Nietzsche states: “This world is the will to power and nothing else”. “The goal is not the humanity, but Overman“.
In January 1889 a patient was admitted to the asylum of Jena, to be treated by Prof. Otto Binswanger (paternal uncle of the more famous Ludwig).
One day, while in hospital, a psychiatrist wrote in his medical record:
“The patient shows obvious paranoid points of megalomania: he claims to be a great philosopher “.
But was he just a delusional individual? Or was he also a great philosopher? That man was Friedrich Nietzsche.
Let’s try to redefine the characteristics of his philosophical thought.
Beyond the conventional concepts of sanity and madness, Nietzsche argues thah human life should not be repressed in its spontaneity, nor used as a means to reach an alleged “Afterlife”.
Existence “serves” nothing, but is the will to power as an end in itself: it’s pure desire to live.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) declare himself, initially, as the natural continuator of Arthur Schopenhauer. He then ends up radically opposing the worldview of his inspirer. Nietzsche, in his formative years, finds a fundamental inspiration from the reading of “The world as will and representation”. He writes in an autobiographical fragment of 1867:
“Here every line shouted renunciation, negation, resignation; here I looked at the world, life and my own soul as in a mirror, grandiose with horror;
here, like the sun, the great eye of art stared at me , detached from everything; here I saw sickness and healing, exile and refuge, hell and heaven”.
Schopenhauer proposed the denial of the individual will to live as the supreme value, according to a nihilistic attitude that Nietzsche defines as “passive”. The latter sees man in front of a fundamental choice: either he resigns himself and withdraws from the world, despising it in every element, or he accepts and values life for what it is.
Nietzsche and the “active nihilism”.
Through the shape of the “active nihilism “, I am aware that life will not reserve for me anything pleasant from an individual point of view. Nevertheless, we have to tolerate suffering until we adhere to the universal order, which I equate to my personal will to power.
We find in Nietzsche the aspiration to a vision historical from which to discern the sense of the human will to know.
He rejects the idea of history as an “archaeological” reconstruction of events, in a cold cause-effect chain. Instead, he intends to propose a critical and active historicism.
Through this perspective the philosopher wants to give meaning to the events of the past, which must be relived in the context of the current era and understood with the help of psychology . For Nietzsche it’s the “queen of the sciences”.
In the text “The birth of tragedy” (1872) the German philosopher proposes the original psychological theory according to which Western civilization, born in ancient Greece, arose not from a rational need to order reality, but from the desire to celebrate the vital feelings of the individual.
The cult of Dionysus, god (or demon, depending on the point of view) of thrill, of mad joy, of orgiastic excess would be a testament to this: he represents total adherence to life.
However, this attitude does not correspond to an aesthetic abandonment to the pleasures of the senses: in the man of ancient Greece there is in fact a profound awareness of the tragic component that characterizes the life of each of us.
The cult of Dionysus thus becomes, for the individual, the attempt to ask for otherworldly help to celebrate the present life and to endure the suffering that awaits him in the course of his existence.
The other way to survive the chaos of the world is to try to give it a rational order: in ancient Greece an objective philosophy was born, from which the natural sciences would develop.
The search for harmony.
In the Greek man there are therefore the apparently antithetical aspirations of each of us: one is that of following the intuition of feeling, to seek an immediate connection with the absolute; the other is that of ordering reality according to the parameters of reason, to re-establish a balance in the vision of the world (however precarious).
In the Greek tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, according to the German philosopher, a miraculous harmony between feeling and reason is established.
In these ancient theatrical representations we witness a recurring sequence of events: the protagonist is born with the aspiration to assert himself, to realize himself, in the tension towards totality. His initial success, however, arouses experiences of envy and of resentment by the gods, fearful that the subject could question their superiority.
Thus arises the “Nemesis “(divine revenge), which condemns the protagonist to face terrible challenges against other characters and elements of Nature.
