Contesting Nietzsche

Christa Davis Acampora


Contesting Nietzsche
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-92391-8 (e-book)

In this groundbreaking work, Christa Davis Acampora offers a profound rethinking of Friedrich Nietzsche’s crucial notion of the agon. Analyzing an impressive array of primary and secondary sources and synthesizing decades of Nietzsche scholarship, she shows how the agon, or contest, organized core areas of Nietzsche’s philosophy, providing a new appreciation of the subtleties of his notorious views about power. By focusing so intensely on this particular guiding interest, she offers an exciting, original vantage from which to view this iconic thinker: Contesting Nietzsche.

Though existence—viewed through the lens of Nietzsche’s agon—is fraught with struggle, Acampora illuminates what Nietzsche recognized as the agon’s generative benefits. It imbues the human experience with significance, meaning, and value. Analyzing Nietzsche’s elaborations of agonism—his remarks on types of contests, qualities of contestants, and the conditions in which either may thrive or deteriorate—she demonstrates how much the agon shaped his philosophical projects and critical assessments of others. The agon led him from one set of concerns to the next, from aesthetics to metaphysics to ethics to psychology, via Homer, Socrates, Saint Paul, and Wagner. In showing how one obsession catalyzed so many diverse interests, Contesting Nietzsche sheds fundamentally new light on some of this philosopher’s most difficult and paradoxical ideas.


Abbreviations and Citations of Nietzsche’s Works

  1. Agon as Analytic, Diagnostic, and Antidote

1.1. Valuing Animals
1.2. “Homer’s Wettkampf” and the Good of the Second Eris
1.3. What Is an Agon? A Typology of Nietzsche’s Contests
1.4. Lessons from Pindar: The Economy of Agonistic Values and the Circulation of Power
1.5. The End of the Game: Hybris and Violence
1.6. Agon Model as Diagnostic
1.7. Wrestling with the Past: Nietzsche’s Agonistic Critique and Use of History
1.8. Introducing Nietzsche’s Agonists

  1. Contesting Homer: The Poiesis of Value

2.1. Homer’s Contest as Exemplary Revaluation
2.2. The Apollinian (and the Dionysian): The Agon Begins
2.3. Deadly Modifications and the End of Agon
2.4. The Agon: Pessimism, Conservatism, and Racism
2.5. The Logic of the Contest
2.6. The “Ultimate Agony”: Agonistic Antipodes

  1. Contesting Socrates: Nietzsche’s (Artful) Naturalism

3.1. Toward a “Superior Naturalism”
3.2. The Relation between Value and Inquiry
3.3. Toward the “Music-Practicing Socrates”
3.4. Semblance and Science
3.5. Artful Naturalism
3.6. Nietzsche’s Problem of Development and His Heraclitean Solution
3.7. The Subject Naturalized: Nietzsche’s Agonistic Model of the Soul

  1. Contesting Paul: Toward an Ethos of Agonism

4.1. On the Possibility of Overcoming Morality
4.2. Fighting to the Death: The Agonies of Pauline Christianity
4.3. Conflicting Values and Worldviews
4.4 Sittlichkeit, Moral, and the Nature of Nietzsche’s Postmoralism
4.5. The (Moral) Subject Naturalized
4.6. “Das Thun ist Alles”

  1. Contesting Wagner: How One Becomes What One Is

5.1. Becoming What One Is
5.2. The Promise and Problem of Wagner
5.3. Nietzsche’s Inheritance
5.4. Orders of Rank, Types, and Ruling Thoughts
5.5. Nietzsche as a Lover: Selfishness versus Selflessness
5.6. The Feeling of Power
5.7. Nietzsche’s Responsibility
5.8. Fighting Writing: Nietzsche’s Kriegs-Praxis
5.9. How One Becomes What One Is



At the end of his forty-fourth year, Nietzsche surveyed the presents it brought: three works of which he was especially proud and for which he was profoundly grateful. For the interleaf of Ecce Homo he writes: “On this perfect day, when everything is ripening and not only the grape turns brown, the eye of the sun just fell upon my life: I looked forward, I looked backward, and never saw so many good things at once.” The passage calls to mind another one in which he was beginning a new year rather than burying one. It appears at the beginning of the fourth book of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, the last book in the first edition of the volume, which would conclude heralding the arrival of Zarathustra. His thoughts on a new year include the words: “what it is that I want from myself today, and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year—what thought shall be for me the reason, warranty, and sweetness of my life henceforth. I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth!” In many ways, Ecce Homo is about realizing that vision, that gaze that beautifies by loving and results in immense gratitude.

