Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D.
This Excerpt was taken from the book entitled The Stages of Our Spiritual Journey which is available from our Online Store by clicking here.
1. Introduction: Friedrich Nietzsche
The topic of this book, once again, is the stages on our spiritual journey. The framework is the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically the section “On the Three Metamorphoses” from his masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I have two reasons for doing this: The first is personal. I have always appreciated Nietzsche’s brilliant insights and literary style, and this is a welcomed opportunity to talk about him and his work. The second reason, and a more important one, is that his wonderful fable provides us with an incisive summary of the spiritual path, parallel to the Course’s view, as we shall see presently. Moreover, it is helpful for students of A Course in Miracles to have some idea of its intellectual context—psychologically, philosophically, and spiritually. It can be enlightening for those interested in the Course to read about ideas that were written long before its scribing, observing that some of the insights have been around for millennia. A Course in Miracles, therefore, did not appear out of nowhere, for intellectually it is a part of a long tradition, with some illustrious people as forebears. And so, once we become familiar with the Course’s principles and then read Nietzsche’s work, we will be astonished at the pearls of wisdom found in this 19th-century genius.
Freud said of Nietzsche that he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or who is ever likely to live, an extraordinary statement coming from the father of psychoanalysis. Nietzsche, who lived from 1844 to 1900, actually began his work with his own self-analysis. Freud, who was twelve years his junior, read a lot of Nietzsche when he was a young man and decided he would never read him again. In his words, Nietzsche was “too rich,” by which he meant that he was aware that Nietzsche was saying the same kinds of things that he, at that point early in his life, was merely intuiting. Freud also recognized the importance of coming to similar conclusions in his own way, thereby being able to develop his own science of psychoanalysis. He thought that reading too much of Nietzsche would interfere with that process. Thus, while he had tremendous respect for Nietzsche, as is clear from the above statement, he really did not study him. Interestingly, several sessions of a psychoanalytic congress held in 1907 or 1908 were devoted to Nietzsche, and it was during one of those sessions that Freud made the comment about his German ancestor.
One of the key psychoanalytic concepts, the id, Freud’s term for the unconscious, actually comes from Nietzsche (indirectly through Freud’s younger associate, Georg Groddeck). Nietzsche wrote about the unconscious and called it It, which in German is Es. He described the unconscious the way Freud did—wild, unbridled, and yet a force that had tremendous influence on our lives. Freud’s English translators, instead of translating Es as It, used the Latin id to make psychoanalysis appear more scientific.
Nietzsche’s influence was extraordinary, not only on Freud but on many, many others. He could even be called the father of existentialism. The famous statement “God is dead,” popular in the 1960s and 1970s and, to some extent even today, was Nietzschean.
I conclude this introduction with a brief summary of Nietzsche’s life. His father was part of a long line of Lutheran pastors, and died when Friedrich was four or five. However, his father’s influence was strong, and in his early years Friedrich was deeply religious and actually studied theology. From all accounts he was a very good little boy, an obedient child who did everything he was told to do. He had gone to a strict private school, and there is a story that reflects this trait of absolute obedience. The pupils were instructed to walk to and from school in a slow, measured pace. One day there was a thunderstorm, and our little friend walked home as he was told to do, not running or seeking shelter. He thus returned home thoroughly drenched. This kind of behavior is in marked contrast to his later, iconoclastic life.
Friedrich was raised by his mother and two aunts, and his brilliance led to his being sent away to a school where he would study theology and philology (the study of the classics). However, he quickly abandoned theology, and for the remainder of his life was a vociferous if not virulent critic of Christianity, indeed of all organized religion. He believed that it corrupted people’s morals and kept them in an inferior position. He once spoke of priests as weak men who led even weaker people.
Nietzsche was a master of the German language. Walter Kaufmann, a great Nietzschean scholar and translator, said of him that he was one of the few philosophers since Plato, which means including Plato, whom large numbers of intelligent people read for pleasure, unlike, for example, philosophers like -Aristotle, Hegel, or Kant. Nietzsche often wrote in an aphoristic style, meaning that his writings are replete with aphorisms, sayings, fables, parables, and stories. This makes for easy reading, as the reader does not have to wade through a great deal of intellectualism, something Nietzsche abhorred. Incidentally, that is why, in many academic circles, Nietzsche was never regarded as a philosopher in the usual sense.
Majoring in philology, Nietzsche received his doctorate at the early age of twenty-four, unheard of in those years, and was named professor of philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Shortly afterward, he came in contact with the great composer, Richard Wagner. Wagner was the same age as -Nietzsche’s father, and for about ten years the elder man became a parental surrogate to Nietzsche, who also was a great lover of the composer’s music dramas. It is of note that in his student days, Nietzsche composed several pieces, none of which I think have survived. He had great respect for Wagner, whom he saw as the hope of German culture, a position he later repudiated.
