1. Throughout history, Nietzsche argues, the wisest people—even Socrates—have claimed that life is “worthless.” But what’s the point of this? Pessimistic followers of Schopenhauer claim that if people throughout the ages have decided that life is worthless, then it must be so. But Nietzsche disagrees.
From antiquity to modern era, philosophers have deemed life “worthless.” But Nietzsche rejects this view of the world. Also note that “pessimism” here doesn’t refer to a negative disposition, but to philosophical pessimism. The core idea of philosophical pessimism is that life itself holds a negative value.
2. Nietzsche considers Socrates and Plato to be symbols of a fallen ancient Greece. In particular, Nietzsche takes issue with these thinkers’ value judgements. Nietzsche thinks that nothing, where life is concerned, can ever be proven “to be true,” since such judgments are meaningful “only as symptoms.” Nietzsche questions the wisdom of philosophers who think they can know “the value of life” absolutely.
Value judgements (assessing an idea or behavior’s worth according to a given moral framework) are bad because they assume that there is an objective, infallible way to judge anything. In reality, all moral frameworks are subjective and flawed, so all value judgements derived from them are equally flawed and flimsy. When Nietzsche calls value judgements “symptoms,” he's saying that value judgments are only symptoms of a person’s or moral authority’s personal values—not an indication of absolute, actual truth.
3. Socrates came from a lower social class, and he was ugly, too. Anthropologists and criminologists state that criminals are often ugly, their ugly exteriors symptomatic of an ugly soul. Nietzsche describes criminals as “decadent.” Once, a foreigner who knew how to read faces passed by Socrates on the streets of Athens and told him his soul was full of “vice and lust,” and Socrates agreed with the assessment.
Following the logic of anthropologists and criminologists, Socrates’s ugly exterior is evidence of an ugly soul. This passage establishes Socrates as Nietzsche’s philosophical enemy. When Nietzsche calls Socrates an ugly, decadent criminal, he’s implying that Socrates’s contributions to western philosophy have been so harmful and destructive that it’s as though he’s committed a crime.
4. It’s not just Socrates’s lustfulness that makes him decadent—it’s also his poor logic. Nietzsche strives to understand the origins of the Socratic equation “reason = virtue = happiness,” a formulation that Socrates’s predecessors would have abhorred.
Nietzsche blames Socrates for the decay of Greek intellectual culture. Socrates’s equation of “reason = virtue = happiness” broke with his predecessors’ views—presocratic philosophers tended to believe that there were some forms of knowledge that only divine nature—not humans—can understand. Socrates saw reason as a path toward higher understanding. He valued reason and saw it as interconnected with virtue and happiness.
5. Socrates brought dialectics—a method of intellectual investigation that draws on dialogue and discussion—to Greek philosophy. Nietzsche argues that this marks the end of “a nobler taste.” Before Socrates, society denounced dialectics as “bad manners,” distrusted those who believed in it, and thought dialecticians to be “buffoon[s].” So why did the Greeks take Socrates seriously?
Dialectical logic, with its emphasis on reason, is the basis of Socrates’s “reason = virtue = happiness” that Nietzsche outlines in the above passage. Nietzsche dislikes dialectical reasoning because he sees it as a threat to “nobler taste[s],” or superior philosophical positions. Put simply, he thinks that the dialectic gave weaker, inferior philosophical positions a platform they didn’t deserve. This, in turn, weakens stronger, more logically sound philosophical positions.
6. Nietzsche claims that dialectics are dubious and unconvincing, and that people only resort to them when they have no other options. They’re used by people who have to fight for their rights.
Nietzsche thinks that the dialectic method only benefits philosophical positions that aren’t logically sound enough to hold up on their own. If the only way a person can defend their idea is by poking holes in another (stronger, superior) idea, then that initial idea probably isn’t great to begin with. Nietzsche’s main gripe with the Socratic method is that it allowed common, intellectually unqualified people to participate in the intellectual sphere. Over time, this degraded western intellectual culture.
