Beyond the Birth of Tragedy: Nietzsche’s ‘Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks’

LIVING, as he did, in the late-nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche was able to witness at first-hand the gradual degeneration of the West. As a young man, of course, he had greatly excelled in the field of Philology and become intimately acquainted with the personalities and ideas that one finds in the Classics. As a result, Nietzsche arrived at the conclusion that Ancient Greek philosophy – at least prior to what he regarded as the more pernicious influence of Socrates (469-399 BCE) and Plato (427-347 BCE) – contained the seeds of wisdom and fortitude that could effectively inspire a new generation of young Germans and thus help to salvage and revitalise the crumbling remnants of European civilisation.

The main body of work, itself unfinished, which sets out Nietzsche’s belief in the necessities of a neo-Hellenic revival is his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, written in 1873. One year earlier, however, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) had thoroughly shocked and angered his academic contemporaries and none more so than the well-respected Philologist, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931). The latter published a two-part polemic of his own, entitled Philology of the Future (1872-73), which was extremely confrontational and attacked Nietzsche for daring to suggest that the Greek tragedian, Euripides (480-06 BCE), author of The Trojan Women (415 BCE) and various other plays, had been chiefly responsible for the decline of the Greeks themselves. According to Marianne Cowan:

The Birth of Tragedy presented a view of the Greeks so alien to the spirit of the time and to the ideals of its scholarship that it blighted Nietzsche’s entire academic career. It provoked pamphlets and counter-pamphlets attacking him on the grounds of common sense, scholarship and sanity. For a time, Nietzsche, then a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, had no students in his field. His lectures were sabotaged by German philosophy professors who advised their students not to show up for Nietzsche’s courses.[1]

Indeed, Wilamowitz-Moellendorff accused Nietzsche of seeking to “belittle the historical-critical method” and of allegedly distorting the truth in order to suit his own aesthetic sensibilities. But the court philosophers and philologists of his day had completely failed to appreciate the great value and insight that The Birth of Tragedy had brought about in the first place and the contribution that it had made to Western philosophy as a whole.

Nietzsche was not unduly perturbed by the reaction of his contemporaries and, within a year, had plans to publish his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Several years later, in 1886, when he published an updated edition of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche was forced to admit in a supplementary preface that it was

an impossible book […] badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo [and] without the will to logical cleanliness.[2]

The Birth of Tragedy was not helped by the fact that the fledgling philosopher had included in his work a quite unnecessary and superfluous analysis of the role of music based on the compositions of Richard Wagner (1813-83), a figure that Nietzsche himself was later to denounce. With Philosophy in the Age of the Greeks, however, he intended to further clarify his thoughts on Greek philosophy between the period ranging from the sixth to the and fifth century BCE and, more accurately, from 600 BCE until 400 BCE. He therefore decided to focus on five specific thinkers: Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Anaxagoras. In addition, he had planned to include a detailed examination of the writings of Democritus (460-370 BCE), Empedocles (490-430 BCE) and the aforementioned Socrates, but sadly the book remained unfinished and it wasn’t until after his death that the notes he had prepared at the time – and which are hugely important for the simple fact that they were constructed around the same period as The Birth of Tragedy itself – were finally published as Philosophy in the Age of the Greeks.

Nietzsche was determined to get to grips with the personalities of the great philosophers themselves, examining not only their ideas but also the little devices and idiosyncrasies that each character was able to add to the overall flavour of Greek thought. Burdened, as he was, by the vast influence of the twin-headed Socratic-Platonic beast that had come to dominate the last few centuries of Western philosophy, Nietzsche was committed to the resurrection of those personalities whom he considered to have made a comparatively more important and substantial contribution to Occidental thought. His Philosophy in the Age of the Greeks was not designed to examine these philosophers in any great depth, but to provide a broad outline of their distinguishing characteristics:

It is possible to present the image of a man in three anecdotes; I shall try to emphasise three anecdotes in each system and abandon the rest.[3]

The high esteem in which Nietzsche holds all philosophy, regardless whether he happens to agree with it or not, is clearly evident in this book and the fact that he became Professor of Classical Philology at one of Switzerland’s most pristine and well-respected universities is testimony to his ability to dissect, interpret and formulate the highly complex ideas and theories of the Ancient Greeks themselves. Throughout his life, however, he always harboured a very negative attitude towards his fellow Germans and questioned whether they were actually worthy of committing themselves to the study of philosophy at all:

There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advise the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics, instead preaching purification through physis as Goethe did, or or healing through music, as did Richard Wagner.[4]

German culture in general, Nietzsche believed, was extremely unsuited to philosophical discourse because it suffered from an inherent ‘sickness’ that would merely take hold of certain ideas and use them to effectively hasten the process of its own decline. Philosophy, he argues, can only flourish in a society that is already in a state of good cultural health. The best example, of course, being Ancient Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.

