Saturday, August 02, 2008

Philosophical Being

There’s an odd contradiction in a recent book about Nietzsche. In Michael Ure’s Nietzsche’s Therapy we learn about the works of Nietzsche’s middle period. Ure contends that Nietzsche’s main interest was to create a philosophical therapy along the lines of the ancient Greeks who saw philosophy not as a detached search for knowledge but as a practice for becoming a person who lived rightly. The works of Nietzsche’s middle period are filled with acute psychological insights that presciently anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. Nietzsche is presented as a man with a path to real adult maturity. And it is a fine vision. But in reading the book I remember the biographies I’ve read of Nietzsche and remember how miserable he was in his daily life; suffering from both physical and mental torment. It’s a familiar occurrence. Thinkers who write about a vision of living yet give little indication about the actual living out of that vision. How is it accomplished? Do people who practice that vision actually embody the goal? What happens when they try it? Does it work?

Psychoanalysis certainly has a well described practice of change, but the results of that practice are highly variable. If we think of philosophy in the ancient way – as a practice of the self – then we should be interested in the nuts and bolts of making ourselves into the kind of person that our philosophy describes. I’ve found it very difficult to become the kind of person I envision and have employed, over the last 20 years, a variety of powerful practices of self-development. What we should want to know is: what happens in given cases when particular practices and philosophies are used day-to-day to effect self-change? But generally people are content to remain on the level of theory, describing interesting and attractive visions of the good life. This is where a philosophical autobiography would be useful; but not a person’s story of how their thinking changed over time, but a story of how their being changed over time.