Callicles and Nietzsche

Nietzsche finds a friend and predecessor in Callicles, an interlocutor in the Gorgias Socratic dialogue. If any figures in Plato’s works deserve the bushy mustache, its him. In his wide-ranging duel with Socrates, they touch upon many themes which Nietzsche would later make central to his philosophy. Focusing on the early parts of the debate, we’ll see how Socrates, Callicles, and Nietzsche debate seriousness and play in philosophy, the herd, and the role of self-control for the powerful.

Callicles enters the debate in the most Nietzschean fashion there is: “is Socrates joking?” (Gorgias, 481b6). Much can be said about whether Socrates is earnest or joking, in this dialogue or any. We all know that Socrates knew nothing and died diseased, but he took his self-given task very seriously. As evinced by Callicles and Polus, however, this separates him from the other Athenians; the others, their power assured and confident, do not take his dialectic seriously. As Callicles says, “this is in fact the clever trick you’ve thought of, with which you work mischief…” (483a2-3). The spirit of gravity and seriousness in philosophy is anticipated by Socrates, prankster though he is. Though Plato cemented and reified this spirit and slew playfulness and irony as best he could, the motive of this attitude is in place. Callicles correctly positions philosophy as a childish sport and game; at this we should not despair. Nothing could delight Nietzsche more as a philosopher. But Socrates replaces the innocence of playful philosophy with self-defense – he gives it the form of the dialectic.

Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon: one laughs at him, one does not take him seriously. Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously: what really happened there? One chooses dialectic only when one has no other means…It can only be self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. One must have to enforce one’s right: until one reaches that point, one makes no use of it.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Kaufmann), “The Problem of Socrates,” paragraphs 5-6.

Callicles gets the closest to finding what Socrates the plebeian really is; he does not simply get muddled or angry with him as the other Athenians do, but recognizes him as the serious and defensive buffoon. He sees his dialectic as a “trick” and his work as “mischief” – but not, as in the playful tricks and mischief of child philosophy, but in earnest.

The discussion between Socrates and Callicles soon alights on the herd.  Callicles asserts that there is a great difference between the laws of man and nature,

I believe that these men do these things in accordance with the nature of what’s just—yes, by Zeus, in accordance with the law of nature, and presumably not with the one we institute.

Plato, Gorgias, 483e1-3

Socrates makes him stumble however, because don’t the “inferior,” the herd as Nietzsche would have them, often dictate the laws and emerge more powerful than the superior? Socrates does no less than envisage the coming history of Christianity and democracy in their most mediocre stages. Socrates thus equates the laws of the herd with nature; appalled, Callicles dismisses such an idea (489c). However, after being goaded into a certain construal of nature and law by Socrates, he can do little more to explain the triumph of the herd, a veritable law of nature since the rise of slave morality. Indeed, even the “superior” become inferior through these laws of the “rubbish heap of slaves and motley men,” (489c3-4); weak rulers “justify themselves by maxims from the current opinions of the herd…” (Beyond Good and Evil, paragraph 199). Nietzsche sees that slaves making laws is precisely natural – what else are they to do? The relationship of law and rule (or absence, in the command-relation) is an important one for the realms of master and slave-morality, but Socrates and Callicles soon come against the character of the overman – that of self-rule.

After spiraling through definitions of what makes one superior, Socrates takes the first step.

SOCRATES: Ruling or being ruled?

CALLICLES: What do you mean?

SOCRATES: I mean each individual ruling himself. Or is there no need at all for him to rule himself, but only to rule others?

CALLICLES: What do you mean, rule himself?

SOCRATES: Nothing very subtle. Just what the many mean: being self-controlled and master of oneself, ruling the pleasures and appetites within oneself.

CALLICLES: How delightful you are! By the self-controlled you mean the stupid ones!

