideas of Socrates aren’t valuable because they are indisputably true. What is valuable in Plato’s writings is the archetype of Socrates. It is the Socratic method, the Socratic approach to life, the personal ethic of subjecting every truth to interrogation. This is the blueprint for the philosopher and his ethos. In Whitehead’s words, “[Plato’s] inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization [has] made his writing an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.”

Socrates and his student Plato launched a philosophical dialogue that has continued for millennia. As a general rule, all western philosophers from Descartes to Rousseau to Kant to Schopenhauer more or less paid their tributes to Socrates. Maybe even especially when they criticized him. He was universally acknowledged as the father of philosophical thought, after all — and this awarded him a certain untouchable position.

That is, until Nietzsche.

Like Socrates, Friedrich Nietzsche also inaugurated a new era in philosophy. He was the first philosopher to take a truly anti-metaphysical stance, and a thoroughly naturalistic view of human beings. He has been called a proto-psychologist, and argued that many of our ideas about reality were more revealing about human beings than about the objective world. Irrational creatures that human beings are, Friedrich Nietzsche came to believe that some of the most valuable things to us are totally unreasonable.

He eventually argued that it was a form of sickness to elevate what he called the “Will to Truth” to the highest value of society. But this is exactly what Socrates did. Nietzsche believed our desire to question everything would result in the destruction of that which is nearest and dearest to us.

Whereas Socrates stood as an avatar of reason and skepticism against the entrenched prejudices of his culture, Nietzsche lamented that the illusions of our culture were no longer powerful enough to deceive us. We need those illusions, Nietzsche believed. They are necessary for human life. We need our communal morality to be validated by the transcendent stamp. The alternative is the modern man’s existential struggle to determine “the meaning of life”, for example, or find his “calling” — in contrast to the people of antiquity, for whom these questions were already settled and which therefore were not bothered about them at all.

You only start asking questions about how the system works when it isn’t working. You only start asking, “Why are we living like this?” when your way of life leaves something to be desired.

His first book addressed Socrates directly, and it was there that the radical attack began. Nietzsche writes, in Birth of Tragedy #18 (Kaufmann trans., pg. 110):

Our whole modern world… proposes as its ideal the theoretical man equipped with the greatest forces of knowledge, and laboring in the service of science, whose archetype and progenitor is Socrates… How unintelligible must Faust, the modern cultured man, who is in himself intelligible, have appeared to a true Greek — Faust, storming unsatisfied through all the faculties, devoted to magic and the devil from a desire for knowledge; Faust, whom we have but to place beside Socrates for the purpose of comparison, in order to see that modern man is beginning to divine the limits of this Socratic love of knowledge.

Faust, of course, is the protagonist of Goethe’s famous play, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for all the knowledge and pleasure in the world. Nietzsche was heavily influenced by the ideas of Goethe, and saw Faust as the end, or the “limit” of the Socratic project of philosophy. The story of Faust adumbrates the limits of the theoretical outlook — the view of Truth as the highest good, and the belief that human knowledge can encompass the world. Faust is, for Nietzsche, a living bridge leading from the limitations of theory and the eventual dissatisfaction therewith. Faust searches for an end to knowledge, for the zenith of human happiness, yearning for “a coast in the wide waste of the ocean of knowledge”.

If Socrates is the Alpha of philosophy, then Nietzsche is philosophy’s Omega. For Socrates, the theoretical view was a hope, and a possibility — something still to come. It was the way to The Good Life. From Nietzsche’s perspective, however, the theoretical view had taken its course, and had led us to a dead end. The Socratic Will to Truth was simply the beautiful dim glow at the sunset of a dying culture.

It is in the way Socrates died that we find most powerful Nietzschean criticism. As the story goes, Socrates was convicted by an Athenian jury for failing to obey the gods of the city, and for corrupting the youth. Socrates did not fight against this outcome, and serenely accepted his death. The traditional philosophical view of this story was of Socrates as a martyr for reason. The man who held to his principles and would not budge an inch. In this way, the philosophical tradition lionized Socrates.