7. Nietzsche wonders whether Socrates used dialectics as an act of “revenge” against the aristocrats. Dialectics allow the dialectician to be a tyrant, placing the onus on their opponent to prove their (the opponent’s) intelligence.
Nietzsche expands on the point he made earlier about dialectics being for desperate people, framing dialectics as an act of intellectual manipulation and revenge. Nietzsche thinks Socrates advanced the dialectical method to undermine the aristocrats who shunned him for his humble origins.
8. Socrates fascinated his contemporaries. He created “a new kind of agon” and transformed the practice of wrestling in ancient Greece. He was also very “erotic.”
Agon comes from ancient Greek and refers to a competition; in Greek drama especially, it refers to a dramatic conflict between characters. In describing dialectics as “a new kind of agon,” Nietzsche is reaffirming how Socrates weaponized reason and rationality to gain power over his intellectual opponents. So, Nietzsche is suggesting, it wasn’t the pursuit of truth that drove Socrates, but the pursuit of power.
9. Socrates saw through the veneer of aristocratic Athens. He recognized that anarchy and rebellion were in the air, and he knew that he could usher in a new age. Nietzsche recalls the story about Socrates and the face-reader from section three. In a time of social and political upheaval that saw human instinct as “antagonistic,” or a threat to law and order, how had Socrates managed to know himself?
Nietzsche argues that Socrates took advantage of an unstable political climate to advance his dialectical method. In 404 B.C.E., not many years before Socrates went on trial for corrupting the youth, Athens had just been defeated by Sparta in the Battle of Aegospotami, and Spartan oligarchs (known as the Thirty Tyrants) held control of the formerly democratic Athens. Though the Athenians eventually managed to overthrow Spartan leadership and regain control, this period of political instability played a role in Socrates’s success.
10. In order “to make a tyrant of reason,” as Socrates did, an opposing threat must also exist. Thus, Nietzsche suggests, Socrates convinced the Greeks that they and their culture would “perish” if they didn’t become “absurdly rational.” Nietzsche regards the “moralism” and subservience to dialectics of Greek philosophers from Plato onward as “pathologically conditioned.” All that “reason = virtue = happiness” means is that people should imitate Socrates instead of their own destructive instincts.
Nietzsche suggests that Socrates convinced the Greeks that “reason” held the key to their survival—that they would go extinct without it. This recalls Nietzsche’s earlier claims that the dialectical method is for desperate people who have no other option. Finally, in framing Greek philosophers’ embrace of the dialectical method as “pathologically conditioned,” Nietzsche suggests that reason’s entrance into Western philosophy coincides with a loss of freedom. People didn’t originally turn to reason out of a pursuit for pure knowledge—they did so because they felt they had no other choice.
11. Nietzsche explains the error of Socrates’s commitment to extreme rationality. He thinks that philosophers and moralists are fooling themselves if they think that condemning decadence allows them to avoid decadence. In reality, their disapproval of decadence is itself an act of decadence. Nietzsche thinks that Socrates—and “the entire morality of improvement,” which includes Christianity—is a “misunderstanding.”
Nietzsche thinks it’s an oversimplification to suggest that eliminating instinct automatically eliminates decadence (moral decline). This oversimplified view assumes that human instinct is the only (or most powerful) destructive, degrading force in existence. This view also assumes that moral decline is the worst fate humanity could meet. Nietzsche contends that the extreme commitment to rationality that Socrates forced upon western philosophy only replaced one form of decadence with another.
12. Had Socrates realized his self-deception? After all, he “handed himself the poison cup,” which Nietzsche takes as evidence that Socrates recognized his mistakes and wanted to die.
Socrates was famously sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock after he was charged and found guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth. The day before he was set to die, his followers gave him a chance to escape, but he refused their offer and drank the poison willingly. So, Nietzsche is suggesting that Socrates realized the hollowness of his pursuit of reason and so felt that he deserved to die.