A philosophical muse - Nietzsche's other lover


It is said that Nietzsche only ever had one love affair. One with the beautiful Lou Andreas-Salomé. A striking and intense Russian intellect, she captured Nietzsche’s heart. And his mind; some suggesting she was partly the cause of him losing it.

How could this possibly be? A great thinker of our time, a man of philosophical brilliance, with prophetic ideas, losing his mind over love? Not such a ridiculous idea, when you pause to think for a moment on the power of love.

Yes, Nietzsche is described as having loved Lou Andreas-Salomé. It is said he loved her with all his heart and was left a broken man by her lack of romantic interest in him. But Lou was not Nietzsche’s only love affair to define him. Like Lou, another had a significant influence on his work. This second love affair, however, was not one with a woman. Nor a man. (And certainly not the theoretical man.) In actuality, it wasn’t with another person but a love affair with a set of ideas. Nietzsche was in love with the ancient mysticism of Eastern Philosophy. A love affair he was true to in his writings - in particular Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

In his early writings, I see hints of Nietzsche bringing together the philosophical ideas of Ancient Greek and Eastern thought. Particularly in The Birth of Tragedy, where he introduces the notion of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, their duality and how in coming together they form the highest art form, Greek Tragedy, and an answer to human suffering. Based on Greek Gods, Nietzsche uses the archetypal energies and associated symbols of Apollo and Dionysus to express his ideas. It is through the coming together of the Apollonian and the Dionysian that we achieve the aim of the Greeks of the sixth century B.C., what Fritjof Capra in his exploration of the parallels between physics and Eastern mysticism, ‘The Tao of Physics’, eloquently expresses as the Milesian “endeavour of seeing the essential nature of all things”.

Capra highlights the link between Ancient Greek thought and Eastern mysticism in his first chapter of this book.

“The endeavour of seeing the essential nature of all things…is also the central aim of all mystics, and the philosophy of the Milesian school did indeed have a strong mystical flavour. The Milesians were called ‘hylozoists’, or ‘those who think matter is alive’, by the later Greeks, because they saw no distinction between animate and inanimate, spirit and matter. In fact, they did not even have a word for matter, since they saw all forms of existence as manifestations of the ‘physis’, endowed with life and spirituality. Thus Thales declared all things to be full of gods and Anaximander saw the universe as a kind of organism which was supported by ‘pneuma’, the cosmic breath, in the same way as the human body is supported by air.

The monistic and organic view of the Milesians was very close to that of ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy, and the parallels to Eastern thought…” (Capra, pp24-25,1989)

Capra goes on to explain that these parallels between the ideas of Ancient Greeks and Eastern thought became stronger in the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus.

“Heraclitus believed in a world of perpetual change, of eternal ‘Becoming’. For him, all static Being was based on deception and his universal principle was fire, a symbol for continuous flow and change of all things. Heraclitus taught that all changes in the world arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites and he saw any pair of opposites as a unity. This unity, which contains and transcends all opposing forces, he called the Logos.” (Capra, p25, 1989)

Logos. The Apollonian and Dionysian at play. Two opposites in unity. Transcending opposing forces. In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, man transcends his suffering in the unity of these two Greek archetypal energies, paralleling the archetypal energies of the East.

Logos. Apollonian and Dionysian. Yin and Yang.

Apollo, the god of dreams, the ego, the veil, the god of light is the archetypal energy of Yang. Dionysus, the god of wine, the god of chaos, of music and madness, god of the dark is the archetypal energy of Yin. Perhaps, Nietzsche’s love affair with Eastern philosophy began without him even realising it - through the Greeks who paralleled Eastern mysticism.

I couldn’t help but think about Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as I read Capra’s first chapter in his book, which shares the journey of physics stemming from the Ancient Greeks. In this chapter, Capra takes us on a journey of Milesian thought and what followed: a reaction starting with Parmenides who called his ‘basic principle the Being and held that it was unique and invariable’ (Capra p25, 1989), which led to the ‘dualism between mind and matter, body and soul’ (Capra p26, 1989) and then to the Aristotelian model which occupied the Western world for two thousand years, and gave birth to the ideology of the Christian Church.

Throughout Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche speaks of the Socratic man, Socrates and science. How the poet Euripides and the rational man, Socrates, questioned the power of myth and the Dionysian; and then destroyed Greek Tragedy and the union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Socrates and science overcame great art, and removed from man the chance to gaze into the Dionysian abyss.

