The Meaning of Death – Philosophy & Psychology

Death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence. Most people unconsciously repress the idea of their death, as it is too horrifying a notion to think about.

Some are perhaps not so horrified of the idea of death, but rather the pain associated before one’s death, or the death of loved ones. We live entirely unique lives with complete different experiences, but we all share one common fate: Death. This is what links all of us together. Death smiles at us all and all we can do is smile back.

Is Death Undesirable?

We might think that death is undesirable since it deprives us of life. If by death we mean permanent death without any form of conscious survival, this question should be of interest even to those who believe that there is an afterlife, for one’s attitude towards immortality must depend in part on one’s attitude towards death.

If death is undesirable at all, it must be because it brings to an end all the good that life contains. In this view, life is worth living despite the existence of suffering. The more one lives the better. What makes life worth living includes everything that we find desirable.

The value of life does not attach to mere organic survival: almost everyone would agree that immediate death and immediate comma followed by death without reawakening would be the same outcome. Therefore, we can say that more life is good insofar as one is conscious and one is able to have good experiences.

If we were to consider death undesirable, it is because of the loss of life, rather than the actual state of being dead or non-existent. Death is bad because of the desirability of what it removes.

But this raises the question: what if we were to live indefinitely? If we had virtually endless days ahead of us, wouldn’t that generate widespread laziness? We would have all the time in the world, there would be no urgency to achieve great goals and there would be less incentive to make every day count, and as a result, we might end up as a bunch of unhappy people.

Death might well be what makes life valuable.

Should We Fear Death?

So, should we fear death? American philosopher Thomas Nagel identifies two common mistakes on the notion of death.

The first mistake is the asymmetry between our attitudes to posthumous and prenatal nonexistence. None of us existed before we were born (or conceived), but few regard that as a misfortune. How can posthumous death be considered bad and not prenatal nonexistence?

Some may say that no one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity preceding his own birth, and so it must be irrational to fear death, since death is simply the mirror image of the prior abyss.

However, this does not make much sense. While it is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist, the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him. It is time in which, had he not died, then he would be alive.

On the other hand, his birth, when it occurs, does not entail the loss to him of any life. The time prior to his birth is not time in which his subsequent birth prevents him from living. Thus, one’s prenatal nonexistence cannot be attributed to one’s posthumous nonexistence.

The second mistake is about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead, leading to the conviction that death is a mysterious and terrifying future state.

This is logically impossible as there is nothing to imagine when one’s mental faculties have been shut down. People who are afraid of death in this sense mistake being dead as a conscious state, for it is easy to imagine oneself, from the outside, in that condition – but one can never experience it.

There is a difficulty, in the case of death, about how the supposed misfortune is to be assigned to a subject at all. There is doubt as to who its subject is, and as to when he undergoes it.

Epicurus writes:

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

So long as a person exists, he has not yet died and once he has died, he no longer exists; so there seems to be no time when death can be ascribed to its unfortunate subject.

Therefore, the more reasonable fear people have is the pain that one experiences before one’s death. Thus one should not fear one’s death, but rather the possible ways of dying.

Ernest Becker: The Denial of Death

Ernest Becker, the author of The Denial of Death, was diagnosed with colon cancer and died two years later at the age of 49. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this literary work, gaining him wider recognition.

Becker tells us that we are born in a world that is terrifying and our basic motivation is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. He writes:

“This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this yet to die.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 5: “The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard”

Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. The first line of defence that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness is “the vital lie of character”. Every child borrows power from adults and creates a personality by introjecting the qualities of the godlike being: “if I am like my all-powerful father I will not die” – the child seeks self-extension or what Becker calls “cosmic significance”.

This expresses man’s tragic destiny:

“He must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 1: “Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic”

The problem of heroics is the central one of human life. It is the combination of organismic narcissism and the basic need for self-esteem that creates a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value, as the condition of his life.

We build “character armour” which makes us feel safe and are able to pretend that the world is manageable. But the price we pay is high, life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character.

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free from the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 4: “Human Character as a Vital Lie”

Society provides the second line of defence against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to establish a family, to accumulate fortune, to write a book and so on.

Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. Our heroic projects are “my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project”.

Man’s basic narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him.

Becker advises us to contemplate death. Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armour, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror. This is the existential hero’s way, which differs from the average person. Instead of hiding within the illusions, he sees his impotence and vulnerability. Living with the voluntary consciousness of death, the heroic individual can choose to despair or to make a leap of faith.

“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 9: “The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis”

Becker indicates, however, that the truth about the need for heroism is not easy for anyone to admit, and so we disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth.

To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life.

Stoicism: Memento Mori

The Stoics, on the other hand, do not believe in the terror of death. It is a natural process and should not be feared. They practiced memento mori (meditating on your mortality), to remember that we all have to die.

Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.56

Death allows one to fully live one’s life. For it is not death a man should fear but rather never beginning to live. For the Stoics, death is not anxiety-inducing or grippling, it is part of nature.

Epictetus writes:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

Epictetus, Discourses of Epictetus 1.1

If every second counts as dying, this allows one not to take anything for granted in this life and to fully immerse oneself, being aware that life is temporal. This also allows us to focus on the things that really matter:

“Constantly run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend… or not even a legend… And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.27

Nietzsche: The Free Death

Nietzsche also embraces and celebrates death and talks about the “free death”. He writes:

“Many die too late, and some die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”… To be sure, how could the person who never lives at the right time ever die at the right time? Would that he were never born! – Thus I advise the superfluous… Everyone regards dying as important; but death is not yet a festival. As of yet people have not learned how to consecrate the most beautiful festivals. I show you the consummating death that becomes a goad and a promise to the living. The consummated one dies his death, victorious, surrounded by those who hope and promise. Thus one should learn to die; and there should be no festival where such a dying person does not swear oaths to the living!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “On Free Death”

Nietzsche establishes a view of the correct death which one chooses freely and which occurs at the right time. Death should be a consummation to life, dignified by a meaning and purpose emanating from the life that is ending.

In contrast he writes about the “preachers of death”:

“There are preachers of death, and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach renunciation of life… There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and too long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins! They encounter a sick or a very old person or a corpse, and right away they say: life is refuted!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “On Preachers of Death”

Nietzsche rejects the melancholy of encountering a sick or a very old person or a corpse, as a repudiation of life. He illustrates the manner in which living men can be “effectively” dead. There are forms of death other than ceasing to be physically alive. There are the “living dead,” those who avoid the demands of existence through escape into work and through renunciation of life.

The Death of Socrates

Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy – may well be one who practised “dying at the right time”. At the age of 70, he was sentenced to death.

The Oracle of Delphi, which found the sum of human wisdom in the expression “know thyself”, had declared that there is no one wiser than Socrates. Thus he began his mission to educate people, with his famous irony: “I know that I know nothing”.

He was known as the gadfly of Athens, asking question after question in order to expose the contradictions in the thoughts and ideas of people. It was an attempt made to use critical reflection to call into question traditional beliefs and ways of thinking. This is known as the Socratic method.

As is described in Plato’s Apology, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock for impiety against the pantheon of Athens and for corrupting the youth. In the trial, he stated his famous dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

He was given the chance to live in exile, but refused. He spent his last day in prison with his friends visiting him and offering him an opportunity to escape, which he declined.

His enigmatic final words were: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.”

Socrates is thanking the god Asclepius for healing him of the sickness of life by the cure of death.

The cock, which gives hopeful proclamation of the coming new day, symbolised rebirth and afterlife for ancient Greeks and was the offering to the healing god Asclepius. Socrates is simply offering thanks and pointing to the afterlife. He invokes the only god known to revive the dead, who Socrates suggests with his last words has already helped heal both Socrates himself and his followers from the fever of earthly life. He tells his friends to work to purify their souls, to serve others with compassion and to dedicate their lives to the community’s health.

Carl Jung: Life and Death

Carl Jung believes that one must be as ready to live as to die. He writes:

“Death is psychologically as important as birth, and like it, is an integral part of life… As a doctor, I make every effort to strengthen the belief in immortality, especially with older patients when such questions come threateningly close. For, seen in correct psychological perspective, death is not an end but a goal, and life’s inclination towards death begins as soon as the meridian is passed.”

Carl Jung, Collected Works 13: Alchemical Studies

Jung’s entire psychology is predicated on the existence of psychic oppositions in the human psyche. He stressed the need to hold the tension of opposites. Death is inevitable and to think otherwise is to live in denial and to live against one’s instincts.

Jung criticises contemporary culture in its one-sidedness about this pair of opposites, with our almost complete focus on life, and denial of death. He tells us to prepare ourselves for the second half of our life. But how should we face death when we grow older? He writes:

“Death is an important interest, especially to an aging person. A categorical question is being put to him, and he is under an obligation to answer it. To this end he ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending. Myth, however, can conjure up other images for him, helpful and enriching pictures of life in the land of the dead. If he believes in them, or greets them with some measure of credence, he is being just as right or just as wrong as someone who does not believe in them. But while the man who despairs marches toward nothingness, the one who has placed his faith in the archetype follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death. Both, to be sure, remain in uncertainty, but the one lives against his instincts, the other with them.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter XI “On Life after Death”

A myth is not something that we create rationally, but rather through observing our psychic life, through active imagination, dreams, intuitions and synchronicities or meaningful coincidences. The lifelong process of individuation brings one’s unconscious contents into consciousness, shifting the focus of the ego with the self.

Jung recounts his visions that followed his near death experience. As he hung on the edge of death, he saw himself high up in space and noticed a large granite block floating in space, which had a temple. As Jung approached the steps leading into the temple, he experienced “a strange thing”:

“I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am… This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived… At first the sense of annihilation predominated, or having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence. Everything seemed to be past… There was no longer any regret that something had dropped away or been taken away. On the contrary: I had everything that I was, and that was everything… as I approached the temple I had the certainty that I was about to enter an illuminated room and would meet there all those people to whom I belong in reality. There I would at last understand… what historical nexus I or my life fitted into. I would know… why I had come into being, and where my life was flowing…”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions

Jung then saw an image of his doctor telling him that he must return to earth, and his visions ceased. Compared to the freedom he felt in his vision, living felt like a prison, back to the “box system”. By day Jung was depressed, however, by night he was swept up in ecstasy, within visions that gave him the experience of:

“the odour of sanctity… a pneuma of inexpressible sanctity in the room, whose manifestation was the mysterium coniunctionis.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions

Jung’s last major work was in fact called Mysterium Coniunctionis, completed in his 81st year, on the synthesis of the opposites in alchemy and psychology. He wrote:

“Only with Mysterium Coniunctionis was my psychology definitely situated in reality and was historically cemented as a whole. With this my task was finished, my work done and accomplished. The moment I achieved my goal, I accessed the most extreme limits of what was scientifically conceived for me, the transcendent, the essence of the archetype itself, beyond which it is no longer possible to express anything else in the scientific aspect.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter VII: The Work

Years later Jung could look back on his visions and say:

“It is impossible to convey the beauty and intensity of emotion during those visions. They were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced… not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions

The Meaning of Death – Philosophy & Psychology

What is the meaning of Death? It is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence. Most people unconsciously repress the idea of their death, as it is too horrifying a notion to think about.

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The Meaning of Self Realisation – Philosophy & Psychology

Life is a journey of self-realisation, of understanding and discovering who we truly are, and of maximising our potential. While this might be a life long journey, one can be closer or further from one’s true self.

Søren Kierkegaard: The Self

Søren Kierkegaard was a theologian and a philosopher, considered to be the father of existentialism. He also gave us one of the most profound analyses of the human condition, anticipating some of the fundamentals of psychoanalytic theory and pushed beyond that theory to the problem of faith and so to the deepest understanding of man.

He writes the following of the self:

“The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself…”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

Kierkegaard believes that the self must have a relation with the eternal aspect which in turn relates to us, allowing us to achieve “true selfhood”.

Søren Kierkegaard: Despair

The cause of despair is the inability of a person to become a self, as a person lacks something “eternally firm”.

