Nietzsche, Tension, and the Tragic Disposition

Matthew Tones

Matthew Tones
ISBN 978-0-7391-8992-4 (electronic)

Nietzsche, Tension, and the bc





And I feel it in this way!  There is only One hope and One guarantee for the future of mankind: it is that the tragic disposition should not die out.  An unprecedented cry of despair would resound over the earth, were men to lose it completely; and there is no more rapturous joy than to know That which we know—that the tragic idea has again been born into the world. (UM4:4)[1]

Nietzsche’s earliest work on the Greeks reveals a particularly optimistic understanding of the relationship between culture andphusis that gave birth to the formation of Greek tragic culture. However, as his work matured he came to the realisation that this intimate relationship the Greeks enjoyed between culture and phusis was irreparably damaged and had essentially been lost, along with the last vestiges of the Greek tragic world. Nietzsche’s analysis of this relationship would form the foundation of his own understanding of the Greek ‘tragic disposition’ that he examined in great detail in The Birth of Tragedy. It is these themes he developed in this early period that would have a lasting influence on his work as a whole.

The current work will pursue one notion, prevalent in Nietzsche’s early work, which understands the ontological structure of the tragic disposition as a process that is wholly within becoming, one that creates from an abundance of forces. The tragic disposition displays a desire for eternity that runs counter to the verity that within this becoming is a process that ensures all creation is fated to destruction, a realization that produces an increasing tension. Thus, the ontological is to be understood as a cyclical process within becoming, a process of creation, destruction, creation, ad infinitum. This ontological structure resulted in the development of a particular disposition, possessed by the Greeks and epitomized in their creative instances of nobility captured largely in Greek tragedy. This work will examine this ontological process, and focus on the tension between the nobles’ desire for permanence and the knowledge of their inevitable destruction. While this ontological idea was prevalent in Nietzsche’s early work on the Greeks, his mature writing tends to emphasise the foreignness of Greek culture, and questions about the tragic disposition shrink to the background. Hence, it invites the question, “what happened to the Greek tragic disposition in Nietzsche’s mature thought?” The concept reappears in various points of tension that emerge in his work on the noble journey to reconnect with a nature that is lost in his own time, and it is the tragic disposition that is integral to Nietzsche’s developing notion of nobility.

The persistent question concerning Nietzsche’s relationship to the Greeks and what role and influence their thought plays on his thought will be expanded upon to reveal a concern retained throughout his work and in Beyond Good and Evil manifests itself in the task to “translate man back into nature” (BGE230). Indeed, this desire to reconnect with nature reveals Nietzsche’s hope for the future, and is manifested in an ancient, yet new, task made possible by “a magnificent tension of the spirit such as has never existed on earth before: with so tense a bow one can now shoot for the most distant targets” (BGE preface).

Of central importance for this task will be the role of Greek nature, or phusis, and its ontological function for a re-emergence of nobility. Generally translated as ‘nature,’ and addressed extensively by Plato and Aristotle, it is, however, from the pre-Socratics that Nietzsche’s use of the term is derived. Phusis was a subject he explored extensively in his earliest unpublished writings, specifically in Anaximander and Heraclitus, and from here he acquired an understanding of a formative primal matter at the root of existence. Hence, of concern will be how Nietzsche understands and uses Greek phusis to reinvent notions of nobility consistent with a tragic disposition.

The popular trend in Nietzsche scholarship for questions of phusis is to take as their focus the influence of Heraclitus on Nietzsche’s work. This approach also serves to connect Nietzsche’s ontology to the Greek model. This has been a popular approach taken by such heavy weights of scholarship as Karl Löwith (1978:1995) and Eugene Fink (1965:2007) who echoed modern thinkers such as Hatab,

The primordial origin of Nietzsche’s philosophy remains Heraclitus. After 2500 years a repetition of Heraclitus occurs accompanied by the tremendous assertion to wipe out and oppose the extended reflection of an entire tradition formed in the meantime and to show humanity a new yet ancient path. (Fink, p. 7)

