94. Nietzsche and the Homeric Contest

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch (1861-1942)

Many of us who have read the Greek mythological tales have been struck by their vividness and ability to capture and portray the unsanitized human condition with all of its unfettered emotions and brutality. When my high school literature teacher introduced these tales to us, I remember thinking that I had never encountered such drama before, even in the modern movies at the time.

Because of the richness of these stories, they have had a great influence on countless artists, writers, and philosophers. One of my favorite horror directors, Wes Craven, has stated how Greek mythology has been an inspiration for many of his movies. In discussing one of his early films, The Hills Have Eyes, he stated:

I was completely knocked out by the Greek and Roman mythological tales. They were very primal. They were full of blood and gore and betrayal. The reason those myths have stayed for so long is because they really nailed certain things about the human condition. They were carrying our cultures in a way that was elemental down to the barest bones of what we’re all about. And…if you can do that, it will be a very good horror film.1

-Wes Craven

This primal connection with the human condition was not lost on the enigmatic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As a Greek classicist himself, he saw these stories from a different angle altogether. He stated that the ancient Greek proclivity for violence, as portrayed in their mythology, is paradoxically responsible for our ability to be civilized at all.

Nietzsche is one of the most fascinating philosophers to have ever lived. His writings are starkly vivid, stimulating both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Not only does he make penetrating declarative statements, but like an artist, his writings also conjure up colorful imagery.

Nietzsche’s Life

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in Germany in 1844 and died in 1900. He struggled with health problems most of his life, mainly debilitating migraines, which is remarkable given his prolific output. In 1889, he had a mental breakdown and eventually suffered from vascular dementia and strokes. In the latter years of his life, he was under the care of his mother and sister until his death.

Even though he was a 19th-century philosopher, I personally view him as more of a 20th-century thinker because he set the stage for how modern man of the 20th century would come to think. In fact, the more you study Nietzsche, the more you will see his influence everywhere in the West, especially in these latter days.

I also view Nietzsche as holding the same place in philosophy as the Impressionist painters held in art in the same century. The Impressionist painters were the last generation of painters trained in the academy. Even though they used the skills they learned, they quickly broke ranks with tradition to chart their own course. Because of this, they failed to pass on their academic training to subsequent generations.

In the same way, Nietzsche serves as a bridge between ancient Classical philosophy and modern secular thinking. Before becoming a philosopher, he was trained as a Classical Philologist in the ancient Greek language. It was here that he became familiar with the traditional Greek philosophers, knowledge which he greatly utilized in his own philosophy. Eventually, like the Impressionist painters, he broke free from those constraints to chart his own course. This break with the past included a firm rejection of traditional Christianity and morality. As such, he set the course for future 20th-century philosophers and the world in which we live today.

Nietzsche’s “Prophetic” Writings

His writings on morality and ethics, which seemed so radical at the time, eventually became standard fare in the thinking of 20th-century philosophers and common people alike. This is why they seem so prophetic. I feel that his passing at the start of a new century in 1900 symbolized not only a break with the past but also the passing on of his ideas to a new generation. Love him or hate him, you will not be able to completely understand yourself and the times we live in unless you familiarize yourself somewhat with this enigmatic German philosopher.

Lastly, concerning his writing style, one thing that he unfortunately failed to pass on to future philosophers—though there are exceptions, of course, like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell—is an engaging writing style. Since his time, and he bemoaned it happening in his own day, academic philosophy has more often than not been dry, uninteresting, inapplicable, and esoteric. He said that much of modern philosophy is nothing more than “words about words.” The following quote brilliantly sums up Nietzsche’s view of the esoteric nature of modern philosophy:

The only critique of philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.

– Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” #8

Nietzsche’s Approach

Nietzsche is strongly polarizing. If you read him on your own, you will find yourself strongly agreeing with some things and strongly disagreeing with others, even to the point of having a visceral reaction to his ideas. This reflects his polarizing personality. In real life, he was known to be strongly contentious and argumentative. Although he had friends, he was also known to be aloof, solitary, and even reclusive at times. He reminds me of the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who was paradoxically one of the most aloof of the ancient philosophers, yet whose writings were some of the most engaging.

Modern philosophers should take a cue and learn to write like Nietzsche. Then, perhaps, a larger swath of ordinary people in society would be receptive to their writings rather than being confined to the academy. My goal in this article is to introduce you to the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche by covering a short work in which he applied Homeric thinking to the modern age.

The Homeric Contest

As I stated above, Nietzsche was trained in Classical Greek writings, which is why he often refers to them in his work. The very interesting thing about him is that, rather than staying isolated to that time, he took his unique insights into Greek thinkers and Greek culture and applied them to the modern times in which he lived and, by extension, to our times as well.

