Cover image for Eros in Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche: The Politics of Infinity By Laurence D. Cooper

Eros in Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche

The Politics of Infinity

Laurence D. Cooper


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Eros in Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche

The Politics of Infinity

Laurence D. Cooper

“This is an excellent book—clear, lively, and interesting from beginning to end—and quite original in what it so persuasively shows: the deep agreement in these three philosophers’ understanding of the human soul.”


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Human beings are restless souls, ever driven by an insistent inner force not only to have more but to be more—to be infinitely more. Various philosophers have emphasized this type of ceaseless striving in their accounts of humanity, as in Spinoza’s notion of conatus and Hobbes’s identification of “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power.” In this book, Laurence Cooper focuses his attention on three giants of the philosophic tradition for whom this inner force was a major preoccupation and something separate from and greater than the desire for self-preservation. Cooper’s overarching purpose is to illuminate the nature of this source of existential longing and discontent and its implications for political life. He concentrates especially on what these thinkers share in their understanding of this psychic power and how they view it ambivalently as the root not only of ambition, vigorous virtue, patriotism, and philosophy, but also of tyranny, imperialism, and varieties of fanaticism. But he is not neglectful of the differences among their interpretations of the phenomenon, either, and especially highlights these in the concluding chapter.
“This is an excellent book—clear, lively, and interesting from beginning to end—and quite original in what it so persuasively shows: the deep agreement in these three philosophers’ understanding of the human soul.”
“Cooper has produced an ambitious and provocative book that investigates the central role of erotic longing in Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. With a keen eye for the psychological dimension of philosophy, Cooper reveals how the human desire to transcend finitude—whether understood as eros, the expansive soul, or the will to power—is critical for these thinkers’ conceptions of philosophy and prescriptions for politics.”

Laurence D. Cooper is Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. He is the author of Rousseau, Nature, and the Problem of the Good Life (Penn State, 1999).




Introduction: The Oneness of Desire—But Which One?

1. The Republic as Prologue

Part One: Platonic Eros—The Effectual Truth

2. First Truths

3. What Does Eros Want?

4. Love of Wisdom versus Love of the Wise: Eros in Action

Part Two: Rousseau and the Expansiveness of Being

5. Between Eros and Will to Power: Rousseau and “The Desire to Extend Our Being”

6. Emile, or On Philosophy?

Part Three: Nietzsche’s New Eternity

7. Nietzsche’s Politeia, I

8. Nietzsche’s Politeia, II

9. Will to Power versus Eros, or a Battle of Eternities

Epilogue: One or Many?




The Oneness of Desire—But Which One?

How inauspicious to begin a book on eros with a line from Hobbes. And how wrongheaded: Hobbes extolls self-preservation over nobler longings and traces those longings to impermanent and “curable” sources. Man desires power after power, but why? Not because he is naturally drawn or propelled to some kind of transcendence but simply because no matter how safe and prosperous he is today, he cannot be assured that he will enjoy the same conditions tomorrow. Find a way to guarantee security through well conceived institutions and you will have reduced the desire for power to modest proportions.

Yet Hobbes’s line is irresistible because it contains more truth than it knows, or at least more truth than Hobbes develops explicitly. For there are at least three senses in which we may say that the desire for power ceases only in death. The first is the obvious one: human beings, as long as they live, will always be found restlessly desiring power. Surely that is Hobbes’s main meaning. Second, the restless desire for power after power will tend to bring death. This may not be implied in Hobbes’s statement, but it is at least consistent with his teaching and is surely something he learned from his master, Thucydides, who depicted an imperialism born of will to power—or, to be true to the text, an imperialism born of eros—that ended, inevitably, in catastrophe. And third, the restless desire for power finds its fulfillment in death. Not death in the ordinary sense (unless one subscribes to the later Freud), but in the sense of letting go of all the delusions that sustain the ego, or, more simply, death of the ego itself, death of the self’s identification with the ego or what I will simply call egoic consciousness—which, as we will see, does in fact have a connection to death in the ordinary sense of the word, since the death of egoic consciousness occurs precisely by virtue of accepting one’s mortality. This meaning is not in Hobbes, at least not to my knowledge. But it is in Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, even if the former two identify something other than “power” as the object of our desire. Each of these three thinkers posits a single, overarching psychic force in human beings. Each shows that and how this force drives so much of human activity, including, especially, the most consequential as well as both the best and the worst of human activity. Each offers insight into the character and inner meaning of this force and thus speaks to the question of how it can and should be educated and governed and satisfied. And each in his way shows that Hobbes’s statement is true in all three of the senses that I have described.