The subject however learn through suffering (pathei mathos) and gives it a meaning: paradoxically, thanks to suffering the protagonist matures and becomes hero.
Furthermore, the individual is faced with an unequal challenge against the power of ananke, the destiny necessary and immutable, which even the divinities must submit.
The protagonist of the tragedy then suffers to an inevitable death; he nevertheless becomes hero because he accept to join this tragic destiny of individual annihilation. It finally becomes immortal thanks to the power of artistic representation, which updates the protagonist’s life in each stage re-edition and sublimates the subject from its miserable destiny of disappearing into thin air.
In the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the rational structure of the artistic work authentically conveys the feelings of the protagonist and of the other characters, in their intrinsic dialectic.
The decline of classical ideals.
According to Nietzsche, the harmony between feeling and reason of classical tragedy and, more generally, of Greek culture, goes into crisis with the affirmation of Plato’s thought: through the influence of this philosopher we witness the prevalence of the “Apollonian dimension” (intellectual), on the “Dionysian” one: thus develops the pale cult of reason“, an inexorable sign of the decline of Western civilization, which is still ongoing.
Characteristics of the splendor of classical Western civilization, and of the consequent figure of the hero, are instead the aesthetic beauty as a reflection of the goodness of soul (“kalos kai agathos”), the unity between mind and body (“mens sana in corpore sano “), sexual love, joy, desire to laugh, love of self (as distinct from personal pride and from selfishness).
Unfortunately, according to Nietzsche, all this healthy balance of classical Western civilization (which constitutes a harmonious interpenetration of ethics and aesthetics) historically fails, first with Plato, then with the affirmation of Christianity (which would be a sort of simplified Platonism made understandable to the ordinary man).
We are now witnessing, according to the author, a progressive and deplorable subversion of vital values .
Here is a new representation of the man: passive , with his head down, obedient, pervaded by feelings of guilt to be expiated, sexually chaste, then repressed in his instincts and dependent on a God who dominates him and pushes him to self-annihilate.
How did we come to all this?
Nietzsche, in the “Genealogy of morality” (1887), provides this psychological analysis: the class of priests is pervaded by envy is resentment (feelings analogous to those perceived by the gods of ancient Greek tragedy) towards the aristocratic class, that is, towards noble-minded people. The priests have refined their intellect and subtly end up conditioning the morality of society, until they have dominated it.
The subversion of values.
An abstract “spirit” in now opposed to the body, humility to pride, chastity to sexuality, seriousness to laughter, passive obedience to the power of action, in a total subversion of values: the anti-vital ones end up prevailing over the vital ones.
In this way, a progressive repression of instincts occurs in every man, with an alienation from spontaneous and more authentic feelings. This phenomenon feeds resentment, envy, a series of negative experiences that poison the individual himself and society.
Nietzsche insists on the description of this man sick, self-tormented, humiliated, in contact with a body that has become sinful, in contrast to its very nature.
This man, defined in our times as neurotic , is a slave to the intellect and seems to have forgotten the spontaneity of feeling.
Modern man seems to be the caricature of the classic hero, pervaded as he is by fears of all kinds: phobias, insecurities, hypochondria and constant brooding.
Where is the will to creative power that pervades the individual and makes him “human being”?
In “Twilight of the Idols” (1888), Nietzsche describes “how the real world ended up becoming a fairy tale”: that is, the story of a fatal philosophical error.
Everything seems to be born because of Plato: in his philosophical model, the “real world” is not my world, in which I am living concretely here and now. Instead, it is a rational idea, intelligible only to the philosopher.
We lose sight of the present reality that the individual lives and the abstract world of Ideas is placed at the center .
In Christianity the “true world” is concretized in the Kingdom of God, in Paradise, in the Afterlife: in Christian dogmas it’s a place of bliss distinct from the earthly world; for now it is unattainable, but it is “promised” to the pious, the virtuous, to the sinner who does penance . A devious influence of the priest on the common man is insinuated, since the idea of a dutiful submission of the faithful to the power of the clerical class is introduced.
