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Maslow’s Ziggurat


New Year approaches and with the advent of 2018 we welcome the prospect of a clean slate; an opportunity for personal renewal. Hell, just one more chance, dammit!

Don’t worry if you’ve been feeling bad about yourself in 2017. It’s normal, healthy – perhaps even necessary. Without the dissatisfaction that you currently feel, where would you get the impetus to change? To become a better version of you?

Nietzsche would tell you that this yearning for self-overcoming is the nagging command of the Will to Power – a desire to overcome resistance and discharge strength. In the context of this discussion, one useful way of describing the Will to Power that Nietzsche himself uses is that it is the will to growth.

For those of you out there who feel perfectly fine the way you are right now, and have no interest in further growth, what is wrong with you people?!

But for us mere mortals who are hatching plans for the 1st January, I ask: have you properly considered your goals, your desires, your needs, in a structured and systematic way? We all have a great deal in common in terms of these broad needs, even if we differ in the specifics. A model exists.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow created his famous hierarchy of human needs in 1943. This provides a stratified analysis of the things we all require, firstly to just survive and then to thrive and flourish.

As can be seen in the schematic, we have our essential survival needs right at the bottom and the more subtle, psychological and refined needs at the apex. The theory goes that the lower tiers must be in place before the tiers of the next level can be addressed, so you are not going to be too worried about sense of self-esteem if you are dying of starvation.

This is a general rule and Maslow acknowledged there are exceptions, for example, political hunger strikers or religious ascetics. These exceptional cases can be explained by Nietzsche's theory of Will to Power. This theory exposed a difficulty in Schopenhauer’s previous Will to Life theory that Nietzsche attempted to address.

The Will to Life theory was put forward in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818) and was a major influence on Nietzsche as a young man. At its most basic, the idea is that life struggles to survive at all costs.

Nietzsche thought this idea failed to fully penetrate to the real, essential, universal drive, perhaps inherent in all existence but manifested most vividly in nature. Yes, life strives to survive, but this is only incidental to its real purpose, which is to manifest power.

Let's examine how Nietzsche’s ambitions for humanity, informed by his Will to Power idea, fit with Maslow’s model. Certainly, Nietzsche doesn’t dwell on the lower tier subsistence needs. He actively discourages any coddling of one's self. In Beyond Good and Evil he writes:

‘The noble human being honours in himself the man of power, also the man who has power over himself … who enjoys practising severity and harshness upon himself and feels reverence for all that is severe and harsh’.

So his prescription would be for the bare minimum of those physiological needs right at the bottom - enough to maintain homeostasis - keeping body and soul together (although he doesn't believe in souls – let’s discuss that elsewhere).

Turning to the second tier, he actively eschews safety needs as well, considering these symptomatic of the decadence of 'the last man'. He admonishes those who would seek comfort and safety instead of danger and opportunities for victory. Famously, in The Gay Science he writes:

'The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.'

‘Belongingness’, on the third tier, is also complicated for Nietzsche. Belonging to any kind of group - to something greater than one’s self - usually involves compromises and personal autonomy is hugely important in his philosophy. Nietzsche does believe that community is important for cultural reasons, but more so for the ‘lower’ type of human: the ‘herd’, as he would say.

The higher man (and ultimately the Übermensch) needs to forge their own path and so separating one's self from the herd is a necessary prerequisite. Solitude is essential to cultivate independence of mind, but it might be said that the need for belonging for the higher type is about belonging to a scheme or a plan greater than one’s self; perhaps one that will not even be completed during their lifetime. In Human, all too Human, Nietzsche laments that such a grand vision is rare:

‘The individual looks his own short life span too squarely in the eye and feels no strong incentives to build on enduring institutions, designed for the ages. He wants to pick the fruit from the tree he has planted himself, and therefore no longer likes to plant those trees which require regular care over centuries, trees that are destined to overshade long successions of generations.’

The higher type belongs to their work.

Despite the importance of solitude, Nietzsche does value friendship, but intense friendships and few of them, carefully chosen. For him, friends elevate each other, providing challenge and competition. It is for this reason that he claims that one's greatest friend is one's greatest enemy. From Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

'In one's friend one shall have one's best enemy. You should be closest to him in your heart when you strive against him.'

The top two tiers of the Maslow model are very much in Nietzsche's ambit. His Will to Power makes itself strongly felt in the ‘Self-Esteem’ tier and finally it is comprehensive ‘Self-Actualisation’ at the top that obsesses him - perhaps even a non-metaphysical, quasi-religious transcendence of the self.

Maslow later revised and expanded his hierarchy to include an additional tier at the apex specifically encompassing such Transcendence Needs - experiences of oneness, timelessness, universal interconnectivity, mystical experience and the obsessions of genius.

He also specified ‘helping others to self actualise’. For Nietzsche’s ideal human being, this helping of others comes indirectly in a more abstract sense through the enriched culture that the highest humans create and the Darwinian progress for the species that they consciously facilitate.

Maslow also interposed two more tiers in his new model above the self-esteem tier: Cognitive Needs and Aesthetic Needs. The former concerning a rich, intellectual life and the latter, appreciation of beauty - for example, in nature or art.

Needless to say, with Nietzsche's philosophy and his love of art and music, this makes the expanded hierarchy much more aligned with his great project. That project being an all-consuming struggle, not so much to achieve greatness, as to undertake an exploration to find out whether there is any greatness in one.

This is the Nietzschian adventure anyone can embark upon. Perhaps even commencing on January 1st. Maslow’s model might be of use in reflecting on what life changes you want to make for the coming year.

Good luck.

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