Plato, Gorgias, 491d3-e3

This exchange is key. Socrates points out what, for Nietzsche, makes the overman – self-control. However, he describes this control as “ruling the pleasures and appetites.” Callicles, in the opposite direction, sees self-control as being ruled, indirectly, by others. But, for Callicles, self-affirmation is still in terms of appetites. Appetites are not instincts. The instincts, as Nietzsche later recognized, towards creation and affirmation and will to power, often work in the opposite direction of the appetites (which are towards pleasure, wealth, food and drink, etc). Callicles does not fall for the ascetic doctrine Socrates implies, but stumbles at the value-creating doctrine. When Socrates inquires whether living pleasantly (“as much as possible flowing in”) also necessitates flowing out (we may read: suffering, pain, work), Callicles accepts as a matter of course – this fact is of no importance for him. He does not stress the differential flowing in and out, the “war in him.” As Nietzsche saw in this period of Greece, “no one was any longer master over himself, the instincts turned against each other;” Socrates became renowned because he presented an apparent “cure” to the problem of self-mastery: knowledge, morality, asceticism (TOTL, “The Problem of Socrates” paragraph 9). Callicles’ cure, the master-morality of appetite and command, was no longer a cure either. Nietzsche identifies the two as “the happiness of repose, of undisturbedness, of repletion, of final unity…” (BGE, para200). Callicles describes this too:

The man who has filled himself up has no pleasure anymore, and when he’s been filled up and experiences neither joy nor pain, that’s living like a stone, as I was saying just now. Rather, living pleasantly consists in this: having as much as possible flow in.

Plato, Gorgias, 494a6-b1

But what is “having as much [pleasure] as possible flow in” consist in, but striving towards the stone? Callicles is on the track of affirmation but does not adequately account for the flowing out, the “self-control and self-deception” of the overman (BGE, para200). Self-control is higher and more noble than mere asceticism.

Socrates and Callicles are striving towards two deaths here. The more macabre of the two, who likens happiness to death, tombs and corpses at the first opportunity (493a-d), Socrates seeks the undisturbedness of depletion; Callicles, the undisturbedness of repletion, or the glutton. Affirmation and the overman is the complement, but distinct from both. It is life, neither of the deaths, though they all “spring from the same causes” – the “age of dissolution” and war (BGE, para200). Though Callicles is likely one of the most admirable figures to grace the dialogues for a Nietzschean, he is still only a herald of the philosophy of the overman.



Rigorous Exclusion: Parody, the Gothic, Madness

As all good schoolchildren know, gothic fiction has always been haunted by parody. Many of the respectable examples of 18th and 19th century English gothic literature themselves have an aspect of the satirical. By the time of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the genre was already passé; thus, while the novel engages with themes of madness, misery, and mystery, Shelley casts aside the familiar dusty ancient manuscripts and hidden knowledge forthright: looking back to his adolescence, Frankenstein acknowledges that “If…my father had taken the pains, to explain to me, that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced…” his youthful un-scientific imagination would have veered away from the “raising of ghosts or devils” which these occult books promised him (loc 46-47).  Or again, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a through and through parody of the gothic, which promises its gullible protagonist hidden chambers, skeletons and ghosts in a decrepit abbey, only to give a fully furnished home and rude in-laws.

While these particular examples parody the gothic towards deliberate ends (Shelley towards a more mature exploration of the old themes, revolving instead around science and the existential, and Austen towards a pragmatic and sympathetic mockery of folly), gothic fiction has since its birth been a bit of a joke. Consider the Ur-text of the gothic, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto; in its opening pages, ridiculous events and characters are conveyed in a tone somewhere between delirious and farcical.  The distraught and possibly mad Manfred has a peasant imprisoned for no crime other than having a glimmer of an idea of what’s going on.  Before the end of the chapter, Manfred has comically changed his mind and mood multiple times, and his exchanges with his servants make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem like Hamlet.

Where does this mockery come from?  Just as we have the established themes of the gothic (madness, heightened emotion, unreason), we have a few established themes of the mockthic (superstition, supposed foolishness of the lower classes and women, the triumph of reason).  For a (critical) example of the latter, observe the men in Northanger Abbey, some of whom dismiss not just gothic novels, but novels generally, as puerile trash, while others casually indulge in them for fun.  Undoubtedly, the counter-gothic as it pertains to class, gender, and religion are avenues to understanding the parodic drive.  A central theme of both the gothic and mockthic, however, reflects a contestation that stretched from the Renaissance to the modern era: madness.

