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Nihilism and Platonism

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Summer School 2019

The most important thinkers of recent times claim that our time is characterized by nihilism. According to these philosophers, poets and other writers of the last century and a half, we have entered an epoch in which the meaning and purpose of human life are being radically degraded.  The most powerful of these thinkers, Nietzsche and Heidegger, locate the root cause of the current florescence of meaninglessness in the thought of Plato. This claim that has since become widely accepted, not to say an unexamined foundation of much intellectual work despite, or because of the fact that their views on nihilism and Platonism are frequently interpreted in a manner directly contrary to their intentions.

This course will present an interpretation of the key texts that will allow for an open-minded assessment of these claims and for a reappraisal of Plato’s thought in their light, in order to gain clarity about the fundamental alternatives open to us. After suggesting the main lines of thought that Nietzsche and Heidegger develop to imply the nihilistic consequences of Plato’s teaching, the course will offer an interpretation of Plato’s intentions as an argument against nihilism as a permanent problem of human nature. This presentation is intended to open the way to questioning which elements from the thought of Plato, Nietzsche, and Heidegger can provide guidance to our current dilemmas.

Extended excerpts from the key texts listed below will be provided to allow for a collective discussion of the central issues.              

Course Schedule

Monday: Introduction and Nietzsche on nihilism and Platonism

An introduction to the course, including the meaning of nihilism and the apparent agreement between Nietzsche, Heidegger and Plato on the meaning of moral and political decadence. Nietzsche on the causes of nihilism and its overcoming.

Texts: excerpts from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and The Will to Power, Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics and Plato’s Republic.

Tuesday: Nietzsche (cont.) and Heidegger on nihilism and the question of being

Nietzsche on Platonism as the origin of nihilism. Heidegger on nihilism and the forgetting of the meaning of being.

Texts: excerpts from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, and Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics”, Introduction to Metaphysics and the “Letter on Humanism.”

Wednesday: Heidegger on nihilism and Platonism

Heidegger on nihilism as the history of metaphysics beginning with Plato.

Texts: excerpts from “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” and Nietzsche (esp. I.11, I.19-25; IV.15, 21-29 in the Krell translation).

Thursday: Authentic Platonism

Transition to the classical viewpoint of the relation between lived experience and metaphysics. Discussion of the Platonic conception of the principles of human existence, the ideas and “the idea of the good.”

Texts: Xenophon, Memorabilia I.11-16 and Phaedrus 229; Phaedo 96-101 and Republic 505-517.

Friday: The Platonic alternative to nihilism and concluding discussion

The possibility that what is called nihilism is not a historical phenomenon but a possibility inherent to human nature, and that a dialectic from a nihilistic understanding of human life on modern premises can lead to a non-reductive understanding of human life.

Text: excerpts from Plato’s Phaedrus.