The Greeks, with their truly healthy culture, have once and for all justified philosophy simply by having engaged in it more fully than any other people.[5]

Nietzsche understood that whilst Greek thought was something that developed in a very organic fashion over a long period of time, some of his contemporaries in the late-nineteenth century seemed to believe that philosophy was something that arrived very suddenly in order to meet the challenges of political, social and economic decline.

Indeed, the Greeks applied philosophy to almost everything and it became part of the fixtures and fittings of their daily existence. To suppose that it was something that merely came about in times of crisis, on the other hand, is nonsense. The highly-conducive and stimulating environment of Greek culture itself provided its philosophers with a fertile climate in which new ideas could take root, begin to grow and eventually blossom.

Nietzsche is also critical of the fact that many self-professed experts in the subject tend to insinuate that philosophy itself was imported from the East. He accepts that Oriental thought has had at least some influence on the development of Western philosophy, but to put the two side by side as though they are one and the same inevitably results in a contextual muddying of the waters and has no real bearing on reality. The same is true of the confused manner in which multi-cultural history is taught in modern schools, a worthless enterprise that simply results in a loss of identity for all concerned. For the Greeks, however, whilst their civilisation was not completely autochthonic, the process of cultural absorption was far more gradual and selective and it was this which enabled them to learn from their counterparts abroad:

Their art in the skill of fruitful learning was admirable. We ought to be learning from our neighbours precisely as the Greeks learned from theirs, not for the sake of learned pedantry but rather using everything we learn as a foothold which will take us up as high, and higher than our neighbour.[6]

This is the very crux of Nietzsche’s attitude towards philosophical learning and he has no time for those who immerse themselves in hair-splitting debates concerning whether the Greeks, Persians or Egyptians had the best form of philosophy. The key is to constantly strive for higher levels by seeking to learn from all manifestations of philosophy, not to make worthless comparisons between them.

Examining the various schools of thought within each of them, of course, is quite different and can serve as a good indication as to why Greek civilisation – to use the present example – gradually went into decline. Embarking upon a constant search for philosophical purity, Nietzsche believes, leads to just as much ignorance and barbarity as the rejection of knowledge and learning itself. The Greeks were more concerned with using philosophy to advance their own culture and way of life:

Whatever they learned, they wanted to live through, immediately. They engaged in philosophy, as in everything else, as civilised human beings, and with highly civilised aims, wherefore, free of any kind of autochthonous conceit, they forebore trying to re-invent the elements of philosophy and science. Rather they instantly tackled the job of so fulfilling, enhancing, elevating and purifying the elements they took over from elsewhere that they became inventors after all, but in a higher sense and a purer sphere. For what they invented was the archetypes of philosophic thought. All posterity has not made an essential contribution to them since.[7]

Compared to the professional academics of today, who are merely funded by a combination of private-run universities and governmental departments to analyse and interpret what they consider to be the ‘dead’ philosophies of the past, the Greeks lived in a unique and exciting historical age when philosophy was unfolding before their very eyes. In other words, the Greek philosophers were not bound by any kind of bourgeois convention and were therefore able to formulate their ideas and develop them to the fullest possible extent.

Nietzsche even suggests that a sense of mystical solidarity may have existed between the best of the Greek philosophers, with

each giant calling to his brother through the desolate intervals of time. And undisturbed by the wanton noise of the dwarfs that creep beneath them, their high spirit-converse continues.[8]

Indeed, one has to ask why much of modern philosophy – and particularly Existentialism – seems so utterly obsessed with establishing the meaning of life itself, particularly when the Greek approach to such matters was a perpetual affirmation of life and all it stands for. In many ways, Nietzsche was right to pour scorn on modern philosophers and believed that the Greeks were far superior as a result of the inextricable link between both their philosophers and their enlightened lifestyle. Even the better philosophers of the contemporary age, Nietzsche suggests, are far too detached and atomised to have an impact upon our declining European culture. There is clearly some truth in this, for new ideas must take root in fresh soil, but nonetheless away from the contaminating influence of the prevailing epoch and its inferior values.

Nietzsche’s aim in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks is to present a study, in his words, of the ‘pre-Platonic’ philosophers. We have already established that Nietzsche had some disregard for the ideas of Socrates and Plato, to say the least, but today the categorical terminology used to identify and group together those thinkers who arrived on the scene just prior to Socrates and Plato can often differ. The most common term applied to those Greeks who operated within this philosophical time-frame is ‘Presocratic’, but other important figures like Pythagoras (b.570 BCE) often find themselves excluded. The latter – despite his immense contribution to the field – also completely fails to appear alongside Nietzsche’s own thinkers of choice, possibly because his ideas are often seen to be very personal and semi-mystical in nature.

