Plato and Nietzsche
Both Plato and Friedrich Nietzsche are seminal figures in the annals of Western philosophy. While Plato created the foundation for much of what was to follow, Nietzsche helped shape modern philosophy. The lofty ideals of each philosopher, as well as their oftentimes ruthless way of presenting them have made each man deep admiration, but also targets of fierce criticism. There are many that see both Plato and Nietzsche as proponents of anti-democratic, totalitarian governments, with Plato’s ideal government laid out in The Republic, and Nietzsche’s ideal human described in the form of the Overman. However, while both philosophical tenets can and have been perverted by leaders throughout history to justify their own cruelties, their collective views on leadership have been largely misunderstood. In their writings each many has detailed the way to construct an ideal state with ideal leaders devoid of any psychological and moral ills, and Plato’s conception of the Philosopher King and guardians appear similar to Nietzsche’s concept of the Overman, though the latter finds the potential for human strength lies within the individual and submission to such a government as suggested by Plato is merely a part of a slave morality.
Both philosophers are highly concerned with the dangers inherent in certain democratic institutions, which run the risk of descending into mob rule. Plato believed that the potential for a republic to fall victim to mob rule was a real danger, and, an elitist in this regard, and believed that “guardians” were necessary to maintain high moral and ethical standards of the lower classes. To Plato, in The Republic he claimed that democracy is little more than the poor and underprivileged achieving power through less than noble means by opposing the truly noble: “And if they are unable to expel him, or to get him condemned to death by a public accusation, they conspire to assassinate him.” (Plato). He also questions the freedoms granted by democracy and believes that the majority is patently unqualified from choosing its own direction. To him, the guardians are the only ones that possess the talent and wisdom to properly lead the people, devoid of any sickness of the soul or moral weaknesses. While this may seem similar to the ideas of the Overman, it is actually more similar to the United States, which is a representative republic and not a pure democracy. The guardians in the United States can include people such as George W. Bush and the other leading national politicians, who cannot necessarily be considered Overman in the Nietzschean sense, as they have been exposed to suffer from many of the psychological shortcomings that both Nietzsche and Plato expound against.
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In the prologue to Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche makes the clarion call for a new, healthy morality: “we need a critique of moral values, and we must first question the very value of these values, and for that we need a knowledge of the conditions and circumstance out of which these values grew, under which they have developed and changed…a knowledge of the sort which has not been there until now, something which has not even been wished for” (Prologue, sec. 6). Much of Nietzsche’s work prior to Genealogy of Morals displayed the idea that improving the human condition was neither feasible nor desirable, as the great majority of humans possessed a sickness and weakness of the soul that made such elevation impossible. But, he stated that the possibility for a new type of individual must emerge to transcend the condition altogether. Nietzsche dubbed this individual the “Ubermensch” or “Overman,” who will overcome traditional, slave morality to create his own. The Overman is an important concept to understanding Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power, because he believes that the Overman alone is one who fully realizes the drive to power that manifests itself in everything that humans do–he manages to overcome himself, taking risks and constantly recreating himself, becoming free: “The ‘free’ man, the owner of an enduring unbreakable will, by possessing this, also acquires his own standard of value: he looks out from himself at others and confers respect or contempt” (sec. II.2). The Overman is one who can also go beyond the pain that is inflicted on him by those who resent him, for traditional morality still looks down upon those who wish to realize their will to power.
By overcoming these obstacles again and again, the Overman will come to an awareness of his self-creation as well as his very existence and throw off any possibility of succumbing to an unhealthy psychological state. The Overman serves as an example and leader for those with the wisdom to realize his power, though the significant difference between Nietzsche’s Overman and Plato’s guardians is that Nietzsche never claims that the Overman has any responsibility to leading the masses or government, nor is he necessarily above the laws that dictate society. However, the Overman creates his own set of values that extend to all forms of life, including government. And, unlike the guardians, who are charged with being responsible for the lives of the masses, the Overman is responsible only for and only to himself and his own will to power. And while the Overman is the ultimate end of the will to power, the morality he overcomes as well as the exact meaning of the will to power demands further investigation.