But Nietzsche saw things completely differently. He writes, in The Gay Science #340:

Whether it was death, or the poison, or piety, or wickedness — something or other loosened [Socrates’] tongue at that moment, and he said : “O Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepios.” For him who has ears, this ludicrous and terrible “last word” implies: “O Crito, life is a long sickness!” Is it possible! A man like him, who had lived cheerfully and to all appearance as a soldier, — was a pessimist! He had merely put on a good demeanour towards life, and had all along concealed his ultimate judgment, his profoundest sentiment! Socrates, Socrates had suffered from life!

By invoking Asclepios, as the god of medicine, Socrates was implicitly calling life a disease — and death the cure.

The implications here are the reason for the harshest Nietzschean criticism of Socrates: that his philosophy was ultimately one of life-denial. Man as a rational being is incompatible with man as a living being. By associating ourselves with our rational mind, we grow disenchanted with our physical body and its limitations. We grow to distrust our own nature, carnal and irrational as it is. For whatever respect he had for Socrates, Nietzsche repudiated this viewpoint.

It’s not uncommon to find amateur commentators on Nietzsche who will tell you that Nietzsche hated Socrates. On the other hand, Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche’s most celebrated translator, fought to emphasize Nietzsche’s longstanding admiration for Socrates.

In truth, Nietzsche’s position on Socrates is multifaceted. There are both genuine nuances and stark inconsistencies in his thought. Frankly, his relationship with Socrates was not unlike a relationship with a real human being: fraught with complexity, with moments of both great affection and great antipathy. To gain a genuine understanding of how Nietzsche saw the founder of philosophy, we will have to reject the black and white framings, and examine the relationship and opposition between these two great minds through various shades of gray.

Socrates the Lebensphilosoph

“I admire the courage and wisdom of Socrates in all he did, said — and did not say.”

— The Gay Science, #340

In 1864, a young Nietzsche, who had just graduated from the prestigious Schulpforta school, was accepted as a student at Bonn University.

There, he studied under the leading philologists of the day, Otto Jahn and Friedrich Ritschl. His mentors immediately recognized him as brilliant. The young Nietzsche fell in love with the Greeks. As a student of the classics, he wrote extensively on them. He learned many languages, including Latin, Italian, French and Ancient Greek. In 1869, he was granted a professorship at Basel at the age of 24, and the University of Leipzig awarded him a doctoral degree without Nietzsche even having authored a doctoral dissertation.

We don’t therefore have a dissertation to sum up Nietzsche’s views on the Greeks at this time. But we do know his Lieblingsdichtung, or favored work: Plato’s Symposium. It is difficult to argue, then, that Nietzsche’s view on Socrates was anything like hatred, no more than we could characterize it as unqualified admiration.

What did Nietzsche see in this particular Socratic dialogue? There are a number of elements that probably interested Nietzsche. The dialogue in the Symposium concerns the topic of love, and thus involves the examination of human psychology: our motivations, our desires, what it means to love. Socrates, towards the end of the dialogue, invokes the principle of eros as a sort of eternal, underlying drive that motivates all human action. The project of discovering psychological principles to explain human motivations would obsess Nietzsche for most of his career.

Furthermore, Nietzsche was enamored with the Greek culture, which he felt was far healthier and more robust than ours. Central to this assessment of the Greeks were the Greek values of friendship and rivalry. The symposium was the arena where cultured minds could sharpen their wits in battle with one another.

Authors as distant from each other as Theognis and Plato agree in seeing the symposium as a model for the city, a gathering where men may examine themselves in a playful but nonethless important way. Here we should note the repeated use of the word βάσανος (‘touchstone’, ‘test’…) to describe the symposium. Moreover at the symposium poetry plays a significant part in teaching the participants the characteristics required of them to be good men.¹

Nietzsche always had criticism for Socrates. But even if we look to his earliest writings, this criticism is accompanied by an acknowledgment of the first philosopher’s greatness and his positive contributions to civilization. In his lecture on Heraclitus, Nietzsche called Socrates “the first philosopher of life [Lebensphilosoph]”, and says that in the example of Socrates, “Thought serves life, while in all previous philosophers life served thought and knowledge” (17). This may be surprising in light of what Nietzsche has said elsewhere about Socrates’ death.

