Faculty Interview: Bruce King on Nietzsche’s Greeks

A towering figure of modern philosophy, Nietzsche famously challenged common understandings of truth and morality to unleash a critique of subject centered reason that opened the way for post-modernity and influenced many 20th Century thinkers including Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. But before making his most radical contributions to philosophy, Nietzsche started out as a student of ancient Greek thought, to which he dedicated his first major work The Birth of Tragedy (1872). As professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, a post he obtained at the remarkably young age of 24, Nietzsche engaged with ancient thinkers and laid the foundations upon which he would build his philosophical legacy. To spotlight this crucial moment of Nietzsche’s intellectual development, we asked BISR’s faculty and resident classicist Bruce King to tell us more about the early Nietzsche and his engagement with the Greeks.

Who were the ancient authors Nietzsche most engaged with as a young scholar?

At Basel, Nietzsche gave lectures on Homer, Hesiod, the Greek lyric poets, and Aeschylus. Two projects from this period in particular are signal portents of Nietzsche’s future philosophical engagements. The first was a set of studies on Diogenes Laertius, the third-century CE chronicler of the lives of the philosophers. Nietzsche’s studies of Diogenes prompted a plan to write a full reappraisal of the history of Greek philosophy, based on its ancient transmission. The second of Nietzsche’s central projects from this period was a study of the text and thought of the Greek philosopher of atomism, Democritus of Abdera (ca. 460-380 BCE). Nietzsche hoped to reconstruct the entirety of Democritus’ system, as well as to contribute to a revision of Kant that would make him compatible with physical materialism. Nietzsche completed neither his history of ancient philosophy nor his study of Democritus (extensive fragments of both projects are contained in his notebooks), though we might, perhaps, see his subsequent philosophical writings—on the contingency of knowledge, on the death of metaphysics—as the completion of those early projects.

How did this engagement with ancient Greek thought and art shape his critique of Western philosophy?

In 1869, Nietzsche turned a saying of the Roman philosopher Seneca into a motto: philosophia facta est quae philologia fuit, “what was once philology has now been made into philosophy.” What is so revolutionary about Nietzsche’s engagement with antiquity is his insistence that philology does not uncover the past, but reveals the present. The study of antiquity, for Nietzsche, exposes the historically contingent sources of our present inherited customs, beliefs, and assumptions—that is, the sources of the modern “subject” itself. Philology might thus become a philosophical critique of culture.

What place does The Birth of Tragedy hold in Nietzsche’s intellectual development and within his broader body of work?

The Birth of Tragedy was a professional disaster for Nietzsche. The treatise was polemically attacked by the ever-ready defenders of the traditional philological-historical method, and Nietzsche became increasingly isolated at Basel. Nietzsche never again published on classical topics, though the second of the Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” (1874) reflects upon alternative understandings of history and again insists that knowledge serve the interests of present life. On one reading of Nietzsche’s life and work, The Birth of Tragedy marks the decisive split between Nietzsche the Professor of Classical Philology and Nietzsche the Philosopher. I would prefer, however, to read Nietzsche’s radical philology—his arguments for the historical contingency of all beliefs and cultural systems—as an enabling constant in Nietzsche’s thought. To conclude, here’s a citation from “We Philologists” I particularly like : “Philology as a science of antiquity is naturally not of an eternal duration; its material can be exhausted. What is inexhaustible is the ever new accommodation of each age to antiquity, the measuring of the present against the past. Give the philologist the job to understand his age by means of antiquity and his job will be an eternal one.”

To learn more about Nietzsche, please join us for Nietzsche’s Greeks: The Birth of Tragedy, which will begin July 5, 2016 at the Goethe-Institut New York.

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