This force”? Can one really maintain the essential identity of Plato’s eros, Rousseau’s “desire to extend our being,” and Nietzsche’s will to power? (Eros by any other name . . . ?) Not quite. The similarities I have listed above—along with others that will be encountered later—tempt one to suppose that the three philosophers give separate names to what is really the same thing. The differences between these names, one might suppose—and what a difference there is between the passionateness of Plato’s label, the clinical descriptiveness of Rousseau’s, and the hardness of Nietzsche’s—simply reflect the different perspectives from which the three philosophers address the same thing. There is some sense to this supposition. But in the end these names reflect more than just different perspectives or lines of approach; they reflect different interpretations. These are, however, different interpretations of roughly the same phenomena; and the phenomena in turn reflect or are born of the same basic source. The phenomena include ambition, aspiration, longing, and the spirited willingness to risk life. Their underlying source, recognized by Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche even as they interpret it and hence name it differently, is a deep-seated expansiveness in the human soul. Each of these philosophers notes within human beings a discontent not only with this or that limit but also with finitude itself. Each sees in human beings an apparently ceaseless and insatiable reaching-out beyond the boundaries of the self, a disposition not just to have more but to be more—to be infinitely more. The three philosophers’ shared recognition is what accounts for the similarities noted above; it places them in company with one another and distinguishes them from Hobbes. However one reads them, Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche emerge as poetic and musical and, yes, particularly erotic philosophers. Their company may or may not be harmonious. Family members don’t always get along with one another, and the record among poets, musicians, and erotic rivals is even worse. But noble minds love nobly, and if they love their truths it is because they love truth as such. Thus an encounter between them should be a fruitful dialogue. Such, at least, is the animating hope of my inquiry.

If politics is “the art whose business it is to care for souls”—and Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche all think that it is—then a dialogue among them on the nature and meaning of the soul’s expansiveness will be fraught with political significance. One of the virtues common to the three philosophers is their appreciation of the political dimension and implications of this apparently apolitical but in actuality pre-political—and thus in a sense simply political—subject. In this they are wise but no wiser than most other political philosophers and thinkers of note. The history of serious political thought is the history of thinking about the consequences of existential longing and discontent, and only the most unimaginative or the most method-driven of “rationalists” haven’t seen the challenges of politics in this light. But Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche are unusually if not uniquely wise (and they may be uniquely wise) in bringing together a penetrating insight into the thing itself (eros, extended being, will to power) and a shrewd and subtle political sensibility—or, rather, bringing to bear the former on the latter. There have been gifted philosophic and psychological thinkers who have addressed the nature of this psychic force and gifted political thinkers and actors who have addressed its implications. Few if any other thinkers, however, have penetrated as deeply into the psychic recesses from which eros takes flight and have then thought through the implications of these insights for politics—for politics, moreover, both as it has been and as it might be. Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, alone and in dialogue, show us that all politics, at all levels (from psychic to international), is at bottom the politics of infinity.

