Creating an overview of Friedrich Nietzsche presents unique challenges. There are many great articles and videos that are organised chronologically around his life or his works and others that focus on his big ideas. But in this instalment we’re going to try something a little different. We are going to search for the thread of Ariadne that will lead us through the labyrinth of Nietzsche’s incomparable brilliance. The hope is that with this red thread we will then have a vantage point from which we can make sense of Nietzsche wherever we find ourselves in his work.

With that in mind, if we were to zoom out as far as possible, we can see that the overarching concern of Nietzsche’s philosophy can be seen as the dance between two poles: Health and Decadence. Or to put it another way between: yes-saying and no-saying. The yes-saying wholeness of Health and the no-saying decay of Decadence, are all about our individual and collective relationship to Life and this World.

Under these two umbrellas we can gather the various elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Under the umbrella of Decadence we can find Nietzsche’s ideas of the Ascetic Ideal, Slave Morality and his critiques of Christianity, science, Socrates and all philosophy in general. Under the umbrella of Health we find the ideals of Dionysus and Zarathustra, of Greek Tragedy and Zarathustra’s three great doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence, the Übermensch and the Will to Power.

These two terms are flip sides of the same coin, they are a yin and yang whose dance is of the greatest importance in the current historical moment — in the “pathological transitional stage” that Nietzsche christened Nihilism. But pathological as it is, this Nihilistic transitional stage we are living through is not merely a curse but a secret blessing for those with the nerve for it.

The Crisis of Nihilism

Diogenes (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

This crisis of Nihilism is the central problem of Nietzsche’s later philosophy. This crisis is the consummation of millennia. It is not a chance occurrence but the final fruit of what he calls the “Ascetic Ideal” — and more specifically of its most dominant Western form: Christianity.

This crisis is first given voice in 1882’s The Gay Science. Nietzsche’s madman enters the marketplace one day saying:

“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

And with that the crisis of Nihilism burst into our culture’s consciousness. But this crisis was not a new phenomenon. In the collection of notes published after his death under the title The Will to Power we find the following:

“For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals”

Like a cancer, it had long been spreading through the body of Western culture. This Nihilism was the fruit of the forces of Decadence dominating our culture since before the rise of Christianity. Like a slow poison it had rotten the culture from the inside and only now was it reaching its endpoint. When the madman proclaimed the death of God in The Gay Science he prophesied a calamity without equal:

This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending … an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth

Nihilism then is the end product of Decadence. But what exactly does Nietzsche mean when he says Decadence? It’s a term that emerges in the final years of Nietzsche’s work. For him it essentially means the opposite of Health. It is decay. More specifically, as he put it in The Twilight of the Idols in his final year of writing — Health is decay of the instincts:

To have to fight the instincts — that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct

The instincts then are a critical element in understanding the equation of Health vs Decadence.

We usually think of Nietzsche as the Father of Existentialism but he could just as equally be called the Father of Psychoanalysis — as Freud, Adler, Jung and Frankl all attested to. The problems that Nietzsche approaches are philosophical ones but the manner in which he approaches them is psychoanalytical.

The instincts, as Nietzsche talks about them, are in some sense transpersonal. Being outside of consciousness they are part of a collective inheritance bubbling up from underneath our consciousness.

This concern with the instinctual and its dance with the culture — sometimes dominating, sometimes repressed — is a prominent theme from the beginning of Nietzsche’s career.

Instinct and Culture

His first work The Birth of Tragedy is about the birth of Ancient Greek tragedy from the fusion of two forces in Greek culture: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

These are forces in the Greek psyche. The Apollonian is the pull towards consciousness and the differentiation of individuality. The Dionysian is the expression of instinctual release. Dionysus was the god of wine and intoxication and so this force in the psyche represents the desire for unity and the blissful dissolving into the instinctual.

The Birth of Tragedy explores how the fusion of these forces gave rise to what Nietzsche considered the highest pinnacle art has ever achieved — classical Greek Tragedy. Greek Tragedy found the subtle balance. Nietzsche observed that wherever there were Dionysian festivals elsewhere in the Ancient world whether it was Rome or Babylon it descended into chaos:

the most savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me to be the real “witches’ brew.”

The instincts are equal parts essential and dangerous.

On the one hand, these instincts are life itself. If we are cut off from the instincts we are cut from the animating principle of life. A person cut off from their instincts is like a car cut off from the fuel tank — we have no drive, no impulse. Nothing happens. We are disconnected from the life force and so we begin to worry that life has no meaning. We become so disconnected from living life that we end up questioning the meaning of it. The intellect alone becomes sterile. As Nietzsche puts it in speaking about Socrates many years later in 1889’s The Twilight of the Idols:

The most blinding daylight; rationality at any price; life, bright, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts — all this too was a mere disease, another disease, and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness

On the other hand this realm of the instincts is what Freud would call “the Id”. These instincts aren’t necessarily socially acceptable. They cannot be indiscriminately expressed or else we end up with Nietzsche’s “witches’ brew”. Society would crumble. As he put it, also in Twilight of the Idols:

“In times like these, abandonment to one’s instincts is one calamity more. Our instincts contradict, disturb, destroy each other; I have already defined what is modern as physiological self-contradiction”

What Nietzsche praises so highly about Greek tragedy is that the Apollonian principle manages to contain the dark side of the instincts. It channels them into an artistic expression that enables the entire community to say yes to life, to suffering and to becoming. It harnesses the instincts in the service of healthy individuality.

The old decadent himself (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

But The Birth of Tragedy doesn’t just explore how Greek tragedy came into being but why it fell apart. And the answer is the great question-master himself: Socrates.

In Socrates we find synthesised the two great suppressers of the instincts: morality and reason. These are two different strategies for controlling the instincts. And once Socrates’s worldview gained power, in particular through Euripides, the balance between the Apollonian principle of consciousness and the Dionysian principle of instinctual life was broken down and the Golden Age of Greek Tragedy came to an end.

In his later works Nietzsche digs down on these decadent suppressers of the instincts. Neither morality nor rationality can take us towards health. They are both stoppers in the bottle. They get the instincts under control at the cost of our health. Cut off from the instincts our life grows sterile and the final fruit of this is the Nihilistic crisis we find ourselves in today.

But we now have no alternative. There is no going back to a time where we were in harmony with our instincts. In a section entitled “Whispered to the Conservatives” in The Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche writes that:

a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible. We physiologists know that. … Nothing avails: one must go forward — step by step further into decadence

Meanwhile in 1886’s Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche orients our attention away from the past:

what do their retrograde bypaths concern us! The main thing about them is not that they wish to go “back,” but that they wish to get — away. A little more strength, flight, courage, and artistic power, and they would want to rise — not return!

And so the path to Health lies on the far side of our current state of Decadence. With that in mind it is important to understand Nietzsche’s criticism of reason and morality as agents of Decadence. We must keep in mind that the instincts can’t be untethered as we see in his criticism of the Antiquity’s Dionysian festivals. But we must also remember that in Greek Tragedy a path between the rock of untethering and the hard place of suppression was found. A healthy relationship between the instincts and consciousness is possible and this synthesis is what Nietzsche calls Health and what he is in desperate search of.

