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Nietzschean Self-Mastery, Part 2

In our last post we examined the controversial concept of the Will to Power, the genealogical understanding of the self and Nietzsche’s theory of the human drives. In this post, we look at how the drives are corralled and coordinated to bring us success in self-mastery.

A multitude of Nietzschean drives


It is important to be able to recognise our drives and work with them if we are to make positive changes. Your observations of the activity of your drives should be recorded in your journal. Which drives are dominant? Which cause you the most trouble?

It is not possible to observe and catalogue all your drives comprehensively. Nietzsche wrote ‘we are unknown to ourselves, we knowers’ - acknowledging that we can only ever get a superficial understanding of ourselves. Some of our drives are ancient and some are ephemeral. Some are all too obvious and others have a subterranean existence well below the level of our consciousness. Though our understanding of ourselves will be necessarily partial, it is still crucial to familiarise ourselves with our community of drives as well as we can

Nietzsche’s next step involves coordinating one’s drives in order to achieve self-mastery – imposing some order upon them. To do this, you must find your own great project - an ‘organizing idea’ as he calls it, and this will determine the plan to which all your drives will be made subservient – like wild horses teamed and bridled to a chariot, heading in a unified direction together, rather than running wild every which way.

In Ecce Homo, he writes:

‘The organizing idea that is destined to rule keeps growing deep down - it begins to command, slowly it leads us back from side roads and wrong roads; it prepares single qualities and fitnesses that will one day prove to be indispensable as a means toward a whole - one by one, it trains all subservient capacities before giving any hint of the dominant task, goal, aim or meaning.’

Your organising idea might be writing a novel, or running a marathon under 3 hours, or becoming an exceptional craftsperson, or founding a successful business. If you haven’t yet discovered your organising idea, you should still prepare for its emergence by training your drives to work in harmony. This will help the organising idea to coalesce. But if you need help, Nietzsche has advice:

‘Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it? Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true self.’

Once you have an awareness of your complex of drives and you have discovered your organizing idea, it’s time to make a plan and take action. Of course, just knowing what we want to do is generally not enough to enable us to make positive changes. We need effective techniques to help us.

To take a prosaic example: wanting to drop ten-pounds from your body weight means you have a drive on your hands. The question is what can we do to strengthen and empower this drive so it is more likely to be successful? It’s going to have some pretty tough competition - the drive to stuff ourselves with sugary and fatty foods is a very ancient and powerful instinct. Formed in our primitive past when fat and sugar were rare boons and so were to be gorged upon to excess when encountered.

If we are to combat this primal compulsion, we must do every thing we can to empower the positive drive (to lose weight) and weaken this negative drive (to eat junk).

We are out of space, but in the third and final part of this article, coming soon, we will look at actual practical techniques that clinical trials have demonstrated give us the best possible chance of eliminating old and unhelpful behaviours and of cultivating new, high-performing habits.

Next post: The Nietzschean Formula for Self-Mastery, Part 3

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