However, whilst those gathered around Pythagoras are inevitably described as ‘Pythagoreans’, this can often lead to a degree of confusion because the later Pythagoreans happened to believe that Plato himself was a Pythagorean. To add to the confusion, some of the later Platonists often find themselves described as ‘Neopythagoreans’, ‘Middle Platonists’ and ‘Neoplatonists’. Much of this terminology is very subjective, of course, depending on how certain ideas are interpreted and classified by those with ideas and agendae of their own.

In terms of basic convenience, of course, it is usually much easier to assemble the main thinkers discussed in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks into their more specialised groupings, such as those pertaining to the Ionian (Thales, Anaximander), Eleatic (Parmenides), Heraclitean (Heraclitus) and Connective (Anaxagoras) schools. But here, just for the sake of argument, we shall endeavour to employ Nietzsche’s use of the term ‘pre-Platonic’. He explains his own terminological reasoning thus:

With Plato, something entirely new has its beginning. Or it might be said with equal justice, from Plato on there is something essentially amiss with philosophers when one compares them to that “republic of creative minds” from Thales to Socrates.[9]

The “republic” of which Nietzsche speaks is that discussed by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), one of the biggest influences on his own philosophy. Nietzsche regarded the ‘pre-Platonic’ thinkers to be essentially pure and unsullied, whilst he considered those who came later to be a rather disparate bunch with no real ties to the older and more venerable Greek tradition. Plato is also said to include among his own philosophical outpourings the influence of Socratic, Pythagorean and Heraclitic elements. But the most important change that followed the death of Socrates, according to Nietzsche, was that whilst the ‘pre-Platonic’ philosophers had attempted to have an impact upon Greek society as a whole, the later thinkers merely sought to influence those around them; in other words their most loyal friends and associates. This led to the onset of Hellenistic cultism and a type of philosophical sectarianism. Nietzsche also believes that

beginning with Plato, philosophers became exiles, conspiring against their fatherland.[10]

So whilst the ‘pre-Platonic’ thinkers contributed to the life-blood of Greek life and culture, Plato and his successors are said to have been actively working against it.

The first personality that Nietzsche examines in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks is Thales of Miletus (624-546 BCE), considered by many to have been the first Greek philosopher and scientist. Thales had Boeotian ancestry and was descended from the Thelides family who, in turn, were related to Cadmus (2000 BCE); a famous Phoenician prince and national hero of Thebes who himself possessed a divine lineage that stretched all the way back to godly characters such as Uranus, Gaia and Cronus. Constantine Plevris, however, disputes that Thales had Phoenician origins:

Thales was actively involved in the public affairs of his home town, an activity which he would have been forbidden if he had been a barbarian. The main reason, however, is that the dependable biographer Hermippus preserved the following fact: that Thales used to say that he was grateful to Fate for three reasons. These reasons were: first, that he was born a human being and not an animal; secondly, that he was born a man and not a woman; and finally that he was born a Greek and not a barbarian.[11]

Thales was one of the founders of the Ionian school, which got its name from the fact that Miletus was an Ionian colony on the coast of Asia Minor. But whilst Miletus itself was a thriving city-state, Thales was able to follow the trade-routes that led to Egypt and Persia, where he not only absorbed the sacred texts of those impressive civilisations, but also went on to teach others about the philosophy of his Greek homeland. The main academic discipline in which Thales excelled was science and he became renowned for his geometrical findings that demonstrated how the two base angles of an isosceles triangle are equal, why a diameter bisects a circle and how a triangle can be constructed by using the base and angles of two sides. In astronomy, too, Thales possessed a remarkable degree of intelligence and foresight, even predicting the solar eclipse that took place on 28th May 585 BCE and presenting detailed studies based on the orbits of both sun and moon. He also worked out how to estimate the distance of a ship from two land-based points and how to calculate the height of a pyramid from the length of its shadow.

Elsewhere, by observing the complex processes of magnetism and electricity Thales explained how fossilised amber could be used to attract particles by way of friction. He believed, too, that a magnet contained a soul. In a more practical sense, the calculations of Thales led to the re-routing of the Halyus River and the construction of a canal to enable King Croesus of Lydia and his men to cross more effectively.

