The Alexandrian culture
Previous: Interlude XX. Nietzsche - part 9
From The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche...
Sec 18 - Socratic/Alexandrian vs Artistic/Hellenic vs Tragic/Buddhistic culture
It is an eternal phenomenon: the insatiable will always find a way to detain its creatures in life and compel them to live on, by means of an illusion spread over things. [this confused me, it’s not “the insatiable WILL ALWAYS” but “the insatiable-will ALWAYS finds a way”] One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge and the delusion of being able thereby to heal the eternal wound of existence; another is ensnared by art's seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; still another by the metaphysical comfort that beneath the whirl of phenomena eternal life flows on indestructible... All that we call culture is made up of these stimulants; and, according to the proportion of the ingredients, we either have a dominantly Socratic or artistic or tragic culture; or, if historical exemplifications are permitted, there is either an Alexandrian or a Hellenic or a Buddhistic culture.
The Alexandrian could also be termed the Hellenistic but I think Nietzsche likes the idea of the library at Alexandria as representing the repository of reason and science. I would also prefer "Pantheistic" to "Buddhistic" since I think that better describes what he has in mind. Also, Nietzsche seems to have been a bit confused about Buddhism, which is not a single thing in any case.
Our whole modern world is entangled in the net of the Alexandrian culture... devoted to magic and the devil from a desire for knowledge...
I think Nietzsche sees Goethe's Faust (the character), in his dealings with Mephisto, as demonstrating the limitations of the Socratic urge.
Now we must not hide from ourselves what is concealed in the womb of this Socratic culture: optimism, with its delusion of limitless power. We must not be alarmed if the fruits of this optimism ripen -- if society, leavened to the very lowest strata by this kind of culture, gradually begins to tremble with wanton agitations and desires, if the belief in the earthly happiness of all, if the belief in the possibility of such a general intellectual culture changes into the threatening demand for such an Alexandrian earthly happiness, into the conjuring up of a Euripidean deus ex machina.
This would be the bourgeois, democratic world we now all know and... tolerate.
Let us mark this well: the Alexandrian culture, to be able to exist permanently, requires a slave class, but with its optimistic view of life it denies the necessity of such a class, and consequently, when its beautiful seductive and tranquilizing utterances about the 'dignity of man' and the 'dignity of labor' are no longer effective, it gradually drifts toward a dreadful destruction. [Now we are talking about class struggle. And there really is no debating that the Athenian democracy was constructed on a foundation of slavery or that 19th century middle class prosperity was built on the backs of the proletariat and the colonies.] There is nothing more terrible than a class of barbaric slaves who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice, and now prepare to avenge, not only themselves, but all generations....
While the disaster... of theoretical culture gradually begins to frighten modern man... great men, universally gifted, have contrived, with an incredible amount of thought, to make use of the paraphernalia of science itself, to point out the limits and the relativity of knowledge generally, and thus to deny decisively the claim of science to universal validity and universal aims. And their demonstration diagnosed for the first time the illusory notion which pretends to be able to fathom the innermost essence of things with the aid of causality.
Nietzsche mentions Kant and Schopenhauer here, but I think Heisenberg is more to the point, though he came later. But the ground was already prepared for Quantum Physics and the Uncertainty Principle by Thomas Young’s Double-slit experiments with light, conducted in the early 1800s. This from Wiki, “[Richard] Feynman was fond of saying that all of quantum mechanics can be gleaned from carefully thinking through the implications of this single experiment.”
With this insight a culture is inaugurated that I venture to call a tragic culture. Its most important characteristic is that wisdom takes the place of science as the highest end -- wisdom that, uninfluenced by the seductive distractions of the sciences, turns with unmoved eyes to a comprehensive view of the world, and seeks to grasp, with sympathetic feelings of love, the eternal suffering as its own.
I can imagine Naphtha's ears perking up here.
...the theoretical man... feels that a culture based on the principles of science must be destroyed when it begins to grow illogical, that is, to retreat before its own consequences... in vain does one accumulate the entire 'world-literature' around modern man for his comfort; in vain does one place oneself in the midst of the art styles and artists of all ages... one still remains eternally hungry, the 'critic' without joy and energy, the Alexandrian man, who is at bottom a librarian and corrector of proofs, and wretchedly goes blind from the dust of books and from printers' errors.