“What I Owe the Ancients” by Nietzsche


I will summarise and discuss Nietzsche’s important but rarely-considered essay “What I Owe the Ancients.”

Section One of “What I Owe the Ancients”

Nietzsche’s taste is “far from saying yes to everything it encounters”. This is for Nietzsche an admission that he too is a creature of his time and also human, for he is not Zarathustra and (therefore, arguably) not the Ubermensch. He retains the desire to say no when Zarathustra will say yes to everything. Zarathustra can thusly pass the test of affirming the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, which is the ultimate in self-creation of values.

Though – compare this with the very end of this piece: N. describes himself as the teacher of the doctrine. So maybe he can teach it without passing it himself? A clue here as to why Zarathustra features that figure rather than Nietzsche himself — he writes in the third person because he himself lacks the strength to do more.

“Plato […] so much at odds with the basic Hellenic instincts”

Nietzsche, What I Owe the Ancients

The Problem of Socrates

This is an echo of the line also found in `The Problem of Socrates’ where the hypertrophy of reason exemplified by Socratic dialogues is deprecated by by Nietzsche. One reason why: Nietzsche quotes Goethe with approval in UM II when denigrating dead history as follows “Moreover I hate everything that merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity”.

Activity is the key to valorisation in a pre-Slaves Revolt scenario — whether it remains so today depends on the answer to the question `does Nietzsche prefer Master Morality to Slave Morality. The answer to that, as ever, is yes and no. He certainly regards positively the ability of the Masters to set their own values, in contrast to the Slaves — i.e. us — and in common with the Ubermensch. So again here, N. is identifying Plato and Socrates with the Slave’s Revolt camp; their use of dialectic is a symptom of that. They may be, if you like, the Priests, urging us to find value in a different world, in contemplation of the Forms.

Section Two

Plato already has `good’ as the highest concept, so has pre-accepted Christianity as it were. Thus he fails the test outlined in my comments on S1 above.

`Bridge’ is italicized. I interpret the emphasis as intended to call to mind the bridge in:

“Der Mensch ist eine Brücke, ein Brücke zwischen Tier und Übermensch und er muss zugunsten des Übermenschen zugrunde gehen.”


From Z: “Man is a bridge, a bridge between animal and Ubermensch, and he must be overcome in favour of the Ubermensch.”

Photo by Carlos Oliva on

Here the bridge is `to the cross’. This looks something like Christ is the Ubermensch, but the wrong one. He has some of the qualities needed; certainly the ability to impress, but lacks the key quality of the ability to set his own values. He like Plato has already accepted `the good’ as the highest ideal. Nietzsche wants to know why. Or rather — he knows why in terms of how it happened, that is the story of GM — but why we should think it is right, by what standard we judge that, and by what standards we judge those standards.

Is Plato also `the bridge to the cross?’ “ I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me”.


Sophistry — I always find a slight ambiguity in Plato; the Sophists and the Eristics certainly are more than half denigrated by Plato but not entirely. Plato is certainly aware that some of the criticisms he levels at them — `mere dialectical combat’ can also be laid at his door; this seems to be N’s view at least. Cf. again `Problem of Socrates’.

Philosophy as decadence of the Greeks; cf. the historical location of Plato in the age of the decline of the Greeks.

Section Three of “What I Owe the Ancients”

Praise of the will to power, and its free expression in the Greeks, at least at one point. Vast complexity here. Maybe we can make up a picture where one of the many drives tends to overcome the others. The will to power (let’s maybe not call that one of the drives but perhaps more the sum of them and maybe it figures more heavily in some drives than others, like the urge to dominate) has the upper hand in the early stronger Greeks.

In the later decadent period, reason (will to truth) has gained the upper hand. This could be because one drive has overcome another; or it could be that the Greeks themselves invited their own decadence. Having been forced (by socialisation? GM again) to mitigate their own urges to dominate in order to live in society, they created the power vacuum which allowed for reason to come to the fore.

Conflict with perspectivism, which is Nietzsche’s preferred approach of accommodation of the maximum number of perspectives even when contradictory (maximum number of drives as well…?)

Plenty of GM references here.

`immoralism a necessity not a nature’

I think Nietzsche is here praising what we might term a lack of post-modern self-referentialism. People act, they do not decide what action best suits them. But can Nietzsche say this consistently with the rest of his canon? (No. But that’s not unusual).

“bourgeois Socratism” — that says it all, really.

Nobility, against the polis — i.e. for Master morality here.

Section Four of “What I Owe the Ancients”

Dionysus — BT — so not the Apollonian, not reason, not individuality, not measure, but passion/intoxication, orgiastic self-loss, excess. Nietzsche is (as he tells us later in S5) the teacher of Dionysus (or he is `Dionysus against the crucified’). So we are to identify Socrates with the Apollonian.

Contemporary Germans need to show that the insights gained in the course of orgies cannot count for anything for to think otherwise would be a recommendation of orgiastic behaviour. And that goes against morality. Not an argument, says Nietzsche.

Nietzsche does an excellent job of damning Lobeck merely by quoting him.

Negative mention of Goethe is very rare and deserves attention. Goethe is one of the few real people mentioned positively by Nietzsche; possibly he even possesses some of the characteristics of the Ubermensch. Or he is one of the monumental historical figures (UM II). But even he gets the Greeks wrong by not having Nietzsche’s own insight into the importance of the Dionysian.

The Will to Life

The `Will to life’ seems to be what Goethe missed. So may the rest of us have done. A close link here to the first mention in this section of the immensely important and immensely obscure Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence (cf Z.) So maybe an expression of the will to life is the ability of affirm everything, to say yes to everything and to pass the test of joy at the truth of the Doctrine…?

Ressentiment of Christianity. Again GM and the Slaves Revolt, so morality is the weapon of the weak. All of these references to pain probably also map on to the GM references.

S5. A further reference to a bridge. Should we see the tragic poet as one incarnation of the Ubermensch? The Ubermensch is the one who affirms everything that has been — because he affirms the Doctrine — but that means also affirming all of the negation that there has been. You have to affirm all of it, the rough and the smooth. Paradoxical of course, but we do close with a re-affirmation of BT — which Nietzsche has in EH called a very questionable work, offensively Hegelian” so is he here affirming the negative as well? That would be a step towards the Ubermensch.

See Also:

Nietzsche On Memory: Introduction

Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense: Summary

Should Nozick Call Darwin As A Witness?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

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