Compare and contrast Nietzsche and Freud:

As Para-Rational Poets

It might seem a bit odd to talk of Nietzsche and Freud as poets; however, we will do so from the position of their rationalization of these characterizations. First let’s get a definition for the term Para-Rational out of the way: this is a perspective consisting of a general alternate viewpoint or rationalization not necessarily based on what we would consider “rational thinking” or a common scientific realistic viewpoint. It can in some cases be antithetical to logical or rational thinking.

Nietzsche & Freud

Para-Rational Arguments

We expect to find in the writings of poets and philosophers para-rational arguments, but not in the writings of a scientist. Even in the case of a philosopher, we can expect to find this use limited and not the sole bases for these arguments. Of course the person of science as a rationalist would be expected to avoid such non-rational tools. And, yet, these are exactly the cases in the work of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche in their respective books, Civilization and Its Discontent[1] and The Birth of Tragedy.[3] The objective of this paper is to compare and contrast both Nietzsche, through his book The Birth of Tragedy, and Freud, through his book Civilization and Its Discontent, as examples of Para-Rational Poets. These two literary works and authors demonstrate how the use of metaphors, analogies, and poetic imagery create impressions of para-rational elements: the visionary, non-rational and mythical. The scope of this paper does not include debating or analyzing the Psychoanalyst or proving or disproving the Philosopher.

Civilization and Its Discontents & The Birth of Tragedy

These two selected books represent their authors’ cultural and social views. Peter Gay says of Freud’s 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents, it’s “a disillusioned look at modern civilization on the verge of catastrophe” (Freud xxii-xxiii).[1] As to what Freud believed was the reason for the existence of hostility towards civilization, he felt that it was based on “a deep and long-standing dissatisfaction with the then existing state of civilization and that on that basis a condemnation of it was built up, occasioned by certain specific historical events” (Freud 38).[1] Friedrich Nietzsche’s, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), is a book presenting the origins of Greek tragedy and its relevance to the German culture. For Nietzsche, Greek tragedy is the expression of a culture which has achieved a strong balance between Dionysus and Apollo which is the basis of all existence and the discipline and clarity of rational Apollonian form versus the non-rational (Mahone 14).[2] His book’s objective is to promote a return to these values by critiquing the complacent rationalism of late nineteenth-century German culture and further promoting the regenerative potential of the music of Wagner (Mahone 14).[2]

What is a Para-Rational Poet?

A Poet as defined by the Riverside Webster’s II Dictionary, is a writer of poetry or one having the power of lyrical expression . . . lyrical expression in a feelings way or wording appropriate for song. The term “para-rational” is used here to represent the non-rational, the visionary, and the mystical-religious arguments; contained within these three elements of the para-rational are the use of myth, analogies, metaphors, and poetic lyrical or poetic imagery (Mahone 26).[2] Both authors present in these two works, theses not primarily supported by rational, logical, unemotional arguments, but by the non-rational and the creation of myth supported by the colorful use of analogies, metaphors, and poetic imagery and lyrical language. As Michael Mahone states it, Nietzsche and Freud “resort to metaphors, poetic images, and analogies to construct their theories of history,” furthermore, they “both construct myths” (Mahone 11).[2]

The Thinker by RodinCredit: smallbones and Wikimedia Commons

The Philosopher Poet and the Psychoanalyst Poet substitute scientific logic, methodical reasoning, and evidence in fact, with words and ideas designed to inspire images, thoughts, and or emotions that reach past the rational part of the reader’s mind to that part which accepts or believes based on faith and desire. Nietzsche romanticizes Greek civilization and particularly their arts in order to inspire ideas of a greater Germany built on similar notions. Freud’s work, though much less emotionally driven, no less attempts to establish the belief in his notions of civilization and the motivations of the individual, through nothing more than the inference of an idea, accepted and then taken root in the mind the reader. 

The best place to start is with their creation of mythical platforms to support the basis of their arguments. In comparing Nietzsche and Freud, both present opposing powers that are the cause of all humanities social health and illness issues. Freud presents the idea of “Eros and Ananke (Love and Necessity) as having become the parents of human civilization” (Freud 55)[1]. For Nietzsche, his dialectic powers are Dionysus and Apollo (Luxuriant Fertility—Joy—Triumph and Light—Order—Rational). Nietzsche builds his whole position on myth, using Dionysus and Apollo to portray and play-out his efforts to prove his point. Though he presents his position as a rational argument, they are clearly based on a non-rational perspective. 

Both authors use these characters of myth to build their views of humanities past and human interaction as matters of conflict and comprising needs between the gods.  In contrast to Freud who interjected his book with comparatively sparring analogies, metaphors, and poetic imagery; Nietzsche’s book is built primarily on Greek mythology, using Greek Tragedy as representative of modern civilization and Dionysus and Apollo as the dialectic elements influencing humanity and its future through its past.  Additionally, Nietzsche is opposed to the excessive internal focus on oneself (self-centered) while the Freud is clearly focused on the internal individual personal struggle.

