Nietzsche is a profound philosopher whom it is initially difficult to get one’s head around, but as with all philosophers, or indeed any author of any discipline worth reading, he is worth struggling with. I have been struggling with his writings for years and still find the struggle worth it. When I come across the likes of Rollo May who has a particular take on Nietzsche I am delighted because I will get more insights into one of my favourite philosophers.
Be aware of Detractors and Despisers:
Oftentimes I hear such phrases as, “sure Nietzsche was mad - a raving lunatic,” etc. Such comments are not worthy wasting our time with them even. However, for several sentences I now wish to reply to such dismissive, superficial and essentially ignorant comments. Firstly, any of you who are readers of these posts will know that sanity and insanity are indeed hard to define. Who is drawing the demarcation lines? Who indeed is telling the truth? Who is lying? Who defines madness anyway? Philosophers and indeed scientists cannot agree even to what the mind is essentially? If we cannot decide what the human mind is, how can we decide the real nature of sanity and insanity? History is written by the victors. Sanity is defined by those in power. So you see, things are not really as they appear.
That is why R.D.Laing and other brave psychiatrists who questioned and who continue to question accepted truths are always to be thanked, and indeed trusted as they want us, their readers and their patients to question these truths with them. Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard before him was a leader, indeed a pioneer of questioning truths that were too easily accepted. Likewise, many great scholars have suffered from depression, either uni-polar or bi-polar and even from schizophrenia. The phrase “great minds and madness” is very close to the truth of things really. It is beyond my purposes here to follow up this thread of thought, but anyone who wishes could follow it up on Google. Now back to Nietzsche.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Nietzsche died on the cusp of the twentieth century, the very year Freud published his great Interpretation of dreams. The following are the seminal points May mentions:
(i) Like Kierkegaard before him, Nietzsche was a human being in crisis. Once again both were anti-conformist, and wrote from the deepest agonies of anxiety, despair and isolation. They could speak from an immediate personal knowledge of ultimate psychological crises.
(ii) Like Kierkegaard again he accurately divined the psychological and spiritual state of Western society at his particular time.
(iii) Again neither of these great thinkers was anti-rational. Nietzsche attacked what he called “mere reason.” He wanted to find the ground that supported reason and unreason, the rational and the irrational.
(iv) Nietzsche believed he had to be a good psychologist to be a good philosopher. He used himself as his guinea pig and engaged in a deep exploration of his own self. In Beyond Good and Evil he argued “that psychology should be recognised again as the queen of the sciences, for whose service and preparation the other sciences exist. For psychology is now again the path to the fundamental problems.” (Quoted ibid., p. 75)
(v) Nietzsche was no nihilist or the enemy of religion or morality, or indeed the enemy of anything else for that matter. It is just that he wanted humanity to go below the superficial and sterile cultural values it then promoted as ultimate ones. So his concepts are designed to wake slumbering society up, to become more self-aware and more self-conscious. His concepts of “superman” and “the will to power”, May argues, are endeavours to rediscover some fibre and some strength in the soul of contemporary humankind.
(vi) Nietzsche held that one should experiment on all truth not just in the laboratory, but in one’s own experience. He believed strongly that every truth should be faced with the question, “Can one live it?” As a colleague of mine used to put it, “in the end it’s all about whether you can live with yourself or not.” There’s a lot of truth in that, if you pardon the obviously awkward pun. This explains, May rightly argues, “error is cowardice.”
(vii) Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard, had no desire to begin any movement. All they wanted was to make people question, to look deeper into their own lives, and to question superficial values. If Nietzsche severely questioned religion, it was with this in mind. The corruption we have witnessed among Roman Catholic Church leaders, the big bankers, the entrepreneurs and the market speculators all witness to a lack of concern for what the truth is. These people did not ask the hard Nietzschean questions of themselves. They went along with the systems in place and did not question the prevailing culture. In the end, what Nietzsche wanted was neatly summed up in his own statement, “Follow not me, but you!” (Quoted ibid., p. 76)
(viii) Indeed Nietzsche did proclaim that “God is dead!” But when one struggles with his writings one begins to realise that he was protesting vigorously against all forms of institutional religion which had emasculated God, and indeed emasculated humanity. According to May, he denounced “the softened, vapid and anaemic trends in Christianity; by Nietzsche’s time the deteriorated forms of theism and emotionally dishonest religious practices had become part of the illness and had to die.” (Ibid., p. 76) May advances the considered opinion that Kierkegaard was speaking out of a time when God was dying, while Nietzsche was speaking from one where God was decidedly dead.
