About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

When Nietzsche wept

Interesting book by Irvin Yalom, a psychotherapist who writes novels about philosophers going to therapy (now, there's the basis for an hyper-intellectual approach to human misery!). The story is that of a (fictional) encounter between the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (the guy who declared God dead) and Joseph Breuer, a Viennese physician mentor of Sigmund Freud (who also appears in Yalom's book as a secondary character).

Nietzsche and Breuer and up essentially psychoanalyzing each other, both afflicted by obsessions about women and death (like most middle age white males I know). The interesting twist here is the continuous juxtaposition of two different kinds of “talk therapy”: psychoanalysis and philosophical council. The first one attempts to speak to the emotional side of us, the second to the rational one. Neither can succeed on its own. Breuer gets frustrated by Nietzsche's “high-minded” philosophical council of taking the cosmic perspective, embracing the challenge and pain because they'll make him a better man. What Breuer really wants is to shag a former young patient (despite being married to a beautiful woman), and not die. Don't we all? (Incidentally, the book is an excellent “insider's look” at men's inner feelings, a must-read for women.)

But the emotional approach on its own also fails. In the book, Breuer has tried to help the very same patient he is sexually obsessed with, succeeds for a while, only to see her falling back into her original illness, jeopardize his marriage and career, and then do the same thing over again with another doctor.

As both Plato and particularly Aristotle clearly understood, the pain of the human condition is generated by the difficulty of balancing what they identified as the three parts of the soul (emotions, rational, and “spirited” -- in charge of will), curiously close – though not exactly parallel -- to Freud's own trinity of Id, Ego and Superego (respectively the emotional, rational, and moral “minds”). David Hume also famously chimed in that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions (in “A Treatise of Human Nature”), by which he meant that we don't do anything unless we care for it, regardless of how logical (or not) the thing in question is.

But of course, the real issue is: now that we know all of this, does it actually help us overcome our fear of death? (Or, for that matter, to shag the woman or man we want?) Well, yes and no. Knowledge by itself (Aristotle again) will not do. But knowing where some of our pain and powerful drives come from and how they act should help us controlling or channeling them. Aristotle's recipe was: practice makes better. Virtue and happiness are not something we are born with, they are things we work toward. Like all worthwhile exercise, it is painful and a bit unpleasant, but if we stick to it, it becomes easier, and perhaps even enjoyable in its own right. Of course, it may take us a few decades...


  1. "(Incidentally, the book is an excellent “insider's look” at men's inner feelings, a must-read for women.)"

    Um...Massimo, frankly the point on understanding men's feelings doesn't seem to come to the rescue of the rest of your commentary. I have seen as much irrationality from the "male camp" as anyone you'll ever meet. And you just made a clear point right here, that the presumably most brilliant among men can be just as unstable as the average guy. And sometimes even more so. And so women should care about what these types of men feel so that we can both be driven up a wall and become manic together?

    Not such a good plan.

    Maybe we ought to observe "healthy" role models in men instead, then we can rationally care about their feelings. Can you find good ones?

    Moreover, and about the effectiveness of psych as a science, one would think that if 30-40 years of modern psych worked at all, or had any valid points to speak of, why would so many "boomers" (and the generation before them) be using such a huge % of prescribed mood altering drugs just to get through the day? (or night)

    Therapy, better known as 'man's best guess' at solving man's problems', obviously did not work well way back then, and it still is quite ineffective TODAY!


  2. Have you actually read Nietzsche, or are you just happy to mock him from the safe perspective of ignorance?

  3. The book us pretentious and boring. It is, too, badly documented: there is not any "Church of the Salvatore" in Venice; and if a learned woman as Lou Andreás Salomé was going to invite a celebrity to a café in Venice, it was impossible to propose the "Sorrento". Clearly, she would propose the "Florian" where Musset, Sand and Lord Byron were!

  4. The movie is actually out. I'm watching it now. It stars Ben Cross as Breuer and Armand Assante as Nietzche. Don't really know what to make of it. More like a fantasy movie with classic characters in it. Some historical bits but others are I guess, like the book - Yalom's fantasy world.


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