(From ‘Nietzsche Writing in Blood: Themes, Rhetoric, and Strategies of Violence, a paper presented on 13th October 2014 at the 20 International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society ‘Nietzsche, Love and War’ at the University of Birmingham’)
Competition in Greek Antiquity is conceived by Nietzsche as essential to that world. The genius or hero exists through competition. Where there is no competition for the hero, the hero in such a state of isolation is close to the gods, who are then competing with the hero. Such a divine competition destroys the hero who is lured into hubris and the subsequent fall that punishes hubris.
Greek states existed in a state of competition with each other in a desire for triumph over the over states just as the hero exists in a state of competition with other heroes. Genius only exists through competition and that is provided through dramatic competitions which were a part of city life, of the rituals which defined the existence of a city. Plato’s dialogues are explained through the principle of competition, they are an attempt to compete with the dramatists, the Sophists and the rhetoricians in order to destroy them. The value of imitative art is denied by showing great aesthetic prowess in a competition with the Ancient tragedians in particular. The competitions of the city define the state, the politics and nature of the city. The institution of ostracism, exiling the citizen voted most worthy of exile, is seen by Nietzsche as originating in the desire for competition (Homer on Competition). A competition which can only be maintained by excluding those who are so strong that they preclude the possibility of meaningful competition.
The contests of youth existed for the sake of city: they were competing in the service of the city. They competed with each other with regard to who would serve the city better and the competition itself maximised the strength of the city by maximising the strength of all those competing with each other. Agonism from this point of view is essential to Republican political philosophy, since the civil union is promoted by competition. The competition is limited to the sphere of the city giving it a focus lacking in the modern world.
The world of international law, monotheistic religion and Enlightenment universalism lacks a precise focus for competition since the city-state is no longer the goal of human existence. That is a summary of the context in which Nietzsche writes on antiquity. The view of the self-contained unity of ancient republic as lost in the modern world can be found in political thought from Montesquieu to Hegel through Rousseau, Humboldt and Constant. It comes out through literary aesthetics as in the discussion in both Hegel and Kierkegaard of the difference between ancient and modern tragedy.
If we speak of humanity, it is on the basic assumption that is should be that which separates man from nature and is his mark of distinction. But in reality there is no such separation: ‘natural’ characteristics those called specifically ‘human’ have grown together inextricably. Man, in his highest, finest powers, is all nature and carries nature’s uncanny dual character in himself. Those capacities of his which are terrible and are viewed as inhuman are perhaps, indeed, the fertile soil from which alone all humanity, in feelings, deeds and works, can grow forth. (Homer on Competition, in the Cambridge University Press edition of On the Genealogy of Morality, page187)
The emphasis on competition in this early essay is one way of harmonising aestheticism with naturalism, or culture with nature, a conflict which can also be explained with reference to the tensions of Homer (Odysseus versus Achilles) and tragedy (sovereign will against divine-natural order), and in the tension between the Dionysian and the Apolline, which is a matter of both writing and performance; text, bodily action, and spectacle. Tragedy is agonist in its inner form, as it shows a hero modelled on Prometheus or the titans in their struggle with the Olympian Gods. There is a struggle between individualism and law; and a tension between Dionysian ecstasy and Apolline form.
For Nietzsche, the whole of Greek Antiquity is defined through competition, but in three stages. There is the pre-Homeric, the Homeric and the Hellenic. Though the Homeric is merely Apolline in the Birth of Tragedy, here is serves as the ideal of the agonistic. The essay itself is framed by an account of the cruel treatment by Alexander the Great of a living enemy. Nietzsche suggests that this is a grotesque version of the treatment of Hector’s dead body by Achilles in The Iliad. Alexander’s cruelty is taken by Nietzsche as paradigmatic for the Hellenic world, which he sees as a degeneration of Classical Greece. It is also a return of pre-Homeric cruelty. That is ‘evil and cruel […] vengeful and godless’. (Homer on Competition, in the Cambridge University Press edition of On the Genealogy of Morality, page194). The ‘envy, jealousy and competitive ambition’ (HOC 194) of the Ancient Greek city states is a limitation of cruelty.