Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.05

Monique Dixsaut, Plato-Nietzsche: Philosophy the Other Way. Translated by Kenneth Quandt.   London; Washington, DC:  Academica Press, 2018.  Pp. xii, 316.  ISBN 9781680530483.  $89.95.  


Reviewed by Merrick Anderson, Princeton University (merricka@princeton.edu)

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

In 1950 Walter Kaufmann, who did much to rehabilitate the serious study of Nietzsche, remarked upon the importance of Plato’s works and his depiction of Socrates for the self-proclaimed Antichrist: “Nietzsche’s attitude towards Socrates is a focal point of his thought and reflects his views of reason and morality as well as the image of man he envisaged.”1 Since the publication of Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, a number of studies have been devoted to various aspects of the complicated philosophical relationship between Plato and Nietzsche.2 Few, however, have been as ambitious and bold as Monique Dixsaut’s recent monograph, Plato-Nietzsche: Philosophy the Other Way.

No stranger to either Plato or Nietzsche, Dixsaut has previously authored or edited an impressive ten volumes on Plato and one on Nietzsche. Originally published in 2015 under the French title, Platon-Nietzsche. L’autre manière de philosopher, her most recent book has been translated into English by Kenneth Quandt. In it, Dixsaut argues that despite the historical gulf separating them, Plato and Nietzsche share a way of thinking that distinguishes them from other figures in the history of philosophy. As she puts it, her guiding hypothesis is “that there is a profound kinship, some kind of consanguinity between the two of them” (p. xi). Both thinkers, she claims, deny that there is “such a thing as philosophy itself or in general” (p. xi). Neither conceive of their own project as a search for answers to determinate questions, but they both engage in similar modes of thinking. By focusing on “the meanderings of a way of thinking that eludes as soon as one confines it in a doctrinal framework,” Dixsaut offers an interpretation of Plato and Nietzsche that undermines their purported adherence to the theses for which each of them is most famous (p. xii). One notable consequence of this interpretation is that Plato and Nietzsche disagree on less than is commonly thought.

This interpretation unfolds in a piecemeal fashion. Over the course of eight chapters and five additional sections, Dixsaut adopts a method of what she calls rigorous counterpoint—“the superimposition of two melodic lines that tolerate dissonance”—to exhibit Plato and Nietzsche’s intellectual kinship (p. xii). Each chapter is relatively self-contained and tackles a different topic or theme, such as the nature of thinking, the opposition between being and becoming, and the ethical virtues. Because the central claim of the book depends on the cumulative effect of all the chapters, each should be evaluated on its own merits.

The quality of the chapters varies considerably: some advance novel and plausible interpretations, others are entirely unconvincing. Among the more interesting and successful are the fourth and final chapters, dedicated to a discussion of methods versus systems and tragedy respectively, only the latter of which I shall comment on here. Nietzsche and Plato both disagree with Aristotle’s famous analysis of tragedy, the closing chapter argues, and this disagreement stems from a shared understanding of the insidious power that drama and music have to strengthen certain emotional responses. Dixsaut demonstrates diligent research and a subtle eye for nuanced considerations in this chapter. To make her case, she draws on early, hand-written notes made by Nietzsche, which explicitly mention and criticize Aristotle’s Poetics. In addition, she shows her classical training by deftly citing from ancient poets in order to illustrate the claims made by Plato in Book X of his Republic. The closing sections of the book transition to a discussion of the purpose of Nietzsche’s tragic philosophy, which, though speculative, is nonetheless provocative and plausible. No other chapter does a better job at demonstrating the philosophical kinship between these two philosophers.

Before turning to the less successful chapters, I want to briefly mention two isolated discussions that are, in my opinion, the best parts of the book. The first is a small section (p. 87-93) that hones in on the Greek term ‘dunamis’ and highlights its prominence in Plato’s corpus: “The term dunamis will be found throughout Plato’s work, it runs through it like a main thread, though it is rarely noticed.” (p. 88). Dixsaut is correct to note that this term has been relatively neglected by scholars, and she goes on to raise and succinctly state a serious puzzle about Platonic metaphysics: If powers essentially do things, and are therefore part of the world of becoming and change, why does Plato imply that being is nothing other than a power in his later dialogues, such as the Phaedrus (270c-d) and Sophist (247d-e)? No concrete answer is given to the question, but the author deserves praise for raising it so forcefully. The second is the insightful discussion treating the relationship between Nietzsche’s philological training and his philosophical—and particularly genealogical—aptitude (p. 146-53 and 161-7). Though this topic has received a fair bit of attention in French and German literature, it is often overlooked by English-speaking scholars.3 Dixsaut’s remarks are very stimulating, and North-American readers should be glad that her work has been made accessible through Quandt’s translation.

Unfortunately, many of the other chapters fail to demonstrate any “profound kinship” between the two thinkers. The chapters on truth and ethics are particularly disappointing, though I will only discuss the latter here. In making her case, Dixsaut draws a crucial distinction between (what she calls) true and false Platonic virtues (p. 232). It is not totally clear how this distinction is supposed to operate, but the idea seems to be that thought lies at the basis of all the true virtues, while the false virtues are grounded in correct opinion or good habits. I have some reservations about how this distinction is drawn, but a far more pressing issue is that, as far as I can see, only Plato’s account of the false virtues is substantially similar to any of Nietzsche’s treatment of the virtues. Because Dixsaut assumes that both true and false Platonic virtues are genuine virtues—albeit two different species of virtue (p. 239)—this does not seem to phase her; but in my view, this assumption is false. Consequently, many the similarities that she purports to find between Plato and Nietzsche seem to me illusory.4 In truth, the two philosophers subscribed to profoundly different ethical ideals. Plato holds that there are a relatively small number of real ethical virtues, which he believes that every maximally good agent must possess. Nietzsche was viscerally repulsed by this possibility, since he privileged the creation of new values and thought that previous philosophers who posited a singular ideal for all stunted the growth of newer virtues and ways of life. It is for this reason that he castigates Plato’s legacy of dogmatism in the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil and later states that his philosopher would reject dogmatism and the notion of a shared or common good.5

