Nihilism and Utopia : Plato, Nietzsche, Isaiah Berlin and utopian thinking
PlanHaut de page
- 1 F. Volpi 2004, p. 55.
- 2 See C. H. Zuckert 1996, p. 21. Nietzsche affirms that Plato is “a great Cagliostro” : “remember how (...)
- 3 N. F., Herbst, 1887 bis März 1888, 11 (99) ; Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 219.
- 4 N. F. Anfang 1888 bis Anfang Januar 1889, Frühjahr 1888, 14 (153), KGW VIII-3, 128.
- 5 N. F. Herbst 1887 bis März 1888, Herbst 1887, 9 (60), KGW VIII-2.30.
- 6 N. F. Anfang 1888 bis Anfang Januar 1889, Frühjahr 1888, 14 (134), KGW VIII-3.109.
1In ‘The History of an Error’ or ‘How the world finally became a Fable’, the famous chapter of Nietzsche’s Twilights of the Idols, we have an outline of a real compendium of nihilism, as has been stated by highly authorized interpreters.1 In the six phases which Nietzsche describes as the history and final overcoming of nihilism, we find Plato’s name explicitly quoted twice : the “true world” in the first stage is a kind of circumlocution equivalent to saying “I, Plato, am the truth”. And in the fifth phase, when the idea of the true world is refuted and abolished, Nietzsche mentions once more Plato, telling us about his “embarrassed blush” and so accusing him of having created the metaphysics of the intelligible world as an invented story intented to deceive humanity.2 But once more, in the overcoming of nihilism described in the sixth phase, Plato is also implicitly alluded to, when Nietzsche seems to remember the allegory of the cave. A new beginning is announced under the image of the “moment of the briefest shadow”, which means to abolish the dichotomy of the true and the apparent world, when the reign of Zarathustra is about to start. We can understand that, after all, Nietzsche is correct in presenting his own philosophy as “inverted Platonism”. In the history of nihilism, written by Nietzsche in this chapter, we can distinguish two moments in relation to Platonism. The first of these two phases is a metaphysical way of thinking, created by Plato himself, which is built upon the three categories of purpose, unity or totality and being or truth. With these categories, metaphysics has “put a value into the world”, as Nietzsche says3 in a very well-known fragment of his Notebooks, and nihilism comes as a consequence of the discredit of these categories, when we cannot rely on them anymore and we extract the value based on them and the world then looks valueless. The metaphysical splitting of the world into an intelligible or true world and a sensible or apparent world, discredits this world4 and, therefore, has nihilistic implications for European culture : the disbelief in the existence of such a true world will produce nihilism, because “the nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist”.5 The invention of a true world is meant to slander this world, and its relation with nihilism is evident, because Nietzsche affirms that, with such an escape from reality, philosophers are extending their hands to a nothing.6
- 7 M. Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. by J. L. Vermal 2000, vol. I, p. 196.
- 8 M. Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. by J. L. Vermal 2000, vol. II, p. 81.
2Nevertheless, I am not going to deal on this occasion with these characteristic categories of nihilism. I think we can distinguish a second phase of Platonism on the road to nihilism, when the belief in the intelligible world has disappeared form European thought. As Heidegger points out commenting on this famous chapter, it is not sufficient to eliminate the intelligible world as the true world, because the empty space of that world remains as something hanging over this world and condemning it, and the cleavage between two worlds in a metaphysical construction is still Platonism.7 When the preceding values have been eliminated together with the intelligible world by which they were sustained, it is also possible to maintain their place and occupy it, as Heidegger says, with new ideals.8 We can speak of a subtle survival of Platonism, once the metaphysical world of beyond is abandoned. This is my main concern in my contribution, the ontology of value which survives in the last phases of the historical development of nihilism, when the old beliefs in the metaphysical world have already been left behind.
- 9 E. Fink, Nietzsche’s Philosophy, trans. by G. Richter 2003, p. 134.
- 10 N.F. Herbst 1885- Herbst 1886, 2 (165), KGW VIII-1, 146, Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 93.
- 11 N.F. November 1887-März 1888, (11 (148), VIII-2, 311-312.
- 12 Ibid. 11 (148).
