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Dale Wilkerson, Nietzsche and the Greeks

London, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. viii +162 pp. ISBN 0-8264-8903-6. $95.70 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Joel E. Mann

Of his first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie, Nietzsche later confessed that, though not without its virtues, “trotzdem will ich nicht gänzlich unterdrücken, wie unangenehm es mir jetzt erscheint, wie fremd es jetzt nach sechzehn Jahren vor mir steht” (“Versuch einer Selbstkritik” 2, SW 14). The mature Nietzsche of 1886 struggles to find himself in the pages of this mytho-philosophical manifesto from his youth, with mixed results.

According to Dale Wilkerson, however, Nietzsche’s early work on the Greeks, both published and unpublished, amounts to much more than the series of youthful indiscretions that they eventually appeared even to Nietzsche himself. In his study Nietzsche and the Greeks, Wilkerson laments that none of Nietzsche’s lectures on the Greeks prepared for delivery at the University of Basel are familiar to the English-speaking world. Indeed, many have not been translated into English, and other early material made available through re-editions and translations has not, he claims, received due attention from Nietzsche scholars. These are the circumstances motivating Wilkerson to write his book, as there is “much to be learned about Nietzsche’s thought in light of [Wilkerson’s emphasis] these materials: a more comprehensive grasp of this thought [sic] is possible through them, as is a richer consideration of its consequences on the West” (1).

Thus ends the first paragraph, one which prefigures some of the problems with Nietzsche and the Greeks. Wilkerson’s use of comparatives is a case in point. The basic charge is that Nietzsche scholars have not studied the Basel lectures closely enough. Thus, the current grasp of Nietzsche’s thought is less comprehensive than it could and should be, and, as a result, the consequences of Nietzsche’s thought have not been considered richly enough. But if we are to accept that Nietzsche scholars have failed in the ways that Wilkerson suggests, then surely he bears the burden of picking out precisely who has failed and how. There is no shortage of studies addressing Nietzsche’s relation to antiquity, and the last decade has seen a small surge of interest in this area.[1] Though he explicitly accuses other commentators of failing to understand Nietzsche (6), Wilkerson makes reference to virtually none of this literature, neither in staking out his position nor in his subsequent discussions of Nietzsche’s relation to the Greeks.

The inability to locate his work within the larger landscape of Nietzsche scholarship may be a function of Wilkerson’s overly vague articulation of the project’s purpose. Instead of encountering in the introductory chapter the book’s central thesis, the reader sinks instead into a quagmire of potential theses, any of which could serve as the center of Wilkerson’s concern. Among the leading candidates are the following.

A. “A survey of Nietzsche’s early thought, I will argue, shows that what Nietzsche is claiming to be true here of the temporal form reflects a more general truth regarding all concepts. In short, true historical and ontological inquiry requires “mastery” of the self” (4).

B. “[The following study] examines the lesser-known and under-appreciated works of Nietzsche’s early career, looking for evidence in these works suggesting how this period held sway in Nietzsche’s later thoughts [sic]” (2).

C. “My study will argue that Nietzsche plays the role of philosophical historian by reconstructing a social and political ‘diagram’ of that particular ‘sovereign society’ which Nietzsche has identified with the Greeks of the tragic age” (7).

This brief catalogue is by no means exhaustive, but the citations above suggest that Nietzsche and the Greeks may suffer from a lack of focus. A paints the project as primarily critical, as though parsing Nietzsche’s many pronouncements about the Greeks were merely a prelude to grander things. B and C suggest that Wilkerson’s concerns are largely exegetical, though they differ in that B places the emphasis on Nietzsche’s later work, or at least on his thought as a whole, while C seems to signal a retreat into Nietzsche’s early work, when he was particularly interested—some might say obsessed—with the Greek philosophers, poets, and playwrights of the “pre-Platonic” period. Even if it is true that exegesis and criticism are not so neatly divisible in practice as they are in principle, the reader is right to demand some direction from the author, and Wilkerson offers little. This much, at least, is certain: 162 pages is scant space within which to fulfill either A, B, or C, much less all of them.

Indeed, in returning to the final sentence of Wilkerson’s first paragraph, one discovers there an ominous diction. Wilkerson promises to investigate Nietzsche’s thought and its “consequences on” the West (1). The idiom is confused, an apparent alloy of “consequences for” and “effects on,” each accompanied by a distinctly different set of expectations. The former (“consequences on”) would suggest that Wilkerson is determined to bring to light some of Nietzsche’s philosophical insights with which Western civilization, perhaps especially Western intellectuals, must come to terms. Wilkerson makes much of Nietzsche’s critique of the modern relationship between art and science, inclining one to read his book as a clarion call for Western civilization to wake up and smell the Nietzsche. This, I take it, is what inspires Wilkerson’s occasional urgency, evident especially in the penultimate paragraph of the book.

If everything were indeed permissible, [Nietzsche] has shown us, human potential would all but shrivel up and die. For these reasons, a large amount of intellectual energy in the twentieth century has been directed towards problems concerning alienation, identity, meaning and purpose—:the same problems that Nietzsche had identified as facing modernity in the nineteenth century. The strategy for resolving such problems and for loosening the pincers of pessimism and skepticism begins with finding, creating or perhaps refining a paradigm that encourages the healthy development of societies and individuals (150).

