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Basic Instincts


Once all the religious ideas of the past are dispensed with - ideas such as god, heaven and hell, the immortal soul, sin, the wheel of karma, reincarnation and so forth – we are left with the bare fact of the human being as no more than an animal.

Nietzsche Sharon Stone Basic Instinct

As far as we can know, however, this animal differs from other animals in a key respect – its uniquely rational conscious mind. A mind equipped to reason, yes, but also a mind full of contradictions, doubts, insecurities, yearning for meaning and an inescapable knowledge of its own mortality. Other animals appear to act on plain instinct for the most part, with little deliberation. People, on the other hand, agonise over decisions, their status, their worth as individuals – even their very reason for being. Why is this?

In our last two posts we have been learning how to feel great about yourself, which is the second step in our exploration of how to not give a sh*t about what people think of you. So far we have covered continence and self-reverence. This time we will look at getting in touch with your instincts.

You will remember that we identified four main reasons why you might feel sh*t about yourself. One of them was that deep inside you are a wild animal, forcibly tamed, and unable to express its natural urges. This, Nietzsche believed, was the price that had to be paid for civilisation – a theme later taken up by Sigmund Freud and explicated in his book Civilisation and its Discontents. Against its will, the wild animal was domesticated to ensure the smooth and orderly functioning of the societal machine.

Though it can be argued that civilisation brought manifold benefits to humanity, it also created a profound problem: misery. The curbing of our instincts created a kind of psychological constipation. Where now could these tamed animals vent and discharge their inescapable animal instincts? For Nietzsche, humanity became more wretched as a result of this process:

‘Man is the most bungled of all the animals, the sickliest, and not one has strayed more dangerously from its instincts.’ The Antichrist

He argues that the natural, even healthy, state of such an animal is to seek domination – including over other humans. In his words, to manifest its Will to Power! This is its prime instinct.

In the exercise of this most fundamental drive, the primitive human being would brook no restraint. Terrible violence, oppression and exploitation of the weaker, plundering and rape were unreflective and remorseless expressions of its animal nature.

Whatever our misgivings with regard to such shocking exploits, these instincts had evolved over millions of years, resulting in behaviour optimised for survival and flourishing. We need to recognise that the civilisation we are accustomed to these days has been the norm for only a handful of millennia. As Nietzsche says:

‘Everything essential in the development of mankind took place in primeval times, long before the 4,000 years we more or less know about.’ Human, All To Human

Our most ancient and terrible primal instincts have not been entirely purged in the process of socialisation - they have only been buried, pushed down and removed from sight. They still dwell within and make themselves felt.

In the absence of opportunities to discharge this powerful urge externally, human beings were left to turn their savage instincts against themselves. Many religions even promoted this self-mortification. This historical switch-around is the fountainhead of all our guilt, self-loathing, psychological neuroses, religious asceticism and our morality, which is premised completely on self-sacrifice.

Nietzsche sees even altruism itself as just another technique for diminishing the self by placing the needs of others above our own. Our lust, our desire to hurt those who wrong us, our envy – all natural expressions of our animal instincts – these are now reviled as shameful.

And yet, for Nietzsche, instincts are superior to reason. They regulate our responses to stimuli more effectively and more efficiently. They are genuine and authentic in a way that the conscious mind can never be. It is with a fumbling deliberation that we make our way in the world using reason.

‘Genius resides in instinct; goodness likewise. One acts perfectly when one acts instinctively.’ Will to Power

But there can be no going back to our wild state, even if that were desirable (which it clearly isn’t). Instead we must move upwards to a new state that transcends both animal instinct and reason. To a state where human beings create their own instincts.

‘I too speak of a 'return to nature' although it is not really a going-back but a going-up - up into a high, free, even frightful nature and naturalness.’ Twilight of the Idols

But in the meantime, what can we do to unblock the psychological constipation that this domesticated state has inflicted on our wild selves? These instincts are potentially a great store of energy to be tapped into. How can we exercise these latent instincts in productive ways?

In a word: Sublimation.

Next post: Putting the Beast to Work

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