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Nietzsche as Psychologist

Nietzsche is assuredly in the pantheon of the superlatively great.

His writing rouses like the most powerful works of art – on returning to it, one sees things, notices connections, divines relationships that had eluded one heretofore; there always seems to be another layer of meaning and literary artistry awaiting the committed, resourceful reader, no matter how many others have already been peeled away. Or one more deeply feels the vehemence which animates the work, and is – to borrow a metaphor from Zarathustra – set afire by lightning-bolts of insight, seeing with Nietzsche, a bit, into the now-illumined depths.

It seems that, of late, with every third or fourth book I return to Nietzsche. Especially as I grow older – and am more conscious of the finite number of books that I will read and perhaps 'master' in my life – I feel driven to place myself at the feet of a few sages again and again, and hopefully come to terms with them. Engaging this small group – in which I also would include, among a few others, Plato, Aristotle, and possibly Hegel – one is repaid by neither loving uncritically nor criticizing un-lovingly.

In recent readings I've really been struck by Nietzsche's psychological insights; I find “confirmation” for many of his claims in my own experience, and reflection on my motivations. In particular, it seems that something like the “will to power” is indeed a central force in human agency and development. In the lamentable “post-Modern” intellectual climate, where, thanks to Nietzsche's expropriators, there are always dark associations with any talk of “power” (e.g., “patriarchal relations of power” and so on), perhaps Nietzsche can be rescued from the new orthodoxy by noting that his locution could be alternatively rendered as “will to efficacy, capacity, mastery” - the drive to expand, grow, strengthen, “widen.” Hence it's no coincidence that he adverts again and again to artistry and creativity as essential to being human – and that in Zarathustra the spirit's “third metamorphosis” is “the child.” The artist, flowing with his work, and the healthy child, in whom play and learning are fused, are paradigmatic cases of self-stoking efficacy. Healthy development is nothing if not “self-overcoming.”

To the extent that we appreciate the psychological role and effects of self-confidence vs. self-doubt/insecurity, in ourselves and others, we get a glimpse of the foundational part played by a person's "sense of self-efficacy"/will-to-power (note too how this provides the psychological nexus to appreciate Nietzsche's distinction of "good vs. evil" vs. "good vs. bad" - someone whose morality/temperament is 'slavish' isn't any less motivated by will-to-power than a more 'noble' sort, but the quality or character of their respective 'mastery' is of course radically different).

More “confirmation” of Nietzsche's psychological perspicuity comes from some of the more envelope-pushing and inspiring figures in Modern Psychology. One of my favorites is Abraham Maslow, whose excellent book, Towards a Psychology of Being, I have been revisiting over the last few days. Illustrating his classic distinction between motivation according to "deficiency needs" vs. according to "growth needs," Maslow writes,

"Every human being has both sets of forces within him. One set clings to safety and defensiveness out of fear, tending to regress backward, hanging on to the past, afraid to grow away from the primitive communication with the mother's uterus and breast, afraid to take chances, afraid to jeopardize what he already has, afraid of independence, freedom and separateness. The other set of forces impels him toward full functioning of all his capacities, toward confidence in the face of the external world at the same time that he can accept his deepest, real, unconscious Self ... Therefore we can consider the process of healthy growth to be a never ending series of free choice situations, confronting each individual at every point throughout his life, in which he must choose between the delights of safety and growth, dependence and independence, regression and progression, immaturity and maturity."
(pp. 46-47)[emphasis in original]

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes,

"Not the height but the precipice is terrible. That precipice where the glance plunges down and the hand reaches up. There the heart becomes giddy confronted with its double will. Alas, friends, can you guess what is my heart's double will?

"This, this is my precipice and my danger, that my glance plunges into the height and that my hand would grasp and hold on to the depth. My will clings to man; with fetters I bind myself to man because I am swept up toward the overman; for that way my other will wants to go. And therefore I live blind among me as if I did not know them, that my hand might not wholly lose its faith in what is firm." [emphasis in original]
(Zarathustra, trans. by Walter Kaufmann, Second Part, #21, "On Human Prudence," p. 142)

In perhaps my favorite of Nietzsche's works, Daybreak, the literal terror associated with individuation/individuality - especially in the "long pre-history" of man, the dynamics of which Nietzsche delights in limning, especially in regards to the relationship of "morality" and mores -- is brought out most vividly:

"In comparison with the mode of life of whole millenia of mankind we present-day men live in a very immoral age: the power of custom is astonishingly enfeebled and the moral sense so rarefied and lofty it may be described as havine more or less evaporated ...[In the ages when the power of custom was strong] Every individual action, every individual mode of thought arouses dread; it is impossible to compute what precisely the rarer, choicer, more original spirits in the whole course of history have had to suffer through being felt as evil and dangerous, indeed through feeling themselves to be so. Under the dominion of the morality of custom, originality of every kind has acquired a bad conscience; the sky above the best men is for this reason to this very moment gloomier than it need be." [emphasis in original]
(Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Bk. I, 9, "Concept of Morality of Custom", pp. 10-12).

Before shifting to a rather long sequence of observations on Christianity in Book I of Daybreak (with Christianity presumably meant as the morality of custom for the Occident), Nietzsche speculates as to two interrelated "vehicles" for the halting individuality of the distant past: madness and self-directed cruelty. Madness was an expedient because the custom-breaker needed somehow to believe in himself - and provide otherwordly witness to others - in his deviation from "established usages" (customs); only presumed possession by divinity could vouchsafe such brazenness. Self-cruelty, Nietzsche thinks, was an attempt to propitiate divinity for the seemingly reckless (and possibly impious) steps the iconoclast made bold to hazard.

It is typically Nietzschean to believe that we present-day men are vessels of our ancestors' passions/sufferings, inclinations, drives, etc. Here the - fascinating - point at issue is:

"Let us not be too quick to think that we have by now freed ourselves completely from such logic of feeling! Let the most heroic souls question themselves on this point. Every smallest step in the field of free thought, of a life shaped personally, has always had to be fought for with spiritual and bodily tortures; not only the step forward, no! the step itself, movement, change of any kind has needed its innumerable martyrs through all the long path-seeking and foundation-laying millenia ..."
(ibid., 18, "The morality of voluntary suffering", p. 17).

The personal quality here is undeniable - surely he writes from experience - and the point is striking. Throughout this piece I have put the word "confirmation" in scare-quotes, because it's not clear to me what constitutes proof or verification for psychological claims, and I've only hinted at "confirmation" in any event. But surely resonance with personal experience is a necessary (even if not sufficient) condition. So, one could do worse than begin by asking oneself, "do these claims comport with my experience?" I have suggested that they seem more than plausible, in light of my own reflections on myself and my life. Et tu?

November 30, 2003 | Permalink

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