This influence of Heraclitus is also important to recent scholarship that focuses on the ontological structure of the pre-Platonic Greeks, and this serves to inform a naturalistic reading of Nietzsche (Ansell-Pearson 2000, Poellner 2000, Small 1999, 2006, 2010, Whitlock 1996, 1997, 2006). However, studies that limit their focus to the naturalistic process tend to neglect the cultural application of Nietzsche’s work, and hence cannot adequately address the connection between Greek ontology and what might be its modern cultural application that Nietzsche sought to define. There are studies that address the connection between the ontological and its social application, such as those that tend to focus on perspectivism (Cox 1999), but these tend to overplay the ontological process at the expense of the cultural application, indeed life. At the opposite end of the spectrum stand thinkers such as Babette Babich (1994, 2006), who studies the connection between the Greek myth and Nietzsche’s scientific influences, and its appearance in Nietzsche’s thought, though she does not explicitly connect this with the argument for naturalism. It was Jürgen Habermas who proposed the argument, in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, that Nietzsche returned to the Greeks in order to find indicators for the future (1987, p.87). This focus on Nietzsche’s concept of the future is distinctly different from the ontological analyses, or indeed the naturalistic readings of Nietzsche’s work, that are found lacking with regard to cultural questions. What recent scholarship seemingly lacks are detailed studies of the connection between Nietzsche’s ontological claims and their cultural application, especially in regard to the future of nobility. The current work is situated at the juncture between the naturalistic and applied cultural readings, and pursues the question of the future of nobility.

It will take as its point of departure a naturalistic, ontological position that opens questions about the relationship to nature in the earliest Greek work. Indeed, it will be a close study of The Birth of Tragedy, alongside Nietzsche’s unpublished work on the pre-Platonic Greeks, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers and Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, that will inform the ontological model that I will argue is consistent throughout Nietzsche’s work. These early works will provide the foundation for addressing the question of nobility. Having established this foundation, the later chapters will extrapolate this to his later work and its application to the task of a new nobility. Works such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil will become more prevalent, without assuming a solitary central focus. This approach will serve to exhibit the wide spread influence of Nietzsche’s early works across the spectrum of what is usually referred to as his ‘later works.’ The task of Zarathustra, conveyed by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, will assume a more central focus at this point. However, the current work will not be an extended examination of the text but, rather, an assessment of the influence of the earlier work on the wider corpus of his mature work as a whole. In this respect, it compliments and draws from, but does not add to, the excellent secondary literature focusing on Thus Spoke Zarathustra (see Lampert 1986, Allison 2001, Gooding-Williams 2001, Rosen 2004, Santaniello 2005, Seung 2005, Loeb 2010).

In the process, it will be shown that the ontological structure that Nietzsche proposes ensures a consistency of the tragic disposition throughout his work, albeit in different guises. The present work, echoing thinkers such as Hatab, maintains “that the affirmation of becoming and a tragic worldview are central to all of Nietzsche’s thinking,” (Hatab 2005, p. 35) and one objective will be to show that the tragic disposition, present in his earliest work, can also be found in a more evolved and developed form in his later work.

In arguing that the ‘tragic disposition’ re-emerges as a state of tension between creation and destruction in Nietzsche’s later thought, the thesis distinguishes itself from arguments that tend to focus on the ontological process as a whole, such as the cultural application of the eternal recurrence (Loeb 2010), the cosmological origins in the Greeks and eternal recurrence (Löwith 1978, Small 2010), or even the connection between the eternal recurrence and a tragic disposition (Hatab 2005). Because this work focuses specifically on the point of tension, the moment of resistance where the noble desires to affirm something eternal, it highlights a fundamentally different disposition to the one produced in any affirmation of fatalism. That is, the tragic disposition is not manifested in the thought that all things recur but, rather, it is in the concept of the fatalistic destruction that is against one’s own desire for eternity. Nietzsche developed this concept very early on, well before the development of his idea of recurrence. Further, necessary to the tragic disposition is a resistance, an affirmation, captured within an affirming spirit that desires to be noble, hence, negating the fatalist position.

This work will follow a path that first defines the structure and development of the Greek tragic disposition, as Nietzsche understands it in his earliest work. It is important to examine in detail the inner workings, to elaborate on the ontological aspect of the tragic disposition before explaining the modern forces that eroded and eventually extinguished it. The first three chapters will work to establish and develop the idea of the tragic disposition, elaborating on aspects of becoming in phusis that Nietzsche wishes to recover some semblance of, before examining how we might overcome modern discourses that have perverted thisphusis. Once this foundation is established, the concluding two chapters will examine how the tragic disposition re-emerges in Nietzsche’s mature work and explore the form that it takes. This study will reveal that the tragic disposition is found in the wandering of the noble and the nobles’ tension in his relationship to nature. It will undertake an unpacking that reveals themes, consistent with the model of the tragic disposition, that shows Nietzsche revisited the tragic hero in a more modern context, and shows that this would decisively shape his notion of nobility.

