Personal Development: Natalie Morris grapples with the notion of Will to Power.
A semester into my first year at university, I unexpectedly decided to take on a major in Philosophy. Although I hardly ever make decisions with as little planning or pondering, once I considered it, it seemed like a surprisingly obvious choice. It wasn’t until my first seminar, essentially based on the premise that philosophy started out as (and still is, to a certain extent) a kind of therapy for the mind’, that I began to understand why it all seemed so fundamental to me. And it wasn’t until my second seminar, on Friedrich Nietzsche, that I had the opportunity to put a philosopher’s thinking – meaning, of course, my still questionable and in any case subjective understanding of a philosopher’s thinking – into practice in my own life.
A central concept of Nietzsche’s thought is the famous ‘will to power’. In my own words, you could say that he believed the will to assert one’s power over the world was the driving instinct behind all things, and in particular human relationships and events. The interesting part for me is that there seems to be two kinds of ‘will to power’, two fundamental ways in which people assert the superiority of their point of view, their way of life – their essence. One is what the French philosopher Deleuze calls in his book on Nietzsche the ‘affirmative’, the other being the ‘negative’. Basically, to affirmatively assert your will to power would be to positively express and act on your own strength and uniqueness in this world. On the contrary, to negatively do so would be to undermine the power of others.
But where it gets really interesting for me is the notion that this negative will to power consists not only in opposing others’ instincts to thrive and so on, but also one’s own instincts. Indeed, when resentment grabs hold of the human soul (as it does to varying degrees for all of us), the result can be an internal battle with one’s own desires, thoughts and general way of being. Examples of this kind of thinking are prevalent in all the great religions it seems, Christianity being Nietzsche’s main adversary, as the notions of sin, guilt and humility dominated public morality in his time in a far more obvious way than they do now.
As if all that weren’t twisted enough, we must add the notion of ‘internalized fear’, one of the plagues faced by a society in which there is no cause to be afraid anymore, forcing the instinct of fear to turn inward. At times, it seems old Friedrich would have loved to go back to a time when crazy Visigoths and other conquerors roamed around Europe, clashing with each other on a daily basis and terrorizing the meek and powerless – hey, I never said the guy was perfect. But it is interesting to consider a certain type of existential anxiety as the result of being protected from the perennial conflict for survival and supremacy (or appear to be so) – having no way of exerting our fighting spirit and energy, while being weighed down by the awareness of sin and obligatory guilt and humility, we have no choice but to lash out at ourselves, in the form of mental punishment and, of course, resentment towards those who seem to have miraculously escaped this man-made spiritual hell.
The more I think about it, the more it seems surprising that I would choose such an author as a kind of therapeutic guide. And yet it’s also very unsurprising that this analysis on anxiety would speak to me as much as it does.
Though I wouldn’t say that I lack confidence in general, the image of someone hell-bent on never entertaining pretentious thoughts, to whom guilt and endless analyses of their actions comes easy, while action is discarded, struck close to home. Actually, my first ‘revelation’, if you will, was learning Nietzsche’s thoughts on the importance of forgetting. In one of his earlier books, he said that strong characters were the ones that were able to forget what didn’t suit them, and store only what helped them to continue to act, here and now. Instead of intentionally remembering every little thing, like a nerdy German historian, the strong don’t dwell on what only brings about guilt or embarrassment (note: Nietzsche died, of course, long before the rise of nationalism and its consequences). If this were true, there was no doubt on which side of the comparison I personally stood.
But in practice my attempts to apply as much as I understood about Nietzsche’s philosophy in my own life were questionable, if not downright disastrous. I thought the key was self-empowerment by convincing myself I had no doubt that I was powerful – although, my reasoning may have been a little less simplistic. But looking back, it couldn’t have been a lot more nuanced either. When the inevitable disillusionment struck, it struck hard, my previous anxieties now fortified by the guilt about feeling anxious again.
For a while, I didn’t seek any philosophical answers to my troubles, simply trudging on with life, leaving my burden of conscience to its own devices. But recently, I felt the unprecedented urge to ‘try something out’. What I tried was Buddhist meditation, at the Diamond-Way Buddhist Centre, which organizes public meditations as well as weekly information sessions, for newcomers. To be clear, I am in no way an expert on Buddhism. I visited the centre twice. All I can speak of are my own personal impressions, and how it ultimately didn’t appeal to me.
Although the meditations themselves weren’t as hard to get into as I had expected, the general ideas, as they were taught to me – establishing a kind of ruling of the mind over the impulses, finding ways to avoid “disturbing thoughts” and attempting to reconnect with a lost state of tranquillity – brought me right back to good old Friedrich and his not-so-Zen teachings.
Of course, neither Nietzsche nor any kind of meditation practices allege to do away with anxiety altogether (to my knowledge). But they do offer very different views on how to cope with the misery of the human condition. As I understand it, meditation, Buddhist or not, offers paths to acceptance, whereas Nietzsche’s approach is to conquer, not one’s own ‘disturbing thoughts’, but the world itself (metaphorically speaking). Of course there are potentially nefarious consequences to this kind of thinking, namely hubris and selfishness. But does the implementation of good in the world require more of the turn-the-other-cheek type of humility we’ve been taught to admire above all else, or does it rather require a breadth of spontaneous and ferocious empathy, anger and courage in the face of injustice, and the will to empower the meek and powerless?
Since it is possible that a restricted life behind what Nietzsche called the “veil of culture”, although far more preferable to the barbarism of perpetual war, ultimately renders the animals that we are in need of excitement. I’ve come to the conclusion that turning the internal struggles we have outward could be far more salutary than achieving the comfort of acceptance. This does not mean violence or even competition amongst ourselves. For me, it means adventure. If life is will to power, a life full of risk taking, excitement and the overcoming of one’s limitations – not the taming of one’s feelings and desires – could be the true path towards healing the soul of its infernal troubles.
All this being said, I am fully aware that these thoughts about adventure might be out of touch with the drudging reality of most peoples’ lives, somewhat weighed down by the mundane struggles of having children or barely keeping out of financial turmoil. All I can offer is my own perspective at this moment in time. Specifically, the moment when, during my second attempt at meditation, I smiled at the thought of hearing the same mantra, accompanied by the sound of a steady but increasingly ferocious beating of the drums. It may be helpful to be kept afloat by a peaceful attitude towards injustice and hardship. But is it empowering?