Part 1. Reason

The first avenue of Decadence then is reason. Nietzsche criticises Greek philosophy as “the decadence of the Greek instinct”. It represents the attempt for reason to tyrannise over the instincts. In the history of philosophy from Socrates’s rationalism to Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism’s greatest happiness principle, Nietzsche saw only a continued decadent attempt to drown out the torrents of the instincts. In The Antichrist he writes:

“What could destroy us more quickly than working, thinking, and feeling without any inner necessity, without any deeply personal choice, without pleasure — as an automaton of “duty”? This is the very recipe for decadence, even for idiocy”

The tyranny of reason then can only lead us to the Meaning Crisis of Nihilism. Morality and religion are equally problematic.

Part 2. Morality

The philosophical morality of Socrates and the schools that followed him from the Aristotelians and the Platonists to the Cynics and Stoics are all based on what Nietzsche calls the Ascetic Ideal. With Christianity or as Nietzsche calls it “Platonism for the masses” the situation goes from bad to worse. This “monstrous mode of valuation” that is the Ascetic Ideal has produced an “ascetic planet”:

“a nook of disgruntled, arrogant, and offensive creatures filled with a profound disgust at themselves, at the earth, at all life, who inflict as much pain on themselves as they possibly can out of pleasure at inflicting pain — which is probably their only pleasure”

These moralities turns us against our instincts for self-interest. When the decadent hears self-interest they can only think of selfishness. But for Nietzsche self-interest means self-care and self-love. These are essential elements in the psyche of the healthy individual.

When seriousness is deflected from the self-preservation and the enhancement of the strength of the body — that is, of life — when anemia is construed as an ideal, and contempt for the body as “salvation of the soul” — what else is this if not a recipe for decadence?

The Ascetic Ideal and Slave Morality

These moralities turn us away from our instincts. The body, self-interest, even Life itself are denied by these moralities. These Ascetic Ideals orient themselves towards another world whether that’s the hereafter of the religious or the ideologue:

When the Christian condemns, slanders, and besmirches “the world,” his instinct is the same as that which prompts the socialist worker to condemn, slander, and besmirch society. The “last judgment” is the sweet comfort of revenge — the revolution, which the socialist worker also awaits, but conceived as a little farther off.

This is Nietzsche’s famous Slave Morality: ascetic priests muttering about the evils of the flesh and the glories of the hereafter for the meek full of pity.

Master does what master wants (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

In contrast to these lambs of God stand the powerful individuals of Master Morality whose will cuts like a knife through the butter of this world making it easy for them to affirm this life and this world without recourse to imaginary revenge in another world. The will of the weak by contrast is thwarted by the world. The bird of prey can love the sheep as the source of sustenance and sport — as a reaffirmation of the bird of prey’s power. But it is among the sheep that we see the emergence of Slave Morality.

The ascetic priest speaks to the sheep of another world where all shall be judged. The evil birds of prey and any who act like them are evil and justice will be served upon them. This world is not the real world. This suffering is a test and while the birds of prey may seem to have it better they will be judged harshly in the end. These are the lies that the weak have to tell themselves to reconcile themselves to this life.

This hatred of the strong, this need to place blame when we are feeling beaten back — this Nietzsche calls ressentiment and he calls it “the specific evil of the sick”. This bitter resentfulness of anger and blame is an anaesthetic according to Nietzsche. The weak use it to “deaden pain by means of affects”. To put it in the metaphor of the lamb and the bird of prey, the lamb deals with their suffering — with their fear and their impotence — by blaming the bird of prey and revenging themselves on the bird of prey and the cruel world by way of a moral lie.

This strategy of using morality to deal with the chaos of the instincts is a disaster according to Nietzsche. He writes that the:

poisonous vegetation which has grown out of such decomposition poisons life itself for millennia with its fumes

The remedies of the ascetic ideal are helpful in the short term but long term they are poisonous — they weaken the body and they weaken the will. The ascetic ideals offer help to those who are already sick but the medicine ultimately makes the sick sicker.

And so, faced with the problem then of how to reconcile ourselves to Life and to the instincts, the Slave morality of the philosophers and Christianity is a dead end.

False Counter-Ideals

Having diagnosed this pervasiveness of the Ascetic Ideal and its various fruits including Slave Morality, Nietzsche contemplates possible counter-ideals:

The ascetic ideal expresses a will: where is the opposing will that might express an opposing ideal! … Where is the match of this closed system of will, goal, and interpretation? Why has it not found its match? — Where is the other “one goal”?

Neither Science nor Democracy

This counter-ideal is not to be found as many claimed even in Nietzsche’s day with science which as he puts it

where it is not the latest expression of the ascetic ideal — and the exceptions are too rare, noble, and atypical to refute the general proposition — science today is a hiding place for every kind of discontent, disbelief, gnawing worm, despectio sui, bad conscience — it is the unrest of the lack of ideals, the suffering from the lack of any great love, the discontent in the face of involuntary contentment

Science is an empty room. Like Socratic rationality it is a sterile dead end. That other darling of modernity Democracy is also a non-starter. Nietzsche calls it “the heir to Christianity” and describes it as the “collective degeneration of man”.

The True Counter-Ideal

This brings us to the other side of Nietzsche’s philosophy. So far we have focussed on what Nietzsche wants to say no to. As he notes in The Case of Wagner this is where he dedicated most of his efforts:

Nothing has preoccupied me more profoundly than the problem of decadence

This is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the illness afflicting us but now let’s look at his prescription for Health. Let’s talk about what Nietzsche proposes as a counter-ideal.

Dionysus

Oedipus and the Sphinx (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

The clue to Nietzsche’s counter-ideal can be found all the way back in The Birth of Tragedy with the idea of the Dionysian. In his autobiography Ecce Homo written at the very end of his career he describes himself as “the first tragic philosopher”. And at the end of this final work of his he closes his career with the question:

Have I been understood? — Dionysus versus the Crucified.

Or to put it another way Health vs. Decadence.

In the Golden Age of Greek Tragedy there was a fusion between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Those who think that Nietzsche is preaching the way of Master Morality should pay special attention to that Apollonian element and to the line quoted above that “a reversion a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible.”

But we should also reiterate that there is an “immense gap” for Nietzsche separating the Dionysian Greek from the “Dionysian barbarian”. what the early Nietzsche found exceptional in the Greek Dionysus. As we noted above he finds an “immense gap” separating the Dionysian Greek from the “Dionysian barbarian”. Elsewhere in the ancient world “from Rome to Babylon” the festivals of Dionysus unleased “the most savage natural instincts…including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty”.

Nietzsche is no believer in the unscrupulous unleashing of the instincts. What was exceptional in Greek Tragedy was that the unbottling of the instincts — the opening of the Pandora’s Box of the unconscious — was contained by the Apollonian force in the Greek psyche. This Apollonian was the crucible capable of containing the volatile instinctual energies without shattering into chaos.