“The Homeric Contest” is the title of a fragment of Nietzsche’s work published posthumously. In it, Nietzsche claims that life is characterized by “struggle and the joy of victory.” This struggle is fueled by negative emotions such as envy, jealousy, and hatred. It is ambition and discord between men and countries that lead to continual contests to determine the victor. This, according to Nietzsche, is the very essence of what makes civilizations thrive and advance.

Nietzsche’s Paradoxal View of Man

Nietzsche is much more complex than merely deriving conclusions from historical observations. He starts where most philosophers should—by developing a philosophy on the nature of man, or anthropology if you will. From there, the rest of his philosophy naturally flows.

When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something which separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however there is no such separation: “natural” qualities and those called truly “human” are inseparably grows together. Man, in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual character. Those of his abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the futile soil out of which alone humanity can grow in impulse, deed, and work.

Right from the beginning of this essay, Nietzsche clearly distinguishes his view of man not only from the Christian view but also from the perspectives of Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle believed that the animating principle of the material body was the immaterial form of the soul. This soul, like the form of all living things, gave definition to and animated the matter of the body. Christians such as Thomas Aquinas would later deem the human soul to be immortal, originating from God and living on after the demise of the body.

Nietzsche rejected all of this. All of man, in his totality, was “natural,” originating from the earth. There was no transcendent principle needed from God nor Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover to give life to the material of the body. Man, like a plant, originated and grew from the earth. However, Nietzsche still recognized, unlike later scientists, that there is something that indeed distinguishes man from all other creatures, something he called “humanity.” Man, with his ability to reason and create works of art, was unique.

But this was not any type of uniqueness based on being the “image of God.” Rather, this uniqueness was paradoxical in another way altogether. Both his high qualities, such as reason, and his low qualities, such as brute violence and cruelty, had the same origin. The same man who could make beautiful works of art, such as a Bach concerto, was the same man who could be unspeakably brutal and savage, like beheading nuns during the French Revolution.

This idea of good and evil mixed is a theme that runs through Nietzsche’s writings. He proposed that evil contains seeds of goodness which, under the right circumstances, will eventually flourish. This contrasts with the Christian view that evil is a corruption of good, meaning good is necessary for evil to exist, while good can certainly exist without evil.

The Cruelty of the Homeric Greeks

Thus the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruely, a tigrish lust to annihilate…that must really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology.

Nietzsche is a philosopher of paradoxes, both in his personal life and his philosophy. How could the “most humane men of ancient times” also have a “tigrish lust to annihilate”? He gives examples of Alexander the Great, who pierced and tied one of his enemies to a chariot and drove it around until the man died, much like Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector.

Nietzsche described a time when a winning Greek city would annihilate the male citizens of the defeated city and enslave the women and children. He said we’re peering into “the abyss of hatred” from an era when Greek animosity ran unchecked. These are acts, he states, that cause us to shudder and turn away with disgust.

The Greek artists of the day immortalized these same cruel and unspeakable acts in their sublime sculptures as if they wanted future generations to behold them.

Why must the Greek sculptor give form again and again to war and combat in innumerable repetitions: distended human bodies, their sinews tense with hatred or with the arrogance of triumph writhing bodies, wounded; drying bodies, expiring? Why did the whole Greek world exult over the combat scenes in the Iliad? For in that world the extraordinary artistic precision, calm, and purity of the lines raise us above the mere contents.

In essence, Nietzsche highlights a crucial point in this essay: beneath the apparent violence in Homer’s works lies something profoundly redeeming. While we may focus on the violence, the artist, often a bearer of truth more than the historian, reveals the essence that defines Greek civilization’s greatness and civility. This is a lesson we can learn from and apply to our civilization. Nietzsche argues that modern man is blind to these truths, or that these insights are lost to him.

I fear that we do not understand these in a sufficiently “Greek” manner; indeed that we would shudder if we were ever to understand them “in Greek”.

The high regard for the Greeks among scholars and universities in Germany and much of post-Renaissance Europe explains why none of this is surprising. Rather than the Christian Gospel, it was the ancient Greeks who pointed to the truth, albeit in an idealized manner. So, if we encounter violence among the Greeks, there is a very sound reason for this. The violence must point to some greater truth.


Pre-Homeric Barbarism

According to Nietzsche, the violence seen in the Homeric and post-Homeric eras pales in comparison to the pre-Homeric times. He suggests that the level of violence during the Homeric period until Alexander the Great’s time reflects a relatively civilized society in contrast.

