Nietzsche and the Greeks: "Homer's Contest" (1873)

by Alfred J. Drake

When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something which separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however, there is no such separation: "natural" qualities and those called truly "human" are inseparably grown together. Man, in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual character. Those of his abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the fertile soil out of which alone all humanity can grow in impulse, deed, and work.

Thus the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate -- a trait that is also very distinct in that grotesquely enlarged mirror image of the Hellenes, in Alexander the Great, but that really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology, if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern "humanity" . . . . With the same feeling we may also observe the mutual laceration, bloody and insatiable, of two Greek parties, for example, in the Corcyrean revolution. When the victor in a fight among the cities executes the entire male citizenry in accordance with the laws of war, and sells all the women and children into slavery, we see in the sanction of such a law that the Greeks considered it an earnest necessity to let their hatred flow forth fully; in such moments crowded and swollen feeling relieved itself: the tiger leaped out, voluptuous cruelty in his terrible eyes. Why must the Greek sculptor give form again and again to war and combat in innumerable repetitions: distended human bodies, their sinews tense with hatred or with the arrogance of triumph; writhing bodies, wounded; dying bodies, expiring? Why did the whole Greek world exult over the combat scenes of the Iliad? I fear that we do not understand these in a sufficiently "Greek" manner; indeed, that we should shudder if we were ever to understand them "in Greek." (The Portable Nietzsche. transl. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1976. 32-33)

Friedrich Nietzsche's opinion of the Greeks contrasts with the ideal of the civilized Greeks put forth by many scholars and cultural commentators in the nineteenth century. Nietzsche asks a startling question: how do you know that the Greeks' "lust to annihilate," their unreflective, tiger-like cruelty, was not "the fertile soil" out of which their cultural accomplishments came? How can we be certain that the violence and imperialism at the core of their civilization were not the foundation that made their artistic and philosophical accomplishments possible? The charge Nietzsche levels at idealizers of Greek culture is that they have aestheticized the Greeks, have taken flight from unpleasant truths about them into fine statuary and philosophy. He insists that the Greeks were a warrior culture and that their greatness in other areas of life sprang from this vitality. So are the promoters of the balanced and sane Greek Ideal sure what underlies their standard? Even those who emphasized the martial valor of the Greeks -- in part because of that quality's usefulness to supporters of the British Empire -- did not generally go so far as to praise the kind of behavior to which Nietzsche refers. To show that Nietzsche has reason to describe the Greeks as he does, here is a speech attributed by Thucydides to the victorious Athenians at Melos:

But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.

Or again,

For of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath it to all time, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. (A History of Philosophy, Volume 1. Frederick Copleston. NY: Doubleday, 1993. 19)