As his writing career progresses, these two forces become synthesised in Nietzsche. When he speaks of Dionysus in his later works it is no longer an uncontrolled, frenzied, intoxicated passion but a passion that is controlled and creatively employed. This vision of the Dionysian represents everything that Nietzsche felt was important. And above all

“Yes-saying without reservation, even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything that is questionable and strange in existence”

Zarathustra and His Doctrines

And nobody embodies this Yes-saying Dionysian ideal of Nietzsche more than his favourite creation: Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the hero of Nietzsche’s “Yes-Saying” work Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the Dionysian counter-ideal that stands against “the Crucified” one.

He describes Zarathustra as the

“most Yes-saying of all spirits; in him all opposites are blended into a new unity. The highest and the lowest energies of human nature, what is sweetest, most frivolous, and most terrible wells forth from one fount with immortal assurance”

And this Yes-saying spirit has three key doctrines: the Übermensch, the Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power. Each of these doctrines affirms this world, life and becoming in their own way. Each is another way of saying yes to life.

The Eternal Recurrence

The Eternal Recurrence Nietzsche describes as “the concept of Dionysus himself”. It’s a simple but brutal idea:

“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live 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, and in the same succession and sequence … how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

This for Nietzsche is the “highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable”. He calls it “The fundamental conception” of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There is no remnant of the otherworldly lies of the Ascetic Ideal here. It is just this life as it is from here until eternity.

The Übermensch

The Übermensch is what we are becoming. It is the overcoming of ourselves. In the Prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra he writes that “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss.” The Übermensch is not a no-saying spirit. Unlike those under the sway of the Ascetic Ideal from Socrates to the Crucified, the Übermensch doesn’t bow before another world but only this one. Saying that “the overman is the meaning of the earth” Zarathustra pleads with us to

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, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.

The Will to Power

And finally there is the Will to Power. The Will to Power has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people and Nietzsche isn’t exactly clear on his meaning. Scholars are divided in reading it as a psychological or a metaphysical concept. Psychologically we can understand it as a fundamental tendency for living beings to overcome resistance in whatever goals they pursue. But metaphysically it is a scientific hypothesis about the nature of reality itself. Nietzsche posits that “This world is the will to power — and nothing besides!”

Nietzsche’s New Metaphysics

Tabula smaragdina (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

This ambiguous nature of the Will to Power dovetails nicely with the concepts of the Übermensch and the Eternal Recurrence. These three doctrines can be read as thought experiments or rhetorical flourishes but the way Nietzsche talks about them there seems to be more going on. Nietzsche wants to bring about a revaluation of all values. He wants a tablet of values that leads the way to Health rather than Decadence. And he knows that rationality alone is simply Decadence. He knows that the new tablet of values must cut deeper than conscious reason.

Again it is worth remembering that Nietzsche is the Father of Psychoanalysis and not merely the Father of Existentialism or Postmodernism. Nietzsche was the first great thinker concerned with the new values structure that Western culture would live by. Nihilism as we have noted is a “pathological transitional stage”. Which means that it is liminal space between stable value systems. God is dead. And in his place Nietzsche sees an opportunity. We have looked at how the death of God is a catastrophe but Nietzsche also sees it as an opportunity. He writes:

“Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits … feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again … the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea!’”

And so Nietzsche is attempting to create a healthy tablet of values. He is looking to fill the position that Christianity held in the Western psyche with a value system that affirms the earth, the body and becoming. It’s a value system that would bring about a fusion between the conscious and the instinctual rather than a suppression of the latter by the former. Nietzsche wants to say yes to life as it is and to affirm this world, this body and these instincts. And so there is a blurring of the lines between the psychological and the metaphysical as Nietzsche attempts to steer not just individuals but the culture as a whole towards a new relationship with the world.

The most powerful representation of this vision is Dionysus. The way forward beyond the utter collapse of meaning in the crisis of Nihilism is via connection to the instincts. The way forward is the animation of the Dionysian — not a surrender to hedonism but a sublimation of passion into our lives — an affirmation of the body, of Life of everything. A fusion between intellect and instinct an individuation that is still connected to the volcanic lifeforce of the instincts. In these times of danger, we can afford nothing less than this greatest affirmation.

After Nietzsche went mad in January 1889, he wrote a series of letters. He signed these as either the Crucified or as Dionysus. When his sanity collapsed we can see the tension of these two ideals pulling at his psyche. The same tension pulls at us today as we stand in the unresolved space of the Meaning Crisis: Health versus Decadence; Dionysus versus the Crucified.

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  1. […] a unique challenge to my articulating why I love him so much. But that’s where writing two articles about Nietzsche has been fortuitous; spending so much time with Nietzsche these past couple of […]

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Creating an overview of Friedrich Nietzsche presents unique challenges. There are many great articles and videos that are organised chronologically around his life or his works and others that focus on his big ideas. But in this instalment we’re going to try something a little different. We are going to search for the thread of Ariadne that will lead us through the labyrinth of Nietzsche’s incomparable brilliance. The hope is that with this red thread we will then have a vantage point from which we can make sense of Nietzsche wherever we find ourselves in his work.

With that in mind, if we were to zoom out as far as possible, we can see that the overarching concern of Nietzsche’s philosophy can be seen as the dance between two poles: Health and Decadence. Or to put it another way between: yes-saying and no-saying. The yes-saying wholeness of Health and the no-saying decay of Decadence, are all about our individual and collective relationship to Life and this World.

Under these two umbrellas we can gather the various elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Under the umbrella of Decadence we can find Nietzsche’s ideas of the Ascetic Ideal, Slave Morality and his critiques of Christianity, science, Socrates and all philosophy in general. Under the umbrella of Health we find the ideals of Dionysus and Zarathustra, of Greek Tragedy and Zarathustra’s three great doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence, the Übermensch and the Will to Power.

These two terms are flip sides of the same coin, they are a yin and yang whose dance is of the greatest importance in the current historical moment — in the “pathological transitional stage” that Nietzsche christened Nihilism. But pathological as it is, this Nihilistic transitional stage we are living through is not merely a curse but a secret blessing for those with the nerve for it.

The Crisis of Nihilism

Diogenes (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

This crisis of Nihilism is the central problem of Nietzsche’s later philosophy. This crisis is the consummation of millennia. It is not a chance occurrence but the final fruit of what he calls the “Ascetic Ideal” — and more specifically of its most dominant Western form: Christianity.

This crisis is first given voice in 1882’s The Gay Science. Nietzsche’s madman enters the marketplace one day saying:

“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

And with that the crisis of Nihilism burst into our culture’s consciousness. But this crisis was not a new phenomenon. In the collection of notes published after his death under the title The Will to Power we find the following:

“For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals”

Like a cancer, it had long been spreading through the body of Western culture. This Nihilism was the fruit of the forces of Decadence dominating our culture since before the rise of Christianity. Like a slow poison it had rotten the culture from the inside and only now was it reaching its endpoint. When the madman proclaimed the death of God in The Gay Science he prophesied a calamity without equal:

This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending … an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth

Nihilism then is the end product of Decadence. But what exactly does Nietzsche mean when he says Decadence? It’s a term that emerges in the final years of Nietzsche’s work. For him it essentially means the opposite of Health. It is decay. More specifically, as he put it in The Twilight of the Idols in his final year of writing — Health is decay of the instincts:

To have to fight the instincts — that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct

The instincts then are a critical element in understanding the equation of Health vs Decadence.

