Nietzsche: On Theognis of Megara

Nietzsche: On Theognis of Megara


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Nietzsche’s topic for his valedictorian dissertation at the school of Pforta was the poet Theognis, focusing on his life in Megara, his lyrical production, and his views on the gods, morality, and politics. Nietzsche saw Theognis as the intellectual champion of the defeated Megarian aristocracy, who sought to preserve the Dorian spirit and its noble virtues. The interests that guided Nietzsche transcended scientific philology and embraced a concern for the social and political context he saw present in Theognis’s work. Nietzsche: On Theognis of Megara argues convincingly for this early Nietzschean text as a work of rudimentary political philology, and the contributors show how Theognis’s aristocratism determined and guided Nietzsche’s critique of the moral point of view and his conception of an aristocratic state.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783168002
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Series: Political Philosophy Now Series
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Renato Cristi is professor of philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University. He is the author of Hegel on Freedom and Authority, also published by the University of Wales Press.

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Nietzsche On Theognis of Megara

By Renato Cristi, Oscar Velásquez

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2015 Renato Cristi and Oscar Velásquez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-800-2


Introduction: Nietzsche's Aristocratism

Renato Cristi

Will it ever be possible to solve the puzzle concerning Nietzsche's attitude towards politics? Did he harbour any political convictions, and if so can they be identified? Was he an anarchist or post-anarchist, a harbinger for democracy, a closet monarchist, a Bonapartist, an avant-garde fascist or a radical aristocrat? Or did he remain tenaciously anti-political throughout his life? This book propounds 'De Theognide Megarensi' (DTM) as one missing piece of the puzzle. DTM, a text that has barely attracted scholarly attention, was Nietzsche's valedictorian dissertation at Pforta. It marked the completion of his Gymnasium years, which were devoted mainly to classical philology. Later on, in the Preface to his second Untimely Meditations (UM), he rightly claimed that he was 'a pupil of ancient times, above all the Greek' (KSA I, 247). He also admitted that untimeliness was the only purpose and significance of classical philology. By this he meant that classical philology could only attain historical significance if it 'acted counter to our time and thereby acted on our time and, hopefully, for the benefit of a time to come' (KSA I, 247). With this statement he acknowledged that, in his hands, classical scientific philology had turned into what I would describe as political philology. In DTM, the earliest of his untimely writings, Nietzsche may be said to have acted counter to his time. He understood the Greek elegiac poet Theognis to be a child of his time and, in this much, he moved counter to scientific philology. Theognis' elegies attained significance only when understood as a response to his political circumstances. In its own untimeliness this early text by Nietzsche may be seen as an early manifestation of Zukunftsphilologie (cf. Porter, 2000: 226–7) and serve to illuminate Nietzsche's later ethical and political concerns. The feelings that his early acquaintance with Theognis aroused in him would remain throughout his life. He owed to Theognis his own aristocratism, to which he adhered in order to act contrary to his own time and for the benefit of a time to come. After all, Nietzsche considered the task of philologists to be to achieve a 'better understanding of their own epoch by means of classical antiquity' (Nietzsche, 1966: III, 325; emphasis in the original).

Theognis' life in Megara, his lyrical production and his views on the gods, morality and politics were the theme of DTM (1864), which Nietzsche wrote when he was nineteen years old. A few years later, he resumed his research as a student at Leipzig, and in 1867 the finished product became his first publication – 'Zur Geschichte der Theognideischen Spruchsammlung' (GTS). This was a text in which he put to use his formidable philological talents in attempting to decipher the enigma surrounding the redaction of the Theognidean corpus, its repetitions, fragmentation and multiple interpolations. But, it seems to me, Nietzsche's ultimate aim was once more political and not strictly philological. In 1826, Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker published his edition of the Theognidea and supported the traditional view that, since this was no more than a collection of aphorisms, Theognis ought to be considered a gnomic poet (cf. Welcker, 1826: lxxi). Because the fragments lacked consistency of content and tone, no unified ethical viewpoint or political position could be attributed to him. Nietzsche, in contrast, thought that a unified portrait of Theognis' life and times could be drawn by means of a more systematic reading of the fragments, and that this would help to elucidate Theognis' ethics and politics. Recognition of his aristocratism and his reaction to the historic collapse of Megara's aristocratic hegemony during the sixth century provided the social and political context that would allow a sound interpretation of Theognis' writings.

