Contrast between Jung and Nietzsche (1/05)

Isn’t Nietzsche rather manifestly ‘future-directed’ in the general drift of his thinking? This orientation, despite the importance he attached to his ‘eternal recurrence’ teaching, situates him squarely within the linear history paradigm inaugurated by the original Zarathustra, does it not? He certainly never recommends a return to some bygone ‘golden age.’ Even where we hear him speaking in praise of past eras (ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, etc.), he always finds just as much to criticize and to question in those same eras. Nietzsche’s ambition, if Laurence Lampert is on the right track[1], is to refashion or retool humanity itself—to plot a course and help establish those conditions that would favor the evolution of an altogether new (and improved?) creature. Mightn’t we take this as an indication of how tremendous his disappointment with the actual species in fact was? Is Nietzsche, like Yahweh before Noah or Zeus before Deucalion, ready to exterminate the lot of us in order to start over—to start afresh, with a clean slate?[2]

Jung, by way of contrast, appears to be rather more accepting of the species—botched, warty, and wayward, as it no doubt is—than Nietzsche ever was. One is tempted to claim that Jung’s experience of the psyche was not only profounder, but more comprehensive than Nietzsche’s—and that his pedagogical legacy, the teachings and observations he bequeathed to us in his voluminous writings, therefore comprises a richer and more completely fleshed-out portrait of man. If Jung may be said to have had an agenda, or better, a daimonically ordained task, it seems to have been the attempt to enlarge our consciousness of what is possible for us as human beings. Nietzsche’s task, as I’ve already suggested, seems rather to have been bound up with overcoming (or a drastic ‘pruning’ of) the actual species that exists now and supplanting it with one more suited to his rather exacting tastes and preferences.

If Lampert is right, Nietzsche gradually arrived at his conception of the proper course for mankind through the honest—if severe and daring—application of reason (rational analysis) to man’s history, his nature, and his current predicament (or crisis). The vision and hope (if that’s not too strong or unfair a word to use in connection with a professor of amor fati) which Nietzsche nurtured in his own soul and in the minds of his readers derived, we are told, from these reasoned inferences and disturbing conclusions.

How different Jung’s approach is! Since, for him, rationality is ultimately subject to irrational and incompletely knowable (i.e., unconscious) factors, Nietzsche’s bold and ambitious project cannot avoid being tainted with more than a hint of hubris—if not folly. This judgment follows necessarily from Jung’s recognition of the primacy of unconscious factors in the psyche—and the secondary, derived place of rational consciousness. It is this deference shown by the admirably rigorous thinker, Jung, to the greater scope and sway of the unconscious that accounts, in no small way, for the perceptible modesty and the scarcity of hyperbole in his writings.

Conversely, the incandescent brilliance of Nietzsche’s occasionally modest prose style—not to speak of the enormity of his ‘breeding’ project and the outrageousness of numerous claims he makes for himself—is owing to the fact that the man, Nietzsche, seems quite clearly to have identified completely with his ‘genius’ or ‘daimon,’ while Jung—as discussed in great detail in his autobiography—continually strove to maintain the conscious distinction between ‘Jung’ and his own guiding genius—what he called ‘Personality #1’ and ‘Personality #2,’ respectively.   ‘Nietzsche,’ then, became more and more overwhelmed by and indistinguishable from his ‘daimon,’ while Jung more wisely and prudently maintained a relationship with his—thus, preventing the excessive inflation and megalomania that eventually overtake Nietzsche.   Jung’s ego, then, assumed a different attitude towards the archetypal contents that were decisively aroused in the psyches of both seminal thinkers. With Nietzsche, as we see, there was a kind of conflation of the personal ego and the archetypes (‘I am every important name in history!’) while Jung was always careful to maintain a sharp distinction between the personal and the collective aspects of the psyche.

With this in mind, it should scarcely come as surprise that Nietzsche tended to find ‘ordinary’ human beings difficult to put up with—so far beneath him and his kind, the few ‘free minds’ and ‘Hyperboreans.’ He was a bit like a man tripping on LSD, insofar as his ego and intellect were being inundated by the high-voltage archetypal contents—springing from a powerfully charged psychic region in which Nietzsche’s mind and ego were perilously submerged in a state of identification. Anything, anyone, any idea or situation that failed to excite or generate comparable psychic fireworks must have seemed dismally boring and torpid by contrast. It also makes sense that Nietzsche would feel the lure, increasingly, of the strictest solitude, where he could privately nurture the intoxicating (‘Dionysian’) identification and not have to contend with the comparatively sluggardized race of ‘plebeians’—the canaille—with whom he was lamentably obliged to share the planet. Jung, on the other hand, by carefully moderating his relationship (fundamentally different from a psychically destabilizing identification) with the vital unconscious contents, was able not only to benefit from the buffered, ‘stepped down’ energy and illumination they supplied, but also to disseminate that light and energy to his readers and his patients in a more ‘user-friendly,’ less unwieldy form.


