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Twilight of the Idols and the Dawn of Modernity.pdf

This chapter is to appear in Understanding Nietzsche, Understanding Modernism, eds. Douglas Burnham and Brian Pines (Bloomsbury 2018). This paper offers a reading of Twilight of the Idols that explains its main claims and argues that the work
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  1 “People are not the products of some special design, will, or purpose [. . .] We have invented the concept of ‘purpose’: there are no purposes in reality…”   TI “Errors” 8   Twilight of the Idols  and the Dawn of Modernity 1   Twilight of the Idols is one of the last texts Nietzsche authorized for publication. Although written as a break from toiling on his masterwork, Revaluation of All Values , Twilight of the Idols is one of Nietzsche’s most important works . It offers a relatively clear articulation of many of the core themes present throughout his earlier works. Despite its brevity, the book is one of Nietzsche’s most accessible works, and it offers an excellent summation of his mature philosophy. This paper is broken into two parts. The first part provides a brief consideration of the chronological position of Twilight in Nietzsche’s oeuvre . The second part of this paper offers an explication of the various sections of the work, elucidating Nietzsche’s views and reasoning. Many key theme s of Nietzsche’s earlier writings find clear expression in this late text: an assessment of Socrates and the decline of the ancient world; an assessment of the positive influence of antiquity on Nietzsche’s thought; a criticism of traditional metaphysics a nd epistemology; the critique of traditional morality and a call to a revalue values; a focus on psychological investigations and explanations; the endorsement of causal determinism, the rejection of free will, and a focus on physiology; and a critique of modern (German) culture. Despite a rearticulation of core Nietzschean themes, notably absent in Twilight are lengthy expositions of what some may consider to be key Nietzschean concepts: the will to power, the übermensch , and eternal return. Below, I show that the arguments put forth in Twilight form a coherent  – and defensible  – philosophical position. 1  I conclude that Twilight of the Idols should be considered an indispensable work for those interested in Nietzsche’s mature philosophical position. 1.   Approaching Twilight of the Idols   1888 saw a flurry of writing activity from Nietzsche after several years of steady publishing. From 1878-1888, he published at least part of a book each year. 1881-1887 were particularly productive, seeing the publication of Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882), the four-part Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), Beyond Good and Evil and new prefaces for some of his earlier works (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals and a fifth book for The Gay Science (1887). In his final productive year (1888), Nietzsche penned The Case of Wagner  , Twilight of the Idols , The Antichrist  , Ecce Homo , and Nietzsche contra Wagner  . Twilight is the most important  – though not necessarily most novel  – work Nietzsche produced in 1888. Its importance lies in the fact that it stands as a summation of his mature 1  Please do not cite this document. The final version of this paper is to appear in Understanding Nietzsche, Understanding Modernism , eds. Douglas Burnham and Brian Pines (Bloomsbury 2018).  2 philosophy. The book was published on 24 January 1889, twenty-one days after his mental collapse in Turin. The work was written in a mere twenty days between 18 August and 7 September 1888, during Nietzsche’s  seventh, and final, summer stay in Sils Maria. 2  The preface of Twilight  , written after Nietzsche left Sils Maria for Turin,   is dated “ 30 September 1888, the day that the first book of the Revaluation of All Values  [i.e. The Antichrist  ]   was fin ished.” 3  Nietzsche indicates that Twilight is a “form of convalescence  [. . .] a recuperation, a sunspot, a little light adventure into a psychologist’s idle hours” (TI Preface).  As Julian Young explains, this work “incorporates notebook material that was srcinally intended for the masterwork, [but] there are no notebook sketches of this specific work.” 4  For a hastily- produced piece, the work exhibits refinement, and its basis in Nietzsche’s earlier notebook material supports the view that Twilight is more a repackaging of Nietzsche’s mature views than an exposition of substantively new positions. In an 1888 letter to Georg Brandes  – who gave the first lectures on his philosophy from 10 April to 8 May 1888 in Copenhagen  – Nietzsche calls Twilight “my philosophy in a nutshell” (KSB, letter 1134) . 