At the same time, these remarks hint that, on Wilkerson’s view, twentieth-century intellectuals are working within an essentially Nietzschean paradigm, and Wilkerson at times tries at tracing the historical impact of Nietzsche’s philosophy on subsequent Western thinkers, as though he were concerned primarily with Nietzsche’s “effects on” more contemporary figures. More often than not, this results in allusion and parallel of dubious relevance (especially in the fourth chapter, where reference is made, in hasty succession, to Bataille, 102-3; to Levinas, 104; to Benjamin, 118; to Heidegger, 122).

Whatever his ultimate aim, of course, Wilkerson is bound to put forward some sort of account of Nietzsche’s views. Wilkerson attempts to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s misunderstood and, he would no doubt add, unjustly maligned views of truth and society. Specifically, Wilkerson denies that Nietzsche is a truth skeptic and a misanthrope: he has a positive vision both of knowledge and the society of human beings who claim to have it. There is something right about Wilkerson’s instincts here, and this is where I most appreciate his book, that is, where it draws attention to Nietzsche’s reverence for early Greek culture as a model community of truth-seekers. But this alone cannot be a controversial or interesting thesis. Few serious Nietzsche scholars would question whether Nietzsche admired the Greek model (supposing that it’s coherent even to talk in such general terms). Rather, it’s the meaning of this model for Nietzsche that must be determined: who were “Nietzsche’s Greeks,” and what was it about their approach to philosophy—that is, to their search for truth—that attracted Nietzsche?

To his credit, Wilkerson rightly understands that he ought to address these questions, and his second chapter (“Who are Nietzsche’s Greeks?”) sets out to do so explicitly. However, a single chapter probably does not afford the space required to do justice to a complicated issue in Nietzsche scholarship, given the apparent evolution of Nietzsche’s taste for some Greek thinkers over others. Early on in his career, Nietzsche elevated the “pre-Platonics” (that is, the Presocratics plus Socrates) to something like sacred status, and Wilkerson takes this as justification for his own preoccupation with the Presocratics (excluding, surprisingly, any serious discussion of Socrates). This of course ignores the many personnel changes Nietzsche made in his pantheon of Greek philosophers. For example, while the younger Nietzsche barely mentions the Hellenistic philosophers, the more mature Nietzsche is not shy about his appreciation for Epicurus.[2] And while in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche lumps the sophists together with Socrates as enemies of the tragic age in Greece, he comes eventually to see the sophists as emblematic of that age (M 168).

Wilkerson studiously avoids these and other general interpretive issues, which is curious indeed. Still less explicable is his decision not to consider Nietzsche’s less well known lectures on Greek philosophy. Analysis of Wilkerson’s references to Nietzsche’s works (a task made difficult by the lack of a comprehensive index locorum, as well as by Wilkerson’s choice to cite references by way of endnotes at the conclusion of individual chapters) reveals not a single reference to lectures or essays that are not already available in English translation.[3]

In general, one wishes Wilkerson had displayed greater patience in pursuing all these paths to their logical ends. One wishes, too, for a more penetrating insight into the salient controversies (including the attendant literature) in both Nietzsche scholarship and classical scholarship. Witness, for example, Wilkerson’s apparent confusion over the so-called “succession” argument surrounding Presocratic philosophy. Wilkerson takes Nietzsche to have denied, contra scholarly convention, that his pre-Platonic philosophers could be organized into coherent schools of influence—that is, lines of philosophical succession (29). Again, this is not exactly correct. Nietzsche subscribed to the conventional practice of organizing the early Greeks into movements (Ionians, Eleatics, and so on).[4] As Whitlock traces perspicuously in his introduction to The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, Nietzsche questioned the conventional wisdom of placing Anaxagoras exclusively in a neo-Ionian tradition that ignored the Eleatic influence on his thought.[5] The disagreement hinges on a technical point about the relative dating of Anaxagoras’ floruit, a point with significant implications, though not for the succession argument. Such confusions are unfortunate, I think, insofar as they tend to obscure rather than clarify the contributions that Wilkerson’s book makes to Nietzsche scholarship, contributions that enlarge but do not significantly enhance the existing array of competent studies (by Muller and Brobjer, among others) that perhaps should have, but did not, inform more of the discussion in Nietzsche and the Greeks.

St. Norbert College


  1. For example, Thomas Brobjer, Nietzsche’s Ethics of Character (Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1995), as well as Brobjer’s many notes and articles published in this journal. See also Hubert Cancik, Nietzsches Antike (Stuttgart-Weimar: Metzler, 2000); J.L. Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000); Greg Whitlock, trans., The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, by Friedrich Nietzsche (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001); Paul Bishop, ed., Nietzsche and Antiquity: His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004); and, most recently, Enrico Müller, Die Griechen im Denken Nietzsches (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005).
  2. See Brobjer, 347-8, for a useful index of Nietzsche’s allusions to individual Greeks, including Epicurus, who is referenced more than any other Greek besides Socrates, Plato, and Homer. But explicit textual allusion does not necessarily decide a case. Despite only one cryptic reference to Pyrrho, it has been argued that ancient skepticism had a significant impact on the later Nietzsche. See Jessica Berry, “The wisdom of appearances: Nietzsche and the ancient skeptical tradition,” diss., University of Texas, 2003.
  3. When he does cite the Nachlass, Wilkerson makes use almost exclusively of material available in the English translations in Whitlock and Daniel Brezeale, ed. and trans., Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, by Friedrich Nietzsche (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanity Books, 1979).
  4. As Müller recognizes, 139, Nietzsche’s approach to the history of early Greek philosophy, which emphasizes the originality of their intellectual characters, stands in contrast to the progressive developmental models of Aristotle and Hegel.
  5. Whitlock 232.