Nietzsche’s first major work was a highly influential book called The Birth of Tragedy (1872). He talked about tragedy as an art form, beginning with the ancient Greeks, whom he essentially dismissed on the grounds that they, and he included Socrates and Plato in this category, were too rational and neglected the emotional side of life. This reflected the distinction between Apollo and Dionysus that Friedrich Schiller, a prominent German poet, was the first to describe. The Apollonian represents the intellectual and logical, while Dionysius represents the impulsive and emotional. Nietzsche felt the Greeks came down heavily on the side of the former, and Richard Wagner was an example of the latter, the one who resurrected the tragedy and gave it back its emotion.
Nietzsche began breaking with Wagner when he was around thirty years of age, in part because he felt his former mentor had sold out to Christianity. This was not the case, but nonetheless was how Nietzsche saw it. However, it was really more of a psychological rupture. Wagner was a man who allowed only one genius in his household, and so there was no room for this intellectually precocious young man who was his protege. Wagner could not stand the idea of his brilliant “son” being as brilliant, if not more so, than he, and so Nietzsche had to escape this suffocating environment. However, though he broke with Wagner, -Nietzsche never stopped writing about him—positively as well as negatively—up to the end of his life. And he always remained a champion of Wagner’s -music.
Among Nietzsche’s other major books are Beyond Good and Evil (1886), The Genealogy of Morals (1887), and The Case of Wagner (1888). His final book Ecce Homo, written in 1888 but not published until well after his death in 1908, reviews and discusses all his writings. The title was taken from the Latin words in John’s gospel that Pontius Pilate is said to have uttered when he presented Jesus: “Here is the man”—Ecce homo. Because Nietzsche did not think much of Jesus, certainly not the biblical figure, taking that as a title was a statement that Jesus was not the man, he was.
Nietzsche was a sickly person, in continual poor health and in tremendous pain. He suffered from severe migraine headaches and his eyesight was impaired. His physicians urged him not to read or write more than one hour a day, if that; however, he generally spent nine to ten hours a day working and was always suffering. Indeed, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his hero talks about the importance of suffering and not denying it, because it becomes a motivation for moving beyond it. Zarathustra, needless to say, is -Nietzsche’s alter ego, his spokesman as it were.
In 1889, Nietzsche collapsed on a street in Turin, -Italy, and rapidly descended into insanity. The last eleven years of his life he spent doing absolutely nothing. He lived with his mother, and when she died, his sister Elisabeth took care of him until his death in 1900. There are many theories about his insanity, but the cause that scholars consider the most plausible is syphilis, which he probably contracted as a student during a rare (if not only) visit to a bordello. The untreated disease took many years to progress, and finally took its toll in 1889 when the insanity overtook him.
His sister was an important figure in the public life of Nietzsche. She was a proto-Nazi (a Nazi before there was National Socialism), and married a man who later became an active member of the Nazi party when it came to power. She believed in the supremacy of the Aryan people and used her brother’s works as support for her beliefs in a master race. Indeed, Elisabeth was responsible for a large number of serious misunderstandings of Nietzsche’s work—leading, probably, to the Nazi embrace of Nietzsche, thinking he was really writing for them. In actuality, they totally misunderstood everything he wrote, which again was largely because of Elisabeth, who edited his works after he became insane and corrupted a number of his significant concepts. Being the owner of his oeuvre, she decided what was to be published after editing out what she did not like and keeping what she did.
It was not until many years later that people were able to go back to the original writings and discover that Nietzsche did not write what Elisabeth claimed he did. For example, he spoke of the overman, which in German is Übermensch (über meaning “over” and mensch meaning “man”)—a key concept in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is similar to what A Course in Miracles calls an “advanced teacher of God”—-someone who is able to transcend or move beyond both the animal and human kingdoms and transcend the body. Nietzsche did not mean this in the Course sense of recognizing the illusory nature of the corporeal, but more that the Übermensch would no longer be bound by the world’s customs and values. -Elisabeth interpreted this highly important concept to mean -superman, which well served the Nazi doctrine of the master (or super) race. Indeed, many of the early English versions of -Nietzsche translated the German as superman. However, it is quite obvious what -Nietzsche meant, because he contrasted the Übermensch with the word unter, meaning “under.” Thus he would say, for example, that when you “go under,” you go into the world, and he obviously enjoyed the word play of unter and über. It is patently clear that he did not mean super at all.
Another important concept in Nietzsche’s thinking was the will to power, by which he meant spiritual power: we become what we really can be—the -Übermensch. Once again, however, a significant -Nietzschean concept was taken by Elisabeth as something material and militaristic, embracing great physical strength, then used by the Nazis almost as a slogan. The negative assessments of Nietzsche often have their roots in these misconceptions. Everything this profound thinker wrote needs to be understood within a spiritual context. This will become even clearer as we go through “On the Three Metamorphoses.”
Nietzsche’s work was not discovered and appreciated until after he died, and not many copies were made of his writings. Hardly known at the time, these writings needed the influential literary figure Stephen Zweig, contemporary of Thomas Mann and also a “Nietzschean,” to discover them and to champion Nietzsche and his work.
See for example, M-4.1:6; 2:2; M-4.VI.1:6; M-16.1:1; 9:5.