BMCR 2005.11.01

Nietzsche and Antiquity. His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition. Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture

, Nietzsche and antiquity : his reaction and response to the classical tradition. Studies in German literature, linguistics, and culture. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004. xii, 505 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 1571132821 $95.00.

In 2002, the 12th annual conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society was held at the University of Glasgow, this time with the title “Nietzsche and the Classical Tradition” ( website). Two years later, all of the thirty-one papers delivered there are published in this single-volume collection containing more than 500 pages.

The proceedings were published under the editorship of Paul Bishop, a professor of German and the head of the German Department at the University of Glasgow, whose competence in the field is beyond dispute. Bishop is the author of numerous articles and several monographs, covering a vast range of topics, from Kant, German classicism and Nietzsche, to psychoanalysis and C. G. Jung. His latest book, published this year, deals with the influence of Weimar classicism on Nietzsche’s work.1

Nietzsche’s relationship to (classical) antiquity, the classical tradition and its consequences for the modern culture, as well as Nietzsche’s position in and influence on the classical philology have been enjoying a renewal of scholarly interest in the last thirty years. Reappraisal of Nietzsche’s philological heritage was due less to the edition of his Frühe Schriften from years 1854-1869, since this was already done before and during the World War II, than to the publication of Nietzsche’s philologica (including his university lectures) in the Kritische Gesamtausgabe.2 Interesting new insights were also brought by some secondary works in the last decade focusing on Nietzsche’s “philological period”.3 Quotation marks are in order here because the authors of these very works emphasize the artificiality of dividing Nietzsche’s life into the “philological” and “philosophical” period, since for Nietzsche, throughout his life, the “classical world remained a reference-point, and a polemical point”, as Bishop puts it (p. 2).

These and many other studies have brought new valuations, but they are limited to one or another specific discipline. The strength of this volume is precisely its comprehensive viewpoints, though sometimes this becomes a weakness, i.e., when the core of what is being conveyed gets lost due to the extremely wide scope. Nevertheless, this collection will be highly appreciated not only by philologists, but also by philosophers, Germanists and historians. Not since the end of the 70’s has a project of similar amplitude been introduced to the general public.4

The book opens with an introduction by the editor, who marks out three main spheres in Nietzsche’s thought that are to be reflected in the following papers: the problematic nature of history, Nietzsche’s presentation of antiquity and Nietzsche’s purpose behind this presentation. The individual contributions, with endnotes rather than footnotes, are arranged in five thematic-ideological sections (pp. 7-478). The book ends with an excellent and very detailed index (pp. 484-505).

The first section, “The Classical Greeks”, contains papers focusing on Nietzsche’s relationship to the classical tradition in general. J. I. Porter writes in the opening article on Nietzsche’s inaugural lecture (“Antrittsrede”) after he was appointed professor of Greek language and literature at Basel and examines Nietzsche’s different ideas about Homer, which in the framework of classicistic-romanticized conception of the 19th century were considered to be revolutionary and disturbing. N. Morley writes on Nietzsche’s provocative conception of “unhistoricality” of the Greeks, which is appreciated as a positive attribute, in contrast to the pathological veneration of history for its own sake in modern culture. N. Martin rejects racist misinterpretations of Nietzsche’s work, characterizing his relationship to Jews as “anti-anti-Semitic” (p. 50), but nevertheless showing the complexity of his conception of cultural development. J. Hamilton offers an interpretation of Pindar’s second Pythian Ode and traces the importance of this poem for Nietzsche, who made from its line “Be the sort of man you learn to be” a kind of manifesto, which accompanied him from Schulpforta to Ecce Homo. P. Yates writes on Nietzsche’s critique of Aristotle’s propositional discourse, which the author associates with Nietzsche’s endeavor to eradicate life-negating culture and to establish life-affirmation in all respects. M. A. Ruehl analyzes Nietzsche’s “aristocratic” conception of the state, influenced by Burckhardt, which is developed mainly in the early text, “The Greek State”, and which fundamentally contradicts the “anarchistic-democratic” political persuasion of Wagner, to whose wife it was addressed. This short text from 1871 or 1872 represents, according to Ruehl, the first crack in the seemingly halcyon Nietzsche-Wagner relationship and anticipates Nietzsche’s later break with his “Master” completed at the Bayreuth’s Festspiele in 1876. J. N. Berry discusses the influence of ancient skepticism on Nietzsche’s work and on his epistemology and also emphasizes the importance of the ethical eudaimonism of Democritus. Finally, A. Henrichs writes on Nietzsche’s construction of polytheism, mainly in The Birth of Tragedy, which, according to Henrichs, was never “intended as a work of scholarship” by Nietzsche (p. 125).

