Nietzschean Self Love

One of my undergraduate students asked me how is it was possible for me, a Christian, to call Nietzsche, an atheist, my favorite philosopher. Like most good questions it stopped me in my tracks. My admiration for Nietzsche runs so deep and is so complex that it sometimes resists precise articulation. I suppose this is the case for all of our deep loves, whether the objects of such affection are things or persons.

I thought about the student’s question the entire day, and wound up going back to my favorite of Nietzsche’s works, The Gay Science. The following passage gave me pause (as much of Nietzche tends to do):

One thing is needful.— To “give style” to one’s character—a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added, there a piece of original nature has been removed:—both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed, there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views:—it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small: whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose,—if only it was a single taste!— It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy their finest gaiety in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own; the passion of their tremendous will relents in the face of all stylized nature, of all conquered and serving nature; even when they have to build palaces and design gardens they demur at giving nature freedom.— Conversely, it is the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style: they feel that if this bitter and evil constraint were imposed upon them they would be demeaned:— they become slaves as soon as they serve; they hate to serve. Such spirits—and they may be of the first rank—are always out to shape and interpret their environment as free nature—wild, arbitrary, fantastic, disorderly, and surprising. And they are well advised because it is only in this way that they can give pleasure to themselves! For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself—whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art: only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold! Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge: and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy.

I imagine that Nietzche use of the phrase “one thing is needful” might allude to Luke 10:42. But whether or not that’s the case, it does put an interesting spin on self-love, something that arguably is at the heart of the Gospel. This is different than self-absorbtion, which I think actually comes about through discomfort with and loathing of the self.

For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself—whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art: only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold! Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge: and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight.

During a particularly dark and depressed period of life a friend called everyday and left the same voicmail: “Remember, you’re a project worth working on…”. To see ourselves as a project with eternal significance, this may be the one needful thing. Now whether or not we have the resources within ourselves to attain this goal is another matter. The friend always concluded the same voicemail with an exhortative reminder: “Greater is he that is within you than he that is within the world.” Nietzsche sees the one who is unable to become bridled as the one who will never be able to attain true self-love. Nietzsche diagnoses the problem with acute precision. The question is whether he has the commensurate cure. Perhaps what is necessary is a law or yoke, but not our own, but one far easier and lighter (Mt 11:28-30)…