As subtle and engaging as Nietzsche unquestionably is, his writings frequently have an effect upon my worldview that is noticeably constraining—occasionally even stifling and suffocating—as though the horizons of my thought are actually being shrunk rather than expanded and pressed outwards, hardened rather than being rendered more elastic and manipulable. This shrinking of horizons appears to fly in the face of Nietzsche’s professed claims to be liberating the minds of his readers and to be exploding boundaries that formerly immured serious thinkers. (‘I am dynamite!’)

A psychological side-effect of this subtly discernible ‘shrinking’ and ‘hardening’ of the horizons of thought is a subversion of the open-ended sense of mystery and wonder that suffused so many aspects of life and human nature in earlier, more ‘innocent’ ages. Nietzsche has a generally disenchanting influence upon those things and persons he touches (or pommels) with his ‘hammer’—rather like those tiresome neurochemical ‘explanations’ of consciousness and human feelings that are embarrassing to both the reader and the blinkered scientists who propose them. The impact of his writing is much closer, therefore, to Freud’s, who also tends to be reductive in his overall approach to psychological phenomena. How different Jung’s effect is upon my view of, and my feeling about, my existential situation in the ‘modern’ universe. A strong sense of wonder—and modesty—before the world and the psyche thoroughly pervades Jung’s writings. Perhaps without intending to—or recognizing that he’s doing so—Nietzsche frequently gives the impression that he is explaining things (BIG things!) for the first time and (finally!) in the proper way! We need henceforth look no further. When we surrender too obediently to his imperious explanatory prowess, something is lulled to sleep (or ceases to burn with a clean flame) in the soul of the seduced and/or devoted reader. We are lured into a gorgeously landscaped cul-de-sac where we are invited to park our souls next to the magisterial writing. At the same time, however, we are confronted with dozens of ‘no-parking’ signs. Nietzsche’s professed disdain for all forms of dogmatism is subtly belied, now and again, by this naturalistic form reductionism (what James Hillman calls the naturalistic fallacy—a major ‘no-no’ in the realm of archetypal psychology). Since Nietzsche’s brand of reductionism is not nearly as crude and blunt as the materialists’ and the positivists,’ it is a good deal more seductive and tantalizing to the unsuspecting. But long acquaintance with his writings has taught me that he really believed that he had pretty much gotten to the bottom of things—at least the important bits of the story—and that like Einstein, with respect to the laws of nature and matter, Nietzsche often appears to believe that he is telling us not merely how we experience these things (as Heisenberg and the Copenhagen Definition of Quantum Theory insist), but how they really are, independent of our experience.[3] The effect of this attained certitude was to gradually undermine the sense of wonder and naïve humility before the mystery of creation (and of the psyche—through which the ‘world’—any world—is perceived). As I’ve said, both humility and wonder survive intact in Jung’s writings.

