Lecture Nine: Music 9.3

9.3 Ontology and Anthropology

Nietzsche’s mature views coalesce in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which he conceived of as a tragedy. However, to fully appreciate the Zarathustra, we need to draw attention to two important points that underpin Nietzsche’s thought. The first concerns ontology, the second anthropology. In sketching this background, we need to nuance Nietzsche’s own statements about Plato’s philosophy. While it is surely true that the overall orientation of Nietzsche’s thought explicitly aims to move in an anti-Platonic (namely, immanentist, anti-metaphysical) direction, this does not mean (nor entail) that Nietzsche entirely discards Plato’s results. In particular, a case can be made for Nietzsche’s critical and important reconfiguration of some crucial Platonic tenets that we encountered in Lecture Eight by discussing the Sophist. This observation can be read in line with the rather traditional criticism addressed against Nietzsche (for instance, by Martin Heidegger) concerning the fact that, despite wanting to reject all metaphysics, Nietzsche still remains committed to metaphysical notions (Heidegger stressed Nietzsche’s obsession for the notion of ‘value’, for example). However, another way of looking at the Nietzsche-Plato connection is by using Nietzsche to uncover a much more complex view of Plato’s own thought, which can be developed in different directions; that is, Nietzsche helps illuminate some of the most radical aspects of Plato’s thought (from the point of view of traditional Western metaphysics at least).

As is already clear from The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche endorses a specific ontological view according to which all reality is becoming and every object is subject to change. This entails that nothing in reality can have an enduring, stable, and fixed identity, but everything is subject to arise and then revert in its opposite. In this picture, moreover, no identity can be established in isolation from other things since becoming always entails a process of change, and change occurs only in the context of diversity, in which manifold different entities or processes are linked with one another. In fact, the very possibility of identifying entities or objects is an epiphenomenon of a more basic relational constitution of reality. Entities and objects are fleeting constructions that we can identify on the surface of what is an inherently ungraspable unfolding process of becoming and change.

Nietzsche does not deny that there is some form of identity. But, he maintains, identity cannot be conceived of without diversity. Nietzsche does not deny that there is some form of stability, and yet, stability cannot be conceived of without change. Nietzsche also does not deny that there is some form of being or existence, and yet being or existence cannot be conceived of apart from diversity and change. Nietzsche is in fact upholding a somewhat revised version of Plato’s relational model of the five great kinds introduced in the Sophist.

Given Nietzsche’s opposition to Plato, one might try to resist this point. The key difference is that Plato sees these five kinds as themselves distinct from the world of becoming, and in themselves eternal and beyond change. The relational structure of the five kinds is a relational structure among ideas, not among things or changing empirical realities. This structure is key to understanding the world of becoming, but it is not identical to it. However, the leading problem that runs through the Parmenides and the Sophist is the necessity of rethinking the notion of ‘idea’ in such a way as to overcome some of the difficulties that Plato himself raised, the most important of which is the assumptions that ideas must be rigidly conceived as existing separately and in themselves only. If we grant that the theory of the five great kinds in the Sophist provides a solution to this problem by introducing a relational account of the ideas, then an overly rigid separation between the five kinds as ideas and the world of becoming cannot be maintained. If there is participation between the five kinds and the world of becoming (if there is no difference to the extent that there is participation), then the five kinds are the immanent relational structure of the world itself. In fact, it is only if the five kinds are conceived in this way that they can provide the necessary epistemic scaffolding to generate valid knowledge about the phenomenal world. From this point of view, one might even venture to say that it is not actually Nietzsche that goes back to Plato, but rather some of Plato’s own conclusions that actually set up and anticipate Nietzsche’s relational ontology of becoming.

With ancient philosophy in mind, attributing to Nietzsche the view that reality is becoming sounds like an echo of Heraclitus. What’s more, there is good textual evidence that Nietzsche himself understood his view as a way of revamping Heraclitean ontology. Matthew Meyer, in his Reading Nietzsche Through the Ancient: An Analysis of Becoming, Perspectivism, and the Principle of Non-Contradiction (2014) provides perhaps the most thorough examination of this issue. In summarizing the upshot of his reading, Meyer explains:

I argue that Nietzsche’s naturalism and empiricism lead him to adopt the following Heraclitean and Protagorean views that Plato and Aristotle critically analyze in the Theaetetus and Metaphysics IV, respectively: (1) a Heraclitean unity of opposites doctrine that is thought to violate the principle of non-contradiction, (2) a Heraclitean doctrine of becoming which makes change an essential feature of nature, and (3) a Protagorean perspectivism in which objects of knowledge are held to be projections of and therefore relative to a subject that also exists only in relation to the objects it perceives and knows. Although these views might seem unrelated, I argue that the unity of opposites doctrine entails a relational ontology in which everything exists and is what it is only in relation to something else and that this relational ontology is not only a common element of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, his doctrine of becoming, and his rejection of the principle of noncontradiction, it is also the position Plato uses in the Theaetetus to bind the views of Heraclitus and Protagoras together. (Meyer 2014, 2)

