“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.”

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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?”


Nietzsche On Memory: Outline

Much more on this topic available in my free Ebook/iBook at:

This post is an initial outline of the project I developed in much more detail at:

1 Thesis

Nietzsche has interesting and unusual insights into the nature of memory which I will elucidate and also use as a way in to an examination of many of his central projects. [The genesis of my interest is work on forgetfulness in Nietzsche, in relation to which he has unusual insights, seeing that it is active and positive, contrary to common and philosophical understanding. This alone suggests that his picture of memory will be of similar interest and import.]

2 Research Question

Part of my interest in this topic derives from the fact that this is not a well covered area: there are no Jstor papers with both `Nietzsche’ and `memory’ in the title. [There are though 197 papers which have `Nietzsche’ in the title and `memory’ in the text of which I have identified 31 as of special interest.] So there is not currently a major debate on exactly what account of memory Nietzsche gives. The papers which mention the topic do so on their way to further objectives; sometimes the discussion is quite substantial, as in [1]. The material I cover in S3.4 shows that Nietzsche has a special account of memory.

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Many research questions could be derived from these discussions; each of the subsections of the following Overview section could do so, and this is derived from only a small selection of the interesting papers. For example, the evolution material in S3.4 could be seen as showing that Nietzsche has a poor understanding of Darwinian evolution in that he makes the Lamarckian error of believing that acquired characteristics can be inherited. I will claim however that if we understand Nietzsche’s view of memory correctly { for one thing, that there is a species of collective memory across times and persons { we can see that he has not made such an error. Indeed without such understanding, we will fail to understand his views. I will however use these various area of interest more as motivation of the central project: they are to be discussed without allowing them to sidetrack the central project of understanding what Nietzsche means by memory.

Nietzsche believes, in response to Aristotle’s slogan [`Man is the rational animal’], that man is the remembering animal. So memory is central to who he believes we are. This lends yet more importance to the project. As I discuss in S3.6, there are also links to other important doctrines of Nietzsche, such as the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Memory is the boundary condition between animal and human. Similarly, eternal recurrence (or accepting the thought thereof as a test of affirmatory strength) is the boundary condition between human and Ubermensch.

There are further links between memory and the doctrine beyond this similarity of roles in that some response must be given as to why we do not have a memory of previous lives if eternal recurrence is the case. [I remain interested in the general area of `useful errors’ in Nietzsche and elsewhere, and I will be looking for opportunities to extend the analysis into that type of area, but not at the expense of the main project. Similar remarks apply to the analysis of [2].]

3 Overview

3.1 Memory Created Via Pain And Punishment

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◊ Memory is created by pain experienced in prehistory: ` “One burns something in so that it remains in one’s memory: only what does not cease to give pain remains in one’s memory” ‘ [3, II.3, orig. emph.]

◊ It seems that `one’ does the burning to `oneself’, in tension with the understanding where The Masters punish The Slaves

◊ This is a reference to ressentiment { the masters need only punish some for the others to punish themselves. [Deleuze [4, p. 108] notes that Nietzsche describes the memory of the man of ressentiment as like a `festering wound’, [5, `Ecce Homo’, I.6] used mostly to record injustices and sufferings.]

◊ Keeping image of terrible punishments in mind permits negative promises of waiving rights to natural violence to be made

◊ “With the help of such images and processes one finally retains in memory five, six \I will nots,” in connection with which one has given one’s promise within the advantages of society,– and truly! with the help of this kind of memory one finally came to reason […] mastery over the affects.” [3, II.3]

◊ The apparent strangeness of feeling indebtedness to ancestors may be compared with the odd way in which moderns feel themselves bound by Acts of Parliament passed in the 19th century — despite the fact that all of the legislators and electors of that era are long-dead:

◊ “Calling to mind these contract relationships admittedly awakens various kinds of suspicion and resistance towards the earlier humanity […] Precisely here are promises made; precisely here it is a matter of making a memory for the one who promises”. [3, II.5, orig. emph.]