In Michel Foucault’s analysis of madness (Madness and Civilization), he traces the major changes in the discursive and non-discursive treatment of madness from the Renaissance to the classical.  As Foucault has it, madness in the Renaissance was seen as a profound dimension of human existence which cuts to the deepest finitudes of reason and worldly life.  At this time, madness is “the animal that haunts his nightmares…is his own nature, which will lay bare hell’s pitiless truths,” (23).  Madness has a cosmic and meaningful quality to it, appears in the great tragic works of the Renaissance, and lurks everywhere in society.  Even the privilege of parody and folly is preserved in madness towards the end:

During the later Renaissance, it is domesticated and takes its place as an integral if clearly subordinated part of the human world, like the jester at a royal court. Here reason and madness speak to one another, like Lear and his fool. They are in ‘a perpetually reversible relation in virtue of which every folly [folie] has its reason that judges and masters it, and every reason has its folly in which it finds its derisory truth’ (Folie et deraison, 36). Foucault sees this relation expressed, for example, in the ironic literary themes (influenced by Christianity) of the folly of wisdom and the wisdom of folly. Later Renaissance madness is part of one world with reason, in dialogue with it; it is reason’s essential mocking counterpart, with a place and perspective of its own that is acknowledged by reason itself.

Gary Gutting – Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason, page 71-72

Thus, by means of parody, mockery and satire, madness is given a substantial role against reason.  But, as the discursive and non-discursive treatments of madness changed following the Renaissance, this role disappeared and even reversed.  For Foucault, major themes of the Classical treatment of madness are: madness’ origin in the passions, madness’ relationship to delirium or illusion, and the need to reign in madness and separate it from sane society.  These understandings of madness are manifested in the gothic and especially mockthic. First, the emphasis of madness and passion; a clear line is drawn in many gothic works connecting sexual desires (often forbidden) and the experience of madness. For example; Manfred’s spiral into madness throughout The Castle of Otranto is produced by his perverse drive to preserve his bloodline. After the death of his only son, he finds himself trying to transgress worldly and holy law in divorcing his wife and marrying Isabella, the young woman he had originally arranged for his son, sketching a strange inverted Oedipus; we should thus not wonder at the moralizing tone which accompanies mockthic treatments of madness when it is predicated upon passions.  Second, the relationship between madness and delirium; the Classical discourse on madness emphasizes madness’ obsession of “chimeras, of hallucinations, and of error – the cycle of nonbeing” (Madness and Civilization, 93).  This is illustrated in the mockthic by the boundaries drawn and erased between reality and illusion in its characters.  The grotesqueries of the gothic are treated soberly and skeptically (Frankenstein), as naïve illusion (Northanger Abbey), or a delirium birthed by madness itself (Otranto); even when asked to accept fantastical situations within the world of the text, the tone or circumstances of the book make it clear what delusions or inclinations created it (the playful Walpole began writing Otranto, after all, once inspired by a strange dream he’d had).  Lastly, the reaction to madness in the Classical age of “rigorous exclusion,” evinced by the Great Confinement and birth of the asylum, becomes parody itself in the mockthic.  By parodying the experience of madness in its pages, a mockthic work excludes madness from reality; by playing up the clichés of decaying castles, full moons, and hidden passageways, the experience of madness is excluded from our actual residences, the light of day, and the familiar confines of our streets and minds.

Thus, the gothic parody reverses the Renaissance reverence for madness; reason mocks madness (now nothing other than unreason), the king jests the jester.  Madness was dethroned in the Classical age and received its final bonds in the asylums, clinics and analysts of the modern era; but, by means of parody in gothic literature, its most powerful tool was already taken away and aimed back upon it – the power to mock.  One wonders what positive role can be given to madness in gothic fiction, as Foucault tries to do for Nietzsche, Van Gogh, or Artaud; because, as all good schoolchildren know, madness and the gothic are a joke, right?

Genealogy: Burroughs, Nietzsche

William S. Burroughs cut+paste fuck-filled masterwork The Soft Machine often spontaneously crystallizes into something resembling scenes, characters, and stories.  Great examples of this are the chapters “The Mayan Caper” and “Uranian Willy,” the latter of which, it seems to me, perfected cyberpunk before cyber or punk existed.  The final chapter, “Cross the Wounded Galaxies,” offers a last-gasp picture of the inner workings of the text. Mirroring Burroughs’ drug-addled wandering through South America in the rest of the book, a semi-coherent scene emerges at what seems to be the dawn of man at the end of the last ice age.

In a glacial mountain pass, Burroughs writes that “Most of the ape forms died there on the treeless slopes. dumb animal eyes on ‘me’ brought the sickness…” (177).  In the following pages, he traces the prehistorical and precultural steps of man out of the swamp of unreason as we usually prefer to think of it.  Our tribe enacts “body melting pleasure-sounds in the warm mud. till the sun went and a blue wind of silence touched human faces and hair. When we came out of the mud we had names,” (178).  But out of the mud and into what? The “body melting pleasure-sounds” continue throughout the text, throughout man; Burroughs rejects, through his experiences inside The Soft Machine, the calming state of civilization which we are told we evolved into by the grace of reason or God; he rejects even the names we were supposedly given in the swamp after the ice-age (Burroughs adopts the pseudonym “Johnny” early in the text, though the name accretes a character of its own).  The rest of the text spins out, in reverse, from this scene at the end and the beginning.