According to Nietzsche, as we will see, there was a method to the madness of the violence in civilized Greece. Traveling back to the murky beginnings of Greek history, we encounter total unfettered violence unleashed by the stronger upon the weaker, with no ultimate purpose except annihilation. For those somewhat familiar with 17th-century British philosophy, this sounds very Hobbesian, and it is. Nietzsche basically held the same view of human nature as Hobbes. Remember that it was Hobbes who, in his famous quote, described man in his natural condition as:

No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

-Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) pt. 1, ch. 13

Nietzsche concurs with Hobbes that this was the natural “uncivilized” state of man and he pinpoints this age as the pre-Homeric age. He describes this time period as follows:

But what do we behold when, no longer led and protected by the hand of Homer, we stride back into the pre-Homeric world? Only night and terror and an imagination accustomed to the horrible…A life ruled only by the children of the Night: strife, lust, deceit, old age, and death.

-Nietzsche, The Homeric Contest

Greek Civilization and Violence

Eventually, according to Nietzsche, the idea of law developed out of the system of “blood vengeance,” which was very common in the ancient world. It was so common, in fact, that it was practiced among the Hebrews of the Old Testament. He doesn’t go into much more detail than that. If you want to learn more about how the Greeks transitioned from a state of barbarity to the civilized city-state, see my post on the Ionic philosophical revival.

It is at this point that Nietzsche provides his unique perspective on the relationship between violence and civilization, applying it to modern times. Here, he radically deviates from Hobbes. Both agree that violence is inherent to human nature, but their proposed solutions clash.

For the Greeks, the solution came from asking the simple question, “What is the life of struggle and victory for?.” Nietzsche said that the Greeks answered this question throughout their history by integrating man’s proclivity for violence into society itself, using it as a tool to build civilization. This solution was the opposite of Hobbes’s. For Hobbes, the only answer lay in man’s need to erect an overarching, all-powerful state—the Leviathan—to keep man’s violent tendencies in check.

Nietzsche abhorred statism for many reasons. Instead, he found his solution in imitating the Greeks and their idea of “contest” or competition. Remember, since man is all “natural,” his good and bad exist and grow together. In Nietzsche’s perspective, there’s no notion of dealing with human flaws as Christianity suggests, like Paul wrote about overcoming earthly desires. Instead, Nietzsche sees human vices like envy, discord, and even hatred as essential for civilization’s progress. He seems influenced by Darwin’s ideas of survival of the fittest, shaping his thinking in that direction.

The Homeric Contest

Nietzsche essentially posits that there are two types of Eris, or discord: one that leads men into “hostile fights of annihilation against one another,” and another that spurs men to active or competitive fights. The complete quote is as follows:

And not only Aristotle but the whole of Greek antiquity thinks differently from us about hatred and envy, and judges with Hesiod, who in one place calls one Eris evil…one that leads men into hostile fights of annihilation against one another – while praising another Eris as good -the one that, as jealousy, hatred,and envy, spurs men to activity: not to the activity of fights of annihilation but to the activity of fights which are contests. The Greek is envious, and does not consider this quality a blemish but the gift of a beneficial godhead.

Whether it’s contests in literature, poetry, sports, or political dominance, Nietzsche envisions a healthy, thriving society where there’s continual competition in all areas. We should challenge anyone who reigns supreme in any area, just like we see in sports. Champions, whether from the Super Bowl or World Cup, are always challenged the following year. It’s through this continuous competition that a society improves itself. If we do this in sports, how much more important is it in business, politics, medicine, and academia? In a Darwinian society like this, obviously, the strongest and most capable will rise to the top.

Nietzsche is certainly advocating for a laissez-faire attitude of the government towards everything. Do not interfere; let competition settle things naturally. This is his solution to humanity’s untamed brutishness: civilized competition. It’s this positive competition (Eris) that builds a civilized society. What’s the difference between positive and negative Eris? It’s the idea of the contest, where one seeks to prove their superiority without annihilating their opponent. Annihilation is for the uncivilized, the barbarian.

Nietzsche and Christianity

Without the concept of competition, these same animalistic and basic characteristics of man bring him right back to pre-Homeric society. Nietzsche’s ideas diametrically oppose Christianity in this way. While both the Christian, even the Christian capitalist, and Nietzsche acknowledge the merits of competition, their perspectives differ. The Christian would appeal to his higher nature, reflecting the image of God, to prevent competition from descending into something darker and more sinister. In contrast, Nietzsche would dismiss this as nonsensical, arguing that there are no “higher values” to appeal to. Instead, he suggests harnessing the same negative tendencies in man for good rather than evil.

In today’s Western society, despite moving past Christianity, its influence remains. Many of us may not acknowledge it openly, but envy, jealousy, and hatred of others can fuel our quest for success. Those with strong morals restrain these negative feelings and compete with love and respect for others. Even those who are less virtuous conceal their negative motivations, rarely acknowledging that they harbor animosity towards their competitors. It is uncommon for someone to openly admit that such negative emotions fuel their drive to succeed. Why was Nietzsche unapologetic about acknowledging these negative motivations? I believe it stems from his belief that man is entirely natural, devoid of anything supernatural.

