Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nietzsche: Insights of a Troubled Soul 1

I have long been captivated not just by the thoughts of this great philosopher who rocked the foundations of the traditional beliefs of Western culture in the late nineteenth century, but also with the personal suffering of his complex life. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) was a German philosopher, whose critiques of contemporary culture, religion, and philosophy centred on a basic question regarding the foundation of values and morality.  The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy succinctly sums up his contribution to modern philosophy thus:

He believed in life, creativity, health, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond. Central to his philosophy is the idea of “life-affirmation,” which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life's energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. Often referred to as one of the first existentialist philosophers, Nietzsche's revitalizing philosophy has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries. SEP

Images and thoughts that have remained in my mind over the years since my first introduction to this great thinker way back in the middle seventies of the last century are as follows: this rather too serious looking scholar with a shock of black hair, small round spectacles on his nose and a huge drooping moustache which covered his very mouth; that he died a sad and lonely death in the throes of insanity brought on by syphilis; that his sister sanitised his works by editing out anything she found to be socially unacceptable and that he had several mental break-downs culminating with one dramatic, almost histrionic event in one of the great squares of nineteenth century Geneva, where the ailing and demented Nietzsche lovingly embraced a horse by throwing his arms around the poor creature’s neck after it had been severely whipped by its irate owner.   More recent studies have also shown that this tormented man was a closet homosexual, while other studies would see him as bisexual.  One way or another, this much is true, he was a singularly troubled and disturbed individual, but from the depths of his personal suffering would come deep insights into the the human psyche itself, into culture and morality and into the very act of living authentically on this earth.  To this extent, with Soren Kierkegaard, he has often been called the father of the existentialism.

However, here, I merely wish to draw attention to and to quote from some of my favourite passages and aphorisms from this great and wonderful thinker.  With the likes of Professor Irvin Yalom, and many others, I should like to acknowledge how helpful his insights can be, not alone in the task of psychotherapy but in the very task of growing as an individual (individuation – Jung; self-actualization – Goldstein, Maslow and Rogers; self-realization (Buddhist psychology) or self-integration (Anthony Storr).  To a great extent, Nietzsche could be said to prefigure a lot of the wisdom that we have learned from the above and other various schools of psychotherapy.


  • The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.
    • The Dawn, Sec. 297


  • There are no facts, only interpretations.
    • Notebooks, (Summer 1886 – Fall 1887)


  • Deception, flattering, lying, deluding, talking behind the back, putting up a false front, living in borrowed splendour, wearing a mask, hiding behind convention, playing a role for others and for oneself — in short, a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity — is so much the rule and the law among men that there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and pure drive for truth could have arisen among them. They are deeply immersed in illusions and in dream images; their eyes merely glide over the surface of things and see "forms." On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873) Part 1


  • What does man actually know about himself? Is he, indeed, ever able to perceive himself completely, as if laid out in a lighted display case? Does nature not conceal most things from him — even concerning his own body — in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibres! She threw away the key. (Ibid.)


  • We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colours, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. (Ibid.)


  • What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins. (Ibid.)


  • There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an "overjoyed hero," counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. (Ibid.)


  • The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defence against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. (Ibid.)


  • And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.


  • And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.


  • All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.


  • All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.


  • Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.


  • Faith: not wanting to know what is true.


  • He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

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