The Ego in Nietzsche's "On The Despisers of the Body"

Walter Kaufmann, in his translation of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra has an interesting aside in his Editor's Note to the first part, in his description of Part 4, "On the Despisers of the Body". "The psychological analysis begun in the previous chapter ['On The Afterworldly'] is here carried further. The use of the term 'ego' influenced Freud, via Georg Groddeck." [1]

The relation between Freud and Nietzsche is ambiguous, but it does seem to be the consensus that there are some rather definitive resonances between the two. Pierre Bayard, with his characteristic deadpan humour, even makes an argument for Nietzsche's plagiarism of Freud in Le Plagiat par anticipation ('Plagiarism by Anticipation'), along with audacious arguments for Voltaire's borrowing from Conan Doyle and Sophocles' plagiarism of Sigmund Freud (Bayard, of course, is a psychoanalyst, with the characteristic bloodhound instinct for Oedipus). Setting aside time-travel and eternal-recurrence considerations for now, we might like to consider at this point what the ego is in Nietzsche, at least in this section.

The text, which is only two pages long in the Kaufmann translation in The Portable Nietzsche, uses three terms - the "I", the "self", and the "ego". Given that the Freudian term 'ego' is the German word Ich, it might be instructive to dive into the original German. But the "I" and the "ego" are not really distinct here. "I", the one who says "I", at any rate, is not identical to the body and does not even surpass it. Quite the opposite, really. "The body is a great reason, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a shepherd. An instrument of your body is also your little reason ... which you call 'spirit' - a little instrument and toy of your great reason." [2]

We move on from the vocabulary of the I and the body to the ego and the body, at least in how Kaufmann prefers to translate this passage. The self that dwells in the body; the self that is identical to the body - it is the "mighty ruler" that "controls, and is in control of the ego too".

It's a model that looks back to Schopenhauer's anthropology - "the body is the phenomenal form of the will to live" [3], and his attitude toward the intellect - "merely a tool in service of [one's] will and is entirely consumed by this service" [4], but which at the same time, looks forward to Freud's metapsychology, especially when we come across passages like this: "The self says to the ego, 'Feel pain here!' Then the ego suffers and thinks how it might suffer no more - and that is why it is made to think." [5]

If we may speculate somewhat in an amateur fashion, this is the psychology that Nietzsche presents to us here. The ego is a particular differentiated part of the body (given Nietzsche's own interest in physiology). It is not "the" reason or "the" intellect, it is not a rational human soul under attack by animalistic urges or cravings, rather it is the body too that has its own reason, its own vast stores of intellect, of which the ego is denied. The ego is that which says "I", and the body is that which 'does not say 'I,' but does 'I.'' The ego follows the pleasure principle in that it avoids pain and seeks pleasure, both of which are not the properties of the body but the properties of the ego - Nietzsche is agnostic as to the affective capacity of the body, at least here, but it is the ego that produces an affective subject that can feel pain or pleasure. Mental activity is directed towards these pleasure/pain ends. Thinking does not occur naturally but has to be forced. [6] The activity of the self is quite rightly "beyond the pleasure principle" in that the self that is creative. It is the self that creates all sorts of values, including the ascetic ideals of the "despisers of the body".

There are passages in Freud that shout out to us, as it were when we read this. On the relation between the self and the ego, we might be reminded of the consciousness that is under siege by impulses from the unconscious, in the organism, and of Freud's critique of the notion of any idea of a drive toward an overman (given that for him all instincts are conservative drives that aim at repetition.) As for the relation between the ego and the self in The Ego and the Id, it is obvious that it is not that between the ego and the id. I suppose that the Freudian ego is also that which says "I", but large portions of the Freudian ego is unconscious, and there's a conscious component that is "on the surface", we could say. The self, while being "beyond the pleasure principle", is not the repressed material that attempts to repeat itself. In its organic nature, it is quite outside of Freud's metapsychological system, while we can still recognise a line of filiation. Both the Nietzschean and the Freudian egos are under the influence of vast forces not under their control, forces that we can refer to as "unconscious", but it is only the latter that seems to have some degree of relative autonomy that allows it to "fight back". The only action Nietzsche assigns to the ego is that of thinking, nothing else - not struggling against the id, repressing unwanted material, or any of that. The ego is simply an organ of the body if we might be so bold, like the eye or the leg, which accords well with Nietzsche's vision of physiological health. Whatever the ego does is for the will-to-power of the self, the body.

Psychoanalysis has its own ambiguous relationship with biology, even if Freud speaks of protists and Lacan refers to animal ethology. We are told that "the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego", that is, "ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body". [7] If there's any resonance between Nietzsche and Freud on the ego, this is it, and this is the point from which they diverge.

[1] The Portable Nietzsche, page 117
[2] Ibid., page 146
[3] Essays and Aphorisms, Chap 6 P2
[4] Ibid., Chap 10 P21. R. J. Hollingdale comments on this saying, "Eduard von Hartmann translated Schopenhauer’s ‘will’ into ‘the unconscious’ (The Philosophy of the Unconscious, 1869, eight editions by 1879), and it is unnecessary to elaborate on what Freud subsequently made of ‘the unconscious’."
[5] The Portable Nietzsche, page 147
[6] "Thinking is not a simple possibility, but is born of a ‘violence’." Deleuze's 'Difference and Repetition': A Reader's Guide, Joe Hughes, pg. 74.
[7] The Ego and the Id, pg 20

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