Socrates, Plato, And Christianity Through The Eyes Of Friedrich Nietzsche Essay, Research Paper
Socrates has undoubtedly had a major impact upon western philosophy and society in general. Plato, whose work is essentially an elaboration and expansion upon that of Socrates, has had a similar effect. Naturally, these two philosophers have been subjects of immense academic interest for over two thousand years. With this great interest comes both praise and criticism. One of the most critical writers to attack these legendary philosophers was Friedrich Nietzsche. Here I will examine Nietzsche?s arguments, draw evidence to support such arguments, and discuss his notion of Christianity as an extension of such philosophy.
From Nietzsche?s viewpoint, Socrates and Plato were to Greek society symptoms of societal decay, or as Nietzsche usually puts it ?decadence? (Nietzsche 39). In his attack on Western Philosophy throughout Twilight of the Idols, he purports the main weakness of Socrates to be evident in the delivery of his philosophy, or more specifically dialectics. Socrates was never a rich man and belonged to the lowest of the socioeconomic classes in Athens. Nietzsche claims that, ?With dialectics the rabble gets on top?, the rabble in this case being Socrates (Nietzsche 41). Socrates repeatedly takes on the government in various matters such as the weakness of democracy the connection of justice and holiness. He uses dialectics with such techniques as elenchus to use complex arguments to loosely back up his statements or to confuse his opponent into submission. Before Socrates, the dialectical manner of argument was widely looked down upon. The ?good society? considered dialectics as bad manners. Parents warned their children against such arguments purporting that such arguments were not to be trusted. Nietzsche?s rationale for this mistrust was that honest things should be able to stand alone as honest without the implication of a complex argument. In Athens, where authority lay primarily in commands as opposed to reason and discussion, the dialectician is not usually taken seriously (Nietzsche 41). According to Nietzsche, dialectics are such cowardly weapons that they should be used only as a last resort. He believes this cowardice to lie in the way the opponent must prove he was an idiot rather than the dialectician proving his wisdom (Nietzsche 42). Socrates used dialectics as a substitute for true superiority over his stronger opponents, and thus made his way to the forefront of Greek philosophy.
Nietzsche asserts that Socrates? ideas, rather than working toward their intended purpose of developing thought and bringing wisdom to a new level, instead worked against the progress of society. This problem stems from Socrates? equation of reason with virtue with happiness. By this, Socrates was merely trying to suppress his dark desires by producing a so-called ?permanent daylight of reason? (Nietzsche 44). He, as well as many other philosophers of his time, believed that in attacking that which was commonly thought to be this moral decadence, he could somehow elude such decadence himself. The way in which he combats the decadence is simply another, disguised expression of decadence. He seemed to bask in a sort of ?rational daylight? in a ?bright, circumspect, life? (Nietzsche 44). He believed himself to be living without instinct and in opposition therein. This rationalism at any cost was simply another sickness, and certainly not a path, as it was intended to be, back to health and happiness. Socrates even seems to realize this in retrospect towards the end of his life: ?Socrates is no physician?Death alone is the physician here?Socrates has been a long time sick? (Nietzsche 44).
Socrates may have finally realized that, as Nietzsche believes, ?As long as life is ascending, happiness and instinct are one? (Nietzsche 44). Socrates endeavors to escape basic human instinct, as it could easily be labeled as the root of societal decay towards a more barbaric society. However, Nietzsche believes that one must accept and embrace this intrinsically influential element of the human psyche to be able to deal realistically with the rest of one?s self and one?s peers before societal advancement can occur (Nietzsche 49). For someone, such as Socrates, to acknowledge and hope for another higher world (e.g. the afterlife) does nothing but brings about decadence in the tangible, more important world by trying to escape it. Socrates declares in section 41c of Plato?s ?Apology?:
You too, gentleman of the jury must look forward to death with confidence, and fix your minds on this one belief, which is certain: that nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death.
This statement well illustrates Socrates? fatal error. His concentrated hope and belief in another world has taken away from his interest in the present one: he becomes total indifferent as to whether he lives and can in some way be of benefit to mankind or whether he dies and can be at a state of intellectual peace without such benefit. What is even worse is that he spreads this message to others and increases the overall indifference in society towards the tangible world, thus leading to decadence. Socrates was certainly corrupting the youth with such divine distraction and, as I am sure Nietzsche would agree, was quite guilty of this charge brought against him.
