How We Might Repeat the Unrepeatable: Talking to Alexander Nehamas

How to respond (as reader, writer, person) when finding yourself emotionally wrapped up in Friedrich Nietzsche the historical/literary/philosophical character repeatedly performing his frustrations with getting wrapped up in Socrates the historical/literary/philosophical character? How to get others to see what we (and only we) can see in this unrepeatable act of becoming (on the part of Plato, Socrates, Nietzsche, ourselves, hopefully future interlocutors and audiences)? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Alexander Nehamas. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Nehamas’s Nietzsche: Life as Literature, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates, and Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. Nehamas is currently Professor in the Humanities, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He also is the author of On Friendship, and has translated Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus into English. At Princeton, Nehamas has chaired the Council of the Humanities and the Program in Hellenic Studies, and was the Founding Director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts.


ANDY FITCH: This might sound convoluted as a quick biographical contextualization, but since your work often situates Socrates amid emergent distinctions between original and image (also between reality and appearance, authenticity and fakery, philosophy and literature), and since Plato’s own tripartite conception of the soul (also of the polis) invariably redirects my attention towards vectored experiential processes taking place as audiences encounter Platonic dialogues (with displaced author, depicted interlocutors, projective reader comprising one such diffusive triad), could I here triangulate each of these following questions amid the fittingly personalized configuration of Plato, Socrates, Nietzsche — three figures prompting much constructive questioning across your career (with Only a Promise of Happiness, for instance, finally threading them together in its concluding paragraph, framing Socrates as “the riddle through whom Plato and Nietzsche found themselves following the same philosophical road, in opposite directions”)?

Here I can’t help starting from recurrent reenactments across Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Virtues of Authenticity, The Art of Living, of Nietzsche performing ongoing vexation with Socrates (himself largely a constructed character, though with Nietzsche often responding as though no such Platonic intermediary existed). And here I’ll try to offer quick introductory parsings for how I see these three figures overlapping across your writings. Virtues’s opening sentence poses the goal of “trying to understand Plato, when…the whole history of Western philosophy…separates us from him,” so presumably pointing to Plato the historical person; though Virtues’s subsequent paragraph acknowledges that you can find “no good method of approaching a thinker who wrote dramatic philosophical works from which he…never spoke in his own voice” (so that, soon after, Virtues posits a complex, “circular” hermeneutic of authorial intention, polyphonic scene construction, argumentative implication, readerly inference — all adding up perhaps not to the real-life Plato so much as to “the character…manifested in the work”). Attempting to understand Socrates likewise poses distinct epistemological puzzles, starting from this figure’s peculiar status less as some self-inventing author-subject than as a fictive construct, a philosophical cipher elegantly embedded through selective details amid Plato’s dramatic representations (yet forever drawing forward our own more projective speculations upon Socrates’s “whole character”). Understanding Nietzsche, particularly his vexations with Socrates, then starts from Nietzsche’s more full-bodied historical/textual hybrid persona desperately (perhaps), virtuosically (perhaps), living out the circumstantial obligation, in your own apt formulation, “to be Plato to his own Socrates and Socrates to his own Plato…both author and character…at the same time.”

So within this refractive historical-philosophical-literary triangulation, we’ll probably need to address the particularly “vitriolic” nature of Nietzsche’s performed critiques, his emphatic efforts to “expose” the purported dogmatist Socrates, alongside Nietzsche’s more tempered engagement with Plato (whose living, willing, valuating impulses presumably drive any Socratic dialogue). We’ll probably need to sift through not only what it might mean for Nietzsche to find himself imitating, emulating, potentially resisting, potentially following in any number of ways an iconoclast like Socrates — but, again, what it might mean for any person (authors, thinkers, readers no doubt included) to “follow” a textual construct.

But first, to take a breath and a break from Nietzsche’s fraught, cramped, confusing attachment to Socrates/Plato (yet still embracing Socrates’s, Plato’s, Nietzsche’s perhaps overly personal approach to addressing abstracted questions), suppose I start with the more anodyne-sounding request “So tell me about yourself,” in order to let you outline how lifelong engagement with Socrates’s, Plato’s, Nietzsche’s historical and textual confoundings of any clear demarcations between philosophy, art, character, author, reader, have helped you to become (to shape, to articulate, to exemplify biographically, intellectually, as an author, as a teacher) who you are? How have you (as self-questioning thinker, writer, private person) found yourself most exasperatingly ensnared and most constructively catalyzed by some of the triangulating tensions mentioned above? How have you written your own distinctive “I” into and out from these tensions? What particular philosophical road has decades of conversation with these three taken you down, with what signposts standing out most along the way, with which steps proving the most pivotal?