An important part of Meyer’s discussion is devoted to engaging with the problem of perspectivism. Perspectivism entails that truth is dependent upon the specific perspective of the subject who upholds that truth. Looking at ancient philosophy again, this claim can be traced back to Protagoras, the sophist who famously contended that ‘the human being is the measure of all things.’ Protagoras is also the polemical target of Plato in his Theaetetus, a dialogue that comes just between the Parmenides and the Sophist. In the Theaetetus, Plato rejects the view that proper knowledge can be derived from empirical and sensible experience alone. Reiterating a point that emerges many times in Plato’s dialogues (including the Parmenides), Plato’s Socrates states that sensory experience cannot provide true knowledge, because all the objects of the senses are subject to change, and something that changes cannot be known in a definite, certain and immutable way. Plato argues that what is needed is a metaphysical investigation that can reach absolutely certain and immutable knowledge. As Meyer notes, in the Theaetetus Plato also presents Heraclitus and Protagoras as natural alleys: if everything is becoming (Heraclitus), then all knowledge is indexed to a particular perspective (Protagoras). Here, Nietzsche can be seen as offering a defence of this Heraclitean-Protagorean view that Plato wanted to discard. Meyer’s further point is that this position is not self-refuting insofar it is interpreted as a two-levels theory: the fundamental level consists in uncovering the fundamentally relational and dynamic ontology that underpins reality (the Heraclitean ontological view of reality as inherently subject to becoming), and on this basis, it is possible to consider any other view as indexed to (conditioned by, dependent upon) the particular perspective from which it is defended (the Protagorean epistemic view leading to perspectivism).

For present purposes, we must put aside the issue of perspectivism. We can just remark that although Plato is no friend of perspectivism, in his Theaetetus he provided a model for how Heraclitean and Protagorean claims can be combined. Even thought Plato himself arguably intended this model to be something to be dismissed, Nietzsche instead took it up and endorsed it. In any case, the model was explicitly articulated in Plato.

The ambiguous and complex relation that binds Nietzsche to Plato also emerges in connection to Nietzsche’s commitment to the Heraclitean unity of the opposites. Meyer summarizes Nietzsche’s view as follows:

what Nietzsche does is reject Parmenides’ assumption that there is an isomorphism between thinking and being by challenging the idea that the world must conform to PNC [principle of non-contradiction]. Although Nietzsche’s flaunting of PNC will worry many, it is important to distinguish between a logical version of PNC that governs statements and their truth values, where a proposition and its negation cannot be true at the same time, and an ontological version that governs things and their properties, where something cannot both be (F) and not be (F) at the same time and in the same respect. For Nietzsche, the unity of opposites, which entails that everything exists and is what it is only in relation to something else, does not violate the logical version of the principle because it does not also state or entail the negation of either the view that opposites are united or the view that everything exists and is what it is only in relation to something else. However, Nietzsche does think that the unity of opposites cuts against the fundamental structures of both language and thought, and therefore it could be construed as violating the ontological version of PNC. This is because the doctrine invites us to accept that the world is one of relations without preexisting relata, predicates without subjects, deeds without doers, etc. This, according to Nietzsche, is a world that we cannot think. (Meyer 2014, 8)

Parmenides’s version of the principle of non-contradiction is based on a rigid distinction between opposites. Being and non-being are two incommensurable and entirely independent terms, and it is absolutely necessary that if being is, non-being is not. This rigid separation between being and non-being is also precisely what Plato rejected in the Sophist, when the Eleatic visitor had to ‘kill’ his ‘father’ Parmenides. As a result of his theory of the five great kinds, Plato sought to redefine what counts as a contradiction, by ruling out Parmenides’s rigid contrast between being and non-being, and instead conceptualizing a contradiction as the discordance between speech and reality. Notice: Plato’s move makes contradiction a logical phenomenon (a phenomenon dependent on logos, speech and reason), and no longer an ontological phenomenon (a phenomenon dependent on to on, being, or even Platonic ideas). In terms of ontology, the theory of the five great kinds is much more nuanced than Parmenides’s account, and it does allow for a merging of identity and diversity, being and non-being. In fact, Plato’s doctrine seems also more sophisticated than Heraclitus’s view (at least in terms of what we can derive from the surviving fragments of Heraclitus), since it does not simply posit change or difference as more fundamental, but it acknowledges how even they must be understood as relational kinds and somehow involve identity and rest. Nietzsche’s rejection of Parmenides mirrors Plato’s rejection, and Nietzsche’s endorsement of a relational ontology mirrors Plato’s theory of the five great kinds. In the next lecture, we are going to see how Plato’s theory of the five great kinds also offers a sound ontological foundation for Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power.

