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The Bungled Animal

'The human being is, relatively speaking, the most bungled of all the animals, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts. But for all that, he is of course the most interesting.'

Self-esteem is big business. In our time, there exists a whole industry of ‘learning to love one’s self’. Thousands of books sell its promise. TV shows, through the stories they tell, implicitly encourage us to value ourselves as well as others. Advertisers persuade us that their products can make us more worthy of our own love as well as that of everybody else. And really, who would argue that high self-esteem is a bad thing?

Yet this is exactly what Western Judeo-Christian morality asserted for two millennia: human beings are inherently bad, guilty by virtue of being born, tainted by original sin, worthless and wretched unless and until they receive the grace of Christ. Indeed, only through self-abnegation and profound humility can that grace be earned.

The big Eastern religions have a similar self-denigrating ethic, but for different reasons to do with regarding the world and the individual as illusions stuck in a meaningless cycle.

This deep current of self-loathing remains a dominant force in our modern ethical consciousness. One of its most obvious manifestations is in our everyday morality, which, at its core, praises selflessness above all. Putting others first is its essential dynamic. Kindness, mercy, generosity, consideration, compassion, pity, altruism, charity – all such virtues consist of this dynamic, at bottom. We have come to believe that selflessness is not just a form of morality, but is morality itself. Of course, putting others first means putting yourself second. You are expected to actively de-prioritise yourself in order to be moral.

Perhaps this modern self-esteem movement, which has grown so much in the past century, even as the credibility of transcendental religions has waned, is our attempt to address this harmful pathology – a desperate effort to overcome the ingrained sense of our own worthlessness through positive thinking, self-affirmations and expensive therapy. But we are chipping away at the accumulated accretion of centuries of psychological oppression. A formidable task for 'man, who is only a maggot, or a man’s children, who are only worms!' (Book of Job). Little wonder that significant successes are so hard to achieve.

These days, even Christianity itself, desperate to halt its inexorably diminishing congregations, now emphasizes how valuable, unique and special each of us are to God. This idea would have been astonishing to our more pious forebears, who would only have seen in it the sin of pride.

Nietzsche’s concept of ‘self-reverence’ is different. The modern self-esteem movement seems to be mostly about self-acceptance, warts and all. It tends towards a palliative approach. Certainly, it does very little to meaningfully challenge the idea that the needs of other people always trump our own - in fact, service to others is frequently recommended as a means of increasing one’s own self-esteem.

Nietzschean self-reverence, on the other hand, is about a ‘healthy’ sense of respect and even veneration for one’s self. It recognizes only individual priority and individual sovereignty, not as a universal value, you understand, because the noble does not think of morality in universal terms - only we do that. The noble’s ‘morality’ is for the noble individual alone.

This noble individual unquestioningly puts their needs first and recognizes the highest authority for the self solely within the self. It’s not so much a ‘you know what, man, my needs are important too’; it’s more of a ‘my needs and that which is important are the same thing’, which is to say: my needs are the most important things in the world, by definition!

This sounds terribly arrogant, of course, perhaps even dangerously sociopathic, and Nietzsche was only too well aware of that. His noble can be considered pre-moral from our historical standpoint. Their morality is simple: my welfare and flourishing is good, what serves my welfare and flourishing is good, what threatens or harms my welfare and flourishing is bad. This ‘morality’ is unarguably natural, logical and pragmatic and for those reasons Nietzsche deems it healthy. Health here is defined as that which objectively promotes and preserves life and aids the unimpeded expression of the Will to Power.

It is important to recognise at this point that Nietzsche is merely pointing out the contrast between our morality and the noble morality, rather than advocating for the latter per se. What Nietzsche is not saying, and this is often misunderstood, is that we should return to this pre-modern, pre-moral state. No, we need to move on to a higher permutation, but what both he and the self-esteem movement recognize, is that self-loathing is unpleasant, unhelpful and, sadly, pervasive in modern human beings. High self-esteem, or to say it another way, self-reverence, are part of strong human flourishing and true fulfillment.

Next time we will delve more deeply into the reasons for our self-esteem issues and the techniques that allow us to cultivate healthy self-reverence.

Next post: Cultivation of Self Reverence

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