The Mountain or The Marketplace

Socrates cared little for woods and birds. Peaceful riversides and quiet paths meant nothing to him. As he frequently observed, his concern was learning, and his teachers were not the rocks and trees, but his fellow citizens, whom he found and pestered in the marketplace. 

Nietzsche, at the opposite end of the history of philosophy proper, wrote of his long walks alone and his hours in the forest. His model of the philosophic or contemplative life was associated not with the marketplace but with the mountaintop — its solitude, its hidden cave, and its animal companions.

The apparent contradiction or dispute between Socrates and Nietzsche on this matter is in fact no disagreement at all, but rather emblematic of a key distinction between ancient and modern civilization, with regard to the possibility and practice of the philosophic life. 

Ancient civilization was lived deeply in the midst of what we moderns call “nature.” The rocks and trees were the city limits. The rivers were borders, the stars were gods awesome and enveloping, the open sea an infinite horizon suggestive of the afterlife. In that world, human society was the leading compulsion of the rational soul — the path toward conversation, shared images of the beautiful and the terrifying, and the happy tensions of dialectic. The marketplace, the setting of conversation, away from the extreme danger and ultimate isolation of the battlefield and the vast emptiness, was the natural attraction of the thinking man during those days when “nature” meant the soul of man — the cosmos and its cycles — and the non-human world was the underlying chaos of matter without reason.

Modern civilization is the world of atomic clocks and a scientific materialist reduction of reason obsessed with the “progress” of straight lines, and therefore fundamentally detached from the circle, i.e., eternity. Our social aspirations are mechanical, vainglorious, and regimented. The defining templates of human interaction among us are not friendship and procreation — the ancient ideals, answering to the imperatives of the divine and animal elements of our souls, respectively — but rather commerce without purpose, sex without longing, and collective compliance to the regulatory machinery of the administrative state. The human world is no longer an escape from the chaos, but the very embodiment of chaos, or more precisely of an irrational and anti-rational simulacrum of order.

For Socrates, a craving for quiet hills and untrodden paths to nowhere would have seemed the most unnatural desire in the world. For Nietzsche, it was almost the defining metaphor of independent thought. There is no contradiction between them here, but only the natural, properly philosophical response of two profound thinkers living in contradictory ages.

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