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Nietzsche’s Psychology of the Self: the Art of Overcoming the Divided Self


In Nietzsche’s early to middle works, he has some interesting things to say about the psychology of the self. Indeed, Nietzsche explores the psychological consequences of the self that consists of a synthesis of competing opposites that are in a constant of flux. In order to make sense of the self, Nietzsche draws from the Hellenistic tradition of philosophy to conceptualise a therapeutic art of self-cultivation (Bildung) where the individual’s life is their work of art because every work of art is first turned toward the self and then toward others. This is why Nietzsche develops a mode of self-cultivation that is intimately connected with the painful labour of self-analysis in the hope of the self’s overcoming (Übergang); however, this is not enough by itself because it requires an understanding of the unconscious self that we have suppressed and repressed from ourselves, as well as the psychopathologies that they give rise to. To Nietzsche, the reason why we must undertake this difficult task of self-cultivation is the realisation that we need to free ourselves of narcissism, and its pathological symptoms found within the self, particularly if we are going to achieve a temperate and mature ego that is healthy for both the self and others.

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  1. For some interesting examples of literature that deals with Nietzsche’s psychology, see the following: Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Kaufmann 1974), Composing the Soul (Parkes 1994), The Dionysian Self (Bishop 1995), Nietzsche’s Presence in Freud’s Life and Thought (Lehrer 1995), Nietzsche and Jung (Huskinson 2004), and Nietzsche’s Therapy (Ure 2008).

  2. From here on in, I will follow the academic convention of citing Nietzsche’s work using the initials of the English titles in the translations referred to in the reference section of this essay along with Arabic numerals to identify the volume, relevant part and numbered section or part, in this order (not page numbers). For details relating to the abbreviations and translations used, see the abbreviation and reference section. When required, I have referred to the original German translation of Nietzsche’s Werke from the Kritische Studienausgabe edited by Colli and Montinari that is published by Walter de Gruyter. In relation to the citation (i.e. BGE, §62), it is worth noting the German text, which states: “… der Mensch das noch nicht festgestellte Thier ist …”, particularly the terms “nicht festgestellte” which means “not firmly established”.

  3. In relation to the citation (i.e. HAH, I, §57), it is worth noting the German text, which states: “In der Moral behandelt sich der Mensch nicht als individuum, sondern als dividuum.” In this case, a narrow translation into English fails to account for Nietzsche’s focus on the way values consciously or unconsciously influence the way we act, and in a sense, provide an insight into our character, or who we are as individuals (our true self). When viewed in this context, reference to the ‘divided self’ is highly apt.

  4. The new preface to the reissued edition of BT, titled ‘Attempt at a Self-criticism’ was published in 1886. Here on in it will be cited as ‘BT, S-C’.

  5. Soll (1986, 1988, 1998) quite rightly questions whether Nietzsche’s view of life should be called ‘pessimistic’ because he changed and nuanced Schopenhauer’s pessimism into something of positive value by developing his own pessimism of the strong which rejects the view that life has no value and should be avoided as much as possible.

  6. Unfortunately, it has become de rigour in the psychoanalytic tradition to depict Nietzsche as a narcissist and/or associate his psychological insights with narcissism. Certainly, Freud’s ambivalence toward Nietzsche has certainly contributed to this view; however, recent work by Parkes (1994) has demonstrated the significant contribution Nietzsche makes to analytical psychology. It is worth noting Nietzsche’s prophetic words in EC (EC, ‘Why I am A Destiny’, §6), when he states: “Who before me at all among philosophers has been a psychologist and not rather its opposite ‘higher swindler’, ‘idealist’? Before me there was no psychology. To be the first here can be a curse, it is in any case a destiny: for one is also the first to despiseDisgust at mankind is my danger …”.

  7. To Nietzsche, the idea of ‘free will’ is a myth, and hence why he states that in ‘… real life it is only a question of strong and weak wills’ (BGE, §21).

  8. Neither the concepts of the ‘will to power’, nor the ‘Übermensch’ are part of Nietzsche’s thinking at this juncture in BT as they are developed in subsequent works. See the section titled, ‘The will to power as art’ in WP §794–853 it is worth noting that Nietzsche classes ‘beauty’ as a ‘biological value’ because it is known to all human beings and yet taken for granted until we are reminded of ‘ugliness’. This is why beauty is a ‘biological value’ because it serves a life sustaining need, in the same way as air, water, food and so on.

  9. In The Republic (Book X), Plato argues that art imitates physical objects, which in turn imitates the Forms. In other words, art is a ‘copy of a copy’ of a Form and best viewed as an ‘illusion’ and something not ‘real’.

  10. See WP: the reference to ‘illness’ as a ‘great stimulant’ to life is taken from §1003, the ‘biological value of the beautiful and the ugly’ is taken from §804, and the condition of the artist is taken from §811.

  11. Nietzsche’s work titled, On the Future of Educational Institutions provides a useful starting place to some of his earliest thoughts on the concept of Bildung, particularly why he was concerned with the concept, and how he thinks it can be cultivated as an ethics of character. To Nietzsche, the strong emphasis on Bildung is consistent with his ethics of character because each are concerned with the notion of striving to become better human beings by overcoming the old self through the ‘revaluation of all values’ in order to affirm ancient Greek values considered valuable to a person’s character, such as courage, wisdom, justice, honesty, temperance, and so on. See for example, the following: ‘Nietzsche on aesthetics, educators and education’ (Stolz 2017), ‘A genealogical analysis of the concept of ‘good’ teaching: A polemic’ (Stolz 2018), and ‘Nietzsche: truth, perspectivism, and his concern with Bildung’ (Stolz 2019).

  12. It is worth noting that even though Freud denied having read Nietzsche’s work, there is persuasive evidence that he was both directly and indirectly familiar with his general corpus. Interestingly, Freud (1914/1917) does acknowledge and concede that Nietzsche ‘anticipated’ his central themes, and in many instances psychoanalysis confirms his psychology. See, The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement.

  13. See Charmides from Plato’s dialogues. The two Delphic commands being: ‘know thyself’ and ‘nothing in excess’.


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Stolz, S.A. Nietzsche’s Psychology of the Self: the Art of Overcoming the Divided Self. Hu Arenas 3, 264–278 (2020).

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  • Nietzsche
  • Psychology
  • Apollo-Dionysus
  • Self
  • Ego
  • Self-cultivation (Bildung)