In a section of that lecture where he specifically discusses the Apology, and Socrates’ voluntary death, Nietzsche does not discuss it as an example of life-denial:

Thus one must consider his magnificent apology: he speaks before posterity… he wanted death. He had the most splendid opportunity to show his triumph over human fear and weakness and also the dignity of his divine mission. Grote says: death took him hence in full magnificence and glory, as the sun of the tropics sets… with him the line of original and typical “sophoi” [sages] is exhausted: one may think of Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Democritus, and Socrates. Now comes a new era…

In another lecture, entitled, “The Study of the Platonic Discourses”, Nietzsche calls the Apology a “masterwork of the highest rank”.

In The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche implicitly associates Socrates with a model for the future of moral and rational behavior. Nietzsche is concerned with where men will find their blueprints for action, their ideals, their idols so to speak, following the wane of Christianity. He writes in Wanderer #86:

Socrates: If all goes well, the time will come when, to develop oneself morally-rationally, one will take up the memorabilia of Socrates rather than the Bible, and when Montaigne and Horace will be employed as precursors and guides to the understanding of the simplest and most imperishable mediator-sage, Socrates… Above the founder of Christianity, Socrates is distinguished by the gay kind of seriousness and that wisdom full of pranks which constitutes the best state of the soul of man. Moreover, he had greater intelligence.

This passage is particularly elucidating because Socrates is placed in comparison to Jesus. Nietzsche’s opinions on Jesus are still complicated, but a little easier to understand. In his view, Jesus is a rare, exceptional individual who lived in total denial of the world. Like Socrates, his followers would change the meaning of his message profoundly.

But unlike Socrates, Nietzsche would never associate Jesus with “gay seriousness” and the “best state of the soul”; Nietzsche wrote of Jesus as a profoundly sick soul, in spite of how powerful his example may have been. We’ll return to the question of Jesus and Socrates when we examine Socrates’ death in more detail.

To put a fine point on the argument for Socrates as Lebensphilosoph, and thus as a kind of role model for Nietzsche, we may simply compare Socrates’ iron skepticism to Nietzsche’s own persistent interrogation of the morality and the beliefs of his own time. Nietzsche muses in The Dawn that inquiring into the moral values of one’s society is in itself immoral, and dangerous. This is perhaps why, in Twilight of Idols, he really plays up the association of Socrates with criminals. Nietzsche himself engaged in this kind of “criminal behavior”: the words “immoral and dangerous” mean something quite different to Nietzsche than they do to most people. Even though he attacked the illusions that are necessary life, the attack on those illusions may itself have been necessary.

Nietzsche explains this principle in Twilight of Idols’ first section, “Maxims and Arrows”, #36:

Are we immoralists harming virtue? No more than anarchists harm princes. Only because the latter are shot at do they once more sit securely on their thrones. Moral: morality must be shot at.

The most flattering possible Nietzschean picture of Socrates is therefore that he was a “master criminal” in this respect. He shot at the Greek morality like no one had ever shot at it.

Socrates the Decadent

“Did the wicked Socrates corrupt [Plato] after all ? Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all? Did he deserve his hemlock?

Preface to Beyond Good and Evil

If Socrates was a sort of teacher or role model for Nietzsche, we should by no means expect this to shield him from Nietzsche’s criticism. It was, in fact, Nietzsche’s teachers and mentors— whether Schopenhauer, or Wagner, or Socrates — who received some of the harshest criticism. (Nietzsche wrote, in Zarathustra: “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil only”, I.22.)

