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The Socratic Diagnosis in Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”

Sat, November 9, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Wyndham Philadelphia Hotel, FDR


In introducing his sustained critique of Socratic rationalism in “Problem of Socrates,” Nietzsche makes the Hegelian suggestion that wisdom appears on earth not as an owl but as a raven attracted to what is dying. The metaphor is introduced as an attack on the Western philosophic tradition but later expands to work on two contrasting levels. Is it that the thoughts of the “wise” are those that occur to figures in personal conditions of decline, or do the wise arise in and transcend time periods threatened by widespread cultural decline? The ambiguity calls for a careful investigation of what Nietzsche's initial accusations against Socrates amount to—the charges of decadence in the instincts and of failing to grasp that the value of life cannot be estimated. The difficulty lies in the fact that certain concepts at the heart of these critiques are only fully developed in later sections of the book, and yet the later passages undercut the critiques more than they support them. The process of examining these charges reveals the degree to which Nietzsche’s philosophic project in fact forms the reversed parallel of Socrates’. The critique is written for a time in which the Socratic cure for decadence is no longer successful. The ultimate disagreement between the two figures is instead revealed in Nietzsche’s very refusal to confront Socrates’ ideas on the grounds of a purportedly universal rational perspective, and Nietzsche’s approach to the significance of Socrates is made instead through a certain psychological and historical perspective that he does not explicitly depart or abstract from.