As a philosopher, however, Thales may be regarded as a monist and believed that everything is derived from a single substance. The source in question is water, said to be alive with living things and therefore the chief cause of life itself:

Since Thales considered matter to be alive we can maintain that he is the founder of the philosophy which made its appearance much later under the name of hylozoism or hylopsychism and which holds that every material object has a soul whether it self-existently is its own or provided by the soul of the world.[12]

Nietzsche tells us that Thales’ theory about water being the primal origin of all things appears to us as an “absurd notion”[13], but goes on to explain that such a proposition was important to the development of Greek philosophy for several reasons. Firstly, because water does actually contain life – as well as the seeds of existence – and therefore Thales is correct in one sense, at least. Secondly, the language employed by Thales consciously avoids the vivid imagery that one finds in the creation myths and this is an attempt to present a more scientific analysis. Thirdly, by claiming that all things develop from a common source Thales is firmly pinning his monist colours to the philosophical mast in the sense that be believed that “all things are one”. But as Nietzsche explains:

The first reason still leaves Thales in the company of the religious and the superstitious; the second takes him out of such company and shows him as a natural scientist, but the third makes him the first Greek philosopher.[14]

Thales’ careful use of language effectively allowed him to construct a bridge between two worlds, that of the prevailing mythology of Greek antiquity on the one hand, and the emerging trends of philosophy and science on the other. Indeed, whilst the mainstream belief was that men and gods were still firmly at the centre of the universe, Thales’ assertion that everything is derived from water was designed to encourage his more enlightened and open-minded contemporaries to reassess this viewpoint and to examine whether water really is the substance in which all life-forms have their origins. But whilst Thales and his aquatic theory still offered people a natural explanation for the origins of life, moving away from the more traditional pagan interpretation was never going to be easy:

Man for them was the truth and the core of all things; everything else was but semblance and the play of illusion. For this very reason they found it unbelievably difficult to comprehend concepts as such. Herein they were the exact opposite of modern man. For us, even the most personal is sublimated back into an abstraction; for them, the greatest abstraction kept running back into a person.[15]

In one of the famous lectures that he presented to his students at the University of Basel between 1872 and 1876, Nietzsche praised Thales and his watery hypothesis:

To conceive the entirety of such a multifarious universe as the merely formal differentiation of one fundamental material belongs to an inconceivable freedom and boldness! This is a service of such a magnitude that no one may aspire to it a second time.[16]

From a more political perspective, Thales’ decidedly undemocratic viewpoints would not have gone down too well with the modern denizens of political correctness, believing, as he did, that men are not made equal and rejecting multi-culturalism between Greeks and non-Greeks (barbarians) in favour of national unity. But as Thales was busy expanding upon his ground-breaking theories and calculations, the city of Miletus was divided by a bitter class war and both rich and poor were constantly at one another’s throats:

At Miletus the people were at first victorious and murdered the wives and children of the aristocrats; then the aristocrats prevailed and burned their opponents alive, lighting up the open spaces of the city with live torches.[17]

Thales clearly had strong views on financial parasitism, too, believing it to be highly immoral.

When asked how we can live in a more just manner, Thales replied “By not doing things that we disapprove of in others.”[18] As we learn from Aristotle, on the other hand, Thales

was reproached for his poverty, which was supposed to show that philosophy is of no use. According to the story, he knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they liked but that their ambition is of another sort.[19]

Being so thoroughly immersed in philosophy, however, did not always work in Thales’ favour, as Algis Uždavinys reminds us when he deals with the manner in which Greek thinkers attempted to strike a balance between the things of heaven and those of the earth:

It is said, for example, that Thales astronomising and looking intently upward fell into a well, and a bright and lively Thracian girl taunted him about the accident, saying that in his eagerness to know what what was in heaven he could not see what was around him and under his feet.[20]

As was revealed by a personal letter sent from Anaxigoras to Pythagoras, Thales obviously failed to learn from this experience because he later plunged to his death from a cliff-top. According to Diogenes Laertius (third century CE), however, the great legacy of Thales would live on:

We his students, however, wish not only to remember the man but also to entertain our children and audiences with his speech. Thales shall forever be the beginning point of our talks.[21]

The next philosopher to appear on Nietzsche’s list of favourite Greek thinkers is Anaximander (610-546 BCE), a ‘natural philosopher’ who was also from the Ionian school based at Miletus. In fact Anaximander himself, who is believed to have come from an aristocratic background, was a pupil studying under the aforementioned Thales. Following on from the radical demythologising philosophy of his teacher, Anaximander wrote a work entitled On Nature (Περὶφύσεως), in which an attempt was made to interpret the universe in a purely scientific fashion.

Laertius tells us that Anaximander was also a skilled cartographer and the first person to produce a map of the world and to construct a globe. This was based, not on the information gathered from Greek shipping vessels, but from his own scientific data. His explanation for the causes of thunder, for example, were not attributed to gods but to wind and its effect on clouds. This was obviously a purely scientific analysis and a departure from the mythological symbolism of the past.

