Wassong Lecture Highlights Nietzsche’s Appreciation of Socrates

Professor Drew Hyland Presents an Unconventional View of Relationship

Friedrich Nietzsche, the highly influential 19th century German philosopher whose key ideas included the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, is often represented as harshly critical of the Greek philosopher, Socrates. But in a compelling lecture recently, Drew Hyland, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy, demonstrated that Nietzsche’s view of Socrates was much more nuanced.

Indeed, Hyland argued that Nietzsche both criticized and deeply appreciated Socrates, which by his own standard meant that he “loved” Socrates. Thus, the title of this year’s Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture was “Nietzsche’s ‘Love’ for Socrates.”

Hyland based his proposition on a careful examination of what Nietzsche said about Socrates in two of Nietzsche’s most famous works, The Birth of Tragedy and Twilight of the Idols.

Drew Hyland, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy, and Joseph Wassong, Jr.

 “Throughout his life, Socrates was just that for Nietzsche: a problem,” said Hyland. “And he was a problem because, on the one hand, Nietzsche saw Socrates as ‘the one turning point and vortex of so-called world history,’ without which the world might have degenerated into a ‘gruesome ethic of genocide, motivated by pity,’ yet on the other hand, Socrates was the proximate cause of the ‘death of tragedy’ in ancient Greece and the real beginning of what Nietzsche saw as the ‘decline’ of western culture, for which Nietzsche could not forgive him. In short, Nietzsche was both enormously attracted to, yet repulsed by, Socrates.”

To illustrate his point, Hyland concentrated first on Nietzsche’s account of Greek tragedy in the Birth of Tragedy because it was his view that Socrates was the “murderous principle” of the greatness of Greek tragedy. The reason for this, Nietzsche believed, was that he regarded Socrates’ “optimism” about the power of knowledge as destructive of the insight that he attributed to the god, Dionysus, that there was always some deep mystery to life that could not be replaced with knowledge.

Since for Nietzsche, tragedy arose from the precarious union of what he called the Dionysian and the Apollonian insights, and since Socrates was the “enemy of Dionysus,” Socrates, through his supposed optimism about the possibility of knowledge replacing the unknowable, was the cause of the death of tragedy.

For Nietzsche, this was the central basis of his criticism of Socrates, a criticism that he sustained throughout his writing career, as demonstrated by reference to his late work, Twilight of the Idols.

At one point, Hyland concluded that “it would be fair to say that virtually no one in the history of philosophy has been more appreciative of the power of the Socratic than Nietzsche.”

Yet, as Hyland pointed out, “the optimism inherent for Nietzsche in the Socratic dialectical pursuit of knowledge is the real source of the death of tragedy, and for this Nietzsche obviously has it out for Socrates. But almost always, again to emphasize the complexity of his view, his criticism is tinged with appreciation and admiration.”

Again, Hyland provided a striking example of Nietzsche’s ambivalence toward Socrates when he noted that Nietzsche harshly criticized Socrates for being the “murderous principle” of Greek tragedy, but said that “Socratism” has been nothing less than the savior of Western culture.

At several juncture in his lecture, Hyland pointed out that Nietzsche’s attitude toward Socrates remained consistent throughout his productive life, and that the differences are never contradictory.

“To the very end, then, Nietzsche’s evaluation of Socrates remains consistent,” said Hyland. “Socrates was great, indeed, as Hegel put it, ‘world-historical,’ but at the same time, a disaster for the great culture of Greece, and an enormously mixed blessing for the culture this ours.”

A member of the Trinity faculty since 1967, Hyland is the author of 10 books and many articles and has been a visiting professor at Boston University and The New School for Social Research. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University.

Support for the Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture and History comes from a fund established in 1996 by Joseph F. Wassong, Jr. ’59 in memory of his wife, Shirley, and augmented with gifts from family and friends. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years. The lecturers are from various academic disciplines, and their topics range from antiquity to the present day. This year’s event marks the 17th Wassong Memorial Lecture.

Joseph Wassong majored in history at Trinity, received his M.A. in history from Columbia University, and spent his career teaching at Naugatuck Valley Community College before retiring in 1999. Shirley Wassong was a graduate of Bryant College and spent her career as a dental assistant. She was a volunteer at St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, CT, the Thomaston Library, and the Thomaston Visiting Nurses Association. She was a member of the Connecticut Historical Society and, at the time of her death in 1995, was the curator of the Thomaston Historical Society.

To view photos from the Wassong Lecture, click here

Photos by John Atashian.