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Paul Bishop, ed., Nietzsche and Antiquity: His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition

Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004. xiii + 505 pp. ISBN 10:1–57113–282–1. ISBN 13: 978-1-57113 282-6. £55 / US$95.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Charles Bambach

The hermeneutic thicket surrounding the question of Nietzsche and the Greeks is both dense and forbidding. Every attempt to pose this question confronts a wide range of difficult issues: Who is "Nietzsche"? Which "Greeks"? What range of concerns? methods? disciplinary boundaries? How to think the relation between the early Nietzsche of the Basel years and the later Nietzsche post-Zarathustra? Where to turn for help in working through the palimpsest of interpretations that have formed the Nietzschebild in our time? To simply raise such questions proves inadequate, of course, in the face of the actual work necessary to effect a shift in the way Nietzsche scholars approach this topic. There is little consensus on what “the” Greeks mean for Nietzsche despite the recognition that they have exerted an extraordinary influence in his work. Within the last decade and a half, there have been several important works that have appeared addressing the question of Nietzsche and the Greeks, especially those by Hubert Cancik, James I. Porter, Günther Wohlfart, and Enrico Müller. Still, there is hardly one work that we can turn to as anything like a magisterial account of this imposing topic.

Against this background, Paul Bishop has published a collection of essays, Nietzsche, and Antiquity: His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition (2004). Bishop is a recognized Nietzsche scholar and author of an important book, Nietzsche and Weimar Classicism. Here he serves as the editor for the thirty-one papers delivered at the 2002 conference for the Friedrich Nietzsche Society held at the University of Glasgow on “Nietzsche and the Classical Tradition." Bishop organizes these essays into five sections; Section One, "The Classical Greeks," includes essays on Nietzsche's relation to Homer (James I. Porter), Pindar (John Hamilton), Aristotle (Peter Yates), and Democritus (Jessica Berry), as well as one on polytheism (Albert Henrichs) in addition to three others (essays by Neville Morley on history, Marx and the classics; by Nicholas Martin on Gobineau and classical theories of race; and by Martin Ruehl on Wagner, Burckhardt, and the Greek state – all of which seem to belong under a different rubric). The second Section, "Pre-Socratics and Pythagoreans, Cynics and Stoics" includes essays on Heraclitus (Simon Gillham), Orphism (Benjamin Biebuyck, Danny Praet, and Isabelle Vanden Poel) and the Stoics (R.O. Elveton), as well as two essays on the Cynics (R. Bracht Branham and Anthony Jensen). Section Three of this collection centers on Nietzsche's relationship with the Platonic tradition (essays by Laurence Lampert, Thomas Meyer, John Moore, Thomas Brobjer, and David McNeill). The last two sections of the book entitled "Contestations" and "German Classicism" are more wide-ranging and diverse in both focus and theme. Here Dylan Jaggard explores the early and later Nietzsche's interpretation of Dionysus, yet the other essays in Section Four have, I find, only marginal relevance to the topic of Nietzsche and antiquity. By comparison, Section Five on "German Classicism" I consider to be one of the strongest sections of the book with uniformly important contributions from Christian Emden, Herman Siemens, Dirk Held, Friedrich Ufers-Mark Cohen, and Paul Bishop on Nietzsche's relation to Goethe, Winckelmann, Schiller, Humboldt, and other writers from the era of German classicism. Alan Cardew’s wonderful essay on Nietzsche and Rohde rounds out this section in fine fashion.

I am well aware that this kind of brief résumé of the book’s extensive contributions can hardly do justice to the diversity of approaches here or to their specific interpretive perspectives. Despite this, what a review can achieve is a verdict on whether this collection makes its case for the significance of Greek thought and culture in Nietzsche's philosophy. And on that issue I would argue that it certainly does.