Yet before I create a mistaken impression, I must hasten to add that another common feature of these three philosophers is their appreciation of the limits of politics. The highest peaks of human attainment are, for all three thinkers, heights that depend on or are even constituted by the proper cultivation and expression of the soul’s primary force (eros, desire for extended being, will to power); and all three stipulate further that the accessibility of these heights has something to do with the shape of the regime under which one lives: one’s regime cannot help but influence whether one will be well or poorly educated, well or poorly governed, and hence well or poorly prepared to ascend or even discern the peaks. Yet these heights themselves are essentially transpolitical even if the one who occupies them is “called” to some kind of political task (e.g., Plato’s philosopher-kings or Nietzsche’s “genuine philosopher” as “commander” and “legislator”). And in fact, while the accessibility of these peaks depends somewhat on the shape of one’s regime, no regime can guarantee that any, let alone many, will ascend them. Thus, the political teachings of Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, for all that they stimulate eros or aspiration and for all that they teach about the relation between life’s peaks and the character of one’s regime (or between one’s inner or psychic regime and one’s outer or societal regime), concern themselves, insofar as they are practically prescriptive, more with avoiding dangers than with bringing happiness. And this is especially so where the greatest or most capable individuals are concerned, such individuals being particularly susceptible to corruption and in any event beyond the reach of necessarily earthbound officeholders and institutions. That politics should serve nonpolitical ends will sound right to loyal citizens of liberal regimes. That the same view should be advanced by philosophers whom one would not call liberal in any modern sense will surprise some. But it stands as the first indication of the relevance of such alien thinkers to our own situation. Liberalism, to survive, depends on the successful management, the taming, of existential longing and discontent. To flourish (and perhaps in the end to survive), it needs to resist its inherent tendency to want to tame this longing too much. Thus liberalism in particular stands to benefit—where it most needs benefiting—from a dialogue between thinkers whose “elitism” or “authoritarianism” might have seemed to place them beyond liberalism’s rightful notice.

If the common ground between these philosophers creates the opportunity for a dialogue, it also limits the opportunity. Why only Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche? Why not Hobbes, too, or some other thinker who recognizes the phenomenon at issue and its importance (which would constitute enough common ground for a reasoned engagement)—without, however, believing it to be as intractable a feature of the soul or as important an ingredient of human excellence as Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche? Might Hobbes not be right? He might. My contention, though, is that it is those thinkers who see eros as natural and who embrace it as something to be educated rather than just tamed who have, perhaps for just that reason, developed the deepest insights into it. In saying that, I am to some extent taking their side against Hobbes. Yet in defense of this approach I might point out that Hobbes himself isn’t entirely true to his position. For if he treats political eros or will to power as something that can and must be reduced and controlled, he still embraces as the crown of human experience the very thing that Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche embrace as the crown of human experience for being the highest fulfillment of eros or extended being or will to power—namely, philosophy. And Hobbes embraces it in terms that sound, well, awfully erotic. So perhaps he is not as far apart from the erotic trio as he appears. And perhaps he would concede that those who insist on investigating this dangerous phenomenon would learn most from those who had not been deterred by prudence, as perhaps he was, from writing about it.

As a provisional matter it is possible to state the common ground between Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche as follows. Each of the three philosophers identifies a single psychic force as the predominant force within the soul. Each sees this force as a fact, arguably the most important fact, of what one can rightly call a given human nature, even if that nature owes something to history or evolution. (Neither Rousseau nor Nietzsche presents human nature as so plastic as to be something less than a given nature: hence Rousseau’s comments on the intractability of man’s “present nature” and Nietzsche’s effort to uncover and hearken to the “basic text of homo natura.”) Each extols as the highest activities or states of being things that are explicitly or implicitly shown to be peak expressions of this psychic force. Indeed, in his approach to the whole range of human phenomena each praises and blames, interprets and prescribes, so much in accord with his understanding of this force that he propounds the basis for a unified moral, political, and spiritual naturalism. Each, in other words, articulates a coherent political philosophy based on a monistic depth psychology.

Within the ambit of this common ground, however, Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche each offer something distinct and uniquely valuable. Each approaches the soul and society from a distinct perspective and thus sees, or at least highlights, things that the others do not. Many of their respective insights will prove complementary, which is satisfying and perhaps useful from a constructive or political point of view: where the ideas of great thinkers fit together we may well be receiving knowledge from which to build policy or practice. Other insights will be in conflict, which will be satisfying and useful from what we perhaps should call a dialectical or philosophic point of view: where great thinkers clash we are called upon to deepen our reflection by thinking things through for ourselves. Sometimes the conflicts will be less comprehensive than they first appear. Let the lover of the agon not be discouraged, though, for, interestingly, the deepest conflicts are those which come to light precisely within, and precisely as we discover, hitherto unrecognized commonalities. This is another reason for looking only at philosophers with as much in common as these three have. My reading of Nietzsche, for example, builds on a Platonic dimension to his work that I do not believe has been demonstrated before; yet this revelation of the increased closeness between Nietzsche and Plato at the same time renders the decisive difference between them more sharply and allows us better to apprehend its depth.