Walter Kaufmann, in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, contextualizes the Nietzschean criticism of Socrates. While Kaufmann’s view is considered by some to be too conciliatory in its approach to Nietzsche v/s Socrates, he is nevertheless insightful here:

Socrates, while definitely a decisive “turning point” in history, is the very embodiment of Nietzsche’s highest ideal: the passionate man who can control his passions. Here, as in Goethe, he found a man who had “given style to his character” (FW 290) and “disciplined himself to wholeness” (G IX 49). Such men, however, live, more often than not, on the threshold of what Nietzsche called decadence; and they perform their great deed of self-creation and integration on the verge of destruction and disintegration (cf. X, 412).

With this in mind, let’s consider the first criticism of Nietzsche’s against Socrates that appears in The Birth of Tragedy. In this work, Nietzsche calls Socrates the “mystagogue of science”, who initiated a new school of philosophy that elevated logic, inquiry and skepticism to the top of the culture’s table of values. This is how Nietzsche characterized the Alexandrian era of Ancient Greece.

Nietzsche argues that the playwright Euripedes, who was influenced by Socrates, incorporated the Socratic view in his dramas: that the individual can be confined “within a limited sphere of solvable problems”. This is in stark contrast to the praise Nietzsche gives throughout the book for the drama of the previous era: Hellenic Greece. The plays of Homer and Archilochus, for example, were fundamentally tragic in their outlook. Since Socrates ushered in the age of the theoretic man, the overthrow of Hellenic Greece is styled in Birth of Tragedy as “the war of the theoretic against the tragic”.

In his 1886 preface to Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche gives something of a key to understanding the grounds for his criticism there. He explains that he views the theoretic, scientific, and/or optimistic approach to life as a sign of sickness or decline. Meanwhile, Nietzsche says that the inclination towards tragedy in the Hellenic age was a “neurosis of the healthy”:

Is pessimism necessarily the sign of decline, of decay, of failure, of exhausted and weakened instincts? — … Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, awful, evil, problematical in existence, owing to well-being, to exuberant health, to fullness of existence?… And again: that of which tragedy died, the Socratism of morality, the dialectics, contentedness and cheerfulness of the theoretical man — indeed? might not this very Socratism be a sign of decline, of weariness, of disease, of anarchically disintegrating instincts?… Well? Is scientism perhaps only fear and evasion of pessimism? A subtle defense against — truth! Morally speaking, something like falsehood and cowardice? And, unmorally speaking, an artifice? O Socrates, Socrates, was this perhaps thy secret? Oh mysterious ironist, was this perhaps thine — irony?…

The irony Nietzsche sees here is somewhat enigmatic: Socrates strikes down the myths of Athens, but in doing so creates his own myth. This myth is logic, or to speak more practically, science, as a “solution” to the “problem of life”. This is quite separate from question of the validity of science or its Truth-value in contrast to religious or revelatory truths: the issue is the moral assessment of Truth as the highest good. Socrates offered salvation from a tragic world in the form of the devotion to “Truth”, and thereby placing human life in service to the truth as a new sacred value.

To sum up Nietzsche’s thought on Socrates’ place as a “Decadent”, we might look to the book Twilight of Idols, where Nietzsche devotes an entire chapter to the “Problem of Socrates”. He writes, in #11:

I have now explained how Socrates fascinated: he seemed to be a doctor, a Savior. Is it necessary to expose the errors which lay in his faith in “reason at any price”? — It is a piece of self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists to suppose that they can extricate themselves from degeneration by merely waging war upon it. They cannot thus extricate themselves; that which they choose as a means, as the road to salvation, is in itself again only an expression of degeneration — they only modify its mode of manifesting itself: they do not abolish it. Socrates was a misunderstanding. The whole of the morality of amelioration — that of Christianity as well — was a misunderstanding. The most blinding light of day: reason at any price; life made clear, cold, cautious, conscious, without instincts, opposed to the instincts, was in itself only a disease, another kind of disease — and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” and to happiness.

