Nietzsche’s Metaphysical Awakening
What is the will to power? It is rather poorly understood in the popular imagination, if indeed it is understood at all, this idea so central to Nietzsche’s thought in the last phase of his life. The fact remains that, being at once so simple and so far-reaching that it could unify all the strands of his thought, this idea could not easily be expressed in the usual, 19th century philosophical rhetoric. Nonetheless, I hope to tackle this important question at the level of insight (and grandiosity) it calls for, as far as the scope of this short article allows, with recourse to an unlikely source: the Western hermetic tradition.
One of the most important things to note about the concept of the will to power is that it seems to have arisen following an intense experience of direct inspiration, and not from an Aristotelian, rationalistic approach of constructing a hypothesis and weighing up the arguments for or against it. Not that Nietzsche immediately identified the will to power at this moment of inspiration – and this is a crucial point – but that it seemed to spring inevitably from one grand, inspired idea he claimed to have received whilst out on a walk in the year 1881.
This mysterious experience concerned Nietzsche’s coming to a new understanding of the concept of eternal recurrence. This idea set him on a wholly new track, involving a break with all his previous thought, in search of a prima causa, and a foundational principle that would unify all things. The foundational principle that emerged from this new radical change in direction he called the will to power. As Rüdiger Safranski puts it, in his biography of the philosopher: ‘this incident of August 6, 1881, near the Surlej boulder had an instantaneous impact on [Nietzsche]. It was immediately apparent that his life was now divided in two halves: before and after the inspiration.’1
My intention is not at all to inflate the importance of this single moment in Nietzsche’s life at the time (or its effects on his philosophy); the thoughts which he recorded from the period all testify to the fact of this being something absolutely unprecedented in his experience. Reading of the emotions he took away from it, one cannot but feel curious as to how and why exactly he was so deeply moved by what appears, superficially, to be a merely mental process of recognition – the meeting of many strands of thought he had long been ruminating on. Whatever else was at work, we can clearly see that the episode changed his approach and gave him a second wind which lasted up to the point of his mental breakdown in 1889.
‘The intensities of my feelings make me shudder and laugh’ he wrote to his friend Peter Gast, following this experience. ‘Several times I could not leave my room for the ridiculous reason that my eyes were inflamed – and why? Each time I had wept too much during my walks of the preceding day. My tears were not sentimental, but tears of joy. I sang and said nonsensical things, filled with a new vision that puts me ahead of everyone else.’2
Previously Nietzsche had consciously striven to avoid all grand narratives and unifying theories, preferring to produce his enigmatic aphorisms, and favouring paradox over the neat and tidy, systematic approaches of other philosophers of the time. Yet this new direction was not a negation or a reversal of his earlier approach – rather, it was as if his thought had found itself and recognised what it had been striving towards; a paradoxical view of everything that would form its own paradigm. By elevating paradox, he could go from a piecemeal approach to philosophy to the kind of grand theory that he had, perhaps, always been striving towards.
This point about his thought having found itself is significant. In fact, it expresses his great revelatory insight. Nietzsche recognised in the doctrine of eternal recurrence a paradox that is above and beyond all thought – represented by the ouroboros of ancient wisdom; the snake eating its own tail. By means of a seemingly mystical experience, the hermetic view of the universe had found its way to Nietzsche’s conscious mind, and reinvigorated the ideas of this philosopher who was ripe to receive the message.
I want to posit precisely the point that here Nietzsche had stumbled upon the very same hermetic conception of the universe and metaphysics that had informed Western esoteric thought for centuries, which had its roots in the ancient world, at least as far back as the pre-Socratic philosophers (whose work he was very familiar with). It was therefore in an ancient tradition that Nietzsche, consciously or not, found the answer to modern rationalism and the real counterpart to Christian thought. What is more, I posit that this conception is inherently linked to the will to power as Nietzsche understood and expressed it.