3In the fifth phase, once the Platonic Idea and the Intelligible world is abolished, the task still remains of liberating being itself from the moral ontology or the ontological morality, as E. Fink has called it.9 It is an intermediate period, between an imperfect (cfr. N.F. Herbst 1887, 10 (42)) and a perfect nihilism ; it was Nietzsche’s time and probably it is still our own time, a transitional period where we have seen the attempt to substitute the old values of Platonism and Christianity for new ideals. “Utilitarianism (socialism, democratism)”, says Nietzsche,10 “criticises the origins of moral valuations, but it believes in them just as the Christian does”. “The hereafter is absolutely necessary if belief in morality is to be upheld”. The main purpose of my presentation is to illuminate this moral ontology which survives after “the sanctioning God is gone” (2 (165)), in Nietzsche’s words. What I am trying to examine is how Platonism determines a way of thinking in the ontology of value which remains after eliminating the metaphysics that presented our world as an apparent world. I am making reference to utopian thinking. Nietzsche says that “the time is coming when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousands years”, but with the opposite valuations which arise when the old Platonic metaphysics is left behind, one still attempts, says Nietzsche,11 a kind of “earthly solution”, “yet in the same sense, that of the final triumph of truth, love, justice : socialism, equality of persons”. With these words Nietzsche seems to allude to utopian thinking, as if this scholl of thought could inherit the essential “moral ideal”, once liberated from its otherworldliness. “One continues to believe in good and evil in such a way”, continues Nietzsche, “that one feels the victory of good and the annihilation of evil to be a task...” What is most important, we find in the new ways of thinking a kind of elaboration of the old beliefs, when “one even tries to hold on to the beyond” in such a way that it can yield a metaphysical consolation and “even tries to read out of what happens a divine guidance in the old style”.12 This translation of the old moral ontology into new utopian categories is perhaps carried out in a transitional period between a moment of obscurity and the period of clarity in which perfect nihilism will leave no place for those hopes and will lead to the final overcoming of nihilism.
- 13 N.F., Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1886, 7(54), KGW, VIII-1, 320, Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 138.
4Utopian thinking could be envisaged as a substitute for the old dichotomy between an apparent and a true world, an earthly solution, as Nietzsche calls it, but, in his opinion, it is an inconvenient solution, because “the whole idealism of humanity until now is on the point of tipping over into nihilism, into the belief of the absolute valuelessness (that is meaninglessness)”, so that “the annihilation of ideals is the new desert” which we will have to cross.13 My present concern speaking about Platon aujourd’hui is to see whether Plato is really implicated in the constitution of a utopian way of thinking, the ontology of value which it presupposes and the reception which it has received in contemporary critics such as Isaiah Berlin, who have propounded a pluralism of values. I will deal with these three questions.
- 14 I quote Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from the English translation by N. Kemp Smith 1929.
5On the utopian character of Plato’s philosophy, we have seen different interpretations in the course of Plato’s historiography. The Republic has been interpreted in this light, at least since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which established the basis for the utopian interpretation of Plato’s project of the ideal state expounded in this work, defending the utility and the normative validity that a model of this nature can provide in the field of the practical. Kant thought that we could “understand him better than he has understood himself”14 (CPR, B 370) and he interpreted Plato’s theory of ideas as the testimony that “our faculty of knowledge feels a much higher need than merely to spell out appearances according to a synthetic unity” (CPR, B 371). The validity of Plato’s attempt was accepted by Kant, because he took the ideas, and for example the idea of virtue, as an archetype whose value is not diminished by the fact that “no one of us will ever act in a way which is adequate to what is contained in the pure idea of virtue” (CPR, B 372). “For it is only by means of this idea, says Kant, that any judgment as to moral worth or its opposite is possible ; and it therefore serves as an indispensable foundation for every approach to moral perfection”. In an explicit mention of the Republic, Kant holds that Plato’s project should not be considered “a supposedly visionary perfection, such as can exist only in the brain of the idle thinker” nor “set it aside as useless on the very sorry and harmful pretext of impracticability” (B 372-3). The validity of Plato’s political approach should not be condemned with “the vulgar appeal to so-called adverse experience”. “The perfect state”, as is established by Plato in the Republic, “may never, indeed, come into being ; nonetheless this does not affect the rightfulness of the idea, which, in order to bring the legal organisation of mankind ever nearer to its greatest possible perfection, advances this maximum as an archetype” (CPR, B374).
- 15 G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. by E. S. Haldane and F. H. Simson, Lo (...)
6Needless to say, not all interpreters have accepted Kant’s interpretation and it was not much later that Hegel offered an entirely different interpretation of Plato’s Republic, because for him Plato was “not the man to dabble in abstract theories and principles”, but “a mind which has recognized and represented the truth..., the truth of the world he lived in, the truth of the one spirit which lived in him as well as in Greece”. This means that for him the Republic is not a chimera, nor even as it was for Kant, a valid archetype, or something never to be achieved on earth, but rather the representation of “Greek morality according to its substantial mode”, for it is, says Hegel, “the Greek state-life which constitutes the true content of the Platonic Republic”.15
- 16 K. Popper  971, p. 158.
- 17 On Strauss and the utopian character of the Republic, M. Vegetti 2000, p. 111 ff., M. Vegetti 2010, (...)
- 18 L. Strauss, p. 127.
- 19 Ibid., p. 129.
- 20 Ibid., p. 138.
- 21 See F. Nietzsche, N-F. Winter 1869-70-Frühjahr 1870, 3 (94), KGW, III-3, 85.