Gottfried Bernhardy, whose work was cited in Nietzsche's DTM, wrote that Theognis 'experienced all the misfortunes of his compatriots, and his verses preserve a historical monument that contains not merely the only complete report of the political revolution (Staatsumwälzung) at the time, but [he] also makes unambiguously audible the political beliefs of the Dorian aristocrats in honourable though jagged words' (Bernhardy, 1877: II, 524). The revolution mentioned by Bernhardy refers to the political turbulence that took effect during the seventh and sixth centuries culminating with the world historical debut of democracy on the Greek stage. As G. E. M. de Ste Croix acknowledged, 'democracy had never before been established in a thoroughly civilised society, and the Greek poleis which developed it had to build it up from the very bottom' (de Ste Croix, 1983: 281; cf. Schweizer, 2007: 355). The power vacuum left behind by traditional aristocratic governments was for decades filled by the dictatorships of the Tyrants that lasted until proper democratic institutions could be devised and put in place. Nietzsche took notice of Theognis' reaction to these events. He saw Theognis as the intellectual champion of the defeated Megarian aristocracy, who sought to preserve the Dorian spirit and its noble virtues, and who also vented his spite and contempt against the rabble that now ruled his city. Though Nietzsche shared Theognis' fear of democracy, he also realized that Theognis' personality and character did not embody the old Dorian aristocratic ethos shattered by the revolution. He reported Goethe's portrait of Theognis as 'a sad (un-) Greek hypochondriac' (DTM, 139), and this could explain why Theognis was not mentioned in his books until very late in 1887.

In DTM, Nietzsche dealt with the life and times of the poet. Later, Nietzsche characterized Theognis, in the only reference to him in his published work, as the 'mouthpiece' of the Greek nobility (GM I, 5). For this reason an examination of DTM, a translation of which is published in this book, is well-suited to engage in an exploration of Nietzsche's aristocratism. I devote Part I to studying Theognis' aristocratism and its radical bent, and how it determined Nietzsche's own political views. In §1, I show how the interests that guided Nietzsche's dissertation transcended scientific philology and embraced a concern for the social and political context he had adumbrated in the Theognidea. I refer to this novel standpoint as constituting a rudimentary political philology. Nietzsche followed Theognis as he lived through the cultural and political debacle of the Megarian aristocracy. In §2, I seek to explain how Nietzsche, in opposition to Welcker and Theodor Bergk, sought to base the unity of the Theognidea on the poet's life and the changed cultural circumstances of his hometown. Nietzsche saw that Theognis anguished over the demise of the genuine Dorian ethos and, at the same time, endeavoured radically to change the sense and direction of the aristocratic stance. The Megarian aristocracy had lost the serene political prominence assumed by the Homeric heroes, and could no longer be identified with the Dorian temper. In §3, I search for traces of any influence Nietzsche's encounter with Theognis may have exerted in his later work. Theognis is mentioned explicitly in the Notebooks, but does not appear again until On the Genealogy of Morals (GM), where Nietzsche mentioned him again and for the last time. Yet one may say that Nietzsche's thought is marked, from beginning to end, by the aristocratic 'pathos of distance' he was able to observe in the Theognidea. In the first book he published, Birth of Tragedy (BT), Nietzsche immersed himself in the Dorian aristocratic culture and amplified the incipient political theology drawn in DTM. Apollo could now be said to stand for the old Dorian ideals energized by an infusion of Dionysian enthusiasm. Espousal of these two figures, Apollo and Dionysus, allowed Nietzsche to overcome the egalitarian rule of reason affirmed by Socrates. Instead of a democratic education, Nietzsche sought to breed and educate higher individuals moulded by an aristocratic ethics of command and obedience. What follows then advances towards Nietzsche's middle and late works, where he explored the conditions required to constitute a new aristocratic state. One of these conditions meant debunking moral universalism, which he characterized as a herd morality that demanded equality and selfless obedience. Against it, he extolled an ethics of order of rank (Rangordnung) and domination. For Nietzsche, hierarchy, order of rank and the ethics of command and obedience were internally related notions. In GM, he asserted that the genealogy of morality ought to be traced back to the demise of aristocratic values. He referred explicitly to Theognis when he showed that the terms 'good' and 'bad' referred to a now lost aristocratic ethical sense aimed at marking distance from the common people.

