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Will to Power

Nietzsche: “Everywhere one enthuses, even under scientific disguises, about coming states of society in which there will be ‘no more exploitation’ – that sounds to my ears like promising a life in which there will be no organic functions. ‘Exploitation’ does not pertain to a corrupt or imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will of life.”

Nietzsche’s “will to power” has been taken as a ruthless pursuit of superiority, as the drive to overcome, dominate and subdue others. It’s probably this idea of his, more than any other, that encouraged many to see in Nietzsche a kind of pre-endorsement of fascism and inspiration of Hitler. But, once again, this represents a gross mis-reading of Nietzsche.

True enough, he was scathingly critical of those Christian utopians who foretold a future where all people would live in happy equality and perpetual peace. What would happen if we smoothed down all differences, every more-or-less, and were able to remove the friction, tension and conflict that characterize so much of our interpersonal relations? Nietzsche was not a fan of equality – or democracy, insofar as it insists on the principle that everyone is equal.

He even seems here to affirm and encourage exploitation. Isn’t that evidence enough that Nietzsche is against Christian morality. Oh right, we already determined that. But against moral decency? Ah, true again. He’s a “nihilist,” then, a moral anarchist, proto-Nazi and antichrist. Well, not really.

The straightforward definition of exploitation is based on the verb exploit, which simply means “to utilize, advance or promote.” Granted, it’s more about your advancement than someone else’s, but that doesn’t have to make it greedy or vicious. Perhaps we’re dealing here with something more analogue than digital, a variable range from too little to too much, rather than a simple “on” or “off.” The Christian morality that Nietzsche was reacting to tended (and still tends) to be digital – it’s either a virtue or a vice, praiseworthy or condemnable. Such a digital value system plays out and produces a dualistic worldview (good versus evil) as well as bipolar personalities that are unable to absorb and modulate the emotional complexity of experience.

Is a healthy human society entirely free of exploitation, competition and self-interest? The early Christian communalism as described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles is frequently referenced as an ideal, and we know that Karl Marx envisioned a society where every talent would be harnessed, every need satisfied. But that was a fantasy. In the meantime, exploited proletarians need to muster themselves and pull down the bourgeoisie system of privilege. Sounds like exploitation just running in the opposite direction, doesn’t it? And what about those primitive Christians? That model quickly fell apart as real life seeped in and a politics of entitlement took over.

Exactly, Nietzsche would say. The drive to utilize resources, advance the quality of life, and promote the fulfillment of its own deeper nature is written into the genetic code of life itself. Efforts to push it down and put it out are really just another form of exploitation, which prompts the question of whose interests are being served in our moral repression. The “will to life” naturally arises in every living thing as it seeks its own foothold in the universe, struggles to satisfy its basic needs, and strives to actualize its true nature.

If we should remove all obstacles and flatten out all uprisings; if we could somehow assuage every hint of discontent and anesthetize the energizing nerve of our innate selfishness – would the result be a healthy society and genuine community? No. Instead we would end up with such an inertia of mediocrity and laziness, that our very survival would be in jeopardy.

Nietzsche wasn’t in support of pushing down your neighbor and sticking it to the poor. His ideal was not just another aristocracy based on the golden rule of a rogue capitalism – “The one with the gold rules.” Nor was he an advocate of a ruthless antagonism where individuals and classes are consumed in their schemes to ruin each other. He believed that our better days are still ahead, but not in a utopia where everyone is equal and all adversities have been neutralized.

We need to get along, but each of us must also get along – that is, we need to go forward in our own development and evolution as human beings. An important part of that development involves our relationships with others in society, but we must be careful not to cut the root as we cultivate the flower.

An illustration from the vineyard. Vines that are grown in super-rich soil where every emergent need of the plant is instantly and abundantly provided for don’t have to “strive” as diligently to produce fruit. As a consequence of this “privilege,” the vines will put out lazy grapes – berries that are bloated and tasteless, lacking in complexity and depth. Wine made from lazy grapes is characteristically flat and uninteresting, winding up as cheap jug wine. The overly providential vintner, by removing adverse conditions and anticipating every need, thereby enfeebles the plant’s innate “will to power” and compromises its natural intelligence.

