Tragic philosophy and human desire : bringing Nietzsche and Plato into conversation with contemporary ethics.
In his Retrieval of Ethics, Talbot Brewer complains of a fundamentally inadequate moral psychology within contemporary ethics, most importantly the limitation of human desire to the instrumental. In response, Brewer, drawing primarily from Aristotle, develops an account of human desire that finds fulfillment-without-ceasing within “dialectical” activity, that is, activity that has an object irreducible to a propositionally describable state of affairs. In this work, I pursue interpretations of Nietzsche and Plato, arguing that they both practice tragic philosophies, implying in turn that that they both held that fundamental human desire can be fulfilled only in dialectical activity. In chapters two through four, I trace Nietzsche’s development from a metaphysical description of tragedy to the practice of tragic philosophy that rejects any metaphysics from which one may derive a telos or morality. This allows a fulfillment of human desire in the constant failure of knowledge to grant the state of affairs necessary to fulfill desires-that is, disappointment. And out of disappointment, one may fulfill-without-ceasing the will to power in ever new forms of creation, thus affirming the activity that is life. Chapters five through seven offer an interpretation of Plato, in which he presents a Socrates who practices an erotic and tragic philosophy that shows a complementary relationship between the aporetic and constructive dialogues. Socrates’ ironic claim to ignorance expresses both the human inability to acquire knowledge of metaphysics and the possibility of the practice of dialectic to bring one into the presence of the Good/Beauty. Socrates’ practice of philosophy is both tragic and erotic, in that it expresses constant striving without the claiming of its goal (lack), and yet achieves the fulfillment-without-ceasing that can be the only “object” of eros. Both Nietzsche and Plato expose a rich view of human desire, fulfilled only in dialectical activity. Their tragic philosophies reflect their views of desire, and so offer resources for contemporary ethics both in terms of philosophical method and more adequate accounts of human desire. In terms of fullness and lack, an important distinction arises between eros and the will to power that may encourage further discussion.