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Francesco Ghedini, Interrogare la sfinge. Immagini di Platone in Nietzsche (1881-1887)

Padova, Il poligrafo, 2011, p. 329, ISBN: 978-88-7115-765-8, € 25,00.

Reviewed by Carlotta Santini

A word of warning I would offer to those approaching this excellent book by Francesco Ghedini is that it cannot be read alone. For it is the latest, and perhaps not the last, chapter of a long and continuous study of the figure of Plato in Nietzsche’s work that Ghedini began more than a decade ago. In it Ghedini deals with Nietzsche’s mature works from 1881 to 1887, searching out the images of Plato to be found in them and investigating their significance for Nietzsche’s philosophical trajectory. Ghedini begins, perhaps somewhat abruptly, with The Gay Science, proceeds to an exhaustive analysis of the period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and ends with a brief consideration of Book V of The Gay Science and On the Genealogy of Morality. Nietzsche’s last writings are not considered, and the exclusion of the first works of the critical period, Human, All Too Human and Daybreak, might not seem so well justified were it not that Ghedini considers the book a sequel to his previous work on the theme, Il Platone di Nietzsche. Genesi e motivi di un simbolo controverso (1864–1879) (Napoli: Esi, 1999) and ‘Il Platone di Nietzsche. Aurora’ (Rivista di Storia della Filosofia, v. 1, 2005, pp. 61–87).

Interrogare la sfinge (“Interrogating the Sphinx”) therefore proceeds where these previous works left off. In Il Platone di Nietzsche Ghedini dealt with the figure of Plato in the published works and the philological Nachlass of the 1870s, and particularly of the Basel period (his analysis of Nietzsche’s lectures on Plato, Plato amicus sed, is especially significant). The diachronic character and unity of argumentation in this first book were notable, and made possible by Ghedini’s concentration on specific works in which Nietzsche discusses Plato. In contrast, Interrogare la sfinge lacks this organic structure, since, as Ghedini himself admits, while Plato is explicitly present in the works and lectures of the 1870s, in the later writings it is necessary to retrace the ‘Sphinx’ Plato, hidden between the lines. Furthermore, the Plato under consideration here is, in Ghedini’s opinion, “Nietzsche’s Plato,” and not necessarily the true Plato. He is a symbol rather than an accurate representative of Platonic philosophy. “Interrogating the Sphinx” thus means interpreting the multiple meanings of what Ghedini calls the “hieroglyph Plato” in Nietzsche’s writings, explicating the dense references entwined in this paradigmatic figure and their critical value for Nietzsche’s philosophical path.

For Ghedini, there are three main topics around which Nietzsche’s interpretation of Plato develops. The first is that of Plato’s personality, a topic that carries over from the writings of the 1870s—Nietzsche dedicated his lectures on Plato to it. The complexity of Plato’s experiences and thought, the polymorphic character of his interests and his aspiration to the mastery of knowledge in every field are the elements that make him, for Nietzsche, the archetype of the modern philosopher. The second topic, the most important in the works of the 1880s, is that of the political Plato, in relation to the constitution of the ideal state in The Republic. Central to this second topic is the pedagogical question about the education (Bildung) of the young and of philosophers as political figures. The third topic is the dualism between the world of the senses and the world of ideas, which Nietzsche understands as a proto-form or matrix of Christian philosophy.

This third topic was long considered the true focal point of Nietzsche’s interpretation of Plato. Nietzsche himself seems to lend his authority to this idea, when he defines his philosophy as an “inverted Platonism [umgedrehter Platonismus]” (KSA 7:7[56], p. 199) that privileges the world of appearance. In contrast, Ghedini shows not only the critical elements of Nietzsche reception of Plato, but also the undeniable similarities between them. Plato is certainly a polemical target for Nietzsche, particularly as he was interpreted by later neo-Platonic and Christian philosophy, but for Nietzsche he remains a model for the practice of the philosophical life, and even an inspiration, albeit one to be understood in a critical way. In the light of Nietzsche’s reading of Gustav Teichmüller’s studies on Plato, Studien zur Geschichte der Begriffe (Berlin, 1874), which denied that Plato was a dualist, Ghedini argues that Nietzsche’s real confrontation with Plato was played out not in the field of metaphysics but in that of politics, regarding the definition of the figure of the philosopher, both as educator and ruler of society and as contemplative knower.

