Nietzsche, Part Two: Who am I?

ecce homo pic

In this Part Two I explore Nietzsche’s view of the self and compare it to the Buddhist view. I also examine what Nietzsche meant by freedom and what existential freedom can be for us today.

I should emphasise that Nietzsche is never prescriptive although his aphoristic style gives the impression that he is. I don’t have the same qualms about being non-prescriptive!

When I was a teenager – and perhaps being unsociable – my mother would often say to me, “Be yourself, Eric.” Needless to say this irritated me because I sensed an ulterior message of ‘be who I want you to be.’

Of course adolescence is the prime time to explore who we are. However, the question is far from straight-forward. Some people seem to arrive at their ‘identity’ as if there were a ready-made mould simply to be filled. They then spend the remainder of their lives reasonably content with their roles: teacher, lawyer, bus driver, builder, wife, husband and so on. Their role and the people they meet contribute to a ‘hardening’ of their character. No doubt many continue to grow psychologically and spiritually, but many others live out their lives ‘being someone else.’ (That is, living The Looking Glass Self – Charles Horton Cooley coined this term to express how the self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us.)

Eric Berne was among the first to describe how assigned roles can suffocate us and in the last 50yrs or so the burgeoning market of self-awareness courses and books has encouraged us to examine our identities and question our very thoughts and feelings in order to find out ‘who we are.’

Is it possible that Nietzsche was thinking along these lines? The sub-title of his Ecce Homo is the wonderfully pregnant aphoristic, Becoming Who You Are! And in Untimely Meditations this aphorism is even more to the point:

All that you are now, doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself. (my emphasise)

As we saw in Part One Nietzsche denies that there is a permanent, unchanging self – he seems to confirm David Hume’s insight that thoughts and feelings come and go independently of any agent. Buddhism has the same idea or rather, insight, with its anatta – here is a definition taken from a Buddhist Dictionary:

As applied to man it states that there is no permanent ego or self. . . which make up the personality. The Buddha, however, nowhere denied the existence of an ego, but taught that no permanent entity. . . can be found in any of the human faculties.

Here, for comparison is a longer quote from Nietzsche:

Owing to the phenomenon ‘thought’, the ego is taken for granted; but up to the present everybody believed. . . that there was something unconditionally certain in the notion ‘I think’, and that by analogy with our understanding of all other causal reactions this ‘I’ was the given cause of the thinking. However customary and indispensable this fiction may have become now, this fact proves nothing against the imaginary nature of its origin; it might be a life-preserving belief and still be false.

Will to Power; 483

And it is obvious that Nietzsche sees the individual as a ‘ community of selves,’ – and that the free spirit is aware of the multiplicity and harmonises the community. I think his ”will to power’ is the harmonising factor. Just one quote:

The highest man would have the highest multiplicity of drives in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant ‘human being’ shows itself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully but are controlled.

Will to Power, 966

Some people, when they first come across this idea of ‘no-self’ (or the notion that they don’t originate their thoughts) begin to experience panic, as if they are going to somehow disappear or disintegrate. Of course it can be unsettling and that is all to the good. However, Buddhism is not saying the self is a complete illusion or that we should not act as if we were individual agents with free will. It is rather like the physicists’ description of reality consisting of indeterminate sub atomic particles in an endless energetic flux. We don’t go around (unless you are a quantum physicist!) visualising this sub atomic world; tables and trees are still solid to all intents and purposes. By analogy the self is separate and acting-on-the-world – but, there is a deeper reality also there once we question appearances.

It was Heraclitus who said we never step in the same river twice. Nietzsche too sees everything in a state of flux or ‘becoming.’ He also echoes Eckhart Tolle’s insistence that the ‘present moment’ is the only reality:

the present must not under any circumstances be justified by a future nor must the past be justified for the sake of the present. . . Strictly speaking nothing of the nature of Being must be allowed to remain – because in that case Becoming loses its value. .

Will to Power 708

And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

But the best parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.

If we think of present-moment moments when we were, say transfixed by the beauty of a bird’s song, or moved by a painting, we can clearly see that we are much more than our thoughts and feelings or even our memories. In that moment consciousness is heightened and the ‘small self’ transcended. We are not aware of ourselves as a ‘particular person’ or as ‘someone’ carrying out a particular role.

