- Cultivating the Tension between Singularity and Multiplicity: Nietzsche’s Self and the Therapeutic Effect of Eternal Return
it is not unusual to interpret Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, or some of his claims, as a therapeutic thought nowadays.1 Nietzsche’s perspectivism, style, and controversial doctrines are supposed to do something, rather than merely teach or state a theoretical position. The legitimacy of this action and its actual goal are far from self-evident, however. This paper tackles the problem from the perspective of a fundamental tension, which is at work underneath Nietzsche’s project since The Birth of Tragedy: that is, the tension between multiplicity and singularity, respectively personified, in that book, by the figures of Dionysus and Apollo (BT 1). When it comes to ethics, this dimension of Nietzsche’s thought is relatively neglected by scholars. Here, I argue that it is fundamental for clarifying why Nietzsche’s philosophy can be considered therapeutic. In parallel with the general thesis of The Birth of Tragedy—that the greatness of Greek tragic art consists in the co-presence of the two gods—Nietzsche’s positive ethics works for the recognition of the tension between two tendencies of the spirit: one that recognizes multiplicity and complexity, and one that pursues singularity and simplification. To foster the flourishing and affirmation of the human being, Nietzsche argues that the two poles of the tension shall be avoided, since the Dionysian immersion into multiplicity entails the loss of individuality (D 50), and an excessive reliance on Apollonian simplifications might develop a revengeful response against what questions their authority, causing spiritual aridity and parasitism (cf. GM:I 7–10; GM:III 9–12).
A condition to establish a spiritual tension between Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies is that the two dimensions effectively communicate and influence each other. That is why I start by showing that there is a constitutive interplay between multiplicity and singularity at the level of self-hood. Section 1 presents Nietzsche’s conception of the self as a fundamental [End Page 97] multiplicity, which is reduced to unity by conscious thought, through a grammatical simplification: the I. The self is described as an organization that emerges from the reciprocal influences between conscious simplifications (namely, the results of intellectual activity that in this paper I call knowledge) and subconscious forces (in particular, drives and affects).2 In its very structure, the self appears as a terrain of encounter and a space of engagement between multiplicity and singularity. Although Nietzsche does not provide many details of this relationship, section 2 tries to depict the mutual influences between the conscious forces that push for singularity and the subconscious multiplicity. Section 3 shows that this structure is mirrored by the activity of the aspirational self, in Nietzsche’s narrative. I discuss the two models of the (healthy) self that Nietzsche proposes—the “aesthetic” one, which seeks unity and self-determination, and the “self-overcoming” one, keen to challenge any crystallized position—and claim that they are not mutually exclusive, as they are too often depicted. The activity of the spirit that conforms with both models—which takes the form of an affirmation without stability—is possible only if we get closer to a relational conception of the self that overcomes the traditional alternative of either transcendental unity or drive predominance (sec. 4). We will see that such an activity can be cultivated by a well-targeted conceptual doctrine that is capable of producing resonance at the level of affectivity and drives (sec. 5).
This overview of the dynamics of the self tries to unify the scattered insight of the current literature on the topic and is meant to provide the psychological foundation for the general thesis of the paper: namely, that Nietzsche’s doctrines are designed to produce an affective resonance in the self, which changes the way one approaches reality. In the final part of the paper, I offer an example of this therapeutic action by highlighting the affective resonance of eternal return. In doing that, I take issue not only with those who consider the doctrine as Nietzsche’s cosmological vision but also with those who correctly highlight the ethical potentiality of the thought...