Kierkegaard’s notion of trying to define a self is one of his many ironies, likely intended to produce despair in one who believes he can figure out his self alone. He talks about two types of despair: infinitude’s despair and finitude’s despair.

The infinitude’s despair is the split of self and body, a split in which the self is unanchored, not bound enough to everyday things – the entire person is pulled off balance. Today we call this schizophrenic psychosis. However, he gives a second and more common type of despair:

“But while one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by “the others”. By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself… does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

This is a great characterisation of the herd mentality, those who do not dare stand up for their own meaning because it is too burdensome and dangerous. Better not to be oneself, better to live tucked into others, embedded in a safe framework of social and cultural obligations and duties.

When one has too much finitude, one is built into his world too overwhelmingly. There is not enough freedom for the inner self. This he calls “finitude’s despair”, or what we would call depressive psychosis. The individual cannot imagine any alternate ways of life and cannot release himself from the trivial obligations that give him no value. By surrendering to others and holding on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, he accuses himself – he chooses slavery because it is safe and meaningful, but soon too this loses meaning.

One has then literally died to life but must remain physically in this world, thus the torture of depressive psychosis: to remain steeped in one’s failure and yet to justify it, to continue to draw a sense of worthwhileness out of it.

He writes:

“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing: every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

In the midst of an existential crisis, Kierkegaard wrote the following in his journals:

“What I really want is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals

Søren Kierkegaard: Leap of Faith

Kierkegaard’s truth which he lived and died for was to take a leap of faith. It is not about becoming our self, but rather to stand before God transparently, whose higher self is the only one that can overwhelm our self. The self must be destroyed in order to become a self, it is a question of death and rebirth.

The individual is thus saved from this madness, by his subjective inwardness being related to God, achieving self-transcendence. However, even a religious person is not entirely free from despair, as a true believer must have his faith constantly challenged.

Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud contributed immensely to the notion of self-understanding, he pushed psychoanalytic theory to its limits but didn’t not come out at faith, he emphasised the creatureliness as the lasting insight on human character, mainly through an emphasis on libido (the pleasure principle).

Freud founded psychoanalysis after discovering that many of his patient’s symptoms were the result of unconscious repressions that had to be made conscious in order to cure them. He focused on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people. Many of his followers developed their own ideas, notably Carl Jung’s individuation, which we’ll talk about later on.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are two psychologists who focused, not on psychopathology, but rather on the growth potential of individuals, which also greatly contributed to our understanding of the self.

Carl Rogers: Self-Concept

Carl Rogers talks about the “self-concept”, which we develop from childhood and continues to form and change over time as we learn about ourselves. It is the knowledge of who one is.  A positive self-concept makes one feel good about who they are. The self-concept is divided into self-image, self-esteem and ideal self.

The self-image is the way we see ourselves physically, our social roles and our personality traits. However, the self-image doesn’t always match reality, one may have a more negative view about oneself and others. This ties in with self-esteem, the value we place upon ourselves, which depends on our comparisons to others as well as others’ responses to us. Low self-esteem occurs when we compare ourselves to others and find out that we are not nearly as successful as they are or when people respond negatively to what we do.

Then we have the ideal self, the person you strive to be, while the real self is the person you are. The ideal self is used as a model to assist the real self in developing its potential. However when there is an incongruence, we become neurotic and are unable to develop a more satisfying personality. We may believe that we do not have an ideal self and our real self turns into a despised self.

The self-concept is dependent on the social situations in which we find ourselves, so we must be aware that it might be manipulated according to the feedback we receive from the environment.

Abraham Maslow: Self-Actualisation

Abraham Maslow gave us an important framework to achieving what he calls “self-actualisation”, the realisation of one’s full potential. He writes:

“What a man can be, he must be.”

Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

Self-actualisation is the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be, and this depends on the individual. It is the pinnacle of the hierarchy of needs, which symbolises the human potential and the need for fulfilment.

Before self-actualisation, one must first meet one’s basic needs. Maslow’s motivational theory is best represented by a pyramid, with the more basic needs at the bottom and culminating in self-actualisation.

We start from the basic physiological needs of food, water, warmth, sex and rest – to the safety needs of security, employment, resources, health and property.  These two are important to the survival of the individual, to cover one’s basic nutrition, shelter and safety.

Then we have our psychological needs: belongingness and love (which include our intimate relationship and friends) and the esteem needs (prestige, feeling of accomplishment and recognition). These four levels make up our deficiency needs.

Maslow described human needs as being relatively fluid – with many needs being present in a person simultaneously, rather than being a fixed and rigid sequence of progression. Nevertheless, human needs can only be fulfilled one level at a time.

In his later years, he explored a further dimension of growth needs, while criticising his own vision on self-actualisation. He added the cognitive level (the need for intellectual stimulation), the aesthetic level (the need for harmony, order and beauty) and on top of self-actualisation, he put self-transcendence. This is quite an interesting add-on, which goes back to Kierkegaard’s idea – the spiritual needs that transcend beyond the personal self. He writes:

“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos”

Abraham Maslow, Farther Reaches of Human Nature

It is the idea of giving oneself to something beyond oneself, this can include mystical experiences, religious faith, altruism, and so on.

We can link the idea of transcendence with Eastern philosophy. Self-realisation has different meanings in western and eastern cultures. With a few exceptions, the West generally has a multitude of definitions of what the “self” is, whereas the predominant view in the East is that the self is an illusory fiction and does not exist in reality.

Eastern philosophy: Buddhism

Buddhism denies the existence of a self, and believes that it represents a series of transient psychological states. Therefore self-realisation is a contradiction in terms.

For Buddhists life is suffering, that is the first noble truth. But this suffering comes from craving, desire and attachment. One must let go of the craving by practising ascetism, in order to liberate oneself from samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth – where one is reborn depending on their karma – it is an aimless drifting in mundane existence.

To liberate oneself, one must engage in a lifelong practise of what is known as the Noble Eightfold path, which includes the activities that allows one to achieve nirvana, the freedom from suffering and rebirth, salvation is the realisation of the “non-self”.

Eastern philosophy: Taoism

Taoism accentuates the falsehood of language. The so-called “Tao”, the essence of life and the universe, or the Way, cannot be described by human language. According to the doctrine of Taoism: “the self is but one of the countless manifestations of the Tao. It is an extension of the cosmos.” Taoism describes the self in the following way:

“The perfect man has no self; the spiritual man has no achievement; the true sage has no name.”


The ideal of Taoism, therefore, is the achievement of a lack of self.

Eastern philosophy: Advaita Vedanta

In Advaita Vedanta, literally “non-duality”, a school of Hindu philosophy and spiritual experience, the goal is to gain self-knowledge, and in contrast to Buddhism and Taoism, seeks a complete understanding of one’s true self or  “Atman”, which transcends our physical bodies.

One can do so by understanding the ultimate reality of existence or “Brahman”, understanding that this world is temporal and is entangled in the web of “Maya”, which is the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that this world is real – things that appear present are a result of an illusion of appearance, this includes our ego, the hallmark of self-ignorance.

Carl Jung: The Self

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, describes the self as the totality of one’s personality, composed of our consciousness and the unconscious. The self is superior to the ego since the latter only amounts to the conscious personality. It is important to recognise that the ego is not the centre of our personality.

Jung writes:

“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self… This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned. I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had achieved what was for me the ultimate. Perhaps someone else knows more, but not I.”

Carl Jung “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, VI. Confrontation with the Unconscious

Jung tells us that our psyche can be split into three different realms: consciousness “the field of awareness” where our ego resides, the personal unconscious “that which is unique to each individual but has been forgotten or repressed” and the collective unconscious, which is the deepest part of our unconscious – the inherited and shared psychic material across all humans, it represents universal patterns of emotional and mental behaviour or “archetypes”.

Only being aware of our conscious personality amounts to self-ignorance and illusion of the reality of the self. True self-knowledge comes upon investigating one’s inner world, the unconscious realm. And for Jung, this is the true journey of life.

Carl Jung: Individuation

His central concept of self-realisation revolves around “individuation”. While it occurs naturally as we grow older, this is a mere passive form and we are not conscious of the process.

Jung proposes becoming consciously aware of individuation, through a lifelong process in which the centre of psychological life shifts from the ego to the self, bringing one’s unconscious contents into consciousness. These unconscious contents include the symbolic manifestations of the archetypes. Thus, one gains the knowledge of the timeless patterns of human life.

Jung’s goal is not to strive for perfection, but rather achieve wholeness of personality. Man becomes whole, integrated, calm, fertile, and happy when (and only when) the process of individuation is complete, when the conscious and the unconscious have learned to live at peace and to complement one another.

The most common way to interact with the unconscious is through dreams. Using the symbolic images of dreams, Jung found that the unconscious was conveying crucial information to help the entire psyche reach a balance which the conscious attitude has repressed, in order to reach a psychic equilibrium. This is known as the compensatory role of dreams. It is on such evidence that psychologists assume the existence of an unconscious psyche.

Throughout his life, Jung interpreted around 80.000 dreams and he discovered that they follow a pattern. If one pays attention to one’s dreams over a long period of time, one will see that certain contents emerge, disappear, and then turn up again. This slow process of psychic growth is the process of individuation.

Some of the common archetypes include: the trickster, the hero, the wise old man, and the great mother – these are not only present in dreams, but are represented throughout human history and mythology.

Modern man believes that he can control himself, but self-control is a rare virtue. Jung writes:

“The one thing we refuse to admit is that we are dependent upon “powers” that are beyond our control.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I “Approaching the Unconscious”

Carl Jung: Shadow & Persona

An important archetype is the shadow, which Jung calls the “unknown dark side of the personality”, it is that which contains the hidden, repressed and unfavourable aspect of one’s personality. We deny the existence of all the things we despise in ourselves, while attributing them to others.

However, it is not only our negative aspects which we repress, but also our positive aspects, such as honesty, creativity and competitiveness, which must be rescued from within our shadow.

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”

Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East

Moreover, one cannot individuate as long as one is playing a role to oneself. The persona is the mask which conceals one’s true self, presenting oneself as different to who one really is. This makes it particularly difficult to interact with the unconscious. We may perhaps become likeable to others, but it is at the cost of our own mental stability.

This is all the more dangerous when one is not aware of this social mask and confuses it with one’s true self. As we please others with our false self, it leaves negative traits that contradict our real self, making us a passive victim of our shadow.

It must be us who integrates our shadow, and not the other way around. This can be done through shadow-work, the practise which includes self-awareness, watching one’s emotional reactions, being radically honest and investigating one’s dreams.

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the “thorn in the flesh” is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12 “Psychology and Alchemy”

Journey to Self Realisation – Psychology & Philosophy

Life is a journey of self-realisation, of understanding and discovering who we truly are, and of maximising our potential. While this might be a life long journey, one can be closer or further from one’s true self.

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The Meaning of Suffering – Existentialism & Psychology

“The fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, “Why do I suffer?” Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.”

Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, III, §28

Nietzsche points out that the problem of suffering is its meaninglessness, rather than suffering itself.

It is hard to deny that to live is to suffer, as long as we do not mean that to live is only to suffer. For many, it is far easier to suffer than to find joy, peace, or happiness.

However, what is meant by suffering? Suffering can be psychological or physical. Under mental suffering we find depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, stress, boredom, failure, existential malaise and more. While these admit to degrees, one could argue that any degree of any of them constitutes suffering.

Pain is the paradigm of physical suffering – one can be stabbed or have a small cut, be hungry which can range from mild discomfort to actual pain, be too hot or too cold, and so on. One becomes acquainted with more kinds of suffering the longer one lives.

Dostoevsky observes the value of suffering in a society that is desperately trying to abolish it and replace it with everlasting happiness – only to sink further into pain and suffering. Suffering is part of the human condition, and we would be much happier accepting it as it is.

He warns us against those who want to eliminate suffering:

“Shower upon man every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface, give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick.”

Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

Everything that Dostoevsky had warned against had become a reality in Russia, the utopia of communism and the increasingly nihilistic and godless society ended up causing millions upon millions of deaths.