We usually think of Nietzsche as the Father of Existentialism but he could just as equally be called the Father of Psychoanalysis — as Freud, Adler, Jung and Frankl all attested to. The problems that Nietzsche approaches are philosophical ones but the manner in which he approaches them is psychoanalytical.

The instincts, as Nietzsche talks about them, are in some sense transpersonal. Being outside of consciousness they are part of a collective inheritance bubbling up from underneath our consciousness.

This concern with the instinctual and its dance with the culture — sometimes dominating, sometimes repressed — is a prominent theme from the beginning of Nietzsche’s career.

Instinct and Culture

His first work The Birth of Tragedy is about the birth of Ancient Greek tragedy from the fusion of two forces in Greek culture: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

These are forces in the Greek psyche. The Apollonian is the pull towards consciousness and the differentiation of individuality. The Dionysian is the expression of instinctual release. Dionysus was the god of wine and intoxication and so this force in the psyche represents the desire for unity and the blissful dissolving into the instinctual.

The Birth of Tragedy explores how the fusion of these forces gave rise to what Nietzsche considered the highest pinnacle art has ever achieved — classical Greek Tragedy. Greek Tragedy found the subtle balance. Nietzsche observed that wherever there were Dionysian festivals elsewhere in the Ancient world whether it was Rome or Babylon it descended into chaos:

the most savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me to be the real “witches’ brew.”

The instincts are equal parts essential and dangerous.

On the one hand, these instincts are life itself. If we are cut off from the instincts we are cut from the animating principle of life. A person cut off from their instincts is like a car cut off from the fuel tank — we have no drive, no impulse. Nothing happens. We are disconnected from the life force and so we begin to worry that life has no meaning. We become so disconnected from living life that we end up questioning the meaning of it. The intellect alone becomes sterile. As Nietzsche puts it in speaking about Socrates many years later in 1889’s The Twilight of the Idols:

The most blinding daylight; rationality at any price; life, bright, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts — all this too was a mere disease, another disease, and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness

On the other hand this realm of the instincts is what Freud would call “the Id”. These instincts aren’t necessarily socially acceptable. They cannot be indiscriminately expressed or else we end up with Nietzsche’s “witches’ brew”. Society would crumble. As he put it, also in Twilight of the Idols:

“In times like these, abandonment to one’s instincts is one calamity more. Our instincts contradict, disturb, destroy each other; I have already defined what is modern as physiological self-contradiction”

What Nietzsche praises so highly about Greek tragedy is that the Apollonian principle manages to contain the dark side of the instincts. It channels them into an artistic expression that enables the entire community to say yes to life, to suffering and to becoming. It harnesses the instincts in the service of healthy individuality.

The old decadent himself (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

But The Birth of Tragedy doesn’t just explore how Greek tragedy came into being but why it fell apart. And the answer is the great question-master himself: Socrates.

In Socrates we find synthesised the two great suppressers of the instincts: morality and reason. These are two different strategies for controlling the instincts. And once Socrates’s worldview gained power, in particular through Euripides, the balance between the Apollonian principle of consciousness and the Dionysian principle of instinctual life was broken down and the Golden Age of Greek Tragedy came to an end.

In his later works Nietzsche digs down on these decadent suppressers of the instincts. Neither morality nor rationality can take us towards health. They are both stoppers in the bottle. They get the instincts under control at the cost of our health. Cut off from the instincts our life grows sterile and the final fruit of this is the Nihilistic crisis we find ourselves in today.

But we now have no alternative. There is no going back to a time where we were in harmony with our instincts. In a section entitled “Whispered to the Conservatives” in The Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche writes that:

a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible. We physiologists know that. … Nothing avails: one must go forward — step by step further into decadence

Meanwhile in 1886’s Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche orients our attention away from the past:

what do their retrograde bypaths concern us! The main thing about them is not that they wish to go “back,” but that they wish to get — away. A little more strength, flight, courage, and artistic power, and they would want to rise — not return!

And so the path to Health lies on the far side of our current state of Decadence. With that in mind it is important to understand Nietzsche’s criticism of reason and morality as agents of Decadence. We must keep in mind that the instincts can’t be untethered as we see in his criticism of the Antiquity’s Dionysian festivals. But we must also remember that in Greek Tragedy a path between the rock of untethering and the hard place of suppression was found. A healthy relationship between the instincts and consciousness is possible and this synthesis is what Nietzsche calls Health and what he is in desperate search of.

Part 1. Reason

The first avenue of Decadence then is reason. Nietzsche criticises Greek philosophy as “the decadence of the Greek instinct”. It represents the attempt for reason to tyrannise over the instincts. In the history of philosophy from Socrates’s rationalism to Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism’s greatest happiness principle, Nietzsche saw only a continued decadent attempt to drown out the torrents of the instincts. In The Antichrist he writes:

“What could destroy us more quickly than working, thinking, and feeling without any inner necessity, without any deeply personal choice, without pleasure — as an automaton of “duty”? This is the very recipe for decadence, even for idiocy”

The tyranny of reason then can only lead us to the Meaning Crisis of Nihilism. Morality and religion are equally problematic.

Part 2. Morality

The philosophical morality of Socrates and the schools that followed him from the Aristotelians and the Platonists to the Cynics and Stoics are all based on what Nietzsche calls the Ascetic Ideal. With Christianity or as Nietzsche calls it “Platonism for the masses” the situation goes from bad to worse. This “monstrous mode of valuation” that is the Ascetic Ideal has produced an “ascetic planet”:

“a nook of disgruntled, arrogant, and offensive creatures filled with a profound disgust at themselves, at the earth, at all life, who inflict as much pain on themselves as they possibly can out of pleasure at inflicting pain — which is probably their only pleasure”

These moralities turns us against our instincts for self-interest. When the decadent hears self-interest they can only think of selfishness. But for Nietzsche self-interest means self-care and self-love. These are essential elements in the psyche of the healthy individual.

When seriousness is deflected from the self-preservation and the enhancement of the strength of the body — that is, of life — when anemia is construed as an ideal, and contempt for the body as “salvation of the soul” — what else is this if not a recipe for decadence?

The Ascetic Ideal and Slave Morality

These moralities turn us away from our instincts. The body, self-interest, even Life itself are denied by these moralities. These Ascetic Ideals orient themselves towards another world whether that’s the hereafter of the religious or the ideologue:

When the Christian condemns, slanders, and besmirches “the world,” his instinct is the same as that which prompts the socialist worker to condemn, slander, and besmirch society. The “last judgment” is the sweet comfort of revenge — the revolution, which the socialist worker also awaits, but conceived as a little farther off.