The reason why the decadent philosopher cannot extricate himself from decadence by criticizing it is simple: the criticism of a truly decadent culture can only hasten its decline. The myth that replaced the dying culture, while it was admirable insofar as it led to a life-philosophy of “mastering the passions”, was nevertheless crude and plebeian. Mastering the passions by suppressing them may have been necessary in a period of widespread cultural conflict and dissolution, but in the longterm it is deletirious to life, just as “we no longer admire dentists who pluck out teeth so that they won’t hurt anymore.” At the edge of creation and destruction, Socrates was both the Lebensphilosoph — and a symptom of decline.

Socrates the Martyr

“I shall show you the consummating death, which shall be a spur and a promise to the living. The man consummating his life dies his death triumphantly, surrounded by men filled with hope and making solemn vows. Thus one should learn to die: and there should be no festivals at which such a dying man does not consecrate the oaths of the living! To die thus is the best death.”

— Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Voluntary Death

It is hard not to see Socrates in Zarathustra’s description of the best kind of death. To Nietzsche, the best death will be an enticement to living.

From all we’ve examined, it is clear that Nietzsche was critical of the narrative of Socrates as a wholly positive martyr figure who died for good of philosophy. But even his view of Socrates’ death is complicated. He saw Socrates’ characterization of “death as the cure to life” to be deeply sick. Nevertheless, there was something noble in the way that Socrates died.

Voluntarily dying is praised here by Nietzsche; as is being sacrificed to the greater good in another nearby chapter in Zarathustra. These passages have presented problems for strictly individualistic takes on Nietzsche. Life affirmation, apparently, can even involve self-sacrifice. Jesus is identified there as one who died a voluntary death, but is criticized in that passage not for martyring himself, but for being one who died “too early” and “not at the right time” (which is incredibly blasphemous in a religious context). This is in contrast with Socrates.

On a superficial level, there is much in common between what Nietzsche said about both Socrates and Jesus. While it is also commonplace to characterize Nietzsche’s attitude towards these two figures as overall negative, however, there is definitely a perceptible difference in the way they are treated.

As regards both: Nietzsche had more respect for the men himself than for their followers, and he praised them for some things and criticized them for others. In a very significant way, both men represented a sort of sickness, and an exceptional response to sickness. And both men died voluntarily.

But Nietzsche’s view of Christianity, while also nuanced, is nothing short of scathing. Christianity is nihilism in sheep’s clothing — in it, there is “nothing that even touches reality” (from the Anti-Christ, #31), and all value is invested in a world beyond. According to the myth of Jesus that would follow him, Jesus dies in a contrived cosmic drama, in a death that cannot really be called “Free” — not Free in the Nietzschean sense, anyway. Jesus invites death because he lives in the immediate “kingdom of heaven” and has no attachment to this life or this world. Jesus denies that there was ever anything of value in the physical world.

For Socrates, however, his death is a statement, a repudiation, a matter of principle. There is something valuable in this world: the pursuit of knowledge. Socrates dies because he refuses to compromise himself in this quest. In effect, Socrates is dying to preserve what he is, and not betray the mission that had thus far guided his life. To the old philosopher who’d endured to a ripe, old age, what better way to live his truth and leave his imprint on history?

Socrates‘s death is therefore treated with far more ambivalence than Christianity. As is a common tack with Nietzsche, his martyrdom is viewed as something necessary rather than simply “good”, or “bad”. He writes in Twilight, “The Problem of Socrates” #9:

…Socrates divined still more. He saw right through his noble Athenians; he perceived that his case, his peculiar case, was no exception even in his time. The same kind of degeneracy was silently preparing itself everywhere: ancient Athens was dying out.

Nietzsche seems to have just as much scorn as he does respect the fact that Socrates was “the buffoon [Hanswurst] who made others take him seriously”. He references Socrates’ ugliness & plebeian descent in this section. Nietzsche says that we must not be ungrateful to Socratism, however. He argues that Socrates “understood that all the world needed him — his means, his cure, his personal artifice of self-preservation… one had only one choice: either to perish or — to be absurdly rational.