For Carl Jung, the communist world has one big myth. It expresses the archetypal dream of a Golden Age (or Paradise), where everything is provided in abundance for everyone. Every society has its idea of the archetypal paradise or golden age that, it is believed, once existed, and will exist again. He writes:

“Unconsciously then, we too believe in the welfare state, in universal peace, in the equality of man, in his eternal human rights, in justice, truth, and in the Kingdom of God on Earth. The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battle ground. It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I “Approaching the Unconscious”, The Soul of Man

As Jung points out, one cannot have happiness without misery. Nietzsche goes even further:

“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other, that he who wants to experience the ‘heavenly high jubilation’ must also be ready to be ‘sorrowful’ unto death?”

 Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §12

Suffering and joy are inseparable and to enjoy great joy requires submitting oneself to the possibility of great suffering. Nietzsche disparages the preference for comfortableness over pain: those who “worship” comfort know little of happiness, since happiness and unhappiness are twins, they either grow up together, or remain small together.

However, this does not mean that happiness is a justification for our suffering. Nietzsche writes:

“The more volcanic the earth, the greater the happiness will be – but it would be ludicrous to say that this happiness justified suffering per se.”

Human, All Too Human, §591

For Nietzsche, human greatness is a goal, but human happiness is not. It is suffering, not happiness, that makes great. Since happiness is not to be desired over suffering to begin with, any happiness that results from “volcanic earth” is not going to justify our suffering. But the life-enhancing aspects of suffering do give suffering meaning because human greatness is more desirable than human happiness.

He writes:

“You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering; and we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever! Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal, that seems to us an end! A state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible—that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?”

Beyond Good and Evil, §225

For Nietzsche, one has to embrace suffering instead of trying to avoid it, as it is the cause of human greatness. There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us, they can be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. Suffering pervades life, however, not all of our day-to-day suffering brings in the question of meaning. One may be extremely hungry before dinner, but such “suffering” does not cry out for meaning. It is the more profound suffering – the loss of a parent, existential malaise, depression, etc. – that makes us ask, “Why do I suffer like this? What is this for?”

The goal is to find a meaning to suffering. Viktor Frankl writes:

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice… That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl founded the school of logotherapy, after being released from the concentration camps in Germany. He believes that the primary motivational force in man is the “will to meaning”. He saw the success of his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”  as a symptom of the “mass neurosis of modern times” since the title promised to deal with the question of life’s meaningfulness.

For Frankl, one of three ways to find meaning in life is by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering, the other two are: by working or doing a deed and by love.

One who cannot bear suffering and tries to avoid the unavoidable is bound to end up in existential despair and nihilism, death is just as welcome as there’s no purpose for living.

As Dostoevsky points out: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

We also find meaning through achievement or accomplishment in our work, and finally by loving another human being, the only way to grasp the innermost core of another person’s personality.

Nietzsche states:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, §12.

This lack of a “why to live for” can lead to suicide. Camus writes:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus believes that one answer to the absurdity of life is suicide. Killing oneself is a confession that life is too much, that it is incomprehensible, or that it is not worth the trouble. The act of suicide is linked to the idea that life is not worth living since it is meaningless, this implies the absence of any profound reason for living and the uselessness of suffering.

However, our natural reaction is to shy away from discomfort and pain. So, should we seek to abolish suffering as far as we can by removing its cause, or should we attempt to change our attitude toward suffering such that it is no longer seen as (always) undesirable?

The answers to these questions need not be mutually exclusive: it is quite possible that we might seek to avoid suffering as much as possible, but given that we will inevitably still suffer, we will not necessarily see that suffering as entirely undesirable.

However, for Nietzsche – this is not really an option. One can view suffering as undesirable which (as we’ll see) ultimately uses harmful means to provide meaning for human suffering, or one can affirm all aspects of life as a sheer act of will and give meaning to suffering through acknowledging its necessary role in human growth, flourishing and greatness.

Thus, it is our attitude toward suffering that needs to be modified. We should modify it so that we no longer see suffering as something to be avoided.

Nietzsche believes that humanity’s first attempt at solving the meaninglessness of suffering was through the ascetic ideal, the renunciation of earthly pleasures in favour of a simple, self-denying and abstinent life. It was a means for the void that encircled man, the meaninglessness of suffering, it gave him a meaning – and any meaning is better than no meaning.

For Nietzsche, it brought a more venomous suffering into life, as it is a will opposed to life. A central characteristic of the ascetic ideal is its negative valuation of life: this life and this world are to be transcended—used merely as a “bridge” to another existence.

The ascetic ideal succeeded because it had been the only ideal so far, because it had no rival. However, humans are creatures of desire whose instincts go against the ascetic ideal. Seeing this, the ascetic priest states that suffering is punishment for going against the ascetic ideal, you’re full of sin according to the Christian; you’re full of ignorance and craving according to the Buddhist. Man is made to feel guilty, man as sinner deserves to suffer. With this, not only does suffering acquire meaning, one actually welcomes more suffering. Through the sorcery of the ascetic priest:

“one no longer protested against pain, one thirsted for pain; ‘more pain! more pain!’ the desire of his disciples and initiates has cried for centuries.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §20

The ascetic ideal is a means for dealing with exhaustion and disgust with life. It brings about a kind of hypnotisation, something similar to the hibernation of animals. One removes oneself as far possible from the traffic of life with all of its inevitable painful accidents, by trying to enter into this kind of “deep sleep” and achieve freedom from suffering, but at the cost of effectively removing oneself from this world.

Nietzsche argues that the ascetic does not cure his meaninglessness, he merely diverts it with deadening drugs and hypnotism, causing ressentiment, the inferiority complex which gives way to revenge, and which is found in all those who are unhappy and sick, where it is directed against the happy and healthy. It is an imaginary revenge.

The ascetic priest sees ressentiment as dangerous if left to accumulate, as the sufferer naturally seeks a guilty party to blame for their suffering. To avoid this, the ascetic priest redirects ressentiment by means of a lie, instead of saying that the healthy are the cause of their suffering, they inform the wretched, the sick that they themselves are the cause of their suffering:

“I suffer: it must be somebody’s fault – so thinks every sick sheep. But his herdsman, the ascetic priest, says to him, “Quite so, my sheep, it must be the fault of someone; but thou thyself art that same one.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §15

It is here that the ascetic priest provides the sufferer with not only a means for deadening the pain but also a meaning for his suffering, the answer to “why do I suffer?”

At first the guilt acts as a narcotic for their suffering, but it ultimately turns out to actually increase suffering through the intense feeling of guilt.

The ascetic priest gets the sufferer to discharge his emotions against himself.

“All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organisation as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §18

The individual is distracted from his own concerns by focusing on the needs and wellbeing of the community. All of this is encouraged by the ascetic priest. The three slogans of the ascetic ideal are:

“poverty, humility, chastity.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §8

So, what does Nietzsche propose as an alternative ideal to give meaning to suffering? He states that a counterideal was lacking until Zarathustra:

“The fundamental conception of [Thus Spoke Zarathustra is] the idea of the eternal recurrence, this highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable.”

Ecce Homo: On The Genealogy of Morals

The eternal recurrence supposes that one would want to repeat life eternally, one accepts every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterably small or great in one’s life.

This is the alternative ideal for whom pain is not considered an objection to life and something to be avoided. However, Nietzsche believes that this task is only a possibility for the highest life affirmers who have embraced suffering.

Thus, there are two possibilities for the alternative ideal: to accept suffering as a means for human greatness – and only one who has done so, could ever accept the second possibility, to accept the eternal recurrence.

We can now answer the question “Why do I suffer?” with, “I suffer, not as a punishment, but in order to become better and stronger”.

Suffering and harsh conditions are required to make an individual great and fruitful. The overcoming of painful situations can be physical, psychological, or both – and one often gains a mental strength, a strength of will.

Concerning profound suffering, Nietzsche writes that:

“It almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer… Profound suffering makes noble; it separates.”

Beyond Good and Evil, §270

The order of rank supposes that humans are fundamentally unequal in their capabilities because of their physiological make-up, which affects both their physical and mental capacities. This inequality plays itself out so that there are higher types and lower types.

Those who are predetermined to be strong enough to suffer well are separated out from the lower types insofar as the latter do not suffer well. A part of suffering well is that one is made noble by it. Having suffered profoundly, the sufferer acquires a knowledge of terrible places that he alone knows about; he is prideful of his knowledge. He needs not to be pitied.

This nobility is present in those who suffer well, by those who are higher in the order of rank. The lower types, too, have gained knowledge of terrible places, but instead of feeling pride, they feel afraid – they crave the pity and safety of others.

One with a noble soul has reverence for himself. This faith in oneself is juxtaposed to that of religious faith. The higher type has a faith in himself and his capabilities; he does not need help from others to bear his suffering, nor does he need their pity. Insofar as one has this faith in oneself, one is distinguished from those of a lower rank.

In addition to suffering and having faith in oneself, the higher type willingly suffers as much responsibility as possible, while the lower type would rather take on as little responsibility as possible, for it is uncomfortable at best.

However, if some individuals are predisposed to suffer well and others poorly, and if suffering can be meaningful for its life enhancing qualities, and those who suffer poorly cannot find opportunities for enhancement in suffering, then the alternative ideal of suffering is not going to be equally available to all.

Therefore, it is only the higher type who can avoid both nihilism and asceticism. The ascetic ideal still has a role to play as the primary means for the majority of people to stave off nihilism.

To live is to suffer; to be able to embrace one’s life means being able to embrace one’s fate as a creature who is born to suffer. Seeing our suffering as meaningful for its necessary and life enhancing aspects should mean a rejection of nihilism. Further, if we couple this alternative ideal with the eternal recurrence, we affirm life at its highest:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: On the Genealogy of Morals

The Problem of Suffering – Existentialism & Psychology

The problem of suffering is its meaninglessness, rather than suffering itself. It is hard to deny that to live is to suffer, as long as we do not mean that to live is only to suffer.

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KIERKEGAARD: How To Avoid Boredom and Maximise Happiness

Most of us strive for happiness in life, whether it be by seeking it directly through pleasures or by seeking it indirectly doing one’s duty, or a combination of both.

In the first part of Either/Or, containing the papers of an anonymous aesthete, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard dedicates a chapter on the problem of boredom and the difficulty of maintaining happiness, and proposes his solution for it.

Kierkegaard was famous for writing under pseudonyms and exploring different spheres of existence, namely, the ethical, the aesthetic and the religious. This makes it all the more difficult to figure out his personal opinion on the matters discussed, it is thus up to the reader to make his own conclusions.


The aesthete begins stating that:

“People of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle. I grant them that and start with the principle that all men are boring. Or will someone be boring enough to contradict me in this? … Were one to demand divorce on the grounds that one’s wife was boring, or a king’s abdication because he was boring to look at, or a priest thrown out of the land because he was boring to listen to, or a cabinet minister dismissed, or a life-sentence for a journalist, because they were dreadfully boring, it would be impossible to get one’s way. What wonder, then, that the world is regressing, that evil is gaining ground more and more, since boredom is on the increase and boredom is a root of all evil.”

The aesthete traces the origin of boredom from the very beginning of the world.

“The gods were bored so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, so Eve was created. From that time boredom entered the world and grew in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone, then Adam and Eve were bored in union, then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored as a family, then the population increased and the people were bored all together. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of building a tower so high it reached the sky. The very idea is as boring as the tower was high…”

He explains that people do not think of ways of diverting themselves, but accelerate the ruin. He suggests that the state of Denmark should take out a loan of fifteen millions to use it not to pay their debts but for public pleasure. Everything would be free for a while, and people would not even need to spend money to amuse themselves, this would lead everything great to pour into Copenhagen, the greatest artists, actors and dancers. Copenhagen would become another Athens.

This is, however, merely a thought of his. He continues to think that all people are boring. However, one can bore oneself or bore other people. He explains that those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect, the nobility. Strangely, those who don’t bore themselves usually bore others, while those who do bore themselves amuse others.