5  In Ecce Homo , Nietzsche describes the work as having a broad scope and offering determinate positions on issues he treated more suggestively in the past : “there is no reality, no ‘ideality’ this work does not touch. [. . .] But you do not get hold of things that are questionable any more, you get hold of decisions” (EH TI 2).   Twilight  ’s format marks a hybrid of the styles used in Nietzsche’s earlier works. “Arrows and Epigrams” and “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man” are re miniscent of Nietzsche’s discursive, aphoristic works, such as Human, All Too Human and its sequels  , Daybreak, The Gay Science , and  Beyond Good and Evil  . The longer expositions found in the other sections are closer in style to his more focused works, such as The Birth of Tragedy and On the Genealogy of Morals. 2.   Philosophizing with a Hammer Although the work is “a little light adventure into a psychologist’s idle hours”  (TI Preface), the philosophical import of Nietzsche’s theses is anything but light; it m arks nothing short of a conceptual revolution in Western thinking whose impacts were felt throughout Western culture in the twentieth century. As Nietzsche himself indicates, “what the word ‘idols’ on the title page means is quite simply what had been called truth so far” (EH TI 1). The first section of Twilight  , “Arrows and Epigrams,” is a series of short aphorisms that reiterate themes from Nietzsche’s earlier works. However, instead of unpacking the meaning of these terse statements, it is more valuable to turn to an exegesis of the sustained articulations of the views offered in the longer sections of Twilight that follow this opening cannonade of his “ great declaration of war  ” (TI Preface). “The Problem of Socrates” offers a psychological and physiological diagnosis of the Western philosophical tradition’s martyr. Before examining Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Socrates, let me share an anecdote. Several years ago, at a conference on ancient philosophy, I had a discussion with a young scholar about Socrates. This scholar explained that they used to be interested in Nietzsche, but that over time their focus shifted to Socrates and Plato. I enquired why they had such a change of heart, especially if t hey were already familiar with Nietzsche’s critiques of Socrates, Plato, and the history of the Western philosophical tradition. They responded that, if we cannot save the Socratic project, then there is no point in doing philosophy.  3 For this thinker, as for much of the Western philosophical tradition, philosophy simply is  the Socratic quest for truth. 6  Of course, this quest is not the quest for just any truth; if it were, then there would be no differentia between philosophy and the sciences. Philosophy is the quest for wisdom, the highest truths, the most important insights capable of being garnered by humans that are promised to result in moral improvement. Socrates (as presented by Plato) was not merely committed to discovering nature’s secrets, but to discovering the best way of living. In Plato’s Phaedo , Socrates provides an account of his intellectual history. He reports that he read a work by Anaxagoras “saying that it is Mind that directs and is the cause of everything. [. . .] I thought that if this were so, the directing Mind would direct everything and arrange each thing in the way that was best.” 7  Socrates goes on to lament that Anaxagoras’s theory of nous was merely concerned with explaining the operations of the natural world (i.e. natural science), and not concerned with teleological explanations that showed that all things in the world are ordered for the best (i.e. revealing a moral world order). Socrates’s (or, more likely, Plato’s) own method of explanation invokes the Forms to meet this explanatory desiderata. 8   Socrates’s teleological view of nature (human nature included) is taken up by Plato. 9  Aristotle also assumes that nature is inherently teleological, and considers it absurd that humans would lack a natural function. 10  That nature has a purpose, that humans have a natural purpose, that nature is designed for the best are assumptions. These assumptions were taken up by the most influential intellectual movements of the late ancient world  – Stoicism, (Neo-)Platonism, and Christianity  –  and  jointly shaped the dominant movements of Western thinking for two millennia. Nietzsche’s problemitization of Socrates marks nothing less than a problemitization of the assumptions underlying the Western intellectual tradition. In Nietzsche’s wake, twentiet h century thinkers have recast what it means to do philosophy. One example comes from Deleuze and Guattari’s aptly named What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari hold that philosophy, instead of being the pursuit of truth, is instead “the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.” 