Charles Pletcher: Quick Thoughts on Heidegger Twisting Free from Platonism

By Charles Pletcher

In this brief response to the seminar on September 8, 2016, I want to look at the vertical axis of Nietzsche’s inverted Platonism through the lens of Heidegger and the interventions of Babette Babich and Taylor Carman. Throughout Professor Babich’s intervention ran a current of how easily and how often Nietzsche has been misread. Nietzsche leaves his readers winded by leading us up and down a vertical axis that he finds in Plato — we can see this axis most clearly in the Phaedrus and Republic, texts that Heidegger tackles in his early lectures. Moreover, Nietzsche’s own technē exposes us to the dizzying heights and depths of his philosophy as art. Professor Carman’s intervention focused on Heidegger’s reading of the eternal recurrence of the same, which served as a turning point for Heidegger’s views on Nietzsche. In this response, I want to read Heidegger reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, particularly the passage where Heidegger unites Zarathustra’s downgoing (on the vertical axis) with the beginning of tragedy. Heidegger, with Nietzsche in tow, reads the beginning of tragedy as the site where the performance comes into being and where it unconceals, through the perspective of the viewer, what had formerly been hidden. These two actions, which we might call (in Heideggerian shorthand) “becoming” and “Being,” respectively, are always in tension — tragedy puts us in the middle of the tension. We go down to tragedy both to experience change (becoming) and to look into what Being consists in.

Nietzsche often reminds us that Zarathustra must go down (untergehen). Zarathustra proclaims, “For that I must descend to the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you over-rich [überreiches] star” (The Gay Science 342).[1] Heidegger reads this passage in his lecture on the eternal recurrence of the same, quoting from The Gay Science and not directly from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (which, Heidegger notes, begins with a nearly identical passage) because in The Gay Science, Nietzsche prepends, “Incipit tragoedia,” while still closing the passage, “Thus Zarathustra began to go under [‘began his downgoing,’ Untergang]” (ibid.). Nietzsche aligns Zarathustra’s descent with the beginning of tragedy, and tragedy begins with Zarathustra’s proclamation to the sun. At the same time, Nietzsche superimposes this beginning onto the vertical axis defined by über and unter. Zarathustra must move along a vertical axis in order to disperse his wisdom, “to become man again” (ibid.). Zarathustra’s downgoing thus coincides with his becoming something other than he is; downgoing takes on a fundamentally transformative character. Nietzsche carefully channels and upends Plato here: contrary to Phaedrus’s chariot soul that goes up to fill itself with truth, Zarathustra goes down to empty his cup of truth. Nietzsche also notes Plato’s source: Plato picked this vertical space, the notion of going up and going down, out of Homer (see especially Elpenor’s fall and Odysseus’ descent to the underworld in Books 10 and 11 of the Odyssey), and Nietzsche channels the Homeric axis in Zarathustra’s waking with the “rosy dawn [Morgenröthe — a nice pun].”

Heidegger warns us that inverting Platonism cannot mean simply reversing this vertical axis in his lecture on the Phaedrus: “There can be an ‘above’ and ‘below’ in cases of mere distance and opposition, but never in the case of discordance, for the former do not share an equivalent standard of measure. The ‘above’ and ‘below’ are fundamentally different; in the essential respect they do not agree” (Nietzsche I, 190). For Heidegger, we misunderstand the question about Being — as Carman put it, the question becomes unavailable to us — if we view it along this axis, regardless of which end is up. Part of Heidegger’s problem with Nietzsche’s inverted Platonism comes from his view that Nietzsche merely turns the axis over: Nietzsche turns Platonism on its head by dislocating the supersensuous world above and putting in its place the realm of lived experience and the act of becoming.

Plato also turned the axis on its head once, in the myth of Er that concludes the Republic (614b–621d). In contrast to the earlier allegory of the cave, where the supersensuous world in the light of the sun corresponds to the world of true Being and the world within the cave corresponds to the world of mere (“mere”) experience, the myth of Er’s vertical axis has capital-T Truth at both ends. In the myth of Er, the souls of the dead take two paths: the upper path, for souls who led good lives, contains pleasant truths; the lower path, for souls who led bad lives, teaches harsh truths through punishment. Er leaves us with a twist: the souls who traveled on the upper path tend to make worse choices than the souls on the lower path when it comes time to choose a form for reincarnation. This twist leads in too many directions to follow any of them up here, but I bring it up not only for the way that it troubles the über/correct – unter/incorrect axis that Heidegger finds in Plato and Nietzsche but also for the way that it reveals the collision of truth (unconcealedness, alētheia) and untruth: all the souls in Er’s myth must drink from the river Lēthē (“forgetting,” “concealedness”) before they can be reincarnated.[2]

Heidegger rejects this simple inversion of up and down: “[The new hierarchy] does not wish to put what was at the very bottom on the very top. A new hierarchy and new valuation mean that the ordering structure must be changed. To that extent, overturning Platonism must become a twisting free of it” (Nietzsche I, 209–210). Nietzsche does not, according to Heidegger, twist free of Platonism, and rather than overcome the Platonist notion of truth as correctness, Nietzsche posits truth as error (The Will to Power 493). Heidegger interprets this passage in The Will to Power,