Nietzsche might say that our culture is  bringing forth “lazy grapes,” individuals lacking the complexity of character, inner fortitude and passion for life that our species requires for the next phase in our evolution. Though he waxed prophetic over the “superman” (Ubermensch) of the future, this apparent recession of the human spirit made him wonder whether our opportunity has already passed.

 

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Learning to Dance

Nietzsche: “There are sufficient idiotic friends and corrupters of woman among the learned asses of the male sex who advise woman to defeminize herself … and to imitate all the stupidities with which ‘man’ … is sick. Almost everywhere her nerves are being shattered … and she is being rendered more and more hysterical with every day that passes and more and more incapable of her first and last profession, which is to bear strong children. There is a desire to make her in general more ‘cultivated’ and, as they say, to make the ‘weak sex’ strong through culture: as if history did not teach in the most emphatic manner possible that making human beings ‘cultivated’ and making them weaker – that is to say, enfeebling, fragmenting, contaminating, the force of the will, have always gone hand in hand.”

The rise of human culture is the story of how a primate animal nature was gradually trained into a well-behaved and proper civilian – or maybe we’re  not quite there yet. At any rate, an evolutionary perspective regards human civilization as a long series of negotiations with our instinctual intelligence – our impulsive tendencies around selfishness, sex and aggression. I’ve already noted how Nietzsche speaks against the general opinion that sees this cultivation of our animal passions – in a word, culture – as the proper end-point of human evolution. Instead he regards it as a staging area or transition space between our (animal) past and our (spiritual) future.

Of course, our animal past is still with us, as body; and our spiritual future is already present, as soul – and both are under the tyranny of that control freak called ego. This dynamic tension in human experience between body and soul, animal and spiritual, where we’ve been and where we might be going on this long arc of evolution, is the seedbed of magic, metaphor and mythology. Whereas the religious aspiration of ego – as revealed in tribal orthodoxy – is commonly to leave the body behind and live forever as a soul in paradise, the reality of our experience is this tension and its inescapable ambiguity. Our primary task as humans is not to become escape artists, but amphibians.

The thought and writings of Nietzsche spring directly out of his creative imagination, from that part of the mind the psychologist Carl Jung later called our collective unconscious. The images that emerge from this mental underground represent our earliest and most basic impressions of reality; Jung named them archetypes (or “first forms”).

All of this is important for understanding Nietzsche’s references to “man” and “woman” throughout his writings. As a creative philosopher, he was not so much commenting on individual men and women of his day – though he did some of that as well. Man and Woman for him are archetypes, first forms or basic patterns in the evolution of our species. They are present in each human individual as propensities in our development, expressing in powers and qualities that are more or less masculine and feminine.

For Nietzsche, Woman is part of a cluster of associations including Nature, Animal, Body and Time; Man is included in the cluster of Culture, Person, Ego and Space. Think of a ‘T’ where the ascending energy of the first cluster is capped and splayed out horizontally into the second cluster. We could add further polarities, like passion and reason, feeling and thinking, instinct and conscience, organismic and mechanistic. These terms are not intended to be seen as mutually exclusive opposites, but instead as complementary and creative counterparts in a higher dance of sort. Only as we identify exclusively with one or the other, do they become antagonistic and competitive.

We should remember that culture for Nietzsche is not the end-point of human evolution. The “cultivation” of our animal passions in the obedient morality of tribal life involves too much denial, repression and condemnation of our most important drives – “making them weaker” on their way to becoming more domesticated. Archetypally, Man has made too much an end-game of harnessing and controlling the powers of Woman. As the personal Ego caps off and flattens out the creative life of our animal Body, the intended channel of our higher progress as a species is blocked. Man-against-Woman is an endless conflict and waste of energy. According to Nietzsche’s vision, if we can’t get past this battlefront it will also be our tragic demise.

What’s beyond this point? If it’s not Man holding down Woman, Ego managing Body, Personal values overriding and repressing Animal drives, the rational mind over the passionate heart, then what is the frontier of the human spirit that patiently – but not indefinitely – awaits our foreground squabbling and wrangling over opposites?