◊ Richardson [6, p. 541] suggests we “[c]onsider his famous account in [3, Part II] how a \memory” was \burned into” pre-civilized humans: this memory is fixed not by selection of those who can remember, but by the acquisition of pain-associations that are inheritable”

◊ Clearly we cannot remember actual events in prehistory. But Nietzsche thinks we can inherit the capacities to feel guilt, to expect punishment

◊ Those individuals who evolve memory will be selected because it provides them with a mechanism that enables them to live in social groups — but see `Evolution’ below

◊ Memory is intimately linked to the use of violence to enforce conformity — branding both literally and figuratively the obligations of humans to each other in early society

3.2 Indebtedness, Society, (False) Belief In A Continuing Self

◊ Indebtedness predates and produces our memory

◊ Memory is a prerequisite for indebtedness; and pain and punishment are used to create memory when debt have not been repaid

◊ Persisting personal identity is also necessary; without that — and without remembering who I used to be — I will not repay my debts because I will not recognize the previous individual as myself. [Hales [7, p. 832], in the course of arguing that logic is a `useful error’ for Nietzsche, notes that Nietzsche sees indebtedness as being responsible for “instilling memory in humanity”. He also argues that Nietzsche sees persistence of identity as an illusion; if so, then it would be another `useful error’.]

◊ Thus through memory we create ourselves; Nietzsche also believes we map this onto objects thus creating them where there is only flux

◊ Memory is instrumental in the construction of community values

◊ Memory created by punishment, the pain-avoidance behavior thereby inculcated can be remembered and inherited

◊ It remains only for The Masters to set punishments for certain forbidden actions so as to promote harmonious society; released prisoners have `paid their debt to society’ [7See Aspers [8, p. 483] for this point.]

◊ There is also a sense of inter generational repayment owed; note that `debt’ and `guilt’ are the same word in German (die Schuld)

◊ Society considers that it is in the debt of its founders, who have selflessly invested the time and effort needed to create the society and allow the `benefits’ thereof to flow to its members.

◊ And then these `benefits’ can be spread to others outside the initial boundaries of the proto-state by means of war and conflict

◊ War is one means of repayment of the inter-generational debt. [Gambino [9, p. 421] discusses this variety of repayment, and also includes war as one of the methods of repaying the ancestral founders of society. He also identifies the sense of inter-generational debt with collective memory.]

3.3 Religion, Pain, State

◊ Suffering in religion a result of an unredeemable debt to the creator — the ultimate `redeemer’

◊ Religion is one chosen tool of the authorities, which suggests that The Priests are here allied with The Masters

◊ Aspers [8, p. 487]: \[b]y using the collective narratives of religion, a community can create and maintain customs by punishment. This is also the way memory is maintained, and the reason why those in power can impose certain customs on other members of society”

◊ So there is also a role for collective memory in the production of political and social stability

◊ Contrast between fragile poetic memory, which would also not clearly serve the needs of the state, and what might be termed coerced collective memory employed as a means of state repression. [Gambino [9] observes this contrast between memory types while arguing that the ancient Greek state needed memory to add mythology to violence and create stability.]

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◊ Gambino [9, p. 429] links Dionysian instincts to memory and the state via observing that the cult-driven liberation of the individual asks the question as to legitimacy of the origins of the state

The Dionysian was linked not only to forgetfulness, but to the restoration of memory: it recalled the deeply concealed truth about the criminal origins of the state and thus stirred up feelings of guilt”
From this perspective, political memory becomes the memory of guilt and politics an ultimately futile attempt for redemption”

3.4 Evolution, Cultural Memory, Memes

“There are analogies, for instance our memory may suggest another memory, which makes itself felt in heredity, development and forms. Our inventive and experimentative powers suggest another kind of inventiveness in the applications of instruments to new ends etc”. [See WP646 (1885) [10]. NB Nachlass citations are to be used with care.]

◊ Two kinds of inventiveness: of new tools and then of new uses for them

◊ Two kinds of memory: ordinary and one with new uses invented for it

◊ Only past fitness can explain the current presence of something (cultural, conceptual, moral, physiological, valuational…) { also errors because truth subordinated to usefulness, and there are useful lies

◊ It is always difficult to disentangle Nietzsche’s pro and con attitudes. [11Richardson [6] sees antipathy in Nietzsche as sympathy. Hales [7, p. 820] goes so far as to describe “an apparent obliteration of a position, followed by withdrawal to partly embrace it” as being Nietzsche’s “favorite rhetorical style”, supplying several examples.]

◊ Nietzsche sees Darwinism as `true but deadly’ though his understanding is poor; development of the individual is important, not species survival. [This point is made by Aspers [8, p. 478] who also states that Nietzsche `in no way’ adheres to Darwin’s theories.]