Nietzsche is also very critical of Kant’s position and his alleged absolute “truth”: the “real world” (the “thing-in-itself”) is defined by the latter as a noumenon unknowable. Although indemonstrable, the “real world” for Kant is an ideal to strive for, like a moral imperative dictated by intellect: this goal, however, is so ethereal and elusive as not to induce valid motivations in the individual to aspire to reach it.
Let’s eliminate the “real world”.
With Positivism we understand that the “real world”, Nietzsche continues, is unattainable: “Therefore not even consoling, saving, binding: what could something unknown bind to?”
All that remains is a single conclusion: “The ‘real world’ – an idea that is no longer useful for anything, not even binding anymore, – an idea that has become useless, superfluous, therefore an idea refuted: let’s eliminate it!”
“We have eliminated the real world: what world remains? Perhaps the apparent one? …no! With the real world we have eliminated even the apparent one! “
So what remains? Pervaded by a will to destructive power, we have demolished the whole of reality. Now we have Nothingness left.
What feelings do we have at this point? We woke up and suppressed traditional metaphysics.
“God died and we killed him “.
The Nothingness that presents itself in front of us is a consequence of the vivid image of the death of God, which we still have in front of us.
At the beginning a generalized experience of liberation and euphoria prevails, for having killed what was now perceived as a tyrant:
“We philosophers and free spirits, at the news that the old God is dead, we feel as if illuminated by the rays of a new dawn;
our hearts overflow with gratitude, wonder, foreboding, expectation – finally the horizon returns to appear free to us, even admitting that it is not serene; finally we can once again unleash the sails of our ships, move towards every danger;
every risk of the man of knowledge is once again permitted; the sea, our sea, is still there open before, perhaps there has never yet been such an open sea” ( from The gay science, 1882).
Subsequently, however, it is also inevitable to feel a sense of emptiness, dizziness, loss. Now we must face alone the Nothingness that is looming on the horizon: we no longer have a father to guide us, nor a teacher we can trust.
Can a man, as he is, stand the challenge against the infinite Nothingness? No. We are faced with the representation of a new tragedy, in which the protagonist must endure an unequal struggle against Nothingness that dominates him. This is why “man is something that must be overcome”: he has to go over himself, become Overman.
The birth of the Overman.
Nietzsche makes Zarathustra say:
“The Overman, is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the Overman shall be the meaning of the earth!
I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!
Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.
Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him.
To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing“.
Becoming Overman means discovering that there is no Transcendence distinct from me, nor Afterlife, nor Beyond; there is only my personal feeling of wanting to get “beyond” myself, to “go beyond” my constitutive limits, to aspire to universality , to the point of merging with reality in a harmonic synthesis.
Universality is an immanent aspiration to myself: it’s inside of me, not in a separate outdoor place.
In this context, the limited confines of my body and mind expand without limits, to identify with the universal will to power.
The personal realization of the individual can be obtained through the attainment of an intimate harmony with one’s own body, which rests on the Earth, the only “real world”.
Only starting from these assumptions and intentions man can meet the challenge of replacing God and becoming Creator of a new reality.
“O resplendent Sun, what would you be, if I were not here below to shine upon?”
(from Thus spoke Zarathustra, 1883).
The subject wants to overcome Nothingness through the affirmation of his own will to power . Through it I discover my belonging to existence; I have to give a personal meaning to my life.
What is meant by the will to power?
First of all it means being able to perceive a vital energy that gives a sense to my existence, beyond the conventional concepts of good and evil, of what I like and dislike. Nietzsche identifies this energy in the feeling of love, of himself and his neighbor (which are one and the same):
“What is done out of love always happens beyond good and evil”.
Love is an active feeling: allows the individual, if he authentically proves it, to become a true Creator.
