The Problem of Socrates

by Max Andrews

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols commences with his maxims and missiles, the wisest of proverbs Nietzsche embodies his thought in.  Initially, the maxims are not so clear and one may only speculate as to what Nietzsche really intends for them to mean.  His succeeding work is an exegesis of these maxims, an illumination of the text, and an expository revelation of Nietzsche’s assailment of the Christian church.

“The Problem of Socrates” was Nietzsche’s understanding of the life of the philosopher, or better yet, the death of life.  Socrates was the philosopher, one who embodied the reason, virtue, and happiness, one who understood the vanity of life.  Life was a sickness, as an individual philosophizing and as an aggregate society.  Socrates and Plato were the “symptoms of decline” for life.  Life’s sickness progressed as more reason revealed the sickness many covered.  This revelation was only known through the philosophers.  What then is the value of life?  Nietzsche’s response, a paradox:

A living man cannot [estimate the value of life], because he is a contending party, or rather the very object in the dispute, and not a judge; nor can a dead man estimate it—for other reasons.  For a philosopher to see a problem in the value of life, is almost an objection against himself, a note of interrogation set against his wisdom—a lack of wisdom.

As Socrates, seeming to revel in his welcomed death, walked the streets being mocked, he reveals the truth to the claims in an admission, “You know me, sir!”  Nietzsche seems to revel in Socrates’ hiddeness and honesty.  The inner truth that has just been revealed is liberating for him, yet at the same time, is sickening.  Nietzsche saw how Socrates excelled in his use of reason, presenting arguments to the people of his time though it was never able to eradicate their instincts, only suppress them.

The honest men of society do not do as Socrates did, enabling the decline of value and life, enabling the sickness of life; they keep their reason hidden, as if it were self-oppressed.  Reason was to be overcome by Nietzsche, by embracing a willing death, a cure for the sickness which society was unable to embrace.

Nietzsche views reason as a savior, a savior that Socrates recognized in his overcoming of the tyranny of instinct.  To live is to live sickly, an embodiment of sickness and decline.  Death, though unable to estimate the gained value therein, is the doctor to cure the ill state called life.  Nietzsche strives to be clever and precise at all costs, never yielding to instinct or the unconsciousness.  These decisions only lead toward a downward life, one of a façade, lacking in a pure and natural fruition.

Nietzsche has an apparent appreciation for reason in philosophy.  The paradox, as it seems, is that reason is a double-edged sword cutting both ways, for him and against.  The philosopher is the one who rejects history (as well as society).  It is by the faults of logic, metaphysics, theology, psychology, epistemology, and formal science that shape the known reality.  What is, according to Nietzsche, the ultimate and “highest concept?”—“God.”  He views the concept of God as the emptiest thing to be postulated.  This highest concept is nothing more than the bane of Nietzsche’s existence; Christianity, a symptom of a degenerating life.

Nietzsche seems to revel and adore that which is natural, those things that are prima facie, yet unadulterated.  After Nietzsche’s explication of his abhorrence for Christianity and the hollow concept of God, he then proceeds with his task of hammering with Christianity as a common referent.  Morality, according to Nietzsche, is an enemy of the natural order.  To follow and to be “obedient” to Christianity’s precepts is to be stupid.  The church waged war on intellectualism and spiritualized passion.  Ironically, the spiritualization of sensuality is love, the great triumph over Christianity.  This is quite the paradox being that Christianity would affirm that love is the greatest of all virtues.  In this, Nietzsche, postulates a principle:  “All naturalism in morality—that is to say, every sound morality is ruled by a life instinct.”  Up until his time, every divine command was contrary to human instinct as it is that human instinct which ought to be the standard.  This [sickness] of life ends where the Kingdom of God begins.  Nietzsche sees no inconsistency in placing nature as the standard for it as a standard that all of humanity knows and experiences, by instinct, whereas the “God” postulation is foreign and not so familiar, as such, it is empty.  Even so, Nietzsche reiterates his formerly stated position on value, his problem with sickness, which he saw in Socrates:

In order even to approach the problem of the value of life, a man would need to be placed outside life, and moreover know it as well as one, as many, as all in fact, who have lived it.  These are reasons enough to prove to us that this problem is an inaccessible one to us.  When we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration, and through the optics of life…  life itself values through us when we determine values.  From which it follows that even that morality which is antagonistic to life, and which conceives God as the opposite and the condemnation of life, is only a valuation of life—of what life?

