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Michael Ure, Nietzsche’s Therapy: Self-Cultivation in the Middle Works

Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008. Pages: xiv + 269pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7391-1996-9. $80 (cloth).

Reviewed by Scott Jenkins

Nietzsche’s middle works certainly have not received the attention they deserve. Too often they are written off as a mistaken turn to positivism or treated only as imperfect formulations of the provocative views in ethics, metaphysics, and moral psychology that we find in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. Michael Ure’s Nietzsche’s Therapy aims to remedy this situation. He argues that in Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, and the first edition of The Gay Science we find a distinctively “moderate” Nietzsche who advocates and practices the art of self-cultivation through providing his reader with a range of penetrating psychological analyses. This Nietzsche, on Ure’s reading, has deep affinities with the Stoics, and with Freud. Accordingly, the stated aim of the book as a whole is to illuminate “the nature and purpose of Nietzsche’s conception of self-cultivation by showing its conceptual and ethical affinities to Stoicism and its invention of the conceptual territory now occupied by psychoanalysis” (NT 13). Ure’s reading of the middle writings succeeds in directing our attention to this moderate Nietzsche, whose accounts of self-evasion, vanity, and the multiple roles of humor in a human life mark him as a psychologist of the first rank. But this book comes up short in other ways. The notion of self-cultivation that Ure sees in Nietzsche is not as clear as it might be. More importantly, instead of describing how Nietzsche’s work anticipates central notions in Freud, Ure tends to read Nietzsche through Freud, sometimes obscuring what is distinctive in Nietzsche through his extensive employment of Freudian terminology. Similar problems arise in Ure’s discussions of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Stoicism.

Chapter 1 is largely an examination of Alexander Nehamas’s account of Nietzsche as an advocate of philosophy as the art of living. Ure criticizes Nehamas on a number of points, two of which are particularly worth discussing here. First, he argues that Nehamas overestimates the importance of literature for the sort of self-cultivation that Nietzsche means to recommend to us. In opposition to Nehamas’s claim that the art of living is practiced primarily in writing, Ure maintains that for Nietzsche a philosopher succeeds in cultivating and creating himself only if he actually lives in a particular manner. In support of this claim Ure appeals almost exclusively to Nietzsche’s third Untimely Meditation, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” where Nietzsche clearly does recommend Schopenhauer as a model of a philosophical life largely on the basis of how he lived. But this appeal to “Schopenhauer as Educator” weakens Ure’s case, both because the essay lies outside Nietzsche’s middle works (as Ure divides Nietzsche’s writings) and because the portrait of Schopenhauer we find there arises from Nietzsche’s engagement with his writings. Ure also maintains that Nehamas’s attribution to Nietzsche of an aestheticist model of self-cultivation, which takes the unity and originality of literary figures as its ideal, is an imposition of modernism of the sort Nietzsche opposes. But passages from the middle works seem to support this aestheticist approach. Consider, for example, Nietzsche’s well-known praise of those who “give style” to their character through surveying their strengths and weaknesses and fitting them into “an artistic plan” (GS 290). Here it seems uncontroversial that Nietzsche takes art as a model for life.

A second point of criticism partially remedies this weakness in the case against Nehamas. Ure notes that the sort of self-cultivation that Nehamas attributes to Nietzsche seems to require that we possess a great degree of control over our lives, which is at odds with Nietzsche’s emphasis on the influence of mere chance (GS 277). Indeed, Ure notes that in some contexts Nietzsche aims to explain our belief in the complete freedom of the will through appeal to human pride and the feeling of power (D 128; NT 46). This suggests to Ure that possessing the ideal of being one’s own author is actually a symptom of a psychological state that Nietzsche aims to diagnose and treat. Here the case against Nehamas is much more convincing, though more would need to be said about Nietzsche’s views on freedom, self-control, and fatalism for it to be airtight. In a later chapter Ure does provide an engaging account of Nietzsche’s use of humor in describing our overestimation of our powers (NT 170-1), but Nietzsche’s reasons for taking traditional views on freedom to be an overestimation do not receive much attention.