In Part II, I explore how aristocratism determined and guided Nietzsche's critique of the moral point of view. When Nietzsche surveyed past history he could only deplore the decline and fall of aristocratism, whether it be in its Dorian, its Roman, its Venetian or its ancien régime variants. To Theognis he owed the belief that the scourge of aristocratism was the obliteration of class distinctions brought forth by the moral point of view. Moral universalism overrules the distinction between naturally good, decent individuals, and those inferior ones who are by nature bad, pernicious and deservedly poor. In turn, this tends to dissolve the fundamental relation that keeps aristocratism alive – command and obedience. Moral universalism destroys the bulwark that sustains traditional authority, and legitimates the rule of aristocratic commanders and the obedience of loyal servants. The task Nietzsche saw ahead of him was the supersession of morality and its replacement by a culture which would allow for the restoration of the traditional ethics. In §1, I explore one of the key supports of the ethical core of moral aristocratism which I identify as an ethics of command and obedience. I propose this as a unifying formula that collects a cluster of ideas (authority, order, rules of order, mastery, order of rank, hierarchy and subordination, subjection, discipline, punishment), all of them related to the dichotomy master/slave. This will allow me to draw a unified and coherent picture of the philosophical and political centrality of the ethics of command and obedience in the corpus of Nietzsche's work. The sections that then follow in Part II, come to terms with interpretations which seek to separate and ultimately excise Nietzsche's ethical and political lucubration from the metaphysical core of his thought. I disagree with the view that separates Nietzsche's philosophical more rigorous elaborations from his political options. In an effort to rescue Nietzsche from inappropriate political commitments, an influential line of contemporary interpreters asserts that his philosophy is not terminally contaminated by his aristocratic radicalism and that, as Mark Warren writes, it can be freed from this 'political straitjacket', or, alternatively, that his admitted 'political insanity' may be bracketed or restrained (Warren, 1988: 247). If this were so, there would be no reason to pay serious attention to Nietzsche's aristocratic stance and his debt to Theognis in this respect. His aristocratism would be an adventitious affect, an anecdote more than a normative political doctrine or canon, although Nietzsche's aristocratism is not simply cultural politics (Kulturkampf) for it implies the necessity of institutional transformation in the political sphere.

I then trace this interpretation to the objections first raised by Walter Kaufmann against political interpretations of the will to power, the key notion of Nietzsche's philosophy. Kaufmann based his objections on a non-political interpretation of the will to power which he defined as a purely psychological striving towards selfperfection. In his wake, Maudemarie Clark reduced the will to power to a second-order desire, a purely formal drive whose content is determined by first-order desires, and has nothing to do with power over others. Similarly, John Richardson considers that the will to power applies mainly to drives or forces and not to people; and Bernard Reginster distinguishes between the consequences of the will to power and its essential nature. Its consequences may be political, but the notion itself must be defined as the activity of overcoming resistance, which is not tied to any particular effect or consequence. In response, I propose a political interpretation of Nietzsche's metaphysics of the will to power, and argue that the normative bent of that notion must be read against the background of the Dorian ideals Nietzsche owed to his acquaintance with Theognis.

The final section of Part II tracks Walter Kaufmann's anti-political interpretation of Nietzsche to an effort at rescuing his philosophy from an inappropriate association with National Socialism. It is undeniable that the Nazis sought the nazification of Nietzsche and that they found, in his aristocratism, elements that conformed to their own world-view. The issue is whether they were justified in doing so. I bring to light Alles Lebendige ist ein Gehorchendes (ALG), a short booklet containing a selection of texts from Nietzsche, published as an attempt to demonstrate the legitimacy of the Nazi appropriation of Nietzsche's aristocratism. ALG appeared in 1940, in an edition prepared by Friedrich Würzbach, then a recognized Nietzsche scholar who was also a Nazi collaborator. The texts selected in ALG had one theme in common – a call for the rise of leaders whose commanding authority would foster a culture of obedience and subordination. Würzbach's booklet highlights the two aspects of Nietzsche's thought that Kaufmann missed, namely the political orientation of his ethics and its normative bent.