This is Nietzsche’s famous Slave Morality: ascetic priests muttering about the evils of the flesh and the glories of the hereafter for the meek full of pity.

Master does what master wants (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

In contrast to these lambs of God stand the powerful individuals of Master Morality whose will cuts like a knife through the butter of this world making it easy for them to affirm this life and this world without recourse to imaginary revenge in another world. The will of the weak by contrast is thwarted by the world. The bird of prey can love the sheep as the source of sustenance and sport — as a reaffirmation of the bird of prey’s power. But it is among the sheep that we see the emergence of Slave Morality.

The ascetic priest speaks to the sheep of another world where all shall be judged. The evil birds of prey and any who act like them are evil and justice will be served upon them. This world is not the real world. This suffering is a test and while the birds of prey may seem to have it better they will be judged harshly in the end. These are the lies that the weak have to tell themselves to reconcile themselves to this life.

This hatred of the strong, this need to place blame when we are feeling beaten back — this Nietzsche calls ressentiment and he calls it “the specific evil of the sick”. This bitter resentfulness of anger and blame is an anaesthetic according to Nietzsche. The weak use it to “deaden pain by means of affects”. To put it in the metaphor of the lamb and the bird of prey, the lamb deals with their suffering — with their fear and their impotence — by blaming the bird of prey and revenging themselves on the bird of prey and the cruel world by way of a moral lie.

This strategy of using morality to deal with the chaos of the instincts is a disaster according to Nietzsche. He writes that the:

poisonous vegetation which has grown out of such decomposition poisons life itself for millennia with its fumes

The remedies of the ascetic ideal are helpful in the short term but long term they are poisonous — they weaken the body and they weaken the will. The ascetic ideals offer help to those who are already sick but the medicine ultimately makes the sick sicker.

And so, faced with the problem then of how to reconcile ourselves to Life and to the instincts, the Slave morality of the philosophers and Christianity is a dead end.

False Counter-Ideals

Having diagnosed this pervasiveness of the Ascetic Ideal and its various fruits including Slave Morality, Nietzsche contemplates possible counter-ideals:

The ascetic ideal expresses a will: where is the opposing will that might express an opposing ideal! … Where is the match of this closed system of will, goal, and interpretation? Why has it not found its match? — Where is the other “one goal”?

Neither Science nor Democracy

This counter-ideal is not to be found as many claimed even in Nietzsche’s day with science which as he puts it

where it is not the latest expression of the ascetic ideal — and the exceptions are too rare, noble, and atypical to refute the general proposition — science today is a hiding place for every kind of discontent, disbelief, gnawing worm, despectio sui, bad conscience — it is the unrest of the lack of ideals, the suffering from the lack of any great love, the discontent in the face of involuntary contentment

Science is an empty room. Like Socratic rationality it is a sterile dead end. That other darling of modernity Democracy is also a non-starter. Nietzsche calls it “the heir to Christianity” and describes it as the “collective degeneration of man”.

The True Counter-Ideal

This brings us to the other side of Nietzsche’s philosophy. So far we have focussed on what Nietzsche wants to say no to. As he notes in The Case of Wagner this is where he dedicated most of his efforts:

Nothing has preoccupied me more profoundly than the problem of decadence

This is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the illness afflicting us but now let’s look at his prescription for Health. Let’s talk about what Nietzsche proposes as a counter-ideal.

Dionysus

Oedipus and the Sphinx (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

The clue to Nietzsche’s counter-ideal can be found all the way back in The Birth of Tragedy with the idea of the Dionysian. In his autobiography Ecce Homo written at the very end of his career he describes himself as “the first tragic philosopher”. And at the end of this final work of his he closes his career with the question:

Have I been understood? — Dionysus versus the Crucified.

Or to put it another way Health vs. Decadence.

In the Golden Age of Greek Tragedy there was a fusion between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Those who think that Nietzsche is preaching the way of Master Morality should pay special attention to that Apollonian element and to the line quoted above that “a reversion a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible.”

But we should also reiterate that there is an “immense gap” for Nietzsche separating the Dionysian Greek from the “Dionysian barbarian”. what the early Nietzsche found exceptional in the Greek Dionysus. As we noted above he finds an “immense gap” separating the Dionysian Greek from the “Dionysian barbarian”. Elsewhere in the ancient world “from Rome to Babylon” the festivals of Dionysus unleased “the most savage natural instincts…including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty”.

Nietzsche is no believer in the unscrupulous unleashing of the instincts. What was exceptional in Greek Tragedy was that the unbottling of the instincts — the opening of the Pandora’s Box of the unconscious — was contained by the Apollonian force in the Greek psyche. This Apollonian was the crucible capable of containing the volatile instinctual energies without shattering into chaos.

As his writing career progresses, these two forces become synthesised in Nietzsche. When he speaks of Dionysus in his later works it is no longer an uncontrolled, frenzied, intoxicated passion but a passion that is controlled and creatively employed. This vision of the Dionysian represents everything that Nietzsche felt was important. And above all

“Yes-saying without reservation, even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything that is questionable and strange in existence”

Zarathustra and His Doctrines

And nobody embodies this Yes-saying Dionysian ideal of Nietzsche more than his favourite creation: Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the hero of Nietzsche’s “Yes-Saying” work Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the Dionysian counter-ideal that stands against “the Crucified” one.

He describes Zarathustra as the

“most Yes-saying of all spirits; in him all opposites are blended into a new unity. The highest and the lowest energies of human nature, what is sweetest, most frivolous, and most terrible wells forth from one fount with immortal assurance”

And this Yes-saying spirit has three key doctrines: the Übermensch, the Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power. Each of these doctrines affirms this world, life and becoming in their own way. Each is another way of saying yes to life.

The Eternal Recurrence

The Eternal Recurrence Nietzsche describes as “the concept of Dionysus himself”. It’s a simple but brutal idea:

“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live 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, and in the same succession and sequence … how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

This for Nietzsche is the “highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable”. He calls it “The fundamental conception” of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There is no remnant of the otherworldly lies of the Ascetic Ideal here. It is just this life as it is from here until eternity.

The Übermensch

The Übermensch is what we are becoming. It is the overcoming of ourselves. In the Prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra he writes that “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss.” The Übermensch is not a no-saying spirit. Unlike those under the sway of the Ascetic Ideal from Socrates to the Crucified, the Übermensch doesn’t bow before another world but only this one. Saying that “the overman is the meaning of the earth” Zarathustra pleads with us to

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, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.

The Will to Power

And finally there is the Will to Power. The Will to Power has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people and Nietzsche isn’t exactly clear on his meaning. Scholars are divided in reading it as a psychological or a metaphysical concept. Psychologically we can understand it as a fundamental tendency for living beings to overcome resistance in whatever goals they pursue. But metaphysically it is a scientific hypothesis about the nature of reality itself. Nietzsche posits that “This world is the will to power — and nothing besides!”