The first chapter will locate the ontological origins of the tragic disposition in a tension between Anaximander and Heraclitus that Nietzsche first identified in his early unpublished work on the Greeks. The distinction between the two thinkers captures the conceptual opposition that Nietzsche would maintain throughout his work. This opposition is fundamentally understood as a contrast between a moralistic two-world theory and a world of becoming that is wholly innocent. By establishing his preference for Heraclitus over Anaximander, Nietzsche develops an ontological model that is a finite totality and, as wholly becoming, maintains its innocence. It is this model that provides Nietzsche with the ontological structure of the tragic disposition, and this is developed further by emphasizing the inherently finite nature of becoming that assures its eventual destruction. At the same time, the structure raises the question of affirmation. This ontological process makes possible the tension of the hero that stands apart and desires eternity, departing from the unity from which he emerges, thus giving birth to the tragic disposition. This tension would lead to a creative drive that culminated in a cultural flourishing.

Having established the process of the creation of the tragic disposition, Chapter two will go into a closer examination of the naturalistic and mythical beliefs of the ancient Greeks that shaped Nietzsche’s understanding of becoming, and specifically the idea of growth as an abundance. The relationship between man and nature will be examined, and it will be argued that man partakes of this nature—and its inherent tensions of creative and destructive forces—by virtue of his drives and instincts. These drives and instincts are the target of modern discourses that work to alienate man from nature. The modern challenge to Greek nature will be examined in order to explain the oppositions that must be overcome. Nietzsche explores these connections because it is these forces that drive the hero to the divine, which forms the periphery of, and limitation to, growth. Nietzsche’s concern with a rediscovery of Greek phusis lies in once more harnessing these forces for the development of a modern noble disposition.

Chapter three will further examine the stifling of the Greek concept of growth and explain the need to overcome these obstacles in order to extend boundaries. This is achieved in both the modern and the Greek culture by opposing the dominant authority. It is the Greek drive of hubris that challenges authority, and this has deep mythical implications that can be traced to the Greek notion of sacrilege. Rediscovering the sacrilegious impulses is vital to overcome the obstacles and facilitate a reconnection with Greek phusis. This sacrilegious act opposes and challenges the dominant authority, and it is this confrontation that spurs development to something higher. This action expands boundaries through the tension of opposition that always seeks overcoming. Hence, Nietzsche is lured by a desire to overcome decadence to something more, new, and unknown. Further, this sacrilege is heavily indebted to an ontological process that Nietzsche discovered in the Greeks, as early as Anaximander: it is the nature of man to stand apart, so the act of sacrilege is in tune with the process of hubris that drives the tragic disposition.

Having established, from the Greeks, the need to go apart/outside/above, Chapter four will examine the conditions required to undertake a ‘journey to innocence’ that transcends the boundaries of self. It will be argued that Nietzsche utilizes the Heraclitean metaphor of ‘the child’ to restore this innocence and instil a new and free creativity, a possibility for the future. However, innocence in itself is insufficient for creativity and cultivating a future. It will be examined how a tension is formed between innocence and the need to accept responsibility, and how this results in a discriminatory taste that contributes to the development of a new noble. Thus, the journey is achieved by a complex tension between innocence and responsibility. New notions of nobility are developed in the journeying, in the willingness to explore and expose oneself to the unknown evident in the approach of the child. This will lead into an examination of the extremities of the journey, of the height and depth, and will return to Greek themes developed in Chapters one and two.

Finally, once these conditions have been established, it will be argued that the noble must undertake a journey that increases the tension of both height and depth as he reinterprets boundaries. Returning to themes from the Greeks, the noble finds his greatest heights in his journey to his depths, and this connection between the two further heightens a tension within the self, this time between the social self and the self of solitude. It is explained that the path to nobility is necessarily found in wandering to the unknown and creating new boundaries, and this once more opens the expansiveness of phusis. This journey enhances the tension of height and depth, and the chapter will conclude by examining the point of maximum tension, the point that destroys the Greek tragic hero, which represents the limits of the noble wandering for Nietzsche’s current project. This limit entices the self to what Nietzsche calls a ‘self-overcoming.’ It is in this process that the tragic disposition is fulfilled and the ontological process affirmed.

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable input, motivation, patience and inspiration from John Mandalios, who ignited my passion for Nietzsche and helped me turn this passion into the current work. The book also received valuable feedback and suggestions from Paul Patton and Kathleen Higgins, for which I am very grateful. On a personal level, I am indebted to the patience and support of my wife, Shalin, and my family for their encouragement and support, to Steve Jefferies for our stimulating discussions of all things German, and finally to the editorial staff at Lexington books for their assistance and meticulous preparation of this work.

