Homer's Contest  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Homer's Contest" is a text from Nietzsche's Nachlass.

"The Greek genius acknowledged strife, struggle, contest to be necessary in this life. Only through competition and emulation will the Common-Wealth thrive. Yet there was no unbridled ambition. Everyone's individual endeavours were subordinated to the welfare of the community. The curse of present-day contest is that it does not do the same." --The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche[1]

Full text[2][3]

Homer's Contest

Preface to an Unwritten Book (1872)

When one speaks of "humanity" the notion lies at the bottom, that humanity is that which separates and distinguishes man from nature. But such a distinction does not in reality exist: the "natural" qualities and the properly called "human" ones have grown up inseparably together. Man in his highest and noblest capacities is nature and bears in himself her awful twofold character. His abilities generally considered dreadful and inhuman are perhaps indeed the fertile soil, out of which alone can grow forth all humanity in emotions, actions and works.

Thus the Greeks, the most humane men [Menschen] of ancient times, have in themselves a trait of cruelty, of tiger-like pleasure in destruction: a trait, which in the grotesquely magnified image of the Hellene, in Alexander the Great, is very plainly visible, which, however, in their whole history, as well as in their mythology, must terrify us who meet them with the emasculate idea of modern humanity. When Alexander has the feet of Batis, the brave defender of Gaza, bored through, and binds the living body to his chariot in order to drag him about exposed to the scorn of his soldiers, that is a sickening caricature of Achilles, who at night ill-uses Hector's corpse by a similar trailing; but even this trait has for us something offensive, something which inspires horror. It gives us a peep into the abysses of hatred. With the same sensation perhaps we stand before the bloody and insatiable self-laceration of two Greek parties, as for example in the Corcyrean revolution. When the victor, in a fight of the cities, according to the law of warfare, executes the whole male population and sells all the women and children into slavery, we see, in the sanction of such a law, that the Greek deemed it a positive necessity to allow his hatred to break forth unimpeded; in such moments the compressed and swollen feeling relieved itself; the tiger bounded forth, a voluptuous cruelty shone out of his fearful eye. Why had the Greek sculptor to represent again and again war and fights in innumerable repetitions, extended human bodies whose sinews are tightened through hatred or through the recklessness of triumph, fighters wounded and writhing with pain, or the dying with the last rattle in their throat? Why did the whole Greek world exult in the fighting scenes of the Iliad? I am afraid, we do not understand them enough in "Greek fashion," and that we should even shudder, if for once we did understand them thus.

But what lies, as the womb of the Hellenic, behind the Homeric world? In the latter, by the extremely artistic definiteness, and the calm and purity of the lines we are already lifted far above the purely material amalgamation: its colours, by an artistic deception, appear lighter, milder, warmer; its men, in this coloured, warm illumination, appear better and more sympathetic--but where do we look, if, no longer guided and protected by Homer's hand, we step backwards into the pre-Homeric world? Only the night and horror, into the products of a fancy accustomed to the horrible. What earthly existence is reflected in the loathsome-awful theogonian lore: a life swayed only the children of the night, strife, amorous desires, deception, age and death. Let us imagine the suffocating atmosphere of Hesiod's poem, still thickened and darkened and without the mitigations and purifications, which poured over Hellas from Delphi and the numerous seats of the gods! If we mix this thickened Beotian air with the grim voluptuousness of the Etruscans, then such a reality would extort from us a world of myths within which Uranos, Kronos and Zeus and the struggles of the Titans would appear as a relief. Combat in this brooding atmosphere is salvation and safety; the cruelty of victory is the summit of life's glories. And just as in truth the idea of Greek law has developed from murder and expiation of murder, so also nobler civilisation takes her first wreath of victory from the altar of the expiation of murder. Behind that bloody age stretches a wave-furrow deep into Hellenic history. The names of Orpheus, of Musæus, and their cults indicate to what consequences the uninterrupted sight of a world of warfare and cruelty led--to the loathing of existence, to the conception of this existence as a punishment to be borne to the end, to the belief in the identify of existence and indebtedness. But these particular conclusions are not specifically Hellenic; through them Greece comes into contact with India and the Orient generally. The Hellenic genius had ready yet another answer to the question: what does a life of fighting and of victory mean? and gives this answer in the whole breadth of Greek history.

In order to understand the latter we must start from the fact that the Greek genius admitted the existing fearful impulse, and deemed it justified; whereas in the Orphic phase of thought was contained the belief that life with such an impulse as its root would not be worth living. Strife and the pleasure of victory were acknowledged; and nothing separates the Greek world more from ours than the colouring, derived hence, of some ethical ideas, e.g., of Eris and of Envy.