The second section, “Pre-Socratics and Pythagoreans, Cynics and Stoics”, contains papers discussing Nietzsche’s relationship to particular traditions of antiquity. S. Gillham pictures Nietzsche’s conception of justice as strength in the second Untimely Meditation and examines to what extent Nietzsche was influenced by his own reading of Heraclitus. B. Biebuyck, D. Praet, and I. Vanden Poel write on Nietzsche’s appropriation and transformation of Orphic and Pythagorean traditions in his conception of Dionysus. R. Bracht Branham points out the influence of ancient cynicism on Nietzsche, mainly the concepts of the “wandering” life, Cynic ascetics, and Cynic laughter. According to Branham, Cynic ascetics embody for Nietzsche “an antidote to the Christian or Platonic ascetic ideals” (p. 171), and Cynic laughter, connected with pungent parrhesia, is seen as an instrument for genuine philosophizing and a remedy for the world-negating pessimism. A. K. Jensen also writes on Nietzsche’s relationship to cynicism. He examines the recurring references to the “first night of Diogenes” in Nietzsche’s work, symbolizing for him a moment of “conversion” to the philosophical way of life that strictly contradicts the academic philosophizing in modern culture. In the last paper of this section, R. O. Evelton shows Nietzsche’s links with, differences from and finally his transformation of Stoicism, mainly in the writings dedicated to genealogy of morality.

The third section, “Nietzsche and the Platonic Tradition”, contains five contributions. The opening paper of L. Lampert examines Nietzsche’s view of Plato, developed mainly in Beyond Good and Evil, as the one who “secured the Socratic turn … from the Homeric or genuinely Hellenic … toward … an imported moral view that prepared the way for Christianity” (p. 214). T. A. Meyer casts doubt on the theory of A. Nehamas (in his recently published book, The Art of Living) that Nietzsche and Socrates underwent a sort of process of “self-creation”, resulting in a “unified self in which their impulses receive cultivation rather than destructive mismanagement”; rather, Meyer adds, the ambiguity of Nietzsche’s attitude to Socrates should be described in terms of “envy and respect” (p. 226). J. S. Moore and T. Brobjer focus on different aspects of Nietzsche’s critique of Plato. While Moore takes notice of Nietzsche’s handling of Plato’s dogmatism, his claim that truth is the universal source of good for all, Brobjer relativizes the communis opinio on the degree of Nietzsche’s “personal engagement with Plato”, arguing that Nietzsche “only set up a caricature of Plato as a representative of the metaphysical tradition … to which he opposed his own” (p. 241). D. N. McNeill illuminates Nietzsche’s relationship to Socrates, as formulated in the Twilight of the Idols, by drawing parallels to Plato’s Symposium. In contrast to common interpretations McNeill reads Nietzsche as seeing in Socrates an “exemplar for … a stronger type of human being in an age of decline” (p. 273) and finds “profound intertextual relationship between Nietzsche’s apparently polemical treatment of Socrates and … Alcibiades’ ambiguous encomium to Socrates in Plato’s Symposium” (p. 260).

The penultimate section is entitled “Contestations”. First, D. Jaggard traces the development of Nietzsche’s conception of Dionysus and Dionysian and, despite Nietzsche’s proclamation to the contrary, points out its radical transformation in the later writings as compared to the Birth of Tragedy. F. Jenkins writes on the connections between Nietzsche’s interest in rhetoric, displayed already in his Basel university lectures, and the “play of forensic rhetoric” (p. 296) in the Genealogy of Morals. D. F. Horkott discusses the same work, focusing on Nietzsche’s diagnostics of the sickness of modern culture in contrast to the healthy culture of antiquity. B. Meyer-Sickendiek in his contribution makes Nietzsche a theorist of epigonic (i.e., post-Goethean) aesthetics, who, starting from Human, All Too Human, “sees the epigone as a type whose aesthetic ability is superior even to that of the ‘genius'” (p. 320). B. Stocker writes about the Birth of Tragedy from the viewpoint of literary genre and in the context of Jena Romanticism. D. Campbell writes on Nietzsche’s conception of truth, mainly in the Birth of Tragedy and in the Genealogy of Morals, and M. Hammond rereads the selected extracts from Nietzsche’s work as a prognosis and in many cases as a diagnosis of the ills of modern society, starting from commercialization under the sway of omnipotent media to genetic manipulation and AI.