In contrast to Thales’ bold assertion that everything proceeds from water, however, Anaximander claimed that perpetual motion was actually the origin of life and taught that it was not a change in a primary substance that led to this process, but what he perceived as the emanation of opposites or conflicting forms of matter. Heat, for example, is said to have been the result of one of these emanations and therefore opposing forces such as land and sea are the direct result of hot and cold. Infinity, he said, is the ultimate source from which everything else proceeds and by

using the term “infinity” Anaximander wanted to exclude every known substance as being the origin of beings since, from the moment this substance was known it would cease to be infinite as “infinite” means qualitatively undefined and qualitatively boundless. Infinity also has no bonds in time and space [and] had therefore existed before living beings which are finite.[22]

Thus, as a result of the fact that infinity has not come into being itself it is therefore everlasting, unlimited, imperishable and transcendent. In other words, if infinity has not even been born, then it can hardly die. Anaximander had arrived at this theory as he observed the local fishermen of Miletus slicing open the bodies of freshly-landed sharks, realising that

Mediterranean Artan sharks hatched eggs inside their bodies in the same way that mammals did. Therefore he deduced that all life forms originated from the same source as it were, and that different species were simply variations on a main theme.[23]

It is difficult to say whether Anaximander regards infinity as some kind of absolute spirit and whilst the Greeks themselves did equate man’s origins with the divine, he clearly avoids presenting infinity as a form of matter. Anaximander was also, in a sense, the first Determinist and believed that higher laws always determine the outcome of a being’s development. This happens whenever a being leaves the infinite realm and is born into the world, i.e. becomes finite. The same process ensures that once a being decays and ultimately dies, it ceases to have a form and returns to infinity. As Michael Haar points out, this throws up all kinds of fascinating existential possibilities:

How can the condemnation, the “vengeance” that is brought to bear upon Becoming, be erased? How are we to escape the idea that everything that passes deserves to pass, is therefore without value and is therefore, by disappearing, simply undergoing its just punishment for the sin of having ever existed? Nietzsche sees this idea as very old: he finds it even at the origin of Greek philosophy – namely in the thought of Anaximander, according to which Becoming is guilty, the death of beings representing castigation for their mistake of having been born. In the fact of this long tradition, how are we to recover “the innocence of Becoming”?[24]

Nietzsche, discussing Anaximander and his ideas in The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, suggests that

the question here was no longer purely physical; rather the origin of the world as a sum of unexpiated injustices offers a look into the most profound ethical problems. Thales was infinitely outdone in this way: in the division of an external world of Being only negatively conceivable to us from an empirical world of Becoming and Passing Away lies a posing of questions of immeasurable importance. May the path that led to it now still be so harmless and naïve![25]

Bertrand Russell – ever the liberal – had this to say about the infinite legislature which, as far as Anaximander was concerned, governed the universe:

The idea of justice, both cosmic and human, played a part in Greek religion and philosophy which is not altogether easy for a modern to understand; indeed, our word ‘justice’ hardly expresses what is meant, but it is difficult to find any other word that would be preferable.[26]

Anaximander also went on to teach Pythagoras and even Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) ideas on biological evolution were influenced by his work, most notably in relation to the latter’s theories about mankind having had a previous animalistic incarnation.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks is more than a little predisposed towards Anaximander and the author understands that, like himself, the Greek philosopher was a unique and ultimately tragic character who was fully aware that he performed a kind of heroic role for the few that were prepared to listen. Towards the end of his life, Anaximander became more and more reclusive and many questions remained unanswered. This meant that

he remained in the deep shadows which lie like gigantic ghosts upon the mountains of this world view. The closer men wanted to get to the problem of how the definite could ever fall from the indefinite, the ephemeral from the eternal, the unjust from the just, deeper grew the night.[27]

Nietzsche then turns his attention to Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) who, ordinarily, is perceived to be part of a separate philosophical development to that of his contemporaries in the Eleatic School like Xenophanes (540-475 BCE), Parmenides (540-470 BCE), Zeno (b. 464/490 BCE) and Melissus (b. 430 BCE). Heraclitus himself was of Athenian descent and could trace his lineage back to King Codros and Androclus, the founder of Epheseus. His style, just like that of Nietzsche many centuries later, was remarkably original but his writings were often considered to be incomprehensible. The well-known Roman historian, Titus Livius (59-17 BCE), even labelled his work “obscure”.

Heraclitus believed that order was maintained throughout the world by human warfare:

The struggle must never stop because if it does then the evolution and advancement of values which are ensured only by continuous struggle, will stop. War is the father of all things and king of all beings.[28]

It is easy to see why someone like Nietzsche retained such a special interest in Heraclitus, a man who had attacked both Homer (850- BCE) and Archilochus (680-645 BCE) for daring to speak out against war itself. For Heraclitus, therefore, struggle is hierarchical and a measure of superiority. None, however, may be compared with God and even the best humans are inferior when compared to the innumerable attributes of the Divine.

Another aspect of Heraclitus’ work was the principle of the unity of contrasts. This theory suggests that whilst various objects in the world remain separate and differentiated from one another, when all is said and done they still comprise a single unity at the highest level. This unity becomes manifest within God, the ultimate representation of the reconciliation of opposites. According to Heraclitus, things are constantly evolving and in a perpetual state of flux. Everything that exists is seeking to re-unite with its polar opposite:

Ordinary people fancy they see something rigid, complete and permanent; in truth, however, light and dark, bitter and sweet are attached to each other and interlocked at any given moment like wrestlers of whom sometimes the one, sometimes the other is on top. Honey, says Heraclitus, is at the same time bitter and sweet; the world itself is a mixed drink which must be constantly stirred. The strife of the opposites gives birth to all that comes-to-be; the definite qualities which look permanent to us express but the momentary ascendency of one partner. But this by no means signifies the end of the war; the contest endures in all eternity.[29]

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Heraclitus contends that everything is born of fire and then returns to fire at the point of death. The original fire, in other words, burns out and is then created anew. For Heraclitus, there was only Becoming and no Being. However, he also believed that stability is expressed though the human body and made apparent through the use of speech. This denotes that reality is ever-constant. Heraclitus had a hatred of democracy and egalitarianism, believing, as he did, that the few are superior to the many and that a small elite should always govern in place of the masses. Again, this is something that had a tremendous influence on Nietzsche. Heraclitus even went so far as to compare the vast majority of people to beasts and called for the adult population of Ephesus to be hanged for sending one of its most powerful men, Hermodorus, into exile. The latter had once been a well-respected lawgiver and was renowned for having drawn up the Roman Twelve Tables.

But whilst Heraclitus was repulsed by the “Neo Plutoi” (New Rich) of the democratic classes, he also came out against dictatorship. But it was democracy which eventually alienated him from the rest of Greek society and he finally retreated to a secluded mountain temple devoted to the goddess Artemis:

To walk alone along a lonely street is part of the philosopher’s nature. His gift is the rarest gift of all, the most unnatural one in a certain sense, exclusive and hostile even toward others with similar gifts. The wall of his self-sufficiency must be built of diamonds if it is not to be destroyed and broken into, for everything and everyone is in league against him. His journey toward immortality is more difficult and burdensome than other men. And yet no one can believe more firmly than the philosopher that his journeying will lead to the goal, for where could he stand but on the wide-spread pinions of all time.[30]

Nietzsche believed that Heraclitus had no need for other human beings. Not simply those whom he despised, but also those who actually wanted to listen to what he had to say. At the same time, Nietzsche concluded that the world still needs men such as Heraclitus because they take ideas to a new level and thus become immortal.

Heraclitus would have been truly appalled by the liberal trappings of twenty-first century society, just as the modernist denizens of this present century would consider his own uncompromising views unpalatable. Nietzsche, however, understood and appreciated his philosophy only too well:

Heraclitus only describes the world as it is and takes the same contemplative pleasure in it that an artist does when he looks at his own work in progress. Gloomy, melancholy, tearful, sinister, bilious, pessimistic, generally hateful: only those can find him thus who have good cause to be dissatisfied with his natural history of mankind. But he would consider such people negligible, together with their antipathies and sympathies, their hatreds and their loves…[31]

The philosopher who receives most attention in Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks is Parmenides (540-470 BCE) of the Eleatic School. Born in Elea itself, a city which had been founded by colonists from Phocaea, Parmenides came from an aristocratic background and was originally drawn towards the world of politics. Aminias, however, a lesser-known Pythagorean thinker, persuaded him to embark upon a comparatively ‘quieter’ life as a philosopher. Before long, Parmenides had taken it upon himself to study the work of his fellow Eleatic thinker, Xenophanes, who had outlined his theory of a static universe. Parmenides then set out his own philosophical theories in a two-part poem, On Nature, which amounts to some 3,000 lines.

Beginning with an introductory proem, or narrative sequence, Parmenides describes the journey of a young man who travels in a chariot between the realms of darkness and light. During an encounter with an unnamed goddess, the man is told that he must undertake a search for truth:

Welcome, youth, who come attended by immortal charioteers and mares which bear you on your journey to our dwelling. For it is no evil fate that has set you to travel on this road, far from the beaten paths of men, but right and justice. It is meet that you learn all things – both the unshakable heart of well-rounded truth and the opinions of mortals in which there is not true belief.[32]

In the first part of On Nature, entitled ‘The Way of Truth’ (aletheia), which concerns everything considered to be real, Parmenides discusses the nature of existence. Following the example of Xenophanes, a travelling poet, he posits the theory that everything is static because to move in any direction at all inevitably means tumbling into the void and the void itself cannot exist because it is equated with nothingness. There was, he argues, no coming-into-being, because that would suggest that existence came from nothing. It could not cease to be, either, because it could not end up as non-being. This non-being, or empty space, did not exist for Parmenides. Anything which does exist, in his opinion, is identified with intelligence.

