While it can be said that Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud offered virtually identical views of human nature and of the society in which they lived, it must be stated that they lived in different societies, and that their views, while somewhat identical, were both prophetic and antithetic in the eras in which the two men developed their ideas. While their concepts may have a similarity, it would be wrong to say that they had similar views of human nature, since human nature is a phenomenon that continually evolves, given the period in which it can be found and where it either thrives or wanes. Nietzsche is far the more pessimistic, seeing Man needing to be led by a Superman, while Freud analyzes the troubled psyche to delve into the past and find the reasons that can make life more livable.
Question 1: What is human nature?
The bridge from Nietzsche- and what he thought, to Freud- and what he discovered people think about- is the crossing from intellectual loftiness to everyday concerns with mental and physical well-being. Yet, their views of human nature were rather similar, especially in the concern for pleasure and pain.
It may be oversimplifying intellectualism of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries- but any difference between the two men tends to be one of a struggle for the outer person, as exemplified, say, by Nietzsche, versus a struggle for the inner person, as provided by Freud and the beginning of psychoanalysis. Human nature, as opposed to reason, is not something carved on stone, or a tradition to be followed. It is buffeted by both pain and pleasure, success and failure. And yet, human nature is not an individual trait, but a societal one.
Nietzsche lived through the Industrial Revolution which saw Man replaced by machine. So, his philosophy attempted to redefine his ideal of a Man, an intellectual hero, rather than a physical one. “….all these ways of thinking that measure the value of things in accordance with pleasure and pain…” (Nietzsche, p. 153) indicate that it is not so much physical pain or pleasure, but the frustration of an inability to be creative, and the pain of failure to live up to expectations. Human nature, therefore, according to Nietzsche, is feeble in the sense of lacking a certain strength to withstand society’s pressures.
Freud also delves into the frustrations and the need for “happiness”, something that is difficult, given what he considers the superiority of nature (Freud, p. 37). If Nietzsche refers to pain, Freud mentions “the feebleness of our own bodies and the inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships of human beings in the family, the state and society” (Freud, p. 37). Given the quest of man, and human nature, for some sort of liberty, he says that the liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization (Freud, p. 49), but that liberty was more meaningful and abundant before there was any civilization.
While Nietzsche seems to long for some “Superman”, Freud, on the other hand is willing to conclude that human nature was somehow meant to suffer, but that some of the suffering can be mitigated. Both men tend to agree that Man was not meant to deal with nature (and religion and society) alone. Both men also see a sense of guilt within human nature. Both men also tend to see civilization as the cause of human nature’s problems. Freud is explicit when he states that what we call civilization is largely responsible for our misery (Freud, p. 38) Nietzsche sees this misery of human nature as the result of the superficiality of man (Nietzsche, p. 71)
Question 2: commentary on society of their day….What values and beliefs…did Freud and Nietzsche criticize, and why?
Nietzsche sees his society consisting of “a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred- the European of today” (Nietzsche, p. 76) This was written at a time of German triumph, having defeated France, uniting various states under the Kaiser, with Bismarck as, literally, the chancellor of all Europe. What was Nietzsche’s problem with this epithet about Europeans? The fact is that he objects to the system of rank- whether it is nobility being overlords over common man, the wealthy overpowering the poor, the religious being righteously contemptuous of those who do not believe in “their” God. What he sees (and he is right, of course) is a segmented society, where it is nearly impossible to escape one tier, one level, and move up to another.
Freud, some years later, also sees a malaise in his Viennese society (as well as, presumably, all societies of his time). History “has not increased the amount of pleasurable satisfaction which they may expect from life and has not made them happier…” (Freud, p. 39) At the same time, Freud sees a continuous struggle between man as an individual, and society as a whole, when he states that a good part of the struggles of man is to find some sort of accommodation between the individual and the group (Freud, p. 50).
Neither provides a good thesis for what comprises happiness, but both conclude that there is little or no joy within their societies. What both men saw was, as Freud put it, a hostility toward civilization (Freud, p. 39), in the sense that either the individuals were unable to cope with what they had, or wanted something more which may have been unattainable. Both men, without saying so directly, agree that human nature can never be totally satisfied, but they can live with what they have for a while, and then becomes restless, wanting more, and not being able to have anything more. It may be a slight digression, but this is reminiscent of little Oliver Twist having the headmaster of his orphan’s school explode with righteous rage when the little boy asked if he could have some more food. Human nature, it sees, factors in the sense of disappointment. And polite society requires that this frustration remain hidden somehow.
