Sunday, July 01, 2007

Plato contra Homer: Nietzsche and the Source of Value

(An essay written for an ethical philosophy course in 2004. I post it because I think it's pretty good, I love the title, and it discusses two of my favourite subjects - ancient Greek thought, and Nietzche)

In the dialogue Euthyphro, Plato raises the question: What is the nature of value? Socrates asks Euthyphro to tell him “that form itself that makes all pious actions pious” (8). Plato’s presupposition of an independently existing form or essence of piety implies a “systematic hierarchical dualism” (Magnus 263). In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche contends that this metaphysical structure led to the rise of ascetic ideals and the development of the modern universal, unopposed, and sick, morality of Western civilization.

The underlying assumption in Plato’s dialogue is that what is “good” is not a matter of convention or of arbitrary acts of valuing, but derives from an objectively existing Eidos, the Form of the Good. Plato posits a world of Forms such as Piety, Beauty and Justice, which exist independently of the apparent world of corresponding material particulars. The Form of Piety, for example, is what makes possible an understanding of an act of piety as pious – a particular instance of piety is pious only because it participates in the Form. Thus, since the Forms are valuable in themselves and confer value to particulars in the material world, the world of Forms constitutes a superior reality. In other words, Plato’s positioning of an absolute reality in opposition to natural human existence creates a metaphysical dualism that favours the universal over the particular. Moreover, since the universal is independent of, but nevertheless confers value on, the particular, it follows that nothing in the ordinary world is valuable in itself, but depends for its value on the absolute. According to Nietzsche, this moral framework has remained unquestioned and fundamental to every system of morality throughout Western history, though it has taken on different content. For example, in Christianity humans receive their value from an absolute, perfect God. In the Kantian model, the moral absolute is the categorical imperative, which, although inherent in human consciousness, belongs to the realm of the noumena, the unintelligible world, a reality beyond the grasp of human comprehension.

According to Nietzsche, Plato’s location of the source of value in the world of Forms begins an inversion of morality that has plagued humankind ever since. “The error begins with Plato, we are told” (Magnus 282). Instead of the grand, self-affirming “master” morality that belonged to pre-Socratic Greek aristocrats and Homeric heroes, philosophy and religion (especially Christianity) have led to a universal adoption of “slave” morality, a triumph of the weak and sick over the strong and healthy.

According to Nietzsche, it is perfectly natural for philosophers to value the ascetic ideals of poverty, humility and chastity – these are the “truest and most natural conditions of their best existence, of their most beautiful fruitfulness” (76). Elevation of ascetic ideals, for the philosopher, is self-affirmation, an expression of the philosopher’s will to power. To this end, Nietzsche says, most philosophers throughout history have hidden in the ranks of “ascetic priests” (82), where, thanks to the spread of Christianity, ascetic ideals have risen to the universal level.

This system of morality, unfortunately, has had the side effect of making the rest of humankind sick. Ascetic ideals result in a hatred of nature, life, and ordinary existence. This attitude characterizes the "diseasedness" of the modern human, who would, according to Nietzsche, rather “will nothingness than not will [at all]” (67). Ascetic values embody the sick human’s will to live in opposition to his natural condition, to live a life of seeking ego death and self-annihilation into the Absolute (e.g. God). While allowing philosophers and priests to flourish, self-regulation and denial reduces the common man to the state of nihilism and, by contagion, takes the strong man down with him. According to Nietzsche, however, knowledge of the absolute is impossible. “There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’” (85). Any reality is known only from a perspective, and perspectives are necessarily of a particular subject. Therefore, there can be no knowledge of universals that are independent of particulars. Hierarchical dualisms that assert absolutes, such as Plato’s conception of the Forms, require “that we think an eye that cannot possibly be thought, an eye that must not have any direction, in which the active and interpretive forces through which seeing first becomes seeing-something are to be shut off, are to be absent; thus, what is demanded here is always an absurdity and non-concept for an eye” (85). Thus there is no ultimate referent for morality residing independently in an “other” world. Even if an independent absolute exists, it cannot possibly have any affect on perspectival living, since it is impossible to know and relate to it. Thus, what we are left with is a multitude of interpretations, a multitude of perspectives. The ascetic ideal is one perspective on the nature of value. However, Nietzsche contests that the ascetic interpretation has become the unchallenged perspective of Western morality, and so appears to be absolute.

In response to the complete dominance of ascetic ideals, Nietzsche asks “where is the opposing will in which an opposing ideal expresses itself?” (106) Opposition is not to be found in science, because science presupposes “a metaphysical value, a value in itself of truth” (110). Science presumes that truth is an absolute, and an unconditionally good one. Thus, ascetic ideals find opposition not in science, says Nietzsche, but in pre-Socratic uncorrupted art: “Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, genuine antagonism” (111). For Nietzsche, the ancient Greek heroes depicted in the Homeric epics represent an alternative morality that he finds preferable.
This “heroic” morality is generously self-affirming and says "yes" to both the glories and the tragedies of physical, this-worldly existence. For example, Achilles’ will to power was best served by a glorious death in battle and eternal fame rather than a long, comfortable, and unsung, life. On the other hand, Odysseus turned down an eternal life of pleasure with Calypso (i.e. heaven), and weathered years of misadventures to return to his ordinary human existence in Ithaca. The ancient hero’s integrity lay in the acknowledgment that the individual will is the source of value; the “good” is that which best expresses the individual will to power.

The implication for Plato of Nietzsche’s attack on ascetic ideals is the denial of any objective source of the “good”; denial of the Forms and a collapse of the opposition between universal and particular. “Universality is, for Nietzsche, interesting pretense. Instead, we will be required to talk about the utility of morality” (Magnus 269). In effect, Nietzsche undercuts Plato’s inquiry into the nature of value, by denying that value has any “nature” (i.e. ontological grounding) at all. The “good” is what is useful to the individual will to power – value derives from utility. To believe otherwise – that is, to believe and adhere to absolutes – is in “bad conscience”: one holds oneself in an absolute relation of obligation to an ideal that is not absolute, but merely endorsed by oneself, while denying that this is the case. In other words, Nietzsche implies that the source of value is the act of valuing itself, the endorsement of the ideal, which is, for the common human, a matter of convention. Thus, in Plato’s language, the pious is really pious only because the gods (or perhaps philosophers and priests) love it.

Works Cited

Magnus, Bernd. “Aristotle and Nietzsche: Megalopsychia and Uebermensch.” The Greeks and the Good Life. Ed. David J. Depew. Fullerton: California State, 1980. 260-295.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swenson. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.
Plato. “Euthyphro.” Five Dialogues. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002. 1-20.


I sometimes write things that I don't really mean or believe. These are not to be taken literally, nor as definitive statements about me or my beliefs. Thoughts and emotions are transient, and I reserve the right to change my mind, generalize, exaggerate, give strong opinions, or write other possibly offensive statements. I don't lie, but I may say something that's not true to check whether I believe it or not, or to make a point. Call it creative license. This is my blog, and do have the right to say what I want. I'm using it in creatively therapeutic ways. Whatever the reader may think of me and my words, please believe that my core intentions are always good and I never willingly hurt anyone.