There is an inherent unity to so much esoteric thought in its core symbols and ideas – for the basis of it all is a belief in the emanation of the many from the One, and their return to the same. This principle is at work in all levels of nature and existence, and in the hermetic tradition, the alchemist sought to take control of his own return to the One by means of mastering the processes of transmutation. The belief in prima materia, a wholly undifferentiated matter that held within it the potentia of all baser elements, led to a restless search to enact the process by which differentiated matter returned to its original undifferentiated state, of pure potential. The sage who could master this process would have the power of a creator; power to manufacture anything. The transmutation of gold was one natural end of alchemy, for (for various reasons) gold was seen as the highest substance, but this process of transmutation had its parallel in the life of the alchemist himself. Cosmology and anthropology were intrinsically linked, because man was seen as containing within him a spark of the elemental fire which was the pure potential of the prima materia. He, like the substances he attempted to turn into gold, had to undergo a transmutation of his own that would lead to a return to the One.
This transmutation was conceived of in cosmic terms as an ascent through various levels of the universe until one exited the cosmos. The crucial paradox that concerns us is that this exiting of the cosmos, which constituted a return to the One, resulted in a return to the very centre of the world. The fire at the centre of the world is the same divine fire that burns at the edge of the cosmos – not similar, but exactly the same. In this cosmological view, the divine fire, in its inherent fecundity, gives rise to lower, baser elements like earth and water. Matter is thus seen as a degeneration of the primal element of the divine fire. Thus for man, who has a spark of this fire within him, the body is a baser form of matter which conceals his divinity within itself. Hence the alchemical process applies not only to substances like earth and base metals, but to man himself.3
This world-view, briefly outlined, shows how a belief in eternal recurrence could be applied to all things in the universe. I believe this understanding can underpin Nietzsche’s philosophical thought with a metaphysical foundation. It anticipates all of his main themes, from the übermensch to the death of God (the transcendent, Christian God, that is) and to the will to power especially.
It only remains to return to our question: what did Nietzsche mean by the term ‘will to power’? Clearly, something more than merely external, political power over other individuals, though that is the way that popular imagination interprets his phrase. In metaphysical terms, (which I think we must admit considering how Nietzsche conceived of this idea as a fundamental principle of being) the will to power is that very fecundity that sparked the whole process of the emanation of the many from the One, and the consequent return of all things to that absolute unity. Nietzsche associated it with the aim of all things to transcend their current state – it was the source of all creativity. This was the loftiest path for man, which must be taken up (according to Nietzsche) in spite of its futility in modern, rationalist terms. In this view the basest people are those who cannot begin to transcend, either because they see no point to it in the face of eternal recurrence (nothing having any permanence except the process itself), or else because they cling to myths like that of Christianity – of a Transcendent God Who is, by definition, outside the process and invites us to eternal life without recurrence.4
The pessimism of the Ancient world thus makes its return to the world stage, at last out in the open, albeit in the all-too ambiguous prose of Friedrich Nietzsche. Recognising it for what it is – a resurgence of old ideas – we perceived a sharp contrast between the wisdom of the world (which is limited and repetitive) and the wisdom of revelation, wherein true hope is found.
1 Rüdiger Safranksi, tr. Shelley Frisch, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002) p.221
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari,Samtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1986) 6, 112; Aug. 14, 1881 – cited in Safranski, p.222
3 I might here be accused of synthesising various strands of thought, but that kind of unity is precisely what the hermetic tradition sought – regarding itself as a continuous, truthful tradition. Pythagoras is credited with the concept of the Monad (the One) and its emanation to the many (a concept taken up by Plato and later by Plotinus); the cosmological views of the fire at the centre of the world and outside the cosmos is attributed by the scholar Peter Kingsley to Empedocles, the pre-Socratic philosopher, in Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). The conception of the four elements and their link to Pythagorean thought (represented by the figure of the tetraktys) I found explained (along with how all these strands reach a synthesis in the alchemical tradition) by the scholar James Kelley in his book Anatomyzing Divinity: Studies in Science, Esotericism and Political Theology (Trine day, 2011).
4 For, in the Orthodox view, we all ‘with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 3:18, my emphasis) beginning now and carrying on in the next life, without repetition or end.