Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Preface & Chapter 1)

The most famous piece of literature in all of Western philosophy is quite possibly Plato’s Apology which covers the trial of Socrates. Plato is firmly entrenched in the Western mind. So much so that Alfred North Whitehead once noted that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." The Preface to Beyond Good and Evil goes something like this: Nietzsche walks into an imaginary bar of philosophers and looks around for the biggest guy he can find. The biggest guy around is Plato; so he picks a fight with him. Here’s the way Nietzsche puts it: “the worst, the most tiresome, and the most dangerous of errors hitherto has been a dogmatist error – namely, Plato’s invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself…How did such a malady attack the finest product of antiquity, Plato? Had the wicked Socrates really corrupted him? Was Socrates after all a corrupter of youths and deserved his hemlock?” What’s this all about? Is Nietzsche trying to insult nearly everyone in the Philosopher’s Bar?

Yes, he is. That’s his intention. He wants to get our attention and in the Preface he does just that. Once we’ve been jolted by the Preface Nietzsche then proceeds to make some philosophically outrageous claims in Chapter 1. Here’s one claim: “Granted that we want the truth: why not rather untruth? Or uncertainty? Even ignorance?” Here’s another one: “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it…” Why do these ideas sound so crazy? They sound crazy because we’re used to thinking about philosophy the way Plato said it should be done. We examine questions like: What is justice? How should we live? Why should we try to be good? What happens after we die? These are the questions Plato would have us ask. Many of us are Platonists whether we know it or not. Nietzsche knows this.

So he proceeds accordingly. There’s a method to his madness. He wants to get our attention but he also wants to change the way we think about philosophy. This is not an easy task. Plato (along with Aristotle) has had a stranglehold on Western philosophy for 2500 years. The study of philosophy in the West has become synonymous with the quest for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Nietzsche asks a simple question: why? Why should we search for truth, goodness and beauty? Why not instead pursue a philosophy that is “life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving?” Why not pursue it wherever it takes us? If the search leads away from truth, goodness and beauty, so what? Let’s take a chance and see where this new path goes.

Many of us (me included) are inclined to say, “Oh, let’s not.” I’m quite comfortable contemplating questions like the meaning of justice. Nietzsche wants to ask different kinds of questions. What if Western philosophy’s search for “truth” been going down the wrong path all along? Has Plato mislead us from the beginning? In the beginning Socrates would question everyone about everything. This idea of a “Great Conversation” became the centerpiece of Western philosophy. It became so central that Nietzsche feels it has become a dogma more than a method of philosophical inquiry. Nietzsche’s idea is to blast away this dogmatic method and replace it with – what? Presumably with a new and better dogma created by, well, Nietzsche. My question is: What’s wrong with the old guys? Nietzsche believes “their thinking is far less a discovery than a recognizing, a remembering, a return and a homecoming to a far-off, ancient common household of the soul.” My reply is – precisely, that’s the whole point. It took us 2500 years to build a common household. Nietzsche and I are not off to a good start.


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