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Nietzsche as self-made man

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 2, October 1996
pp. 487-491 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0061

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Philosophy and Literature 20.2 (1996) 487-491

Critical Discussions

Composing the Soul: Reaches of Nietzsche's Psychology, by Graham Parkes; xiv & 481 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, $37.50 cloth, $19.95 paper.

I cannot resist beginning this essay on Graham Parkes's study of Nietzsche's psychology with the first-person pronoun. Parkes provides an erudite and suggestive presentation of Nietzsche's views on the soul, according to which what we consider that most unitary element of human nature turns out to be the product of bringing together disparate and often conflicting independent agencies. He also provides valuable information about the sources of Nietzsche's thought, and details a number of connections between Nietzsche's ideas and his life. Yet, in a book of close to five hundred pages, Parkes self-consciously avoids the first-person pronoun altogether. He speaks of the "I," which is after all the subject of his book, but the I never speaks itself. Why? Because "what is important here are Nietzsche's ideas, rather than Parkes's"; also, because "the whole point of Nietzsche's psychology is to put the I in question, to prompt the question 'Who?' at its every appearance, to hear the polyphony behind the apparent univocality of the first person singular" (p. 310).

Though not the first, Nietzsche was one of the most radical dissectors of the human soul. Where others had found unity, order, and indivisibility, Nietzsche uncovered an untidy, often uncontrolled multiplicity. Instead of a consistent, harmonious whole, he saw a messy complex of beliefs, desires, values, views, drives, affects, and habits, picked up at different times, from disparate, even incompatible sources, moving in different directions; far from fitting naturally into a union, these compete with one another for mastery and control of the person: "The belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon . . . ought to be expelled from science," he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil. But, he continued, "between ourselves it is not at all necessary to get rid of the soul at the same time. . . . But the way is open for new versions and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as mortal soul, and soul as subjective multiplicity, and soul as social structure of the drives and the affects want henceforth to have citizens' rights in science."

The breakdown of the soul into independent and often conflicting parts has two radical consequences. First, it implies that some parts of our souls -- of our selves -- may remain hidden, obscured, suppressed or ignored by others, especially by those that achieve at least apparent dominance and can therefore speak in the first-person. In Nietzsche's political metaphor, they are like a governing class which speaks for the whole state. This, of course, is the central idea of depth psychology; and Parkes shows how both Freud and Jung were indebted to Nietzsche's pioneering geography of the soul. Second, to think that the soul is multiple is to think that it is not unalterable: its parts can affect one another; out of their conflict, new configurations are possible. Some parts can be cultivated or left to wither; others can be allowed to run wild or become domesticated; still others can be subordinated to one another or allowed to function in more or less equitable ways. The soul -- the person -- is not a preexistent unity; it is constructed, or, as Parkes, mindful of Nietzsche's deep involvement with music, puts it so well, composed.

Parkes provides a brilliant catalogue of the metaphors (mineral, vegetal, animal, personal, and political) Nietzsche uses to describe the elements of the multifarious soul. He also produces a sort of recipe for their successful composition into a coherent whole. "Opening up" to as many conflicting drives as possible, we let them be mastered by one or more dominant ones and we subject their multiplicity to the discipline imposed by those ruling passions. Once that discipline becomes instinctive, active control is relaxed and, somehow, the multiplicity spontaneously orders itself. We become, again, natural (p. 377).

Now, we know that Nietzsche spent much of his life "doing battle" with Socrates. He passionately despised the rational...


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