7Nevertheless, in the second half of the twentieth century discussion of the utopian character of Plato’s Republic was intensified due to the attack on Plato by Popper’s work, The Open Society and Its Enemies. As is well known, Popper accused Plato of being one of the most important seeds of modern totalitarianism. In this work and in The Poverty of Historicism he described Plato’s project in the Republic as one of “social Utopian engineering”, in opposition to “social piecemeal engineering”, which was the only approach he considered methodologically sound and rational, while the “Utopian engineering” attributed to Plato in his opinion “had led only to the use of violence in place of reason”.16 As Popper accused Plato of proposing a utopian project of totalitarian character, many defenders of Plato denied that Plato’s Republic could be considered a utopia. Leo Strauss, for example,17 did not accept the ideal condition of Plato’s state : the just city is not an idea like justice itself, and “still less is it an ideal”. It could be, in his view, only by virtue of having been figured out with a view to justice itself on the one hand and the human all too human on the other. With these words Strauss could give the impression that he thinks that the just city for Plato is a kind of compromise between the ideal and the human condition, as a desirable blueprint to be realized in practice. But for Strauss the just city of the Republic is not even possible or desirable. If at first we are told that the just city would come into being if the philosophers become kings, we finally realise that this will not be possible unless they expel the children and everyone older than ten from the city, in order to make sure that their subjects will not be corrupted by the old traditional ways of life. “Then”, concludes Strauss,18 “the just city is impossible, because it is against nature. It is against nature that there should ever be a cessation of evils”. Remembering the famous passage in the Theaetetus (176a), Strauss quotes Plato’s dictum that “there should always be something opposed to the good and that evil necessarily wanders about the mortal nature and the region here”. And, in Strauss’ view, utopia is the belief that the cessation of evils is possible,19 but this possibility is not seriously believed by Plato, so the Republic would not even “bring to light the best possible regime, but rather the nature of political things”.20 This is equivalent to saying, of course, that Plato does not believe in utopia and that the just city sketched in the work is just an ironical proposal intended to show “the essential limits” and “the nature of the city”. I would like to recall Nietzsche’s opinion in The Daybreak that Plato “was left with the reputation of being a fantasist and utopian”, because success eluded him. But he attempted to settle three times in Sicily in order to determine customs and regulate everyone’s day to day mode of life (cfr. §496). So we can be sure that, for Nietzsche, Plato was an idealist, like many philosophers for whom “existence is unbearable without a utopia”,21 and that in his view the project of the just city was possible and desirable for Plato.
- 22 K. Mannheim 1954, p. 173.
- 23 P. Ricoeur, in G. H. Taylor (comp.) 1989, p. 295.
8Nevertheless, regardless of the many opinions professed concerning Plato’s utopism, the question which I would like to raise is what utopian thinking consists of and whether we could attribute to Plato an ontology of value which we find in utopias, as a legacy to modern thought when the metaphysical division of an intelligible and a sensible world is already abandoned. First of all, it is difficult to reach a consensus about what utopian thought really is. The term utopia was first used by Thomas More in his well-known work entitled Utopia and first published in 1516. I believe that the word itself refers us to an essential characteristic of this concept about which I would like to make certain reflections on the present occasion. Utopia comes from ou, no, and topos, place, so it would signify a ‘no place’. Others have derived the word form eu topia, and then the essential meaning would not be a state which does not exist anywhere but an ideal city. In any case, it is curious to observe that More did not accept Budé’s suggestion to call his isle ‘Oudepotía’, which would have meant the isle of ‘neverwhere’, perhaps underlining its impossibility or its character as a model outside time. In the classical definition of this concept given by Mannheim in his work Ideology and Utopia, he says that “a state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs” and this incongruence is always evident in the fact that such a state of mind in experience, in thought, and in practice, is oriented towards objects which do not exist in the actual situation”.22 Nevertheless, in his typology of the utopian mentality, Mannheim does not mention Plato, probably because, as P. Ricoeur reminds us,23 one of the essential traits of his concept of utopia was that it should represent the demands of a socially oppressed class. Nevertheless, leaving aside the political content of the concept, I would say that Plato’s project could be classified as utopian from the point of view, contemplated in his definition, that it constitutes a way of thinking which transcends reality, and in the second place, given its political proposals, because it would destroy the existing order of things.
9Let us go to the Platonic text. Throughout the Republic Socrates describes three waves which threaten to sweep him away. These waves of paradox could wash us away, says Socrates (473c) “on billows of laughter and scorn” (Shorey’s translation). The three of them are equivalent to what we could call the utopian content of Plato’s proposal. First of all he refers to the necessity of ordaining that the guardians and the female guardians must have all their pursuits in common (457c). The second wave makes reference to the community of women and children prescribed for the guardians (457d), but the worst wave in Socrates’ opinion is the conjunction of political power and philosophical intelligence which is proposed in the figure of the philosopher kings as the only way to achieve the cessation of evils for our states (473d). Plato is quite aware of the ridiculous character of his three proposals due to the fact that they are against the common opinion (parà dóxan) of his contemporaries.