As I stated in Part One, we today have a tremendous advantage over Nietzsche; many of us are incorporating meditational practices into our lives. For example the Buddhist anatta is not mere philosophy or metaphysics – it can be a real aid for us in letting thoughts and feelings pass though consciousness. I’m thinking of the problematic or painful thoughts of course, but it applies to all thoughts really. If I keep having the thought that ‘so and so ignores my emails because he isn’t interested in my ideas’ I may slip into a whole narrative of judgemental thoughts and end up in self-loathing. We may be able to accept the idea, ‘don’t believe everything you think,’ but ‘don’t believe everything you feel,’ is much more difficult. Most of the time we invest our identity in what we think and especially what we feel. Buddhism says this is delusive and I think Nietzsche is saying something similar. Getting to know how our minds work and the tricks they play on us is all part of what today is called mindfulness. I know of no other method other than some sort of mind-awareness practice such as mindfulness – which can enable us to respond in freedom to circumstances. If we are not self-aware in this respect we will be reactive to life, always acting from conditioning, rather than proactive. Where Nietzsche isn’t prescriptive, we can be prescriptive. (Even a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks of changing the obsolete scripts we were handed out in childhood/during our education etc.)

Another area where there is a huge overlap between Buddhism and Nietzsche is in the acknowledgement of suffering as part of life and how to incorporate it positively into our lives. As we saw in Part One Nietzsche’s solution is in his amor fati – to praise in spite of. Buddhism sees the cause of suffering (secondary suffering that is, as explained in Part One) as ‘grasping’ at things which we think will be advantageous to us and rejecting what we think will be disadvantageous.

Ahjan Chah emphasises that mindfulness of our likes and dislikes is a constant effort, not for the faint-hearted!

The Dhamma (Teaching) of the Buddha is profound and refined. It isn’t easy to comprehend.. If true wisdom has not yet arisen you can’t see it. . . When you experience happiness you think there will be only happiness. Whenever there is suffering you think there will only be suffering. You see only one side and thus it’s never-ending. There are two sides to everything; you must see both. Then when happiness arises, you don’t get lost; when suffering arises, you don’t get lost.. .. you see that they are interdependent.

Food For the Heart.

I am afraid if we want to be really free existentially and spiritually we will have to go against the current of accepted values and opinions. Nietzsche of course exemplifies this alone-ness. Here he is writing about the pioneer, ‘we free spirits’.

Solitude, that dread goddess. . . encircles him . . who today knows what solitude is? . . .If once he hardly dared to ask ‘Why so apart, so alone, renouncing all I loved? Already hearing the answer.

You had to become master over yourself. . of your own good qualities. Formerly they were your masters. You had to acquire power over your Yes and No and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims.” (my emphasis)

Human, All too Human

If we can become more all-embracing in our attitude to life and less self-concerned we will find our sense of self changing; I have had to incorporate my experience of depression into the context of Buddhist training and it has meant going into some very dark places. Once the journey has been started it is likely painful memories and feelings will surface. We use right effort and patient endurance to convert the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion into generosity, compassion and wisdom. Likewise, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is a good antidote to akrasia ( the inability to act according to our good judgement) and helps us to keep our minds receptive to new experiences and to grow in self-knowledge.

Although Nietzsche is all too often associated with wilfulness, and Dionysian abandon, one of his last acts before insanity overtook his last years, was to throw his arms around an ill-treated horse in an act of empathy. And who said he never wrote about love?

To have travelled the whole circumference of the modern soul, and to have sat in all its corners – my ambition, my torment, and my happiness. (sounds like becoming friends with hatred, greed and delusion to me!) Veritably to have overcome pessimism, and, as the result thereof, to have acquired the eyes of Goethe – full of love and goodwill.

The Will to Power, 1031

Sea Fever

trapped seal

The subject this week for my writing group is to write a parody of a well know poem. Here is mine.

Sea Fever

[Apologies to John Masefield]

I must go down to the sea again, to the dirty sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a Greenpeace ship and a cause to sail her by;

And the oil slick and the dead fish and the oiled gulls drowning;

And a green scum on the sea’s face and a poisonous dawn breaking.


I must go down to the sea again to rescue the beached whales;

Most are covered in oily sludge so our futile rescue fails;

And all I ask is a clean-up plan and a white surf flying,

And a pure spray and dolphins leaping and bright gannets diving.


I must go down to the sea again and offer up a prayer

For the dolphins caught in plastic nets and seals gasping for air.

And all I ask is a global plan to honour life on earth;

To work together for a green vision and a glorious new birth.


misty on window

The prompt from Haiku Horizons blog is ‘cat.’ Traditionally haiku  references the seasons and has 17 syllables but the syllable count is pretty flexible when writing in English. And there are many modern haiku that have nothing to do with seasons! There should be a change of direction, a turning point in each haiku, usually at the last line.