The essence of this argument is: When you think, you think of something; when you use a name, it must be a name of something. Therefore both thought and language require objects outside themselves. And since you can think of a thing or speak of it at one time as well as at another, whatever can be thought of or spoken of must exist at all times. Consequently there can be no change, since change consists in things coming into being or ceasing to be.[33]

In other words, being able to comprehend something implies that it actually exists. That which cannot be understood, meanwhile, does not exist. The problem, he believed, lay with the senses because although things such as birth and decay are perceptible to us, they cannot be trusted because whilst the present may change there is still unchangeable being. Those words or names that have been used in the past, of course, and which continue to exist, therefore bring the past into the present.

This concept, discussed in the second part of his poem, ‘The Way of Opinion’ (doxa), represents the deceptive world of appearances and obscures that which is true reality:

A person who is not versed in philosophy sees this false reality in which there exist birth and decay whereas the philosopher, through the word, sees that true reality, which truly exists, wherein absolute stability prevails.[34]

The physical world, then, is seen as a distortion and the only true reality is the unchanging and eternal nature of ‘the One’. Nietzsche believed that

Parmenides, probably at a fairly advanced age, had a moment of purest absolutely bloodless abstraction, unclouded by any reality. This moment – un-Greek as no other in the two centuries of the Tragic Age – whose doctrine is the product of Being – became for Parmenides’ own life the boundary stone that separates two periods.[35]

This radical new direction completely surpassed the theories that Parmenides had propounded earlier on in his life, particularly in relation to Heraclitus and the notion of coming-to-be, and it was something that Nietzsche welcomed:

Caring now for nothing except the strictest separation of being from non-being, he must hate in his deepest soul the antinomy-play of Heraclitus. Propositions such as “We are and at the same time are not”, or “Being and nonbeing is at the same time the same and not the same”, tangle and cloud everything which he had just illuminated and extinguished. They drove him to fury. “Away with these people,” he screamed, “who seem to have two heads and yet know nothing. Everything is in flux with them, including their thinking. They stand in dull astonishment before things and must be deaf as well as blind to mix up the opposites the way they do!” The irrationality of the masses, glorified in playful antinomies and lauded as the culmination of all wisdom was now a painful and incomprehensible experience.[36]

Nietzsche greatly admired the way in which Parmenides was prepared to overcome some of his original fallacies whilst managing to avoid the religiosity and fervour of his contemporaries. Parmenides, as the opening lines of On Nature demonstrate, was perfectly schematic in his quest to establish the truth.

The final Greek thinker to feature in Nietzsche’s work is Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE), who was renowned for introducing philosophy to the Athenians for the very first time. Born in Clazomenae in Asia Minor, Anaxagoras never had the kind of political grounding that Parmenides had experienced and began life as a personal tutor to the famous Greek statesman, Pericles (495-429 BCE). His belief that neither genesis nor decay exist and that true existence is based on the mixing and separation of small particles of matter, was based on a system known as ‘chremata’.

Anaxagoras, therefore, a philosopher of the Connective School, had taken things one step further when he attempted to deal with the manner in which imperishable being could be transferred to the world as it is now, but without having to rely upon the unreliability of the senses. If matter is not obtained from either nothing or a single something, therefore, then it must come from true being. The only change that can arise from this unchanging matter is that of form and the way it can assume different types of living essence. Furthermore, as Nietzsche tells us:

Anaxagoras now asserts that the like can never produce the unlike and that change can never be explained out of a single existent. Whether one assumes the one assumed subject to be rarified or densified does not matter. One can never reach by rarification or densification what one desires to explain, namely the plurality of qualities. But if the world is in fact full of many different qualities, then, if they are not semblance, they must have being which means they must be forever uncreated, imperishable and always simultaneously existent.[37]

Matter, he believed, fills the universe completely without leaving any empty space. The mixing and separation of particles is caused by an independent and infinite force which controls everything that occurs. The world is composed of mind and matter, so whilst the former set the latter into motion the world has since been determined by the behaviour of the particles both coming together and moving away from one another. The mind (nous) itself, on the other hand, is purely immaterial and is here equated with the spirit. Anaxagoras leaves nothing to chance and thus believes that everything that happens is predetermined in accordance with a transcendent goal.