“Those who do not bore themselves are generally those who are busy in the world in one way or another, but that is just why they are the most boring, the most insufferable, of all.”

The other class of men, the select, bore themselves. The more profoundly they bore themselves, the more powerful a means of diversion they offer others, when boredom reaches its zenith, one either dies of boredom (the passive form) or shoots oneself out of curiosity (the active form).

Idleness, it is usually said, is a root of all evil. To prevent this evil one recommends work. However, the aesthete indicates that it is by no means a root of evil: quite the contrary, it is a truly divine way of life as long as one is not bored. The Olympian gods were not bored, they prospered in happy idleness.

The aesthete talks about the “apostles of empty enthusiasm”, those whose admiration and indifference have become indistinguishable.

“People who are always making a profession of enthusiasm, everywhere making their presence felt, and whether something significant or insignificant is taking place, cry ‘Ah!’ or ‘Oh!’, because for them the difference between significant and insignificant has become undone in enthusiasm’s blind and blaring emptiness. The acquired form of boredom is usually a product of a mistaken attempt at diversion.”

The aesthete now delves into how to tackle the problem of boredom.

“Seeing that boredom is a root of all evil… what is more natural than to try to overcome it? But here, as everywhere, cool deliberation is clearly called for lest in one’s demonic obsession with boredom, in trying to avoid it one only works oneself further into it. ‘Change’ is what all who are bored cry out for. With this I am entirely in agreement, only it is important to act from principle… My own departure from the general view is adequately expressed in the phrase crop rotation.”

Crop Rotation: Extensive Cultivation

The whole chapter, in fact, is called Crop Rotation: An Attempt at a Theory of Social Prudence. It is a sort of science of seeking pleasures characteristic of the reflective aesthete,  and not mindlessly doing it as an unreflective aesthete, such as the legend of Don Juan.

To explain how one avoids boredom, the aesthete’s worst enemy, he uses the agricultural notion of crop rotation. It can be done in two ways. The first is the extensive cultivation, growing the same crop in the same land area for many years and gradually depleting the soil of certain nutrients and making it less resilient to pests and weeds. This makes the land lose its fertility and one has to constantly find new land. He writes:

“One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one moves abroad… One is tired of dining off porcelain, one dines off silver; one tires of that, one dines off gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration at Troy. This method defeats itself, it is the bad infinite.”

The “bad infinite” is an expression of Hegel’s which connotes an infinite perpetuation, as against the notion of an infinite that somehow contains all that is finite. In a perpetual need of avoiding boredom, one eventually reaches a dead end.

Crop Rotation: Intensive Cultivation

The second is way is the intensive cultivation: focusing on changing the method of cultivation and type of grain. This is the one the aesthete proposes, the more you limit yourself the more resourceful you become.

The experienced farmer now and then lets his land lie fallow, uncultivated, so as to restore its fertility. The theory of social prudence recommends the same. He writes:

“One thinks of one’s schooldays. When one is at the age when no aesthetic considerations are taken in the choice of one’s teachers and the latter are for that very reason often very boring, how inventive one is! How amusing to catch a fly and keep it imprisoned under a nut shell and watch how it rushes about with the shell! …  How entertaining it can be to hear the monotonous drip from the roof! How thorough of an observer one becomes, the slightest noise or movement does not escape one! Here we have the extreme of the principle that seeks relief, not extensively, but intensively.”

Remembering and Forgetting

The more inventive one can be in changing the mode of cultivation, the better; but every particular change comes under the general rule of the relation between remembering and forgetting. The whole of life moves in these two currents, so it is essential to have control over them.

When we come across something unpleasant we say “If only I could forget”, but forgetting is an art that must be practised beforehand. Being able to forget depends on how one remembers, and how one remembers depends on how one experiences reality.

The age that remembers best, but is also the most forgetful, is childhood. The aesthete tells us that we should have the spirit of the child but also be careful of how we enjoy:

“If one enjoys without reservation to the last, if one always takes with one the most that pleasure can offer, one will be unable either to remember or to forget… For then one has nothing else to remember than a surfeit one wants to forget, but which now plagues you with an involuntary remembrance. So when you begin to notice that you are being carried away by enjoyment or a life-situation too strongly, stop for a moment and remember. No other expedient gives a better distaste for going on too long. One must keep the reins on the enjoyment from the beginning, not set all sail for everything you decide on… Having perfected the art of forgetting and the art of remembering, one is then in a position to play battledore and shuttlecock with the whole of existence.”

The aesthete seeks to create a well-organised arrangement in a reasonable mind. Forgetting is not a passive act but rather an active one in which one puts away what one cannot use – it is identical to memory. When we forget, the thoughts are consigned into oblivion and it is simultaneously forgotten yet preserved.

One might think here of the unconscious and the conscious life of an individual. One’s unconscious contents can affect an individual without him being aware of it.

The aesthete indicates that it is an art that can be developed and ought to be exercised as much in relation to what is pleasant as to what is unpleasant. If someone pushes the unpleasant side altogether, as many of those who dabble in the art of forgetting do, one soon sees what good that does. In an unguarded moment, it often takes one by surprise with all the force of the world.

This is again analogous to letting your unconscious direct your life. One must necessarily have control of moods – controlling them in the sense of being able to produce them at will is impossible, but prudence teaches how to make use of the moment.

“As an experienced sailor always looks out searchingly over the water and sees a squall far ahead, so should one always see the mood a little in advance. One must know how the mood affects oneself, and in all probability others, before putting it on.”


For this, he recommends that one must never stick fast, and for that one must have one’s forgetting up one’s sleeve.

“One never accepts any vocational responsibility. If one does so, one simply becomes Mr. Anybody, a tiny little pivot in the machinery of the corporate state; you cease to direct your own affairs, and then theories can be of little help.”

Though one abstains from vocational responsibility, one should not be inactive but stress all occupation that is identical with idleness. One should develop oneself not so much extensively as intensively and prove the truth of the old proverb that it takes little to please a child.

“The whole secret lies in arbitrariness. People think it requires no skill to be arbitrary, yet it requires deep study to succeed in being arbitrary without losing oneself in it, to derive satisfaction from it oneself. One’s enjoyment is not immediate but is something quite different which one arbitrarily injects. You see the middle of a play, read the third part of a book. In this way one derives a quite different enjoyment from the one the author has been so good as to intend for you. One enjoys something entirely accidental, one regards the whole existence from this standpoint, lets its reality run aground on it.”

He gives an example:

“There was someone whose chatter certain circumstances made it necessary for me to listen to. He was ready at every opportunity with a little philosophical lecture which was utterly boring. Driven almost to despair, I discovered suddenly that he perspired unusually profusely when he spoke. I saw how the pearls of sweat gathered on his brow, then joined in a stream, slid down on his nose, and ended hanging in a drop at the extreme tip of it. From that moment everything was changed; I could even take pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction, just to observe the sweat on his brow and on his nose.”

Apart from this arbitrariness within oneself there is also the accidental outside one. He indicates that one should always keep an eye open for the accidental, always be ready to march if anything should offer. The social pleasures which are planned have no great interest. Through accident, on the other hand, even the least significant thing can become a rich source of amusement.


The next section “The Seducer’s Diary” is the aesthete’s position taken to an extreme. A man who documents his journey of seducing women for the aesthetic fun of abandoning them later. The aesthete himself cannot help but feel anxious upon reading about it. Kierkegaard may have written it as a warning to the aesthetic sphere of life.

Part II of Either/Or contains the response to this aesthetic way of living by the ethicist. He tries to convince the aesthete to the ethical sphere of life. The ethicist who focuses on duty believes that he ends up being more happy than the aesthete who is too fixated on finding happiness.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” – Viktor Frankl

It is ultimately up to the reader to make his own conclusion.

KIERKEGAARD: How To Avoid Boredom and Maximise Happiness

In Either/Or, Kierkegaard dedicates a chapter on the problem of boredom and the difficulty of maintaining happiness, and proposes his solution for it through the aesthetic sphere of existence.

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NIETZSCHE: Living in Solitude and Dealing with Society

“Choose the good solitude, the free, high-spirited, light-hearted solitude that, in some sense, gives you the right to stay good yourself!”

Beyond Good and Evil, §25

Nietzsche’s life was one of solitude, his later period in life was spent almost in complete isolation.

At the age of 24, he was offered to become a professor of classical philology before completing his doctorate or receiving a teaching certificate. He remains to this day among the youngest of the tenured Classics professors on record.

He taught at the University of Basel from 1869 to 1878. Nietzsche’s poor health worsened and he was forced to leave his professorship. He had also felt that academic life was a hindrance to his creative thinking.

He retired with a modest pension of 3000 Swiss francs which represented two-thirds of his annual salary. The pension, though awarded for only six years, was actually paid in full until 1889, the year of his mental breakdown. This money was Nietzsche’s main source of income for the remaining years of his productive life, spanning from 1879 to 1888.

In his period as an independent philosopher he plunged into his creative work while plagued with continued ill health.

Nietzsche’s personal attitude involved a hidden and solitary aspect of his outward persona. Carl Jung writes:

“I was held back by a secret fear that I might perhaps be like him [Nietzsche], at least in regard to the “secret” which had isolated him from his environment. Perhaps, who knows? he had had inner experiences, insights which he had unfortunately talked about, and had found out that no one understood him.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, III

Sigmund Freud, in rare praise, noted that:

“Nietzsche had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live.”

Nietzsche travelled frequently to find climates more beneficial to his health and lived in different cities as an independent author. He spent his summers in the coolness of Sils Maria, Switzerland and his winters in the warmness of the Italian cities of Genoa, Rapallo and Turin, and the French city of Nice. He also wrote many letters to his colleagues.

However, for the most part he was alone. Apart from writing, he used to take long walks that could last several hours. Nietzsche considered himself as the solitary wanderer and hermit, the “free spirit” that had experienced a great liberation from the traditions that had kept him chained. Solitude became the origin of a new category of thinker, a “philosopher of the future”, a “free spirit”.

“… we are the born, sworn, jealous friends of solitude, of our profoundest midnight and midday solitude – such kind of men are we, we free spirits! and perhaps you are something of this yourselves, you who are approaching? you new philosophers?”

Beyond Good and Evil, §44

He further elaborates that one must:

“… remain master of one’s four virtues: courage, insight, sympathy, solitude. Because solitude is a virtue for us, since it is a sublime inclination and impulse to cleanliness which shows that contact between people (“society”) inevitably makes things unclean. Somewhere, sometime, every community makes people – base.”

Beyond Good and Evil, §284

Solitude is best expressed in the figure of Zarathustra, the solitary wanderer:

“When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude and for ten years he did not tire of it. But at last a change came over his heart, and one morning he rose with the dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it thus: “You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine. For ten years you have climbed to my cave: you would have tired of your light and of the journey had it not been for me and my eagle and my serpent.” But we waited for you every morning, took your overflow from you, and blessed you for it. “Behold, I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to receive it.” I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy once again in their folly, and the poor in their riches. “For that I must descend to the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you overrich star.” Like you, I must go under—go down, as is said by man, to whom I want to descend. “So bless me then” you quiet eye that can look even upon all-too-great happiness without envy! “Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of your delight. “Behold, this cup wants to become empty again, and Zarathustra wants to become man again.” Thus began Zarathustra’s down-going.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue

Zarathustra’s solitude was very fruitful, but there comes a moment when he grows weary of his wisdom. Solitude seems, therefore, to be a temporary matter. He wishes to share his teachings and thus he begins his descent into mankind.

However, he fails to teach the people no matter how hard he tries. In fact, he feels more isolated with the people than being alone with himself, like a black sheep. Despite the appearances, the mediocre man is actually isolated from himself and progressively absorbed in a faceless collectivity, that ends up suffocating his individuality.

Nietzsche himself was acutely aware of his psychological isolation, and joked to one of his correspondents that he was the “hermit of Sils-Maria”. On one of his drafts in his last work Ecce Homo, he writes: “I am solitude become man”

He considered his contemporaries as parroting culture and society in their ideas, writings and daily life because they lack the will to delve into their own being and derive meaning and ideas from a thorough-going examination of oneself, which can only be achieved by cultivating solitude. He writes:

“When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody. I then require the desert, so as to grow good again.”