I suspect I am not the first or only reader of Nietzsche to detect an almost rapacious will-to-certainty behind his eloquent ‘attempts’ (Versuchen). Tone can tell us a great deal about a writer’s psychology, and Nietzsche’s tone, more often than not, is charged with that distinctive brand of assertiveness and brazen finality that is to be found chiefly among the most decisive mental dispositions. Although he continually speaks of the philosopher’s need for masks, I have difficulty believing that this cocksureness and bold confidence of his are mere posturing and theatrical ruses. Put so simply as to sound simplistic, I see the following sort of spiritual biography lived out by Nietzsche: the ardent young ‘believer’ and dutiful custodian of Western culture suffers a severe, traumatic shock by the ‘death of (his personal) God.’ But instead of allowing himself to be crushed by pessimism and despair, he decides to redeem and resurrect the God-forsaken cosmos on radically new grounds. These new grounds, as it turns out, leave divinity altogether out of the picture—notwithstanding his generally incongruous boosterism for Dionysos in his final works. The creative matrix (arrived at after he provisionally and selectively embraced the view of nature, and man’s place in nature, posited by modern natural science) from which the transvalued world was to be drawn would be supplied by Nietzsche’s own formidable imaginative and intellectual ingenuity. The first stages of this monumental work consisted in clearing away the lingering vestiges of the old Platonic-Christian worldview. (There would be no ‘pretenders’ allowed in Nietzsche’s new cosmos, just as there would be no poets allowed in Plato’s Republic.) This project of destruction and no-saying had to precede the yes-saying, constructive part of Nietzsche’s ‘world-historical’ task. It is this constructive component—the affirmative aspect of his legacy—that many of Nietzsche’s readers have found difficult to understand or to accept. It is difficult for some of us to accept Nietzsche’s alternative to the debunked Platonic-Christian-democratic values, in part, because of the sketchiness of the new trajectory that humanity is supposed to follow. Moreover, it has been noted that his rather general musings about an ‘enhanced humanity’ of the future does not convey the conviction of a ‘true believer’ so much as it does a palpable sense of histrionic urgency. Is this passionate sense of urgency possibly a psychological compensation against gnawing doubts and uncertainties over his ‘polemical’ diagnoses (especially of Christianity) and his prescriptions (particularly regarding Supermen)? Perhaps the untimely collapse of his faculties prevented him from producing those planned works that might have dealt in greater depth and detail with these crucial matters. For those readers who feel they have understood Nietzsche’s prescribed alternative to the discredited worldview of the past, acceptance of his prescriptions is not infrequently hampered, therefore, by concerns over the viability or practicability of the general prescriptions. But there are other objections that, to my knowledge, have not been so widely explored, even if these objections are closely related to the popular and usually uninformed disdain for Nietzsche’s ‘godlessness.’

A weakness of Nietzsche’s is his failure to adequately ‘re-vision’ deity. This, it seems to me, would have been necessary to bring about the broader acceptance his teaching would first need in order to be culturally adopted and implemented. In a word, he is ultimately too anthropocentric to successfully arouse and mobilize the imaginations and cooperation of the larger population that he routinely dismisses as “the herd.” Of course I fully understand that Nietzsche, himself, never wished to be, or assumed he would be, embraced popularly. Perhaps he even recognized in advance that any powerful leader or influential reformer who might attempt to construct a culture or regime after Nietzsche’s aristocratic-heroic model would probably also have to distance himself from him publicly, lest he be regarded, like his forebear, as a ‘teacher of evil.’ At any event, Plato (or should I say Strauss’s and Lampert’s Plato—and Lampert’s Nietzsche’s Plato) took the necessary and proper precautions against such an eventuality by successfully disguising his own godlessness in gorgeous robes of otherworldly eloquence, myth, and metaphysical splendor.

I would suggest that Nietzsche failed to note and respond to a new conception of theodicy that was right under his nose—in the occasionally inscrutable prose of Hegel—an idea that would later be transformed and fleshed out by Jung in his essay ‘Answer to Job.’ This conception—the notion of an ongoing Creation with man as co-creator (and window into Creation for the evolving Creator)—has roots in esoteric Jewish eschatology and Gnosticism. Certainly one of the most appealing aspects of the evolving creation story is the ennoblement of mankind—its elevation of humanity to the sacred position of co-creator and vitally instrumental agency in the continuing unfoldment of deity (or deities). This seems a noteworthy improvement upon the parent-child (‘Nobodaddy’ from Blake) arrangement from before—where a punitive lawgiver and all-powerful overseer lords it over a more or less finished and static creation and his passively obedient creatures. In such a scheme, ‘goodness’ and ‘piety’ come down to mere conformity with ‘rules’ or ‘commandments’—an arrangement Blake, Nietzsche, and Jung find ‘morally’ unacceptable—and even despicable—from a higher standard, if you will, of moral freedom and integrity. With the new story, the gods are by no means perfect (yet!) and certainly mankind cannot be held eternally accountable (in some metaphysical hell) for the numerous slip-ups and errors it will continue to commit as it gropes in the darkness for the better path. Moreover, there is in the new story a cooperative relationship between the developing gods and their evolving ‘workers in the vineyard.’ If the gods lose a bit of their former authority and their traditional might and right, humanity reclaims for itself a greater share of self-determination without altogether jettisoning deities as guides and (silent?) partners.


[1] See Nietzsche and Modern Times

[2] The links between such inclinations and the puer archetype are worth exploring.

[3] Lampert similarly recognizes Nietzsche’s claim to have uncovered the ultimate ground of things in the will-to-power. See Nietzsche’s Task, pp. 205-207.


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