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
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...