At this point, after killing the old God, I rediscover myself in a divine role. And how can I become immortal and eternally create life? We arrive at what for the Author is “the most abysmal thought”, “the greatest weight”.
“What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you:
“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live it once more and innumerable times more;
and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself?
The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!»
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?
Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine” (…)
“How well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life?”
(from The gay science, 1882).
The tremendous moment.
This “Tremendous Moment” is crucial for understanding Nietzsche’s thought: it’s the key to making sense of reality.
It’s a present beyond chronological time: corresponds to the very moment in which I am living.
The “eternal return” would be difficult to trace back to a new metaphysics, since Nietzsche has always fought it. First of all it’s a feeling, a profound aspiration that men have always perceived: that of becoming eternal and being able to fully enjoy the present moment .
Furthermore it’s the Overman who decides the eternal return. It is therefore not a passive way to accept something predetermined: it’s always me who decides to live this tremendous and eternal moment, which is the life I belong and I want to belong to.
In a traditional linear time, in which the goal is always beyond the present (until infinity), man will never be satisfied.
Only if I’m immersed in circular time (outside the cause-effect mechanism) I can enjoy my life in every moment, without waiting for happiness to take place at a presumed future moment (perhaps as a reward for some of my actions).
The eternal return (and, more generally, the human feeling of becoming eternal) lies outside the categories of space, time and causality, which are the presuppositions of every human experience (according to Kant and Schopenhauer).
The Overman expresses the will to fully adhere to the universal order, through his free yes to life.
At this time there’s no longer any distinction between my will to power and that of the Universe.
In fact, Nietzsche declares:
“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity.
Not only to endure what is necessary, stil less to conceal it (all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity); but to love it “
(from Ecce homo, 1888).
The concept of “will to power” influenced psychoanalysis and the thought of its founder from the very beginning.
Freud substantially confirm what the German philosopher claims.
Nietzsche’s description of Western man corresponds to neurotic: a man who, even when materially wealthy, remains repressed in the freedom of his natural instincts, irascible and tormented by guilt for the devious perception of his aggression, repressed or removed.
A vicious circle is created: we are faced with a psychically disturbed man, who feels shame and humiliation for his shortcomings, for his body that has become sinful and no longer an expression of his will to live.
And this, in turn, is the expression of a generalized aggression, which feeds unhappiness and low self-esteem.
Also for this reason, the individuals of the Western world profess themselves generically Christians but, while the original message of Jesus is of love and brotherhood, the planet is still the scene of wars, tragedies, individual and collective hatred of other people.
Hatred can manifest itself explicitly, but also subtly in each of us, through resentment, envy, dissatisfaction, irritability.
Modern man has lost not only the will to power, but also his self-awareness.
Freud intends to allow the individual to rediscover himself as an active subject.
The search for an awakening of the subject’s will to power.
Not surprisingly, the founder of psychoanalysis states: “Where the id was, the ego must take over” – that is, a new human being, able to reaffirm his spontaneity and his conscious will.
In this context, the most difficult challenge is to perceive the authentic feeling of love, without hypocrisy.
Love must be distinguished from two deceptive entities:
- One one side, the instinct of pleasure and its satisfaction.
- On the other side, the devious will to control the other, to use him as a thing, to vent an ill-concealed resentment towards the life.
The need to perceive feelings dialectically.
From a dialectic psychological perspective, the feeling of self-love must be distinguished from personal pride and selfishness (even if the boundaries can be very blurred): the latter are the worst experiences of an individual who intends to dominate and overwhelm the other, instead of sharing personal growth with others.
Love of self can also lead the subject to clash dialectically with the other (moment of “enmity” and “war”, according to Nietzsche); at the end of a fair confrontation, however, both contenders will emerge enriched. In this sense it is true that “what does not kill me makes me stronger”.
We also find in Nietzsche a psychological interpretation of human history, which helps to understand the parallel phases of the evolution of the personality of the single individual (as already stated in the past by G. Vico).