Nietzsche’s New Metaphysics

Tabula smaragdina (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

This ambiguous nature of the Will to Power dovetails nicely with the concepts of the Übermensch and the Eternal Recurrence. These three doctrines can be read as thought experiments or rhetorical flourishes but the way Nietzsche talks about them there seems to be more going on. Nietzsche wants to bring about a revaluation of all values. He wants a tablet of values that leads the way to Health rather than Decadence. And he knows that rationality alone is simply Decadence. He knows that the new tablet of values must cut deeper than conscious reason.

Again it is worth remembering that Nietzsche is the Father of Psychoanalysis and not merely the Father of Existentialism or Postmodernism. Nietzsche was the first great thinker concerned with the new values structure that Western culture would live by. Nihilism as we have noted is a “pathological transitional stage”. Which means that it is liminal space between stable value systems. God is dead. And in his place Nietzsche sees an opportunity. We have looked at how the death of God is a catastrophe but Nietzsche also sees it as an opportunity. He writes:

“Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits … feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again … the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea!’”

And so Nietzsche is attempting to create a healthy tablet of values. He is looking to fill the position that Christianity held in the Western psyche with a value system that affirms the earth, the body and becoming. It’s a value system that would bring about a fusion between the conscious and the instinctual rather than a suppression of the latter by the former. Nietzsche wants to say yes to life as it is and to affirm this world, this body and these instincts. And so there is a blurring of the lines between the psychological and the metaphysical as Nietzsche attempts to steer not just individuals but the culture as a whole towards a new relationship with the world.

The most powerful representation of this vision is Dionysus. The way forward beyond the utter collapse of meaning in the crisis of Nihilism is via connection to the instincts. The way forward is the animation of the Dionysian — not a surrender to hedonism but a sublimation of passion into our lives — an affirmation of the body, of Life of everything. A fusion between intellect and instinct an individuation that is still connected to the volcanic lifeforce of the instincts. In these times of danger, we can afford nothing less than this greatest affirmation.

After Nietzsche went mad in January 1889, he wrote a series of letters. He signed these as either the Crucified or as Dionysus. When his sanity collapsed we can see the tension of these two ideals pulling at his psyche. The same tension pulls at us today as we stand in the unresolved space of the Meaning Crisis: Health versus Decadence; Dionysus versus the Crucified.

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  1. […] a unique challenge to my articulating why I love him so much. But that’s where writing two articles about Nietzsche has been fortuitous; spending so much time with Nietzsche these past couple of […]

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Creating an overview of Friedrich Nietzsche presents unique challenges. There are many great articles and videos that are organised chronologically around his life or his works and others that focus on his big ideas. But in this instalment we’re going to try something a little different. We are going to search for the thread of Ariadne that will lead us through the labyrinth of Nietzsche’s incomparable brilliance. The hope is that with this red thread we will then have a vantage point from which we can make sense of Nietzsche wherever we find ourselves in his work.

With that in mind, if we were to zoom out as far as possible, we can see that the overarching concern of Nietzsche’s philosophy can be seen as the dance between two poles: Health and Decadence. Or to put it another way between: yes-saying and no-saying. The yes-saying wholeness of Health and the no-saying decay of Decadence, are all about our individual and collective relationship to Life and this World.

Under these two umbrellas we can gather the various elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Under the umbrella of Decadence we can find Nietzsche’s ideas of the Ascetic Ideal, Slave Morality and his critiques of Christianity, science, Socrates and all philosophy in general. Under the umbrella of Health we find the ideals of Dionysus and Zarathustra, of Greek Tragedy and Zarathustra’s three great doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence, the Übermensch and the Will to Power.

These two terms are flip sides of the same coin, they are a yin and yang whose dance is of the greatest importance in the current historical moment — in the “pathological transitional stage” that Nietzsche christened Nihilism. But pathological as it is, this Nihilistic transitional stage we are living through is not merely a curse but a secret blessing for those with the nerve for it.

The Crisis of Nihilism

Diogenes (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

This crisis of Nihilism is the central problem of Nietzsche’s later philosophy. This crisis is the consummation of millennia. It is not a chance occurrence but the final fruit of what he calls the “Ascetic Ideal” — and more specifically of its most dominant Western form: Christianity.

This crisis is first given voice in 1882’s The Gay Science. Nietzsche’s madman enters the marketplace one day saying:

“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

And with that the crisis of Nihilism burst into our culture’s consciousness. But this crisis was not a new phenomenon. In the collection of notes published after his death under the title The Will to Power we find the following:

“For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals”

Like a cancer, it had long been spreading through the body of Western culture. This Nihilism was the fruit of the forces of Decadence dominating our culture since before the rise of Christianity. Like a slow poison it had rotten the culture from the inside and only now was it reaching its endpoint. When the madman proclaimed the death of God in The Gay Science he prophesied a calamity without equal:

This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending … an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth

Nihilism then is the end product of Decadence. But what exactly does Nietzsche mean when he says Decadence? It’s a term that emerges in the final years of Nietzsche’s work. For him it essentially means the opposite of Health. It is decay. More specifically, as he put it in The Twilight of the Idols in his final year of writing — Health is decay of the instincts:

To have to fight the instincts — that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct

The instincts then are a critical element in understanding the equation of Health vs Decadence.

We usually think of Nietzsche as the Father of Existentialism but he could just as equally be called the Father of Psychoanalysis — as Freud, Adler, Jung and Frankl all attested to. The problems that Nietzsche approaches are philosophical ones but the manner in which he approaches them is psychoanalytical.

The instincts, as Nietzsche talks about them, are in some sense transpersonal. Being outside of consciousness they are part of a collective inheritance bubbling up from underneath our consciousness.

This concern with the instinctual and its dance with the culture — sometimes dominating, sometimes repressed — is a prominent theme from the beginning of Nietzsche’s career.

Instinct and Culture

His first work The Birth of Tragedy is about the birth of Ancient Greek tragedy from the fusion of two forces in Greek culture: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

These are forces in the Greek psyche. The Apollonian is the pull towards consciousness and the differentiation of individuality. The Dionysian is the expression of instinctual release. Dionysus was the god of wine and intoxication and so this force in the psyche represents the desire for unity and the blissful dissolving into the instinctual.

The Birth of Tragedy explores how the fusion of these forces gave rise to what Nietzsche considered the highest pinnacle art has ever achieved — classical Greek Tragedy. Greek Tragedy found the subtle balance. Nietzsche observed that wherever there were Dionysian festivals elsewhere in the Ancient world whether it was Rome or Babylon it descended into chaos:

the most savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me to be the real “witches’ brew.”

The instincts are equal parts essential and dangerous.