Thus begins the “Four Great Errors” Nietzsche sees in humanity, especially Christians.  The first error is the confusion of cause and effect, which is, confusing the effect for the cause.  In explicating this error, Nietzsche displays his reverence for reason.  Nietzsche understands the error as the intrinsic perversion of reason, an error that others have canonized as “religion” and “morality.”  This is nothing more than an illicit conversion derived from an impoverished life of immortal unreason.  The second error is the error of false causality.  This error is the result of an illusory of being—a projection of the ego and subjectivity.  The result of attributing such a cause to an illusory ego and being is to cease spiritual causes.  The extrapolation of causes, which have been attributed to will, self, and ego, amount to spiritual causes, the only known measure of reality if understood by this causal chain which birthed “God,” a mere effect of false causes.[1]

The error of free will is the pinnacle of all errors, a summation of former.  Free will is only a theological error and trick used to suppose that mankind is “responsible.”  For without responsibility can anyone be judged or condemned? —No.  Everything is necessary, a part of the aggregate, the whole.  The whole is not a whole without its parts.  No one is responsible for their own existence, nor for the existence as a whole, so there is no will in the manner.  There is nothing to judge, condemn, measure, or compare; thus, morality is an illusion used for control.  Such a belief, necessarily, entails a denial of God.  Nietzsche’s use of reason, that which was the savior of Socrates, is now used to save the world from God.

Nietzsche never embraces nihilism, a denial of meaning, purpose, and value, which is often attributed to him.  If it is attributed to him, it is done so falsely.  It is not Nietzsche who calls for a riddance of all moral values and ethics.  The question of value is one that he freely admits cannot be known, it can only be speculated.  The question of purpose is one that only the subject makes.  On the contrary to the popular claims, Nietzsche is the one who calls and proposes a reevaluation of the morals that have been set forth at his time.  Nietzsche calls for his Zarathustra, the ubermensch to bear the burden of the truth for each subject.

Liberation from sickness, prior to dead in due time, is renouncing Christianity.  Christianity has a hold and vice on its prey. It is a system warped by priests and theologians, whom are corrupted by original sin, which result in a corruption of reason.  It is the Christians who are obsessed with being whom they find in God.  Nietzsche is frustrated by the Christian’s embrace of being over becoming.

After Nietzsche continues with proclaiming his abhorrence for Christianity and how it is the highest of loathes and the gathering of contempt and abuse of reason, he states the problems with Germany at his time.  His qualm is that there are no great philosophers of his time, they are all gone, culture and society has embraced an abuse of reason, like Christians, and no longer learns to think.  The Germans must learn to think, a process that would acquit them of quick judgment and reactions.  A process learnt by the proper use of reason and thus [the gay] science.

Nietzsche then critiques the aesthetic, an aesthetic that no Christian man could attain.  There are two antithetical concepts, the Apollonian and the Dionysian.  The Apollonian concept is one of creative and intense vision and form.  This form is one of control and order.  The Dionysian form is more chaotic; it is a lack of order and is irrational.

Continuing on through further criticisms and tangential comments on his [reasonable] war, Nietzsche arrives at to his final remarks and understanding of the will and freedom.  Freedom is the will to be responsible for the individual.  Freedom is the will to overcome hardship, severity, and privation.  There is alienation, one that Nietzsche feels liberated from.  This alienation is a separation from the natural self, the ego, which can only be understood in an unadulterated fashion, one stripped of societal instincts, a reality that pertains to the subject [and not God].  The will, when properly used, contrary to his previous comments, overcomes this by embracing Socrates’ use of reason (again, unadulterated).  The philosopher freely creates his own reality, that which is natural to him.