ALEXANDER NEHAMAS: First of all, one reason people go into philosophy, at least one reason I went into philosophy, was exactly because I thought that, by doing philosophy, I could do many different things at the same time. I’ve always had many different interests, and always have found it sad to say “Here is the one single thing I want to do with myself.” From early on I thought of philosophy as a discipline (if you can call it a “discipline” at all) constantly looking at the rest of the world, taking in that world, using whatever it can find wherever it can find it, and making one’s experience one’s fodder not just for a way of thinking about the world, but ultimately for a way of living within the world. Such a suspiciousness of sharp distinctions first made me interested in philosophy, much more than I felt a focused interest for any specific aspect of philosophy, or art, or science. Philosophy offered the potential to move around, to live like a fox rather than a hedgehog (though I now believe that within every fox you can find a hidden hedgehog). Also some people take up philosophy because they see it as more or less continuous with science and mathematics. Some people go into philosophy because they see it as continuous, more or less, with literature and the arts. I belong to that second group. As much as I admire science, I can’t help turning to questions about literature or the history of art — topics like that.

I have also, from the start, been suspicious of a kind of narrowness of vision in academic philosophy. One way in which we in philosophy have developed recently has been to get very specialized, say in ancient philosophy (or even, more specifically, Hellenistic philosophy), or in the history of modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant. That has always seemed to me rather artificial. Not that I doubt scholars do (and need to do) extremely important work on every one of the great philosophers of the great schools. But I always found it most exciting about philosophy that philosophers across different times and periods and cultures can illuminate different aspects of one another, of distant cultures, distant eras.

Today, such a philosophical approach runs the danger of seeming anachronistic. And it will become so if we distinguish too sharply between “doing” philosophy on the one hand and studying its history on the other (thinking of the latter as aiming to place particular philosophers strictly within their cultural context, to understand only the problems they and their contemporaries were dealing with and to leave the matter at that). Although I respect that approach, I also think that, in the end, you can’t “do” philosophy without bringing in its own internal history. Otherwise, you still end up doing philosophy with history, but just not as well [Laughter]. But, really, unless what Plato has to say has some relevance to the problems that I myself face (whether in philosophy or in practical life), unless he has something to tell me more or less directly, my interest in him would have to stay very, very abstract.

So who, which figures, attract me most in philosophy? More than anything else, the people who attract me write in a rather canny way: people like Plato who never appear in their own work (so that we never can know for sure precisely what position they might take), or someone like Socrates (who of course never appears through his own writing, and who always remains enigmatic). Montaigne is important to me. Nietzsche is important to me. And each of these authors or characters avoids using the straightforward strategy of the philosophical treatise that you get from an author like Aristotle (at least in the treatises we still have from Aristotle). The authors who attract me are both enigmatic but also intensely present in their work. They do not depersonalize themselves — even if, like Plato, they never appear directly in their writings. They do not choose a rhetorical style that aims to appear detached, objective, even-handed, even-tempered. They let their passions come through for what they’re thinking, doing, and living. For me at least, these figures speak much more directly than those philosophers who adopt an attitude that aims to sound detached, objective, “scientific.” Again, it’s not that I don’t respect and admire these more detached philosophers. I just don’t learn quite as much from them, as from philosophers whose personality covers, so to speak, the very texture of their work.

A main question regarding Socrates and Plato, for example, is whether you can distinguish one from the other. I think we can. Nietzsche was of two minds. Sometimes, as you point out, he seems to forget that Socrates is Plato’s construct and, in criticizing the one, he thinks he is criticizing both. And yet, at one point, he actually accuses Socrates of having perverted Plato and asks: “Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all? And did he deserve the hemlock?” How strange to blame the creature of perverting its creator! But this just shows what an incredibly lively character Plato’s Socrates is, so lively a character that we forget to treat him as, to all effects and purposes, a literary construct. Of course we also have Aristophanes’s Clouds and its fabulizations of Socrates. We have Xenophon’s dialogues and memories of Socrates. Aristotle discusses Socrates a few times. But none of that makes Socrates any more real. It only makes Socrates a more complex literary character.