'“Let us now imagine the one great Cyclops eye of Socrates fixed on tragedy, an eye in which the fair frenzy of artistic enthusiasm has never glowed. To this eye was denied the pleasure of gazing into the Dionysian abysses. What, then, did it have to see in the “sublime and greatly lauded” tragic art, as Plato called it? Something rather unreasonable, full of causes apparently without effects, and effects apparently without causes; the whole, moreover, so motley and manifold that it could not but be repugnant to a sober mind, and a dangerous tinder for sensitive and susceptible souls.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p89)

Socrates, the great grandfather of science, wearing the Aristotelian veil, takes us away from unity of opposing forces and feeds the Yang energy of the world.

“Socrates, the dialectical hero of the Platonic drama, reminds us of the kindred nature of the Euripidean hero who must defend his actions with arguments and counterarguments and in the process often risk the loss of our tragic pity…

“Virtue is knowledge; man sins only from ignorance; he who is virtuous is happy.” In these three basic forms of optimism lies the death of tragedy. For now the virtuous hero must be a dialectician; now there must be a necessary, visible connection between virtue and knowledge, faith and morality…” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p91)

Further into The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche, in resolving the death of tragedy at the hands of the rational man, moves to its rebirth, again reinforcing the importance of the unity of opposites:

“I will speak only of the noblest opposition to the tragic world conception - and by this I mean science, which is at the bottom optimistic, with its ancestor Socrates at its head. A little later on I shall also name those forces which seem to me to guarantee a rebirth of tragedy…

“I shall keep my eyes fixed on the two artistic deities of the Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus, and recognize in them the living and conspicuous representatives of two worlds of differing in their intrinsic essence and in their highest aims.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p99)

A rebirth of tragedy, through overcoming the theoretical man.

“…great men, universally gifted, have contrived, with an incredible amount of thought, to make use of the paraphernalia of science itself, to point out the limits and the relativity of knowledge generally, and thus to deny decisively the claim of science to universal validity and universal aims.

“With this insight a culture is inaugurated that I venture to call a tragic culture. Its most important characteristic is that wisdom takes the place of science as the highest end - wisdom that, uninfluenced by the seductive distractions of the sciences, turns with unmoved eyes to a comprehensive view of the world, and seeks to grasp, with sympathetic feelings of love, the eternal suffering as its own.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, 112)

Nietzsche declares with his typical ironic humour and symbolism, which makes his writing and ideas such a joy to read, the death of Socratic thought, and an embracing of the earlier Milesian Greeks, and Eastern view of life.

“Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy. The age of the Socratic man is over; put on the wreaths of ivy, put the thyrsus into your hand, and do not be surprised when tigers and panthers lie down, fawning, at your feet. Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed. You shall accompany the Dionysian pageant from India to Greece. Prepare yourself for hard strife, but believe in the miracles of your god.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p112)

And here Nietzsche first speaks to the Superman. The Übermensch. The few among the herd who can overcome. Who will journey to Eastern mysticism (India) to the Milesian thought (Greece) and transcend self.

This is where The Birth of Tragedy is a prelude to Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch has been mistaken for an evolutionary overcoming in Darwinistic terms. But examination of passages in the beautiful prose of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, shows links to man’s overcoming in line with Eastern philosophy and the notion of transcendence.

In 1637 Descartes wrote ‘Cogito ergo sum’ - ‘I think, therefore I exist’. Which, according to Capra:

“…has led Westerners to equate their identity in their mind, instead of with their whole organism. As a consequence of the Cartesian division, most individuals are aware of themselves as isolated egos existing ‘inside’ their bodies. The mind has been separated from the body and given the futile task of controlling it, thus causing an apparent conflict between the conscious will and the involuntary instinct.” (Capra, p28)

This is where the herd is. And what Zarathustra insists man must overcome. This conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. A conflict between Yin and Yang.

This conflict, alongside the mechanistic Western view, is in contrast to the organic world view of Eastern mystics. The mechanistic Western view, or to use Nietzsche’s play of words and double meaning in Birth of Tragedy the ‘deus ex machina’: a common plot device of Greek tragedy to resolve a hopeless situation (man’s existence) and as Nietzsche describes it when referring to the the ‘cheerfulness of the theoretical man’:

“..the god of machines and crucibles, that is, the powers of the spirits of nature recognized and employed in the service of a higher egoism; it believes that it can correct the world by knowledge, guide life by science, and actually confine the individual within a limited sphere of solvable problems, from which he can cheerfully say to life: “I desire you: you are worth knowing

“It is an eternal phenomenon: the insatiable will always finds a way to detain its creatures in life and compel them to live on, by means of an illusion spread over things. One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge and the delusion of being able to thereby heal the eternal would of existence…” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p109)

In contrast, Capra describes the world view of the Eastern mystics as:

“all things and events perceived by the senses are interrelated, connected and are but different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality.” (Capra p29)

And it is this, that Zarathustra, at forty years of age, after ten years of solitude comes down the mountain to share because he is weary of wisdom like:

‘a bee that has gathered too much honey’ (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p39).

