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Nietzsche Reloaded

Nietzsche’s Therapy

David Frost considers Nietzsche’s diet and lifestyle tips.

Most of us want to do the right thing and make the right decisions. But what is the morally right thing? And what makes it morally right?

Traditionally, these questions have belonged to the discipline of moral philosophy. So what is the thoughtful reader of Philosophy Now to make of amoralism, the philosophical school of thought that undermines the whole enterprise of philosophical ethics? After all, there are some strong arguments for skepticism about morality, for relativism about morality, and even for the harmful effects of morality. How does one accommodate, for example, the arguments and exhortations of arch relativist Friedrich Nietzsche?

Nietzsche is perhaps most widely known for having written that God is dead, (“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” The Gay Science, Section 125), and for the dubious distinction of having been Hitler’s favorite philosopher. However, the interpretation of Nietzsche, put forth by Bertrand Russell, the historian Paul Johnson, and many others, which sees him as a proto-Nazi, was thoroughly debunked by Walter Kaufmann in the 1960s. It need not delay us today. (See What Nietzsche Really Said by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins for a recent treatment.)

Many readers interpret Nietzsche as an amoralist. That may be true. However, it is important to note that his critique of Christian morality was a psychological one, in which he argued there are more life-affirming ways to think and live. Nietzsche’s genealogy of Christian morality is most interesting, I think, as an illustration of his theory of human nature. Among other psychological insights he wanted to illustrate that resentment (to Nietzsche the source of a Christian desire to denigrate strength) is an extremely powerful drive.

The way Nietzsche saw it, the death of God meant that all the old ways of distinguishing a superior humanity from inferior beasts had been taken away. If God is dead, then we are reduced to being just another animal. As Nietzsche colorfully puts it in Daybreak, Section 49:

“Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at the portal stands the ape, together with other gruesome beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this direction!”

Was there any direction for humanity to turn for moral answers, or for what Nietzsche sometimes called “metaphysical comfort”? God’s death implies a ‘no’ answer. This lack of metaphysical comfort can be called ‘nihilism’.

It would be misleading to suggest that Nietzsche advocated nihilism. Indeed, he saw the death of God as a danger to individuals and to society. In a relatively early work he wrote that if “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – a doctrine which I consider true but deadly – is thrust upon the people for another generation… no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people; in its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of non-brothers” (Untimely Meditations, Essay II, section 9). However, more than many contemporary moral skeptics, Nietzsche has an idea about what to do next – what to do in the face of nihilism. Nietzsche’s books include his prescription for what to do and how to think in the light of the condition of modern life.

Nietzsche in Nature

Naturalism, the idea that everything can be explained without reference to the supernatural, for Nietzsche is both the cause of nihilism and the only path to take as we struggle on after the death of God. It is therefore from a naturalistic perspective that we will best understand some of Nietzsche’s otherwise strange exhortations about how to go on living – his advocacy for a certain diet and climate, for instance. What is basic for humanity is not theology and philosophy, but physiology and psychology. For example, Nietzsche says he is interested in one question “on which the ‘salvation of humanity’ depends far more than on any theologians’ curio: the question of nutrition” (Ecce Homo, ‘Why I am So Clever’).

Nietzsche had a picture of people as instantiating different psychological and physiological types. He even suggested that he could explain any particular philosopher’s philosophy as a product of that philosopher’s neurosis or some other aspect of his psychology. His interest in physiology and psychology puts Nietzsche squarely within a naturalist tradition that includes Hume and Darwin. Indeed, interesting recent literature on Nietzsche interprets him in these terms. (See for example Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche on Morality, 2002, or Peter Kail’s ‘Nietzsche and Hume: Naturalism and Explanation’, in Journal of Nietzsche Studies, vol 37, 2009.)

Nietzsche’s insights are very much consonant with, and even anticipate, some of the research in the last 10 or 20 years in psychology, social psychology and behavioral neuroscience. His doctrine of ‘drives’ or ‘wills to power’ is a naturalistic theory in which unconscious drives are the basic explanation for almost all aspects of human behavior and psychology. If this looks Freudian, that’s because it is. Freud said he had to stop reading Nietzsche for fear of finding his own idea presaged there.

