One of the real pleasures of being involved in the discipline of psychotherapy is that it is populated by people who believe that our fundamental assumptions about the nature of Being have practical effects on what we say and do – and don’t say or do – with patients. This is why it is important for people with a personal investment in Freudian and Neo-Freudian ideas to have some facility with certain philosophical concepts and systems. Freidrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) is a good place to begin, for many different reasons, not the least of which is that he (a) is among the most explicitly psychological of all modern philosophers (he often referred to himself as a “psychologist”, though I’m unsure as to how he understood that term); and (b) heralded the dawn of the modern and postmodern eras, anticipating the demise of collective adherence to socially-bonding religious traditions; the rise of hyper-individualism; the alienation of art and “high culture” from ordinary persons’ comprehension; and the increasing fragmentation of our subjective sense of selfhood (such that current psychoanalytic theories are often agog with ideas of the “multiplicity” of the self, and dismissive of what they see as outmoded notions of a unitary, coherent human identity, which they deem as expressing a now-defunct “essentialism”).
Say what you want about Nietzsche…like him or hate him, no thinking person can afford to overlook his amazing prescience about the vast and psychologically demanding changes in our social, political, and personal lives. A challenging aspect of Nietzsche’s thought is its fairly unsystematic nature, which is off-putting to some people, who find it confounding. There is an underlying unity in his philosophy, I believe, but it has always seemed to me that he intended to tease and provoke the reader by constant, inexact allusions to larger themes. This is why he often relied on aphorisms, or would break off a paragraph in the middle of developing a theme, then proceed on to something seemingly unrelated, or just tangentially so. I tend to think that in writing in this way he sought to reach his audience at an emotional level: through the form of his prose he sought to frustrate our all-too-human desire for a cheaply-bought logical clarity, an adamantine explanatory “system” to which we can cling for security. Rather, he firmly believed it was now appropriate to understand life as a collision of pluralities – highly diverse and contrasting views of who we are and what we should do to live truly human lives. I don’t think that he welcomed such a development, only that he saw it as a tsunami-like inevitability, one that was engulfing and destroying what he referred to as the “the idols” (intellectual, social, cultural, and religious) of earlier eras. Though an extremely shy and emotionally inhibited man, in his writing he was fierce and unyielding about the looming crises of modernity. Like a prophet of the Tanakh (to Christians, the Old Testament), he railed that this is a development that we’d better face, or be swept away in the “current” (excuse the pun) ourselves.
While he offered no easy answers, Nietzsche wrote that this state of events summons us to become the heroic creators of our own lives. This gets to a rather “macho” element in his thinking, one that seems subtly related to his demeaning stance toward women. However, on balance, it seems correct to say that this is a legitimate re-visioning of our sense of purpose and the attitude by which we might proceed: one with eyes open, summoning courage (from the French “heart”) in the face of one’s new grasp of life’s arid emptiness.
Given the all-consuming nature of his devotion to this prophetic mission, and the lonely isolation in which he lived most of his life, it is perhaps not surprising, and even sadly appropriate, that he eventually went mad. The much-circulated tale that he suffered from a venereal disease-induced dementia may be true, though there is some question about this. (Some current historians have concluded that this is a fanciful construction of events ex-post-facto, formulated by some who resented aspects of his thinking, though I recently heard a doctor on National Public Radio asserting that he has reviewed the records of Nietzsche’s insanity and is sure that a venereal disease was the cause.)
Whatever the actual origin of Nietzsche’s mental collapse, one can’t help but notice the barely-concealed glee with which many of his critics – a few thoughtful, but mostly otherwise – exploit this terrible event; as if they have found in his final psychotic state the magical key that unlocks the door to the argument that everything he penned can
now be safely ignored. Legend has it that Nietzsche first fell into a state of mental collapse upon seeing a horse being brutally beaten in the street by its owner. Assuming that accounts of Nietzsche’s medical state are correct, let’s also assume that someone with a brain disease does not cease to make meaning of things, and may even become receptive to unconscious elements and associations that otherwise would have remained repressed. That said, what the treatment of this helpless animal meant to him cannot be exactly known, only inferred. My own thought is that for someone as exquisitely sensitive as he was, it may have epitomized the personal, psychological isolation of his life, the hatred to which he felt subjected by much of the public, and the ultimately intolerable recognition of our abandonment by God. This is perhaps what, at the conclusion of the iconic film “Apocalypse Now”, Marlon Brando’s character Colonel Kurtz (interestingly, perhaps an allusion to the German for “cross”) refers to in two simple words as he dies: “The horror”.
Nietzsche is an expansive thinker, and many of his writings veer extemporaneously between widely diverse topics and ideas, or allude to larger meanings using aphorisms or fiction. Hence, it can be difficult to identify the consistent themes that are hidden in his writings, even for those who have studied him for some time. Newcomers to Nietzsche would do well to first delve into one of the many fine secondary sources about his philosophical positions. One of my favorite is by Leslie Paul Thiele (1990), “Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: a Study of Heroic Individualism”, which explains Nietzsche’s understanding of the constitution of selfhood. Members may also find my WordPress.com blog essay entitled “The Contributions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche” (2018) of interest.