Philosophical problems as existential problems: the difficulty of Nietzsche’s internal conversations

I’m currently rereading Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a cheery accompaniment to the early signs of civilisational collapse. The translator R.J. Hollingdale captures something important about what has always drawn me to Nietzsche when he writes that “unlike most people, even most philosophers, Nietzsche lived with his intellectual problems as with realities, he experienced a similar emotional commitment to them as other men experience to their wife and children”. As the philosopher put it himself, “I have at all times written my writing with my whole heart and soul: I do not know what purely intellectual problems are“.  This captures something of the frustration I felt in my four years of studying philosophy, as what I studied failed to resonate with the personal and political concerns which had led me to study it in the first place. In this sense there’s a familiar, even cliched, critique of academic philosophy inherent in Nietzsche’s corpus, even if I suspect he would see a philosophy which sought to speak to existential problems (i.e. in a therapeutic mode) as an equal but opposing problem.

However it becomes more interesting if we see Nietzsche’s disposition as a outlier in terms of an existential orientation which would become more common with time. One of the defining motifs of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the struggle of the hermit to be understood, the unsustainability of retreat but the painful inevitably of being misunderstood when one comes down from the mountain. In fact this is described at points in terms of the inner life of the subject in a way which resonates with sociological accounts of the internal conversation. From ‘Of the Friend’ (pg 82):

I and Me are always too earnestly in conversation with one another: how could it be endured, if there were not a friend?

For the hermit the friend is always the third person: the third person is the cork that prevents the conversation of the other two from sinking to the depths.

We need other people to break us out of the endless rumination if we, like Nietzsche, find ourselves prone to it. But those people are prone to “think about you a great deal with the their narrow souls” such that “you are always suspicious to them” (pg 80). As Zarathustra later observes, for the herd “It is a crime to go apart and be alone” (pg 88). This makes it difficult to find others to include in the dialogue of our soul with itself, as Plato put it, while this dialogue becomes too heavy to endure without an interlocutor. For these reasons I find it hard not to read Nietzsche as simply seeking someone to talk to, with the experiments in form across his more self-interrogative books reflecting a changing engagement with the inherent challenge of casting an imagined reader in the role of interlocutor.  How could he do anything other than write with his “whole heart and soul” when this is the case? Nonetheless a profound pessimism runs through his attempts to be understood. From ‘Of reading and Writing’ (pg 67):

He who writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read, he wants to be learned by heart.

In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks, and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature”.

If we experience ourselves as deeply alone, searching for interlocutors while surrounded by those obviously unable to fill this role, it is understandable this search might become a test. Our expressions become gnomic and challenging in order to find an audience with those few people with whom they might resonate, with even fewer having the courage and energy to respond in kind. But what if we are no longer so alone? What if the condition we experience as isolating is shared by many others? In an important sense I think this is true for the simple reason that, as Margaret Archer puts it, reflexivity has become imperative. The pool of potential interlocutors markedly broadens with the decline of social integration and social regulation because it’s increasingly difficult to sustain one’s narrowness. In fact this almost becomes a reflexive pursuit in itself, as we flee from existential hermitude into the comforting bromides of group, nation or conspiracy.

It leaves me wondering if Nietzsche would cling to his aphorisms under these conditions, doubling down on the high bar he sets for his potential interlocutors. Or would he recognise the shift in existential circumstances, one marked by and contributed to (on a cultural level) by his own writing? How would Nietzsche write if he were alive today? Would he feel as isolated as he once did? It would be a mistake to ignore the therapeutic and medicalising dimensions of contemporary individualism, so too its origins in capital accumulation, but I’ve always felt there’s good here as well. Good which I wonder if Nietzsche would recognise or despair at the sight of. Would he still insist on being ‘learned by heart’? Or might he recognise that high peaks can co-exist with lower hills upon which people can fruitfully exist without being worthy of the designation ‘herd’?

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