10This utopian content, if we can call it so, produces the characteristic inversion of reality which is common in utopias. But the question is the type of metaphysical mechanism which makes it possible as a way of thinking, because the ontology of value which arises from utopia depends on that. When we were inquiring into the nature of the ideal justice, says Socrates (472c4), and of the perfectly just man, all the inquiry was carried out paradeígmatos héneka, for the sake of a paradigm. What is the meaning of this word in the Republic ? First of all, we must say that it has a true and normative character. This is evident when Socrates compares the guardian with the painter. The legislator, like an artist, must have this pattern or parádeigma (484c9) in his soul and fix his eyes on it as “on the absolute truth”, in order “to establish in this world the laws of the beautiful, the just and the good” (484d). In the second place, and I think that this is very important for the ontology of value which derives from it, the paradigm has a reality whose validity is independent of its existence and even of its possibility in the world of experience. In another reference to the painter, Plato says that he would not be any less good a painter if after portraying a pattern of the ideally beautiful man, he might “not be able to prove that it is actually possible for such a man to exist” (472d), in the same manner as the normative value of his political proposal is not diminished if he is unable to prove that it is possible for a state to be governed in accordance with it (472e).
- 24 For M.F. Burnyeat 1992, p. 177, for example, the paradigm is not a Platonic form. M. Isnardi Parent (...)
11Plato does not want to say that his proposal could be “ridiculed as uttering things as futile as daydreams are” (499c). The project of a just city, Socrates admits, “cannot be realized in deed as it is spoken in word” (473a), but, as it is said of the just man, it would suffice if “he approximates to it as nearly as possible and partakes of it more than others” (472c). But what is clear is that the validity of the paradigm is not lessened if the city which has been described “can be found nowhere on earth” (592a11-b1). Thomas More, as we know from his Letters to Erasmus, gave to his work the tentative title of Nusquama, probably (it has been suggested by P. Sawada) because he read Ficino’s rendering of this oudamoû (nowhere) just quoted as nusquam in his translation of Plato’s Republic. Anyway, with these words Plato comes very close to the modern concept of utopia. In the third place, as in Mannheim’s definition of utopia, Plato’s concept of paradigm has a transcendent character. Socrates speaks of this pattern as a “heavenly model” (τῷ θείῳ παραδείγµατι χρώµενοι ζωγράφοι, 500e) which must be contemplated by the artists who are to trace the lineaments of the just city. On another occasion he declares that the philosopher, having beheld the Good itself, shall use it “as a pattern for the right ordering of the state and the citizens and themselves” (540a9), so the parádeigma has a clear transcendent character, which is highlighted when Socrates finally says at the end of book nine that there is a pattern of the just which they have described “laid up in heaven for him who wishes to contemplate it and so beholding to constitute himself its citizen” (592b), because “it makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will come into being”. The Platonists discussed24 whether this pattern has in itself an ideal character or whether it is a kind of philosophical imitation of ideal forms, which is established in order to organize an empirical reality which will never fully accommodate to it. Socrates just says that “they are trying to create in words the pattern of a good state” (472d-e). In whichever case, whether the pattern is a Platonic idea or more modestly the plan of a perfect state inspired by Platonic ideas, I believe that in this way of thinking we have a philosophy of value that is basic in utopia, because here, indeed, normative validity is conceived of as a truth which is independent of empirical reality. From a metaphysical perspective we could say, in Nietzsche’s terms, that Plato situates value in the realm of being and establishes its essence independently of the factual existence of things.
- 25 Cfr. N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (2), KGW, VIII-1, 261.
- 26 See paragraph 6 of “Reason in Philosophy”, Twilight of the Idols, KGW VI-3,72.
- 27 N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (2), KGW, VIII-1, 261.
- 28 P. Ricoeur, in G. H. Taylor (comp.) 1989, p. 318.
- 29 See “Value of truth and error”, in N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (2), and “What I owe to the Anci (...)
12In a fragment from his Notebooks Nietzsche says that Plato was responsible for “a bold reversal” and that he “measured the degree of reality by the degree of value”.25 The comparison between the artist and the legislator, when establishing the philosophical foundations of the project of the just city, makes clear the reciprocal relations between the concepts of truth, being and value, and I think that Nietzsche is right in tracing the antithesis between the true and the illusory world “back to relations of value” (cfr. N.F. Herbst 1887, 9 (38)). One does not have to agree with Nietzsche in his declaration that the opposition between a true and an apparent world is “a moral optical illusion”, which arises from “an instinct of slander against life” and “a symptom of the decline of life”.26 But the comparison with the painter throws light on the philosophy of value which will be inherited by utopian thinking. Perhaps thinking of this passage, Nietzsche says that “Plato, as the artist he was, preferred appearance to being, lie and invention to truth, the unreal to the actual !”27 I repeat that one does not have to agree with Nietzsche, especially in relation with his absolute condemnation of Platonism as responsible for the main current which results in European nihilism, to see that Plato with his reference to the painter has established the foundations of the philosophy of value. The truth and the being of the pattern depends on its value, and with his procedure he is consecrating the category of the imaginative inversion of reality which will be essential in the nowhere land where utopia resides. In the aforementioned text Nietzsche comments on the boldness of Platonism in his inversion (Umdrehen) of reality, while P. Ricoeur, speaking of Fourier, the utopian socialist, reminds us of the importance which fantasy, and particularly inversion, has in utopian thinking. It is a philosophical category, typical of nineteenth century, he says,28 because Marx employs it against Hegel and the utopian socialists against existing society and the real life. It is based on the metaphysical independence of the pattern from the empirical reality, praised by Kant and criticised by Nietzsche as the basic drive of an artist who “cannot endure reality” or “a coward before reality, who flees into the ideal”.29
- 30 N.F., November 1887 bis März 1888, 11 (135), KGW, VIII-2, 304.