Daybreak, §491


“I need solitude – that is to say, recovery, return to myself, the breathing of free, crisp, bracing air… The whole of my Zarathustra is a dithyramb in honour of solitude.”

Ecce Homo, 1, 8.

Zarathustra eventually ends up going back into solitude, but this time – he focuses on a small minority of “higher men”, who unlike the crowd, possess virtues of introspection, discipline, self-overcoming and other aspects constitutive of the love of life. An individual who isolates himself without ever valuing external opinions will only have his conscience with himself and nobody to ever confront or challenge his views. This is why Zarathustra must find “higher men” for his mental elevation. He suggests that our “enemies” are actually adversaries whose ideas have the potential of improving our own. He writes:

“My brothers in war! I love you deeply, because I am and have been your equal. And I am also your best enemy… You should be the kind of men whose eyes always seek an enemy – your enemy… You should seek your enemy, wage your war and for your thoughts! And when your thought is defeated, then your honesty should cry out in triumph even for that.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of War and Warriors

Solitude is thus not just a result of the contempt of the masses, but allows to forge a more profound longing for a community that allows one to explore the best version of oneself. Company is important, and if chosen well – can be mutually beneficial.

In this sense, introspective solitude is compatible with life in community, but it is also necessary to retreat into complete solitude once in a while, in order to receive its fruits.

“Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you. Indeed, with different eyes, my brothers, will I then seek my lost ones; with a different love will I love you then.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of the Bestowing Virtue

A temporary retreat into solitude helps to dissolve one’s entrapment in being a mere member of a crowd, where society is thought of as higher than its members. Anyone who questions and goes against society is ridiculed and ostracised, so too the solitary wanderer.

The solitary is he who challenges society’s desire to turn the human being into an absolutely gregarious animal. There is great risk in wanting to live and think like a solitary, for he is expected to conform to culture and popular opinion. Yet it is the solitary who is free, while the masses have renounced to their will and have become conformists.

However, in solitude, everything that one carries with him grows, including one’s inner beast.

“Today you suffer still from the many, you lonely one: for today you still have your courage and your hopes intact. But one day solitude will make you weary, one day your pride will cringe and your courage will gnash its teeth. One day you will cry “I am alone!” One day you will no longer see your high, and your low will appear too near; your sublimity itself will frighten you like a ghost. One day you will cry: “Everything is false!” There are feelings that want to kill the lonely one; if they do not succeed, well, then they must die themselves! But are you capable of being a murderer?”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of the Way of the Creator

Nietzsche indicates that only a few people can bear solitude, but these will be able to harvest its fruits. Solitude has an aspect of a sense of belonging that is not present in the crowd.

Being physically isolated, however, does not imply automatically and instantaneously getting rid of the social imprint, because society not only makes an appearance outside of oneself, but also within oneself, through a common conscience. It is an inner voice that contains the norms and habits that prevail at the civic level and, to a greater or lesser extent, condition our way of speaking, interpreting, reflecting, acting, and, in short, living.

That is why Nietzsche urges us to reflect upon this inner voice that conditions our life, and that is only possible in solitude.

“Flee, my friend, into your solitude! I see you dazed by the noise of the great men and stung by the stings of the little. Forest and rock know well how to be silent with you. Be once more like the tree that you love, the broad-branching one: silent and listening it hangs over the sea. Where solitude ends, there begins the marketplace; and where the marketplace begins, there begins too the noise of the great actors and the buzzing of poisonous flies… You have lived too long near the small and the pitiable man. Flee their invisible revenge! Against you they are nothing but revenge.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I “On the Flies of the Marketplace”

Being in solitude allows to see one’s constant anxious consideration of the opinions that others hold of you and one’s captivity in the quick pace of modern life that pressures everyone to become workaholics, the result is alienation and fragmentation of the self.

Solitude makes again possible the practices of contemplation, which puts oneself in touch with one’s deep sources of wellness.

“On this perfect day, when everything is ripening, and not only the grapes are getting brown, a ray of sunshine has fallen on my life: I looked behind me, I looked before me, and never have I seen so many good things all at once… How could I help being thankful to the whole of my life?”

Ecce Homo, Preface

Living in Solitude and Dealing with Society | Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche recommends to spend some of our time in complete solitude. To reflect upon the inner voice that conditions our life which is the product of the common conscience of society.

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NIETZSCHE: The Übermensch (Overman)

In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there are three major teachings that the sage Zarathustra has to offer: the will to power, the eternal recurrence and the übermensch.

We have explored the ideas of the will to power and the eternal recurrence in-depth in previous posts. Now we will be doing the same here with the übermensch.

Translation and Origins of “Übermensch”                                    

Let’s first start with the word itself, “ubermensch”. The first English translation rendered it as “Beyond-Man”, and later it was named “Superman”, however this promoted its misidentification with the comic-book character Superman. It has also been called the “Super-human” and “Über-man”.

Walter Kaufmann, one of the most important Nietzschean scholars, explains that the closest to the German translation is “overman”. We will be using this term, although it can also be used in its original German form as well.

Nietzsche was a profound admirer of Emerson. He wrote in his notes:

“Emerson. – Never have I felt so much at home in a book and in my home, as – I may not praise it, it is too close to me”

– Volume XI Musarion edition.

Emerson had coined the term “The Over-soul” (the title of one of his essays), which may have influenced Nietzsche’s choice of the term übermensch, making the translation “overman” doubly appropriate. Nietzsche had translated the original English word of “over-soul” as “the higher soul”, which also may have influenced his phrase, “the higher man.”

The Overman and The Free Spirit

Nietzsche had not come up with the concept of the overman until his later period in life. However, he had spoken of “free spirits”, which is to evolve in his later works into the sage Zarathustra, who paves the way for the overman.

In one of his early books, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche dedicates it to the “free spirits” who did not exist yet, but he saw them coming slowly. He spent time with these imagined “free spirits” to be of good cheer in the midst of illness, isolation and inactivity, to chat and laugh with. The free spirit challenges the conventional ways of living and promotes the growth of society.

The Overman and The Final Metamorphosis

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the overman is linked with the final metamorphosis of the child. Nietzsche tells us that there are three metamorphoses for self-overcoming: the camel, the lion and the child.

Not everyone, however, can become a camel. One must first become a free spirit and be willing to step outside of one’s comfort zone to carry heavy weights and sacrifice oneself. To debase oneself in order to injure one’s pride, to let one’s folly shine out in order to mock one’s wisdom. In other words, Nietzsche suggests that when we feel proud of ourselves, we are to take on even more weight to show that we are not that great after all, we need to humble ourselves.

The lion is the next transformation, he is one who wants to take on freedom and must utter the “sacred No” to all tradition and rules that previously kept it “fettered”. The final transformation, characterised by play and creativity, is the child. Having uttered the “Sacred No” to reject everything that came before, the child shouts the “sacred Yes” that affirms life. It is a new beginning, without any burdens or “spirit of heaviness”.

After achieving the final metamorphosis, one can become “who one is”. The mind of the child is one who is immersed in the moment and filled with wonder and playfulness, giving way to pure creativity, one can create one’s own values and one’s own reality, one can now become an overman.

What is the Overman?

The overman is the ultimate form of man, it is one who overcomes nihilism by creating his own values and focusing on this life, not the afterlife. He puts all his faith in himself as an autonomous creator and relies on nothing else. He is the pinnacle of self-overcoming, to rise above the human norm and above all difficulties, embracing whatever life throws at you. He is one who overcomes mediocrity and is not afraid to live dangerously. “The overman shall be the meaning of the earth”.

To be master of oneself is the hardest of all tasks and requires the greatest increase in power over oneself, not over others. This is tied with his concept of the will to power, symbolising self-overcoming. Happiness is the feeling that power increases, that a resistance is overcome. The overman will thus be the happiest man and, as such, the meaning and justification of existence.

First Appearance of The Overman

The first appearance of the “overman” does not first occur in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as many believe. Nietzsche, in fact, mentions it once in an aphorism of The Gay Science:

“The invention of gods, heroes, and overmen of all kinds, as well as near-men and undermen, dwarfs, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons and devils was the inestimable preliminary exercise for the justification of the egoism and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom that one conceded to a god in his relation to other gods – one eventually also granted oneself in relation to laws, customs, and neighbours.”

The Gay Science, §143

The overmen of this aphorism seem to be the gods, the demigods, and heroes of the ancient Greeks. To Nietzsche these overmen appear as symbols of the repudiation of any conformity to a single norm: antitheses to mediocrity and stagnation.

To realise one’s true self means not to envisage the self which lies deeply concealed within you, but rather the self that is immeasurably high over you. This aphorism is significant because it contains one of the few references to the overman before Thus Spoke Zarathustra and was written just before that work.

The Overman and Thus Spoke Zarathustra

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the overman makes his most important public appearance – together with the eternal recurrence and the will to power, which had not been fully developed either before Zarathustra expounded them. After Zarathustra’s descent from the mountains he arrives at a town, where he found a crowd assembled in the market square, for it had been announced that a tightrope walker would be appearing. And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:

“I teach you the overman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape. Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The overman shall be the meaning of the earth! … Where is the lightning to lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness, with which you should be cleansed? Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue

The people, however, fail to understand him and burst out in laughter. They incorrectly assume that he is the tightrope walker that they have all gathered around to see and tell him that he should get to work. But the tightrope walker, who thought that the words applied to him, set to work.

Zarathustra looked at the people and marvelled. Then he spoke thus:

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying-still. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”

The original text in German of Thus Spoke Zarathustra contains a great deal of wordplay which is lost in translation. Zarathustra’s descent from the mountains as the solitary wanderer symbolises his “down-going” or “untergang”, as he wishes to share his wisdom with humanity after remaining in solitude for 10 years. However, this descent is also contrasted with his over-going “übergang”, and overcoming “überwindung”, both of which evoke the overman “übermensch”

In other words, one’s self-overcoming (selbstüberwindung) necessarily involves a going under. The overman cannot be dissociated from the conception of overcoming. It is repeated again and again throughout the book that “man is something that should be overcome” – and the man who has overcome himself has become the overman.

The Overman and The Last Man

The crowd still do not understand him, they just laugh at him. They symbolise the opposite of the overman – the “Last Man”. Those who strive for conformity, those who are all alike and enjoy mediocrity, afraid of doing anything too dangerous. They are perfectly happy to be virtually the same as everyone else. They think they have discovered happiness and blink.

Zarathustra starts to speak about this “Last Man” and when he finishes they shout:

“Give us this Last Man, O Zarathustra” – so they cried – make us into this Last Man! You can have the Overman! And all the people laughed and shouted. But Zarathustra grew sad and said to his heart: “They do not understand me: I am not the mouth for these ears.”

The Tightrope Walker

In the meantime, the crowd is fixated on the tightrope walker who has just reached the middle of the course of his dangerous crossing, symbolising mankind’s progress between beast and overman.

Suddenly, a jester comes out behind him and teases him, he eventually emits a cry like a devil and springs over the tightrope walker standing in his path. The latter who saw his rival thus triumph, lost his footing and he threw away his pole and fell.

Zarathustra rushes to the badly injured but not yet dead man:

“I’ve known for a long time that the Devil would trip me up. Now he’s dragging me to Hell: are you trying to prevent him? – ‘On my honour, friend’, answered Zarathustra, ‘all you have spoken of does not exist: there is no Devil and no Hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body: therefore fear nothing anymore!’ The man looked up mistrustfully. ‘If you are speaking the truth’, he said then, ‘I leave nothing when I leave life. I am not much more than an animal…’ ‘Not so’, said Zarathustra. ‘You have made danger your calling, there is nothing in that to despise. Now you perish through your calling: so I will bury you with my own hands.’ When Zarathustra had said this the dying man replied no more; but he motioned with his hand, as if he sought Zarathustra’s hand to thank him.”