In Part III, I examine the radical disposition of Nietzsche's political philosophy which came to light when he pondered the future of aristocratism. Nietzsche hoped for the rebirth of aristocratism; but once the traditional authority embodied by past aristocratic regimes was undermined by morality, only the power of a charismatic authority would be able to revitalize it. A Napoleon-like figure would be able to rise above oppressive democratic legality and claim a new legitimacy. This formed the core of Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism which Dombowsky has defined as a 'form or species of Bonapartism' (Dombowsky, 2014: 44). Someone like Caesar or Napoleon would then be able to decide on the exception and declare as Napoleon did, that 'I am apart from all the world and accept conditions from no one' (GS §23). Only a charismatic leader can look at things from a higher perspective and claim authority over the state. Postmodern readings emphasize Nietzsche's aversion to authority and his abomination of the state. In this regard, I seek to refute the postmodern interpretation and identify Nietzsche's political thought with aristocratic radicalism.

The postmodernist contention is that epistemic perspectivism and nominalism were used by Nietzsche to deconstruct the metaphysical foundations of the state, and thus guarantee personal emancipation and individual self-creation. Once the political surplus is excised, his epistemology contained agonistic elements that could be placed in the service of democracy. In my view, affirmation of Nietzsche's aristocratism, particularly his ethics of command and obedience, should corroborate the futility of attempts to grant him democratic credentials (cf. Ottmann, 1999: 462–6). Postmodernists do not take to heart that Nietzsche's anti-essentialism sought to subvert the democratic state. He correctly perceived that only the demise of democratic universalism could secure the restoration of an aristocratic state. I criticize, in particular, the position defended by Lawrence Hatab for whom Nietzsche's anti-essentialism, his attack on rationalism and his adoption of epistemological perspectivism, are instrumental in overcoming the levelling practices and exclusions imposed by the modern democratic experience. Though there are no traces of philosophical elaboration in Nietzsche's DTM, his encounter with Theognis would leave an indelible impression, discernible later when, as Negri notices, 'the philosopher became theoretically focused in the construction of his "aristocratic" vision of the human world' (Negri, 1985: 77). This aristocratic vision must be granted both temporal and conceptual priority. On the one hand, it is important to recognize that Nietzsche assigned priority to politics over epistemology. Hatab is correct in observing that epistemic considerations were instrumental for Nietzsche, and that he used epistemology for political aims. Epistemology did not serve Nietzsche to filter and refine democratic practice, as Hatab claims, but to dismantle and overthrow it altogether. On the other hand, it is also important to realize that DTM was Nietzsche's first systematic and in-depth study of a classical author who enjoyed privileged access to the moment of birth of Greek democracy. It should be clear that Nietzsche took the side of the defeated aristocrats from the very start. Later on, he embraced Bonapartism as a way to revive aristocratism. In the final section I seek to align the key characteristics of the Dorian aristocratic system discerned by Nietzsche in DTM with his own account of a Bonapartist regime.


Excerpted from Nietzsche On Theognis of Megara by Renato Cristi, Oscar Velásquez. Copyright © 2015 Renato Cristi and Oscar Velásquez. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Introduction: Nietzsche’s Aristocratism
Renato Cristi

Part I: Theognis and Nietzsche’s Arisocratism

Partt II: Nietzsche’s Aristocratic Ethics: Command and Obedience

Part III: Nietzsche’s Aristocratic Radicalism: Charismatic Authority 

Friedrich Nietzsche 
One Theognis OF Megara (‘De Theognide Megarensi’) 
Translated by Oscar Velásquez

Friedrich Nietzsche
Studies on Theognis (‘Studien zu Theognis’)
Translated by Manuel Knoll and Renato Cristi 


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