The differences between Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche will become clear only when we address each philosopher carefully and in turn. For besides the common ground that I have mentioned, they also have in common an exquisite care and precision. The power of their thought is matched by its delicacy. Thus the “dialogue” that I hope to construct—alas, the scare quotes may be necessary—must proceed somewhat more in the manner of a series of monologues. The best I can do to create a real dialogue will be to guide the reader’s attention, here at the beginning, again (more substantially) at the end, and a few times along the way, to what seem to me to be the fruitful points of engagement among the three philosophers. Yet the experience should be dialogical after all: for even if I must treat the three figures singly, the latter two are so clearly impressed by and replying to Plato as to make their thought, and hence my monological reconstructions, dialogical in themselves. (To uncover the extent to which Rousseau and Nietzsche are responding to Plato is one of my purposes.) On that more redeeming note, let me now offer a brief provisional sketch of Plato’s, Rousseau’s, and Nietzsche’s respective approaches to the matter at hand and, to begin with, a few words about how we will approach them.

Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche are perhaps no more alike as writers than any other group of philosopher-poets. Then again, membership in this exclusive group implies a deep kinship, or so at least the three men themselves would say. By “philosopher-poet” I mean a number of things, but particularly the following. All three figures delve deeply into life’s basic questions and have proven powerfully enchanting to many kinds of readers: they are philosophers whose poetry forms and moves, or, more precisely, legislates. And deliberately so. What to make of this? How should one read philosopher-poets? Exactly as one reads other great poets, which is to say, in whatever ways their works demand—which is not the same from poet to poet, though a few basic principles are common to every case. All great writers demand to be read with care and with sympathy. With respect to the latter I need only say that in approaching these three philosophers I have presumed coherence and given the benefit of the doubt where any doubt arises, that is, I have never presumed that an apparent contradiction was unnoticed or unintended by the author; rather, I have attempted to understand contradictions as reflections of competing intentions or representations that are grounded in an underlying unity. To those who, reading this, suspect that I have conceded too much, I say only that I believe my presumptions of coherence have been borne out by my subsequent discovery of the unity I had presumed from the start—and that I would not have looked hard enough to find that unity had I not approached the texts as sympathetically and respectfully as I did. About the meaning of reading with care I can say even less, for it will depend on the particular character of the individual writing. I have attempted to be mindful of this in my inquiry and will offer reflections on the question of how to read these philosophers as we proceed.

The chapters that follow are grouped into three parts and an epilogue, preceded by Chapter 1, a sort of prologue addressing the text that somehow stands behind all else that I’ll be examining in this book. That text is the Republic, with which both Rousseau and Nietzsche wrestle in their own works and which has a special and revealing relation with the Symposium, which will be the focus of my treatment of Plato. Chapter 1 is a prologue to what follows because the Republic is itself prologue to the texts I’ll be addressing more extensively in the subsequent chapters.

Platonic eros is the subject of Part One. In the Symposium, Plato outlines a comprehensive and what one might call a vertically oriented account of eros: he articulates the highest or truest expression of eros and shows us how to interpret lower or defective expressions in light of that peak. Platonic eros is known to point beyond politics, toward philosophy—or, rather, through philosophy to the good and/or the beautiful. Yet I will try to show that Plato teaches extensively about eros in politics, and particularly so where he seems to many readers not to be concerned with politics at all, that is, in his treatment of various characters in the Symposium. Chapter 2 begins by addressing necessary preliminaries. The “first truths” that it discovers are first in the phenomenological, not the ontological, sense—that is, they are the things that first come to light when looking at Plato on eros. It is precisely these truths, though, that will give us whatever access we can hope for to those other first truths.