The way Dixsaut presents her evidence also gives rise to serious worries. In general (though not always), quotations from primary texts are offered without a discussion of their argumentative context or even an explicit indication of the work they come from. At one point she appears to cite a text from Nietzsche’s unpublished manuscripts, the contents of which are often thought to be of significantly less interpretive weight than those of the published works, just before quoting a section of The Gay Science. Yet rather than alerting the reader to this switch, Dixsaut actively blurs the lines between the two texts by introducing the second quotation “But Nietzsche concludes…” (p. 231). A similar practice is employed in the sections on Plato. Quotations from one dialogue are introduced as support for Plato’s position in another dialogue without so much as alerting the reader to the fact that the evidence adduced comes from a different philosophical work addressing a different set of questions. For those who care about the context in which a claim is made, this methodological practice will have the general effect of destabilizing some of the author’s arguments.

A number of additional infelicities mar the work, although many are surely due to oversights in translation or editing and not the responsibility of the author herself. References to Plato’s Greek are often inexact; occasionally they are entirely absent.6 On its own, this is not a serious problem but it is exacerbated by the fact that I was unable to find any information about the Greek editions used, which makes it difficult to evaluate certain claims or to check certain translations. The book also contains a number of surprising typographical errors, sometimes even in the chapter titles, other times in close proximity to one another.7

One topic almost entirely unaddressed is the relationship between Plato and Socrates, conceived of either as the character in the dialogues or as a historical figure. It would seem that Dixsaut’s own view is that Plato’s Socrates is a character in a philosophical text and does not represent any historical figure.8 Be this as it may, at various points in his career, Nietzsche thought that he could distinguish between the historical Socrates and Plato, and he had very different attitudes towards each of them. Indeed, as the quote from Kaufmann that begins this review suggests, certain parts of Nietzsche’s work imply that he had more in common with Socrates than with Plato.9 Any full reckoning of Nietzsche’s kinship with Plato must grapple with the question of how Nietzsche himself conceived of Socrates and his place in Plato’s philosophy. It is a significant failing of the present book that the author does not do this. This failure, coupled with the unsatisfactory argumentation in some crucial chapters, leaves the central claim of the book in jeopardy. More needs to be done to establish the profound kinship between Plato and Nietzsche, if, indeed, such a kinship exists in the first place.

Table of Contents

Preface to the American edition, p. ix
Preface, p. xi
Preamble: How to Dialogue with the Dead, p.1
Unavoidable Supplement: Heidegger and Nietzsche’s Reversal of Platonism, p. 21
Chapter One: What the Two of them Call Thinking, p. 33
Enlightening Consequence: On Reading and Writing, p. 61
Chapter Two: Being and Power, p. 77
Chapter Three: Two Cases of “Experimental” Thinking, p. 99
Chapter Four: Methods Versus System, p. 125
Chapter Five: Interpreting, p. 161
Chapter Six: Truths and Truth, p. 185
Interlude: Two Parodies, p. 211
Chapter Seven: From a Noble Ethics to an Aristocratic Politics, p. 225
An Affecting Annex: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, p. 261
Chapter Eight: The Shift of the Tragic, or from a Philosophical Tragedy to a Tragic Philosophy, p. 271
Bibliography, p. 301
Index of Passages Cited, p. 305
Index of Authors Cited, p. 313
List of Abbreviations, p. 315

Notes:


1.   Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (3rd ed). Princeton University Press, 1974: 391.
2.   Most notably, the excellent studies produced by Alexander Nehamas. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Harvard University Press, 1985 and The Art of Living: Socrates Reflections from Plato to Foucault. University of California Press, 2000.
3.   Benne, Christian. Nietzsche und die historisch-kritische Philologie. Walter de Gruyter, 2005.
4.   Consider the following claim made by Dixsaut: “‘Virtue’ has for Nietzsche the same axiologically neutral sense it has for Plato…Virtues are therefore not good as such, they can pursue evils goals and they can have harmful consequences” (p. 232). That this cannot be true is indicated by the fact that, across a large number of dialogues, Plato is consistent in maintaining that the genuine virtues are responsible only for good effects. Indeed, in some dialogues, Socrates even treats the uncontestable goodness of these virtues as an Archimedean point for his own investigations (eg., Rep. 335b-e and 348d-e).
5.   BGE 43.
6.   For example, the section “From free men to free spirits” begins: “In the Theaetetus Socrates faces off ‘all those who were educated the way one educates slaves’ with a man ‘whose education was carried out in true freedom and leisure, whom you rightly call a philosopher,’ as he says to the mathematician Theodorus” (p. 102). There is no indication, either in the text or in the footnotes, about the source of these citations. (For the interested reader, the text is Theaet.175d-e).
7.   For example, a passage of Plato’s Phaedrus is translated as follows: “Then, if it is simple, investigate its power: on what things doe it have a natural power of acting? by what things can its nature be acted upon? If, in the other hand, it has many forms, we must list them all…” (p. 89, my emphasis).
8.   Dixsaut does not say this in so many words, but a number of passages suggest that this is her view. Consider: “The so-called protagonists of [Plato’s] dialogues, those who lead the discussion, are dead, imaginary or anonymous, sometimes two or three of these, and are thrown out of any historical localization” (p. 6).
9.   On this topic, one should consult the excellent discussion in the fifth chapter of Nehamas, 2000: 128-56.

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