Nietzsche’s Cultivation of the Self

In the second chapter of The Care of the Self, “The Cultivation of Self,” