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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 24 (2002) 5-24



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Nietzsche's Greek Measure

Paulvan Tongeren


The noblest virtue.—In the first era of higher humanity bravery is accounted the noblest of the virtues, in the second justice, in the third moderation, in the fourth wisdom. In which era do we live? In which do you live?

— Human All Too Human, II,
The Wanderer and his Shadow § 64
1

Peter Geach is reported to have said that temperance is far from being an interesting subject, but "rather a humdrum common sense matter." 2 I hope to show that his opinion proves that he did not know the early history of the concept, nor what Nietzsche wrote about it. My interest in the subject of Nietzsche's conception of Greek measure (for with "measure" I refer to the so-called virtue of temperance) lies in an interest in bridging the subjects of Nietzsche's reception of the Hellenic philosophers and what Nietzsche considered to be his own task as a critic of contemporary culture. It is my contention that these should not be two different subjects, but that the two belong together. I will try to point out what I mean with this in general in my first section. After that I will elaborate it in an application to the topic of measure.

I. Nietzsche and the Greeks

It is well known that Nietzsche started his academic career as a classical philologist, but it is less recognized that from the beginning Nietzsche put his classical philology in the service of a philosophical critique of his own contemporary culture. There are many indications for this, including:

  • his "Antrittsrede" or inaugural lecture, translated "Homer and Classical Philology"; [End Page 5]
  • the public lectures that are his first public appearance in Basel, outside the classroom: the lectures translated as "On the Future of our Educational Institutions";
  • and his first official publication as a professor of classical philology: The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music.

The courses he teaches are purely philological and archeological, but in the notes from the time when he is preparing his courses, it becomes very clear what is inspiring him in his philological work. In one of those notes we read that the correct starting point for the philologist is not to try to recognize in antiquity what is esteemed in one's own culture, but precisely the opposite: "namely, to start out from the insight into modern perversity, and to look back from there." 3 Nietzsche's philology, just as his philosophy, advances his culture critical efforts, his fulfillment of the task of being a physician of culture, that is, of his own culture.

According to Nietzsche, his own culture is Christianized through and through. Therefore, he very often works with the opposition between the Greek and the Christian, between "Griechentum and Christentum." One of his reasons for opposing the Greek and the Christian, or for stressing this very opposition, might be that Nietzsche thereby polemically contradicts contemporary philology. As a classical philologist living in a Christian world, Nietzsche mainly treats these two religious cultures. But for him this also means that he has to establish the tension between them, as we will see. And in any case he wants to counter their amalgamation 4 in contemporary philology. Classical antiquity is, according to Nietzsche, successively used (or abused, as he would put it) as a seduction to Christianity and as its defense. And as soon as it no longer serves these goals, philology is invented to make antiquity harmless for Christianity (KSA 8, 5[107]). The history of the idea of measure can be traced in the growth of these two roots of European culture—Greek culture and Christianity. On the one hand 'measure' connotes the classical virtue of sophrosyne, but on the other hand it conveys the Christian virtue of moderation and modesty. Concentrating on what Nietzsche says about measure is one possible way of touching Nietzsche's particular way of combining classical philology with a philosophical critique of contemporary, Christian culture. It is to this relation that I turn...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4594
Print ISSN
0968-8005
Pages
pp. 5-24
Launched on MUSE
2002-12-19
Open Access
No
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