Nietzsche indicates that the tightrope walker who risked his life, contrary to the mediocrity of the last man, had lived an admirable life. In fact, one of the characteristics of the overman is the ability to confront danger.

“I love those who do not know how to live except their lives be a down-going, for they are those who are over-going”

This danger is the bridge to the overman. In one of Nietzsche’s most popular phrases, he says:

“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously!

The Gay Science, §283

Nietzsche evokes the figure of man as that of a tightrope walker. In man there is both creator and creature, the human and the all-too-human, but also the “human, superhuman”, this is, of course, a variation of the earlier “human, all-too-human” which Nietzsche had intended to brand our animal nature. The “human, superhuman” then refers to our true self and the “overman” is the one who has acquired self-mastery.

The Overman: “The Meaning of The Earth”

When Nietzsche says that “The overman is the meaning of the earth. The overman shall be the meaning of the earth”. He tries to bring the focus on this life, instead of devaluing it in favour of an afterlife.

“I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go. Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.”

Nietzsche believes that focusing on an afterlife is a symptom of dissatisfaction with life that causes the suffering to imagine another world which will fulfil his revenge. This required an invention of an immortal soul separate from the earthly body, leading to the abnegation of the body or asceticism. For Nietzsche, the soul and body cannot be separated.

The Overman and The Death of God

Nietzsche saw the decline of Christianity in society as devastatingly dangerous as it would give way to nihilism. He speaks of the “parable of the madman” who proclaims the death of God. His proclamation has tragic overtones.

Christianity had focused primarily on the afterlife, devaluing this life – as well as an over-appreciation of truth and the impossibility of criticising it. Nietzsche considered that Christianity developed a self-destructive tool which ended up destroying itself, he calls it a “will to nothingness”, a will opposed to life, but it is and remains a will. In other words, man will wish nothingness rather than not wish at all, it brought, however, a new and more venomous poison into life that devalues this life. The death of God symbolises the opening of the gap of nihilism.

He saw humanity as facing an unprecedented crisis which would require a transformation or evolution of humankind. The evolution Nietzsche has in mind is philosophical rather than physical. It will require a questioning of the entire Western philosophical tradition and a completely different attitude toward life. The source of the crisis for Nietzsche lies in the longing for the afterworld, the desire which has shaped the Western tradition since Socrates to be liberated from the prison of the body and of earthly existence. In contrast to this longing, Zarathustra emphasises that one should “remain faithful to the earth.” The further evolution of humankind thus requires overcoming the mind/body, spirit/nature dualism that has shaped much of Western thought.

Nietzsche intended the monumental task of a “Revaluation of All Values”, through the overman, the eternal recurrence and the will to power. He seeks to offer an alternative to traditional values in the absence of a divine order so human beings might stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and bring the attention to this world.

The overman is meant to be the solution to nihilism, by conquering it, he is the meaning we should give to our lives. The overman overflows with strength and well-being, so much so that he has to bestow gifts onto others.

Nietzsche not only refers to the death of Christianity but states at the end of Zarathustra’s prologue that:

“Dead are all gods, now we want the overman to live – let this be our last will one day at the great noontide!”

The Overman and The Higher Man

Nietzsche also talks about “the higher men”, great human beings who serve as examples of people who would follow his philosophical ideas. Those who use their own legs to rise high up and not let themselves be carried up. For man must grow to the height where the lightning can strike and shatter him: high enough for the lightning.

Nietzsche also calls them “free spirits”, “philosophers of the future” and “creative geniuses”, those with both an intellectual conscience and with a feeling for art. Nietzsche recommends the artistic style of life that he considers his own life to be an example of. As well as a philosopher, he counts himself among the poets and artists.

In Part IV of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the sage Zarathustra contemplates the folly of hermits he made when he went to men for the first time: he had gone to the marketplace. And when he spoke to everyone, he spoke to no one.

Nietzsche does not write for everyone. In fact, the subtitle for Thus Spoke Zarathustra is A Book for All and None. He writes for that small percentage of people who are willing to take risks in order to get true fulfilment and happiness out of life.

“You Higher Men, learn this from me: in the marketplace no one believes in Higher Men… the mob blink and say…there are no Higher Men, we are all equal, man is but man, before God – we are all equal! Before God! But now this God has died.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV “Of the Higher Man”

However, the higher men are not overmen – as a consequence of Zarathustra’s instruction, they become conscious of their inadequacy. Zarathustra says:

“You may all be Higher Men… but for me – you are not high and strong enough.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV “Of the Higher Man”

Zarathustra declared earlier that:

“Never yet has there been an overman. Naked saw I both the greatest and the smallest man. They are still all-too-similar to each other. Verily even the greatest I found all-too-human.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part II “Of The Priests”.

The question is merely whether a higher man became truly perfect, or whether even he was, in some respects, “all-too-human”. This consideration, however, does not affect the interpretation of the overman as the man who has to overcome himself.

The Overman, The Eternal Recurrence, The Will to Power

The overman is closely tied to his notion of eternal recurrence and the will to power.

The eternal recurrence supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with every struggle and every victory, every event and every experience, repeated for eternity.

The eternal recurrence was to Nietzsche less an idea than an experience – the supreme experience of a life unusually rich in suffering, pain and agony.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche proclaims that he is the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus and the teacher of the eternal recurrence.

“You higher men, do learn this, joy wants eternity. Joy wants eternity of all things, wants deep, wants deep eternity!”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV, The Intoxicated Song

The weak, who are able to stand life only by hoping for kingdom, power, and glory in another life, would be crushed by this terrifying doctrine of the eternal recurrence, which he considered as “the heaviest weight”, while the strong would find in it the last incentive to achieve perfection.

The eternal recurrence is the ultimate affirmation of life, an eternal repetition of what constitutes existence in the present world. Nietzsche says that one would require the most impassioned love of life:

“… to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.”

– The Gay Science, §341

Self-overcoming is expressed in terms of a will to power. That is, power over oneself, becoming who one is, it manifests itself in the encounter with obstacles. Both pain and pleasure are inextricably connected together, with intense pain comes a feeling of joy worthy of gods. This constitutes the progress towards the overman, who will ultimately accept the eternal recurrence with great joy, as he is the highest life-affirmer.

“My formula for the greatness of a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different – not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”

Ecce Homo, II, 10

One’s character is in constant becoming, as one tries the seemingly impossible task of reaching the stars, one aspires to the highest possible goal. This self-overcoming is the concept that ties together the will to power, the overman and the eternal recurrence. It is indeed one of the most important aspects of Nietzsche’s whole philosophy.

NIETZSCHE: The Übermensch (Overman)

Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Overman) is among the most important of his teachings, along with the eternal recurrence and the will to power.

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Book Review: The Present Age – Søren Kierkegaard

“There is no more action or decision in our day than there is perilous delight in swimming in shallow waters.”

In “The Present Age”, Søren Kierkegaard discusses the philosophical implications of a society dominated by mass media, foreseeing the rise of twenty-four hour news and social media, it examines the philosophical implications of a culture of endless, inconsequential commentary and debate – a society eerily similar to our own.

The Age of Revolution together with The Present Age, make up his book Two Ages: A Literary Review, which he published in 1846.

For Kierkegaard, the present age is essentially a sensible age, devoid of passion. He contrasts this with the “revolutionary age”:

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”


“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose”

The work was published shortly after “The Corsair Affair” in which the satirical magazine made Kierkegaard the target of public ridicule, forcing him into deeper isolation – which only increased his determination to strike back.

He attacks the conformity and assimilation of individuals who become immersed in an indifferent and abstract public. They are incapable of anything but “crowd actions” which are not true actions at all.

Kierkegaard says that we can only become individuals by action, he was concerned with inwardness, the quality of our individuality. He feared that in modern consumer society the individual was being absorbed into the crowd and the spiritual life of the individual was being stifled by it.

The individual loses himself in the finite, he mindlessly follows others and goes around the demands of culture and social expectations. He loses his individuality, becoming an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.

The age of great and good actions is past, the present age is the age of anticipation when even recognition is received in advance.   

Ice Skater Analogy

Kierkegaard gives a splendid comparison of the two ages through the ice skater analogy.

If a jewel which everyone desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while closer in, the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize.

But in an age, without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worthwhile to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daring and enthusiasm into a feat of skill.  The crowds would go out to watch from a safe place, as the accomplished skater moves almost to the very edge, and then swiftly turns back. Intelligence, prudence and skill transforms the real task into an unreal trick and reality into a play.

“A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless, transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics.”

Reflective tension

The present age is characterised by idle-chatter and gossip. People have plenty to talk about, but on trivial matters which amount to nothing. They are afraid of the silence which reveals the emptiness of talkativeness.

It is an age of ambiguity. The whole age becomes a sort of committee, observing and deliberately working out problems.

For example, a father no longer curses his son in anger, using all his parental authority, nor does a son defy his father, a conflict which might end in forgiveness. It has become a problem in which the two partners observe each other as in a game, instead of having any relation to each other, and they note down each other’s remarks instead of showing a firm devotion.

This is known as reflective tension, while in a passionate age the unifying principle was enthusiasm – the present age is characterised by envy, preventing the individual to make a decision passionately.

In the present age, an individual has to break loose from the bonds of his own reflection, but even then he is not free. Instead he finds himself in the vast prison formed by the reflection of those around him.

People do not realise that they are imprisoned as the imprisonment is not external, but rather internal. Therefore, reflection adds to our affliction.


Just as the air in a sealed room becomes unbearable, so does the imprisonment of reflection which gives way to envy, which in turn takes the form of ressentiment, if it is not ventilated by action of any kind.

Ressentiment is also a term used by Nietzsche, notably in his Genealogy of Morals, although they differ in meaning. For Kierkegaard, it means that one blames one’s own failures to another person. Individuals who do not conform to the masses are made scapegoats and objects of ridicule by the masses, in order to maintain the status quo and to instil into the masses their own sense of superiority.

Throughout history, man has always liked to joke enviously about his superiors. That is fine so long as after having laughed at the great they can once more look upon them with admiration.

In Greece, for example, the form ressentiment took was ostracism. The outstanding individual was exiled in order for the masses to preserve their social position, it was thus considered a mark of distinction. The man who votes for the exile of the outstanding individual does not deny his eminence but rather admits something about himself.

On the other side, the more reflection gets the upper hand and thus makes people indolent, the more dangerous ressentiment becomes. It now wants to drag down the individual so that he ceases to be distinguished.


This takes the form of what Kierkegaard calls levelling. While a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, a reflective and passionless age hinders and stifles all action; it levels.

Antiquity tended towards leadership represented by the great individual, the present age, however, tends towards equality. In other words, it tries to put everything at the same level.

Levelling is an anonymous social process without leaders in which the uniqueness of the individual becomes non-existent by assigning equal values to all aspects of human endeavours, thus missing all the subtle complexities of human identity.

It is the victory of abstraction over the individual, one essentially embodies the crowd. It is the destruction of the individual.

The Public

Levelling is supported by “the public”, which Kierkegaard calls a “monstrous nothing”. It consists of unreal individuals who are never united in an actual situation and yet are held together as a whole, there is no personal contact.

“In order that everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first of all necessary to procure a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage – and that phantom is the public. It is only in an age which is without passion, yet reflective, that such a phantom can develop itself with the help of the Press which itself becomes an abstraction.”

The Press satisfies the desire of seeking trivial diversion, without making one responsible for anything.

Kierkegaard also comments on the future of education:

“There are handbooks for everything, and very soon education, all the world over, will consist in learning a greater or lesser number of comments by heart, and people will excel according to their capacity for singling out the various factors like a printer singling out the letters, but completely ignorant of the meaning of anything.”

The Leap

Reflection, however, is not evil – since it leads one to the only way out –  man’s salvation lies in the reality of religion of each individual. One has to work through it and emerge from it, in order that one’s actions should be more intensive.

Kierkegaard believes that God is a personal matter, he wanted to become “a Christian in Christendom”, a true Christian in a society full of falsely religious people.