These pages illustrate Nietzsche’s analysis of the earliest restraints of man; memory and conscience. Man, as Nietzsche has it, in the millennia BC was an animal being bred by nature – through blind becoming, needless to say, and not a telos.  Memory had to evolve through early society according to the debt relation (the creditor has to have the faculty of memory to take his recompense from his debtor), but it was first a mutation.  As Nietzsche writes,

Forgetfulness is not just a vis inertiae, as superficial people believe, but is rather an active ability to suppress, positive in the strongest sense of the word, to which we owe the fact that what we simply live through, experience, take in, no more enters our consciousness during digestion (one could call it spiritual ingestion) than does the thousand-fold process which takes place with our physical consumption of food, our so-called ingestion. To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while; not to be bothered by the noise and battle with which our underworld of serviceable organs work with and against each other; a little peace, a little tabula rasa of consciousness to make room for something new…

Friedrich Nietzsche – The Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay: ‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and Related Matters,” paragraph 1.

What we witness through Burroughs’ text is this prehistory of forgetfulness; though just arisen out of the earlier primates, man lives in the “land of grass without memory,” the “glass blizzards without memory,” full of animalistic desires of violence, hunting, and sex (180-181).  What we witness in the text as a text, however, is forced memory – memory through language and consciousness which, as Nietzsche saw, is an excruciating process.

‘How do you give a memory to the animal, man? How do you impress something upon this partly dull, partly idiotic, inattentive mind, this personification of forgetfulness, so that it will stick?’…This age-old question was not resolved with gentle solutions and methods, as can be imagined; perhaps there is nothing more terrible and strange in man’s pre-history than his technique of mnemonics. ‘A thing must be burnt in so that it stays in the memory: only something which continues to hurt stays in the memory’ – that is a proposition from the oldest (and unfortunately longest-lived) psychology on earth.

Ibid, paragraph 3.

The broken and garbled prose of the rest of the book find its origin here, as man had mnemonics burnt into him by nature. This trauma, the emergence of thought and language in the midst of shit and crude sex, parodies, in Nietzschean fashion, the  transition from state-of-nature to civilization favored by Rousseau or even Hobbes (what is war compared to what Burroughs shows us throughout The Soft Machine?) Burroughs presents memory, language, conscience – in short, the beginnings of rational man – as a parasite, a worm in one’s gut that swallows your nourishment and cripples you in the tribe: “And the other did not want to touch me because of the white worm-thing inside…” “And some did not eat flesh and died because they could not live with the thing inside…” (179). Consciousness is a sickness at first, but the mutation becomes a beneficial tool: “so I knew the thing inside me would always find animals to feed my mouth meat…” (179-180).  We then have the debt relationship, the master-slave relation, and finally morality.

The rest of The Soft Machine exemplifies that this pre-conscious mire and the sickness of memory is not dead and buried in the deep past. As Nietzsche knew as well (“the oldest (and unfortunately longest-lived) psychology on earth”), the violence and urges burbling beneath the training of mnemonics is always there in modern moral man. 20th century man, traipsing and fucking through Panama, pursues the same ends as our prehistorical tribe and through the same fractured prose. Burroughs ends the text, only a paragraph after our ice age tribe, with a jump to what may as well be the 223rd century:

Think Police keep all Board Room Reports – and we are not allowed to proffer the Disaster Accounts – Wind hand caught in the door – Explosive Bio-Advance Men out of space to employ Electrician in gasoline crack of history – Last of the gallant heroes – “I’m you on tracks, Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin” – Couldn’t reach flesh in his switch – and zero time to the sick tracks – A long time between suns I held the stale overcoat – sliding between light and shadow – muttering in the dogs of unfamiliar score – cross the wounded galaxies we intersect, poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading – Migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history, explosive bio-advance out of space to neon…

William S. Burroughs – The Soft Machine, page 182.

He jumps from the beginning of man, the traumatic birth of thought in a carnival of sex acts, to the far future of interstellar man, and everywhere in between from Mexican jails to New York heroin dens: despite our training, he everywhere finds “migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history” spinning about in the stars.