Thursday, September 17, 2009

Nietzsche: Insights of a Troubled Soul 3

Nietzsche was a most complex individual, if not, indeed, much conflicted. His philosophy, while well thought out, bears the hallmarks of having been written from the very depths of angst. Oftentimes those who have plumbed the depths of their very own being through nervous breakdowns, accidents, traumas, and all the various addictions make the best counsellors – quite simply, because they have been there, or as the cliché has it – they have been there and have got the tee-shirt. That’s why so many of us are attracted to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche – he is writing from experience and a deep philosophical reflection on that lived experience. And so now I want to share another few insights of this great philosopher with you:

For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer! At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due: — it will want to rule and possess, and you with it! The Gay Science (1882) (Section 283)

As I have said before in the previous post, it is best to view the writings of Nietzsche as being deliberately provocative. He wishes to wake us up, to startle us into thinking. Hence, he loved aphorisms, which by their nature overstate a truth because they get us thinking through shock tactics. The above passage wishes to push us to take risks, to leave the security of the familiar and to explore the unfamiliar, even to go into uncharted waters and deserts of our lives and in so doing build ourselves up. Nietzsche uses many metaphors. He is not to be taken literally. On a psychotherapeutic level, it benefits us to face our worst fears, to take courage and to try new activities because in that way we grow. As another cliché has it: “No pain, no gain.” We always gain something from every struggle, even if it appears to be unjustly weighed against us.

We are, all of us, growing volcanoes that approach the hour of their eruption; but how near or distant that is, nobody knows — not even God. (Op.cit. Sec. 9)

We are always in our own company. (Ibid Sec. 166)

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier, simpler. (Ibid., Sec. 179)

What does your conscience say? — "You shall become the person you are." (It is also translated as “Become who you are.” Nietzsche is here quoting Pindar who first used this phrase) (Ibid., Sec. 270.)

We want to be poets of our life — first of all in the smallest most everyday matters. (Ibid., Sec. 299.)

Only those who keep changing remain akin to me. (Concluding poem of Beyond Good and Evil)

I tell you: one must have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star. (Prologue 5 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885)

What does not destroy me, makes me stronger. (Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, 8, 1888)

Without music, life would be a mistake. (ibid., Maxims and Arrows, 33)

The very word "Christianity" is a misunderstanding — in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross. This has commonly been paraphrased: The last Christian died on the cross. (Ibid., Sec. 39)

What does not kill him, makes him stronger. ("Why I Am So Wise", 2; this is often paraphrased as: What does not kill me, makes me stronger. Ecce Homo, 1888)

There have been many pithy phrases used in the history of human thought, and none was or is as famous as "Know Thyself" which was an original Ancient Greek aphorism : γνῶθι σεαυτόν gnōthi seauton and was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It has been variously attributed to Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Solon of Athens and Thales of Miletus such was its common currency. Deep in this saying lies much wisdom. Pindar's phrase, quoted above, and often attributed to Nietzsche, is almost as famous: "Become who you are!" Both of these phrases sum up essentially the heart of all good psychotherapy. The whole goal of all therapy and analysis is to allow the client to discover his or her Self in all its colours and shades and to be "at home" and accepting of that Self in all its uniqueness and authenticity. The phrase, "we want to be the poets of our lives" has roughly the same meaning, though it is phrased in a far more metaphorical way, and Nietzsche loved metaphors. A poet thinks and writes at great intensity and is a sort of "distiller of experience" (my formulation). In doing so, he/she is also on the road to self-discovery. This task obviously requires much hard work.

And, then, the insight that we must keep changing if we are to grow. Our experience teaches us that most people hate change with a vengeance because it entails encountering so much of the unknown which is more often than not very frightening. Nietzsche saw change as one of the keys to life. And further, his insight that we must encounter chaos within ourselves so that we may give birth to something brilliant like a dancing star. Only those of us who have experienced the chaos of any illness - mental or physical or both - can understand this saying at its deepest. This is essentially an awakening experience, where we appreciate life anew after we have come through the crisis. In like manner, our philosopher friend realised that all the hard and harsh experiences of life strengthen us: what does not destroy us does, indeed, make us stronger.

Truthfully one can say that the degree of introspection achieved by Nietzsche has been and is rarely achieved. Freud several times said of our philosopher friend that he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was likely to live. This was, undoubtedly, overstating the case, nevertheless his comments contain not a little truth.

A fairly young Nietzsche with his trademark moustache.


Daniel said...

Well except for Kierkegaard of course; a full generation earlier than Nietzsche, and he already understood the problems of individuality, existential inwardness, and the human situation like no other, including Nietzsche. Would love to see some blog insights on Kierkegaard!

TQ said...

Thanks for the comment, Daniel. I agree with you. However, it is such a long time since I read a little of Kierkegaard. Al the way back in the mid seventies. However, he is yet another of the all too many philosophers I should dearly like to read. I read as things strike me, when time allows and I'm nopt too overburdened by work. However, I will try to revisit K and see what I can understand from this first great existentialist!