Just as in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, Man and Woman are reconciled only as we are able to shift focus to a point “above” the apparent conflict. This does not mean that the opposition is neutralized in an agreeable blend of powers – this, too, would represent a tragic end for Nietzsche. Rather, Man (Chinese yang) and Woman (yin) must be comprehended as necessary counterforces of a dynamic interplay (swirling together as in the yang-yin symbol). The “T” must break through and transcend the intersection of either/or.

This is the domain of Soul – not apart from and outside the perpetual struggle of Ego and Body, Man and Woman, but inside-and-beyond it. Each must contribute its (his or her) primary power to the dance, if the dance is to continue. And we will only break through and ascend to authentic life as we are able to keep dancing.

 

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Frontier of the Future

Nietzsche: “Actual philosophers are commanders and law-givers: they say ‘thus it shall be!’, it is they who determine the Wherefore and Whither of humankind, and they possess for this task the preliminary work of all the philosophical laborers, of all those who have subdued the past – they reach for the future with creative hand, and everything that is or has been becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is – will to power. Are there such philosophers today? Have there been such philosophers? Must there not be such philosophers?

I’ve already commented on Nietzsche’s self-appointed role as advocate of the body and its animal drives. He felt that morality and “the herd conscience” effectively block our path to a higher human actualization by condemning, censuring and repressing the life impulses that have served our evolution for millions of years. What should rather happen, as he saw it, is that these drives are channeled and guided to the fulfillment of human nature, not extinguished (which isn’t possible anyway) or domesticated (which only makes them docile, weak and skittish).

The model of self that I’ve been working with identifies three centers of experience connecting us to three distinct aspects or dimensions of reality. Physical reality is experienced by the body which has both an inward orientation (to an internal state) and an outward orientation (to the sensory environment). Social reality is experienced by the ego, and it too has an inward orientation (me-identity) and an outward orientation (other-object). Spiritual reality is experienced by the soul, also with an inward orientation (to the ground of being) and an outward orientation (to the unity of existence).

Again, we don’t have a body, ego, and soul; we are these. Our “real self” is not a metaphysical and immortal subject underneath or above them, but is rather their evolving relationships and dynamic interplay over the course of our lifetime.

Prior to the construction of ego, it seems reasonable to suppose that an individual’s experience of reality is a two-way flow: down through the internal state of the body and into the soul’s ground, and also out through the sensory pathways of the body and into the universal whole. As ego becomes more defined and established as the center of our personality, this spontaneous flow of experience is interrupted by commentary, judgment and belief – in short, by meaning-making.

Ego isn’t performing this work alone, however, but is supported, instructed and supervised by the tribe. The individual’s need for belonging (to fit in) and significance (to stand out) is manipulated by the tribe to ensure moral compliance – to make the individual into “one of us” who thinks and behaves according to the rules.

Stepping back a bit from this model of self, we begin to see the thresholds and potential conflicts of development. As our life energy gets generated in our cells and organs, the animal intelligence of instinct coordinates the urgencies, reflexes and drives that keep us alive. As a member of the tribe, however, you cannot be allowed to gratify every impulse, so the rules and expectations are gradually instructed into you (internalized) as the moral intelligence of conscience.

We might hope that the deeper life energy of the body would move freely along these channels of morality, connecting us to each other in healthy and creative ways, but this isn’t the norm – at least as Nietzsche saw it in his day. Instead, our impulses get blamed and repressed. Pushed back and driven underground by the “herd conscience,” this animal instinct doesn’t simply dissipate or timidly obey. It will break out eventually, and when it does, the tribe is likely to push even harder and pinch the channels even tighter. For Nietzsche, this is where the human evolutionary journey meets its tragic end: with everyone well-behaved but energetically constipated, stuck on the wheel of chronic frustration and neurosis, dying before we even had the chance to really live.

