Nietzsche is a well-known philosopher, theorist, and critic of the Enlightenment, who adhered to the philosophy of truthful criticism of everything existing. His reformulation of aretes appears to be a blend of Enlightenment-inspired and anti-Enlightenment vitalism aimed to appeal to and address all life-oppressing facets of the modern culture. Therefore, the current paper will demonstrate that Nietzsche responds to the crisis of the Enlightenment by reformulating arete.
In the classical Greek understanding, arete (“virtue” or “excellence”) is cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice (Plato, Apology 42D). These virtues are aligned with the excellence of the natural activity to outline the aspects of an individual and the state. Socrates utilizes arete in order to outline moral excellence in general and, for instance, through courage, wisdom, and justice, in particular. Regarding wisdom, Socrates mentions that “the many must be ignorant of what is right” (Plato, Euthyphro 4a). It is important as wisdom allows analysis at three levels of understanding. In addition, the concept of moral excellence for the Platonic Socrates incorporates all character excellence, which is necessary for reaching happiness (eudaimonia) during the individual’s lifetime (Apology 42D). Plato states that wisdom, courage, together with other virtues, are required for human beings as they constantly suffer from numerous fortune alterations, particularly in the period of social revolution (Apology 42D). In fact, the Enlightenment can be viewed as such a revolution.
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However, Nietzsche reformulates the Socratic arete, which he calls “Socratic equation of reason, virtue, and happiness” (Franco 107). The scholar means “reason” in the scientific sense in this case while Socratic arete implies human excellence. However, in Plato’s dialogues, inspired Socrates is not so much concerned with happiness but rather considers the interrogative pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment. Thus, when Socrates says that a good man, being someone who possesses arete, cannot be made unhappy, the philosopher does not mean “virtue” in the moralistic sense, which is narrower than this one (Apology 44B-C). Socrates uses arete to outline human excellence in its original sense of inclusive competence. The arete, which Plato’s Socrates exemplifies in various ways, includes courage, temperance, knowledgeability, and fairness (Apology 41 D). Thus, arete, being excellence and the accomplishment of the objective, “applies equally to all organic and the inorganic: a blossoming tree in the spring has arete, and a sharp kitchen knife chopping a carrot has it” (Apology 41 D). From Nietzsche’s perspective, the arete is reshaped since the philosopher believes that “there is nothing better than what is good and that is to have a certain kind of capacity and to use it” (The Gay Science 227). Classical arete means the excellence of an individual, not the other-worldly notion of “virtue” that was to be found in some of the new religions. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s theory of virtues is obviously different from the most familiar of the earlier accounts. While Plato defines virtue with knowledge, Nietzsche declares that virtuous actions related to ignorance simply because all actions are connected to the statement that “every virtue inclines towards stupidity, every stupidity towards virtue (The Gay Science 227).
The historical context is highly important for the appropriate comprehension of Nietzsche. His core works were produced between 1872 and 1888 when the intellectual revolution of the existential-character called the Enlightenment was well-established among Western intellectual elites (Franco 65). The Enlightenment’s most significant facet was the one outlined by Nietzsche – the “death of God” (Franco 65). Advancements and achievements in the field of knowledge in numerous different areas undermined the credibility of traditional theological viewpoints on the meaning of human existence, cosmology, and moral philosophy among others. The Enlightenment view of the universe repulsed the Greek human-oriented outlook, following the tenet that “man is the measure of all things” (Plato, Republic 66B).
Nietzsche desired to surpass the Enlightenment’s modernity through the creation of an innovative version of society and culture helping to generate stronger and fully-evolved individuals. Thus, Nietzsche believes that new possibilities for individual creativity and a “higher” form of culture could be achieved through the rupture of the Enlightenment as the modern age as all previous potentials had been decreased and oppressed by the predominant political and social organization (Beyond Good and Evil 227). In fact, Nietzsche assumed that the origins of modernity could be found in the Socratic cultural complex, which had actually worked itself through Christianity, the Enlightenment, and modern mass societies and cultures. Hence, Nietzsche observes the origin of the renewed modernity in the plaid of Socratic culture. In addition, his notion of “Socratic culture” practically outlined a specific renewed cultural complex, which contrasted with the pre-modern Greek culture. The scholar attempts to comprehend the “idiosyncrasy of [Socratic’s] equation reason=virtue=happiness denotes” (Beyond Good and Evil 31). On the one hand, according to Nietzsche’s renewed arete, it stands for the most bizarre equations. On the other hand, it seems to be the particular equation that places “all the instincts against it” (Beyond Good and Evil 31).
