Nietzsche and Burckhardt

I’ve finished reading Burckhardt’s The Greeks and Greek Civilization. It’s a great work on politics, culture, religion and many things in Ancient Greece. It really tells a story about the road to Golden Age Athens, and a decline in Athens, followed by the destruction of the Ancient Greek world as it was taken over by the Macedonian monarchy and absorbed into the Hellenistic world resulting from Alexander’s conquests. Today I’ll highlight a few things which seem particularly relevant to reading Nietzsche, who was Burkhardt’s friend and colleague at the University of Basle.

Burckhardt strong emphasises the role of competition in the Ancient Greek world. The Greek states were united in the Olympic games, and there were many other forms of competition. The great Athenian tragedies were written for competitions. There were all kinds of contests in gymnastics, poetry, and music throughout the Greek world. Communities took enormous pride in the achievements of locals in the Olympic games and other contests. The pride in winning and the efforts made to win were extreme. This can be seen in the wounds suffered by wrestling and the great interest of tyrants in backing winning teams. This should remind us of two early essays by Nietzsche on ‘The Greek State’ and ‘Homer on Competition’. It also provides a perspective for understanding ‘master morality’ in Nietzsche.

Burckhardt regards the interest in competition as part of the Aristocratic culture. It also existed in democratic Athens, and was the source of its great achievements. The attitude of the great democratic leader Pericles to Athens power in Greece itself shows this. However, the democratic world undermined competition. Excellence and the competition for excellence became the kind of jealousy and urge to denunciation, which led to the trial and death of Socrates. Athens after the Peloponnesian War weakened under the influence of this kind of spirit in which demogogary, perjury, and parasitic law cases became dominant. Here we see why Plato preferred Crete and Sparta. However, Sparata itself lost its old civic virtues at this, according to Burckhardt, becasue its very somination of Greece made it weaken under the influence of the other parts of Greece.

For Burckhardt, democracy means an individualism based on the cult of excellence and the growth of resentment. The decline of the aristocracy which vreated the values used by democracy allows great culture to flourish, but only for a limited period. These aspects of Burckhardt are close to Nietzzsche’s thoughts on politics and culture throughout his life, and should be taken into account.

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