Whether one seeks to explore the meaning of will to power, eternal recurrence, great politics, the meaning of art, the innocence of becoming, tragic necessity, or Zarathustra’s teachings, one inevitably has to confront the influence of the ancient Greeks. What a collection such as this demonstrates is how the early Nietzsche’s reading of Heraclitus, Democritus, the Stoics, Pindar, Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Plato, Thucydides, and the Orphics, shaped his path of inquiry in decisive ways. Nietzsche's training as a classical philologist lies at the root of much of his later writings. Yet such influence was neither narrow nor orthodox. It is Nietzsche’s great achievement that he broke out of the constricted boundaries of “classical philology” as a discipline in order to bring antiquity itself to bear on a critique of German life in the Second Empire. By helping us to imagine so many different ways of appropriating, dismantling, retrieving and transforming the multifarious possibilities of Greek existence within a new German context, Nietzsche and Antiquity has done a remarkable service for Nietzsche scholarship in the 21st century. What I find especially valuable here is the way so many of the authors have drawn upon Nietzsche's Nachlass—especially KGW II/1-5—in their efforts to situate his writings in relation to rhetoric, pre-Socratic philosophy, tragedy, and myth. Moreover, I think the diversity of approaches displayed here—from classics and comparative literature to philosophy, intellectual history, and German Studies—shows the vitality that Nietzsche's work has for thinking through our modern/postmodern predicament. This volume constitutes the first major collection on Nietzsche and the Greeks in more than a generation. As such, it serves as a clarion call for rethinking Nietzsche's relation to antiquity in all its senses: as formative influence, as agonal adversary, as palimpsestic trace, as political and metaphysical inheritance and, perhaps most significantly, as dynamic interlocutor in the radical critique of Germany's own national-cultural identity.

It is, as Bishop’s subtitle implies, Nietzsche’s “Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition” that proves so decisive for his creative work of the 1880s. This important volume makes a very strong case for making Nietzsche’s commerce with antiquity a crucial element in any major approach to his work. Still, any reader hoping to find here anything like a systematic account of Nietzsche’s relation to the Greeks will be disappointed. As is the case with so many conference proceedings, there is no real center provided here from which to judge this whole enterprise. The fault lies less with the editor than with the very genre of such a publication. Readers will need to provide their own organizing optic through which to assess such diverse approaches. What truly is lacking here is a single essay that attempts to briefly address the question of Nietzsche and the Greeks in anything like a comprehensive way. Perhaps the very absence of such an essay signals a call for a series of works addressing the possibilities and limits of such a task. In the eight years since the publication of this work, I can identify only one book-length study—Enrico Müller’s Die Griechen im Denken Nietzsches—that has attempted to grapple with this imposing legacy. As a way of addressing this situation many readers will confront this work wishing for a more self-conscious analysis of Nietzsche's understanding of antiquity—especially the way he frames a vision of archaic Greece as a critique of the fifth-century enlightenment in Athens (and the modern German Enlightenment as well). Such an essay might have also addressed the way Nietzsche’s understanding of the “archaic” helped him to redefine the tradition of German "classicism" since, in some deeply important ways, Nietzsche's inimitable construction of the archaic functioned for him as a form of anti-classicism (cf. Hubert Cancik, “Nietzsches Konstruktion der Archaik als Antiklassik”). I have a few other quibbles as well: there is little here on Hölderlin's Greeks and their influence on Nietzsche, scant attention to Franz Overbeck, W. F. Otto, Martin Heidegger, or the German Nietzsche reception in the 20th century. I also find it peculiar that there is little discussion of Nietzsche's hermeneutics and its Greek origins. But perhaps most curious of all of these minor criticisms is a major one – the title of the work itself, which is a misnomer. Nietzsche and Antiquity focuses almost exclusively on Nietzsche's relationship to Greek thought with only minor allusions to Roman culture. Latinists searching for an account of Nietzsche's relationship to Rome will surely be disappointed by this. Despite these criticisms, there is much to like here.

Taken as a whole, and despite a few weak entries and some areas of omission, this collection should stand as this generation's most significant volume for readers interested in pursuing the nexus of influence between Nietzsche and ancient Greek thought. In some important ways it succeeds in being more than a mere compendium of helpful scholarship on Nietzsche and the Greeks; in several of the most important essays (Porter, Hamilton, Jaggard, Gillham, Bracht Branham, Lampert, and the essays in Section Five) it achieves the rare quality of posing Nietzsche's own most pressing question concerning the uses and disadvantages of "antiquity" for life. In doing so, it beckons us to revisit Nietzsche's earliest works for clues on how to make sense of his late texts—and, perhaps most importantly, it asks us to resituate its truths in the context of our own hermeneutic situation. No scholar who wishes to address the question concerning Nietzsche and "the" Greeks can afford to ignore it.