I have punned on the word ‘pause’ here but not sure if it works. The slo-mo is referring to those nature programmes which slow the movement of an animal down to extremes.


your slo-mo hop

onto the window sill

pause my runaway mind

To Be Or Not To Be

slingers hamlet

Jonathon Slinger as Hamlet
To be or not to be is not just about the contemplation of suicide; it is also about procrastination and the disjunction between thought and action.
Hamlet’s inability to act quickly is mirrored in the Pyrrhus play in Act 2,2 – ‘Pyrrhus stood/And like a neutral to his will and matter/Did nothing.’ When the Ghost first appears to Hamlet and reveals the King has been murdered by Claudius there is deep irony in Hamlet’s response: ‘Haste me to know’t with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love/May sweep to my revenge.’ (Act 1, 5) Surely the first audiences would have been puzzled by Hamlet’s delay for the rest of the play? (Although Dover Wilson, in What Happens in Hamlet, is among those who think Hamlet was modelled on the Earl of Essex who plotted against Queen Elizabeth and was executed. That still leaves the question: Would the audiences have accepted his delay as simply a characteristic of the melancholic?)
Laertes also mirrors Hamlet in many ways; he too wishes to avenge his father. However, he is more like the conventional hero of the Revenge Tragedy. He doesn’t allow ‘the native hue of resolution’ to be thwarted by too much thinking! When Claudius asks him how ‘to show yourself in deed your father’s son.’ Laertes replies, ‘To cut his throat in th’ church.’ (Act 4,7)
Fortinbras too mirrors Hamlet in that he is avenging his father. But, like Laertes, is hot tempered – of ‘choleric humour.’ (‘Of unimproved mettle, hot and full..’) He is contrasted with the indecisiveness of Hamlet as he ‘Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there/Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes.’ (Act 1,1)
These duplicities underline Shakespeare’s aim of exploring the relationships between thought, intention and action in the context of an increasingly humanistic influence.
The play is peppered with variations on Shakespeare’s ‘all the world’s a stage’ conceit. In the Player’s Play the 1st Player sheds tears for a fictitious Hecuba. Hamlet observes, ‘ Tears in his eyes… A broken voice… And all for nothing!’ (Act 2,2) There is that incredible moment in the film The Truman Show where the eponymous hero sails up against a painted sky and realises for the first time that his whole life has been one long ‘performance’ carefully stage-managed. It is a truly chilling moment and owes something, I think, to the concept of Theatrum Mundi and George Gurdjieff’s idea that we are all automata wound up like clockwork; a kind of psychological determinism. The more subtle differences between appearance and reality are explored in modernism and post-modernism but were already centre stage in Shakespeare. We are all familiar with hypocrisy. Hamlet comments on Claudius thus, ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. . .’ (Act 1, 5) This is an unambiguous example of the disparity between body and mind. Some cynics have said that the distinguishing fact differentiating us from other animals is that we are experts in lying!
W.H. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare points out that many of the soliloquies are ‘detachable’ from the play – they can be understood as stand -alone ‘philosophy’ addressed to humanity.
When Hamlet says, ‘Give me that man/That is not passion’s slave,’ he is again speaking for us all.
The scene where Hamlet goads Guildenstern with: ‘You would play upon me, you would seem to/know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from the lowest note…’ (Act 3, 2) brings to mind Eric Berne’s Games People Play. Here is a summary of one of these ‘games’ called, See What You Have Made Me Do:
First-Degree SWYMD: White, feeling unsociable, becomes engrossed in some activity which tends to insulate him against people. Perhaps all he wants at the moment is to be left alone. An intruder, such as his wife or one of his children, comes either for [affection] or to ask him something like, “Where can I find the long-nosed pliers?” This interruption “causes” his chisel, paintbrush, typewriter or soldering iron to slip, whereupon he turns on the intruder in a rage and cries, “See what you made me do.” As this is repeated through the years, his family tends more and more to leave him alone when he is engrossed. Of course it is not the intruder but his own irritation which “causes” the slip, and he is only too happy when it occurs, since it gives him a lever for ejecting the visitor. Unfortunately, this is a game which is only too easily learned by young children, so that it is easily passed on from generation to generation.
What could be more relevant to us today than the relationship between will, thought, emotion, intention, authenticity and moral choice. We overestimate free will in our personal lives and in society. Think, for example, of violence in young men triggered by a surge of testosterone. Think of political figures who are galvanised into action by vested interests such as financial gain or those who act upon the unconscious nudge towards increased status. With the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare was anticipating the latest discoveries in neurology. Books such as Steven Pinker’s, How the Mind Works suggest that we are all – to some extent – puppets, dancing to a synaptic symphony conducted deep within our squishy brains! Now, instead of humours and providence being our masters we have chemical messengers, genes, defence mechanisms and societal conditioning.
The only way to live authentically is by constant vigilance towards the workings of our own minds. The Ancient Greek’s, Know Thyself has come full circle with the various mindfulness practices which are becoming more widespread today. If Hamlet had practised something of this sort he would not have descended into chaos; but then we wouldn’t have the play with its high tragedy, complex psychology and deeply pessimistic message.