BMCR 2014.11.27

Nietzsche as a Scholar of Antiquity. Bloomsbury Studies in Philosophy

, , Nietzsche as a Scholar of Antiquity. Bloomsbury Studies in Philosophy. New York; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. 320. ISBN 9781472511522. $120.00.


While it has not been forgotten that Nietzsche was a scholar and philologist before he was a philosopher, his work in those areas has been largely ignored. Nietzsche as a Scholar of Antiquity by Anthony K. Jensen and Helmut Heit (eds.) seeks to correct this defect by exploring impact of Nietzsche’s academic work both on his philosophy and on the discipline of philology. A collection of essays by international experts in the field, this book is broken into five categories that survey Nietzsche’s relatively unknown professional life as an academic.

I. Nietzsche’s Place in Philology

1. “On Nietzsche’s Philological Beginnings” by Joachim Latacz argues that Nietzsche’s scholarship in philology anticipates his philosophy. Latacz emphasizes that Nietzsche’s work was in line with contemporary thought, and was as precise and well structured as one could expect from the time (perhaps even more so, given Nietzsche’s youth when he entered the field). In fact, on reading Nietzsche’s early philological writings and seeing their solid contributions to the discipline, we can understand why Nietzsche was hired as a professor at the age of 24. Latacz notes that in (and shortly after) his own time, Nietzsche was acknowledged by his peers as a competent philologist. Since then the worth of Nietzsche’s contributions to the field has been confirmed.

2. “Nietzsche’s Radical Philology” by James I. Porter focuses on Nietzsche’s notes and plans—which are many—rather than his published philological works—which are few. Porter covers a variety of topics and raises a number of personal questions, demonstrating the variety of Nietzsche’s intellectual genius (insanity?) within the context of his discipline. Ranging far and wide in subject matter, Porter presents to us the scholar who at times is nothing less than a “counter-classical thinker, or rather, and more simply, a counter-thinker, a lover of heterodoxy” (30).

II. Scholarly Processes

3. “The Sources of Nietzsche’s Lectures on Rhetoric” by Glenn W. Most and Thomas Fries introduces Nietzsche’s relatively unknown lectures on rhetoric, especially those from the winter of 1872/3. The authors cover the history of these manuscripts, the general state of the teaching of rhetoric in Germany, and the sources from which Nietzsche drew his lectures. Interestingly, the bulk of Nietzsche’s lectures were openly copied from his sources, which means that modern scholars have to face the difficult question of just where these lectures fit in the whole corpus of Nietzsche’s work. After surveying the possible answers to this question that have been given so far, the authors conclude that (1) Nietzsche was a thoughtful reader who (2) clearly believed the source material to be worth our time and attention.1

4. “Apollo and the Problem of the Unity of Culture in the Early Nietzsche” by Douglas Burnham is going to feel more comfortable to those more familiar with Nietzsche’s mainstream writings (rather than with his scholarly work) than the previous essays in this collection—if one may speak of anything of Nietzsche’s as being “mainstream.” Burnham situates Birth of Tragedy in the broader context of Nietzsche’s work, and makes a fascinating attempt to give a slight reinterpretation to the traditional understanding of the Apollonian in Nietzsche’s thought. This suggests a more nuanced reading of Nietzsche’s work as a whole. In support of his reinterpretation, Burnham traces the development of the Apollonian from Nietzsche’s early works through its final development. This essay is especially worthy of attention as it draws the various threads of Nietzsche’s academic and philosophical works into one cohesive whole (though it may be a whole with which those with traditional views of Nietzsche take issue).

III: Scholarly Achievement

5. “Nietzsche’s Valediction and the First Article: The Theognidea” by Anthony K. Jensen gives an overview of Nietzsche’s very first work, the Theognidea, a philological examination of the poetry of Theognis. “It is a piece that, had Nietzsche never written another word, would have assured his place, albeit a quite minor one, in the history of German philology” (99). With echoes of the Higher Criticism, Nietzsche examines the extant poetry attributed to the poet and tries to find the “real” Theognis (107-9) as distinct from later additions and changes made by copyists and redactors—occasionally changes intentionally hostile to the source material. Jensen argues that this early work is solidly entrenched within the discipline of philology, and displays little of the speculative philosopher Nietzsche would become. Yet, the Theognidea is responsible both for getting Nietzsche gainful academic employment and for demonstrating that Nietzsche had a streak of intelligent, imaginative, and critical scholarship even at an early stage.

6. “Nietzsche and Diogenes Laertius” by Jonathan Barnes focuses on Nietzsche’s writings on Diogenes Laertius, which together form half of his published philological writings (excluding The Birth of Tragedy) and more than half of his unpublished philological notes (115-16). Nietzsche was especially interested in digging down through Diogenes to his (Diogenes’) source, which Nietzsche believed primarily to mean Diocles of Magnesia. The chapter outlines Nietzsche’s evidence for these claims, and evaluates this evidence through the filter of modern scholarship.

In short, the author concludes that, while Nietzsche’s evidence is at times suspect, his conclusion is probably correct. Barnes ends by examining the place of Nietzsche’s work in the scholarship, and notes that, despite being well received at first, once Birth of Tragedy was published Nietzsche and the philological world were at war. This is unfortunate because, for all its errors (which are remarkably few, given that Nietzsche was 23 when he published the work in question), Nietzsche’s work is brilliant and original, and almost certainly “originated a new and important phase in the study of ancient philosophy” as a direct result of his treatment of Diogenes (130-1). This is not to say that Nietzsche was a great scholar as such, just that we should not, as so many in the 19 th century did, demean the importance of his philological contribution simply because we dislike what he said elsewhere.