The last section, “German Classicism”, makes clear to what extent Nietzsche was rooted in this tradition and how often he arrived, when he was faced with it, at an idiosyncratic conception of the classical. Ch. Emden presents the complex development of the German understanding of classicality in the 18th and 19th centuries, and he explores Winckelmann’s and Schiller’s concept of idealized classical antiquity and of classical Greece. He further examines in detail the influence of their extraordinarily powerful “ideology of classicality” (p. 376) on Nietzsche, whose growing skepticism of it reached its peak in the preparatory material to the never-finished untimely meditation, “We Philologists”. As Emden summarizes, Nietzsche “neither strictly follows the paradigms of classicism, nor does he really subvert the notion of classicality. Rather, his ever changing approach to antiquity, together with its repeated attempt to reformulate its relation to modernity, serves as a springboard to questions regarding the possibility of historical understanding” (pp. 386f.). For Nietzsche, understanding the present is possible only when we look back into the past. H. Siemens analyzes the different meanings of the words “klassisch”, “klassische” and “Klassizismus” in Nietzsche and compares their uses with the occurrence and meaning of these words in Goethe, who “elicits Nietzsche’s most concentrated and complex preoccupation with the classical” (p. 398). D. Held compares Winckelmann’s and Nietzsche’s conception of the Greek ideal and comes to the conclusion that Nietzsche’s dynamic dualism of the Dionysian and the Apollonian better satisfies the aesthetic requirements of Europe, which in the second half of 19th century had undergone radical transformation, than does Winckelmann’s Apollonian staticity. F. Ulfers and M. D. Cohen argue that “Nietzsche and Goethe agreed to a significant degree in their views of ontology” and that Nietzsche and Goethe “took classical values … as more accurate, as more revealing and reflective of the nature of reality” (p. 429). P. Bishop, too, emphasizes Nietzsche’s solid anchoring in the tradition of German classicism and Goethe’s influence on him and examines Nietzsche’s negative attitude to Christianity, which is connected with the affirmation of classical ideals. In the final paper, A. Cardew writes on Nietzsche’s friendship with the classical philologist E. Rohde, which underwent gradual alienation, and he examines Rohde’s life-work, Psyche, describing it as a “massive footnote to The Birth of Tragedy” (p. 466).

Nietzsche and Antiquity makes a fundamental contribution to the understanding of Nietzsche’s relationship to the classical tradition and will surely open interesting new avenues into Nietzsche’s work and thought in general. Individual papers also fulfill their role in showing the importance of the classical tradition throughout Nietzsche’s entire life, suggesting that what was of such great importance for him we should not neglect either. In this respect, the Nietzschean thought growing out of this tradition could be considered not only an example for us but also a guide. What slightly mars this fascinating book is the relatively high number of printing errors and of mistyped words in Greek (cf. e.g. pp. 129, 460, 475, 477). It is also regretable that there is no bibliography of cited or recommended literature, which is indispensable for a book like this.

Nietzsche’s “untimeliness” makes itself evident in the fact that every period of modern post-Nietzschean history discovers its own Nietzsche. After Nietzsche the immoralist and the nihilist, after Nietzsche the overman-announcer and the anti-metaphysicist, it might be time for Nietzsche the classicist.


1. P. Bishop and R. H. Stevenson, Friedrich Nietzsche and Weimar Classicism, Rochester, NY: Camden House 2005.

2. Frühe Schriften were published as F. Nietzsche, Werke. Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by H.-J. Mette and K. Schlechta. Bd. I-V. München: Beck 1933-1942. All of Nietzsche’s philological writings published during his life were collected in F. Nietzsche, Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 2. Abt. Bd. 1: Philologische Schriften (1867-1873), edited by F. Bornmann and M. Carpitella. Berlin – New York: De Gruyter 1982. Nietzsche’s university lectures were published by the same editors and in the same edition: Bd. 2 Vorlesungsaufzeichnungen (SS 1869 —WS 1869/70), 1993; Bd. 3 Vorlesungsaufzeichnungen (SS 1870 —SS 1871), 1993; Bd. 4 Vorlesungsaufzeichnungen (WS 1871/72 — WS 1874/75), 1995; Bd. 5 Vorlesungsaufzeichnungen (WS 1874/75 — WS 1878/79), 1995. On this edition see J. I. Porter, “Rare impressions”. Nietzsche’s Philologica : A Review of the Colli—Montinari Critical Edition”, in: International Journal of the Classical Tradition 6, 3, 2000, 409-431. The full bibliographical reference of the editions of Nietzsche’s works is absent in the reviewed book.

3. Let’s name at least the studies of crucial importance by J. I. Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2000, and H. Cancik, Nietzsches Antike. Vorlesung. Stuttgart – Weimar: Metzler 2000 2.

4. See C. O’Flaherty, T. F. Sellner, R. M. Helm (eds.), Studies in Nietzsche and the Classical Tradition, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1976.