- 31 See “The European Nihilism” in N.F., Somer 1886-Herbst 1887, 5 (71), KGW, VIII-1, 215, Writings fro (...)
13What survives in this philosophy of value after the abandonment of the intelligible world conceived in its Platonic or Christian version is the conception of values as realities in themselves which can carry out a devaluation of our existence. Nietzsche recognizes the occasional utility of the characteristic values defended by utopian thinking, “showy words”, such as “the revolution, the abolition of slavery, equal rights, philanthropy, love of peace, justice and truth”, he admits the utility of these big words, as instruments and the “value in a fight, as flags” (Werth im Kampf, als Standarte), which they have, but “not as realities” (nicht als Realitäten30), such as are conceived by Platonic metaphysics. The old values with the collapse of the intelligible world have been replaced by new ideals, but the ontology of value survives in utopian thought and in this way we can speak of a legacy of Platonism in the European culture. The transcendent reality that is conceded to these ideals and the inversion which they operate, in Nietzsche’s view, bring as a consequence the belief that existence is an error. And this is why he says that “the whole idealism of humanity until now is on the point of changing suddenly into nihilism, into the belief in absolute valuelessness, or, meaninglessness” (7 (54)). The mistrust of our previous valuations will bring about the idea that “all values are lures that draw out the comedy without bringing it closer to a solution”31 and he predicts a “destruction of ideals”, as the new desert which mankind will have to cross.
- 32 K. Mannheim 1954, p. 227 and see also P. Ricoeur, in G. H. Taylor (comp.) 1989, p. 300.
14Nevertheless, one of the most important categories of utopia is the category of totality. Mannheim and Ricoeur have insisted on this character of utopias to the point of affirming that “the total perspective tends to disappear in proportion to the disappearance of the utopia”.32 What is the consequence of applying this category in the realm of the utopian ontology of value ? The clear answer which can be given to this question is that all the different values constitute an indissoluble unity : all of them are essences compatible with one another and all are founded on the same principle that makes of them a unitarian synthesis. For Plato, no evil is greater for a state than “the thing that distracts it and makes it many instead of one” and no good is greater than “that which binds it together and makes it one” (462a9-b1). Nevertheless, I would like to leave aside, in relation to Plato, the problem of the unity of the city, which is very closely related to the present question, but of a different nature, because it has to do with politics, and I will prefer to concentrate on the ontological aspect of values.
15In the case of Plato, unity of value is based on a double fondation. First of all, we have an ontological aspect. Values cannot contradict one another, because all of them depend metaphysically on the Idea of Good. “The objects of knowledge”, says Socrates, – and we may add that values are objects of knowledge – “not only receive from the presence of the Good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it” (509b6-8). In a very clear text, in relation to the unity of values, Socrates says that the Idea of Good is that fondation “by reference to which just things and all the rest become useful and beneficial” (505a3-4). If we had any doubt about the significance of these texts for the present question, Socrates affirms a few lines below that if we do not know the idea of Good, the knowledge of all other things “would be of no advantage for us” (505a), “just as no possession either is of any advantage without the possession of the good”. This ontology, this axiological monism is the metaphysical presupposition of the Platonic utopia of the ideal city : the political unity of the state, which Plato considers the most important good for the polis, is, indeed, a consequence of this.
- 33 “Untergang einer Gesammtwerthung”, N.F., Sommer 1886-Herbst 1887, 5 (70), KGW, VIII-1, 214.
- 34 I. Berlin 1999, p. 59.
- 35 I. Berlin, in H. Hardy and R. Hausheer (eds.) 1998 : “Herder and the Enlightment”, p. 392 ; see als (...)
- 36 See I. Berlin 1992, “The Decline of the Utopian Ideas in the West”, p. 42-3.
- 37 I. Berlin, “The pursuit of the ideal”, in H. Harder and R. Hausheer (eds.) 1998, p. 5.
- 38 I. Berlin, “The Decline of the Utopian Ideas in the West”, in J. M. Álvarez Flórez (transl.) 2002, (...)
- 39 “My Intellectual Path”, loc. cit., p. 79.