Still, I think that Plato gets Socrates right. Why do I say that? We know that others wrote Socratic dialogues before Plato. We know that Plato’s contemporaries considered other Socratic dialogues at least as important as, perhaps more important than, Plato’s. We know that other people (Alcibiades, for example) knew Socrates better than Plato did. And we know that each of these authors and individuals interpreted Socrates quite differently. To Antisthenes, Socrates was the founder of Cynicism, to Aristippus, he was a Hedonist, to Zeno, the first Stoic, to the Academics and the Pyrrhonians, the first Skeptic. Even the Aristotelians sometimes claimed to have descended from Socrates (only the Epicureans never thought of Socrates as their founder).

What is remarkable is that Plato’s Socrates is as complex and many-sided as the Socrates of the ancient tradition, which had many more sources of information about him, including the testimony of others who knew him directly. It seems to me that Socrates was as difficult to pin down for his contemporaries as he is difficult to pin down for Plato’s readers. Socrates’s obscurity, the mystery that Plato managed to communicate to his readers across millennia, is a magnificent accomplishment, and the best indication that Plato got Socrates right. Plato created a character whose basic attraction comes from being believable, yet never understandable — a literary, philosophical, and psychological accomplishment which shows, among other things, how difficult it is to really understand a person (including, of course, ourselves). So when we say casually “Oh, I know Joe very well,” I’d say: No, we almost never do.

Nietzsche, I think, takes Socrates both as his ideal paradigm and as his perfect enemy, precisely because Nietzsche never quite knows what to make of Socrates. Of course we likewise never know quite what to make of Nietzsche, this incredibly ambiguous, multifaceted philosopher himself. But, unlike Socrates, who had the great luck (is it luck?) to have been introduced to history by Plato, no one was about to do that for Nietzsche. So, amazingly, Nietzsche tries to do both himself: to be a Plato to his own Socrates and a Socrates to his own Plato, creator and creature at the same time, author and character, literary writer and philosophical thinker.

Again, to return to your question, it was Nietzsche’s attempt to be or to become different things at the same time that first attracted me to this sort of philosophy. It is an approach that acknowledges the impossibility of finding a single account that tells us once and for all what something or someone is — an approach that almost revels in the absence of a final ground on which everything else stands. No foundations, no “grounds.”

Years ago, the New York Times asked some of us to name the most underrated ideas in history. My answer was “Uncertainty” [Laughter]. The desire for and the pursuit of certainty really suggest that our ultimate goal is to stop inquiring, to reach the point where there is nothing more to ask about. To me that has always seemed both unachievable and counterproductive. Nietzsche of course would agree — and so would Socrates, who never stops inquiring. There is no end to his examinations. His conversations never exhaust his topics. If anything is ever exhausted, it is we ourselves and our interest in the topic. But the topic itself offers more. The next reader or investigator always comes along and finds something we failed to see. This makes me a firm believer in something Nelson Goodman wrote many years ago in his essay collection Problems and Projects: “The more projects, the more problems; the more problems, the more projects.” In this ever-lasting circle, the only questions that can be settled once and for all (those that fail to create the possibility of other questions) are the least interesting ones. I value the persistence of investigation, the constancy of the desire to continue interpreting, the sense, in principle at least, that no limits exist, that something so far undisclosed might illuminate me, or the next investigator, further, and that there are no standards that determine once and for all what future readers and thinkers can do, which ways they can go, which aspects of the subject to focus on.

Given this emphasis on questions with infinite interpretive possibilities, I wonder if we could start pivoting away from questions about the writing “I,” to questions about the reading “I,” or more generally to questions about your own lived experience as reader/thinker/scholar/theorist/translator. So let’s say we first come to agreement on Virtues’s claim that, amid the complex polyphonic pluralities, “There is, then, no single key to understanding Plato, no privileged method for unlocking the secrets of his dialogues.” Let’s say that, by logical extension, we prioritize attaining some partial, perspectival “understanding” of Plato’s work (preferring that approximate translation of epistêmê over, for instance, “knowledge”). Let’s say we adopt your position that, when encountering Platonic conversations, “we must interpret and appreciate in their own right” certain ideas, arguments, characters “before we can understand and evaluate their contribution to the overall sense of the dialogues to which they belong” — but that, at the same time, we continually need to clarify further our “overall sense of the dialogues” if we ever hope to calibrate properly those more localized aspects. Here especially Plato’s polyvocal and polyvalent poetics appear to crystallize the asymptotic impossibilities of a reader ever getting right any text’s simultaneously micro and macro modes of meaning-making. And yet, at the same time, Plato’s engaging, quite pleasurable scenes do provide concrete proof of our routine (if always relative) successes as readers, of our own intuitive dexterities as predicating agents swiftly positing “distinctions between naming and describing, essence and accident, identity and multiplicity.” And here the reader’s (not just the writer’s) status as, in Nietzschean terms, valuating subject, seems especially crucial.

