classic transcript



The Problem of Socrates




IN every age the wisest have passed the identical judgement on life: it is worthless.... Everywhere and always their mouths have uttered the same sound - a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness with life, full of opposition to life.  Even Socrates said as he died: 'To live - that means to be a long time sick: I owe a cock to the saviour Asclepius'. [According to Plato ('Phaedo'), Socrates' last words were: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?"  One gave a cock to Asclepius on recovering from an illness: Socrates seems to be saying that life is, or his life has been, an illness.]  Even Socrates had had enough of it. - What does that prove?  What does it point to? - Formerly one would have said ( - of, and did say, and loudly enough, and our pessimists [Specifically the followers of Schopenhauer, among whom Nietzsche himself was numbered in his young days.] most of all!): 'Here at any rate there must be something true!  The consensus sapientium [Unanimity of the wise.] is proof of truth.' - Shall we still speak thus today? are we allowed to do so?  'Here at any rate there must be something sick' - this is our retort: one ought to take a closer look at them, these wisest of every age!  Were they all of them perhaps no longer steady on their legs? belated? tottery? décadents?  Does wisdom perhaps appear on earth as a raven which is inspired by the smell of carrion? ...





This irreverent notion that the great sages are declining types first dawned on me in regard to just the case in which learned and unlearned prejudice is most strongly opposed to it: I recognized Socrates and Plato as symptoms of decay, as agents of the dissolution of Greece, as pseudo-Greek, as anti-Greek (Birth of Tragedy, 1872). [Nietzsche's first published book.]  That consensus sapientium - I saw more and more clearly - proves least of all that they were right about what they were in accord over: it proves rather that they themselves, these wisest men, were in some way in physiological accord since they stood - had to stand - in the same negative relation to life.  Judgements, value judgements concerning life, for or against, can in the last resort never be true: they possess value only as symptoms, they come into consideration only as symptoms - in themselves such judgements are stupidities.  One must reach out and try to grasp this astonishing finesse, that the value of life cannot be estimated.  Not by a living man, because he is a party to the dispute, indeed its object, and not the judge of it; not by the dead one, for another reason. - For a philosopher to see a problem in the value of life thus even constitutes an objection to him, a question-mark as to his wisdom, a piece of unwisdom. - What? and all these great wise men - they have not only been décadents, they have not even been wise? - But I shall get back to the problem of Socrates.





Socrates belonged, in his origins, to the lowest orders: Socrates was rabble.  One knows, one sees for oneself, how ugly he was.  But ugliness, an objection in itself, is among Greeks almost a refutation.  Was Socrates a Greek at all?  Ugliness is frequently enough the sigh of a thwarted development, a development retarded by interbreeding.  Otherwise it appears as a development in decline.  Anthropologists among criminologists tell us the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo. [a monster in face, a monster in soul.]  But the criminal is a décadent.  Was Socrates a typical criminal? - At least the famous physiognomist's opinion which Socrates' friends found so objectionable would not contradict this idea.  A foreigner passing through Athens who knew how to read faces told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum - that he contained within him every kind of foul vice and lust.  And Socrates answered merely: 'You know me, sir!' -





It is not only the admitted dissoluteness and anarchy of his instincts which indicates décadence in Socrates: superfetation of the logical and that barbed malice which distinguishes him also point in that direction.  And let us not forget those auditory hallucinations which, as 'Socrates' demon', have been interpreted in a religious sense.  Everything about him is exaggerated, buffo, caricature, everything is at the same time hidden, reserved, subterranean. - I seek to understand out of what idiosyncrasy that Socratic equation reason = virtue = happiness derives: that bizarrest of equations and one which has in particular all the instincts of the older Hellenes against it.





With Socrates Greek taste undergoes a change in favour of dialectics: what is really happening when that happens?  It is above all the defeat of a nobler taste; with dialectics the rabble gets on top.  Before Socrates, the dialectical manner was repudiated in good society: it was regarded as a form of bad manners, one was compromised by it.  Young people were warned against it.  And all such presentation of one's reasons was regarded with mistrust.  Honest things, like honest men, do not carry their reasons exposed in this fashion.  It is indecent to display all one's goods.  What has first to have itself proved is of little value.  Wherever authority is still part of accepted usage and one does not 'give reasons' but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon: he is laughed at, he is not taken seriously. - Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously: what was really happening when that happened?





