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Nietzsche’s philosophy is essentially a challenge – and remains even more so today. It marks the limits of an epoch that we call modernity. While placing himself within the tradition of his age, he is its antagonist; he effects a three-fold reversal in religion, philosophy, and morality. He questions the foundations of occidental thought laid more than two millennia ago through the figures of Jesus, Socrates, and Zarathustra. These foundations, Nietzsche shows have withered away. He presents himself as a prophet, a sophist, and a genealogist, on the one hand, and, on the other, as a hero, a thinker of the future, and the creator of new values. In the complex presentation of his profound thought, Nietzsche revives the quarrel at the heart of modernity: the quarrel between ancients and moderns. He sides with the ancients. What better way, then, to study Nietzsche’s thought than to focus on the spirit of agonism and the role it plays in ancient Greek culture? Tuncel’s Agon in Nietzsche rises to the challenge and explores Nietzsche’s thought brilliantly. Before I turn to a discussion of Tuncel’s book, let me place his work within broader philosophical and historical perspectives. I will focus on Nietzsche’s three-fold reversal of religion, philosophy, and morality.
First, religion. Nietzsche’s philosophy, as Tuncel rightly notes, essentially unfolds as an agon with his age and its values, principally Christian values (252–54). Yet, the notion of agon is itself complex. On the one hand, Nietzsche describes himself as Christianity’s most vociferous critic, the Anti-Christ who will denounce Christianity “upon all walls, wherever walls are to be found.” Christianity is “the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are venomous enough, or secret, subterranean and small enough.” On the other hand, Nietzsche does not see agon primarily in political terms. Agon bespeaks a creative act that carries both participants in the contest or struggle higher. At the heart of the agonistic experience, as Nietzsche understood it, is the awareness that a culture of agon is necessary to struggle, train, and excel among more or less equals before a worthy public in a specific form and context so that the best “works” could be created to become exemplary models in culture. Agon is the cultural condition for new values where it is “Time [that] . . . will tell what valuations throw humanity higher” (252). In ancient Greece, agon did not take place in vacuum but had its own mythic, religious, and ritualistic context. It is at least partly out of an awareness of the dependence of agon on Greek ritual and cultic practice that Nietzsche takes up the struggle with Christianity. Tuncel notes: “almost all his [Nietzsche’s] ideas on religion and the reference point from which he critiques Christianity and other religions are indexed on Greek polytheism. The mythic context of agon that created a hierarchical universe from gods to mortals for the contestants is dismissed or has fallen into oblivion today. However, without this mythic hierarchy there was no agon for the Greeks. Nietzsche was well aware of this” (12).
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This new translation of Nietzsche’s magnum opus is by far the best available in the English language. It should find its way to the desk of all students who do not have access to the original German.
Every student of Nietzsche in the Anglophone world should read this book. It is a most able treatment of a much-ignored and much-misunderstood topic close to the very heart of the writings of this seminal thinker.
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