Without a doubt, Nietzsche was one of the great thinkers of his time. He showed great insight into some of the social ills that existed at his time and sought to find ways in which to correct them. Like Marx, Nietzsche believed that, to some extent, the root of many social ills came from the division between the classes and with the decadence of those with wealth. In the case of the “problem” of Socrates, Nietzsche moves somewhat beyond the typical Marxist argument and questioned the wisdom of Socrates in other ways. Although Nietzsche drew extensively from ancient texts to support his arguments about Socrates, the conclusions to which he came were completely modern in their nature.
For his first argument, Nietzsche states that all sages have concluded that life is devoid of positive meaning (Nietzsche par. 1). To support this argument, he cites Socrates’ conclusion that life equals sickness. Socrates, Nietzsche argues, was not just tired of life himself; rather, his decadence was the symptom of a decline in society himself. Not only was Socrates a “great erotic” (Nietzsche par. 8), but he was also an indication of how society itself was decadent.
Nietzsche goes on to argue that Socrates was not a wise man at all. Although it is usual to admire Socrates for his deeply analytical mind, Nietzsche argues that it is the philosopher’s overindulgence in this particular virtue that makes him decadent to begin with. In fact, Nietzsche argues that Socrates was truly the opposite of everything that he was purported to be, and might not even be Greek at all. To support these arguments, Nietzsche relies not only the texts that come from the time at which Socrates lived, but also on the writings of scientists, the “anthropological criminologists,” who argue that criminals are typically ugly people.
In the eyes of Nietzsche, it appears that Socrates is not what he appears at first blush at all. It is well known that Socrates came from the plebian class, but Nietzsche also argues against his ugliness, which appears in both writings on and sculptures of Socrates. If Socrates was ugly and conventional wisdom at the time during which Nietzsche lived was that criminals are ugly, is it not possible to argue that Socrates was not a great man, but, rather, a criminal?
And, because criminals are typically decadent, it is not possible to support, at least by arguments of the times, the statement that Socrates was decadent as well? If these things are true, then Nietzsche can feel justified in arguing that Socrates was not a great man and that all of the philosophers that followed him through the leadership of Plato were also symptomatic of all that was wrong with Socrates and with his form of reasoning.
Where Socrates fails, in the mind of Nietzsche, is in his overwhelming need for and reliance upon reasoning. Prior to Socrates, Nietzsche points out, argumentation in polite society did not exist in polite society. In fact, Nietzsche argues, the argumentation that Socrates relied upon was the vanquishing of “a noble taste” in which people did not live solely by reason, but through personal responsibility and personal morality, through instincts, rather than reason.
It is through the writings that come down to this age, in which Socrates is depicted as an ugly man that is ruled solely by reason, that Nietzsche is able to draw his very modern conclusion: man without instincts is a diseased creature who has no desire to live. Using this argument, Socrates did not bravely face his execution; instead, he wanted to die because he was not true to his instinctive human nature and, thus, had become infected with the decadence brought about by his over-reliance on logic, reason, and morality imposed from an exterior source.
All of Nietzsche’s reasoning, of course, is based on his own desires to support his own arguments. It is not difficult to trace a decline in Greek society over the centuries, but whether this decline is directly correlated with the reason imposed by Socrates and later by Plato it is impossible to say. Rather, it appears that Nietzsche is making the argument to support his belief that human beings are instinctive creatures that are best when they are overflowing the restrictions imposed by society.
Socrates’ form of reasoning, Nietzsche argued, was a last resort of a failing society. This Socratic reasoning did not so much remove decadence from society as it did simply change that decadence into another form. The removal of instinct from society’s grasp and, in fact, the actual opposition that society had to the instinctive nature of humanity, was the cause of the disease that Socrates personified–at least in Nietzsche’s opinion.
At the time that the ancients were writing in praise of Socrates, it was to their benefit to do so. A new form of society was coming into being and Socrates was the forerunner of the kind of citizen that would populate it. If Socrates was denigrated in writings during the time at which he lived, it was not because he was decadent or ugly, but because he challenged the society in which he lived.
Nietzsche, however, chose to interpret the writings that he studied as proof that Greek society was in decline due to the rise of reason over instinct, which would thus support his argument that the ills and decadence of modern society sprang from the morals and reason that were being imposed upon the world. In a very real sense, it can be argued that Nietzsche skewed the historical writings he studied to support his modern philosophical statements.
Nietzsche argues that as long as reason and external morality is imposed upon society, the people who live within it are diseased and devoid of reasons to live. He indicates that all of the sages throughout the ages have come to this conclusion, including Socrates, who came to such a conclusion about his own right. Nietzsche came to very different conclusions than those that were reached by the people upon whose texts he based his reasoning because of his imposing modern values upon the writings of these ancient texts. By using his own reasoning and the reasoning suggested by then-modern scientists, Nietzsche supported his own agenda that argued against reason and for instinctive humanity.
Nietzsche, F. “The Problem of Socrates.” 18 Dec 2007. <http://forum.erraticwisdom.com/viewtopic.php?pid=2943>.