 So again, how can Nietzsche’s own complex performance not just of the valuating writerly subject, but of the valuating readerly subject, help to clarify questions picked up from Plato? When The Art of Living prioritizes the cultivation of one’s own distinctive style (“Each element makes a specific contribution to that whole, which would be different without it…. essential to the whole…no longer accidental”), I’ll wonder, for example, how such a meticulous self-fashioning project adjusts (as, in The Art of Living, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault ultimately needed to adjust) for one’s messier, more interpolated status as reader. Here I return to Nietzsche showing himself forever snagged amid his conflicted relationship with Socrates, and recognize how such scenes no doubt foreground Nietzsche becoming himself as antagonistic (characteristically combative) writing subject, but also becoming himself as exemplary agonistic (pro-socially engaged) reading subject, with both such projects crucial to any poetic/philosophical “I’s” performative self-creation. Here I even could see, say, Nietzsche’s compulsive, sometimes paranoid-seeming critique of “decadence” in part deriving from his own lived experience of internalizing / embodying / performing / historicizing / critiquing / dismissing / reinventing literary-philosophical subject-hood all at once.

Or to further personalize these questions: if your own book publications start by prioritizing the writer, subsequently shifting their attention slightly to the self-reflective artist of living, subsequently shifting their attention slightly (say, now, in Only a Promise of Happiness) to rehabilitating a Platonic eros privileging “beauty that inspires passion and desire, the source of the keenest pleasure and the deepest pain,” what sort of emerging emphasis upon aesthetic, epistemic, embodied, affective reception (with all its idiosyncrasies) does this career-long trajectory trace? How to valorize an aesthete’s aspiration “towards distinction and individualism,” particularly amid a culture that might prefer to endorse a moralist’s appeal “grounded on similarity and correctness”? But also, even more acutely, what to make of the fact that even the most distinct, most individual aesthete nonetheless remains, by definition, forever ensnared in intertextual projection/reflection/emulation? And how, once more, might Plato’s own dialogic characterizations anticipate anything Nietzsche, you, I might have to say (or show) about such aesthetes, erotics, readers?

Let me first follow up on your statement that no matter how distinct, unusual, unprecedented, and unique particular aesthetes (whether readers or writers or individuals) might seem, they still come out of and can never escape from some messy social context. Whether we consider this context society itself, or a whole bunch of books and ideas, or a specific historical situation, we always find ourselves in the middle of something. We can conceive of individuality and distinction only in contradistinction to a particular background or context. So you are right to keep coming back to the scene of Nietzsche separating himself from Socrates and at the same time binding himself to Socrates (and to Plato as well).

We see the same thing with Socrates himself. Socrates may be different from anyone who ever existed — he certainly is different from the people he talks to in Plato’s dialogues. But I agree with Nietzsche that Socrates feels plagued by a culture that cannot justify itself beyond itself. Most of his questions (“What is piety?”; “What is courage?”; “What is justice?”) raise this broader issue, and most of them show that Athens could ultimately support its values only by saying “That’s how we do it.” Socrates won’t accept such an answer. He wants an answer that will not be endemic to the culture, an answer that can defend itself against all comers. Here you can find the beginning of the universalist ideals of philosophy, and you also can see that those ideals, in the end, remain unapproachable — if for no other reason, because once this universalizing approach becomes part of the picture, what we get are just more and more and more “universal” answers without end.

It’s almost as if every effort to bring philosophy to an end creates more efforts to bring philosophy to an end. Ronald Hayman, who wrote a biography of Nietzsche years ago, called him “the first of the last metaphysicians.” Nietzsche declares “Metaphysics is terrible,” and Heidegger responds “Nietzsche is a metaphysician,” while Derrida charges “Well, Heidegger’s thought is itself metaphysical,” and Richard Rorty remarks “Well so is Derrida’s.” And I say, “Well, so is Rorty’s (at least a bit).” A great way to continue a tradition, ironically, seems to be to declare it to have ended. It is only against a specific background, as we said, that one can be different.