When the traveller Pausanius during his wanderings through Greece visited the Helicon, a very old copy of the first didactic poem of the Greeks, Hesiod's The Works and Days, was shown to him, inscribed upon plates of lead and severely damaged by time and weather. However he recognised this much, that, unlike the usual copies it had not at its head that little hymnus on Zeus, but began at once with the declaration: "Two Eris-goddesses are on earth." This is one of the most noteworthy Hellenic thoughts and worthy to be impressed on the newcomer immediately at the entrance-gate of Greek ethics. "One would like to praise the one Eris, just as much as to blame the other, of one uses one's reason. For these two goddesses have quite different dispositions. For the one, the cruel one, furthers the evil war and feud! No mortal likes her, but under the yoke of need one pays honour to the burdensome Eris, according to the decree of the immortals. She, as the elder, gave birth to black night. Zeus the high-ruling one, however, placed the other Eris upon the roots of the earth and among men as a much better one. She urges even the unskilled man to work, and if one who lacks property beholds another who is rich, then he hastens to sow in similar fashion and to plant and to put his house in order; the neighbour vies with the neighbour who strives after fortune. Good is this Eris to men. The potter also has a grudge against the potter, and the carpenter against the carpenter; the beggar envies the beggar, and the singer the singer."

The two last verses which treat of the odium figulinum appear to our scholars to be incomprehensible in this place. According to their judgment the predicates: "grudge" and "envy" fit only the nature of the evil Eris, and for this reason they do not hesitate to designate these verses as spurious or thrown by chance into this place. For that judgment however a system of ethics other than the Hellenic must have inspired these scholars unawares; for in these verses to the good Eris Aristotle finds no offence. And not only Aristotle but the whole Greek antiquity thinks of spite and envy otherwise than we do and agrees with Hesiod, who first designates as an evil one that Eris who leads men against one another to a hostile war of extermination, and secondly praises another Eris as the good one, who as jealousy, spite, envy, incites men to activity but not to the action of war to the knife but the action of competition. The Greek is envious and conceives of this quality not as a blemish, but as the effect of a beneficent deity. What a gulf of ethical judgment between us and him? Because he is envious he also feels, with every superfluity of honour, riches, splendour and fortune, the envious eye of a god resting on himself, and he fears this envy; in this case the latter reminds him of the transitoriness of every human lot; he dreads his very happiness and, sacrificing the best of it, he bows before the divine envy. This conception does not perhaps estrange him from his gods; their significance on the contrary is expressed by the thought that with them man in whose soul jealousy is enkindled against every other living being, is never allowed to venture into competition. In the fight of Thamyris with the Muses, of Marsyas with Apollo, in the heart-moving fate of Niobe appears the horrible opposition of the two powers, who must never fight with one another, man and god.

The greater and more sublime however a Greek is, the brighter in him appears the ambitious flame, devouring everybody who runs with him on the same track. Aristotle once made a list of such competitions on a large scale; among them is the most striking instance how even a dead person can still incite a living one to consuming jealousy; thus for example Aristotle designates the relation between the Kolophonian Xenophanes and Homer. We do not understand this attack on the national hero of poetry in all its strength, if we do not imagine, as later on also with Plato, the root of this attack to be the ardent desire to step into the place of the overthrown poet and to inherit his fame. Every great Hellene hands on the torch of the competition; at every great virtue a new light is kindled. If the young Themistocles could not sleep at the thought of the laurels of Miltiades so his early awakened bent released itself only in the long emulation with Aristides in that uniquely noteworthy, purely instinctive genius of his political activity, which Thucydides describes. How characteristic are both question and answer, when a notable opponent of Pericles is asked, whether he or Pericles was the better wrestler in the city, and he gives the answer: "Even if I throw him down he denies that he has fallen, attains his purpose and convinces those who saw him fall."

If one wants to see that sentiment unashamed in its naive expressions, the sentiment as to the necessity of competition lest the state's welfare be threatened, one should think of the original meaning of ostracism, as for example the Ephesians pronounced it at the banishment of Hermodor. "Among us nobody shall be the best; if however someone is the best, then let him be so elsewhere and among others" [Heraklitus]. Why should not someone be the best? Because with that the competition would fail, and the eternal life-basis of the Hellenic state would be endangered. Later on ostracism receives quite another position with regard to competition; it is applied, when the danger becomes obvious that one of the great competing politicians and party-leaders feels himself urged on in the heat of the conflict towards harmful and destructive measures and dubious coups d'état. The original sense of this peculiar institution however is not that of a safety-valve but that of a stimulant. The all-excelling individual was to be removed in order that the competition of forces might re-awaken, a thought which is hostile to the "exclusiveness" of genius in the modern sense but which assumes that in the natural order of things there are always several geniuses which incite one another to action, as much also as they hold one another within the bounds of moderation. That is the kernel of the Hellenic competition-conception: it abominates autocracy, and fears its dangers; it desires as a preventive against the genius--a second genius.