Turning now to a more detailed analysis of Ghedini’s work, the first chapter of the book briefly presents the three topics as they appear in the passages on Plato in The Gay Science and in the fragments of that period. Here Ghedini’s treatment of egoism as analogous to the Nietzschean concept of Vornehmheit (§ I.1) is particularly interesting. He understands egoism as a distinguishing feature of the ancient polis, and especially of the figure of the philosopher Plato. The choice of this specific term might seem to distort Nietzsche’s sense of nobility and aristocratism, but it helps to better define Vornehmheit in the form it takes in Nietzsche’s first writings on the Greek world—above all, in the unpublished text, “The Greek State”. In § I.2, Ghedini contrasts the egoism of the Greek noble, Plato’s egoism, with the altruism and pity of the Christian ideal, and in § I.3 he raises the question of the passion for knowledge, the prevailing instinct of the philosopher. Although this is perhaps one of the most important and lasting themes in Nietzsche’s work, Ghedini does not investigate it thoroughly, since it extends beyond the subject of Nietzsche’s relation with Plato.

The second chapter, a commentary on Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the notes of that period, is the longest (pp. 59–172) and, in my opinion, the most interesting and best-structured part of the book. There Ghedini utilizes Plato as a model for interpreting the figure of Zarathustra. The chapter provides a close textual analysis that traces in the rich figural lexicon of Zarathustra some direct references to Plato’s works, especially the Phaedrus and The Republic (§ II.4, II.6 and Appendix 1), as well as to the emblematic figure of the philosopher Plato himself. Thus, while Christ is parodied in the figure of Zarathustra, Plato emerges as his credible counterpart. From Plato, Zarathustra inherits the traits of the wise legislator who, for the sake of educating men, resists the isolation imposed on him by his elevated thought. This “Zarathustra as educator,” understood on the model of Plato’s Republic, is in my opinion one of the most interesting and original elements of Ghedini’s study (§§ II.3–7). Furthermore, for Ghedini, the educational process of the citizen of Plato’s ideal polis corresponds, mutatis mutandis, to the process of the birth of the Nietzschean overman, a process that always remains, unsurprisingly, incomplete in Nietzsche’s work. In these sections (§§ II.8–10) Ghedini also returns to the discussion of Greek egoism and the characteristics of the noble man, begun in the first chapter. Less persuasive, it seems to me, is his attempt to find in Plato’s works possible sources for Nietzsche’s engagement with the question of the eternal return (§ II.11).

In the third chapter, in which he analyzes the Platonic references in Beyond Good and Evil and the contemporary notes, Ghedini takes the opportunity to multiply his perspectives on Nietzsche’s approaches to Plato. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche makes much use of his intellectual debts and his polemical targets in Western culture, and Ghedini highlights how Plato too is deployed by Nietzsche in criticizing the Western tradition, as an exemplar of various significant themes: Plato and Platonism (§ III.1), Plato and Montaigne (§ III.4), Plato as model for the “philosophers of the future” (§ III.5), Plato and dogmatism (§ III.6), Plato and Socrates (§ III.7), and Plato and Christianity (§ III.8). The comparison between Plato and Socrates perhaps deserves more space than Ghedini gives it here.

The last chapter deals with the Platonic references in Book V of The Gay Science and in On the Genealogy of Morality, or the period of 1886-1887. This chapter is the least structured, perhaps because, while it occupies a concluding position in the book, it does not have any real conclusive content. Indeed, having structured his analysis chronologically, the fact that Ghedini gets only as far as the Genealogy keeps him from giving the last word about Nietzsche’s work. However, here he does try to bring together the main themes of the book, and to offer a final reflection on them.

Combined with Ghedini’s earlier work, Interrogare la sfinge provides a coherent and complete panorama of the relation between Plato and Nietzsche, involving very close analyses of the texts as well as an account of the broader themes and their gradual development in Nietzsche’s thought. Indeed, Ghedini’s work offers the most complete and exhaustive study of Nietzsche’s Plato to date. If any criticism of the book must be made, it is that Ghedini somewhat neglects the broader themes in searching out Nietzsche’s references to Plato and that the book is at times difficult to read. It might have been better had Ghedini not aspired to completeness of information, and focused more closely on elaborating his analysis of the important thematic cores of the book. The presentation of his argument could also be improved: in some passages the argument is made too quickly or vaguely, and too many quotations are given in the body of the text, many of which are too short and not sufficiently pertinent to the argument. Still, these faults appear less significant if it is remembered that Ghedini’s earlier work had already analyzed these topics in some detail, and Ghedini’s work will nonetheless be essential reading for anyone pursuing research in this field.

Università del Salento (Centro Studi Colli-Montinari)