Chapter 5

New Antipodes

Pathos, Vertigo, Wanderings


Nietzsche’s model of nobility relies upon a complex relationship of tension between height (associated with divinity and nobility), and depth (becoming from the Greek chthonic) that reveals a necessary connection between both within the noble disposition. The ontological model of the noble disposition is a complex symbiotic relationship between the two, and the prerequisite for nobility requires a degree of tension between both height and depth. While this two-fold structure is inherent in the disposition of the noble, it is important to expand upon why the noble, who has attained a degree of height, must still work to reconnect with their depths, to increase this tension. This chapter will examine the re-emergence of these Greek themes in Nietzsche’s later work, specifically how the tension of height and depth informs the noble disposition.[1]

The origin of these antipodes, revealed in the point of tension between height and depth, first came to Nietzsche in the Greek model from Heraclitus. While Nietzsche focused on the growth potential of becoming toward height, Nietzsche’s early work recognized a sharp distinction between the complimentary relationship of the divine ‘fiery’ heights and the ‘moist’ destructive depths (PPP pp. 73–4). For the Greeks, a culture that Nietzsche argued had a closer relationship to the divine, an excess of the chthonic depths threatened the individuals’ existence. Conversely, in Nietzsche’s own time a connection to these depths was necessary because modernity lacked both height and depth. The healthy Heraclitean logos posits the totality as both the light that is ‘destructive,’ ‘cleansing’ and ‘awareness,’ and the moist as dampness and ‘perceived permanence’ in a state of decay (PPP p. 73). The Greek world of becoming was a mutual flow from the moist to the fire and from the fire to the moist, revealing the Heraclitean logos in the noble disposition that exists in the Sophrosyne of the two.[2] The ‘all too human’ shortcoming, that Nietzsche argues is timeless, is a failure to recognize this logos—the problem for Heraclitus is “That so few human beings live according to, and recognize, the Logos, because their souls are ‘moist,’” they have a preoccupation with maintaining permanence (PPP p. 73). A succinct difference between the height/depth is being explored here, and the moist/fire expounded in Nietzsche’s Heraclitus; while the former serves to distinguish the noble from the herd in the feeling of a pathos, the latter reflects an ontological disposition that occurs regardless of this pathos. That is, it reflects the ontological aspect of man that needs an element of the moist to construct the sensible, as discussed in chapter 1. The Heraclitean wisdom arrived at with the heightened pathos reveals the union of the two and an awareness of this ontology; the noble has the ability to affirm the ontological and consequently to affirm their distinction from the herd.

The notion of depth is more complex in Nietzsche’s mature thought than in his early work. Indeed, he develops two parallel concepts; the first is the chthonic roots of becoming that is distinctly ontological, and the second is the herd existence that is the antithesis of the noble (the herd depth is juxtaposed to the noble height and exists on a lower rung of the social hierarchy to the noble). When this is considered at an ontological level, the herd position is an intermediary position of impotence in between height and chthonic depth that lacks the drive or the desire for a connection to either. In Heraclitean language, the herd gaze is cast downward because it is comfortable and easy, but this lamentable preoccupation with decay ultimately leads to the moralization that is characteristic of Anaximander because, as Heraclitus had established, “Souls take pleasure in becoming moist” and seek explanation for their own decay (Heraclitus frag. 77). The herd’s preference for dampness and decay serves as an internal counter position. This movement can be appreciated in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, specifically “Tree on the Mountainside” (Z1:8). The tree reaches its peak in its journey to height and finds lightening; it reveals not ‘enlightenment’ in the fire (dissolution), but stands at a point of the limitation of its growth that reveals the clarity and awareness of the connection between the two polarities of height and depth (the tree spans both); what Nietzsche will call Heraclitean wisdom (PPP p. 71). The ontological connotations of the trees’ position mimic the fatalistic nature of man that is at odds with wisdom in his desire for height, yet still part of the logos: “Aeon considers the human being in itself as contrary to the Logos: only by his relationship to fire does he participate in the common intelligence” (PPP p. 73; recall chapter 4 and the influence of Hölderlin’s tension of the finite with the infinite phusis on Nietzsche). Further, this explicit distinction that the early Nietzsche makes in Heraclitus between the human being and the logos in Aeon (life in Homeric Greece, permanence of ideas in Plato) provides the ontological foundation for metaphysical/Heideggerian readings of Nietzschean nature distinct from naturalism: the ‘Earth’ provides a sustaining ground for the individual instance. As early as the Greek work it is evident that Nietzsche was aware of the important question of man’s place in nature.[3] Nietzsche discerned from Heraclitus that the connection to height remains a distinct possibility and hence so does the destructive element (the tragic disposition), yet the connection is troubled. The modern herd has an abundance of moisture and is turned toward permanence and the earth, whereas the fiery Heraclitean rationality is in sync with the world process of both height and depth, but importantly also, destruction. Hence, the logos is that which reveals the mutual relationship of the two in becoming. Being is the irrational that sees permanence and gives rise to a strained relationship to nature…


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