- Contesting Nietzsche by Christa Davis Acampora
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xvi + 259 pp.
isbn: 978-0-226-92390-1. Cloth, $41.00.
In Contesting Nietzsche, Christa Davis Acampora analyzes the significance for Nietzsche’s thought of the ancient Greek agon (the “contest” or “struggle”). She aims to show why the agon is important for understanding several philosophical themes prevalent in Nietzsche’s work, including naturalism, agency, and [End Page 295] responsibility. Acampora also argues that we should understand Nietzsche’s own engagement with other philosophical contestants as part of his own agonistic enterprise, highlighting Homer, Socrates, Paul, and Wagner as four such competitors. Acampora’s analysis of the agon is helpful for understanding how Nietzsche’s early interest in the ancient Greeks influenced the development of his thought, especially in her treatment of “Homer’s Wettkampf,” a text that is generally underappreciated in studies of Nietzsche’s philosophical beginnings. In what follows, however, I argue that we should be skeptical of Acampora’s claim that Nietzsche is himself in an agonistic contest with some of these figures. Nietzsche, I contend, rejects an important feature of Acampora’s interpretation: namely, that different kinds of contests express distinct drives.
Acampora begins, in chapter 1, by identifying two different kinds of contest Nietzsche discusses in “Homer’s Wettkampf.” The first, the agon, is an essentially creative activity, while the second is a destructive one. Acampora characterizes these two kinds of contest in terms of Nietzsche’s account of Hesiod’s two kinds of envy (or “Eris goddesses”). The good Eris “incites [human beings] to be creative and productive,” while the bad Eris “provokes human beings to be destructive” (19). Acampora argues that each contest expresses distinct drives. The good Eris “is the expression of a competitive, agonistic drive” (22). Such contests are good for the competitors, their community, and their culture “because competition of that sort potentially advances human possibilities generally” (22). This kind of contest has three central qualities: First, it requires that one participate in a community with shared standards of excellence. Second, the achievement of high levels of excellence has the potential to advance and transform these standards. Finally, insofar as a competitor achieves victory within a community, that victor has a sense of gratitude, which consequently benefits the community. The destructive kind of competition, by contrast, “is an expression of an annihilative desire (Vernichtungslust)” (22). Contestants aim at the destruction of their opponents, whom they do not see as an integral part of the contest. Therefore, the bad Eris does not produce the same positive and creative results as the agon. Acampora uses the distinction between the agonistic and destructive contests to examine Nietzsche’s engagements with other “contenders,” and she sees these engagements as agonistic and not destructive.
In chapter 2, Acampora uses the agon to analyze Nietzsche’s treatment of Homer and Greek tragedy in BT. Homer epitomizes the value-transforming capacity of the agon, both in his own victorious overcoming and for setting [End Page 296] a new standard of value through which the ancient Greeks as a culture could flourish. More specifically, prior to Homer (“the pre-Homeric abyss” as Nietzsche calls it in “Homer’s Wettkampf”), the dominant poetic narratives in Greece rendered human existence pessimistically. Through Homer’s poetic glorification of the battles and struggles during and after the Trojan War, Acampora argues, “The Homeric perspective extends the possibility of evaluating human life differently” (51). The upshot of Homer’s creative power emerged as a result of his victory over other dominant narratives (e.g., Hesiod). Acampora argues that this public display of revaluation made way for a culture of tragic contest. Tragedy is the creative product of the struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian, and this struggle is agonistic because the creative potential of one force depends on the existence of the other.
In chapter 3, Acampora discusses Nietzsche’s engagement with Socrates. She argues that “[Nietzsche] regards the emergence of Plato’s Socrates as an ideal type that affects both the efficacy of the institutionalized structure of cultural agonism and the modes of action that are definitive of...