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Nietzsche thinks that Socratic culture emerged as a reaction to the dispensation and disintegration of the tragic Greek culture, which it tried to supersede with an assortment of common and homogeneous values, theoretical standards, and actions. Being grounded on Socratic’s reasoning and logic, it helped substitute the Greek warring gods with a more consolidated rational culture. It means that the Socratic culture of aretes provided a remedy for a cultural emergency with solid and extreme rationalism restraining the released substantial, contradictory impulses, which Socrates and Plato assume to be out of control. The result was an equation of reason, knowledge, and virtue, making reason the instrument of both the truth and morality (Beyond Good and Evil 33).
It is also important to mention that Nietzsche believes that the celebration of Socratic “theoretical man” stimulates culture to a subjectification, leading to both rationalization and reason helping to formulate cultural complex hostile to the body, strong individuality, and cultural diversity (Franco 172). Therefore, Nietzsche reckons that the Western culture could be viewed as a form of the subjectified culture, in which rationalization and reason discard the body and individuality as well as ensure people homogenize social discipline. Moreover, the Socratic cultural complex creates a bridge between outer and inner experience, which is highly necessary for addressing the issue of the Enlightenment crisis since it separated the objective and subjective culture. Nietzsche states that the exorbitant subjectivity evaluation resulted in both subduing the body and a crisis of representation. It is the main reason why the Western culture solidly overvalued reason and ideas, suppressing nature, body, and the objective realm of experience, which resulted in the greatly subjectified cultural complex (Franco 172). Similarly to Plato, who believes that motivations are the part of the excellence, which drives human beings, Nietzsche assumes that the will of power is the fundamental force of nature:
“The struggle, great and small, everywhere turns on the ascendancy, on growth and extension, on power in accordance with the will to power, which is precisely the will of life.” (The Gay Science 349)
Moreover, this complex viewed subjectivity expression and valued it due to the fact that it developed and enlightened personalities instead of cultivating nature, strong bodies, or social institutions. In fact, Nietzsche evokes the ancient cynic skepticism, independence of through, and indifference to social ideas, and favors personal arete and self-control. Nietzsche explains in his book Beyond Good and Evil:
“Cynicism is the only form on which base souls approach honesty, and the higher man must listen closely to every coarse or subtle cynicism, and congratulate himself when a clown without shame or scientific satyr speaks out precisely in front of him.” (26)
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The passage is highly important to understanding why Nietzsche reformulated arete. The philosopher considers that the highest-minded type of people searches for refuge from the spiritual inferiors. It is the main reason why Nietzsche reformulated aretes – in order to obtain and maintain genuine autonomy, which implies freedom from all outer restraints on an individual’s behavior. Since such existence is natural and admirable, according to Nietzsche, each human being would live a life without the artificial limits imposed with moral responsibility. There would be no requirement to have other sanctions on behavior since this function would be implemented by the natural punishment incorporated in the victory of a superior person over a vanquished enemy. Hence, Nietzsche delineates the reformulation of arete in the form of a specific ideal of the mature free spirit. The author calls it a “free spirit par excellence,” which left “all faith and every wish for certainty, being practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities and dancing near abysses” (The Gay Science 347). Thus, for Nietzsche, the admirable human life can only be the one that optimally manifests what is distinctively human.
Nietzsche’s reforming of aretes, which stimulate the call for an innovative form of culture and values criticism, revealed the significance of the future cultural alteration and revolution in virtues so as to realize the most profound promises of modernity. Nietzsche utilized Socrates and his theories in order to create the fundamental ground for Enlightenment optimism and modern rationalism. Despite the fact that Socrates aretes are formative forces for the modern period, they need reformulation because of the vivid self-oppressing outcomes.