The Nietzschean Formula for Self-Mastery
‘What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases - that a resistance is overcome.’ The Antichrist
Statements like this have caused readers’ monocles to fall into their martinis for nearly a century and a half and given Friedrich Nietzsche's name a dangerous and transgressive air. At first glance, it appears the mustachioed German firebrand applauded behaviour characteristic of the brute, the bully and the out-and-out sociopath. However, this infamous passage should be read as more of an observation than a commendation. That said, it cannot be denied that there are some sobering implications to the Nietzschean idea of the all-prevailing Will to Power.
Nietzsche postulated the Will to Power as the fundamental drive within all living things. It is the impulse to grow, expand, seize control of one’s environment, overthrow opposition and dominate - megalomaniacal laughter optional.
But it only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that the greatest power one can possess is not power over other people or power over one’s environment – it is power over one’s self. This is, in fact, the foundation of all other forms of real power. This is to be master of one’s self.
How is this self-mastery achieved?
WHERE YOU’RE AT
Firstly, it helps to know where you are right now, what resources you have at your disposal; what handicaps you will have to compensate for.
In his 1887 masterpiece, The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche traces the history of western values and elucidates a new and radical understanding of their development. For him, in order to understand ourselves at all, we need to grasp the factors and forces in play during the long period of our development.
Similarly, as individuals, we need to understand how we became the people that we are. The past contains clues to our future possibilities. None of us can completely transcend the influence of our upbringing, our culture, our ethnicity, our collective history and the bare facts of our environment. Even our physiology plays a part. Whether you are short or bald or disabled or beautiful, your physical body will profoundly affect your orientation to, and interaction with, the world.
Keeping a journal or diary for the purpose of analysing one’s own self is called autoethnography. This practice can help us understand ourselves more fully and foster greater self-awareness. We can then make better-informed choices about our goals with an accurate grasp of where our strengths, weaknesses, prejudices and preferences lie. There is much that can be altered about ourselves. For Nietzsche, a person is more like a process of constant dynamic change than a static object. We are not so much human beings as human becomings.
After conducting our assessment, the journal provides a private space to write up our objectives, record our experiments, our successes and our (inevitable) failures. Nietzsche describes man as 'the great experimenter with himself’. There will be lots of trials and very many errors on the path to self-mastery.
DRIVES THAT DRIVE YOU CRAZY
Nietzsche has a unique take on the nature of the individual which has significant implications for our attempts to change our behaviour and fulfill our potential. He questions the very unity of the individual – something we generally take for granted. Instead, he suggests that each of us is a multiplicity of competing drives.
To illustrate: you may have a drive to smoke a cigarette – a nicotine addiction – but also another competing drive to quit smoking because you worry about lung cancer. These two drives will wrestle with each other in your psyche and whether you have a cigarette or not will depend on which drive prevails on this particular occasion.
So, according to this theory, each of us is composed of a multitude of such drives and these jostle for supremacy because, ultimately, at the foundation of them all is the Will to Power. They are all manifestations of this Will to Power. They all want to dominate, but some are stronger than others – and, crucially, any of them can be made stronger if we choose.
This drive-multiplicity helps explain why we are so inconsistent in our behaviours - to the point that our lives can sometimes feel out of control. It explains why we often feel ‘in two minds’ about things and why we frequently fail to deliver on our commitments despite our best intentions. One drive says ‘let’s hit the gym’ and another says ‘I’m happier sitting right here on this couch munching potato chips, thanks.’
In part 2 of this article, we will take a look at these drives a little more and explore ways of getting them to work together towards the realisation of our most exceptional abilities – our ‘self-actualization’, as Carl Jung called it.
In the meantime, tell us in the comments section below how you experience this multiplicity of drives vying for domination. Do you feel divided and conflicted much of the time or do you experience your self as a much more integrated whole?
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