Nietzsche, Youth, and Hubris

From Twilight of the Idols:

To live alone one must be an animal or a god — says Aristotle. There is yet a third case: one must be both — a philosopher. (R.J. Hollingdale translation, 1968.) 

True — but why does Nietzsche assume that Aristotle had not thought of that? My suggestion: the hubris of exceptional youth.

Nietzsche completed Twilight of the Idols in 1888, his final sane year, a year of frenetic, almost alarming productivity. It must be noted, however, that the book’s forward was signed and dated September 30th, 1988, just shy of the author’s forty-fourth birthday. In other words, for all his learning, diligence, and ample powers of philosophic insight and literary craftsmanship, Nietzsche was still a young man, and a young man who had spent most of his thirties and early forties immersed in feverish bursts of writing and theorizing, interrupted only by frequent bouts with debilitating headaches and digestive ailments.

It is clear from his writings and from his early career as a philologist that he had studied widely in Greek literature, and certainly knew his Plato and at least a few of the pre-Socratics extremely well. But how much Aristotle did he know?

He frequently harped on his disagreement with Aristotle’s theory of the moral meaning and effects of tragedy, and yet even there he seemed not really to have studied the Poetics deeply, and may arguably have had little more than a university student’s summary knowledge of the work. (He published his own first major work, the one most closely related to this theme, in 1872, at age twenty-eight.) Beyond that, since he was a supreme anti-metaphysician, he would have had little patience with the complicated dialectical reasoning of Aristotle’s world-altering treatise on that subject.

Furthermore, Nietzsche’s criticisms of Plato and Socrates, though always profound, show little evidence of having been informed or colored by Aristotle’s various detailed and often quite idiosyncratic critiques of his teacher’s and his teacher’s teacher’s teachings.

In sum, I see little evidence anywhere in Nietzsche’s works of his ever having made a serious study of Aristotle.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. No one can be expected to have read everything with equal care, and no thinker as original and active as Nietzsche ought to feel overburdened with “homework,” as though he needs to pass a test set by his scholarly inferiors before being permitted to develop his own theories.

Nietzsche, however, was, above all other philosophers, a thinker whose ideas were framed and propounded as earth-shattering critiques of everything that came before — a revaluation of all values, as he described his philosophic goal. All major thinkers have some of this “revolutionary” tendency, understandably, since a fundamentally new idea or point of view, persuasively expressed, is one of the properties by which we define someone as a major thinker. But Nietzsche alone raised this intellectual iconoclasm to the level of a theoretical position unto itself. There is a great danger in such a position, as it leaves one forever exposed to being ridiculed for one’s hubris in declaring oneself “the first,” “the only,” or “the unprecedented” — or, to use one of Nietzsche’s own expressions, “a posthumous man.”

One of the interesting features of this “Why I Am So Clever” perspective — to cite the title of one chapter of Ecce Homo — is that it parallels a tendency often found in talented young men, including both those whose talents are of dubious ultimate value, as well as those with substantial gifts that remain underdeveloped, partly due to this very inclination to overestimate the significance of what one has accomplished so far, resulting from ignorance of what came before. (Respect for tradition, even the sort of respect that is tempered by a critical perspective, comes with sober maturity, and is anathema to the fires of youthful absorption.)

Do not misunderstand me; I am not suggesting that Nietzsche’s half-ironic smugness, the willingness to elevate himself publicly above his contemporaries, is inherently childish. After all, Socrates did the very same sort of thing in the Apology, where, far from seeking to escape conviction and then execution on the charges of impiety and corruption of youth, the seventy-year-old philosopher seemed only too keen to tweak the jury with maddening self-aggrandizement at every opportunity. And why not? He was, after all, superior to the men who had set themselves up as his prosecutors and judges, and therefore decided that there was nothing important to be gained from playing humble.

Likewise with Nietzsche, undoubtedly the most important German thinker of the last half of the nineteenth century, and by far the better of any thinker to come from that country — or perhaps any other — in the years since his death. He came by his condescending airs honestly, if you will. So yes, he was guilty of hubris and “impiety,” though perhaps no more so than Socrates, whom he respectfully regarded as a kind of personal rival.

This brings us back to the “maxim” or “arrow” with which we began:

To live alone one must be an animal or a god — says Aristotle. There is yet a third case: one must be both — a philosopher.

This is the third aphorism in Twilight of the Idols, and therefore an important tone-setter for the entire work. It has always rankled me, not because my own philosophic temperament leans toward the Aristotelian, but because it strikes me as unworthy of Nietzsche, simply due to the fact that his implication, namely that he sees a unique status for the philosophic life that somehow falls outside the parameters of normal (i.e., non-philosophical) human experience, is not, as he implies, a transcendence of Aristotle’s dichotomy — only a beast or a god could live alone — but rather merely a restatement of a point Aristotle himself makes at great length, albeit with subtlety and elaborate irony rather than with Nietzsche’s blunt declaration of greatness.

An observant reader cannot study the Nicomachean Ethics, among other works, with any measure of care and intellectual seriousness, without recognizing Aristotle’s dialectical elevation of the philosophic life. Philosophical activity may be enhanced by theoretical companions, he argues — but the philosopher, unlike other kinds of men, can also pursue his peculiar kind of virtue alone. Happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, he explains — but theoretical virtue, which is not inherently political (or “social”) in nature, is the highest form of virtue, and the theoretical mind’s highest activity (noetic reasoning) is the highest form of happiness. The activity of the philosophic life is akin to the essential activity of the gods, he argues, following Plato — and therefore this life is, as he says, too good for mere humans.

Aristotle, like his teacher at the Academy, was making the case for the philosopher as “both beast and god” long before Nietzsche attempted to outdo Aristotle by unwittingly making this very same point.

It is worth noting that for all his rejection of modern philosophy, and all his hearkening back to the pre-Socratic sensibility, Nietzsche was at heart thoroughly “modern” in a most important sense: impatience for recognition. Modern philosophy is punctuated throughout with thinkers who wrote their major works in their twenties or thirties, men who were filled with the spirit that came to be known as “enlightenment,” which, in a way, is just a fancy name for the philosophers’ perhaps unphilosophically urgent desire to shed light. That is, enlightenment is essentially a young man’s philosophical compulsion — or rather a young philosopher’s political compulsion.

Nietzsche launched his career as a public philosopher (albeit not a successful one) at a very young age. Plato may have been forty before he finished his first dialogue and opened the Academy. Aristotle studied and taught at the Academy for twenty years before becoming personal tutor to Alexander the Great, later embarking on his life of biological research and writing, and finally opening the Lyceum at age fifty. Nietzsche, by contrast, had written his entire body of work by the age at which Plato and Aristotle were just beginning to disseminate their ideas. That is to say, whereas their primary concern and goal was understanding first, rather than “telling the world,” Nietzsche could not wait to go public.

He could not wait, that is, for the grand ideas in his head to mature, settle into shape, suffer repeated reviews and reiterations. Simply put, he could not wait to be wise, so great a compulsion did he feel to declare publicly, “Why I Am So Wise.”

And so, at certain moments, in spite of himself and in thrall to his youthful ardor and obsession, he succumbs to the eternal weakness of youth, the need to be “different” and “new” that engenders a somewhat myopic self-perception — “Look at me, you’ve never seen this before!”

At the most myopic of these moments, Nietzsche, for all his indubitable greatness, suddenly appears quite human, all too human, an overeager youth, and not at all the superhuman combination of god and beast that he was so eager to be — and that Aristotle most certainly was, in his calm, patient, superficially reserved way.

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