Nietzsche sees his society as a world of the almost (Nietzsche, p. 154). At the same time, he indicates that the values of his contemporary society is to regiment man and mind, as he describes it, that men have been spun into a severe yarn and shirt of duties (Nietzsche, p. 154). Is he concerned with the people who make and enforce the laws, given the turbulence of the times, the rise of industrialism (and Marxist ideology)?
Freud lived in a time of rising anti-Semitism, of course, and he sees human nature corrupted by religion (see below), and what he considers the low estimation put on earthly life by Christianity (Freud, p. 38). In a sense, he objects to the stick-and-carrot approach of society, as ruled by the religious, offering a better life in the hereafter, if only human nature would conform to its rules during the Here and Now.
Question 3: What did each think of religion?
Freud blames religion for many of mankind’s unhappiness, as does Nietzsche. Freud comments that “what good to us is a long life, difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer? (Freud, p. 41) He blames religion, as much as sexuality, for man’s guilt feelings. He states that man has become almost a god, in fact he calls this status as man’s having become a sort of prosthetic God (Freud, p. 44). He also sees religion as changing with the times, instead of being a steadfast foundation. In fact, he writes that civilization has often had to be silent in the face of transgressions which, according to its own laws, should have been punished (Freud, p. 61). Is this not a prescient forerunner of the silence of so many Germans during the Holocaust? Yet, he says that a universal love for mankind is the highest standard that man can achieve (Freud, p. 57), something that religion should but not always, preaches.
Nietzsche sees the Christianity of his day perverted./ He calls it “a sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement, self-mockery, self-mutilation” (Nietzsche, p. 60) He cannot understand how saints are possible, or how the denial of the will is possible (Nietzsche, p., 61).
Both men lived during a time when religion was a stepping-stone to political success and public acclaim. Yet, this religious fervor was only permitted, fully, to Christians. It seems strange, given Nietzsche’s abhorrence of some religious rites and beliefs, that Hitler was supposed to have found him a soul mate.
If there is a commonality of beliefs between these two men it is their belief that religion has failed, and continues to fail man in his struggle to attain some sort of happiness and stability in his life.
Question 4: Suggestions to society by each for society to change its values and beliefs for the better.
Freud, for example, feels that the sense of guilt that society feels can be lessened by means of educating people about the role that sexuality plays in their lives (Freud, p. 97). “As we already know, the problem before us is how to get rid of the greatest hindrance to civilization- namely, the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive toward one another” (Freud, p. 108) He invokes the commandment to Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself (Freud, p. 109). In order for society to better itself, aggression must cease. He does not, however, go into detail about how to achieve this.
Nietzsche sees Honesty as society’s need: “Honesty, supposing this is our virtue from which we cannot get away….well, let us work on it with all our malice and love and not weary of ‘perfecting’ ourselves…” (Nietzsche, p. 155). He warns against accepting one nation’s “morality” to be the guidelines for all the rest. He comes down hard on the English for their “morality” (Nietzsche, p. 157)
Both men advocate learning- Fraud, as stated above, the education about sexuality in our lives, Nietzsche as a form of change and self-reliance. Yet, the approaches and warnings, as well as potential solutions to the ills of mankind and human nature, and therefore, reason, are quite different. Nietzsche is a prophet of anger, a Jeremiah of his day. Freud tends to be more a healer. He sees that unhappiness and mistrust and aggression have potential solutions. Nietzsche merely claims that the evil and aggression of Man is part of his nature, inescapable but real. Nietzsche, growing up in an Imperialist Germany, frowns on the idea of the democratic mingling of classes and races. He is definitely a rightist in those beliefs. He sees no future in the equality of men. In fact, he calls his society one of semi-barbarism (Nietzsche, p. 151) He also has no great love for literary figures like Voltaire and Shakespeare. He wishes Man had good taste, and is darkly and ominously forth-coming when he says that we reach a sort of bliss only when we are in danger (Nietzsche, p. 153).
To call either man optimistic about human nature would be stretching a point. They point out flaws, and Freud, at least, attempts to find a means to cure them. According to both, the human spirit simply does not soar, and frustrations and unhappiness continue to keep human nature from finding happiness.
Freud, Sigmund: Civilization and Its Discontents New York: W.W. Norton (1961)
Nietzsche, Friedrich: Beyond Good and Evil New York: Vintage Books (1989)