In the midst of my own forty-fourth year, I look back on a life very different from Nietzsche’s but with no less need to be thankful. This project has haunted, irritated, seduced, and excited me for virtually all my professional life to date. Reworking it for the last time before burying it (or setting it free?), I am reminded of how much living occurred during its writing; just how much traveling we—the manuscript and I—have done together; how many deaths and births we have seen; how many restless nights, sleepy mornings, and afternoons filled with peals of laughter have transpired. For the development and writing of this book is woven into, bound up with all those experiences, nearly omnipresent, even when collecting dust in moving boxes, covered with papers to grade, or forsaken for other manuscripts to read or write. So it is that as I bid farewell to this project and all the living over which it presided I come to share Nietzsche’s question at the end of his interleaf in Ecce Homo—“How could I fail to be grateful to my whole life?

Looking backward and looking forward, I see many whose presence is bound up with the necessity of the course the living, thinking, and writing took. Having good philosophical friends capable of encouraging me but more important challenging me, and even more crucially pushing me to the point of saying no, is truly a good fortune I enjoyed. For this, I am especially grateful to Keith Ansell-Pearson, Daniel Conway, Lawrence Hatab, Paul S. Loeb, Alan Schrift, Herman Siemens, and Paul van Tongeren. Others showed generosity and tremendous patience with me in reading earlier (some, much earlier) drafts of this work, including Alexander Nehamas, David Owen, John Richardson, Gary Shapiro, and Robert Solomon.

Nickolas Pappas introduced me to Nietzsche, offered feedback on portions of this project, and continues to inspire me as a colleague.

Thomas Flynn, Richard Patterson, Donald Rutherford, and Steven Strange helped germinate many of these ideas when I began to develop what I call the agonistic framework while a graduate student. Richard Schacht supported translation work I did at the time, which forced me to consider Nietzsche’s ideas in a broader context and enabled me to find them elsewhere in his writings.

Hunter College and the City University of New York have proved to be places where research can flourish. I am grateful to provost Vita Rabinowitz and president Jennifer Raab, who provided funding to support the manuscript preparation and travel for research. My department chairpersons over the years, especially Frank Kirkland and, more recently, Laura Keating, never once complained about and even sought to increase my reassigned time just when I needed it. Students and research assistants from Hunter and the Graduate Center helped with organizing materials and discussed drafts of sections. Among the hundred or so students with whom I discussed these ideas, I am particularly grateful to Ben Abelson, Jonathan Berk, David Cerequas, Brian Crowley, Adam Israel, Adele Sarli, and Greg Zucker.

Significant work on the final manuscript occurred during several leaves and fellowships, including a PSC-CUNY grant from the CUNY Research Foundationand fellowships in residence at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Durham University and at Warwick University.

Several audiences provided thoughtful critical feedback. I am particularly grateful to those at Greifswald University, New School University, Nijmegen University, Oxford University, Southampton University, and Warwick University. Fellow panelists and participants at a variety of professional meetings contributed greatly to the development of my ideas. I owe many debts to members and friends of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society and the Nietzsche Research Group in Nijmegen for criticism and direction.

Ideas for most chapters began as articles or contributions to other volumes.Germs, sketches, and early drafts of some of what appears here can be found in the list of my publications appearing in the bibliography, and I am grateful to those publishers and editors for providing me with venues (and deadlines) for developing this work.

For guidance and encouragement (and even more deadlines), I am grateful to Elizabeth Branch Dyson, my editor at the University of Chicago Press, and to the anonymous reviewers who generously provided critical direction that spurred me to make the book better than it would have been otherwise.

Finally, in completing this project, it was crucial for me to have the very good fortune of a supportive family. Ralph Acampora, our parents, and our extended kinfolk provided cheer, encouragement, child care, and all kinds of reinforcementsthat made thinking and writing compatible with the demands of daily life. To them—thank you very much.