7. “Nietzsche’s Influence on Homeric Scholarship” by Alexey Zhavoronkov examines how Nietzsche’s treatment of Homer affected Homeric scholarship as a whole. While Nietzsche did treat Homer philologically (including in his “inaugural speech Homer and Classical Philology,” 139), this essay broadens its scope to include the impact of those philosophical writings which also feature Homer, such as Beyond Good and Evil and Human, All Too Human. The author concludes that, although Nietzsche may not always receive direct attribution in the scholarship, he outlines the method and pattern of criticism that later philology would follow.

IV: Literature, Language, Culture

8. “The History of Literature as an Issue: Nietzsche’s Attempt to Represent Antiquity” by Carlotta Santini explores Nietzsche’s “attempts to teach a history of Greek literature,” where he (Nietzsche) also tried “to offer a meta-level reflection on the practice of reading Greek literature itself” (159). The loose idea at work in this essay is that Nietzsche, inspired by the great nineteenth-century names in historiography and philology alike, argued that we never directly “read” Greek literature. Instead we do our best to move toward the truth presented in that literature as filtered by our cultural prejudices and Western intellectual formation. We synthesize what we learn in Greek literature using a combination of intuition and training, and in doing so we encounter the Greeks in a sort of in-between space. As is typical with Nietzsche, this approach creates radical critiques of Greek literature, his own field of philology, and contemporary culture. Especially interesting here is Santini’s discussion of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between oral and written culture and the effect that relationship has on the possibility of “high” modern culture.

9. “Greek Audience: Performance and Effect of the Different Literary Genres in Nietzsche’s Philologica by Vivetta Vivarelli discusses Nietzsche’s analysis of the fact that the Greek audience would have been primarily an aural audience, rather than a reading public. This means a more active (even perhaps an inter active) set of participants, which in turn means that we must not think of Greek writers as “writing” the same way moderns write. We must rather think of them as writing for “listeners and spectators;” anything less and we miss something critical (183). Vivarelli explains not only Nietzsche’s interpretation of the audience, but also how the audience had been treated by the scholarship of the 19th century, and how Nietzsche’s own interpretation influenced his broader philosophy over the course of his career.

10. “The Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry in Nietzsche’s Early Writings” by Matthew Meyer examines the relationship between tragedy, philosophy, and art in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and the unpublished “Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks.” Meyer argues that Nietzsche’s true claim in The Birth of Tragedy was that art died when Socrates’ optimistic rationalism undermined the Dionysian and Apollonian foundations of true art. Once the pessimism that drives art (especially tragedy) was replaced with a philosophic cheerfulness and pursuit of a good life—even the belief that a good life was at all possible—the days of art as art were numbered. Meyer makes the case that Nietzsche’s view of art is not far from Plato’s in the Republic. In this sense, Nietzsche’s entire corpus might be seen as an attempt to wrench philosophy over to the side of ancient poetry, and so undo some of the havoc that Socrates wrought on the world of art.

V: Philosophy, Science, Religion

11. “Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Early Greek Philosophy” by Helmut Heit places Nietzsche’s thought on the pre-Socratics in the context of the larger debate about the origins of philosophy in Greece. In just over ten pages, the author manages to outline the traditional scholarship up until Nietzsche’s time (including touching on Aristotle, Hegel, and Zeller); to provide a summary of Nietzsche’s interpretation of the affair as found in the less-stellar (compared to his other works) Pre-Platonic Philosophers; and to analyze that interpretation. The author emphasizes that Nietzsche both adopts some contemporary beliefs about early Greek philosophy, and simultaneously deviates from these beliefs in important ways. Heit argues that Nietzsche’s contribution is his appreciation of the pre-Socratics’ creativity and sense of wonder, as opposed to the “dogmatic petrifications of later occidental philosophy” (228).

12. “Nietzsche’s Philology and the Science of Antiquity” by Babette Babich argues that whatever Nietzsche’s reception as a philosopher proper, his thought on the philosophy—or more accurately, the science —of his own discipline and of Classical studies (philology, Latin and Greek, literature, etc.) has to all intents and purposes been ignored. This ignoring, in turn, has led not merely to a lack of self-reflection on the part of these disciplines, but to their actively missing out on key aspects of their subject matter. In this sense, we cannot really do what some (even in this volume) have done and separate Nietzsche’s philosophical thought from his work as a philologist. We have to take his approach as a whole or not at all: “For Nietzsche, the scope of aesthetics as he defined it as a science corresponded to the scientific question of his own discipline or of ancient or Classical Philology” (238).

13. “The Religion of the “Older Greeks” in Nietzsche’s ‘Notes to We Philologists'” by Hubert Cancik and Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier explores Nietzsche’s understanding of Greek religion as contrasted with later Christian innovations. Specifically, Nietzsche sets Homer and the pre-Socratics with their religion of freedom against the later Christian “corruption” of the West by means of a religion that benumbed the masses into slavery.

Overall, this volume is an excellent addition to the corpus of Nietzsche scholarship, and one that will be of interest to Classical scholars as well. Highly recommended.


1. I’ll confess that I enjoyed reading this chapter far more than I should have. Academic writing is supposed to be read carefully and intellectually and with a certain dour gravity and aloofness. Yet delight kept breaking through. No doubt Nietzsche would be pleased…