Nietzche and Sartre Go Head-to-Head on Destiny

December 14, 2009 at 4:04 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

Nietzsche and His Famous Moustache

I've heard -- and this may not be true, so don't pass it on under my name -- that all of these famous mustachio'd photos of Nietzche were taken by his sister during the last 10 years of his life, after he lost all mental function. Hmm. I would have specified in my living will that I wanted to remain clean-shaven at all costs.

Yesterday I picked up a book by John C. Maxwell, Your Road Map for Success. I’ve enjoyed his work at times, if only because he manages to collect inspiring quotes from a bewilderingly broad range of sources. I write an inspirational or funny quote on my whiteboard at work every day, so this is more useful to me than it might seem. (A snippet that I liked enough to add it to my business email signature: Saith Wyatt Earp, “Speed is good, but accuracy is everything.” I do love that man!)

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about these self-help/business books. They can provide a genuine boost of enthusiasm when I need it, but at times they make me burn with irritation. Why? Well, Maxwell in particular asserts that you can carve your own destiny no matter what your condition. He’s definitely a bootstrapper, and there are days when I long to reach through the page and slap him. On the subject of having a positive attitude he writes:

Since everyone faces limitations of some kind — whether lack of talent, limited money, few opportunities, or poor appearance — you need to learn to live with them. As Robert Schuller said, your limitations should be guidelines, not stop signs. They should direct and guide your path on the journey, not prevent you from taking it.

Even if you set aside the fact that I think Robert Schuller is a jerk, you can probably see why I struggle with this statement. On the one hand I agree that you “need to learn to live with” your limitations. You have no choice, really. And, too, I believe in accomplishing as much as possible despite those limitations. I’m extremely ambitious and driven, and bipolar disorder hasn’t changed that.

On the other hand, I want to whine, But bipolar is different! How can I have a positive mental attitude when I’m seriously depressed roughly 50 percent of the time? True, it’s a state, not a trait, but it’s a state that I can control only indirectly, through medication, eating right, exercise, and so forth. My curse is unique in that I can’t simply decide to walk on the sunny side of life.

To his credit, Maxwell admits that none of this is easy. But a part of me wants to say that for me it’s often impossible, and that makes his book a cruel tease.

Or does it? Now that I’ve pulled myself out of my slough of despond, I notice that I’ve begun to engage in what shrinks call “goal-directed behavior.” I’m full of projects and plans, I’ve got a lot of lists, and I’m actively pursuing my goals again despite having been knocked so badly off course recently. With me it seems like an instinct: part of me will keep on climbing despite dangerous obstacles and painful falls. (This makes me a frightening hiking companion; in my world, the sheerest cholla-studded drop-off is “doable,” which is like calling Venetian Snares’ music “listenable.” That’s as close as I’ll come to admitting difficulty when I’m bushwhacking.) When I’m capable of action, I act, and I wait out the paralysis when it comes.

All of this got me thinking about Sartre and Nietzche. Now, what I’m about to tell you is a dramatically simplified version of both, but here goes.

Among many, many other things, Sartre argues that each human being has the duty to take charge of her destiny. He’d be the first to tell you that this duty is often unpleasant. In a profound sense, we are born alone, we live alone, and we die alone. Life plops us down in heavy seas, and we must grab control of the tiller and steer that ship. To do otherwise is both dangerous and morally wrong.

I’ve discussed that problem in this space before: I’m responsible for my actions, but I often can’t act responsibly. I admit that this is simply the human condition magnified tenfold; even so, it’s a tough row to hoe. Sartre acknowledges that it’s no simple matter to take control, but nowhere in his philosophy (that I remember) does he acknowledge that some conditions may make controlling your destiny dauntingly difficult, and at times impossible.

I was raised to believe in Sartre, and I got a heavy dose of him as an undergraduate. On some level I will always believe — and act as if — I’m the one in charge here. This is deeply unchristian, of course, but often practical. It is one way of seeing the essence of this blog’s theme, revolt and resignation (and, indeed, Jean Amery was a contemporary of Sartre’s and would have been very familiar with his work). The tricky part is, I’m not at all sure that I can control my destiny. That makes it fairly brutal to believe that I’m responsible for doing so.

Nietzsche’s take is a bit more to my taste. For Nietzche, we are born into certain circumstances and destiny smashes us around like a hockey puck, so — and this is poignant but, I think, true — we must embrace that destiny and those circumstances. We must not just embrace events, but align our will with them. So for Sartre, we ought to impose our will upon the world; for Nietzche, we choose to affirm our lot. Nietzche’s stance is not as simple and submissive as it sounds — it’s actually subtle and dynamic in the way that Nietzche’s writing always is. And though the gloomy suicide Amery would probably find it to be a ridiculous and cruel demand, it’s one way of approaching the resignation part of his equation. (And, yes, it’s mean to call a Holocaust survivor a “gloomy suicide,” but he was, in fact, an unforgiving and unhappy man. Indeed, it’s unreasonable to ask that he forgive the SS guard who tortured him. I not only would be bitter in his circumstances, but often am in mine).

So, here we have two divergent theories of how much power we can and should exercise over our lives. I find Sartre’s easier to live by, but suspect that Nietzche’s is the truer of the two. It’s interesting to note that Nietzche went mad, and died in a vegetative state. One wonders whether his philosophy served him as he made the transition from brilliant thinker to a creature that had to be fed.

In other news, I wrapped my banister with eight-way Christmas lights, and as a result feel the holiday spirit rising within me. I am lucky to be so easily amused.

I also did set a goal worth discussing here; I hope to get to it next time.

Love to all.


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