In this paper I will engage with Nietzsche’s view of human flourishing. I will argue that he makes valid criticisms of views that denigrate the body and the passions and promote detachment from life as superior. I will also raise some concerns I have with Nietzsche’s perspective.
A recurring theme in Nietzsche’s work is his disdain for a “two-world” view that extols escape from bodily life and suppression of the passions as the path to flourishing and enlightenment. As he puts it in section 47 of “Beyond Good and Evil”: “Wherever on earth the religious neurosis has appeared we find it tied to three dangerous dietary demands: solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence. But one cannot decide with certainty what is cause and what effect, and whether any relation of cause and effect is involved here. The final doubt seems justified because among its most regular symptoms, among both savage and tame peoples, we also find the most sudden, most extravagant voluptuousness which then, just as suddenly, changes into a penitential spasm and denial of the world and will–both perhaps to be interpreted as masked epilepsy?”
Nietzsche argues that this approach is both empirically untenable–the idea that there is some clear-cut opposition between a “ghost in the machine” capable of purely abstract deliberation and a sub-personal body just isn’t an accurate picture of human beings–and undesirable. Section 333 of “The Gay Science” expresses his attitude well: “…we suppose that intelligere must be something conciliatory, just, and good–something that stands essentially opposed to the instincts, while it is actually nothing but a certain behavior of the instincts toward one another.”
As he often does, Nietzsche contrasts the view of human flourishing offered by the Judeo-Christian tradition with that of the ancient Greeks: “What is amazing about the religiosity of the ancient Greeks is the enormous abundance of gratitude it exudes: it is a very noble type of man that confronts nature and life in this way.” The Greek valorization of the passions and celebration of experience was on the right track. The path to fulfillment is not to be found in distancing oneself from the body and the physical world but in and through them. The Judeo-Christian worldview and anthropology was not a step forward but a step back. Fortunately, the death of God frees us from this religious straitjacket to pursue an abundant life in the here and now.
I find Nietzsche’s vision compelling in many ways. It seems to me that the modern elevation of individualism and autonomy is a historic achievement. To be in some sense a self-author choosing one’s ends and aims is a sobering and invigorating opportunity. Where the old world was static, this world is dynamic and fluid. It is at once more chaotic and more compliant, more permissive and more demanding. Modernity is pregnant with possibility.
But there is also serious danger in Nietzsche’s vision. This is the danger of a collapse into pure subjectivism. We are right to valorize the passions, but we should not fall into the error of thinking that all preferences are created equal. Genuine self-authorship is not tantamount to sheer self assertion. An authenticity reduced to subjectivism is narrow and trivial rather than expansive and noble.
In other words, pushpin is not as good as poetry simply because I prefer pushpin to poetry. A life voluntarily spent in a drunken stupor and a life integrated around family relationships, the music of Chopin, and the uplift of the indigent may both be autonomously crafted, but they are not equally valuable. Clearly, some ways of life are better, because more in conformity with human flourishing, than others. Each of us has an original way of being human that we must discover. But this work of self-shaping takes place, not in a moral vacuum but within the constraints of a menu of human goods that, while variegated and expansive, is not infinitely malleable.
If I am correct, then free choice is not valuable in itself but only instrumentally as a means to participation in genuine human goods. Our identity is not simply generated ex nihilo but moulded in conversation with others and in pursuit of genuine human goods. Recognizing the claims that others make on us and the multiplicity of often incompatible human goods lends significance to our acts of autonomous choice. The choice to pursue some goods rather than others, to cling to certain relationships and allow others to attenuate is meaningful precisely because we recognize the many contending relations and pursuits that have a legitimate claim on us. By contrast, in conflating subjectivism with authenticity we lose the promise of modernity.