Easily found in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontent is his use of poetic imagery. So, for the sake of brevity, only a few of the more standout examples of poetic imagery or lyrical style will be used in this paper. Freud’s use of the poetic tool appears playful as if he is toying with being a poet. As Freud discusses the power of love as a motivator, he states, “There is only one state – admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological – in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact” (Freud 13).[1] He goes on later in the book with, “It is that we are so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helpless unhappy as when we have lost our love object or its love” (Freud 33).[1] It should be noted that this sentence has two-ten syllable segments that add to the flow and poetic feel.  Again, Freud demonstrates a playful poetic style by writing, “One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed” (Freud 40)?[1]

Nietzsche is less subtle, in fact, more intentional and open in his use of the poetic flare.  As an example of Nietzsche’s use of the poetic flair he writes: “The Greeks: this most beautiful and accomplished, this thoroughly sane, universally envied species of man-- was it conceivable that they, of all people, should have stood in need of tragedy--or, indeed, of art? Greek art: how did it function, how could it? (Nietzsche 3) [3]

And in criticizing Socrates, Nietzsche writes, “Who was this daemon daring to pour out the magic philter in the dust? This demigod to whom the noblest spirits of mankind must call out: (Nietzsche 84).[3]


With ruthless hand

This fair edifice:

It falls and decays”     

One of the best Nietzschian writings in The Birth of Tragedy is a mythical description full of visualization, poetic flair, and a touch of religious inference of what he hopes to be the rebirth of German spirit. It may be a little long for inclusion in a short essay such as this; yet, it is the single best example of his book that demonstrates the thesis of this paper in regards to Nietzsche.

“All our hopes center on the fact that underneath the hectic movements of our civilization there dwells a marvelous ancient power, which arouses itself mightily only at certain grand moments and then sinks back to dream again of the future. Out of this subsoil grew the German Reformation, in whose choral music the future strains of German music sounded for the first time. Luther’s chorales, so inward, courageous, spiritual, and tender, are like the first Dionysiac cry from the thicket at the approach of spring. They are answered antiphonally by the sacred and exuberant procession of Dionysiac enthusiasts to whom we are indebted for German music, to which we shall one day be indebted for the rebirth of German myth." (Nietzsche 138)[3]

Both Freud and Nietzsche use metaphor and analogy in combination, which of course adds to the poetic flair and imagery created by their words. For instance, Freud’s use of analogies is very interesting because for those analogies of length, he explains in detail their meaning. However, there are plenty of shorter selections available to prove their existence in his writing. For instants:

“Just as a planet revolves around a central body as well as rotating on its own axis, so the human individual takes part in the course of development of mankind at the same time as he pursues his own path in life. But to our dull eyes the play of forces in the heavens seems fixed in a never-changing order; in the field of organic life we can still see how the forces contend with one another, and how the effects of the conflict are continually changing” (Freud 106).

A further example for Freud is on his comments towards man’s first acts of civilization, “Writing was in its origin the voice of an absent person“ and, “the dwelling-house was a substitute for the mother’s womb, the first lodging, for which in all likelihood man still longs, and in which he was safe and felt at ease" (Freud 43).[1] Is this poetic imagery – yes – but also non-rational and metaphor. Nietzsche’s examples are well integrated into this mythical creation. As a non-rational example and an analogy of Nietzsche, “. . . we must allow that the influence of Socrates (like a shadow cast by the evening sun, ever lengthening into the future) has prompted generation after generation to reconsider the foundations of its art, art taken in its deepest and broadest sense, and as that influence is eternal it also guarantees the eternity of artistic endeavor. But before people were able to realize that all art is intimately dependent on the Greeks from Homer to Socrates” (Nietzsche 91).[3]

Nietzsche builds a non-rational argument supported by analogy and poetic imagery to support its claim that somehow people have become “ashamed and fearful of the Greeks” and that “now and again someone has come along who acknowledges the full truth: that the Greeks are the chariot drivers of every subsequent culture, but that almost always, chariot and horses are of too poor a quality for the drivers, who then make sport of driving the chariot into the abyss – which they themselves clear with the bold leap of Achilles” (Nietzsche 92).[3] An example of metaphor meets analogy in Nietzsche’s work is the following: “Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture. Nietzsche’s claim is that a people’s culture will only exist or stand strong based on lies and falsehoods. Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities” (Nietzsche 137).[3]

In a final comparative note on these to para-rational poets, Freud and Nietzsche stated in their own books that their efforts were not intended to be rational and irrefutable. As Freud states it himself (which includes a metaphor) that, “after all, we are only dealing with analogies and that it is dangerous, not only with men but also with concepts, to tear them from the sphere in which they have originated and been evolved” (Freud 110).[1] Nietzsche tells us he uses art and myth to help others understand the past and to look at the history of Greek Tragedy and to link it to German culture which could be any culture.  Nietzsche ends with a powerful argument for the role of myth, saying that without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity: only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement. Myth alone saves all the powers of the imagination and of the Apollonian dream from their aimless wanderings, even the state knows no more powerful unwritten laws than the mythical foundation (Nietzsche 136-137).[3]

Basic Writings of Nietzsche (Modern Library Classics)
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