But the need to be different is crucial. We are not ants — if only because our personal and cultural histories are always different from everyone else’s. Still, the fact that each one of us is born at a different time, in a different place, to different people, doesn’t by itself make us distinctive individuals. Here’s a quick story: when my son was little and we took him to school at the beginning of each year, his teachers would welcome us and say “Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to teach your child. Each one is so unique and you must be so proud of them” [Laughter]. And I’d say: “To hell with it. I’m not proud of the fact that my son is not this boy here nor that girl there.” That kind of difference is trivial and nothing to be proud about. Pride requires finding a worthwhile difference, not just something that happened to a person but something they accomplished, created (and didn’t randomly acquire). Such differences, differences we make, differences Nietzsche has in mind when he writes that “some souls one will never discover unless one first invents it,” demand effort and work. And that’s not all. Some people become remarkably different, important, significant, or enticing while others become upsetting, disturbing, dangerous, even barbarous. So in addition to differences one can be proud of, there are also differences that are no cause of pride.

A sort of dialectical play obtains between the ways I am like those around me and the ways I differ from them. I find it disappointing that modern and contemporary philosophy has paid so little attention to the values that attend differentiation. We pay almost exclusive attention to values that attend similarity — and not only in philosophy, but also in public discourse. We associate value most generally with moral and political value, with value that depends on our similarities to one another, that enjoins (as moral and political values should) equal treatment, respect, and opportunity. I never would dispute the importance of these values, but they are not the only values there are. We actually admire people who go about things their own way, who stand out.

This, again, brings us back to the interaction between the public and the personal. How, then, does this connect to the reading “I” which you had asked about? In the end, the reading “I” and the writing “I” are not all that different. The reading “I” engages in certain strategic, tactical (not always conscious or articulate) approaches in order to come to terms with an argument or set of issues. You have made it clear that this reader cannot remain passive, and you are right. The reader must interpret, and interpretation is ultimately an individual accomplishment — although that doesn’t mean, of course, that every interpretation is as good as any other. When I read a book, I actively select where to focus and what to keep on the periphery. But I also bring to it everything else I have read and known, with that as part of my background, as part of who I am. Only by relying on that personal background can I become a distinctive reader, just as a writer tries to write something different from everything else that has been already written,

One belongs inevitably to a particular family of writers, or novelists, philosophers, poets — and readers. We are always part of some group. But we also try to do what nobody else has quite done. If all you accomplish is what others have already accomplished, why bother? In that respect, then, the reader needs to create a new and distinctive “I,” just like the writer. To some extent, such readers write the book themselves. As readers, we need to use our talents, abilities, and capacities just as creatively as writers do. Your question helps to focus on the importance of reading so as to learn through a creative engagement with the author — learning how we might repeat the unrepeatable, how we might help others also to see, and learn through, and repeat our own unrepeatable example.

You also asked specifically about Only a Promise of Happiness, which felt, when I wrote it, like my most personal book. I intrude into that book in ways I didn’t intrude in my earlier writing on Nietzsche, Socrates, or Plato. I might have ended up revealing myself in those earlier projects, but I wasn’t my subject. But in Only a Promise of Happiness, I really do talk about myself, especially about my attitude towards Manet’s Olympia and other paintings. While writing that book, I sensed that, for an artist or a scholar, for philosophical history and for art criticism, intruding oneself into the work is not at all a bad strategy. It reenacts for your audience how you might go about relating to a particular painting, book, symphony, even to a philosophical work. In other words, when I describe myself as connected to Manet, I mean both “I, this person Alexander Nehamas,” and many other people who might want to take such a position (and, of course, make it their own and so change it in their own way as well).

The most “I”-centric philosopher of them all (apart perhaps from Nietzsche) is Montaigne. Montaigne talks an endless heap about himself. And precisely by writing about himself and all his idiosyncrasies, Montaigne tries to produce something universal. Although his own idiosyncrasies might differ completely from mine, Montaigne shows me, among other things, that everyone has idiosyncrasies. He shows me how we all resemble each other by being slightly different from everybody else — how our differences make us similar.

This idea that the self has to enter the discussion plays out implicitly, as you say, in my Nietzsche book, and maybe a bit more in my Socrates book. It becomes explicit in Only a Promise of Happiness — where I actually want to suggest (to speak again to your earlier point) that art and beauty are not just matters of impersonal or disinterested contemplation, and make an important difference to our everyday life. How can you say or show that, without in some way exhibiting quite personally how art and beauty have affected you?