◊ Clear parallels to Dawkins’s [11] idea of memes, being the cultural equivalent of genes

3.5 Value Of Memory

◊ Nietzsche sees both value and disvalue in memory

◊ Positive value derives from the way that memory permits the making of promises and the resolve that can come from fixity of willing

◊ The disvalue comes from its role in inhibiting action. [We learn in [12, `On The Uses And Disadvantages Of History For Life’] how an excess of historical sense is overwhelming and paralyzing.]

◊ The health of a people depends on its ability to x “limits to the memory of the past;”[Gambino at [9, p. 438] cites [12, `On The Uses And Disadvantages Of History For Life’, S7] in this connection.]

◊ Inversion of the common understanding in which memory is an active force with forgetfulness its failure: forgetfulness on the contrary is the healthy drive which allows action and memory a paralyzing lapse

◊ Only the strong need memory for only they will be permitted to make promises: “this necessarily forgetful animal in whom forgetting represents a force, a form of strong health, has now bred in itself an opposite faculty, a memory, with whose help forgetfulness is disconnected for certain cases, namely for those cases where a promise is to be made”[3, II.1, orig. emph.]

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◊ Memory of the promise actively retained, unlike passive absorption or inscription upon the weak of adventitious events; these last cannot be actively recorded since they do not have their cause within us

◊ But generally, memory is to be considered with consciousness as being essentially reactive, in contrast with being active. [Deleuze [4, p. 38] claims that consciousness and memory are essentially reactive, by which he means they do nothing which is not in some way a response to the environment. He supports this claim by noting that it explains why we cannot know what consciousness or memory are capable of, since we cannot specify current or future environments.]

3.6 Links To Other Themes In Nietzsche

◊ Loeb [1] draws parallels between GM [3] and Z [13] using memory

◊ GM: conscience allowed emergence of human animals from animals; this occurred by the use of memory which granted `power’ over time

◊ Z: calls for the Ubermensch to emerge from humanity as the next step; the thought of eternal recurrence is to grant humans the necessary and parallel power over time

◊ Loeb notes Nietzsche’s claim that all his later works including GM are `fish hooks’ to draw readers to Z, which contains his most important ideas

◊ If this is true, then understanding memory in Nietzsche is the key to understanding what he means by the doctrines he himself regards as his most important

◊ Loeb: `memory is made possible by society and its morality of custom’; so memory key to Nietzsche’s ethical project: revaluation of all values

See Also:

The Roles Of Nietzsche’s Memory Types

Anscombe on Intentionality of Sensation: Summary

Ryle Contra Hidden Mental Processes

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?


[1] P. S. Loeb, \Finding the Ubermensch in nietzsche’s genealogy of morality,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 30, pp. pp. 70{101, 2005.

[2] B. Williams, Truth & truthfulness: an essay in genealogy. Princeton University Press, 2004.

[3] F. Nietzsche, M. Clark, and A. Swensen, On the genealogy of morality: a polemic. Hackett Classics, Hackett Pub. Co., 1998.

[4] G. Deleuze, Nietzsche and philosophy. Continuum impacts, Continuum, 2006.

[5] F. Nietzsche, A. Ridley, and J. Norman, The Anti-Christ, Ecce homo, Twilight of the idols, and other writings:. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[6] J. Richardson, \Nietzsche contra darwin,” Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research, vol. 65, no. 3, pp. pp. 537{575, 2002.

[7] S. D. Hales, \Nietzsche on logic,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 56, no. 4, pp. pp. 819{835, 1996.

[8] P. Aspers, \Nietzsche’s sociology,” Sociological Forum, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. pp. 474{499, 2007.

[9] G. Gambino, \Nietzsche and the greeks: Identity, politics, and tragedy,” Polity, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. pp. 415{444, 1996.

[10] F. Nietzsche and A. Ludovici, The will to power: an attempted transvaluation of all values. No. v. 2 in Complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gordon Press, 1974.

[11] R. Dawkins, The selsh gene. Oxford University Press, 2006.

[12] F. W. Nietzsche and R. J. Hollingdale, Untimely meditations / Friedrich Nietzsche ; translated by R.J. Hollingdale ; with an introduction by J.P. Stern. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York :, 1983.

[13] F. Nietzsche and R. Hollingdale, Thus spoke Zarathustra: a book for everyone and no one. Penguin classics, Penguin Books, 1961.