Why it Matters is a type of content that I experimented with on The Living Philosophy YouTube channel last year. It’s essentially my personal take on why a topic matters. In putting together the major pieces of canonical content, I try to keep myself out of the affair as much as possible. The Why it Matters series is the opposite: my personal take on why I find the topic (in this case Nietzsche) so fascinating and worthy of study. This article then is my account of why I find Nietzsche so fascinating and why I think you should too
Those of you who have been following The Living Philosophy for a while will know I’m quite fond of Nietzsche. He presents 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 months has made me a lot more conscious of the reasons he’s captivated me for so many years.
The thing is that Nietzsche is the bridge between so many of the topics that fascinate me — from why I love the Existentialism of Camus and the philosophy of the Ancients (whether that’s Heraclitus or the Stoics) to why I fell in love with Jung’s work immediately and more recently why I’ve developed a fondness for Postmodern thinking. All of these themes and concerns confluence in Nietzsche because Nietzsche is the essence of living philosophy.
I suppose the main reason I find Nietzsche so compelling is that he’s still so relevant. He is the philosopher of the Nihilistic age. But there’s more to it than that. There’s something in Nietzsche’s biography that makes this problem more emotional than it seems to be for others.
Nietzsche grew up in the German heartlands. His father was a pastor who had tutored the princesses of the duchy of Altenburg. This Medieval background is significant. It’s a similar pattern to what you see in Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Each of these three founding giants of Existentialism had what amounts to a Medieval upbringing. They straddled the threshold of the seismic shift between the Medieval and the Modern. And in each case we find a father with a strong connection to Christianity.
The dissonance of living through this threshold made the nature of modernity a deeper problem for these thinkers. There’s a reason why they each struggled so deeply with a problem that those of us born deep into modernity take for granted.
But taken for granted or not, Nihilism remains a fundamental problem for us. Just because a frog is in unaware of the increasingly hot water he finds himself in, does not mean that it won’t ultimately kill him. And so one reason why I find Nietzsche so important is that he feels this problem of our age so acutely and he wrestles with it so earnestly. His diagnosis of decadence, his questions about the value of truth, instinct, science and religion are as valuable today as they were when he wrote them.
The Collective Element
But there’s something else in Nietzsche that makes him specifically stand out to me and it’s that’s the collective — almost religious element — of his Existentialism. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about value of eudaimonia — of happiness and the good life.
It seems to me that the kneejerk reaction in times of Nihilism is to curl up in the philosophical fetal position of Existentialism. Like Socrates and the Stoics, or Kierkegaard and Camus, the initial reaction is the bluster of self-preservation.
I’ll probably go into this in greater depth in a future instalment but sufficed to say, it seems to me that the single-minded concern with our own flourishing — with finding meaning in our own lives and becoming who we are — is necessary but not sufficient. To be good philosophers requires these things but they are not enough.
The example that always springs to mind when I think about this is Cato the Younger who was idealised by everyone from Dante to George Washington. Cato was a conservative Roman senator, a diehard Stoic and the constant thorn in the side of Julius Caesar.
In a time of hyper-complexity, Cato became a fundamentalist Stoic. Sticking to the Stoic belief that virtue is the only thing that matters and all the rest is indifferent, the Roman senator became a rigid moral ideal. As his biographers Goodman and Soni put it:
Cato made a career out of purity, out of his refusal to give an inch in the face of pressure to compromise and deal. […] This strategy of all-or-nothing ended in crushing defeat. No one did more than Cato to rage against his Republic’s fall. Yet few did more, in the last accounting, to bring that fall to pass.
For this reason Cato — and a myopic goal of Self-Actualisation in general — stands out to me as a warning rather than an ideal.
Again it’s necessary but it’s not sufficient. Those who don’t tend to their own inner work are like bulls in a China shop. But tending to this inner work is not enough. You can’t treat yourself like an individual wave. You need to relate to the ocean. Our responsibility goes deeper than a single wave.
And that’s why I love Nietzsche. He straddles these worlds amazingly. He deals so well with the individual element but he also tends to the collective side of the equation so brilliantly as well. He sees himself as a doctor. And not just the doctor of individuals but of the culture as a whole. He speaks so much to personal psychology but he speaks even more to interpersonal psychology.
