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“I call an animal, a species, an individual corrupt, when it loses its instincts, when it chooses, when it prefers, what is harmful to it.”Nietzsche, The Antichrist
Throughout much of history, humans have perceived themselves as superior to all other creatures. Myths of our divine origin and our place at the crown of creation are found in religions reaching back thousands of years. Even in our “scientifically-enlightened” times this conviction of our species’ supremacy has not been shaken. For now we are masters of the earth, the pinnacle of evolution – the only rational and moral species in a world of unconscious creatures “red in tooth and claw”.
But not all have agreed with this sentiment. Some in fact have viewed mankind in a very different light. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, believed that if you looked deeply into the human psyche you would discover that beneath our vanity and the masks we display, we are the only animal severed from our instincts and hence, the sickest species ever to have walked this earth.
“We have learnt better. We have become more modest in every respect. We no longer trace the origin of the human being in “spirit”, in the “divinity”, we have placed it back among the animals…And even in asserting that we assert too much: the human being is, relatively speaking, the most bungled of all the animals, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts. But for all that, he is of course the most interesting.”Nietzsche, The Antichrist
How did we, the most cunning of all creatures, become the suffering animal par excellence? To answer this question, Nietzsche’s mind was drawn back many thousands of years to a time when our species’ civilized disposition had yet to develop. In these prehistorical ages humans were primarily driven by their instincts. They were, according to Nietzsche, “half animals that were well-adapted to wilderness, war, prowling, adventure.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals)
A dramatic transformation in the psyche of these “half animals” occurred when they moved from the wilderness into civilization. Within these “confines of society and peace” (Nietzsche) humans found themselves, for the first time, subject to laws and customs backed by the threat of punishment, and hence, no longer ruled by instincts alone. These social standards conditioned us into a more civilized existence, but they also weakened us and intensified our suffering. For in being suppressed and forced underground, our animal instincts did not disappear, rather they “turned themselves backwards, against man himself.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals). They produced a sickness in the psyche Nietzsche called the “bad conscience” – a “will to self-torment” (Nietzsche) – thus marking the beginning of that dreadful human tendency to inflict pain upon oneself. As Nietzsche explained:
“The man who…was forced into an oppressive narrowness and regularity of custom, impatiently tore himself apart, persecuted himself, gnawed away at himself, grew upset, and did himself damage…With him was introduced the greatest and weirdest illness, from which human beings today have not recovered, the suffering of man from his own nature, from himself, a consequence of the forcible separation from his animal past…a declaration of war against the old instincts, on which, up to that point, his power, joy, and ability to inspire fear had been based.”Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
Within the closed walls of civilization a “bad conscience” is not all that ails us, rather as Nietzsche explained, “with the aid of the morality of mores and the social straitjacket, man was actually made calculable.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals). Fear of the law and punishment were the tools of domestication which weakened our connection to our instincts and made our behavior more predictable, safe, and herd-like: “…the meaning of all culture”, wrote Nietzsche, “is the reduction of the beast of prey “man” to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals) While this process of domestication was necessary for the creation of civilization, it came at the cost of transforming the human being from a strong, innocent, and free animal into a guilt-ridden, manipulable, and tame creature, dependent on a shepherd to lead him.
“To call the taming of an animal its “improvement” is in our ears almost a joke. Whoever knows what goes on in menageries is doubtful whether the beasts in them are “improved”. They are weakened, they are made less harmful, they become sickly beasts through the depressive emotion of fear, through pain, through injuries, through hunger. – It is no different with the tamed human being…”Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
As a result of this millennia long process of the taming and weakening of our instincts we have become too reliant on our consciousness, according to Nietzsche, our “weakest and most fallible organ” (Nietzsche). We have developed into a ruminating animal who dissects every detail to a degree that can foster perpetual doubt and cynicism of life. But even worse this trend has divorced us from our “‘old leaders’, the ruling unconscious drives” (Nietzsche) which guided our ancestors safely for hundreds of thousands of years amidst the terrors and dangers of nature.
“…he has lost and destroyed his instinct, and can no longer trust the ‘divine animal’ and let go the reins when his understanding falters and his way leads through deserts.”Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations
Nietzsche urged his readers to diminish their reliance on consciousness and to reconnect with their old and friendly unconscious guides. For when the great pains of life make an appearance, often it is these ancient instincts alone which can provide the strength and wisdom needed to persist.
“There comes for every man an hour in which he asks himself in wonderment: “how is one able to live? And yet one does live!” – An hour in which he begins to understand that he possesses an inventiveness of the same kind as he admires in plants, which climb and wind and finally gain some light and a patch of soil and thus create for themselves their share of joy on inhospitable ground.” (Nietzsche)
Yet Nietzsche realized that a danger accompanies those of us who attempt to revive these “old leaders”. For in the process, we may unintentionally unleash our vicious and primitive passions. In other words, in repairing our severance from our instincts, we must be ready to confront the “beast within” (Nietzsche).
“You aspire to free heights, your soul thirsts for the stars. But your wicked instincts, too, thirst for freedom. Your wild dogs want freedom; they bark with joy in their cellar when your spirit plans to open all prisons.”Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
To help us manage our primal nature Nietzsche looked to the Ancient Greeks – the “models of all future cultured nations” (Nietzsche). Rather than denying their instincts, the Greeks accepted them, and “devoted festivals to all the passions and evil inclinations” (Nietzsche). The function of these festivals was to serve as culturally sanctioned mechanisms to help the Greeks transform their primal passions into productive cultural forces and vehicles of creation and life-affirmation.
But in the modern world we lack any societal devices of this type. And therefore, Nietzsche urged his readers to create their own festivals in celebration of the primordial passions so as to promote their modification into more fertile and spiritual forms. “Once you had fierce dogs in your cellar: but they changed at last into birds and sweet singers.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) Or as he elaborated in an unpublished note:
“In order to be able to create, we must give ourselves greater freedom than has been given us before; at the same time, liberation from morality and relief through festivals (premonitions of the future! celebrate the future; not the past! compose the myth of the future! live in hope!) Blissful moments! And then cover up the curtain again and turn our thoughts to fixed, close goals.” (Nietzsche)
Nietzsche was so adamant on reconnecting to our animal instincts because he realized that we can never rid our self of these fundamental elements of our being. We either recognize them and harness them for use in a constructive and creative manner. Or we deny them and force them underground. But this latter tactic divorces us from our “old leaders”, turns our instincts against ourselves and breeds a “bad conscience”, and perpetuates our herd-like behavior and dependence on shepherd to show us the way. “Society tames the wolf into a dog. And man is the most domesticated animal of all.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
In his book Human, all too Human, Nietzsche used the Ancient Greek myth of Circe as the symbol for this return to the animal foundations. For just as the potions of the goddess Circe had the power of transforming the human into an animal, so too Nietzsche thought honesty regarding our nature and origin can help us restore our connection to our instincts, put an end to our domesticity, and provide us with the wisdom and will-power to create new cultural values that serve as the foundation for the rise of “unprejudiced, independent, and self-reliant men, the real pillars of a strong civilization.” (Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day) Or as he wrote:
“Truth as Circe. Error has turned animals into men; might truth be capable of turning man into an animal again?”Nietzsche, Human all too Human
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