I don’t particularly want everyone simply to accept my view of Manet’s Olympia. The book aims at demonstrating how intense and multifaceted our relationship to works of art can be. We don’t just sit there and “groove” on them. If we love a work of art (or a person — a friend or a lover) we live part of our life with and around them. Modern aesthetics seems to have forgotten or suppressed that fact. It imagines us standing silently by ourselves before an isolated painting, or shut in our office with a book, and then closing the book and leaving the museum in order to resume our life. But that is not a resumption: it’s a new stage, and books and paintings both follow us and lead us in directions we wouldn’t have known without them.

That brings up another issue connected to any very sharp distinction between art and life. In the Nietzsche book, I made a big mistake in that respect. I close the book by writing that the Nietzsche who matters is not “the miserable little man” who wrote his books, but “the magnificent character” who emerges through them. I got this terribly wrong, because this meant that we should think of an author’s life (or, for that matter, of any person’s life) as everything except that person’s work — as if paying bills, going to the bathroom, getting married, or whatever, is part of the life while writing books is not. But especially for someone like Nietzsche or Plato or Montaigne, the work is in fact the most important part of life. And similarly, when you love a work of art (not just as a historian or an observer, but as you might love a person), you let it into your life. You hope that it will seep into your life. We should never speak of “art and life,” but always and only of “art and the rest of life.” Art is often the most important part of someone’s life, not just an autonomous field with no relations beyond itself.

That art/life distinction at the end of your Nietzsche book actually didn’t stand out much to me, because you so thoroughly had described Nietzsche’s stylistic pluralism as this apt poetic realization of his philosophical perspectivism — so that the inherent fusion of life and art already seemed implicit.

That’s right. You’re right about that. And yet someone in Amazon reviews [Laughter], someone who hated the book, claimed it only argued that Nietzsche was a miserable little man — an interpretive mistake, but a mistake I can understand. Today, by contrast, I constantly try to remind my students and friends that, unlike what people say about Las Vegas, what happens in the seminar room need not stay in the seminar room.

Along similar lines, I’m hoping that, in a Nietzschean tradition, you actually wrote that Amazon review — in some sort of agonistic struggle with yourself.

I wish I had, frankly [Laughter]. But it’s interesting to talk a bit about agonistics. You’ve described both Socrates and Nietzsche as both agonistic and antagonistic. But we must distinguish between them. In antagonism, one only cares about coming out on top. It doesn’t matter whether you end up on top because you are better than your opponent, or because your opponent happens to be worse than you. An antagonistic bully picks the weakest opponent, but an agonist chooses the strongest, the most powerful enemy — and tries to outdo them, not just to put them down.

This agonistic attitude lies at the heart of what Nietzsche calls the “will to power,” which people so often misunderstand as a will to oppress or suppress the other. That’s wrong. This came to me while I was watching Leonard Bernstein’s old television program on music. At one point, he rehearses a piece by Brahms with the New York Philharmonic, who is not yet playing the piece as Bernstein wants it to sound. So he makes them repeat it, tells them how to do it right, cajoles and jokes, and he also yells a bit. In the end, they play it as he wants them to. In some sense, then, Bernstein imposes his will, his will to power, upon those musicians. But he does not oppress them: on the contrary, he makes them better musicians. Putting someone down is relatively easy. Making one better is something else, harder and much more admirable.

Again the point is to try to confront the best possible rivals or enemies. What, after all, does Nietzsche do with Socrates? Does he antagonize, or does he agonize? I still haven’t fully come to terms with that question, I must confess, and probably won’t as long as I’m still living. On the one hand, Nietzsche recognizes Socrates as the great opponent, and wants to do him one better. On the other hand, when Nietzsche calls Socrates ugly, plebian, sick, plagued with “all the bad vices” and so on, you sense that something else is also going on.

Certain passages from Nietzsche circulate in my distant memory, such as one about a second instinct becoming a first instinct.

Every first nature was once a second nature.

Well both seem true here. Nietzsche overstates his case against Socrates, to some extent departing from what you elsewhere have characterized as typical Socratic practice. But by doing so, Nietzsche also undermines and/or outplays both himself and that Socratic tradition.

Nietzsche: Life as Literature presents Socrates as a master of understatement, and Nietzsche as a master of overstatement.

