Written sometime in the 1870s, after meeting the composer Richard Wagner, and before the end of his professorship of philology in Basal in 1876, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks discloses the heritage of ancient Greek philosophy with the Presocratics: Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, then abruptly leaving the book unfinished with Anaxagoras. Posthumously published (in 1962?) this book offers insight into Nietzsche’s thought and the beginning of Greek philosophy—the birth of Western philosophy. This post will only cover the opening segments of the book, alongside points highlighted in Marianne Cowen’s “Introduction,” followed by the metaphysical implications of Nietzsche’s reading of the Presocratic Thales of Miletus.
If we know anything, Nietzsche was a philologist, and the discipline of philology is one of interpretation and clarification of ancient texts and languages. The philologist has the responsibility of helping living generations understand ancient texts from generations long since gone. We cannot avoid seeing this activity reflected in Nietzsche’s philosophical context. The transition from tradition to rebellion is central to Nietzsche’s iconoclasm. The philosopher fixes the ancients to the present. If the Presocratics stood in stark contrast to the myth-bound culture of ancient Greece, than a philosopher for Nietzsche, is someone who breaks with tradition while remaining “timely.” Cowen emphasizes how Nietzsche recognized the bridging from the semi-worldly boundlessness of mythology to the bounded restraint of reason by the creativity of philosophy as it is blended with philology. The world of the Greek myths is challenged, and at the same time echoed by the earthly and elemental empiricism of the first philosopher Thales. Thales held that ‘water is the origin of all things.’ Nietzsche writes, “…Thales is a creative master who began to see into the depths of nature without the help of fantastic fable.” Here we have Nietzschean philosophical creativity, willful, radical and rooted in life whilst making untimely observations that serve to challenge the ordinary, the traditional.
After Nietzsche introduces Thales’ laconic proposition that the ‘origin of everything is water,’ Nietzsche qualifies three distinctions:
- “First, because it [Thales’ assertion that the origin of all things is water] tells something about the primal origin of all things;”
- “…second, because it does so in language devoid of image or fable,”
- “…and finally, because contained in it, if only embryonically, is the thought, ‘all things are one.’”
With this tripartite qualification, we have a ready-made metaphysical lesson. Nietzsche’s first assertion has the metaphysical characteristic of looking into the origin of things, of all things. For Aristotle, who postdates Thales by approximately 165 years, considers this to be fundamental to the study of metaphysics—otherwise known as the science of first principles, the origin of things. To seek and study the origin of something is to determine what something is. To determine what something is, is ontological and originary. Thus, to claim that everything originates with water is plainly metaphysical.
On Nietzsche’s second assertion we have the distinction that Thales is using “language devoid of image or fable,” this has the metaphysical component of looking to the nature of ultimate reality (beyond the confines of mythic tradition). At the same time, the mythic tradition begins with the same metaphysical impulse to answer what is at the heart of reality?—what does reality consist of? In the case of myths, such metaphysical questions are answered by way of Zeus, et al. In the case of Thales the metaphysical question is answered with the first hypothesis of natural science: everything originates from water.
With Nietzsche’s last assertion we find another startlingly rich metaphysical foundation, “all things are one.” Whether all things partake of the one or the many is a Presocratic theme extending from Thales and beyond. Philosophy operates in vast generality and this tendency is metaphysical. We want to know how the parts of our specific lives contribute to the whole of the rest of the world, humanity, and the universe. To arrive at the conclusion that everything arises from water, is somewhat unscientific and this is what Thales shares with the mythic answers offered before him while breaking with tradition—he has the radically mythic audacity to claim that everything is water, we still recognize a general truth: water is real and essential to life on earth. Nietzsche’s untimely lesson is metaphysical philosophy, if all things are one, then all reality ancient and contemporary is unified in a proto-scientific way, we are one with the earth enlivened by water. Philosophy bridges the gap between the mythic transitioning into the strictness of empirical science.
If philology interprets the past for us in the present moment, then Nietzsche’s words are taken to heart. Thales was radical in his proposition that ‘the origin of everything is water.’ This is a step away from answering the question, what is everything’s origin with a God, an immortal person. For our usage, metaphysics is rendered secular to become empirical. Nietzsche indicates that philosophy is creative in its endeavors beyond science. Philosophy has the task of finding new insights, new techniques of thinking borrowed from the ancients exposing the overlooked in the everyday.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, trans. Marianne Cowan (Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1998).
 Nietzsche, Philosophy…, 39.