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Body First

‘The body, gestures, diet, physiology, everything else follows from this.’ Twilight of the Idols

Nietzsche’s unique concept of Great Health is expounded in The Gay Science and elsewhere. Though this Great Health may appear to be, primarily, a psychological state, an orientation to the world, it is firmly founded on the health and fitness of the physical body. Nietzsche argued that two thousand years of Christianity had taught us to despise the body and that this had been ‘the greatest disaster for humanity so far.’

Bodily health is of course an essential prerequisite to psychological health - the two cannot be untangled. Consider that people with long-term chronic illnesses are prone to mental health issues, and people with mental health issues are prone to developing long-term chronic illnesses.

This should be no surprise. If you find out you have developed type 2 diabetes and your life must now be carefully managed to prevent the risks of blindness or foot amputation, depression and anxiety are understandable responses.

Similarly, if you have a debilitating mental heath condition, adhering to a healthy lifestyle is going to be difficult and it is true that sufferers do often attempt to ameliorate their misery with tobacco, alcohol, drugs or food. As an illustration, rates of smoking among those with a diagnosed mental health condition are twice that of the general population.

For Nietzsche then, the body is not to be disregarded. Further, unlike all the most prominent philosophers who preceded him, Nietzsche refuses to esteem reason above the body and its natural instincts. For him, mental life is unequivocally secondary to physiology - our entire psychology follows from our physical circumstances, not just our physical health but also our physical form, our physical functionality, and even our physical appearance.

We tend to think of our minds as having primacy over our bodies. We feel the mind, the ego, the ‘I’, is first, and the body is something that belongs to the mind. But if you think about it, things appear to be exactly the other way around. The body has primacy, and the mind is just an aspect of the body. If you reject the Christian doctrine of incarnating souls, it is the body that is formed in the womb well before any substantial mind is present. A newborn baby seems to have little in the way of mind, the cognitive faculties still being in the formative stage. Then, when we die, the body remains even though the mind is gone. The body is first and last.

There is even good scientific evidence that the body controls the mind more than the mind controls the body, with physical impulses towards a particular action being detectable before the subject has made up their mind to act. This casts the whole notion of free will in to doubt, and indeed, Nietzsche was sceptical about free will.

In The Gay Science he writes that all philosophy and metaphysics are actually shaped by ‘the unconscious disguise of physiological needs’. Displaying his famous, withering wit, he even went so far as to suggest that whole philosophical systems were merely the results of stomach upsets in their creators.

Likewise, he claimed physical ugliness was the concealed cause of some world-views, and he believed that the presence of ugliness could discredit such world-views in their entirety.

‘In origin, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was plebs. We know, we can still see for ourselves, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection - is among the Greeks almost a refutation.’ Twilight of the Idols

For Nietzsche, the ancient Greeks had the right idea about bodies. They naturally admired the fit, healthy, strong and beautiful body without shame, reservation or qualification. When this was married with their equally healthy interest in competition, the result was the Olympic Games - a festival of physical strength and prowess in which, originally, all the athletes competed naked.

The genius of the Games was that they served as an effective and healthy sublimation of the natural impulse to war - ‘agon’. A place where the desire to dominate, the Will to Power, could be discharged safely.

Though Nietzsche was no Olympian, he did take his own health and fitness seriously. To try and fortify his body, he experimented with every kind of regimen. He walked from six to eight hours a day for most of his adult life and went through phases of taking early morning ice-cold baths, even in the midst of winter.

After he retired from his professorship in Basel in 1879, he used the frugal pension the university granted him to become an itinerant, migrating from the mountains in summer to the coast in winter chasing the middling temperature that he felt best promoted his wellbeing.

He also experimented with all kinds of diets too and digestion is a frequent metaphor in Nietzsche’s philosophy of morality, psychology, knowledge and culture. Where he detects ‘pathologies’ in our culture he often describes them as ‘dyspepsia’:

‘My brothers, the spirit is a stomach!’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Despite the importance Nietzsche placed on gustatory matters, his dietary regimens don’t look too impressive to the modern reader. There’s a distinct lack of fruit and vegetables most of the time and this reflects the poor state of nutritional science in the late 1800s. Perhaps the assumption was that energy-dense foods such as meat, eggs and bread would be the most beneficial for the convalescent.

As primitive and unsuccessful as Nietzsche’s health regimens seem to us, the fact remains that he was obsessed with his own health and saw physiology as intimately related to mental health, the psychology of the individual and even their values and philosophical sympathies.

So, for any kind of holistic personal development, it makes sense to start with your body. Your body is your most precious instrument, your chariot, your sole permanent possession - the only object you will always possess. Yet even this is to misrepresent the status of your body, because your body isn’t some separate object. It isn’t a vehicle in which you pilot your way through the world and it is no ‘object’ to be distinguished from the ‘subject’ that is you. No, your body is you entirely. For Nietzsche there is no separate soul or mind inhabiting the body, like an astronaut in a space suit.

In the next couple of posts, we will explore how one optimises the body as the first and most foundational requirement of comprehensive self-actualisation.

‘But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else’. This Spoke Zarathustra

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