On the one hand, these instincts are life itself. If we are cut off from the instincts we are cut from the animating principle of life. A person cut off from their instincts is like a car cut off from the fuel tank — we have no drive, no impulse. Nothing happens. We are disconnected from the life force and so we begin to worry that life has no meaning. We become so disconnected from living life that we end up questioning the meaning of it. The intellect alone becomes sterile. As Nietzsche puts it in speaking about Socrates many years later in 1889’s The Twilight of the Idols:

The most blinding daylight; rationality at any price; life, bright, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts — all this too was a mere disease, another disease, and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness

On the other hand this realm of the instincts is what Freud would call “the Id”. These instincts aren’t necessarily socially acceptable. They cannot be indiscriminately expressed or else we end up with Nietzsche’s “witches’ brew”. Society would crumble. As he put it, also in Twilight of the Idols:

“In times like these, abandonment to one’s instincts is one calamity more. Our instincts contradict, disturb, destroy each other; I have already defined what is modern as physiological self-contradiction”

What Nietzsche praises so highly about Greek tragedy is that the Apollonian principle manages to contain the dark side of the instincts. It channels them into an artistic expression that enables the entire community to say yes to life, to suffering and to becoming. It harnesses the instincts in the service of healthy individuality.

The old decadent himself (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

But The Birth of Tragedy doesn’t just explore how Greek tragedy came into being but why it fell apart. And the answer is the great question-master himself: Socrates.

In Socrates we find synthesised the two great suppressers of the instincts: morality and reason. These are two different strategies for controlling the instincts. And once Socrates’s worldview gained power, in particular through Euripides, the balance between the Apollonian principle of consciousness and the Dionysian principle of instinctual life was broken down and the Golden Age of Greek Tragedy came to an end.

In his later works Nietzsche digs down on these decadent suppressers of the instincts. Neither morality nor rationality can take us towards health. They are both stoppers in the bottle. They get the instincts under control at the cost of our health. Cut off from the instincts our life grows sterile and the final fruit of this is the Nihilistic crisis we find ourselves in today.

But we now have no alternative. There is no going back to a time where we were in harmony with our instincts. In a section entitled “Whispered to the Conservatives” in The Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche writes that:

a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible. We physiologists know that. … Nothing avails: one must go forward — step by step further into decadence

Meanwhile in 1886’s Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche orients our attention away from the past:

what do their retrograde bypaths concern us! The main thing about them is not that they wish to go “back,” but that they wish to get — away. A little more strength, flight, courage, and artistic power, and they would want to rise — not return!

And so the path to Health lies on the far side of our current state of Decadence. With that in mind it is important to understand Nietzsche’s criticism of reason and morality as agents of Decadence. We must keep in mind that the instincts can’t be untethered as we see in his criticism of the Antiquity’s Dionysian festivals. But we must also remember that in Greek Tragedy a path between the rock of untethering and the hard place of suppression was found. A healthy relationship between the instincts and consciousness is possible and this synthesis is what Nietzsche calls Health and what he is in desperate search of.

Part 1. Reason

The first avenue of Decadence then is reason. Nietzsche criticises Greek philosophy as “the decadence of the Greek instinct”. It represents the attempt for reason to tyrannise over the instincts. In the history of philosophy from Socrates’s rationalism to Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism’s greatest happiness principle, Nietzsche saw only a continued decadent attempt to drown out the torrents of the instincts. In The Antichrist he writes:

“What could destroy us more quickly than working, thinking, and feeling without any inner necessity, without any deeply personal choice, without pleasure — as an automaton of “duty”? This is the very recipe for decadence, even for idiocy”

The tyranny of reason then can only lead us to the Meaning Crisis of Nihilism. Morality and religion are equally problematic.

Part 2. Morality

The philosophical morality of Socrates and the schools that followed him from the Aristotelians and the Platonists to the Cynics and Stoics are all based on what Nietzsche calls the Ascetic Ideal. With Christianity or as Nietzsche calls it “Platonism for the masses” the situation goes from bad to worse. This “monstrous mode of valuation” that is the Ascetic Ideal has produced an “ascetic planet”:

“a nook of disgruntled, arrogant, and offensive creatures filled with a profound disgust at themselves, at the earth, at all life, who inflict as much pain on themselves as they possibly can out of pleasure at inflicting pain — which is probably their only pleasure”

These moralities turns us against our instincts for self-interest. When the decadent hears self-interest they can only think of selfishness. But for Nietzsche self-interest means self-care and self-love. These are essential elements in the psyche of the healthy individual.

When seriousness is deflected from the self-preservation and the enhancement of the strength of the body — that is, of life — when anemia is construed as an ideal, and contempt for the body as “salvation of the soul” — what else is this if not a recipe for decadence?

The Ascetic Ideal and Slave Morality

These moralities turn us away from our instincts. The body, self-interest, even Life itself are denied by these moralities. These Ascetic Ideals orient themselves towards another world whether that’s the hereafter of the religious or the ideologue:

When the Christian condemns, slanders, and besmirches “the world,” his instinct is the same as that which prompts the socialist worker to condemn, slander, and besmirch society. The “last judgment” is the sweet comfort of revenge — the revolution, which the socialist worker also awaits, but conceived as a little farther off.

This is Nietzsche’s famous Slave Morality: ascetic priests muttering about the evils of the flesh and the glories of the hereafter for the meek full of pity.

Master does what master wants (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

In contrast to these lambs of God stand the powerful individuals of Master Morality whose will cuts like a knife through the butter of this world making it easy for them to affirm this life and this world without recourse to imaginary revenge in another world. The will of the weak by contrast is thwarted by the world. The bird of prey can love the sheep as the source of sustenance and sport — as a reaffirmation of the bird of prey’s power. But it is among the sheep that we see the emergence of Slave Morality.

The ascetic priest speaks to the sheep of another world where all shall be judged. The evil birds of prey and any who act like them are evil and justice will be served upon them. This world is not the real world. This suffering is a test and while the birds of prey may seem to have it better they will be judged harshly in the end. These are the lies that the weak have to tell themselves to reconcile themselves to this life.

This hatred of the strong, this need to place blame when we are feeling beaten back — this Nietzsche calls ressentiment and he calls it “the specific evil of the sick”. This bitter resentfulness of anger and blame is an anaesthetic according to Nietzsche. The weak use it to “deaden pain by means of affects”. To put it in the metaphor of the lamb and the bird of prey, the lamb deals with their suffering — with their fear and their impotence — by blaming the bird of prey and revenging themselves on the bird of prey and the cruel world by way of a moral lie.

This strategy of using morality to deal with the chaos of the instincts is a disaster according to Nietzsche. He writes that the:

poisonous vegetation which has grown out of such decomposition poisons life itself for millennia with its fumes

The remedies of the ascetic ideal are helpful in the short term but long term they are poisonous — they weaken the body and they weaken the will. The ascetic ideals offer help to those who are already sick but the medicine ultimately makes the sick sicker.

And so, faced with the problem then of how to reconcile ourselves to Life and to the instincts, the Slave morality of the philosophers and Christianity is a dead end.

False Counter-Ideals

Having diagnosed this pervasiveness of the Ascetic Ideal and its various fruits including Slave Morality, Nietzsche contemplates possible counter-ideals:

The ascetic ideal expresses a will: where is the opposing will that might express an opposing ideal! … Where is the match of this closed system of will, goal, and interpretation? Why has it not found its match? — Where is the other “one goal”?