Nietzsche’s use and understanding of reason is only consistent when properly understood with a denial of God, a referent to the natural order of the subject.  The senses only give rise to the sciences.  With such an understanding Nietzsche hopes to ushering a new history, a new becoming; a history better than the current.  It is his desire rid the world of these ideas, these errors, and to live as if there were a cure for the sickness.  Socrates only had death as a doctor instead of savior (reason used properly).  The conclusion Nietzsche rests on is his call for Zarathustra; [though not explicitly stated] God is dead.  Nietzsche believes he is the seminal philosopher who has hammered the idols, the false ideas composed of errors in reason.  The ultimate idea imposed on reality, a false reality, is the idea of God, the ultimate idol.

A remedy, seemingly not endorsed by Nietzsche, is suicide.  He recognizes this as a constraint of the will, a will not properly exercised.  It is an untimely and unfree death.  Though it is an option, as for Socrates, it is a paradox and self-defeating notion.  In the act of liberation, the person committing suicide is not using his will according to his natural freedom.

The remedy for overcoming such idols, as advocated by Nietzsche, is a self-overcoming.  The ideas imposed by false reasoning, by the church, by Christianity, by religion, are to eradicate illusory instinct.  One must reevaluate morality (thus enters Zarathustra).  The overcoming is a becoming not a state of being as is part of the eradication of the Christian notion of God.  God, as understood by the Christians, is the prime reality.  All reality stems from this idea, an idea that commands obedience.  This obedience must be overcome by a self-oriented reality, one that the subject projects on himself.  Nietzsche revels in his liberation from idols.  Though he revels, he seems to despair in the moment, yet, only subliminally.  Nietzsche seems to realize the vanity of overcoming this alienation from a true reality of becoming for the subject, if only for a moment (again, his call for Zarathustra).

At this point, entering a final analytic, Nietzsche was certainly a seminal philosopher.  He is internally consistent within his own framework.  His use of reason is rather arbitrary and does little in attempting to pronounce objective grounds for his use of it in denying certain instincts and propositions (more theologically related).  Though he does little to provide objective grounds, which seems to be entirely his point.  All reality is not based in the idea of God; if there is not God then there is no objective reality.  There is not objective referent, which every person must yield to.  This referent then becomes the subject.  The subject’s becoming is emphasized over the idea of a prime reality, an ultimate being.  The idea of free will is only an idea, one that must be denied.  The will, according to the natural order, is thus one that must be used to overcome the ideas.  This is certainly paradoxical for Nietzsche, to propose freedom in overcoming these ideas; one idea is that of freedom.

Nietzsche’s model of morality is problematic in the same fashion his use of reason is problematic.  Because of his denial of God, the ultimate reality, morality is only a self-referential reality as it pertains to the subject.  Though he is not entirely consistent with this because it is he who calls for Zarathustra.  He yields the idea that there must be an ubermensch. This is a reevaluation of morality, not a total denial of moral truths, but merely a call to reconsider in light of the denial of ultimate being, a denial of God.  Perhaps Nietzsche’s greatest paradox, one he either sees not worth addressing or implies it elsewhere, is that he treats the smashing of idols and false ideas as virtues tasks, as if it were a good thing.  Of course, he can hold to this in a self-referential framework, but for Zarathustra to be called for, the populous begs the question as to what extent did he believed this was appropriate.

Nietzsche’s alienation, that which must be overcome, is appropriate as he speaks of it.  He is internally consistent once the initial problems are surpassed.  Nietzsche’s goal in his use of reason and his understanding of morality is to rid others of bad ideas, idols, which ruin.

            [1] From this understanding forth, Nietzsche explains how this is nothing but an imaginary cause and gives a psychological explanation of the facts.  With the senses, and proper use of reason, Nietzsche advocates that this yields science.

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