Truth, that is, the true as the constant, is a kind of semblance that is justified as a necessary condition of the assertion of life. But upon deeper meditation it becomes clear that all appearance and all apparentness are possible only if something comes to the fore and shows itself at all. What in advance enables such appearing is the perspectival itself. That is what genuinely radiates, bringing something to show itself. (Nietzsche I, 215)

In Heidegger’s view, Nietzsche stops short of looking into the nature of Being because Nietzsche’s inverted Platonism ultimately leaves us back where we started. We cannot escape the illusion of semblance simply by eliding semblance and truth, because doing so only allows us to see that things are (that they exist) and not what things are (what they consist of).

Professor Velasco introduced the idea that philologists end up interpreting symptoms, and Heidegger seems to have caught Nietzsche playing doctor. Nietzsche correctly points out the symptom of taking correctness for truth, but he does not really supply an antidote. Rather, Nietzsche points out that we are sick but that we must soldier on anyway. Our sickness affords us fleeting glimpses of truth, and we should celebrate them — but they do not cure us:

We are really for a brief moment primordial being itself, feeling its raging desire for existence and joy in existence; the struggle, the pain, the destruction of phenomena now appear necessary to us, in view of the excess of countless forms of existence which force and push one another into life, in view of the exuberant fertility of the universal will. (The Birth of Tragedy 17)

In that “brief moment” when “we are really primordial being itself,” we forget Being itself and focus only on becoming.  That is, we experience Being as becoming, but we do not look into the nature of what Being is. We are Being, but can we then name it as such? In this moment, we go down to tragedy. Put another way, the tragedy begins by pushing us into life. Nietzsche takes a wrong turn, in Heidegger’s view, by abandoning the question of Being at this beginning, rather than asking what Being itself is.

Heidegger does not necessarily want to rescue Nietzsche from his wrong turns, as both Babich and Carman point out; and Heidegger at the same time builds up his own question into Being out of the errors he perceives in Nietzsche. Carman points out that Heidegger takes off in many ways from the collision between alētheia and lēthē in the eternal recurrence of the same, but eternal recurrence fails to account for Being in time — it understands only moments (Augenblicken) as becoming. In Heidegger’s interpretation of The Gay Science 342, he writes,

When Zarathustra’s tragedy begins, so does his downgoing. The downgoing itself has a history. It is the history proper; it is not merely an end. Here Nietzsche shapes his work by drawing upon his profound knowledge of great Greek tragedy. For Greek tragedy is not the “psychological” matter of preparing a “tragic conflict,” of “tying the knots,” and such. Rather, everything that one usually takes as constituting “the tragedy” has already occurred at the moment the tragedy as such begins. (Nietzsche II, 31)

Heidegger follows Nietzsche — and Zarathustra and the tragedy itself — in their downgoing. At first, he seems to make an obvious point, that the story contained in a tragedy and the performance of a tragedy are not the same thing; but cast against the backdrop of the thought of the eternal recurrence of the same (“the hardest to bear,” he reminds us [Nietzsche II, 30]), Heidegger demonstrates how the performance of tragedy, its downgoing, presents the possibility of returning upwards — the Übergang, or transition. Zarathustra’s thought precipitates his downgoing: Zarathustra’s thought is “everything that one usually takes as constituting ‘the tragedy.’” Tragedy, or rather each performance of a tragedy, has an indeterminate start. Its beginning is not the beginning of the plot, but is rather the start of the audience’s engagement with the unfolding of the tragedy as such. The tragedy has already occurred, and the actors only ever reperform it. Tragedy, then, is the place where the audience, like Zarathustra, becomes other than it was before — and the audience does so, Heidegger would add, while still in view of the Being of the tragedy on the stage.

Heidegger continues his reading reading,

The “only thing” that happens in tragedy is the downgoing. The “only thing,” we say, quite ineptly, for only now does the proper matter begin. Without the “spirit” and the “thought,” all deeds are but—nothing. (Nietzsche II, 31)

Zarathustra, in Heidegger’s view, thinks the wrong question because he thinks the question in terms of its motion up and down the axis — in terms of its becoming. He sees only the change in himself and does not look into the Being that is already present in time. In so doing, as Carman points out, Zarathustra forgets Being by overprivileging the performance, the action and the change alone, instead of its collision with what it reveals and conceals. Heidegger, on the other hand, demands that we revise our downgoing to account for its extension through time. We must not only experience the primordial being of the performance, but we must also examine what “comes to the fore and shows itself.” We must stop ourselves from considering the thought or the tragedy as happening all at once; we must instead think through it as it unconceals itself. “The utterance of thinking is a telling silence. Such utterance corresponds to the most profound essence of language, which has its origin in silence” (Nietzsche II, 208).


[1] References to Nietzsche’s texts refer to text and section number; references to Heidegger’s text refer to text, volume, and page.

[2] It bears mentioning that Heidegger takes up this very myth in 1942, in his course on Plato’s Parmenides.