What ought to happen – and if that sounds too much like a moral “ought,” then what needs to happen – is that the individual lets go of morality and proceeds to live “beyond good and evil,” on the far side of obedient conformity to the herd. This free range of the higher life is where Nietzsche’s “philosophers” live – or will live one day. As the “passionate pursuit of wisdom,” philosophy for Nietzsche isn’t about symbolic logic and abstract thinking. Wisdom is the spiritual intelligence of the soul. It involves an understanding of one’s place in the greater whole, orienting by the big picture and the long view. Wisdom is not about how smart we are, but whether we have a large enough vision and sufficient courage to live creatively into this moment.

When the social system of tribal morality, the personal ego and the mythological god can be transcended, the future of humanity will begin. The webs of meaning that we have collectively and individually constructed must either support this creative transformation or be torn down. If it served us for a while, giving us security and a sense of purpose, we have now reached the point where the box is too small, the cage too limiting.

It is time to cut the lock and push open the door. Can we trust ourselves?

 

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What Would Nietzsche Do?

Nietzsche: “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”

Given that Nietzsche titled his book Beyond Good and Evil, we can assume a higher importance in his mind for what he connects to this phrase. But … love? Really? Nietzsche? Didn’t he espouse the obliteration of all values, despise the Jews and inspire Hitler’s holocaust campaign against humanity?

Surprising answer to all three parts: No. In fact, it was his sister who took charge of his estate and collected his papers after he died; she began spinning his reputation in a direction that agreed with her husband’s antisemitism. (Nietzsche actually condemns it in different published works.)

“Good and evil” in Nietzsche’s thought refers to morality. These are not things in the universe, but values ascribed or attached to things – or rather, to the actions of things (specifically people). While metaphysical realism holds the separate and absolute existence of good and evil (personified in gods and devils), a thorough-going constructivism regards them as values (not entities or supernatural forces) that humans project onto reality. It’s an important part of “world-building” whereby we construct a secure and meaningful habitation in which to live.

In order to get along together, we early on assigned value to certain kinds of social behavior – proper and deviant, right and wrong – and then invented superhuman realities (“good” and “evil”) to anchor them down with authority. Morality, then, is about how human behavior conforms to the standards of right and wrong, as these are customized in a given society (recall that mores are customs).

There’s no indication in Nietzsche’s writings that he preferred social chaos to civil order. His aspiration was for a humanity not tethered to moral standards of good and evil. For the rest of us tribe-bound, people-pleasing and self-interested egos, all this talk of “overcoming morality,” the “death of God,”  and living “beyond good and evil” sounds a lot like mustering  for a planetary free-for-all. Did he really believe that living without values would be a good thing? Therein lies the paradox.

No, it would not be “good,” for that just pulls us back into the problem. And what’s the problem? That we can’t live creatively and spontaneously so long as we are measuring our actions against the conventional standards of our tribe (however large). Wanting to do “good” is already qualifying human freedom by appealing (read: submitting) to the judgment of someone else – be it the social majority, a dictator, or the mythological god.

Imagine living with such present mindfulness, with such profound awareness of what’s really going on right now, and fully grounded in the “one life” of which you are a part, that your action flows spontaneously and unselfconsciously to the critical point of creative transformation. Thinking as the universe, you know immediately what is needed in the moment and, without pausing to consider what it will cost you or how you could benefit personally from the outcome, you are like a catalyst of transforming change – and simply make it happen. Who did that? Was it an ego, an extension of the tribe or an agent of another will?

No, it wasn’t an “I” (ego). It was The One – Life itself, the creative will that moves the evolutionary process. You weren’t “commanded,” taken over by a higher power or alien force. You (but not ego you) are the will-to-power, the moving energy of creative change. Your actions cannot be validated or disqualified by any standard of right and wrong, for you are a breaking wave of energy on the ocean of reality. You are, in that very moment, beyond good and evil.

This is love, according to Nietzsche the proto-Nazi nihilist. Ah, and I suppose that’s the point. All along we’ve been judging his vision by how it would work out for the rest of us. Not very well – at least, not as long as we’re hunkering down (or trapped and blinded) in the moral kingdom of good and evil.

Love, for Nietzsche, is not an affection, a feeling, an attachment or even a passion. It is doing the creative thing, not because it has to be done – it’s not an obligation, either –  but because this is the moment. If we are alive, we must live now.

Step into the current and see where it takes you.

 

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