Chapter 2 begins Ure’s positive account of Nietzsche’s notion of self-cultivation. Here Ure argues that Nietzsche’s model of self-cultivation is deeply indebted to Hellenistic and Roman Stoicism. Rather frustratingly, Ure rarely discusses the Stoics themselves, but rather Foucault’s commentary on the Stoics in his late ethical writings and lectures. Ure takes this approach in part because he believes that Foucault’s account of Greek and Roman practices of self-cultivation “clears several obstacles that stand in the path of comprehending Nietzsche’s own concern with these practices” (NT 58), among them our Christian tendency to regard the care of the self as an immoral practice. Strangely, though, Ure does not tie Foucault’s analysis to Nietzsche’s own concerns with morality. He appears to assume, in addition, that once we subtract from Foucault’s notion of the care of the self all influence of Baudelaire’s modernism, we have before us the ancient Stoicism that interested Nietzsche. This is certainly a bold assumption. The chapter does contain some useful remarks on Nietzsche’s use of medical metaphors in his articulation of philosophy as the art of living. The fact that these remarks are not anchored in an analysis of the original texts does limit their value, however. Shorter discussions of Seneca and Epictetus scattered throughout later chapters do a much better job of connecting Nietzsche’s notion of self-cultivation to the Stoics.

Chapters 3 and 4 begin Ure’s account of Nietzsche’s middle works as anticipating Freud in their description of the kind of therapy or ‘healing-art’ [Heilkunst] needed for work on the self. Ure argues that we ought to understand Nietzsche’s turn away from the central themes of The Birth of Tragedy as a matter of his coming to understand both tragic despair and the ecstasy occasioned by music as unhealthy manifestations of narcissism. I have two worries about Ure’s approach. First, by approaching all of Nietzsche’s diagnoses through the notion of narcissism, Ure forgoes any attempt to provide a positive account of Nietzsche’s understanding of health in the middle works. But there are hints of Nietzsche’s later understanding of life as will to power, power as arising out of the integration of drives and perspectives, and a “great health” possible for some (GS 382). In the 1886 preface to HH, Nietzsche aims to draw our attention to just these features of that work (HH P:6). Thus for all it reveals about Nietzsche, Ure’s use of Freud also obscures at least part of his understanding of psychic health.

Ure is also too eager, at times, to fit particular remarks of Nietzsche’s into a Freudian framework. In an extended discussion of the final sections of the first part of HH, for example, he intends to show that Nietzsche aims to conceive “another way of treating the pathos engendered by the destruction of the narcissistic dream that human losses could ever be fully compensated or that human beings might one day return to an (imagined) state of tranquil plenitude...” (NT 126). That treatment, he argues through appeal to HH 34, will be a self-cultivation that produces a certain sort of temperament. I have some doubts about this second point. While Nietzsche does state in HH 34 that a person’s temperament determines his reaction to unsettling facts, nowhere in that discussion does Nietzsche claim that our temperaments are malleable. It could be that Nietzsche takes these dispositions to be fixed. But this is just a minor quibble in relation to my misgivings concerning Ure’s account of HH 33 as diagnosing a “narcissistic dream” that gives rise to a particular sort of pathos. He reads Nietzsche as providing an account of “egotists who value life only by contracting into themselves and reducing others to spectres whose fate they barely notice or feel” (NT 125). Such people do this, on Ure’s reading, because they “experience any threat to their self-enclosure as a profound threat to their ontological security” and thus “blunt [their] imaginative sensitivity” to what lies outside their private concerns (NT 125). But when we turn to HH 33, the picture seems to be just the opposite of what Ure describes. The passage bears the title “Error regarding life necessary to life,” and it aims to show that the over-estimation of one’s own evaluative perspective is essential to all living beings. Nietzsche illustrates the necessity of this error by describing a hypothetical expansion of one’s point of view to include all other points of view, the result of which would be, he argues, an overwhelming despair. Thus Nietzsche does not hold that we contract into ourselves and blunt our imaginative capacities in order to deal with unpleasant realizations that result from our engagement with others. He actually maintains that a contracted, parochial perspective is our natural state—the only one possible for us as living beings. Thus Nietzsche simply is not describing a narcissistic dream characteristic of one form of egotism, and his discussion of temperament should not be read as way of treating this state.