Modern man seems to have reached the age of majority and the awareness of not needing false reassuring certainties (like God and the Afterlife). However, he must now give meaning to existence in order to face despair.
The solution is inside me and not in the natural exterior.
In the outside world I will first find chaos, irrationality, matter that degrades over time and decomposes. All this does not make sense in itself. It’s me that want to give meaning to my life, that lies in living itself.
Nietzsche says it’s not important what happens in life, but how you live, the attitude that one has with regard to existence:
“All lives are difficult: what makes certain lives successful is the way suffering has been dealt with“.
If I embrace life and open up to it, I will expose myself to all kinds of suffering, but as a final result I will have my existence, truly unique and unrepeatable.
The feeling of full belonging to life is equivalent to bliss and self-realization.
Let us now mention Medard Boss and Viktor Frankl, two of the main exponents of existential analytic psychotherapy : they are among the authors who inspired the method of our School of Dialectical Psychotherapy and also developed some of Nietzsche’s great insights.
M. Boss (1903-1990) places at the center of psychotherapy not “what” the patient has lived, but “how” he places himself in his experience of Being-in-the-world , in this present moment.
Psychic life is characterized by an incessant dialectic: it arises from the patient’s personal history, but is realized in a current way only here and now, in the living relationship between patient and therapist. This is the “real world”.
V. Frankl (1905-1997) defines his method of treatment as “logotherapy”: the conferment of an authentic and personal meaning to existence allows man to overcome any adversity. In this regard, Frankl expressly quotes the following aphorism by Nietzsche:
“Who has a strong enough why, can overcome any how“.
Nietzsche’s personal experience of pain and illness undoubtedly conferred authenticity to his work. He embodied the figure of the man who, through a suffering felt firsthand and not only studied in textbooks.
Nietzsche was therefore able to transform negative energies into an extraordinary creative drive in his books.
Even at the cost of colliding with the limits of his body and going mad.
Every mental disorder, however, has a meaning, which must always be sought in life experience of each individual patient, outside of easy labeling. Otherwise you risk making the same bad impression of the psychiatrist in the asylum indicated at the beginning of the article.
On the other hand, a suspension of any judgment and prejudice on the neighbor is essential. Nietzsche himself seems to be alluding to this when he states:
“To Learn to see – to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides.
This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality: one must not react immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.
Learning to see, as I understand it, is almost what, unphilosophically speaking, is called a strong will: the essential feature is precisely not to “will”, but to be able to suspend decision“.
(from Human, too human, 1878).
Will of power also means being able to inhibit oneself: not to react, renounce selfish impulses and act consciously, with the mind free from prejudices.
Inspired by Nietzsche’s contribution, let’s try to build a new table of “healthy” and vital values:
⁃ Love of self with openess towards the other, which represents another myself.
⁃ Determined attitude to face and tolerate suffering.
⁃ Understanding of the neighbor with suspension of judgment.
⁃ Loyalty and gratitude in the relationship with others.
To them correspond, dialectically, the deteriorating factors of our personality, to be faced and overcome:
⁃ Negative affectivity towards oneself (which is reflected in envy and resentment towards others).
⁃ Avoidance of suffering through an intellectualized detachment.
⁃ Unavailability to confront others, manipulation of the neighbor, labeling of others, through stereotyped prejudices.
⁃ Ingratitude and disloyalty towards others.
All this leads to the construction of a distorted reality and the risk of a psychotic drift.
When the will to power doesn’t flow but folds into itself, it becomes psychopathology.
These values are very similar to the healthy and disturbed personality traits of contemporary diagnostic systems, which also arise from different needs and schools of thought (see for example the new personality model proposed by the DSM-5, in Section III).
Beyond the frames of reference, the human will is everywhere recognizable to face the problematic sides of existence, to transcend them and to aspire to universality.
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