Having tried to prepare the way in Chapter 2, in Chapter 3 I take up the question of eros itself. “The question of eros” is of course many questions, but at bottom, like the question of “the desire to extend our being” and the question of will to power, it is one: What is eros? Or, since we know it is a desire, What does eros want? Plato’s answer, it turns out, is multipartite and multilayered, if indeed it is a single answer at all. The focus of the first half of Chapter 3 is the teaching propounded by Socrates in the Symposium and the Republic. Not that he says the same thing in each dialogue, but what he says in these two settings does, I believe, add up to a single, coherent, and—in outline anyway—comprehensive account. Of course what Socrates says, or what he wants to teach his interlocutors in a given moment, may or may not be what Plato believes. More important, it may not be the teaching that Plato wishes to impart to all of his readers. Indeed, I argue that it is not, though I do think that what Socrates teaches his interlocutors is what Plato wishes to teach at least some, in fact most, of his readers. Thus I call the teaching that I reconstruct in the first half of Chapter 3 Socrates’ overt account. The grounds for supposing that this is not in fact the whole of Plato’s teaching, as well as what the other elements might be, is the subject of the second half of the chapter.

A fuller understanding of Plato’s teaching, however, requires that one investigate eros as it appears in and guides living human beings. This is the task of Chapter 4, which examines the characters in the Symposium who not only speak about eros—or perhaps don’t even speak of it—but who act on it within the dialogue. I refer to these figures—Apollodorus, Aristodemus, Alcibiades, and Socrates—as the dialogue’s “manifest lovers.” How better to learn the meaning of a desire, and how better to take account of the dramatic form of Platonic writing, than to examine that motive in action? Simply by taking note of the widely divergent characters of the men I have just named, one sees that eros manifests itself in widely divergent ways. Yet on investigating more deeply we will find that these ways can be interpreted, indeed need to be interpreted, as versions of a single desire and, consequently, that they need to be judged by the standard of true or perfect eros. Such a judgment, if it is not quite political in itself, has enormous political implications. For as I will show, each of the Symposium’s manifest lovers represents a distinct political inclination: the eros of each lover carries powerful and, in three of the four cases, worrisome political tendencies (and even the fourth, as the object of the others’ eros, is an ambiguous influence). These tendencies, in fact, prove to be of particular relevance to our own time. So not only is the Symposium as political a dialogue as the Republic, its lessons are in some ways more urgent and needful than those of the Republic.

If Plato’s account illuminates eros’ “vertical” extremes, that is, right eros and defective eros and the relation between them, Rousseau is particularly instructive on eros’ pervasiveness and multifariousness of expression and, correspondingly, on the question of how to translate the recognition of a single comprehensive good into a hierarchy of greater and lesser goods. (Plato allows for lesser goods but insists strongly on their defectiveness if not falseness: civic or demotic virtue, for example, is something less than true virtue. Rousseau, on the contrary, emphasizes the goodness of lesser goods, as seen in his praise of rustic goodness and civic virtue.) These are the themes of Chapter 5, which establishes that “the desire to extend our being” is indeed Rousseau’s counterpart to Plato’s eros and Nietzsche’s will to power and which investigates the ways that, according to Rousseau, this desire can and cannot gain satisfaction and how people ought to be governed accordingly. “Accordingly” does not mean that Rousseau advocates that people simply be steered toward the peaks. The knowledge that would lead the best prepared to the greatest heights would lead the unprepared to abysmal depths. Like Plato and Nietzsche, he is mindful of the all too real connection between the highest and the lowest, not only theoretically but in practice as well.