But Anaxagoras had his fair share of detractors and various other thinkers had set out to demolish his theories. One of the arguments used to try to undermine his idea of a plurality of substances, related to how many substances could actually be created. His answer was that an infinite number of substances could be generated. As Nietzsche explains:

This flight at any rate took him past the unbelievably troublesome proof of a certain definite number of elemental substances. Since the infinitely many would have to exist without increase, unchanged, in all eternity, the contradiction inherent in imagining a closed off and perfect infinity was already given in the hypothesis. In brief, plurality, motion, infinity – all of them chased off by Parmenides with his astonishing proposition about being – now returned from their exile, sniping at Parmenides’ opponents enough to cause those wounds which never heal.[38]

Anaxagoras belief in the independent power of the spirit-mind, or nous, led to him advancing the theory that all motion is mechanistic and self-perpetuating. But this does not explain how motion began in the first place, of course, and Anaxagoras was aware that if there was a force behind everything then it undermined his ideas about matter being autonomous in the first place. But nevertheless, he came up with the theory of the nous and in many ways sparked the beginnings of spiritualist philosophy. With this new belief in a profound spiritual determinant, however, Nietzsche thought that the workings of the human brain had been completely overlooked. But Anaxagoras’ theory concerning particles that operate independently, on the other hand, is understandable to the extent that the spirit obviously has more important things to deal with than the organisation of tiny pieces of matter. Unlike matter, spirit has motion in itself and is therefore truly independent.

Nietzsche does not accept that Anaxagoras’ theories about the spirit should be relegated to the status of a mere deus ex machina. On the contrary, Anaxagoras would have agreed with Kant that it is possible to devise a system linking the spirit and the cause of motion without descending into the realms of what some people would regard as superstition or mythology. As far as Anaxagoras is concerned, his ideas were purely scientific in nature and, regardless of what the spirit truly represents, the ultimate effect leads to the generation of circular motion:

Mind is the source of all motion. It creates a rotation, which is gradually spreading throughout the world, and is causing the lightest things to go to the circumference, and the heaviest to fall towards the centre. Mind is uniform, and is just as good in animals as in man.[39]

Anaxagoras was more interested in how something came about originally, as opposed to what possible end it actually served.

After a spell in prison for charges of impiety, Anaxagoras was eventually helped to escape by Pericles and then spent the remainder of his life in Lampsacus where he founded his own school. Nietzsche sums up the philosophical contribution made by Anaxagoras thus:

Anaxagoras assumed a free undetermined nous, dependent on itself alone. What he especially esteemed in it was its quality of randomness, hence its ability to activate unconditionally, undeterminedly, guided by neither causes nor ends.[40]

Finally, there is much to be learned from Nietzsche’s whistle-stop tour through this fascinating quintet of Greek philosophers and it tells us a great deal about the formation of Nietzsche’s own ideas. But his conclusion is that these five individuals, whom he considered vastly superior to the German philosophers of the nineteenth century, represent all that was good and healthy in Western thought. The fact that philosophy has declined dramatically since that time is, in itself, an immense tragedy.



1. Marianne Cowan, Introduction in Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (Regnery Publishing, 1998), p.4.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann [Trans.] (The Modern Library, 1992), p.17.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, A Later Preface in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (Regnery Publishing, 1998), p.25.

4. Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Ibid., p.27.

5. Ibid., p.28.

6. Ibid., p.30.

7. Ibid., p.31.

8. Ibid., p.32.

9. Ibid., p.34.

10. Ibid., p.35.

11. Constantine Plevris, Greek Philosophers (Efstathiadis Group, 1999), p.13.

12. Ibid., p.16.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, op.cit., p.38.

14. Ibid., p.39.

15. Ibid., pp.41-2.

16. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers (University if Illinois Press, 2006), p.28.

17. Mikhaili Rostovtsev, History of the Ancient World, Volume One (Greenwood Press, 1971), p.204.

18. Constantine Plevris, Greek Philosophers, op.cit., p.17.

19. Aristotle, Politics (1259a).

20. Algis Uždavinys (Ed.), The Golden Chain: An Anthology of Pythagorean and Platonic Philosophy (World Wisdom, 2004), p.161.

21. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 2 vols., R.D. Hicks [Trans.] (Harvard University Press, 1972), Book 2, Section 4.

22. Constantine Plevris, Greek Philosophers, op.cit., pp.19-20.

23. Maureen O’Sullivan, The Four Seasons of Greek Philosophy (Efstathiadis Group, 1987), p.27.

24. Michael Haar, “Nietzsche and Metaphysical Langauge” in David B. Allison (Ed.), The New Nietzsche (MIT Press, 1999), p.29.

25. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, op.cit., p.34.

26. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (George Allen & Unwin, 1974), p.46.

27. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, op.cit., p.50.

28. Constantine Plevris, Greek Philosophers, op.cit., p.53.

29. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, op.cit., pp.54-55.

30. Ibid., p.66.

31. Ibid., p.64.

32. Parmenides, On Nature, B 1.24-30.

33. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, op.cit., p.67.

34. Constantine Plevris, Greek Philosophers, op.cit., pp.43-44.

35. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, op.cit., p.69.

36. Ibid., pp.79-80.

37. Constantine Plevris, Greek Philosophers, op.cit., pp.91-92.

38. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, op.cit., p.96.

39. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, op.cit., p.80.

40. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, op.cit., p.117.

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