Contesting Socrates: Nietzsche’s (Artful) Naturalism

Welt-Spiel, das herrische,
Mischt Sein und Schein:—
Das Ewig-Närrische
Mischt uns—hinein!
NIETZSCHE, “An Goethe”

Nietzsche attempts to revitalize not only the tragic agon but also what he sees as the agon or contest between art and science. In Die Geburt der Tragödie, he presents the image of “the Socrates who practices music.” This figure anticipates a certain kind of union of the scientific conscience Nietzsche associates with the historical figure Socrates (i.e., neither Plato nor Plato’s Socrates) and the artistic as he anticipates philosophy’s future. This figure is supposed to hold a thoroughly naturalistic view shaped and informed by a variety of artistic resources human beings have at their disposal as naturally cultivated and ready for further development. This ultimately results in a conception of philosophy I will describe as artful naturalism. Nietzsche regards such a practice as superior to its rivals (including materialism and idealism) in at least two respects: the likelihood that it facilitates a more adequate understanding of the world and the viability and potential vitality of the value schemes it can support. He thinks a naturalistic orientation of this sort is superior because it is more likely to result in knowledge and because it supports the affirmation of life.1 There is a third way he might argue that his naturalism might be superior: it explicitly adopts a noble perspective, which is to say that its view of the world and human life is informed by noble values. For Nietzsche, taste is at least as much a concern as it is for the Platonic Socrates in theRepublic, who understands that a life informed by the pursuit of knowledge and justice has to be oriented on the basis of “right loves” (bk. 3) or good taste. It is just that Nietzsche does not, in this case, align his sense of righteousness with moralgoodness. As a philosophical activity, artful naturalism, which I believe is at least part of what is entailed in his conception of what he calls gay science, is offered as superior to dialectic. This is how he considers himself to advocate and practice a form of philosophy that contends with Socrates and the Platonic legacy while still making positive contributions to contemporary inquiry. And this includes an orientation of philosophy he envisions as relevant to the natural sciences as well as other disciplines that were formalizing their methods at that time.

3.1. Toward a “Superior Naturalism”

At the crux of Nietzsche’s contest with Socrates is the way in which he conceives the kind of inquiry he seeks to engage, its methods, purposes, and applications. In contesting Socrates, Nietzsche seeks to go beyond simply criticizing the means and ends of his philosophy in order to provide a positive alternative. Indeed, offering a positive replacement will be crucial for Nietzsche, because, as we shall see, he contends not only the ends of the Socratic contest but also its form and the kinds of participants it produces. So, in his contest with Socrates, he will have to do more than just tear him down and win by destroying him; he will need to better him. If his contest with Socrates is to be a productive one, Nietzsche will have to find a way to exceed him, to rise above him. He will have to offer a superior alternative.

What Nietzsche sums up under the name Socrates lives on as a legacy he contests by envisioning a different form of philosophizing, one that makes use of the opposition of art and science very broadly conceived. As with the rivals in the tragic agon, the opposing elements and their opposition are to be preserved without reducing either to the other. I illustrate how Nietzsche explores this possible combination in the context of just one particular set of concerns: his ideas of development and evolution. In the course of the investigation, I attempt to shed light on two other major ideas in his philosophy: his notion of overcoming and his hypothesis of will to power.2 Nietzsche’s ideas about will to power (which take multiple forms) reflect his efforts to practice the alternative form of philosophizing he anticipates. His reengagement of a contest between art and science reflects his concern to “naturalize cheerfully.”3 Artful naturalism, as I shall call it, takes what is essentially a naturalistic orientation while it recognizes the value of artful activity as essential to its practice.

In elaborating this view, I focus on three primary facets: (1) what is artful in the kind of philosophical enterprise Nietzsche engages, (2) the extent to which it is tied to a project of naturalism, and (3) how this is relevant to his conceptions of what he calls gay science and the future philosophy he anticipates in Jenseits von Gut und Böse. I begin with a survey of what I regard as Nietzsche’s abiding project and how it arises from his contest with Socrates, particularly his assessment of Socrates inDie Geburt der Tragödie, where he conjures the image of a “Socrates who practices music.” I develop and extend the discussion of art in the preceding chapter by focusing attention on how he thinks about art’s tendency toward and use of semblance or Schein. The debasement of Schein is one of the legacies of Socratic rationalism as he sees it. Artful naturalism attempts to recover some of this lost value and exploit its resources.