Every natural gift must develop itself by competition. Thus the Hellenic national pedagogy demands, whereas modern educators fear nothing as much as the unchaining of the so-called ambition. Here one fears selfishness as the "evil in itself"--with the exception of the Jesuits, who agree with the Ancients and who, possibly, for that reason, are the most efficient educators of our time. They seem to believe that selfishness, i.e., the individual element is only the most powerful agens but that it obtains its character as "good" and "evil" essentially from the aims towards which it strives. To the Ancients however the aim of the agonistic education was the welfare of the whole, of the civic society. Every Athenian, for instance, was to cultivate his ego in competition, so far that it should be of the highest service to Athens and should do the least harm. It was not unmeasured and immeasurable as modern ambition generally is; the youth thought of the welfare of his native town when he vied with others in running, throwing or singing; it was her glory that he wanted to increase with his own; it was to his town's gods that he dedicated the wreaths which the umpires as a mark of honour set upon his head. Every Greek from childhood felt within himself the burning wish to be in the competition of the towns as an instrument for the welfare of his own town; in this his selfishness was kindled into flame, by this his selfishness was bridled and restricted. Therefore the individuals in antiquity were freer, because their aims were nearer and more tangible. Modern man, on the contrary, is everywhere hampered by infinity, like the fleet-footed Achilles in the allegory of the Eleate Zeno: infinity impedes him, he does not even overtake the tortoise.

But as the youths to be educated were brought up struggling against one another, so their educators were in turn in emulation amongst themselves. Distrustfully jealous, the great musical masters, Pindar and Simonides, stepped side by side; in rivalry the sophist, the higher teacher of antiquity meets his fellow-sophist; even the most universal kind of instruction, through the drama, was imparted to the people only under the form of an enormous wrestling of the great musical and dramatic artists. How wonderful! "And even the artist has a grudge against the artist!" And the modern man dislikes in an artist nothing so much as the personal battle-feeling, whereas the Greek recognises the artist only in such a personal struggle. There were the modern suspects weakness of the work of art, the Hellene seeks the source of his highest strength! That, which by way of example in Plato is of special artistic importance in his dialogues, is usually the result of an emulation with the art of the orators, of the sophists, of the dramatists of his time, invented deliberately in order that at the end he could say: "Behold, I can also do what my great rivals can; yea I can do it even better than they. No Protagoras has composed such beautiful myths as I, no dramatist such a spirited and fascinating whole as the Symposion, no orator penned such an oration as I put up in the Gorgias--and now I reject all that together and condemn all imitative art! Only the competition made me a poet, a sophist, an orator!" What a problem unfolds itself there before us, if we ask about the relationship between the competition and the conception of the work of art!--

If on the other hand we remove the competition from Greek life, then we look at once into the pre-Homeric abyss of horrible savagery, hatred, and pleasure in destruction. This phenomenon alas! shows itself frequently when a great personality was, owing to an enormously brilliant deed, suddenly withdrawn from the competition and became hors de concours according to his, and his fellow-citizens' judgment. Almost without exception the effect is awful; and if one usually draws from these consequences the conclusion that the Greek was unable to bear glory and fortune, one should say more exactly that he was unable to bear fame without further struggle, and fortune at the end of the competition. There is no more distinct instance than the fate of Miltiades. Placed upon a solitary height and lifted far above every fellow-combatant through is incomparable success at Marathon, he feels a low thirsting for revenge awakened within himself against a citizen of Para, with whom he had been at enmity long ago. To satisfy his desire he misuses reputation, the public exchequer and civic honour and disgraces himself. Conscious of his ill-success he falls into unworthy machinations. He forms a clandestine and godless connection with Timo a priestess of Demeter, and enters at night the sacred temple, from which every man was excluded. After he has leapt over the wall and comes ever nearer the shrine of the goddess, the dreadful horror of a panic-like terror suddenly seizes him; almost prostrate and unconscious he feels himself driven back and leaping the wall once more, he falls down paralysed and severely injured. The siege must be raised and a disgraceful death impresses its seal upon a brilliant heroic career, in order to darken it for all posterity. After the battle at Marathon the envy of the celestials has caught him. And this divine envy breaks into flames when it beholds man without rival, without opponent, on the solitary height of glory. He now has beside him only the gods--and therefore he has them against him. These however betray him into a deed of the Hybris, and under it he collapses.

Let us well observe that just as Miltiades perishes so the noblest Greek states perish when they, merit and fortune, have arrived from the racecourse at the temple of Nike. Athens, which had destroyed the independence of her allies and avenged with severity the rebellions of her subjected foes, Sparta, which after the battle of Ægospotamoi used her preponderance over Hellas in a still harsher and more cruel fashion, both these, as in the case of Miltiades, brought about their ruin through deeds of the Hybris, as a proof that without envy, jealousy, and competing ambition the Hellenic State like the Hellenic man degenerates. He becomes bad and cruel, thirsting for revenge, and godless; in short, he becomes "pre-Homeric"--and then it needs only a panic in order to bring about his fall and to crush him. Sparta and Athens surrender to Persia, as Themistocles and Alcibiades have done; they betray Hellenism after they have given up the noblest Hellenic fundamental thought, the competition, and Alexander, the coarsened copy and abbreviation of Greek history, now invents the cosmopolitan Hellene, and the so-called "Hellenism."

(Completed on December 29, 1872)

See also

  • Homerus' wedstrijd [4]




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