Nietzsche Blogging: Homer’s Contest

The Death of Socrates
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I’m about 30 pages into The Portable Nietzsche now, and a few prominent themes are already becoming pretty obvious. The most obvious one: Nietzsche loves himself some Greeks. Homer, of course, gets a major shout out in “Homer’s Contest,” but the German philosopher’s greatest affinity seems to be for the Athenian philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and so on.

It turns out that Nietzsche likes the ancients for a lot of the same reasons I do: he takes issue with the utilitarian, enlightenment-era notion of aggregate pleasure or utility as an ultimate moral end. Nietzsche sees truth as a worthwhile end in and of itself, not to mention excellence.

I’m completely onboard with truth as an end, but on the fence regarding virtue and excellence. Or, to put it more accurately, I think virtue and excellence are fine things, but that it’s nonsensical to think of them as something that could put you above other persons in any morally relevant sense. I’m not sure how I feel about the second formulation from Kant’s categorical imperative (the part that says: never treat others as means, always treat them as ends in and of themselves) as a set in stone law ad absurdum, but I think there’s considerable merit to it as a general rule of thumb.

Nietzsche clearly disagrees. To him, the lives of the vast majority of humankind are valuable only to the extent to which they serve as means for the truly virtuous, excellent people. Or as he puts it, when discussing why we have civilization: “The hope is that with the preservation of so many blanks one may also protect a few in whom humanity culminates.”

To my delicate liberal sensibilities, the idea of calling any person a simple “blank” with no moral weight of their own is morally repugnant. But what little I know of Nietzsche’s work suggests this will grow into a major preoccupation of his, and I’m interested to see how he develops it.

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