(ix) Both were concerned with humankind’s essential nobility, dignity and humanity. In a word both were committed to humankind’s authenticity.
(x) Nietzsche always uses psychological terms with ontological meaning. Depression, despair, anxiety, guilt and loneliness are no mere psychological conditions. They are in fact states of being, that’s what we mean by his terms being ontological as well as psychological. For Nietzsche, as for Kierkegaard, humankind’s contemporary illness ran deep and deeper still into his very being. They were not mere psychological conditions which could be easily lifted as it were. Anxiety, like all the above mentioned “conditions” are not something we “have,” but rather something we existentially “are.”
(xi) Humankind must “will” his “being” in all his encounters with others. Nietzsche takes those superficial humans to task who would wish to live like nature, which is, as he correctly assesses it, wasteful beyond limit and completely indifferent. No, no, no. Humans must learn to will their being in their encounters, sharpen their moral edge and follow their own truth in the laboratory of their own soul.
(xii) May goes on to point out that at periods of great transition in the history of humanity, when values are being questioned, psychological terms begin to be used with ontological meaning. (See ibid., p. 78)
(xiii) Now we turn to Nietzsche’s understanding of the word “power” and “will to power.” May makes the interesting point that all notion of power is repressed in psychology per se. He also makes the point that sometimes the concept of power is subsumed under the term “will,” but also that this last category has largely been ignored since the time of William James himself. Again, sometimes authors use the weaker term “control,” but this is somewhat underhanded. May goes on to state that for Nietzsche the phrase “will to power” really means “self-actualization.” If one really thinks about this it makes great sense. When I manage to actualize myself as much as I can I then have considerably more control or more power over my own self, more self-control, and I will not really have to use power or control over others then at all. In this regard, a phrase I heard the Irish clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Tony Humphreys use makes considerable sense: “All control is self-control.” (I often wonder if we can ever get to a state of full self-actualization – I very much doubt it, as we are always very much a work in progress.)
(xiv) This “will to power” is also an ontological category or state of being. It does not refer to aggression or competitive striving at all. In the words of our man, May: “It is the individual affirming his existence and his potentialities as a being in his own right; it is the ‘the courage to be an individual’ as Paul Tillich remarks in his discussion of Nietzsche.” (Ibid., p. 79)
(xv) The blocking of the above drive or will to power leads to blockages in our psyche, that is, neuroses of all kinds.
(xvi) Happiness for Nietzsche, interestingly, is not the absence of pain, but rather, “the most alive feeling of power.” Joy is “a plus-feeling of power,” and good health is also a by-product. (Quoted p. 80) This makes sense in the light of what I have said above.
(xvii) “Being,” Nietzsche writes, is “a generalization of the concept of life, of willing, acting and becoming,” and he goes on to declare that “no one can build the bridge on which you in particular will have to cross the river of life – no one but yourself.” (Quoted ibid. p. 80)
(xviii) Affirming one’s own being, Nietzsche argues creates the values we hold dear in life. “Individuality, worth and dignity are not gegeben, i.e., given to us as data by nature, but aufgegeben – i.e., given or assigned to us as a task which we ourselves must solve.”(Quoted ibid., p. 81) This is again exactly what Paul Tillich suggests. Courage or “the courage to be” opens the way to being; otherwise you will lose it or squander it in a cowardly fashion. This is also near enough to what Sartre said of all humankind – that, in the final analysis, we are our choices.
(xix) Unlike the Darwinians, Nietzsche and the existentialists argue that survival is not the highest of values in life, expression of self is! Is this not brilliant? That is what I mean that when I discover a commentator on Nietzsche who has brilliant insights into this complex genius, I delight in these wonderful insights.
(xx) Then May learnedly opines that Nietzsche had prefigured Freud’s repression in 1887 when he wrote that “All instincts that are not allowed free play turn inward. This is what I call man’s interiorization.” (Quoted ibid., p. 82)
(xxi) Nietzsche is all about facing the truth in ourselves and about unmasking all our deceptions. That is why he, May argues, is “the therapist for the therapists of our time.”(Ibid., p. 83)