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  • Untergang und Übergang: The Tragic Descent of Socrates and Zarathustra
  • Martha Kendal Woodruff


Through meticulous scholarship and innovative interpretation, Robert Gooding-Williams argues that we must approach the question of modernism historically, especially in relation to the ancients. As the title alone, Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism (ZDM), suggests, we must revisit Dionysus in order to understand Zarathustra. The striking juxtaposition of ancient and modern in the title invites us to ask: How does Zarathustra relate to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Greek tragedy? The young Nietzsche's esteem for the Greeks can hardly be overstated; he refers to the Greeks as "our luminous guides" (BT 23) and writes of his desire to "stimulate among the students an interest in the careful interpretation of Aristotle and Plato."1 Above all, Plato's Socrates held a pivotal position for Nietzsche throughout his life. Even in later works such as Z, Nietzsche continues to wrestle with Plato and Socrates, to esteem them and evoke them while simultaneously questioning them.

One of the particular strengths of Gooding-Williams's book lies in the way it relates Nietzsche to myriad figures from the history of philosophy as well as to recent trends in analytical philosophy. But if we challenge the book's assumptions on Plato and Platonism, we will discover a more three-dimensional understanding of both Plato and Nietzsche. Nietzscheans today, I maintain, must concern themselves with Plato in order to remain true to the spirit of Nietzsche as well as that of Plato. A return to Plato—though a different Plato, liberated from commonplace assumptions—thus allows us to appreciate Gooding-Williams's readings of Z even more: a new reading of Plato (which I will sharply distinguish from Platonism) yields a new reading of Nietzsche. By complicating our readings of Plato and Socrates, I aim to enhance the provocative readings of Gooding-Williams, to carry his analysis one step further by applying his perceptive insights on Nietzsche to Plato. I will focus on his reading of Zarathustra's prologue and relate it more extensively to selected passages from the Republic and the Symposium, two classics that Nietzsche both evokes and parodies. Although Gooding-Williams stresses Nietzsche's departure from Plato, I will explore Nietzsche's creative, if ambivalent, inheritance from both Socrates and Plato. [End Page 61]

While I cannot do justice to the complexity of ZDM, I will focus on the leitmotif of Untergang and Übergang that runs throughout the book. In particular, I ask how the opening passages of the Republic and Zarathustra invite us to reconsider the relation between the authors, and the heroes, of both works. On my reading, Plato and Nietzsche create quasi-fictional heroes of their dramas who must go under in order to go over: Socrates and Zarathustra must submit to the Untergang in all senses of the term (descent, decline, and destruction) for the sake of the Übergang; that is, they must descend, both literally and figuratively, and risk perishing, in order to teach humanity their lesson on ethics (even if the lesson is that ethics cannot be taught). Following Gooding-Williams's discussions of tragedy, I will suggest that both Socrates and Zarathustra take on the role of tragic heroes: their descent initiates a moment of tragic danger.

Throughout, I will follow what we might call a principle of hermeneutic equality: Plato deserves and demands the same level of interpretive sensitivity as Nietzsche. We must take care with our interpretation of Plato, as Nietzsche himself did. As much as I admire Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism, I must take issue with the oversimplified generalizations the book makes about Plato as equivalent to a Christianized version of Platonism. But if we take as our example the precise, nuanced readings that Gooding-Williams develops of Nietzsche and then apply that same care to our readings of Plato, we will discover a better understanding of both thinkers.


Nietzsche's thought lives in the tension between old and new, or, as Gooding-Williams writes: "Zarathustra occupies the interregnum between past and future" (ZDM 46). On the one hand, the whole tradition of Western philosophy originated with Plato, as Nietzsche knew, and even consists of "a series...


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