Homer's Contest
by Friedrich Nietzsche

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

first appeared in —
Prefaces to Unwritten Works
a handwritten volume presented to Cosima Wagner, 1872
edited and translated by Michael W. Grenke
introduction to essay by Lise van Boxel

collected (abridged) in —
The Portable Nietzsche
edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann

September 2008

The pre-Homeric night and terror

"Homer's Contest" by Friedrich Nietzsche is styled a preface for one of several projected or at least contemplated books. This essay (or sketch or fragment) was written not long after his dazzling first book, The Birth of Tragedy. "Homer's Contest" tries to get at a fundamental aspect of ancient Greek character from a different angle than that book. It perhaps benefits from conversations with Nietzsche's older colleague at the University of Basel, the Classical and Renaissance scholar Jacob Burckhardt. Nietzsche lays out one of his key premises in a letter to his friend Rohde:

If only people would stop this soft talk of the Homeric world as a youthful one, the springtime of the Greeks, and so on. In the sense in which it is maintained, the idea is false. That a tremendous, wild conflict, emerging from dark crudity and cruelty, precedes the Homeric era, that Homer stands as victor at the end of this long comfortless period — this is one of my most certain convictions. The Greeks are much older than people think. One can speak of spring as long as one has a winter to precede it, but this world of purity and beauty did not drop from the sky.
Friedrich Nietzsche to Erwin Rohde, 16 July 1872
Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche
translated by Christopher Middleton

How does Nietzsche develop this idea in "Homer's Contest"?

But what lies behind the Homeric world, as the womb of everything Hellenic? For in that world the extraordinary artistic precision, calm, and purity of the lines raise us above the mere contents: through an artistic deception the colors seem lighter, milder, warmer; and in this colorful warm light the men appear better and more sympathetic.

But what do we behold when, no longer led and protected by the hand of Homer, we stride back into the pre-Homeric world? Only night and terror and an imagination accustomed to the horrible. What kind of earthly existence do these revolting, terrible theogonic myths reflect? A life ruled only by the children of Night: strife, lust, deceit, old age, and death. ...

The Hellenic genius was ready with yet another answer to the question, "What is a life of struggle and victory for?" and it gave that answer through the whole breadth of Greek history.

To understand it, we must start with the point that the Greek genius tolerated the terrible presence of this urge and considered it justified ...

"Homer's Contest"
translated by Walter Kaufmann
The justification of excellence

And Nietzsche touches on other applications, from envy to the artist, from Pericles to Marathon. "Homer's Contest" is only a fragment or a "preface", but a very evocative one. Lester H. Hunt in Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue says of Nietzsche's model that

It represents a system of behavior that tends to generate a desirable sort of order which is not intentionally imposed on it by anyone. But the model also attributes to the system a characteristic which was not to be found in the traditional versions of the liberal conception: the spontaneous creation of character. In pursuing the sort of activity which the system supports — in contending with one another in the pursuit of excellence — the individuals within it are working to change themselves. They are trying to become more excellent individuals.

We might see Adam Smith's Invisible Hand here. Hunt goes on to discuss reasons why Nietzsche left "Homer's Contest" unfinished, or at least not followed up with a book dedicated to the topic: basically a shift away from thinking in terms of a sociology of natural order, to a psychology of drives whether conscious or unconscious.

Noble victory without enmity

Nietzsche's academic colleague in Basel, Jacob Burckhardt, in The Greeks and Greek Civilization points out the nobility of such contesting, even when the contested arena seems to belong to low comedy:

Thus after the decline of heroic kingship all higher life among the Greeks, active as well as spiritual, took on the character of the agon. Here excellence (arete) and natural superiority were displayed, and victory in the agon, that is noble victory without enmity, appears to have been the ancient expression of the peaceful victory of an individual. Many different aspects of life came to bear the marks of this form of competitiveness. We see it in the conversations and round-songs of the guests in the symposium, in philosophy and legal procedure, down to cock- and quail-fighting or the gargantuan feats of eating.

In Aristophanes' Knights, the behavior of the Paphlagonian and the sausage seller still retains the exact form of an agon, and the same is true in Frogs of the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides in Hades, with its ceremonial preliminaries.

Walter Kaufmann in his biography-critique, Nietzsche, in the chapter "The Discovery of the Will to Power", discusses the history of culture in the light of "Homer's Contest" and "The Striving for Excellence" (section 113 in The Dawn / Daybreak). Nietzsche eventually extends the scope and subtlety of the contest or competition into his fundamental idea of the will to power. Truly, a most delectable idea, and a most fruitful line of thought.

I have given to understand how it was that Socrates could repel: it is therefore all the more necessary to explain his fascination. That he discovered a new kind of agon, that he became its first fencing master for the noble circles of Athens, is one point. He fascinated by appealing to the agonistic impulse of the Greeks — he introduced a variation into the wrestling match between young men and youths. Socrates was also a great erotic.
Friedrich Nietzsche
"The Problem of Socrates", section 8
Twilight of the Idols  (1888)
translated by Walter Kaufmann


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

Friedrich Nietzsche at Troynovant

Philosophy at Troynovant
nature of existence; history of ideas

Victor Davis Hanson's
Needed: A Tragic Hero
In good times,
the larger-than-life figure is an affront;
in crisis, he is necessary.
at National Review


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