Nietzsche’s ontology gives rise to an anthropological view of various ways in which human beings can live in a world that is inherently unstable. This anthropological view is explained, albeit often metaphorically, in the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and constitutes the bedrock for understanding Nietzsche’s understanding of the death of God and nihilism. Michael Gillespie, in his Nietzsche’s Final Teaching (2017), provides an accessible presentation of the key intuitions behind Nietzsche’s anthropology. To see the connection between ontology and anthropology, consider how an ontological view based on the unity of opposites leads to an anthropological view of human beings as playfields of conflicting passions (again, a spectrum of possibilities). As Gillespie explains:

The essence of human being, [Zarathustra] argues, is not the soul or the self-conscious ego but the body, and the body is nothing but affect or passion. Passion, however, is not a unity but a multiplicity, and each of the individual passions constantly struggles for expression. Human being is thus fundamentally conflictual, for the body is constantly at war with itself. Human life is thus suffering, and most morality and religion aims at ameliorating this suffering, either by establishing peace among the passions or by devaluing this world of the passions and escaping into an imaginatively constructed beyond. […] If human being for Zarathustra is passion, then the measure of one’s position on the line that Zarathustra uses to define human being is determined by the strength of one’s passions. This strength, however, depends not merely on the force of the individual passions but also and preeminently upon their hierarchical organization (NL, KGW VII 2:27). We can imagine them as vectors. If very powerful passions are pulling in opposite or multiple directions, they will counterbalance one another. If, however, they all stand in the service of one drive or master passion, their force will be similarly increased. Therefore, the farther one moves along the line from beast to Übermensch, the greater the discipline or rank order of the passions must be. The line that represents human being is thus a measure of power, for power is nothing other than the breadth and effective coordination of the passions under a single head. (Gillespie 2017, 32)

The conflictual (and hence painful) nature of human life was already at the core of The Birth of Tragedy. Now we can see it from a more general and theoretical point of view. Unity of opposites means, in anthropological terms, that a human being is a struggle between conflicting forces (the passions), each striving and steering in its own way, at odds with the others. If this point can be associated with the Dionysiac, the idea of a ranking among passions and their hierarchical subordination to a leading passion can be seen as an Apolline component, which gives order and shape to the conflict and steers it in a certain direction. The kernel of Nietzschean anthropology is twofold: on the one hand, it aims at providing a descriptive account of the different options for handling the conflict of the passions, while on the other hand, it seeks a normative account of why a certain option should be preferred.

From a descriptive point of view, the first speech of Zarathustra in Part One introduces a threefold metaphor of various stages of development: camel, lion and child. Before the camel lies the ‘last man,’ which is understood as the closest to a no-longer-human beast, while beyond the child lies the Übermensch, the over-human, which is no-longer-human because it has overcome its own humanity. The last man is the one who does not impose any particular ranking or hierarchy on the passions, but rather attempts at satisfying them all, as much as possible, and sees this satisfaction as its own liberty. Gillespie connects the last man to ‘incomplete’ nihilists:

These are incomplete nihilists, the banal hedonists whom Zarathustra characterized as last men. They do not seek discipline and order of rank but a democracy of the passions in which each is satisfied in turn without repression or sublimation. These people do not see or understand the problem of values since this problem of values is always a problem of the appropriate order or discipline of the soul. (Gillespie 2017, 35)

From this remark, it should be clear that Zarathustra’s normative account seeks to steer humans away from this option. Allowing the conflict of passions to simply express itself and trying to satisfy all conflicting passions as much as possible is nothing but giving up to the very project of being human. Ultimately, this hedonism is just the reverse of a pure Dionysiac spirit, agitated by its turbulent uncertainty, and unable to impose any shape on it. But as we learnt from The Birth of Tragedy, Dionysiac in isolation from Apolline is unbearable and self-destructive. In the spectrum of possible options, then, all the remaining alternatives are meant to seek some way of establishing a hierarchy among passions and thus give to their conflict a shape or form that could make it bearable (not only existentially, but also aesthetically, as discussed above). From the point of view of our current discussion, notice that the last man more explicitly endorses a form of selfhood based on strong embodiment, in which physical bodily drives are the only concern. The last man is both engaged in the almost impossible task of satisfying all physical drives, and inevitably exposed to the uncertainty that they create. Nietzsche’s disdain for the last man is a hint of his rejection of hard naturalist accounts of selfhood as incapable of providing a genuine and authentic way of facing the dissonance of existence.

