His own calling he conceives as that of a doctor; for, as he said of Plato, Nietzsche himself also “received from the apology of Socrates the decisive thought of how a philosopher ought to behave toward man: as their physician, as a gadfly on the neck of man” (IV, 404).
Nietzsche’s prescriptions are, in Kant’s language, hypothetical imperatives and do not involve any absolute obligation. If a man does not want to be healthy, the most that can be said against him is that he is diseased to the marrow or, in Nietzsche’s later terminology, decadent. The criterion of naturalism should be found in the sanction of valuations or moral imperatives. In Nietzsche’s early value theory the sanction is, unlike Kant’s, naturalistic. No principles are invoked that are not subject to investigation by the natural sciences.
Nietzsche’s difficulties in this essay arise from his consideration of the “supra-historical.” With the “historical” and “unhistorical” he had been able to deal in terms of life and health, not profoundly perhaps, nor brilliantly, but apparently to his own satisfaction. The “supra-historical point of view,” however, threatens to upset his entire scheme. What, then, is the “supra-historical”? Nietzsche imagines the question put to a number of people “whether they would wish to live through the last ten or twenty years once more.” He is sure that everybody would answer “No”—but for different reasons.
In Nietzsche’s words, they “believe that the meaning of existence will come to light progressively in the course of its process.” The “historical man” has faith in the future. The “supra-historical” man, on the other hand, is the one “who does not envisage salvation in the process but for whom the world is finished in every single moment and its end [Ende] attained. What could ten new years teach that the past could not teach?”
Empirical facts do not seem to him to warrant the belief that history is a story of progress, that ever greater values are developed, and that whatever is later in the evolutionary scale is also eo ipso more valuable. “The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens.” Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence. Here is the most crucial point of his philosophy of history and theory of values—no less than the clue to his “aristocratic” ethics and his opposition to socialism and democracy.
He maintains in effect that the gulf separating Plato from the average man is greater than the cleft between the average man and a chimpanzee. Most men are essentially animals, not basically different from chimpanzees—distinguished only by a potentiality that few of them realize: they can, but rarely do, rise above the beasts. Man can transcend his animal nature and become a “no-longer-animal” and a “truly human being”; but only some of “the philosophers, artists, and saints” rise to that point (U III 5). The unphilosophic, inartistic, and unsaintly mass remain animals. Hell is, so to speak, man’s natural state: only by a superhuman effort can he ascend into the heavens, leave the animal kingdom beneath him, and acquire a value and a dignity without equal in all of nature.
Then Nietzsche looked at the productions of the great artists and philosophers. Would he gauge the worth of these men by the mass of their productions, by the average excellence of their works—or by their greatest works?29 Again, the answer cannot be in doubt. Leonardo has left fewer paintings than have most painters; but we should not judge him a poor painter on that account. We judge artists, and also philosophers, by their “masterpieces.” We say that if Beethoven had just written some one symphony which we consider his best, then he would be as great a composer as has ever lived, even if he had never written anything else. If Shakespeare had written just Lear or Hamlet, his place would be secure. If Spinoza had written only the Ethics, he would still be one of the greatest philosophers of all time.
The birth of tragedy, Dionysus and Apollo, Socrates and Goethe, Strauss and Wagner become, in Nietzsche’s vision, symbols of timeless themes. The conception of organizing the chaos turns out to be of the utmost significance: introduced in an apparently historical account as the essence of the Apollinian genius, it remains one of the persistent motifs of Nietzsche’s thought—and nothing could show more clearly how the connotation of the Dionysian is changed in his later works than the fact that Dionysus is later associated with this very power of integration and self-discipline.