16The relation of the unity of values with utopian thought is evident. But what is most important to realise is that even when this metaphysical presupposition is abandoned in modern thought, the axiological unity survives in the utopias. By the way, we could pay attention to Nietzsche once more, because in one of his definitions of nihilism he says that it consists of “a collapse of a general evaluation”.33 Isaiah Berlin, one of the greatest historians of ideas of the twentieth century, has highlighted the importance of this axiological monism in utopias, which he calls a certain version of the Ionian fallacy : “monism has been the central thesis of Western philosophy from Plato to our day”.34 Berlin finds a monist tradition “at any rate since Plato”, maintaining that “the good is one, while evil has many faces” : “the central current”, he says,35 “in ethics and politics, as well as metaphysics and theology and the sciences is cast in a monist mould”. This monism is one of the three fundamental traits, perhaps the most important, which I. Berlin attributes to utopian thinking. In accordance with this “persistent idea of European thought”, our task would consist in rebuilding the broken fragments of a perfect whole,36 in the idea that “all the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another”.37 Essential in utopian thought, “from Plato onwards”, says Berlin,38 is the idea of a perfect world, and this presupposes an “ideal society in which all the great values in the light of which men have lived for so long can be realised together, at least in principle”.39
- 40 See on this question A. Vallejo Campos 2007 ; 2012 ; and “The Theory of Conflict in Plato’s Republi (...)
17The ontological fondation which the idea of Good provides to the unity of values, makes it evident that these cannot be incompatible, because in order to be values they must receive their essence from the Good. Nevertheless, we could ask whether Plato, while constructing his project of a perfect city, was so blind that he did not understand the complexity of human motives. As is well known, Plato distinguished in the human soul as well as in the city three basic motives of intellectual, spirited and appetitive character : we can find in both realms, in the city and in the individual soul, three kinds of desire. The desire for pleasure which is achieved in the satisfaction of the biological needs, in the first place, characteristic of the appetitive part of the soul and the productive class of the state, the desire for victory, honour and recognition, which is characteristic of the choleric part and the military class, in the second place, and, finally, the desire for knowledge, of the rational part and the ruling class. At first glance, it could be said that these basic desires are psychological or social motives, but not values which should be harmonized in a perfect state. But this is not so simple, because these motives have to be provided with cognitive counterparts if they have to operate with other factors in the spheres of the soul or the state. I cannot argue at length in favour of my own theory of what we could call a cognitive theory of desire in Plato. So I will give only one example of what I am trying to explain. Plato calls the appetitive part of the soul philochrematon or philokerdes (money-loving or gain-loving part, 681a6-7), thus indicating that the search for pleasure, which would be derived from the satisfaction of these biological needs, is usually transformed into another drive which does not seek these immediate pleasures, but rather is only an instrument for a future and perhaps safer way of indulging them. This means that what was at first rated only in terms of the search of physiological pleasure is transformed into other cognitive objects, which are capable of appearing as values, as the value of economic stability, prosperity and so on. The same could be said of the basic motive which looks for victory and honour in that choleric part of the soul which Plato calls philotimos or philonikos (for her desire of reputation and victory). And the same applies, needless to say, to the rational part or the ruling class of the state and their corresponding intellectual motivations. What I want to say is that each part of the soul is capable of transforming their desires into representations of the good. As Socrates says in the Symposium, different kinds of people direct their “longing for happiness and for the good” to the fields of business, athletics and philosophy (205a-b). This means that the general characterization of the will or boúlesis as desire of the good, when operating in these different fields which correspond to the three parts of the soul, give rise to different values or images of the good.40
- 41 I Berlin, in J. M. Álvarez Flórez (transl) 2002, p. 70.
18A conflict between these values emerging from different motivational sources is naturally possible. Plato speaks of logoi and doxai that participate in what we could describe as a conflict of values in the realm of soul : some of these are “false and braggart words and opinions” which sometimes “prevail in the conflict” (αὐτοί τε κρατοῦσι µαχόµενοι, 560d1) and manage to present the values associated to reverence and awe as folly or those which accompany temperance as “want of manhood” (560d). But the question is whether this conflict of values is possible in the just city of the Platonic utopia or, what is equivalent to this, in the well-ordered soul of the just individual. The answer is negative, because “when the entire soul accepts the guidance of the wisdom-loving part and is not filled with inner dissension, says Socrates, the result... is that each part enjoys its own proper pleasures” (586e). All the motives and the corresponding values to which the irrational parts are sensitive can give rise to conflicts due to their irrational character. The gain-loving and the contentious parts, irrational as they are, can be harmonized within an integrated order in which they can achieve their desires if they accept the guidance of knowledge and reason (αἳ µὲν ἂν τῇ ἐπιστήµῃ καὶ λόγῳ ἑπόµεναι 586d). This means, in my opinion, that the psychological and social harmony which Plato is seeking for his utopia of a just city is possible under the presupposition of a monism of value where no conflicts can arise if reason is in charge of the order to be established by the philosopher king. “The consequence of this belief,” says I. Berlin, “is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organised, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed”.41
- 42 I. Berlin, “The Pursuit of the Ideal”, loc. cit., p. 5.
- 43 I. Berlin, “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West”, loc. cit., p. 47.
