Callicles accuses Socrates of exploiting the feelings of shame felt by both Gorgias and Polus. It was shame which led Gorgias to make the tactical mistake of saying he could teach his students virtue. And it was shame that led Polus to make the crucial concession that justice is a good thing and injustice a bad thing. In fact, Callicles says, Polus should have said the exact opposite. It is justice which is bad and injustice good. Justice is merely the set of conventional rules that society uses to keep the strongest people in line. The law of nature says the opposite: the strongest person should get the greatest rewards. What would these rewards consist in? Not the glow of self-righteous justice that Socrates so admires, but what is naturally, rather than conventionally, good: namely, power and pleasure. Callicles thinks then, that justice is nothing but a trick for getting the strong to surrender their natural right to seize as much pleasure as they can handle.
Socrates rightly recognizes that Callicles is raising a serious challenge, one more difficult to defeat than anything Polus has said. Callicles, in fact, bears a striking resemblance to no less a figure than Friedrich Nietzsche, the great nineteenth-century critic of (Judeo-Christian) morality.
I’ve heard that comparison made before. I’m pretty sure Roger Kimball called Nietzsche both a modern-day Callicles and Thrasymachus. But rather than being a straightforward advocate for “might makes right” and a partisan of power over truth, I think Nietzsche was much more nuanced and interesting than that.
His infamous distinction between “master morality” and “slave morality” is familiar to any student of Philosophy 101. Less well-known is an aphorism like this one from Daybreak:
It goes without saying that I do not deny, unless I am a fool, that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged, but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto. We have to learn to think differently in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently.
One could argue that morality has very little to do with rationality as compared to empathy, and as such, that it’s naïve to imagine that we can rebuild morality on a more stable, rationally justified foundation. But leaving that aside, I think it shows that, even earlier in his writing career, he was not interested in simply inverting traditional moral precepts for shock value. Walter Kaufmann, among others, has argued that Nietzsche is best understood as encouraging a drive for power and mastery over oneself rather than others. Nietzsche, the lifelong admirer of Emerson, may have had an ideal in mind like that of Emerson’s Self-Reliance, the rebel and outsider who nevertheless maintains a higher, more consistent ethical code than his conventional, hypocritical critics. Again, this is almost an adolescent cliché now, but if so, that also blunts whatever radical edge it may have once had.
Yuval Levin published a piece yesterday celebrating the life of the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, in which he says about Lord Acton, the subject of her first book:
Acton’s answer to this problem [of unrestrained individualism] was not to abandon liberalism, but to insist that it be tethered to traditional religion.
This is something I hear often as well. Without a shared religious framework guiding our actions, moral and civilizational decline is inevitable. As a sanguine Epicurean, I can’t help but note that very few of these mostly-conservative laments for a lost religious sensibility even attempt to make the case for its truth. Instead, they imply that it would produce better consequences if most of us could be induced to at least pay lip service to a common ethical outlook rooted in Christianity. Keep clapping so that Tinkerbell might yet live. If not for yourself, do it for the children.
Here, again, Nietzsche is far from the caricature of a gleeful immoralist dancing on God’s grave, happily anticipating the depravity to come. In his famous parable of the madman, in which the madman announces the death of God, he alternates between fear of the immense significance of the deed and disgust at the unworthiness of the murderers who don’t even realize what they’ve done. But earlier in the book, he had already seen it coming. In this aphorism, he offers something of an evolutionary account of truth. Granted that all of our ideas about the world were, strictly speaking, errors, “truth” was the name we gave to those useful, life-preserving errors. But as we pursued Truth, complacently assuming that it would always be identical with the Good and the Beautiful, we discovered that in fact, it is sometimes fatal to those things. We even sacrificed God to Truth, and now we’ve committed ourselves too deeply to go back:
The thinker is now the being in whom the impulse to truth and those life-preserving errors wage their first conflict, now that the impulse to truth has also proved itself to be a life-preserving power. In comparison with the importance of this conflict everything else is indifferent; the final question concerning the conditions of life is here raised, and the first attempt is here made to answer it by experiment. How far is truth susceptible of embodiment? – that is the question, that is the experiment.
The impulse to truth, engendered by Christianity, ironically enough, has also proven to be a life-preserving power, even if it undermines and collapses the old certainties. The pursuit of truth gives renewed meaning to life; many people find a more challenging, heroic mission in attempting to look in truth’s ugly face without flinching. Even in The Antichrist, published in his last few months of sanity, at his most unrestrained and vituperative, we find him in aphorism 38 heaping scorn upon Christianity, not for its defense of the weak and downtrodden, but precisely for its infidelity to the cause of truth, for failing to live up to its own ideals:
And here my disgust begins.—I look about me: not a word survives of what was once called “truth”; we can no longer bear to hear a priest pronounce the word. Even a man who makes the most modest pretensions to integrity must know that a theologian, a priest, a pope of today not only errs when he speaks, but actually lies—and that he no longer escapes blame for his lie through “innocence” or “ignorance.”
…Everyone knows this, but nevertheless things remain as before. What has become of the last trace of decent feeling, of self-respect, when our statesmen, otherwise an unconventional class of men and thoroughly anti-Christian in their acts, now call themselves Christians and go to the communion table? . . . A prince at the head of his armies, magnificent as the expression of the egoism and arrogance of his people–and yet acknowledging, without any shame, that he is a Christian! . . . Whom, then, does Christianity deny? what does it call “the world”? To be a soldier, to be a judge, to be a patriot; to defend one’s self; to be careful of one’s honor; to desire one’s own advantage; to be proud . . . every act of everyday, every instinct, every valuation that shows itself in a deed, is now anti-Christian: what a monster of falsehood the modern man must be to call himself nevertheless, and without shame, a Christian!
And so we see that even in his final days, his inhibitions weakened by his illness (I’m convinced by the revisionist claim that he was suffering from an undiagnosed brain tumor rather than syphilis), he returned to this stance of outraged idealism, rhetorically overturning tables in the temple of modern bourgeois complacency. In one of the posthumous fragments from his notebooks, we find him spelling out his views on warfare, both literal and metaphorical, while returning again to the fundamental opposition between truth and lies:
I bring war. Not between people and people: no words are sufficient to express my loathing of the despicable interest politics pursued by modern European dynasties—politics which make the incitement to self-seeking arrogance among the peoples, setting them against one another, into a principle, and almost into a duty. Not war between classes, either—since there are no higher classes, and consequently no inferior ones… I bring a war which cuts across all the absurd coincidences of nation, class, race, status, level of education, constitution—a war like the conflict between rising and falling; between the will to live and the thirst for revenge against life, between upright honesty and treacherous lies. If we could do without wars, so much the better. I can think of many more profitable uses for the twelve billion spent every year to maintain the armed peace in Europe, and other means of gaining respect for physiology preferable to field hospitals.
I hope it goes without saying that I’m not trying to offer any definitive interpretation of his philosophy here. As Karl Jaspers and my friend Arthur said, best of luck to anyone who takes on that fool’s errand. I’m only suggesting that the pursuit of that definitive interpretation is far more rewarding than accepting the commonplace caricatures. (Let me also say that I don’t intend to single Adamson out for criticism here; his books in the History of Philosophy series are both informative and well-written, with a spirit of gentle levity not often found in writing on the topic, and I imagine his podcast is similar, though I haven’t listened to it yet. I recommend them to anyone interested in non-academic philosophy. I only excerpted this passage because it was a recent example of something I’d been meaning to gather my thoughts around.)