Nietzsche asserted that man is unique compared to other animals, but this belief stemmed from his Christian upbringing. His immersion in Christian culture from birth led him to acknowledge that breaking free from it entirely was impossible. As science became more secularized in the 20th century, this “inconsistency” was gradually resolved. If all life, including man, shares a common earthly origin, then there can be no ontological category placing man as “special” or “unique.”

Nietzsche, Hobbes, and Statism

As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche agreed with Hobbes regarding the natural state of man, but they arrived at opposite conclusions. Hobbes believed that the ultimate solution lay in the all-encompassing totalitarianism of a Leviathan state, while Nietzsche detested all forms of statism. He viewed statism as depersonalizing. Instead of advocating for anarchy and unchecked violence, Nietzsche proposed a contest within an aristocratic society.

Hobbes lived during the violent Wars of Religion that ravaged Europe. Consequently, he turned to the state to quell the violence instigated by the church. In contrast, Nietzsche lived in the aftermath of the bloody French Revolution, Napoleon’s era, and numerous other revolutions across Europe. He considered the nation-state to be the problem, not the solution. According to Nietzsche, the nation-state disrupted the natural and organic relationships within communities as it imposed heavy-handed control.

Nietzsche the Royalist?

Nietzsche was born in 1844 in the town of Rochan, located in the Prussian province of Saxony. At the age of five, he and his family relocated to the nearby town of Naumburg, also situated in Saxony. When he was ten years old, he felt thrilled as the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, visited his town, sharing his name. This left such a strong impression that he wrote a detailed account at thirteen, calling himself “Fritz.” Here is an excerpt from that account:

The King alighted, praised the preparations and entered the residence prepared for him. That evening the whole town was lit up. Countless numbers of people thronged the streets. The pyramids of garlands on the town hall and cathedral were lit from top to bottom with tiny lamps. Thousands of banners decorated the houses. Fireworks were set off in the town square so that from time to time the dark shape of the cathedral was lit up by an unearthly light.4

-Julian Young, A Philosophical Biography of Friedrick Nietzsche
King Frederick William IV, surrounded by German nobility, inspecting the troops of the Berlin garrison” (13 May 1848)

Neitzsche was born and raised in a family that was extremely loyal to the king. They were staunch royalists, and so was Nietzsche as a child. Eventually, as an adult, he came to advocate some sort of aristocracy run by a nobility, whether monarchal or not. I want to emphasize that while Nietzsche disliked Hobbesian statism and the growing nation-state in Europe, he wasn’t an anarchist. It is crucial because some people have incorrectly linked his name to anarchist movements.

While I find Nietzsche’s anthropology debatable, I don’t think pessimism was his intended message. I think there is no other choice if one makes the presupposition that man is all “natural”, having no transcendent, divine qualities. We are “of the earth” solely and purely.

However, I greatly resonate with Nietzsche’s anti-statism and his negative view of the modern nation-state. It seems overarchingly heavy-handed and oppressive. As such, it overly interferes with the markets, particularly through the central banks closely tied to Western governments.. Above all, I share Nietzsche’s belief that heavy-handed statism disrupts the fabric of organic relationships formed in various communities, whether large or small. So, what comes next for the West if Western democracy and overpowering globalism are off the table?

I would like to close with a quote from Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to illustrate this point. Here, he juxtaposes organic communities with an impersonal and oppressive state. According to Nietzsche, they are mutually exclusive.

Somewhere there are still people and herds, but not where we live, my brothers: here there are states. State? What is that? Well, then, open your ears to me, for now I will speak to you about the death of peoples. State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people”. That is a lie!…Where there is still a people, it does not understand the state and hates it as the evil eye and the sin against customs and rights.5

-Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part, “On the New Idols”.

Any thoughts? Please leave a comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

Deo Gratias!

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Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. The Making of Hills of Eyes (1977), Movies by e, YouTube
  2. See the Old Testament book of Numbers, Chapter 35
  3. See these New Testament passages as examples, Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:5, Galatians 5:24
  4. Young, Julian, A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 13, Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-87117-4
  5. The Portable Nietzsche, Edited and Translated by Walter Kaufmann, p. 160-161, The Viking Portable Library, 1968, ISBN 978-0-14-0150629

Further Reading:

Young, Julian, A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 13, Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-87117-4

The Portable Nietzsche, Edited and Translated by Walter Kaufmann, p. 160-161, The Viking Portable Library, 1968, ISBN 978-0-14-0150629

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