A person who is religious would not be able to guide another as that would not only make him unfaithful to God in trying to use authority, but most importantly because he did not obey God and teach men to love one another and help them to make the leap themselves, for God’s love is not a second-hand gift. This is akin to the knight of faith, which Kierkegaard talks about in Fear and Trembling.

Religion is to follow oneself and be content with oneself – by leaping into the depths, one learns to help oneself and to love others as much as oneself, becoming an individual. Reflection is concerned with temporal matters, it does not have a place in the eternal view of life. As Kierkegaard says:

“Faith is immediacy after reflection”

The goal of life is not to understand the highest, but to act on it, commitment brings you back into the forward movement of life.

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The Present Age | Søren Kierkegaard

The Present Age was published in 1846 by Søren Kierkegaard. He discusses the philosophical implications of a society dominated by mass media, foreseeing the rise of twenty-four hour news and social media, it examines the philosophical implications of a culture of endless, inconsequential commentary and debate – a society eerily similar to our own.

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Book Review: Human, All Too Human – Nietzsche


Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits was published by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1878 and represents a “monument of a crisis” for Nietzsche, a critical turning point in his life and thought.

His long friendship with Richard Wagner had come to a halt. Moreover, Nietzsche’s bad health forced him to leave his professorship at the University of Basel, where he taught for around 10 years. Since his childhood, he had been plagued with moments of short-sightedness that left him nearly blind, migraine headaches, and violent indigestion.

However, it wasn’t just his health but his conviction that academic life was a hindrance to a true philosopher which prompted his departure.

Human, All Too Human marks the beginning of a second period in Nietzsche’s philosophy, his period as an independent philosopher. He embraces 18th century Enlightenment, rejecting the romanticism that had characterised his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, inspired by Richard Wagner.

Nietzsche also rejected the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, who proposed that one must separate oneself from the will to reduce suffering, since human existence is an endless insatiable striving. Nietzsche characterised this ascetic attitude as a “will to nothingness”.

He proposes the “will to power”, in which all life is striving and self-overcoming.  Although this idea is not yet expressed in Human, All Too Human – the notion of the will to power is here in embryo.

Nietzsche’s lifelong theme was one of overcoming: health is the overcoming of sickness; the values of one society are overcome by the next; each stage of an individual’s life is a self-overcoming.

The Structure of the Work

This book marks a turning point in terms of Nietzsche’s style, with his use of the aphorism. The 638 aphorisms of Human, All Too Human range from a few words to a few pages, but most are short paragraphs. It represents an unsystematic approach to philosophy, contrary to previous philosophers who tried to have an explanation for everything. This style best represents Nietzsche’s philosophy.

The work suggests that human fallibilities – not strengths – are to be the focus of attention. Nietzsche believes that maxims about human nature can help in overcoming life’s hard moments. There is an implicit drive to overcome what is “human, all too human” through philosophy.


In the Preface,  Nietzsche elaborates on the concept of free spirits, to whom the book is directed to:

“Thus I invented, when I needed them, the “free spirits” too, to whom this heavyhearted-stouthearted book with the title “Human, All Too Human” is dedicated. There are no such “free spirits”… but, as I said, I needed their company at the time, to be of good cheer in the midst of bad things (illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity); as brave fellows and spectres to chat and laugh with, when one feels like chatting and laughing… That there could someday be such free spirits… real and palpable… I am the last person to want to doubt that. I already see them coming, slowly, slowly…”

Preface, §1

For Nietzsche, the free spirit experiences “a great liberation” and breaks away from the traditions that previously kept it “fettered”.

Human, All Too Human is divided into nine sections.

I. Of First and Last Things

In the first section, “Of First and Last Things”, Nietzsche traces the origin of metaphysical beliefs from physiological causes, such as dreams, to psychological causes, such as dissatisfaction with oneself, or to language itself.

Nietzsche writes of language that:

“The shaper of language was not so modest as to think that he was only giving things labels; rather he imagined that he was expressing the highest knowledge of things with words, and in fact, language is the first stage of scientific effort.”

Human, All Too Human, §11

He concludes that we can know nothing positive about a metaphysical world, even if it should exist. In fact, our knowledge of it:

“would be the most inconsequential of all knowledge, even more inconsequential than the knowledge of the chemical analysis of water must be to the boatman facing a storm.”

Human, All Too Human, §9

This theme expresses Nietzsche’s “bliss in the unhappiness of knowledge”. For giving up metaphysical convictions the philosopher also gains the chance for greater freedom.

II. On the History of Moral Feelings

Section 2, “On the History of Moral Feelings”, is inspired by his friend Paul Rée’s “On the Origin of Moral Sensations”, and anticipates Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals”.

Nietzsche examines the history of moral feelings as a way to “alleviate the burden of living”. He takes a closer look on the origin of morality, exposing the falsity of the ideas of good and evil. Nietzsche goes beyond good and evil, as he considers himself an immoralist. In fact, morality is equivalent to custom.

“To be moral, correct, ethical, means to obey an age-old law or tradition… We call “good” the man who does the moral thing as if by nature… easily, and gladly, whatever it is… To be evil is to be “not moral” (immoral), to practise bad habits, go against tradition, however reasonable or stupid it may be… When men determine between moral and immoral, good and evil, the basic opposites is not “egoism” and “selflessness”, but rather adherence to a tradition or law, and release from it.”

Human, All Too Human, §96

III. Religious Life

The third section “Religious Life”, analyses religious worship from a psychological viewpoint.

“Without blind disciples, no man or his work has ever gained great influence. Sometimes, to promote the triumph of a form of knowledge means only that one weds it to stupidity, so that the weight of the stupidity also forces the triumph of the knowledge.”

Human, All Too Human, §122

The ascetic way of life is another way of man to wage war: this time, against a part of himself.

“There exists a defiance against oneself that includes among its most sublime expressions various forms of asceticism… it finally occurs to them to tyrannise certain parts of their own being… some virtually beg to be despised by others… This shattering of oneself, this scorn for one’s own nature… which religions have made so much out of, is actually a very high degree of vanity.”

Human, All Too Human, §137

IV. From the Soul of Artists and Writers

In the fourth section “From the Soul of Artists and Writers”, the aesthetic experience is taken to task. Nietzsche attacks the idea of divine inspiration in art, he claims that it is not the result of a miracle, but rather of hard work. Though he does not name Wagner, he is implicitly mentioned in the word artist, symbolising Nietzsche’s break with romanticism.

He champions preromantic artists such as Voltaire and Goethe. Nietzsche’s “philosophising with a hammer” is anticipated, for his prime aim is not so much to construct new systems of values or beliefs as to shatter the old, erroneous ways of thinking.

V. Signs of Higher and Lower Culture

In section five “Signs of Higher and Lower Culture”, Nietzsche presents his own answer to the demolition he has just accomplished, formulating at depth the idea of “free spirit”, which is to evolve in his later works into the sage Zarathustra, who paves the way for the Ubermensch, the ultimate form of man and highest pinnacle of self-overcoming.

Nietzsche outlines the function of the free spirit within a culture: it is his role to challenge the old, the conventional, to wound the society at its vulnerable spot, to take upon himself the fear of the society in order to promote its growth and development.

The free spirit is the symbol of the new, positive direction to Nietzsche’s thought, it is essentially the philosopher as Nietzsche sees him.

For while there is no Truth for Nietzsche – neither in metaphysical, moral, religious nor aesthetic terms – there are truths, and it is these which the free spirit will seek out, since:

“No honey is sweeter than that of knowledge”

Human, All Too Human, §292.

His fundamental tenet that truth is never absolute but subjective and the rejection of the primacy of any philosophical system, has allowed Existentialism to claim Nietzsche as one of its spiritual forefathers.

VI. Man in Society

In section 6 “Man in Society” Nietzsche writes about the worldliness of the manners of society. He observes the dodges and the hypocrisy and cunning in everyday intercourse.

VII. Woman and Child

In section 7 “Woman and Child”, he makes psychological observations such as:

“Everyone carries within him an image of woman which he gets from his mother”

Human, All Too Human, §380


“Usually a mother loves herself in her son more than she loves the son himself.”

Human, All Too Human, §385

Nietzsche expresses hope for the future of women. However, he concludes that marriage and the life of the free spirit are incompatible:

“Will free spirits live with women? In general, I believe that, as the true-thinking, truth-speaking men of the present, they must, like the prophetic birds of ancient times, prefer to fly alone.”

Human, All Too Human, § 426

VIII. A Look at the State

In section 8 “A Look at the State”, Nietzsche analyses the structures of power in the state. He sees the claim of the lower classes for their share not as an outcry for social justice, but only as the beast’s roar at food he cannot have.

Like religion, Nietzsche’s intention is to proclaim “the death of the state”.

IX. Man Alone with Himself

The final section “Man Alone with Himself” contains a poetic quality, almost a kind of mellow resignation at times:

“However far man may extend himself with knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself – ultimately he carries away with him nothing but his own biography”

Human, All Too Human, §513

We see Nietzsche as the solitary wanderer enjoying his own counsel, anticipating “The Wanderer and His Shadow”, and ultimately the figure of Zarathustra.

Among Friends: An Epilogue

“Fine, with one another silent,

Finer, with one another laughing –

Under heaven is silky cloth

Leaning over books and moss

With friends lightly, loudly laughing

Each one showing white teeth shining.

If I did well, let us be silent,

If I did badly, let us laugh

And do it bad again by half,

More badly done, more badly laugh,

Until the grave, when down we climb.

Friends! Well! What do you say?

Amen! Until we meet again!”

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Human All Too Human | Friedrich Nietzsche

Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits was published by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1878 and represents a “monument of a crisis” for Nietzsche, a critical turning point in his life and thought.

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Book Review: Either/Or – Søren Kierkegaard

Either/Or: A Fragment of Life was published by Søren Kierkegaard in 1843, making it his first major work. The book was written under the pseudonym Victor Eremita “Victorious Hermit”.

In the preface, Victor Eremita tells us that he has found two papers in an old desk. They express the viewpoints of two distinct figures with radically different beliefs –  the unknown aesthetic young man of Part One, called simply “A”, and the ethical judge of Part II, which he calls “B”.

Part I. Containing the Papers of “A”. Diapsalmata

The first volume opens up with the papers of “A”. Starting with the “Diapsalmata”, which expresses a recurrent mood, capturing A’s moments as an aesthete.

“I feel as a chessman must when the opponent says of it: that piece cannot be moved.”

“When I opened my eyes and saw reality, I started to laugh and haven’t stopped since.”

“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”

“If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”

Part I. The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic

In the “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic”, “A” expresses what he finds pleasure in: music. He seeks to understand seduction through music, which expresses the most abstract idea: the spirit of sensuality.

Words are unable to express the mood itself, it is too heavy for words to carry, only music can express it. Imagination has no limits, and it is the most useful tool in obtaining pleasure for the aesthete.

He praises Mozart’s opera of Don Giovanni and considers him as one who ranks among the immortals in the realm of music.

The opera is based on the legends of Don Juan, the ultimate aesthete who seduced a thousand and three women, since repetition dulls pleasure. He lives a life of “immediacy” and self-centred pleasure. This makes him an unreflective aesthete, thoughtlessly pursuing pleasure.

The next three essays are directed to the Symparanekromenoi, a Greek expression coined by Kierkegaard, translated as “Society of Buried Lives”. It is an expression used to designate the kind of people Kierkegaard would like to write for, convinced that they would share his views, a society of individuals who are living lives that are spiritually entombed.

Part I. Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern

In the first essay, Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern, “A” states that we have passed from the unreflective sorrow of the Greeks to the pain of the reflective modern man. Suffering has not been eradicated but has switched focus.

The pain of modernity is characterised by reflection on suffering, it holds the individual responsible for his own life. However, many do not want to reflect on responsibility as it gives way to anxiety. They prefer to follow what other people say instead of being themselves, losing themselves in the “finite”, as Kierkegaard puts it.

Part I. Shadowgraphs

The next essay “Shadowgraphs”, is an entertainment for the mind in which “A” contemplates the importance of inner experience and if psychologists can really give an accurate picture of it. Sorrow is much more difficult to observe than joy.