In terms of contemporary psychology, Nietzsche is more or less in line with the ‘automaticity’ literature, and with Kahneman and Tversky’s theories of our cognitive biases. There’s also the contemporary ‘dual-process’ theories of judgment and action – a Nietzschean school of thought if ever there was one. According to dual-process theories, humanity’s conscious intellect is like a small monkey on the back of an elephant. The elephant would be our affective (emotional), intuitive, relatively strong ‘System 1’, and the monkey would be our conscious, effortful, relatively weak ‘System 2’. What System 1, the elephant, wants, it gets, even if it has to co-opt System 2 to find reasons for what it has already decided to do. (See Steven Sloman’s, ‘The empirical case for two systems of reasoning’ in Psychological Bulletin, 1996; and Keith Stanovich and Richard West’s, ‘Individual Differences in Reasoning: Implications for the Rationality Debate?’ in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2000.) Perhaps with considerable effort, System 2 can resist the desires or drives of System 1. But more often, our reasoning is co-opted and directed to find a justification after the fact for what, through our elephantine instincts, we already want to do or already have done. This post hoc rationalization was recognized by Nietzsche as one system of wills co-opting another.

We must keep in mind that most of our thinking and actions are caused by the ‘elephant’, our non-conscious drives, which are not themselves responsive to reasons, but only to other System 1 interventions. If we wish for the monkey of our higher reason to be more successful, Nietzsche says, then the monkey needs to ‘trick’ the elephant into putting its momentum in a different direction.

A passage in Daybreak lists six ways to combat a drive that’s getting the best of your (System 2) will-power. One way is to over-satiate the drive, to produce disgust at the thought of what the drive wants. For example, if you wish to quit smoking but you’re addicted, a good strategy is to smoke a whole carton of cigarettes in one sitting so that your ‘elephant’ will forever in the future be disgusted by smoking, and this emotional repugnance will overpower the addiction in a way that conscious will power could not. Antabuse, the first medicine approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration for treatment of alcohol abuse, works in exactly this way, by causing disgust whenever alcohol is consumed, essentially starting the hangover immediately.

But, as Nietzsche points out, even the conscious decisions we make to resist our ‘elephant’ are most often unconscious ‘wills’ or ‘drives’ themselves. Nietzsche says the fact “that one desires to combat the vehemence of a drive at all… does not stand within our own power; nor does the choice of any particular method; nor does the success or failure of this method. What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us… While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive complaining about another” (Daybreak, 109). The elephant goes where it wants, and the monkey says, “I meant to do that.” Here Nietzsche presages Jonathan Haidt’s application of the dual-process theories in his ‘The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail’, and Daniel Wegner’s thesis in The Illusion of Conscious Will.

The N-Plan Diet

Nietzsche’s description of humanity is thoroughly naturalistic, and so is his prescription for humanity. Nietzsche, indeed, has a positive, not merely critical, project for us – a project for how to live and flourish.

Nietzsche’s autobiography, Ecce Homo (1888, posthumously published) is, on my reckoning, a discussion of how to learn to recognize your psychological type – basically, how to recognize the psychological properties of your unconscious System 1, and to manipulate its energies towards doing what your System 2, the conscious part of us, the monkey, wants to do. In it, Nietzsche talks (otherwise incomprehensibly) about the diet and the weather that are best for him.

“I, an opponent of vegetarianism from experience, just like Richard Wagner, who converted me, cannot advise all more spiritual natures earnestly enough to abstain entirely from alcohol. Water is sufficient.

A few more hints from my morality. A hearty meal is easier to digest than one that is too small. That the stomach as a whole becomes active is the first presupposition of a good digestion. One has to know the size of one’s stomach… Everyone has his own measure, often between the narrowest and most delicate limits.”

(‘Why I am So Clever’)

Nietzsche’s ‘morality’ is one of self-realization and a flourishing unique to each individual. In a world without values, Nietzsche suggests we make our own values – values that will lead to our individual flourishing based on our unique unconscious characteristics and conscious personalities. This is not so much a recipe for change as a recipe for coming to terms with oneself. The otherwise-incomprehensible subtitle to Ecce Homo is ‘How one becomes what one is’.

© Dr David Frost 2012

David Frost, Ph.D., is an Associate Instructor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. He tweets at @doctorfrosty.

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