8 – Socrates

and the Death of Tragedy

Considering the decline of Greek Theater after its break with the lineage of Homer, the lyric and tragic poets, Nietzsche asks: “What demonic power is this that dares to spill this magic potion into dust? 59 The clue to this waste and destruction is in Socrates’ daimon. Nietzsche notes that his “voice” always dissuades:

This voice, whenever it comes, always dissuades. In this utterly abnormal nature, instinctive wisdom appears only in order to hinder conscious knowledge occasionally. While in all productive men it is instinct that is the creative-affirmative force …. in Socrates it is instinct that becomes the creator — truly a monstrosity per defectum! 60

Socrates’ logical faculty is hypertrophic, overdeveloped, as instinctive wisdom is in mystics. The confidence of his drive, his instinct which is a negation, Nietzsche alikens to an, “enormous driving wheel … behind Socrates.” 61 The Socrates we see is only a shadow before this relentless logical process. He forced the Athenians into killing him ignobly, then went calmly to his death and so created by his matyrdom a challenge and a new ideal among the Athenian youth, the “dying Socrates”. 62 Thus there was added a dramatic pathos to the negation of tragic instinct.
As the “Cyclops eye” of Socratic logic fixed itself on tragedy, it saw nothing but illogic and impiety. Unimpressed by tragedy’s fatalistic nobility, Socrates versified Aesopian fables. He warned his young followers against tragedy’s pernicious and misleading emotions. Responding at once to Socrates’ contest with the Sophists, to his opposition to the poets and to his death the young Plato burnt his own tragedies. Plato’s own art-form, the dialogue, mixes all the extant styles: lyric, dramatic, prose, poetry. Nietzsche calls this art-fusion: ” … the barge on which the shipwrecked ancient poetry saved herself with all her children: crowded into a narrow space and timidly submitting to the single pilot, Socrates.” 63
The Socratic daimon, opposed to tragedy, replaces thematic Apollinian visuality with an internally consistent “logical schematicism”. The hope of arriving at full clarity overwhelms the Dionysiac instinct and poetry is replaced by doggerel. For Nietzsche this is inevitable if one accepts the facile equation of happiness with knowledge. Music, then, in its Dionysiac incarnation is also banished along with tragedy. Even though this anti-Dionysian tendency may have been already developed, Socrates realizes it fully and “despotically” rejects the delicate balance of the Dionysian/Apollinian archetype.
Nietzsche offers the following illustration of Socrates’ miscomprehension of poetry. Socrates interprets the voice which urges him to “practice music” by turning his attention to translating Aesopian fables to (instructive) verse. Socrates is the first theoretical man, whose delight is to uncover truth through logical effort and, ultimately, to correct the world. By contrast, the artist prefers what must remain half-concealed. Socratic scientism proposes to carry the torch of its mission against the fear of death (“the dying Socrates”) and equates unintelligibility with evil and intelligibility with Good. The Socratic desire for conquest of the unknown urges logic towards a completed system, a completed world, in which myth can only serve allegory, and allegory, conceptual philosophy:

Anyone who has ever experienced the pleasure of Socratic insight and felt how, spreading in ever-widening circles, it seeks to embrace the whole of appearances, will never again find any stimulus toward existence more violent than the craving to complete this conquest and to weave the net impenetrably tight. To one who feels that way, the Platonic Socrates will appear as the teacher of an altogether new form of “Greek cheerfulness” and blissful affirmation of existence that seeks to discharge itself in actions — most often in maieutic and educational influences on noble youths, with a view to eventually producing a genius. 64

The circles of science, however, can never be exhausted. Like a snake devouring its mythic tail (Jung’s Uroborus), this urge for absolute clarity devours its mythic origins. The exclusive pursuit of Socratic logic only ends up demonstrating the fundamental need for poetry; and so we come up again longing for genius and tragic insight. Nietzsche points out fraying in the ever-tightening net of science and thus reveals the necessity for a “new rebirth” of tragedy. And, it is here we will end our close reading of the text and provide more of an assessment and a response to the whole.