Currently reading Nietzsche's "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks," translated by Marianne Cowan. This passage about philosophy and "genuine culture" caught my eye. It invites immediate comparison between our age and the ages we imagine. My initial questions: What do we feel missing that we believe was in the past? What do we romanticize?
Nietzsche, in this unfinished, unpublished work, holds that Ancient Greece had a special relationship to philosophy. Philosophers then did not torture themselves or pride themselves on their melancholy, according to him. Rather, "they had life in lavish perfection before their eyes:"
The judgment of those philosophers as to life and existence in general means so much more than any modern judgment, for they had life in lavish perfection before their eyes, whereas the feeling of our thinkers is confused by our split desire for freedom, beauty and greatness on the one hand and our drive toward truth on the other, a drive which asks merely “And what is life worth, after all?” The philosopher’s mission when he lives in a genuine culture (which is characterized by unity of style) cannot be properly derived from our own circumstances and experiences, for we have no genuine culture. (1)
Nietzsche accuses his time of having a "split desire for freedom, beauty and greatness on the one hand and...[a] drive toward truth on the other." Since the "drive" mockingly questions the value of life, one wonders what exactly he hates about his time and what he thinks he adores. "Genuine culture," "unity of style," even "philosopher's mission"--there are so many questions to raise about this passage. Nothing about the meanings of these phrases is terribly intuitive at this point.
Themes and Ideas To Consider
This newsletter/blog is meant to help you create and write. If I start close-reading Nietzsche to advance a specific thesis, that defeats the purpose. If I start debating other scholars about what this means exactly, that too is counterproductive.
What I need to do is highlight ways into the text which stimulate conversation. From there, one can determine a path. A few things strike me as incredibly fruitful, ready for discussion right away:
- How does awe before the "judgment" of the ancient philosophers "as to life and existence in general" work? He'll speak the praises of philosophers like Heraclitus and Thales, and while that can answer the question, I'm much more interested in why we ourselves would have such awe. A lot of us feel our ancestors were more driven, that they built the world we live in by not getting lost in complexities. Does Nietzsche mean the same? I feel like the tone of his comments lean toward the elimination of self-doubt more than anything else.
- All the same, Nietzsche's corpus is awash in nostalgia. While I might argue with Corey Robin on a reading of a passage or two, I find "Nietzsche's Marginal Children" to be very useful. The biographical details he provides are powerful: Nietzsche signing up eagerly to fight the Franco-Prussian War. Nietzsche expressing distress at masses of rioters who were angry at gross accumuluations of wealth and power.
- We can't really talk about Nietzsche without talking about alt-right and IDW fanboys. Is their talk substantially different from what we see in this passage?
- "Freedom, beauty and greatness" seem to be mockingly invoked. While there's lots I admire about people nowadays, I don't really think of us as dedicated to these three concepts. Is there distance between Nietzsche's age and ours? Or are we also to be criticized on his grounds?
- I want to avoid the topic of "truth," but a quick search through an academic journal archive will find plenty of results for Nietzsche's ideas about scientific truth.
- Marianne Cowan's introduction to her translation is worth a look. She spends time talking about how Nietzsche will argue both sides of a position to the point both arguments fail. For example, with the Ancient Greeks praised above, Nietzsche has much to say about them that's derogatory. She concludes that he's revealing something about himself in making rhetorical moves like these (2).
On "genuine culture"
Obviously, I believe in education. I believe if people read more, things will be better.
Am I falling into a trap? Do I believe, without realizing it, that there's a "genuine culture" that would frame philosophic purpose beautifully?
That we nowadays don't fully believe in education or wonder? That we suffer a silent depression and purposelessness?
Every time I wonder if Nietzsche is going too far, I have to ask myself what his premise is. His premise in the above passage is that some cultures fit philosophy better than others. The conclusion may sound grandiose and radicalized, but sure, if people decide to be illiterate cannibals in Antarctica, I can't immediately say that's good for philosophy.
There's a lot of work I have to do on Nietzsche before I publish, but one thing I want clarity on for myself is what a "genuine culture" might look like.
Conclusion: Follow-up & what else might help
I'd love to hear your responses to any one of these questions. Or your own thoughts about this passage or another aspect of Nietzsche's thought. Do bear in mind that I will not have read everything you've read. You'll have to walk me through what you mean and how it works. How it relates, perhaps, to what you're working on already.
E-mail me at ashok DOT raj DOT karra AT gmail DOT com. I'll be responding to comments and talking about people's ideas in the next newsletter.
A quick "what else might be useful to you:"
- Carlos Maza's "How to be Hopeless" is a fantastic video essay. He has an interpretation of Camus' "The Plague" that's timely and profound. And his thinking about hope and its use is no less than philosophic.
- Tressie McMillan Cottom's "essaying" is fantastic. I'm reading it to learn more about craft. Her essay "The Logic of Stupid Poor People" has been around a while and is just crushingly good.
- I'm rereading Adam Zagajewski's "En Route" often. Each of his little poems within the larger poem is a world to unpack.
(1) Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (p. 33). Gateway Editions. Kindle Edition.
(2) ibid., 7.