Yeah, we’ve discussed basic rhetorical tensions overlapping in how Plato, Socrates, and Nietzsche (as authors and/or characters) problematize any more static sense of a fictional or nonfictional “I” serving as ontological mouthpiece or as embodied historical being. But perhaps we still need to flesh out further the very possibilities for this “most unlikely philosophical alliance,” which you long have recognized (and which many of your peers seem still not to notice or to accept). So could we start, for example, from Socrates’s seemingly spontaneous conversational engagements, and address more extensively Nietzsche’s detection of a lurking dogmatism, a totalizing (assertive, aggressive, ultimately oppressive to any dialogic partner) method of (in your terms) “‘collection and division,’ which places the activity of each within a vast network of…related activities…in turn related to still others in a spiraling structure that can only be encompassed by the synoptic understanding of everything…supplied by philosophy”? And yet could we likewise address the fact that Nietzsche’s own “amor-fati” embrace of all-encompassing causality (perhaps given an aesthetic spin, yet ultimately ensnaring any would-be subject almost as much as some mechanistic world-picture borrowed from Newtonian physics, or even driven by a metaphysical deity, might) doesn’t necessarily differ from Socratic dialectic’s eclipse of the autonomous subject so much as it first may seem?  

Or in terms of broader formal/rhetorical/epistemological structuring, Plato’s placement of Socrates’s dogmatic perspective always amid a polyphonic scene (and amid a kaleidoscopic array of such scenes scattered across Plato’s corpus, providing any number of angles on the old or young, seasoned or novice, centralized or peripheral Socrates) seems at the very least to anticipate Nietzsche’s more self-consciously theorized articulations/enactments of a philosophical perspectivism, with both authors making perhaps their most distinct points in part by dispatching with possibilities for some more depersonalized, instrumentalized, straightforward textual assertion. So if Nietzsche’s “stylistic pluralism” does in fact provide the perfect poetic manifestation for his foregrounding of this philosophical perspectivism (“His many styles are part of his effort to present views without presenting them as more than views of his own and are therefore part of his effort to distinguish his practice from what he considers the practice of philosophers so far”), could we agree that Nietzsche’s own kaleidoscopic innovations again might derive from, as much as depart from, Plato’s precedent?

I like that question. The tendency in recent philosophy has been to read Plato as a dogmatist — not as “dogmatic,” which is a way of saying “stubborn,” but as somebody who intended his views to be universally acceptable and binding on everyone. Nietzsche of course presents himself as a great enemy of the universal. Now, if you prioritize Plato’s rationalism, universalism, and moral commitments, you will focus on the abstract formulations of his views rather than on the dialectical and dialogical manner in which he presents them. If you read much of the analytical work from the past 60 or 70 years on Plato’s philosophy, most of that work addresses passages in which Plato seems to try to prove his universalist theses. As one reviewer of a very important book on Plato said many years ago: “If you read this book, you would never know that Plato had written dialogues.” That’s true for much analytical and philosophical work on Plato. That’s not necessarily wrong. Plato does offer arguments and relies extensively on them — but of course he also does more than that.

Now, when you read Nietzsche, if you read him only for doctrine, you’ll find the concepts of the will to power, perspectivism, amor fati, and so on — concepts that are directly opposed to Plato’s. Nietzsche describes himself as the great enemy to Christianity, which makes him Plato’s great enemy as well, because Christianity is for Nietzsche nothing other than “Platonism for the people.” So, on the level of doctrine, we have two fundamentally opposed approaches to the world and to life.

At the same time, Plato and Nietzsche stand out as two of the greatest, most distinctive stylists in philosophy’s history. And when you look at them in such terms, rather than simply focusing on the content, on the views their styles articulate, you see that they have much in common — particularly the difficulty or even impossibility of finally arriving at some definitive answer to their questions. Keep also in mind the ironic fact that Plato denounces writing itself in the Phaedrus. One of the greatest writers who ever lived denounces writing, and claims to prefer straightforward speaking. What does that say about his attitude to his own work? Don’t Plato’s canniness (his never appearing in his own work) and Nietzsche’s candidness (his constant intruding into his writing) constitute perhaps two sides of the same coin? And might these strategies not suggest that, for both, the pursuit rather than the conquest of philosophy matters most of all? Plato’s Socrates seems to have believed that it was impossible to live well without knowing what living well is — without a solid foundation that applies equally to everybody. Nietzsche believes that no such foundation is possible, and that thinking one does need such a rational foundation precludes one from living well. Yet Nietzsche also can’t fail to notice that Socrates (unlike so many others) did live well despite lacking that foundation. Where exactly, then, is the difference between them? For Nietzsche, there is a self but that self is created. That idea poses a huge philosophical difficulty.

