Nietzsche and Socrates: The tradition of a misbegotten contest

Jonathan Nelson Badger, Fordham University


Throughout his corpus Nietzsche makes frequent and apparently contradictory assertions about Socrates, to whom he generally opposes himself. Nevertheless, at times he reveals not only an admiration for Socrates, but also a strong identification with him. He thus tacitly separates Socrates from what he calls "Socratism." "Socratism" is responsible for the rationalism of modern philosophy, which Nietzsche believes has come to an end due to its own self-annihilating dogmas. But prior to coming to an end, modern philosophy has successfully perverted human nature by forbidding greatness, severing mind from body, fostering an ascetic vision of virtue--in short, by deprecating everything about bodily life. Nietzsche calls this tendency in modern philosophy "Socratism." Thus his critique of the West is a critique of Socrates. I argue that Nietzsche's characterization of Socrates is not faithful to Plato's presentation. In the Republic we see a Socrates who moderates the political passions of young men who would seek to order the city according to theoretical models and to rule it by means of abstract philosophy. Theoretical passions and the ascetic route to truth are called into question by Plato's Socrates. Similarly, in the Phaedrus we see a Socrates who, rather than dispelling the erotic from philosophic life, in fact embraces it. The erotic impulse for beauty is the engine of philosophy. True philosophy contains, at its very core, an erotic experience of the beautiful. Socrates is not the ascetic Nietzsche claims him to be. This misbegotten agon between Nietzsche and Socrates has become a tradition in the twentieth-century, and has led to the postmodern critique and rejection of reason. This is problematic insofar as it leaves out the possibility of there being a solution to the predicaments of modernity in the philosophy of Plato. Contrary to Nietzsche, Socrates offers us a model and a possible route in our struggle to escape the perplexities implicit in any coherent evaluation of reason itself.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Badger, Jonathan Nelson, "Nietzsche and Socrates: The tradition of a misbegotten contest" (1997). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9715525.