The philosophy of Socrates led to the similar philosophy of Plato, and by the time of Plato, Greek philosophy had deviated greatly from the ideas of the Hellenism, often defined as an unrestricted type of pagan love of life, which Nietzsche unabashedly embraced as the purest, Dionysian lifestyle, in contrast to Plato?s moralistic way of life. Similar to Socrates, Plato is frightened by reality and seems to flee into a state of metaphysical idealism. His proposal of Platonic Forms is a way to express perfection that is unattainable, but belongs to a higher world for which one must take great effort and strive towards. The implication of this notion for Plato and his followers is that which is referred to as a moral ?good? is established as the supreme concept (Nietzsche 117). It is obvious that Christianity is well on its way to power. Nietzsche realizes fully the growth of such a dogmatic, monotheistic religion as Christianity out of idealistic Platonism:
In the great fatality of Christianity, Plato is that ambiguity and fascination called the ?ideal?, which made is possible for the nobler natures of antiquity to misunderstand themselves and to step on too the bridge which led to the ?Cross.? (Plato 117)
Although this suggestion seems to be a simple reiteration of Schopenhauer?s concept of Christianity as ?Platonism for the masses?, it brings up some other important proposals as the basis for the popularity of Christianity. One of these is that the Church?s power has direct relation to the ambiguity of the afterlife. It is quite impossible to determine the absolute existence of an afterlife, so one can only speculate. However, the Church is fueled by this speculation, that in the case that an afterlife does exist, only those who have spent their lives contemplating it and striving towards pleasing the Supreme Being or beings to meet the requirements of entry will be enjoy its deliverance from the pains of hell. Also, simple-minded people, such as the earlier, more barbaric followers of the church, are easily excited by the supernatural notions of the unknown, in this case an afterlife, and thus this fascination comes into play.
To illustrate more clearly the connection between these ancient philosophers and the largest religion in the modern world, we can examine how the two entities operate in terms of society. Christianity, like Socrates and Plato, takes the side of everything weak. It too idealizes the opposition of human instinct. More specifically, it attacks those instincts, which serve as a preservation of strength in life. The most important of these instincts is undoubtedly the intellect. The Church teaches that the supreme values of the intellect are inherently sinful. They dismiss these values as misleading to the Will of God and label them as ?temptations?. Furthermore, Nietzsche purports that life itself is an instinct for growth, and that it leads to an accumulation of forces towards power. Where this well-known ?Will to Power? is lacking, there is decline in mankind. The actions of the Church thus lead to decadence, as they discourage such an instinct for growth in the tangible world, and thus a disguised form of nihilism is a powerful component in Christianity. (Nietzsche 129)
This effect disestablishes the Will to Power and puts power into the hands of the weak, who label themselves ?the good?. This is well illustrated in the first essay, ?Good and Evil,? ?Good and Bad?, of Nietzsche?s The Geneology of Morals, where he discusses a ?transvaluation of values?. He first separates the act of deciding value into two divisions: the aristocratic system of valuations and the priestly system of valuations. The aristocratic system, spawning from a warrior class, appreciates a ?strong physique, exuberant health? and ?conditions that guarantee its preservation: combat, adventure, the chase, war games, etc.? (Nietzsche GM 167). The priestly class, in contrast, has impotence as their only weapon. As a result, they turn to hate. Their hate is the most ?violent, cerebral, and poisonous? of all hates (Nietzsche GM 167). In the case of the priestly class being separate from the aristocratic class, and the former being lower in power than the latter, comes the transvaluation of values, simply defined as the process by which good becomes bad and bad becomes good (Nietzsche GM 167).
Nietzsche views the two thousand-year ?slave revolt? of the Jews as the most vivid example of this reversal of values. The common Judeo-Christian proverb, ?The meek shall inherit the earth?, and conversely that the noble and mighty ones will be damned, well illustrates the common disposition of hateful vengeance in the Jews towards the aristocracy (Nietzsche GM 167). Such mutual ideals and virtues spawned the growth of the deepest and most sublime love (an essential precursor to the organization of a religion), which had the same aims of hatred ? power and victory over the stronger ? but with a subtler and more seemingly positive path (Nietzsche GM 168). This love culminated in the form of Jesus, who brought blessing and victory to the weak and sinful. Jesus is, however, a paradoxical blessing to the Jews. Looking at only the superficial aspects of the situation, it seems that Jesus? death spawns the destruction of Israel. However, with the opposition of Israel?s enemies towards the killing of Jesus, these enemies are tricked, so to speak, in to accepting Jesus as the crucified God who let himself die for the benefit of mankind (Nietzsche GM 169). They thus side with Jesus, a poor Jew, and the weak, priestly class has now defeated the strong, aristocratic class.
Although not all of Nietzsche?s arguments are not as strong and well supported, he draws an astounding picture of how ancient Greek philosophy is so intricately related to Christianity. The morals and values of the modern Church are largely the product of ancient philosophy developing into moral revolutions. From Nietzsche, he learns of the supposed evils that are hidden beneath the surface of such objects, which appear to be quite innocent in nature. In summary, our examination of the criticism brought about against Socrates gives us an altogether more objective view of his philosophy and seems to put it into context.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy and The Geneology of Morals. Translated by Francis Golffing. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1968.
Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. London: Penguin Books, 1954.
Note: All Nietzsche citations refer to the second book, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, unless otherwise noted with a GM signifying The Geneology of Morals.