You also asked how the will to power or amor fati might compare to what Nietzsche describes as Socrates’s dogmatism. That’s a really complicated issue. In part, Nietzsche suggests that no distinct subject, no independent will, no sovereign self exists. He does write this way, but I think he’s driving at something else. Socrates, in the Protagoras for example, conceives of each human being as a complete, total unity — in such a way that you can’t believe that something is good and then fail to want that thing. There is nothing within us that can oppose our judgment: thought and action are one. But whereas Socrates thinks that this is how we are all born, Nietzsche thinks that this unity is something only some of us can create: whereas Socrates sees everyone begin, Nietzsche sees a few arrive. For Nietzsche, the ideal form of action is “instinctive” — not in Freud’s sense of instinctive action as basic, unlearned, and completely determined behavior, but as something we have learned to perform so well that it has become second (or perhaps first?) nature, something done un-self-consciously. But since Socrates never won the knowledge he sought, wasn’t his behavior as unfounded and as un-self-conscious as the behavior Nietzsche admired so deeply? That’s why I think that Nietzsche sees in Socrates a much more important adversary than he sees in just about everyone else (precisely because Nietzsche’s never sure that he and Socrates were not engaged in the same enterprise). That drives Nietzsche absolutely crazy. It’s not what caused his final collapse, but it didn’t help [Laughter].

Socrates and Nietzsche, when picturing the human being, see diverse images of the same thing. Socrates sees a basic, shared, rational psychological structure, whereas Nietzsche sees an individual ideal quite difficult to accomplish. Of course these ideals may not differ much after all, but Socrates and Nietzsche locate them differently. For Socrates, we begin as unified rational beings, and we need to realize that about ourselves. For Nietzsche, we begin as a mess of competing values, views, beliefs, and prejudices, and need to harness and unify them. But for both Nietzsche and Socrates (and this is one deep connection between them), some sort of complex unity remains an ideal, whether inborn or acquired.

In terms of unity, any art of living/writing/reading, as suggested above, faces daunting challenges — especially amid the social and institutional spaces where philosophy gets practiced (or professed) most frequently at present. A practitioner of these arts perhaps first must answer the broadest pedagogical questions of how to teach the potentially unteachable, or of what to offer in its place. He/she then must not only determine but actively demonstrate how most meaningfully to innovate/individuate oneself, and all amid a novelty-fixated culture already replete with ersatz celebrations of style, lifestyle, personality — and even as philosophy faces the additional “irreparable loss of the authority it once derived from being thought to constitute the best way of life.”

So again, how can present-day readers, inside or outside the academy, best learn through Plato/Socrates/Nietzsche, rather than pursuing the more parochial pastime of learning from Plato/Socrates/Nietzsche? Which modes of inquiry, engagement, expression, life, might best encourage such an ongoing learning-through? And how to develop such a practice not simply by cultivating some antagonistic (combative, polarizing) professional persona, but through performative demonstration that “we need not remain isolated each within our own little area, that the effort to cross the limits of the many narrow subfields of which our discipline consists today is still worth making” (that, for instance, analytic traditions need not find themselves competing against, but perhaps further refining, clarifying, revitalizing inherited arts of living)? Since your Sather Lectures, which lived trajectories of specific individuals, conversations, affiliations, institutions, public interventions have exemplified such possibilities? Which such discursive spaces do we need most today, and how can we open them? What would or could the integrated blend of a Platonic Academy and a present-day academic department look like? What additional case might you make for how one’s performative self-creation of inimitable character can teach others basically to become their own most coherent selves? And if it seems like I have sought to prioritize some socially redeemable, empirically verifiable form of living artfully, at the expense of, say, Socrates’s, Plato’s, Nietzsche’s stubborn (yet revelatory) reluctance unto death to provide such straightforwardly instrumentalizable claims, please feel free to push this concluding question in other directions.

These are very good, very hard questions. When I think of the philosophers I admire most (Plato, Socrates, Montaigne, maybe Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Foucault, Wittgenstein in a peculiar and ironic way), these people, by and large, either never belonged to an institution or else they abandoned it. Socrates never belonged to any school. Nietzsche gave up his chair. Pascal did whatever Pascal did. Kierkegaard tortured himself about whether he should become a preacher, but didn’t. Wittgenstein of course hated being a professor and told everybody else not to do it. So all had very fraught relationships with institutions. And yet here I am, in the middle of one of today’s most established institutions — the academy — and asking the question: can one somehow carve out an individual life while fully belonging to an institution, with all its pressures and obligations? I can’t give you an answer to that, Andy. You can only look at what I’ve done.