The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 24 (2002) 25-53
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Nietzsche Contra Homer, Socrates, And Paul
Christa Davis Acampora
Near the conclusion of "Homer's Contest," Nietzsche exclaims, "What a problem opens up before us [. . .] when we ask about the relation of the contest to the conception of the world of art!" 1 He writes this following a discussion of the way in which works of art are not only indebted to but perhaps also intrinsically linked with what their creators were striving to oppose. Problem-posing, as shaping and presenting new sets of challenges by rendering unfamiliar what we take to be nearest to us (GS 345), emerges in Nietzsche's early writings as his modus operandi, and he continues to refine that strategy throughout his works. Nietzsche creates problems and wrestles with new questions that take on labors intended to have effects similar to those of tragedy: "Concerned but not disconsolate, we stand aside a little while, contemplative men to whom it has been granted to be witnesses of these tremendous struggles [Kämpfe] and transitions [Übergänge]. Alas, it is the magic of these struggles that those who behold them must also take part and fight!" (BT 15) 2 Problems are intended as provocations in response to which Nietzsche hopes his readers will leap into the fray.
Contestants are engaged in different ways throughout Nietzsche's career. Nietzsche's account of the development of Greek culture, art, and science—broadly conceived—figures Homer as offering not only the first monumental revaluation but also as providing a medium through which other revaluations might be forged. In other words, contest as it is conceived by Homer not only provides the conditions for esteeming human life in light of exemplary and exceptional struggles but it also provides the fuel for revisioning that very ideal as it draws others to contest the aims and ends of struggles that characterize human life. Nietzsche reads the production of Platonic philosophy as emerging out of a contest with Homer and philosophy thereafter as a struggle against and with Platonic ideals. Thus, although Nietzsche takes on numerous other contestants worthy of consideration—Luther, Wagner, Darwin, to name a few—the selection of Homer, Socrates, and Paul is not accidental. In Nietzsche's eyes these particular contests are intrinsically linked: they develop out of each other and together form a kind of unity. Throughout his career, Nietzsche sees it as his task to take on each of these quintessential [End Page 25] agonists. Below I trace the forms of these contests and how they reveal different contestatory aims. I conclude by evaluating Nietzsche as a contestant, drawing upon criteria that emerge out of the discussion of Nietzsche's agonists.
I. Homer's Contest as Exemplary Revaluation
Nietzsche's contestatory gesture toward Homer is that of emulation that aims to exceed. He contends with Homer in order to create new values, ones that might empower (at least some) others to do the same. In this context Nietzsche envisions a new nobility whose contests will not be organized around the pursuit of glory but rather will be focused on the refinement of poiesis—that is, of practicing what Nietzsche calls in The Gay Science the "art of transfiguration" [Kunst der Transfiguration]. 3 Nietzsche's contest with Homer aims to restore an axiology Nietzsche imagines to be constituted in Homeric literature. His goal is to resituate the fulcrum on which moral valuation rests—no longer to be centered by a supernatural arbiter of good and evil but rather finding a pivot point in the naturalistic, homo-centric realm of the good and base.
Nietzsche's Homer struggles to forge a conception of human existence that aims to completely recast its possibilities for meaning. He is credited with consciously reversing the wisdom of Silenus in The Birth of Tragedy. 4 Nietzsche seeks to emulate that feat in transforming the reigning valuations of good and evil. But Nietzsche does not seeking to simply reinstate Homeric, heroic ideals. He aspires to effect a Homeric victory with specifically Nietzschean artistic and scientific insights. Those worthy of...