This is not to say that there are no points of contact between Nietzsche’s remarks in this part of HH and a Freudian notion of narcissism. We might see in Nietzsche’s account of an ineliminable “injustice” of all living things (HH 32)—an inability to avoid privileging the estimations of value rooted in one’s own drives—a precursor to Freud’s claim that primary narcissism is omnipresent and ineliminable (though Ure later states that Nietzsche disagrees with Freud on this point (NT 225)). More generally, Nietzsche’s Therapy does succeed in demonstrating some affinities between Nietzsche and Freud, especially in connection with Freud’s notion of projection. But the book is at its best when it begins with a close reading of Nietzsche. For example, Ure offers a wonderfully insightful and nuanced reading of the end of HH, focusing on Nietzsche’s discussion of his own heartfelt appreciation of Plato’s idealism in the passage “Seriousness in play” (HH 628). There Nietzsche describes an occasion of hearing the “childlike,” “melancholy” sound of bells resounding at twilight in Genoa and recalling Plato’s judgment in Book X of The Republic that nothing human is worth taking seriously. Ure sees in this passage Nietzsche’s appreciation of his own “wish for self-resounding” and its connection with Plato’s metaphysics (NT 139). He correctly notes that Nietzsche does not simply repudiate this wish, but instead aims to focus himself on the “pain of loss and temporality” that underlies it (NT 141). We can see here, I think, an essential feature of Nietzsche’s model of self-cultivation. Especially in the middle works, Nietzsche aims to take what he terms the “retrograde step” of grasping the historical and psychological grounds of the philosophical doctrines we ought to leave behind, thus providing ourselves with the raw material of our work on ourselves (HH 20). Ure’s discussion of this point in connection with HH 628 brings together Freud’s discussion of childhood and Plato’s opposition to tragedy, skillfully bringing to light Nietzsche’s own activity of self-observation and self-cultivation.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 deal with the topics of humor, pity, and friendship, respectively. There is much of value here, especially Ure’s discussion of solitude as the basis for healthy relations to others. In contrast to those who see solipsism in Nietzsche’s critique of pity [Mitleid] and praise of solitude, Ure argues that Nietzsche opposes the ethics of pity found in Schopenhauer and Rousseau precisely because it serves to obscure both the object and the subject of pity. Pity is not a pure regard for others, on this view, but a motivated flight from oneself (NT ch. 6). Ure then asserts that Nietzsche sees solitude as the means for resisting this aspect of the morality of custom (NT 210-11). Like Epictetus, he argues, Nietzsche believes that solitude makes possible an engagement with oneself—in this case, a process that eliminates the bitter affects that flourish in social interaction. Here Ure’s account of Nietzsche as a modern Stoic is especially successful. It also furnishes him with the materials for understanding Nietzsche’s notion of being joyful with others [Mitfreude] as a rare but valuable state that could serve as the basis for higher forms of social interaction and friendship (NT 223, 226). The philosopher who arises from this analysis is not the antisocial loner who appears in many popular depictions of Nietzsche, but instead a man who wishes to live in a more humane culture.

While Nietzsche’s Therapy succeeds bringing to life the moderate psychologist of the middle writings, it does have its flaws. The extensive accounts of Freud, later psychoanalysis, Foucault, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, and Nehamas serve at times to crowd out Nietzsche himself. The book also has surprisingly little to say about other work on Nietzsche that either focuses on the middle writings (such as Ruth Abbey’s Nietzsche’s Middle Period and Kathleen Higgins’s Comic Relief) or treats those writings as a distinctive and valuable part of Nietzsche’s thought (in this category Julian Young’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art comes especially to mind). Thus Nietzsche’s Therapy could have done much more to establish its subject matter as a valuable subfield of Nietzsche studies. On the other hand, this book will certainly be useful to anyone interested in Nietzsche’s middle works—especially those well-versed in Freud and his successors.

University of Kansas