Nietzsche and the Four Quadrants
Ken Wilber’s model of the Four Quadrants which many of you will remember from our earlier instalment is again a great way of illustrating this. We have that concern with self-actualisation in the upper left quadrant but it’s down here in the lower left quadrant of the collective and internal that we find Nietzsche, the Postmodernists and the later Freud and Jung working.
In many ways it’s harder to grasp than the external and collective quadrant of systems thinking, chaos theory, Marxist economics or Utilitarian Effective Altruism. And this intangibility is the same reason that neuroscience makes us feel safe (and tempts many to reduce psyche to a mere echo of its measurable cranial firestorm).
When you get into the individual or cultural psyche it’s a Herculean task to get a solid grasp of anything. We are moving through a labyrinth in thick fog. It’s tough to make any headway but it’s incredibly important. Collective change requires an understanding of collective psychology.
And these are the exact swamps that Nietzsche throws himself into. He has the audacity to make a diagnosis of our entire Zeitgeist. He sees himself as the doctor, and the culture as the patient, and he goes about diagnosing and prescribing.
As a value-worker he does what science cannot — he probes the value of values. In the opening aphorism of Beyond Good and Evil he asks why we should prefer truth to untruth when untruth has been just as important to human existence — to the continuation of life — as truth ever was.
Nietzsche is a pioneer into the instinctual realm of our collective value system. And that is why he matters.
Nietzsche’s Unique Style
But it’s not only that. You could say that Jung and Freud or Deleuze and Foucault transcend him since they build on his work and take it further in a certain direction. But that’s not entirely true. Because there’s something wilder about Nietzsche than about any of these thinkers. There’s something more unhinged in him.
Reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Ecce Homo there is what can only be called an intoxication in Nietzsche. He’s not studying this instinctual realm from a distance. He has chained himself to an anvil and jumped into the ocean. He doesn’t keep himself grounded — he wants to see how far he can go.
When I was writing the article on Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses I had another great insight into Nietzsche’s style. I noticed that in the Three Metamorphoses he collapsed the wall between spirit and ego. Where narratives are normally told from the perspective of ego — with the development of spirit being the silent undercurrent — in Nietzsche the opposite is the case. There’s a type of psychological inflation in Nietzsche’s work that makes reading him like consuming raw archetype; it’s an almost religious experience. There’s just a different energy in his writing to any other philosopher (or writer for that matter).
I’ve never had the strength to make it through Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Every time I’ve tried I’ve had to put it down because I found my soul filling with an energy that felt almost unhinged. I could feel it pulling me in a direction that did not seem healthy. I think I might give it another go this year; I feel a lot more grounded as I get older and I think I can handle it without being carried off by him now.
he collapsed the wall between spirit and ego
It’s scary how intoxicating his writing can be but in reading him, you get a perspective which is so different to anything else out there. Nietzsche says things that a sane man would never say; he’s like the Charles Bukowski of philosophy. He says so many things that are so wrong and so shocking (if you want to know what I mean read just about anything he says about women after 1883). But it’s all part of this work he’s doing. He’s breaking the chains of his psyche. He’s breaking free from the prisons in his mind so he can go further.
One of the most unique things about Nietzsche in my experience is that I can read him and be disagreeing with him page after page but still be having the jolliest time of it. He’s so provocative and because his perspective is so different, the disagreements that come out of interacting with him are so fertile.
When I was younger and fascinated by Eastern philosophy, and the idea of enlightenment and mysticism, Nietzsche was the only voice I had speaking against this convincingly. And that’s not because he’s calling you to money or status or worldliness which are the usual counter-ideal. He’s got a different spiritual path — the Dionysian path. There’s a wildness in what he’s saying that’s so mesmerising. It injected so much cognitive dissonance into my mind and while it didn’t kill the exotic allure of enlightenment immediately, it did crack the foundations so that it would crumble far easier.
And so these are the reasons why Nietzsche matters. In the two articles I focussed on the more psychoanalytical Nietzsche because I think that this is the most neglected legacy of Nietzsche. But he is equally the Father of Existentialism and, after the collapse of Structuralism and the Marxist strain in French philosophy it was Nietzsche who became the foundation of a new era in philosophy — the Postmodern Post-Structuralist philosophy.
Through Nietzsche these three traditions: Existentialism, Postmodernism and Psychoanalysis converge and join with the stream of the great conversation that is philosophy. He is without a doubt one of the greatest and most important philosophers in history which makes it both very difficult and very simple to answer the question of why Nietzsche matters.