Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Philosophy

Excerpt: Contesting Nietzsche

9780226923901An excerpt from Contesting Nietzsche by Christa Davis Acampora

[we’ll be running a series of excerpts, short and long, from books across the disciplines this week while we’re away from the desk at our twice yearly sales conference]


Homer is Nietzsche’s exemplar for two key crucial concerns throughout his works: creativity and power. The potency of Homer’s poetic transformation of human toil and struggle both fascinated and spurred Nietzsche to try to capture and command the same kind of force. Nietzsche’s Homer is not simply the founder of a certain form of culture; he is a revolutionary, a reformer, someone who effects a tremendous revaluation. Thus, it is important in Nietzsche’s account that Homer is late. Here, late means that Nietzsche regards the emergence of what is classically considered Homeric as standing at the end of a significant period of cultural development rather than at the beginning. [As I elaborate in the next chapter,] Nietzsche regards Homer as having overcome dominant cultural traditions that developed prior to his arrival on the scene. Thus, he considers Homeric literature to be a late development in Greek culture rather than its founding moment. The life of struggle, previously portrayed by Hesiod as a kind of punishment for all of human existence, comes to have glorious new possibilities when (certain kinds of) struggles are arranged that allow humans to be so great as to be enviable by the gods. In other words, Homer makes a virtue of what Hesiod sees as a curse. Although Hesiod and Homer both regard struggle as inescapable, Homer is distinctive in making it a route to glory. He is exemplary in Nietzsche’s historical account because he is a successful competitor in a larger context over the value of human existence, overcoming the worldview typified by Hesiod.

Moreover, what he offers as replacement values are particularly creative and affirmative. Nietzsche regards the significance or value of Homeric existence as potentially surpassing that of the gods—the gods cannot achieve the status of heroes because they cannot risk their lives. And the replacement values for the glory of context created an engine for value production that was particularly fruitful. So there are three major facets to the case of Homer that Nietzsche presents:

1. Homer is an exemplary revaluator. In overcoming the prior worldview that regards human existence as a kind of punishment, Homer provides a model, a touchstone, for the creation of new values. Nietzsche defines his own tasks in light of what he thinks Homer accomplishes and in light of how he sees those who wrestle with Homeric legacy, particularly Plato.

2. Homer affirms life; he gives a positive value to human existence. The worldview evident in Homeric poetry epitomizes affirmation, what Nietzsche later calls yes-saying; it offers a redemption of human existence that is tangible and meaningful in the real world, the here and now; it does not need an otherworldly or afterworldly anchor. The obvious contrast to this will be Nietzsche’s characterization of Christianity and its model of redemption that casts human beings as lacking the resources to save themselves. In this respect, human beings are no longer damned, but they are eternally guilty. Insofar as Homer depicts human possibilities as even greater than those of the gods (because gods cannot take the relevant great risks), he offers a maximally rich conception of the meaning and purposes of human existence. Thus, Homer is Nietzsche’s model of the ultimate life affirmer. 

3. Homeric values are renewable, and the agnostic arena supplies a forum for further revaluation. The standards of excellence for engaging in contest are derived from past performances (prior contests) and the extraordinary performances that call for a revision of those measures in any given contest. Thus, values derived in agonistic contexts are contingent and eminent; they are perpetually renewable. Although Nietzsche does not directly state it, this feature of Homer’s contest is the most enticing for him. Such values are tangible, derived from specific cases, and motivating insofar as one seeks to manifest or realize them for oneself or to become the new standard bearer. Old values can be renewed in agonistic interaction, and new values can be created when specific engagements call for a reformulation of the exercise of judgment.

The Homeric achievement is contested, as Nietzsche tells the story, by Socrates (the Platonic Socrates, or more likely the Socrates evident in Socratism—that is, what Socrates has come to mean or stand for). The engagement of Homer and Socrates turns on what is valued (e.g. the heroic life) as well as how it is valued (e.g., through public contests). That Socrates succeeds in his resistance demonstrates that he is also exemplary in his ability to transform values, to revalue them. But how he goes about it (through promulgation of dialectic) and why (because it better prepares on for death rather than life) are highly problematic for Nietzsche. 

To read more about Contesting Nietzsche, click here.

To see more titles from our philosophy list, click here.