One chooses dialectics only when one has no other expedient.  One knows that dialectics inspire mistrust, that they are not very convincing.  Nothing is easier to expunge that the effect of a dialectician, as is proved by the experience of every speech-making assembly.  Dialectics can be only a last-ditch weapon in the hands of those who have no other weapon left.  One must have to enforce one's rights: otherwise one makes no use of it.  That is why the Jews were dialecticians; Reynard the Fox was a dialectician: what? and Socrates was a dialectician too? -





- Is Socrates' irony an expression of revolt? of the ressentiment of the rabble? does he, as one of the oppressed, enjoy his own form of ferocity in the knife-thrust of the syllogism? does he revenge himself on the aristocrats he fascinates? - As a dialectician one is in possession of a pitiless instrument; with its aid one can play the tyrant; one compromised by conquering.  The dialectician leaves it to his opponent to demonstrate he is not an idiot: he enrages, he at the same time makes helpless.  The dialectician devitalizes his opponent's intellect. - What? is dialectics only a form of revenge in the case of Socrates?





I have intimated the way in which Socrates could repel: it is therefore all the more necessary to explain the fact that he exercised fascination. - That he discovered a new kind of agon, that he was the first fencing-master in it for the aristocratic circles of Athens, is one reason.  He fascinated because he touched on the agonal instincts of the Hellenes - he introduced a variation into the wrestling-matches among the youths and young men.  Socrates was also a great erotic.





But Socrates divined even more.  He saw behind his aristocratic Athenians; he grasped that his case, the idiosyncrasy of his case, was already no longer exceptional.  The same kind of degeneration was everywhere silently preparing itself: the old Athens was coming to an end. - And Socrates understood that all the world had need of him - his expedient, his cure, his personal art of self-preservation.... Everywhere the instincts were in anarchy; everywhere people were but five steps from excess: the monstrum in animo was the universal danger.  'The instincts want to play the tyrant; we must devise a counter-tyrant who is stronger'.... When that physiognomist had revealed to Socrates what he was, a cave of every evil lust, the great ironist uttered a phrase that provides the key to him.  'That is true,' he said, 'but I have become master of them all.'  How did Socrates become master of himself? - His case was after all only the extreme case, only the most obvious instance of what had at that time begun to be the universal exigency: that no-one was any longer master of himself, that the instincts were becoming mutually antagonistic.  He exercised fascination at this extreme case - his fear-inspiring ugliness expressed it for every eye to see: he fascinated even more, it goes without saying, as the answer, as the solution, as the apparent cure for this case. -





If one needs to make a tyrant of reason, as Socrates did, then there must exist no little danger of something else playing the tyrant.  Rationality was at that time divined as a saviour; neither Socrates nor his 'invalids' were free to be rational or not, as they wished - it was de rigueur, it was their last expedient.  The fanaticism with which the whole of Greek thought throws itself at rationality betrays a state of emergency: one was in peril, one had only one choice: either to perish or - be absurdly rational.... The moralism of the Greek philosophers from Plato downwards is pathologically conditioned: likewise their estimation of dialectics.  Reason = virtue = happiness means merely: one must imitate Socrates and counter the dark desires by producing a permanent daylight - the daylight of reason.  One must be prudent, clear, bright at any cost: every yielding to the instincts, to the unconscious, leads downwards ...





I have intimated the way in which Socrates exercised fascination: he seemed to be a physician, a saviour.  Is it necessary to go on to point out the error which lay in his faith in 'rationality at any cost'? - It is self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists to imagine that by making war on décadence they therewith elude décadence themselves.  This is beyond their powers: what they select as an expedient, as a deliverance, is itself only another expression of décadence - they alter its expression, they do not abolish the thing itself.  Socrates was a misunderstanding: the entire morality of improvement, the Christian included, has been a misunderstanding.... The harshest daylight, rationality at any cost, life bright, cold, circumspect, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts, has itself been no more than a form of sickness, another form of sickness - and by no means a way back to 'virtue', to 'health', to happiness.... To have to combat one's instincts - that is the formula for décadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness and instinct are one. -





- Did he himself grasp that, this shrewdest of all self-deceivers?  Did he at last say that to himself in the wisdom of his courage for death?... Socrates wanted to die - it was not Athens, it was he who handed himself the poison cup, who compelled Athens to hand him the poison cup.... 'Socrates is no physician,' he said softly to himself: 'death alone is a physician here.... Socrates himself has only been a long time sick ...'