Reflective sorrow cannot be represented in art, it is indifferent to the external, the visible. He uses the example of ‘shadowgraphs’ which are not visible straightaway and which must be summoned from the dark side of life. It is an inner picture too refined to be visible on the outside, it is only when one holds it up to the light of day, that one discovers the delicate inner picture. In other words, the outside is the object of our observation, but not of our interest.

Part I. The Unhappiest One

In “The Unhappiest One”, “A” gives his final address to the Symparanekromenoi. It is said that somewhere there is a grave distinguished by a small inscription: ‘The Unhappiest One’. However, the grave was found empty. “A” goes on a quest into the past to search for the one who deserves this title.

The unhappy person is one who has the content of his life outside of himself. He is always absent, never present to himself. One can be absent from oneself in the future (the hoping individual) or in the past (the remembering individual).

“A” states that the unhappiest individual belongs among the unhappy rememberers.

He ends with the following message:

“Rise, dear Symparanekromenoi! The night has passed, the day again begins its untiring activity, never weary, it seems, of repeating itself for ever and ever.”

Part I. Crop Rotation

In “Crop Rotation”, “A” begins with the principle that all people are boring and that “boredom is a root of all evil.”

The worst enemy of the aesthete is repetition and boredom, this includes friends, family, and marriage. His way of life involves a restless seeking of new pleasures.

“One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one travels abroad; one is European, one goes to America, and finally dreams of travelling from star to star.”

To overcome boredom, “A” proposes “crop rotation”. Instead of constantly changing the soil, he plants different crops on the same plot of land, to keep the soil fertile.

The goal is to take the same activities and produce fresh sources of enjoyment, maximising one’s happiness and avoiding boredom. It is an intensive cultivation of pleasure rather than extensive.

The whole secret lies in arbitrariness. He gives the example of being forced to listen to a boring philosophical lecture, on the verge of despair – he notices the perspiration of the lecturer, entertaining himself in focusing on the beads of sweat, so much so that he urges him to keep on with the lecture.

“A” is a reflective aesthete, he turns away from the world to find something more interesting in his reflections. He follows a science of pursuing pleasure, contrary the immediacy of don Juanism.

Part I. The Seducer’s Diary

The next section is The Seducer’s Diary, “A” tells us that this is not his work, but rather written by “Johannes the Seducer”. A man who documents his journey of seducing a woman by the name of Cordelia, not so much for love, as for the aesthetic fun of abandoning her later.

He stalks her and takes great pleasure of planning the seduction. They ultimately get engaged.

As soon as she is deeply in love, he calculatedly gives way to tension and manipulates her. The letters cease, the unrest increases, marriage is scorned as ridiculous and so on. He succeeds in having her break the engagement herself.

Once Johannes has exhausted all his imaginative possibilities and having her reach the highest level of passion, giving herself totally to him, he leaves her – as it would lead him to boredom. It is spiritual violation.

“A” cannot help but feel anxiety upon reading these papers, it is one of the most horrifying things Kierkegaard ever wrote, and a warning to aesthetes.

Part II. Containing the Papers of “B”. The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage

Part II of the book contains the papers of “B” who writes two letters to “A”. He tries to persuade  him over to the ethical sphere of life, characterised by a social and morally proper life. However, he does not want to lose his attention, as “A” will perceive it all as boring. Thus, he begins with his interests: the aesthetic validity in marriage.

The aesthete believes marriage is a limitation, as he enjoys the game of romantic chasing. The ethicist, however, argues that marriage is the actual poetic love which consists of a continual rejuvenation of one’s first love. It is not a regretful backward glance at unstable romantic love, but rather a duty one must fulfil, which is a testament of romance.

Part II. Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical

In the second letter, “B” proposes an equilibrium between the aesthetic and the ethical.

The aesthete’s Either/Or is to “do it or don’t do it, you will regret it”, he never chooses because he would regret the choice he doesn’t make.

He is in constant conflict and crippled by his choices, preferring to experiment with life, escaping the moment into fantasy. His existence is devoid of personality because choice itself defines personality.

The ethicist’s Either/Or is to choose between the aesthetic or the ethical. He chooses the ethical and immerses his whole personality in what is chosen.

“I choose absolutely, and I choose absolutely precisely through having not chosen to choose this thing or that.”

The ethicist who focuses on duty ends up receiving more pleasure than the aesthete, who seeks pleasure only to find unhappiness and despair. Happiness is one of those things that we’re much more likely to find if we are not looking for it.

Part II. Last Word

In the Last Word, “B” includes a sermon which he has received from a friend. He writes:

“Take it, then, read it; I have nothing to add, except that I have read it and thought of myself, and thought of you.”

It is noteworthy to observe that he conflates the religious and ethical spheres. A theme Kierkegaard would later explore in Fear and Trembling.

Part II. The Edifying in the Thought that Against God We Are Always in the Wrong

The sermon serves as spiritual advice for the aesthete and the ethicist. To realise that against God, we are always in the wrong. By accepting this, one’s restless mind and anxious heart can find rest.

Each individual can become conscious of a higher self than oneself and embrace this spiritual self in an eternal understanding.

Kierkegaard was far more interested in making us think than in giving us answers. We are thus encouraged to decide for ourselves the merits of the various viewpoints presented.

“I know only that I was born and exist and it seems to me that I have been carried along. I exist on the foundation of something I do not know. In spite of all uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence and a continuity in my mode of being.”

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Either/Or | Søren Kierkegaard

Either/Or: A Fragment of Life was published by Søren Kierkegaard in 1843, making it his first major work. It was written under the pseudonym Victor Eremita “Victorious Hermit”.

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Book Review: Memories, Dreams, Reflections – Carl Jung

Memories, Dreams, Reflections is the autobiography of Carl Jung written in collaboration with his close associate Aniela Jaffé. It was published a year after his death in 1962.

At his advanced age he would not undertake anything of the sort unless he felt it was a “task” imposed on him from within.

Jung had spoken with many great men of his time but only a few of these occasions remained in his memory. On the other hand, his recollection of inner experiences had grown all the more vivid.

This book is the only place in his extensive writings in which Jung speaks of God and his personal experience of God. In his scientific works he uses the term “the God-image in the human psyche” based on the objective language of scientific inquiry, while in this case it is subjective, based on inner experience.


“My life is a story of the self-realisation of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions to experience itself as a whole.”

For Jung, life cannot be tackled as a scientific problem, but rather by way of myth, which expresses life more precisely than science.

“Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome […] What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.”

I. First years

Jung had a dream around three years old that would preoccupy all his life. There was a stone stairway leading down, he started descending it, as he went deeper down, there stood a golden throne – upon which a giant cyclops sat with a single eye gazing upwards. He heard his mother shout out: “That is the man-eater!”

This represented a subterranean God “not to be named” and Jung would think of this underground counterpart as the dark side of Lord Jesus, a frightful revelation which had been accorded to him without him seeking it.

II. School years

In his school years, Jung had an important experience. He had the overwhelming expression of having just emerged from a dense cloud.

“I knew all at once: now I am myself! It was as if a wall of mist were at my back, and behind that wall there was not yet an “I”. But at this moment I came upon myself.”

Carl Jung experienced two personalities throughout his whole life. Personality No.1 made up his outer experience: studies, job, responsibilities – as well as his interest in science. While Personality No. 2 made up his inner experience, primarily concerned with his dreams, and his interest in psychological and philosophical matters.

III. Student years

In his later student years, Jung had to choose whether to study science or the humanities. He experienced two dreams which removed all his doubts in favour of science.  One day, he opened up a textbook on psychiatry preparing for his exams. As he saw the words “diseases of the personality”, his heart began to pound.

“Here was the empirical field common to biological and spiritual facts, which I had everywhere sought and nowhere found. Here at last was the place where the collision of nature and spirit became reality.”

Jung went on to write his first book on the psychology of schizophrenia and thus began his career in psychiatry.

IV. Psychiatric Activities

At the core of Jung’s psychiatric activities was the burning question: “What actually takes place inside the mentally ill?”

The exploration of conscious material is insufficient, as the ego is only half of one’s personality. Jung had to find out how to gain access to the unconscious, in order to reach the patient’s whole personality.

Jung relates the case of one of his patients, an 18 year old girl who had been abused at an early age and felt humiliated in the eyes of the world, but elevated in the realm of fantasy. She told Jung that she had been living on the moon. The consequence was complete alienation from the world, a state of psychosis. Jung managed to bring her back, anchoring her in reality.

Since then, Jung decided to regard the sufferings of the mentally ill in a different light. For he had gained insight into the richness and importance of their inner experience.

However, only if the doctor knows how to cope with himself and his own problems will he be able to teach the patient to do the same. The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected.

“Only the wounded physician heals”

V. Sigmund Freud

Jung was very much influenced by Freud in his early years and they had a strong relationship. They even analysed each other’s dreams. However, major differences soon arose in their approach to the human psyche.

Freud’s theory of sexuality as the prime motivational force in man was too one-sided and Jung began to speak of the instincts of hunger, aggression, and sex as expressions of psychic energy.

Jung called his psychology “Analytical Psychology” as distinct from Freud’s “Psychoanalytic” theory.

VI. Confrontation with the Unconscious

After parting ways with Freud, Jung entered a period of inner uncertainty and disorientation. He consciously submitted himself to the impulses of the unconscious. Towards the end of 1913, he was seized by an overpowering vision: he saw thousands of dead bodies and the whole sea turned to blood. An inner voice spoke:

“Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.”

He had this and other similar visions before the start of the First World War.

“Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life […] I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself […] It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche.”

Philemon represented superior insight and a living personality of Jung’s unconscious.

He began his confrontation with the unconscious and found out that the archetype of orientation and meaning is the Self, represented by mandalas, which one must have a balanced relationship with.

VII. The Work

Jung had to find evidence for the historical prefiguration of his inner experiences. He studied the Gnostics, for they too had been confronted with the primal world of the unconscious. His encounter with alchemy was decisive. Alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand into the past, into Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious.

VIII. The Tower

Jung felt that he needed to achieve a representation of his inner thoughts apart from books, thus began “The Tower”. Situated at Bollingen, it is the product of 12 years of work, in which he added four elements, representing a quaternity, a symbol of the Self.

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself.”

IX. Travels

Jung documents some of his most important travels, some of which include the Pueblo Indians in America, North Africa, and India.

He observed that primitive man does what he does (he is led by unconscious impulses) while civilised man knows what he does (he is given over to reflection). While we are more complicated, we lack intensity of life.

He observed that for the Pueblo Indians:

“Their religious conceptions are not theories to them, but facts, as important and moving as the corresponding realities.”

Jung had also travelled to India and was deeply moved:

“India gave me my first direct experience of an alien, highly differentiated culture.”

X. Visions

In 1944, Jung suffered from a heart attack and thought he was close to death. He experienced intense visions. He was high up in space and could see the earth. There was an entrance which led to a temple.

“It was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am.”

He then saw a vision of his doctor telling him that he must return to earth. He thought:

“Now I must return to the ‘box system’ again. For it seemed to me as if behind the horizon of the cosmos a three dimensional world had been artificially built up, in which each person sat by himself in a little box…”

In the day, Jung felt depressed. However, in the night he was filled with intense visions.

“It is impossible to convey the beauty and intensity of emotion during those visions. They were the most tremendous things I have experienced.”

XI. On Life After Death

Jung reflects on life after death, stating that man ought to have a myth about death, for reason alone shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending.

“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

XII. Late Thoughts

In his late thoughts, Jung reflects on the importance of myth in our lives, which cannot be replaced by science. Our conscious life is continuously moulded by them and they are the substratum of our existence. We are not born tabula rasa.


“I know only that I was born and exist and it seems to me that I have been carried along. I exist on the foundation of something I do not know. In spite of all uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence and a continuity in my mode of being.”

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Memories, Dreams, Reflections | Carl Jung

Memories, Dreams, Reflections is the autobiography of Carl Jung written in collaboration with his close associate Aniela Jaffé. It was published a year after his death in 1962.

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