19The unity of values has, then, a second foundation, regardless of its ontological foundation, in Plato’s theory of reason. When specifying the three components of the utopian thought derived from what he calls “a Platonic ideal”, I. Berlin says that for this view “all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only” and “that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths”.42 Explained in other words, we could say that the Platonic thesis that “virtue is knowledge”, quoted by Berlin,43 means that “only knowledge can provide the spiritual, moral and political salvation” and this vast Platonic assumption, he says, sometimes, in its Christian form or in any other way, is what we find at the bottom of the great utopias of the Renaissance and of the rational reorganisation of society which develops from the eighteenth century to the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. Virtue is knowledge, in my opinion, means, in relation to utopian thinking, that reason is the way for finding the path to a social whole where all the solutions and the different values are compatible with one another. This Platonic conception of reason is the other foundation of the unity of values and it is what provides a link between the different assumptions of the utopian thought described by Berlin.
- 44 See, for example, A. W. Price 1994, p. 39.
- 45 See I. Berlin in H. Harder and R. Hausheer (eds.) 1998, p. 70.
20This Platonic conception of reason does not distinguish between the realm of values and the realm of being. Reason cannot contradict itself in its analysis of facts, when it proceeds theoretically. But the point is that Plato extends this uncontradictory way of proceeding to reason also when operating in the practical realm of values – that is, in the world of action – and this notion of reason, by no means evident, is what constitutes the epistemological basis for the unity of values. Plato takes as a general principle that it is not possible “for the same thing at the same time in the same respect and the same relation to suffer, be or do opposites”. He does not distinguish the order of being from the order of action : values and ends for him are objective, they have a reality in themselves, and they cannot contradict each other, in the same way as the real existing facts must coexist without contradiction. In the same manner as reason cannot contradict itself analysing facts, the faculty of the rational will which operates in the practical order cannot desire contrary things. If we apply this conception of praxis to the human faculty of desiring, we need to presuppose a division of the self to explain how a single person desires and rejects the same object. If reason cannot affirm and deny at the same time and in respect to the same thing, it cannot either command and forbid a course of action or desire and reject opposing values at the same time, and this is why he has to divide the faculty of desiring into a rational and an irrational part. “It cannot be”, says Socrates, “that the same thing with the same part of itself at the same time acts in opposite ways about the same thing” (439b5-6). This translation of the principle of non-contradiction or of non contrariety, as many authors have rightly proposed to call it,44 from the order of facts to the realm of action, or to the faculty of desires and its corresponding values, explains Plato’s belief that we need an art of measurement, a metretiké téchne, for saving our life. It is a matter of cancelling the effect of appearances “which leads us astray and throws us into confusion” (Protagoras 356d). These operations of the intelligence which are required, in Plato’s view, are the same in the field of comparing magnitudes and in the field of “our actions and our choices between great and small” (ἐν ταῖς πράξεσιν καὶ ἐν ταῖς αἱρέσεσιν τῶν µεγάλων τε καὶ σµικρῶν, 356d) where we are, he says, constantly accepting and rejecting the same things. Plato does not realise, as I. Berlin says in relation to the monists in general, that “the answer to the question “What should we do ?” is undiscoverable not because it is beyond our powers to find the answer, but because the question is not of fact at all, the solution lies not in discovering something which is what it is ...but resides in action”.45 This conception of rationality which does not distinguish between facts and values goes in conjunction with the ontology of values which provides them a single unity and makes them part of a perfect whole where no oppositions are admitted, in the same way as all truths cannot be in contradiction with one another.
- 46 N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (62), KGW, VIII-1, 324.
- 47 Ibid.
21I believe that Plato’s ontology has survived a long time after the collapsing of his antithesis between an intelligible and a sensible world ; it survives in the moral ontology which has been present in utopian thinking and in contemporary philosophy. In a certain sense, it is true that this reality in itself which Plato conceded to values, as Nietzsche says in relation to the moral philosophy of Kant, “remains like a kind of beyond, hanging over reality”.46 The transcendence was one of the main characteristics of the utopian thought borrowed from Plato’s metaphysics and the compatibility of values in a perfect whole, as is criticized by Berlin, is perhaps a consequence of this, while in real life we are doomed to choose and reject certain values in favour of others opposed to them. Although I would not follow Nietzsche in most of his recommendations, he perhaps is correct when asserting that we “must get rid of the totality” and of “anything unconditional”47 and we should proceed unplatonically nowadays without believing that we have made a mistake in our lives if we have not been able to realize the perfect whole which we should have achieved.
1 F. Volpi 2004, p. 55.
2 See C. H. Zuckert 1996, p. 21. Nietzsche affirms that Plato is “a great Cagliostro” : “remember how Epicurus judged him ; how Timon, the friend of Pyrrho, judged him - Is Plato’s integrity beyond question ? - But we know at least that he wanted to have taught as absolute truth what he himself did not regard as even conditionally true : namely, the separate existence and separate immortality of ‘souls’”, Nachgelassene Fragmente, Anfang 1888 bis Anfang Januar 1889, 14 (116) ; cf. Writings from the Late Notebooks 2006.