It is telling the fact that we find this nuanced characterization in even the most critical Nietzschean takes on Socrates: the Nietzschean interpretation of his death. To return to the first attack on Socrates in Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wonders what might have happened to European civilization had there never been a Socrates (Birth of Tragedy #15):

…in Socrates the one turning point… of world history. For if one were to think of this whole incalculable sum of energy… as not employed in the service of knowledge… then the instinctive lust for life would probably have been so weakened in general wars of annihilation… that suicide would have become a general custom, and individuals might have experienced the final remnant of a sense of duty when… strangling their parents and friends…

We might be skeptical that Socrates might have actually had such a monumental affect on the whole course of world history, as to prevent the world from degenerating into Road Warrior simply by means of his sacrifice. But regardless of this, Nietzsche saw Socrates’ martyrdom as not without its positives. At the very least, he thought it was better than the alternative.

Socrates the Critic

“Plato seems to have received the decisive thought as to how a philosopher ought to behave toward men from the apology of Socrates: as their physician, as a gadfly on the neck of man.”

— from the lecture “On the Platonic Discourses”

Socrates was known as the gadfly because he stung at anyone who claimed to have definite knowledge. Some criticisms of Socrates have thereby framed him as nothing more than a critic: one who attacks the previous claims to knowledge, but does not leave anything in the place of those claims.

As the mystagogue of science, Socrates places all values beneath the values of scientific inquiry. But the myth he leaves in place of the old myth is not equal to its task. There is something incomplete or insufficient in what Socratism offers. It fails to incorporate the passions as anything other than the opponent of reason. Scientific inquiry cannot enchant our world with the cultural illusions we need. Socratism may admit the passions as indelibly human; nevertheless, they remain a flaw of humanity in this worldview. Socratism, as we briefly touched above, sets the man as the rational animal against man as the living animal.

Kaufmann’s explanation of this is that Socratism alone offered salvation from the “age of disintegration and degeneration: Socratism alone could prevent the premature end of Western man. Yet ‘to have to fight against the instincts — that is the formula for decadence.’” Socrates’ ideology is an Alexandrian denial of the irrational, of the arbitrary, of the myth — it thus signifies an attack on the Dionysian celebration of the annihilation of the individual and his ego, by total immersion in the instincts. Kaufmann continues:

“Socratism itself is decadent and cannot produce a real cure; by thwarting death it can only make possible an eventual regeneration which may not come about for centuries.”

So where does that leave Socrates? Well, despite the fact that he is a decadent, and cannot show the way out of decline and sickness, he is nevertheless valuable insofar as he is a masterful critic, and a master of rhetoric. We should take note that Nietzsche saw the ‘test’ or ‘touchstone’ of the symposium as a bastion of Greek cultural greatness, and the sparring and rivalry of intellects as the zenith of friendship. Nietzsche writes, in Twilight of Idols, “The Problem of Socrates”, #8:

“He was the first fencing-master in the best circles in Athens. He fascinated by appealing to the combative instinct of the Greeks, — he introduced a variation into the contests between men and youths. ”

As we’ve noted, the image Nietzsche gives of the archetype of Socrates is not dissimilar from the role taken on by Nietzsche, who is considered a proto-psychologist and cultural critic. Arguably we also find some of the most valuable ideas of Nietzsche in what he criticized or attacked, and in the way that he did so. Nietzsche combated the accepted morality of his day, and in doing so similarly “introduced a variation” into the philosophical contests that had become stagnant and dogmatic.

Perhaps because of these qualities, Nietzsche comes back around to praising Socrates in his autobiographical work written during his last productive year, Ecce Homo. There, he implicitly compares himself to Socrates numerous times. While Ecce Homo obviously places Nietzsche in comparison to Jesus, Kaufmann has argued that Ecce Homo is also Nietzsche’s Apology.