Thereafter, I elaborate Nietzsche’s naturalism as a guiding orientation toward inquiry that is respectful of modern science, both its methods and its empirical findings without being compelled to simply replicate or follow either. Nietzsche’s naturalism is a topic that has received considerable attention in recent literature.4 I generally agree that Nietzsche is a sort of naturalist, but not in the way it is often assumed and (more rarely) argued. Naturalism as applied to Nietzsche can be taken to mean little more than antisupernaturalism (a thesis that is neither very interesting nor very informative), scientism (which ignores or minimizes his persistent concerns with art and the aesthetic as well as his efforts at value creation), or an endorsement of empiricism (which he often takes as his target and a position with which he contrasts his views). New work is emerging that will endeavor to make more robust alternative conceptions available.5 The distinction has implications beyond Nietzsche studies since the grounds on which Nietzsche emphasizes the creative, affective, and normative dimensions of inquiry are relevant to contemporary concerns about the relation between philosophy and science more generally and the basis and future possibilities of the normative force of truth.6

Of particular interest to Nietzsche is the relation between the findings and methods of science and the conceptual models it utilizes in its researches. Rather than thinking that philosophy should follow science, he thinks it can help further naturalize scientific inquiry (and Wissenschaft more generally) in terms both critical and productive. The critical dimension is quite familiar to his readers since he is often observed rooting out remnants of metaphysical articles of faith that still play a role in basic assumptions and key concepts that structure the aims and methods of science. Very early in his career, Nietzsche took an interest in a classic example of how certain ontotheological ideas might reverberate in contemporary science, specifically in conceptions of development and evolution in the form of teleology. I call this Nietzsche’s problem of development and examine his experiment with a solution to account for evolutionary and developmental change agonistically. His notions of will to power7 emerge in a particular context and exemplify his philosophical practice of the Kunst der Auslegung, the art of interpretation. His general idea of will to power as it is characterized in his published writings (and enhanced by drawing on the evidence in his notebooks) grows out of, and is continuous with, long-standing interests that stretch back to his early publications and plans for others in which he develops his ideas about struggle and the organizing capacity of agonistic relations. This is evident in his conception of philosophical activity as incorporating both the artful and the naturalistic and thereby achieving a kind of agonistic reunion of art and science. In so doing, he provocatively stokes further contestation, one of the very features he admired in his interpretation of the Homeric legacy. Thus, his alternative account of development is not only statically descriptive but also actively transformative. In providing such an account of development, Nietzsche both describes a state of affairs or processes by which they unfold and potentially directs other forms of development insofar as the description potentially redefines what is considered desirable and valuable, worthy of pursuit, and, thus, creates new ends that might be actively pursued. The final sections of the chapter explore some of the consequences of this solution, particularly in its implications for a conception of the human subject.

About the author:

Prof. Christa Davis Acampora

Professor of Philosophy

Professor Acampora joined the Hunter faculty in 2000 and the Graduate Center faculty in 2003. Her specialties include modern European philosophy, aesthetics, moral psychology, and political philosophy. Since 2006, she has served as Editor for the Journal of Nietzsche Studies (

Acampora2Professor Acampora is currently writing a book on the topic of moral injury, and she is a co-investigator for a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities titled “The Experience of War: Moral Transformation, Injury, and Repair.” She is the author of Contesting Nietzsche (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and has published five other books (three on Nietzsche and two in the areas of aesthetics and critical race theory) and numerous articles and book chapters. Her courses include upper level seminars on Nietzsche and Heidegger, existentialism, aesthetics, twentieth-century philosophy, and special topics such as Tragedy & Philosophy and a team taught course on Competition and Culture. She has taught courses in the Thomas Hunter Honors program and the Muse Scholar program. From 2012-2015, Professor Acampora chaired the Hunter College Senate.