The paradigmatic instance of Rousseau’s caution in this regard is his relatively harsh treatment of philosophy. Although he is careful to cite exceptions, Rousseau generally paints philosophy, or at least philosophers, with a broad brush and in not very appealing colors. Nowhere does Rousseau seem more distant from Plato than in this. Yet Plato, too, offers a critique of philosophers, of false or pseudo-philosophers, even while placing the genuine philosopher at the peak of human possibility. (The same combination also appears in Nietzsche.) Indeed, the critique is a necessary part of the apology. And presumably if Plato thought that a public apology on behalf of philosophy would only strengthen the appeal of false or damaging philosophy—and thereby damage the cause of genuine philosophy—he would speak of philosophy rather more like Rousseau does. My contention is that just such considerations account for Rousseau’s public stance toward philosophy, and that Rousseau regards true philosophy as a supremely good thing. Yet if these considerations prevent Rousseau from publicly endorsing philosophy, they do not prevent him from a more subtle kind of exploration and endorsement. In Chapter 6, I present a reading of book 5 of Emile as an essentially affirmative reply to book 5 of the Republic—that is, as an embrace of the psychic teaching of the latter amid, or beneath, the obvious rejection of the Republic’s ostensible political teaching. Thus does Rousseau crown his rich account of erotic development with a Platonic teaching, even if the crown is quite well hidden.

Nietzsche might seem the philosopher with whom we should begin. Not only is he nearest to us (in more ways than one), but he is also clearest and most insistent in interpreting all of life in terms of a single force, in defining good and bad in terms of this force (good being what develops or expresses power, bad being the reverse), and, accordingly, in ordering the manifold expressions of this force hierarchically. Nietzsche’s clarity and insistence may or may not be virtues—certainly they depart from the practice of Plato and Rousseau, who are so much more circumspect in revealing their own comparable thoughts—but they do orient the reader’s mind toward themes that define Plato’s and Rousseau’s projects as well as his own. Yet this philosopher who is so much nearer to us turns out to be read most effectively in light of the farthest. In ways both widely known and hardly known at all, Nietzsche seeks to take on Plato—and seeks to rival Plato by following Plato’s way in the pursuit of a decidedly non-Platonic end. Thus one does well to approach Nietzsche and will to power after first having encountered Plato and eros in a serious way. This is especially true of Beyond Good and Evil, which will be the focus of my inquiry into Nietzsche.

Chapters 7 and 8 are devoted to a commentary on Beyond Good and Evil the purpose of which is to establish the book as Nietzsche’s response, both in the aggregate and in its parts (and sometimes even subparts), to Plato’s Republic. To state what I take to be the central thematic correspondence: as the Republic concerns itself with the question of the best regime, so does Beyond Good and Evil; and as Plato’s best regime requires above all the right education and governance of eros, Nietzsche’s requires the same with respect to will to power. This realization makes possible not only a deeper reading of Beyond Good and Evil, which is the immediate goal of Chapters 7 and 8, but also, through an analysis presented in Chapter 9, a better grasp both of will to power and of the “thing” in which it finds fullest satisfaction, Nietzsche’s good, namely, (willing) eternal recurrence of all things. (It may even make possible a deeper reading of the Republic and a better grasp of eros, at least if there is anything to Nietzsche’s skeptical reading of Plato.) And by better understanding eternal return as the crowning good, we will be better positioned to understand goodness as such, or the goodness of all goods, as Nietzsche conceives it. With this last step, Nietzsche’s political teaching, however contrary to the tenets of modern liberalism, will emerge as somewhat more humane than it is normally thought to be. And Nietzsche himself may emerge as a somewhat less forbidding figure—one might almost say, a more Platonic figure.