Nietzsche claims in the section, “Why I am so Wise” that the reason for his wisdom is his opposition to his contemporaries. Wisdom is found in opposing the prevailing morality of his own time. This seems to be in line with the idea of the philosopher as gadfly. In “Why I write such good books”, Nietzsche writes:

“There is altogether no prouder nor, at the same time, more subtle kind of book: here and there they attain the ultimate that can be attained on earth — cynicism.”

See also Beyond Good & Evil 26: “Cynicism is the only form in which mean souls touch honesty”. Whenever Nietzsche is associated with cynicism, the term is usually associated with something like “pessimism”. Here, Nietzsche means cynicism to be roughly synonymous with cultural criticism, and general nay-saying.

Socrates the Destiny

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

Perhaps the best summary of Nietzsche’s view on Socrates is found in the preface to Beyond Good & Evil:

“To astrology and its ‘supra-terrestrial’ claims we owe the grand style of the architecture in Asia and Egypt. It seems that all great things first have to bestride the earth in monstrous and frightening masks in order to inscribe themselves in the hearts of humanity with eternal demands: dogmatic philosophy was such a mask…”

As he goes on to say in that same preface, directly addressing the great error of Socrates and his student Plato: “Let us not be ungrateful to it”.

Nietzsche began his career with a somewhat positive view of Socrates, but we must nevertheless conclude that he saw a fatal danger in the myth of the first philosopher. It represented the sacrifice of man, the living being, at the cold, stone altar of Truth.

Nevertheless, he does not outright condemn Socrates, even in his later writings. He often laments Socrates’ suicide as a sort of inextricable flaw of his otherwise mighty stature. To Nietzsche, Socrates is not an unqualified hero, but more like the typical protagonist of a Greek tragedy: the extraordinary, virtuous man, with the flaw that brings about his downfall.

Nietzsche’s critique of Socrates is less of an attack on the first philosopher as it is an attack on the convenient narratives surrounding him. These narratives are usually premised on the notion that the philosopher ought to view his task as the dispassionate search for “Truth”, and that one must seek the Truth in order to do the Good. Nietzsche says, accordingly, in The Dawn #22 that “the deepest error” of Socrates was “that ‘right knowledge must be followed by right action.’”. The Socratic faith in the potency of logic to bend every mind to its power is perhaps their most naive prejudice — and one which still holds sway over us today.

Socratism is decadent. It is plebeian. But its hostile influence on art “again and again prompts a regeneration of art” (Birth of Tragedy, #15). Without the Socratic apotheosis of the rationalistic tendency, Nietzsche believed that Europe may have destroyed itself.

Nietzsche wondered “whether the birth of an ‘artistic Socrates’ is altogether a contradiction in terms” (Ibid) — hinting that Socrates sits right at the heart of Nietzsche’s perennial quest to overcome the pathological western relationship between reason and passion. This is exemplified in the stubborn clinging to mankind as a rational being, even going so far as Socrates did: to oppose art and poetry and suggest their censorship.

The decadence of the Socratics was the war against the impulses, and their plebeianism was revealed in the myth of optimism. It is the failure to overcome the decadence and plebeianism of Socratism that arguably led to Christianity: the complete separation of mind from body (in the doctrine of the immortal soul) and the sinful body set against the enlightened mind. The advent of Socratism was therefore both a danger and an opportunity, and that is largely how Nietzsche treats the topic.

Nietzsche believed that however novel or disconnected from history they seem, our modern conflicts are therefore in some sense inherited from the philosophical lineages that began in Athens, with Socrates. This is why, in spite of his great love for them, he writes in The Gay Science, “we must overcome even the Greeks”.

[1] (N.T. Croally, Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the function of tragedy, Cambridge University Press (1994), pages 18–19)

Quotes from Nietzsche’s lectures and unpublished works found in W. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist



K. J. L. Kjeldsen
Noontide Magazine

Musician who has been touring for the past eight years. I write autodidact philosophy, memoirs, short stories and cultural criticism.