The camel is a metaphor for the attempt to find a transcendent moral order, based on commands and obligations, ultimately rooted in a supreme God. Order is achieved, but only as rooted in some world behind and beyond this world of becoming. Both theistic religions (like Christianity) and philosophical metaphysics (like Plato’s) provide historical instances of this solution. When this sort of transcendental grounding is no longer available, camel-strategy collapses, and humanity is faced with a dilemma: either resignation, or revolt. Resignation is giving up on the project of mastering the passions and simply accepting one’s failure. Revolt consists in taking stock of the change of scenario and actively destroying all remaining idols of a world beyond, finding freedom in the fact that there is no such world. This latter attitude corresponds to the metaphor of the lion, and in Nietzsche’s view it is embedded not only in modern attempts (including scientific ones) at destroying all appeals to immutable forms and transcendent realities, but also by his own philosophical project. Being faced with this dilemma means being at a crossroad where one’s humanity can either undergo evolution or de-evolution. This is what Zarathustra calls ‘the Great Noon,’ which Gillespie associates with the two opposite attitudes of passive and active nihilism:

The passive nihilist is a second kind of human being, the Christian who can no longer believe in God but who needs such an absolute. He is driven to despair and resignation in the face of this nothingness. The third kind of man, the active nihilist, is also distraught by the death of God, but he does not fall into despair nor does he resign himself to the world as he finds it. Rather, he falls into a destructive rage and seeks to push over all the remaining idols, to have done with all ‘thou shalts.’ This active nihilist thus bears a striking resemblance to Zarathustra’s lion spirit. Like this spirit, the active nihilist is free but without a home, filled like Turgenev’s nihilist hero Bazarov with resentment, seeking to overthrow the existing order. (Gillespie 2017, 35)

The main limitation of active nihilism is that it is mainly a reactive attitude. The lion exercises its destructive force against the metaphysical idols of a world beyond, but it does not create something new. The lion opens up the space, clears the ground, but does not sow new seeds. Hence, while it is preferable than passive nihilism, active nihilism is also something that needs to be overcome. The lion is not an end in itself, but only a transitory moment in the process of self-overcoming. What comes after the lion is precisely a new form of innocence based on forgetfulness. Having destroyed the old idols, one can begin anew, without paying heed to their old meaning and stories. From acknowledging the death of the old religious and metaphysical God, one can face life on earth as a child, freshly come to life, for whom everything can be created from scratch. The child thus represents the genuinely creative new stage, the next metamorphosis in which the destructive spirit of the lion is overcome.

Zarathustra initially presents the child as a radically new beginning of a new course in the history of humanity. As Gillespie explains:

The child is not a reactive but an active spirit. It is not driven by resentment or hatred of that which has hitherto imposed order upon it. In contrast to the lion, it is capable of forgetting and thus of a new innocence. Therefore, it can be a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yes. This spirit not only denies its former oppressor, the great dragon and its ‘thou shalt,’ but it also affirms itself and creates new values. This spirit in other words wills its own will. (Gillespie 2017, 31)

However, here lies the greatest difficulty. The child is not yet the overhuman. Sheer innocence and forgetfulness are not sufficient to create something new. Zarathustra himself must realize that his own preaching and development (for how they appear in the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra) are still incomplete. The core problem for the child is that the will to create is itself limited and bounded to the past, to the entire set of conditions within which willing takes place. Notice that this is a direct consequence of the relational ontology that underpins Zarathustra’s (and Nietzsche’s) anthropology. If everything is relational and dependent on conditions, then willing and creating are also dependent on conditions. However, if creation is dependent upon given conditions, then creation is only limited and partial, since it cannot begin a radically new course, something that would not depend on or be shaped by the past. The past conditions the will to create without having been created by the will (remember the paradox faced by Vedic seers, discussed in Lecture Five). The consequence of this problem is that the child’s ability to create is bound and limited. In fact, it is imprisoned by the cage constituted by the past; by the overall set of conditions within which the will to create emerges and that thus entirely shape and determine its possibilities and options. The archenemy of the will to create is its own conditional and inherently relational nature. This problem cannot be solved by sheer forgetfulness.

Here, Nietzsche seems to reframe and rethink in his own way the problem of reconciling determinism and freedom, efficient causation and spontaneity, necessity and creation. What Nietzsche’s discussion makes clear is that these contrasting options do not belong to unrelated and rigidly opposed views, but they arise from the very relational core of reality. The antinomy of freedom (to use Kantian terminology) is inherent in the very nature of reality, especially when reality is understood in terms of a relational ontology. Without directly facing this challenge, there is no possibility of asserting an entirely active form of creativity and thus genuinely overcoming the problem of nihilism. The child is not the overhuman yet, it needs to grow. How to do this is the topic of the second and third parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which we shall explore in the next Lecture.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.