3 N. F., Herbst, 1887 bis März 1888, 11 (99) ; Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 219.
4 N. F. Anfang 1888 bis Anfang Januar 1889, Frühjahr 1888, 14 (153), KGW VIII-3, 128.
5 N. F. Herbst 1887 bis März 1888, Herbst 1887, 9 (60), KGW VIII-2.30.
6 N. F. Anfang 1888 bis Anfang Januar 1889, Frühjahr 1888, 14 (134), KGW VIII-3.109.
7 M. Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. by J. L. Vermal 2000, vol. I, p. 196.
8 M. Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. by J. L. Vermal 2000, vol. II, p. 81.
9 E. Fink, Nietzsche’s Philosophy, trans. by G. Richter 2003, p. 134.
10 N.F. Herbst 1885- Herbst 1886, 2 (165), KGW VIII-1, 146, Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 93.
11 N.F. November 1887-März 1888, (11 (148), VIII-2, 311-312.
12 Ibid. 11 (148).
13 N.F., Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1886, 7(54), KGW, VIII-1, 320, Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 138.
14 I quote Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from the English translation by N. Kemp Smith 1929.
15 G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. by E. S. Haldane and F. H. Simson, London, 1894 , vol. II, p. 96.
16 K. Popper  971, p. 158.
17 On Strauss and the utopian character of the Republic, M. Vegetti 2000, p. 111 ff., M. Vegetti 2010, p. 130 ff., D. M. Morrison, 2007, p. 233 ff. On Strauss’ interpretation of Plato, see C. H. Zuckert 1996, p. 148 ff.
18 L. Strauss, p. 127.
19 Ibid., p. 129.
20 Ibid., p. 138.
21 See F. Nietzsche, N-F. Winter 1869-70-Frühjahr 1870, 3 (94), KGW, III-3, 85.
22 K. Mannheim 1954, p. 173.
23 P. Ricoeur, in G. H. Taylor (comp.) 1989, p. 295.
24 For M.F. Burnyeat 1992, p. 177, for example, the paradigm is not a Platonic form. M. Isnardi Parente 1987, p. 137-154 has defended its ideal character as an internal norm of life. On Rep. 592 a-b and the attempts to depoliticize Plato’s Republic, see M. Vegetti 2010, p. 150 ff.
25 Cfr. N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (2), KGW, VIII-1, 261.
26 See paragraph 6 of “Reason in Philosophy”, Twilight of the Idols, KGW VI-3,72.
27 N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (2), KGW, VIII-1, 261.
28 P. Ricoeur, in G. H. Taylor (comp.) 1989, p. 318.
29 See “Value of truth and error”, in N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (2), and “What I owe to the Ancients”, paragraph 2, in Twilight of the Idols.
30 N.F., November 1887 bis März 1888, 11 (135), KGW, VIII-2, 304.
31 See “The European Nihilism” in N.F., Somer 1886-Herbst 1887, 5 (71), KGW, VIII-1, 215, Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 117 and 7 (54), p. 138.
32 K. Mannheim 1954, p. 227 and see also P. Ricoeur, in G. H. Taylor (comp.) 1989, p. 300.
33 “Untergang einer Gesammtwerthung”, N.F., Sommer 1886-Herbst 1887, 5 (70), KGW, VIII-1, 214.
34 I. Berlin 1999, p. 59.
35 I. Berlin, in H. Hardy and R. Hausheer (eds.) 1998 : “Herder and the Enlightment”, p. 392 ; see also “The Pursuit of the Ideal”, p. 3-5.
36 See I. Berlin 1992, “The Decline of the Utopian Ideas in the West”, p. 42-3.
37 I. Berlin, “The pursuit of the ideal”, in H. Harder and R. Hausheer (eds.) 1998, p. 5.
38 I. Berlin, “The Decline of the Utopian Ideas in the West”, in J. M. Álvarez Flórez (transl.) 2002, p. 44.
39 “My Intellectual Path”, loc. cit., p. 79.
40 See on this question A. Vallejo Campos 2007 ; 2012 ; and “The Theory of Conflict in Plato’s Republic”, in N. Notomi, L. Brisson, (eds.), Proceedings of the IX Symposium Platonicum, forthcoming.
41 I Berlin, in J. M. Álvarez Flórez (transl) 2002, p. 70.
42 I. Berlin, “The Pursuit of the Ideal”, loc. cit., p. 5.
43 I. Berlin, “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West”, loc. cit., p. 47.
44 See, for example, A. W. Price 1994, p. 39.
45 See I. Berlin in H. Harder and R. Hausheer (eds.) 1998, p. 70.
46 N.F. Ende 1886-Frühjahr 1887, 7 (62), KGW, VIII-1, 324.
47 Ibid.Haut de page
Pour citer cet article
Álvaro Vallejo Campos, « Nihilism and Utopia : Plato, Nietzsche, Isaiah Berlin and utopian thinking », Études platoniciennes, 9 | 2012, 115-127.
Álvaro Vallejo Campos, « Nihilism and Utopia : Plato, Nietzsche, Isaiah Berlin and utopian thinking », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 9 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 25 avril 2017. URL : http://etudesplatoniciennes.revues.org/275 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.275Haut de page
© Société d’Études platoniciennesHaut de page