Neither Science nor Democracy

This counter-ideal is not to be found as many claimed even in Nietzsche’s day with science which as he puts it

where it is not the latest expression of the ascetic ideal — and the exceptions are too rare, noble, and atypical to refute the general proposition — science today is a hiding place for every kind of discontent, disbelief, gnawing worm, despectio sui, bad conscience — it is the unrest of the lack of ideals, the suffering from the lack of any great love, the discontent in the face of involuntary contentment

Science is an empty room. Like Socratic rationality it is a sterile dead end. That other darling of modernity Democracy is also a non-starter. Nietzsche calls it “the heir to Christianity” and describes it as the “collective degeneration of man”.

The True Counter-Ideal

This brings us to the other side of Nietzsche’s philosophy. So far we have focussed on what Nietzsche wants to say no to. As he notes in The Case of Wagner this is where he dedicated most of his efforts:

Nothing has preoccupied me more profoundly than the problem of decadence

This is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the illness afflicting us but now let’s look at his prescription for Health. Let’s talk about what Nietzsche proposes as a counter-ideal.

Dionysus

Oedipus and the Sphinx (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

The clue to Nietzsche’s counter-ideal can be found all the way back in The Birth of Tragedy with the idea of the Dionysian. In his autobiography Ecce Homo written at the very end of his career he describes himself as “the first tragic philosopher”. And at the end of this final work of his he closes his career with the question:

Have I been understood? — Dionysus versus the Crucified.

Or to put it another way Health vs. Decadence.

In the Golden Age of Greek Tragedy there was a fusion between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Those who think that Nietzsche is preaching the way of Master Morality should pay special attention to that Apollonian element and to the line quoted above that “a reversion a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible.”

But we should also reiterate that there is an “immense gap” for Nietzsche separating the Dionysian Greek from the “Dionysian barbarian”. what the early Nietzsche found exceptional in the Greek Dionysus. As we noted above he finds an “immense gap” separating the Dionysian Greek from the “Dionysian barbarian”. Elsewhere in the ancient world “from Rome to Babylon” the festivals of Dionysus unleased “the most savage natural instincts…including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty”.

Nietzsche is no believer in the unscrupulous unleashing of the instincts. What was exceptional in Greek Tragedy was that the unbottling of the instincts — the opening of the Pandora’s Box of the unconscious — was contained by the Apollonian force in the Greek psyche. This Apollonian was the crucible capable of containing the volatile instinctual energies without shattering into chaos.

As his writing career progresses, these two forces become synthesised in Nietzsche. When he speaks of Dionysus in his later works it is no longer an uncontrolled, frenzied, intoxicated passion but a passion that is controlled and creatively employed. This vision of the Dionysian represents everything that Nietzsche felt was important. And above all

“Yes-saying without reservation, even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything that is questionable and strange in existence”

Zarathustra and His Doctrines

And nobody embodies this Yes-saying Dionysian ideal of Nietzsche more than his favourite creation: Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the hero of Nietzsche’s “Yes-Saying” work Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the Dionysian counter-ideal that stands against “the Crucified” one.

He describes Zarathustra as the

“most Yes-saying of all spirits; in him all opposites are blended into a new unity. The highest and the lowest energies of human nature, what is sweetest, most frivolous, and most terrible wells forth from one fount with immortal assurance”

And this Yes-saying spirit has three key doctrines: the Übermensch, the Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power. Each of these doctrines affirms this world, life and becoming in their own way. Each is another way of saying yes to life.

The Eternal Recurrence

The Eternal Recurrence Nietzsche describes as “the concept of Dionysus himself”. It’s a simple but brutal idea:

“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live 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, and in the same succession and sequence … how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

This for Nietzsche is the “highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable”. He calls it “The fundamental conception” of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There is no remnant of the otherworldly lies of the Ascetic Ideal here. It is just this life as it is from here until eternity.

The Übermensch

The Übermensch is what we are becoming. It is the overcoming of ourselves. In the Prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra he writes that “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss.” The Übermensch is not a no-saying spirit. Unlike those under the sway of the Ascetic Ideal from Socrates to the Crucified, the Übermensch doesn’t bow before another world but only this one. Saying that “the overman is the meaning of the earth” Zarathustra pleads with us to

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, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.

The Will to Power

And finally there is the Will to Power. The Will to Power has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people and Nietzsche isn’t exactly clear on his meaning. Scholars are divided in reading it as a psychological or a metaphysical concept. Psychologically we can understand it as a fundamental tendency for living beings to overcome resistance in whatever goals they pursue. But metaphysically it is a scientific hypothesis about the nature of reality itself. Nietzsche posits that “This world is the will to power — and nothing besides!”

Nietzsche’s New Metaphysics

Tabula smaragdina (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

This ambiguous nature of the Will to Power dovetails nicely with the concepts of the Übermensch and the Eternal Recurrence. These three doctrines can be read as thought experiments or rhetorical flourishes but the way Nietzsche talks about them there seems to be more going on. Nietzsche wants to bring about a revaluation of all values. He wants a tablet of values that leads the way to Health rather than Decadence. And he knows that rationality alone is simply Decadence. He knows that the new tablet of values must cut deeper than conscious reason.

Again it is worth remembering that Nietzsche is the Father of Psychoanalysis and not merely the Father of Existentialism or Postmodernism. Nietzsche was the first great thinker concerned with the new values structure that Western culture would live by. Nihilism as we have noted is a “pathological transitional stage”. Which means that it is liminal space between stable value systems. God is dead. And in his place Nietzsche sees an opportunity. We have looked at how the death of God is a catastrophe but Nietzsche also sees it as an opportunity. He writes:

“Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits … feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again … the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea!’”

And so Nietzsche is attempting to create a healthy tablet of values. He is looking to fill the position that Christianity held in the Western psyche with a value system that affirms the earth, the body and becoming. It’s a value system that would bring about a fusion between the conscious and the instinctual rather than a suppression of the latter by the former. Nietzsche wants to say yes to life as it is and to affirm this world, this body and these instincts. And so there is a blurring of the lines between the psychological and the metaphysical as Nietzsche attempts to steer not just individuals but the culture as a whole towards a new relationship with the world.

The most powerful representation of this vision is Dionysus. The way forward beyond the utter collapse of meaning in the crisis of Nihilism is via connection to the instincts. The way forward is the animation of the Dionysian — not a surrender to hedonism but a sublimation of passion into our lives — an affirmation of the body, of Life of everything. A fusion between intellect and instinct an individuation that is still connected to the volcanic lifeforce of the instincts. In these times of danger, we can afford nothing less than this greatest affirmation.

After Nietzsche went mad in January 1889, he wrote a series of letters. He signed these as either the Crucified or as Dionysus. When his sanity collapsed we can see the tension of these two ideals pulling at his psyche. The same tension pulls at us today as we stand in the unresolved space of the Meaning Crisis: Health versus Decadence; Dionysus versus the Crucified.

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One Comment

  1. […] a unique challenge to my articulating why I love him so much. But that’s where writing two articles about Nietzsche has been fortuitous; spending so much time with Nietzsche these past couple of […]

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