Nietzsche felt that the basic drive motivating all of nature, as well as the only way to live a fully realized life devoid of psychological sickness, is the will to power. The will to power in humans makes them want to have the most power over their lives as they possibly can, and it also makes them oppose those that threaten it. This is very different to Plato’s concept of universal ideals, because Nietzsche believes that there are no objective values in life, and it is impossible for him and anyone else to claim what is right or wrong for society, he can only speak of the will to power to help explain morality and how it is defined. To Nietzsche, state leaders cannot accurately speak for the masses, nor should the masses desire them to do so, but laws should be established, agreed upon, and followed. Happiness is an elusive entity that most people seek, but for Nietzsche happiness is merely the feeling that power is not only secure but also growing and progressing. For citizens in Plato’s republic, the realization of this power remains impossible, and to Nietzsche, these citizens can never truly be happy.
If happiness is just the realization of the will to power, humans must create an environment that focuses not on this quest for happiness, but instead focuses on the will to power to eradicate any sickness of the soul that causes despair or resentment. In Genealogy of Morals, he states: “the partial loss of utility, decline, and degeneration, the loss of meaning, and purposelessness, in short, death, also belong to the conditions of a real progress, which always appears in the form of a will and a way to greater power constantly establishing itself at the expense of a huge number of smaller powers” (sec. II.12). This statement directly reflects the state of many nations that are left in the throes of unhealthy morality and a lack of individual power and sovereignty.
Humans are intrinsically drawn to seeking power and holding dominion over those that are not as powerful. This not only influences their psychological make up, but also influences their morality, which only seeks to move forward: “The size of a ‘step forward’ can even be estimated by a measure of everything that had to be sacrificed to it. The mass of humanity sacrificed for the benefit of a single stronger species of man—that would be a step forward” (sec. II.12). While Nietzsche’s declaration of sacrificing most of humanity for a stronger species is a controversial one, perverted by such historical factions as the Nazis in Nietzsche’s homeland, it is, in essence, merely the evolutionary push of all life. Plato suggests that humans acquiesce to stronger humans, not necessarily creating a stronger species, but rather making the majority of the people submissive and in essence weaker.
While there are many things that make Plato seem more egalitarian than Nietzsche, the results of creating his ideal republic creates a weaker species by focusing on submission. Nietzsche, by focusing on the individual and his or her will to power, seeks to create a stronger species, which could consequently dictate its government, or even the need for freedom from such constraints. Plato’s insistence on the word of the law can be seen in the values of modern conservatives, and unlike Nietzsche’s Overman, is resistant to change and evolution. The idea of change and the resistance to it is most likely the main thing that couples the modern conservative with Plato, as both see change as unnecessary if the status quo is good. To Plato, the job of the guardians is to be resistors against change and the weaknesses often taught: “Had we been taught in early youth the power of justice and injustice inherent in the soul, and unseen by any human or divine eye, we should not have needed others to be our guardians, but every one would have been the guardian of himself” (Plato). This is the essence of conservatism, though it can sometimes seem like a naïve viewpoint, for the only thing that is universally guaranteed is change.
Nietzsche realizes that his view on the will to power and how it pertains to morality is unconventional, but he defends this by stating that the morality in such modern ideas as inspired by Plato is flawed in its design and scope: “I emphasize this major point of view about historical methodology all the more since it basically runs counter to the present ruling instinct and contemporary taste, which would rather go along with the absolute contingency, even the mechanical meaninglessness, of all events rather than with the theory of a will to power playing itself out in everything that happens” (sec. II.12). By this statement alone, Nietzsche rejects Plato’s republic, the idea of guardians and changelessness, and suggests that the strongest and best humans create their own values and rule not by force or chance, but by example.
The nature of both Plato’s and Nietzsche’s writings makes it virtually impossible to understand all of the nuances inherent in their respective understandings of humanity and the role of the state. Both of their philosophies have been distorted and misinterpreted many times by many different leaders, nations, and other philosophers. Despite these distortions, their work still leaves some provocative insights into life and the nature of morality, such as the idea of an ideal government in Plato, and the idea of an elevated human in Nietzsche. In works like The Republic and Genealogy of Morals, Plato and Nietzsche leave philosophical treasure troves that not only present humans with insight and questions, but challenge all of humanity to thoroughly investigate every aspect of the gift of existence and order.
Nietzsche, F. (1887). On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York:
Vintage Books, 1989.
Plato. (1998). The Republic. Project Gutenberg. 11 Apr 2008.