11   Deleuze’s oeuvre is influenced by his reading of Nietzsche, as is the thinking of numerous 20 th  century thinkers. 12  In many ways, these thinkers are building on the ground prepared by Nietzsche, whose “posing questions with a hammer  ” and “ sounding out idols ” helped overturn over two millennia’s worth of assumptions (TI Preface). Those assumptions are the ones taken up by the scholar mentioned above: that philosophy is, in essence, the pursuit of wisdom (which itself consists of knowing certain truths), and that attaining wisdom results in moral improvement. 13  Twentieth century philosophers have doubted  – in some cases rejected  – both assumptions, taking the path that Nietzsche laid out. Nietzsche begins by pointing out that “ the wisest men in every age have reached the same conclusion about life: it’s no good  ” (TI Socrates §1). While this remark may sound exaggerated, it is anything but baseless. As Nietzsche points out, Socrates’s last w ords in the dramatized death scene of the Phaedo are “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget” (TI Socrates §1). 14  Asclepius, god of medicine, was invoked by the ill hoping for a cure. As Nietzsche explains, Socrates’s  dying remark reveals his own self- assessment, that “Socrates is no doctor [. . .] death is the only doctor here [. . .] Socrates was only sick for a long time” (TI Socrates §12). In what way was Socrates ill? What allows Nietzsche to generalize the claim that Socrates was ill from the closing remark in the Phaedo ? Nietzsche suggests that Socrates, along with the  4 wisest men of history, “are types of decline ” (TI Socrates §2). Nietzsche holds that the consensus of the wise that life is an ill is ultimately a non-cognitive expression of their physiological condition. He contends that “ the value of life cannot be estimated  . Not by the living, who are an interested party, a bone of contention, even, and not judges; not by the dead for other reasons” (TI Socrate s §2). Nietzsche’s explanation indicates that a necessary condition for a proper estimation of the value of life is objectivity. As he explains in a later section, “even to raise the problem of the value of life, you would need to be both outside life and as familiar with life as someone, anyone, everyone who has ever lived: this is enough to tell us that the problem is inaccessible to us” (TI Morality §5 ; cf. GM III §12). Nietzsche here rejects the possibility of evaluating the value of (human) life in general. One may judge particular lives  – albeit always from a partial, biased, and limited perspective  – but to proffer an evaluation of life in general amounts to nothing more than an expression of one’s own attitude because it is impossible for a human to assess the evidence objectively. What determines one’s attitude? Nietzsche answers that it is one’s physiological condition that determines their assessment of life: The consensus sapientium  [. . .] proves least of all that the wisest men were right about what they agreed on: instead, it proves that they were in  physiological agreement about something, and consequently adopted  –   had to adopt  –  the same negative attitude towards life. Judgments, value judgements on life, for or against, can ultimately never be true: they have value only as symptoms, they can be taken seriously only as symptoms (TI Socrates §2). Nietzsche here expresses his view that psychological (mental) states are epiphenomenal, i.e. mental states are causally inert, unable to influence an a gent’s actions, and themselves effects of causal processes. As Nietzsche here explains, an organism’s psychological states are determined by its physiological states. 15   Nietzsche points to Socrates’s ugliness as “a sign of crossbreeding, of arrested development due to crossbreeding,” potentially even a sign of criminality (TI Socrates §3). 