Capra goes on to explain:

“Although the various schools of Eastern mysticism differ in many details, they all emphasize the basic unity of the universe which is the central feature of their teachings. The highest aim for their followers - whether they are Hindus, Buddhists or Taoists - is to become aware of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things, to transcend the notion of an isolated individual self and to identify themselves with the ultimate reality. The emergence of this awareness - known as ‘enlightenment’ - is not only an intellectual act but is an experience which involves the whole person…” (Capra p29)

And this is what Zarathustra means when he speaks of “God is dead” and “Man is something that should be overcome.” In short, the Christian Church belief in a god, and a higher being separate from self, a discontented God above, with its founding in the Aristotelian view of life, is no longer. God outside of self is dead. And in accepting this, and man seeing himself as god, he will overcome himself - and bring chaos back to the overbearing form of the Apollonian. Bring night to day, dark to light, Yin to Yang. A balance.

“I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have chaos in you.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p39).

Is Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, calling in this passage for mankind to tap into their Dionysian energy? The archetype of chaos, the god of dance and wine. Is he calling for us to give birth to the god within?

With too much ego from the ancient Greek God of the Sun, Apollo - the god of illusion, covering with his veil the suffering of man, to make life bearable, the Christian afterlife, is seen by Nietzsche as an illusion:

“Once Zarathustra too cast his deluded fancy beyond mankind, like all afterworldsmen. Then the world seemed to be the work of a suffering and tormented God.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p58).

Reading a passage from Capra’s The Tao of Physics about knowledge, reminded me of a passage in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, an early chapter, lessons in overcoming. Capra discusses the Buddhist concept of ‘absolute knowledge’:

“What the Eastern mystics are concerned with is a direct experience of reality which transcends not only intellectual thinking but also sensory perception. In the words of the Upanishads,

What is soundless, touchless, formless, imperishable,
Likewise tasteless, constant, odourless,
Without beginning, without end, higher than the great,
stable -
By discerning That, one is liberated from the mouth of

Knowledge which comes from such an experience is called ‘absolute knowledge’ by Buddhists because it does not rely on the discriminations, abstractions and classifications of the intellect which, as we have seen, are always relative and approximate.” (Capra, p36)

There is something in this, that brings me straight to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the chapter ‘Of Joys and Passions’:

“My brother, if you have a virtue and it is your own virtue, you have it in common with no one.
To be sure, you want to call it by a name and caress it; you want to pull its ears and amuse yourself with it.
And behold! Now you have its name in common with the people have become of the people and the herd with your virtue!
You would be better to say: “Unutterable and nameless is that which torments and delights my soul and is also the hunger of my belly.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p63).

Don’t talk about it, or it will be useless. Make it nameless. Transcend the intellectual thinking of your virtues.

I cannot help but think of the Buddhist concept of ‘living in the present’ when I think of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. Is our ‘monkey mind’ the equivalent of Nietzsche’s buffoon who distracts the tight-rope walking by leaping over him, making him lose his head and balance, falling to his death? The same ‘monkey mind’ which, swinging from tree to tree, takes us from thought to thought, distracting us from our intentional attention of the present and the freedom this affords us?

Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, where every moment infinitively repeats itself, forces a focus on what John Hollingdale refers to in his introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra as “states of being over purpose”.

“The doctrine of eternal recurrence of all events was formulated by Nietzsche as follows: ‘The sum total of energy in the universe is determinate, it is not infinite. Consequently the number of positions, changes, combinations of this energy, although tremendously large and practically “innumerable”, is nevertheless also determinate and not infinite. But time, in which the universe exercises its energy, is infinite, that is, the energy is always the same and always active: until this moment an infinity has already elapsed, that is, all possible developments must have already been in existence. Consequently, the development at this moment must be a repetition, so too that which it produces and that from which it arises, and so forwards and backwards. Everything has already been in existence innumerable times, inasmuch as the total arrangement of all forms of energy every recurs.’…

“H.A. Reyburn has tabulated three principal consequences of this belief in the following way: ‘In the first place, the doctrine effectively removed purpose from the world, and the conception of an end of things…’

“It is this first consequence here mentioned that is the most important for an understanding of the eternal recurrence and of its connexion with the doctrine of the Superman. For in both conceptions, Nietzsche is seeking to minimize the importance of ends, of purposes, and of actions and maximize the importance of states of being." (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p25).

The quality of your present experience, the present moment, not the past or the future, is what is important.