Critics will find my Nietzsche too “orthodox,” for implicit in my reading of Beyond Good and Evil is the view that Nietzsche has a specifiable teaching (something contested probably by most of Nietzsche’s interpreters), indeed a positive political teaching (which is contested by even more interpreters). Worse yet, I take this teaching to be based on an understanding of nature and thus not nihilistic, at least not in the sense of denying the possibility of nonarbitrary bases and standards of judgment. My Nietzsche, in fact, is formally identical to Nietzsche’s Plato. In various places, including several places in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche depicts Plato as a legislator who meant to and in fact did put an entire civilization on a certain track. I see Nietzsche as attempting nothing less himself. And since it is in the Republic that the grounds and meaning of Plato’s legislative project are revealed, it is in Beyond Good and Evil—Nietzsche’s own Politeia—in which the grounds and meaning of Nietzsche’s project are revealed. Since that project is centered on the education and governance of will to power (as Plato’s is centered on the education and governance of eros), an analysis of Beyond Good and Evil seems a good way of trying to understand will to power. Hence my decision to approach Nietzsche, and only Nietzsche, by way of a single textual commentary. From the standpoint of Nietzsche’s postmodern legacy, my Nietzsche is indeed too orthodox. But if this is orthodoxy, it is also radicalism, for a Nietzsche with a coherent, specifiable, and constructive teaching about the soul and about politics is a Nietzsche that we need to reckon with and not someone we can admire for his critical acumen (or be scandalized by it) and then forget about. The “standard” political Nietzsche, moreover, that is, Nietzsche as mere critic, is frankly a weak critic by virtue of his hypocritical recourse to the venerable concepts and vocabulary of the philosophic tradition: that he is driven to words and ideas that his critique should have rendered out of bounds shows that his critical stance is ultimately unsustainable and therefore, again, not something we need to take too seriously. But if Nietzsche’s recourse to “orthodox” words and concepts like nature and justice are not hypocritical relapses into a discredited mode of philosophy but rather part of a specifiable teaching with a positive program, then it strengthens his challenge and commends his thought to us.

Like Plato and Rousseau, Nietzsche highlights things that the others don’t. Nietzsche does the most to explain and make plausible the motivating power of a single psychic force and hence the existence of a single, comprehensive good. (Will to power is more than a psychic force, but it is that.) In this he can perhaps help us understand not only his own thought but also Plato’s and Rousseau’s better, whether or not one accepts his assessment of his predecessors. One need not accept Nietzsche’s critique of Plato or the whole of his teaching on will to power in order to learn from his insights into the links between the high and the low (e.g., the sublimation of cruelty), into pathology (e.g., the decisive role of vengefulness), and even into health (e.g., health as the affirmative-spirited deployment of great power). And of course the conflict between Nietzsche and Plato is itself a gateway to deeper understanding. That conflict, as I will try to show, centers on competing understandings of “eternity.”

Chapter 10 explores some of the ways in which the three philosophers’ accounts are different and alike, asking with respect to the differences from where they arise and how one might begin to judge among contending positions, and seeking in the similarities the ground for practical, political wisdom on the presumption that where three such figures agree, there is likely to be some truth. When dealing with figures spaced apart in time and viewed as initiators of new epochs, one might be expected to seek a trajectory that helps make sense of their work. That is a very problematic demand, not least because the legacies of these three philosophers have often gone far afield from the original teachings. Nevertheless, Chapter 10’s analysis yields a few observations on this count. It might be useful, though, to offer at this juncture one observation on the subject of trajectory. Not, however, a trajectory that describes the relations between the three philosophers’ projects, but one that is described by them—by each of them individually—and one that is perhaps their most basic similarity: as I read them, Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche each seek to ascend to nature, both in thought and in the way one lives, or perhaps more precisely, in thought and therein in the way one lives.

It is neither a pro forma disclaimer nor an attempt to escape criticism for me to say that the following studies are not comprehensive but rather essays, attempts, to gain some insight into an issue of real importance—general importance. Specialization is necessary, and the following chapters are a series of specialized inquiries into a handful of texts. My hope, however, is that, as a combined whole, these inquiries will point us toward the heart of things and allow progress toward a richer understanding of politics and life. This, too, is necessary. That one may not know the good does not change the fact that all political activity is based on some understanding of the good. And that one may not know the true character of eros does not lessen eros’ political importance.

Modesty is a virtue for scholars. But the central demand of scholarly modesty, it seems to me, is not that one look away from important questions but that one recognize one’s own limits by always questioning oneself and treating one’s findings as provisional. This I have tried to do, and I don’t imagine that I have even put the questions I have addressed on their proper footing, let alone settled anything. My greatest hopes are that I have helped clarify the questions and offered up a few rough insights. Perhaps, though, modesty in this case is not so difficult a thing. For if modesty comes most naturally in the face of the divine and the infinite, it may come almost as naturally—certainly it should—to one who inquires among divine minds on the politics of infinity.