16   Socrates suffered from a “chaos and anarchy of his instincts” as well as from “auditory hallucinations, interpreted religiously as ‘Socrates’s daemon’” (TI Socrate s §4). Recalling the ressentiment  -fueled slave revolt in morality in On the Genealogy of Morals (GM I §10-11), Nietzsche suggests that Socrates’s irony is “an expression of revolt” rooted in “plebeian ressentiment  ” and that his use of dialectics was in fact “a type of self-defense ” used due to an inability to otherwise defend himself from his opponents (TI Socrates §6- 7). Socrates’s dialectics turned into a new type of contest that appealed to “the agonistic drive of the Greeks” (TI Socrates §8). However, i nstead of the sudden popularity of dialectics signaling Socrates’s wisdom, Nietzsche interprets it as signaling the degeneration of Greek instincts. “Wherever authority is still part of the social fabric, wherever people give commands rather than reasons, the dialectician is a type of clown: he is laughed at and not taken seriously” (TI Socrates §5). Had Greek instincts still been in tact during Socrates’s time, he would have been rejected   tout court   – perhaps killed much sooner  – instead of spawning a new intellectual movement. Socrates appealed to so many Greeks because he promised a cure for their degeneration and the anarchy of their instincts. This cure was the tyranny of rationality. “The fanaticism with  5 which all of Greek thought threw itself on rationality shows that there was a crisis: people were in danger, they had only one option: be destroyed or  –  be absurdly rational  ” (TI Socrates §10). Socrates’s cure was to let reason act as a tyrant, subjugating all of the unruly drives and instincts. Nietzsche points to Socrates’s formula that “reason = virtue = happiness” as summing up the promise of this cure (TI Socrates §4, 10). Plato takes up this teaching, with Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics following suit thereafter. Nietzsche contends that “ Socrates was a misunderstanding; the whole morality of improvement, including that of Christianity, was a misunderstanding ” (TI Socrates §11). “Philosophers and moralists are lying to themselves when they think that they are going to extricate themselves from decadence by waging war on it. Extrication is not in their power: what they choose as a remedy, as an escape, is itself only another expression of decadence” (TI Socrates §11). To fully understand Nietzsche’s problemization of Socrates, we must turn to  the following five sections of Twilight  , which move between criticisms of traditional metaphysics and epistemology (“‘Reason’ in Philosophy,” “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable,” “The Four Great Errors”) and criticisms of morality and moralists (“Morality as Anti - Nature,” “The ‘Improvers’ of Humanity”). Criticizing Socrates for prizing reason and believing that “reason = virtue = happiness” may appear ill-founded. After all, the great technological advances we enjoy today are the result of an evidence-based process of inquiry. Reason has also long been identified as a key element in virtuous activity. But Nietzsche’s criticism of reason focuses on its role in the philosophical and religious traditions; in fact he goes out of his way to note that “we have science these days precisely to the extent that we have decided to accept the testimony of the senses,  –  to the extent that we have learned to sharpen them, arm them, and think them through to the end” (TI Reason §3). 17  Socrates is identified as ill, as representing the decline of Greek instincts and the decadence in Greek culture. 18  Nietzsche equates the antique esteem for reason with a devaluation of the world; those who followed in Socrates’s footsteps, including the most influential philosophical movements of the ancient world and ultimately Christianity, concurred with this devaluation, which is actually a revaluation of values. Whereas the older Hellenic instincts are representative of master morality, Socrates and his ilk invert values, making what was good (the world, instincts, change) into something evil. Here again (as we will see when examining the penultimate section of Twilight  ) Nietzsche’s archrival turns out to be Plato, with Socrates acting as the impetus and representative of the movement towards the fetishization of rationality. The key to Nietzsche’s criticism of the Western philosophical tradition’s rationalism is his identification of a twofold movement: the denigration of reality, regarding it as a secondary world of appearances, and the positing of a fictional “true” world of ultimate value to justify this denigration. “To divide the world into a ‘true’ half and an ‘illusory’ one, whether in the manner of Christianity or in the manner of Kant [. . .] is just a sign of decadence,  –  it is a symptom of life in decline ”   (TI Reason §6).   As Nietzsche notes, philosophers “see death, change, and age, as well as procreation and growth, as objections,  –  refutations even. What is, does not become ; what becomes, is not” (TI Reason §1). The ce ntral features of human existence  – and of reality more generally  – are rejected by philosophers. Rather than embracing the world of constant change, philosophers posit a separate, “higher” world of being to redeem existence. Although the senses constantly attest to the immutable change characteristic of every element of the world,
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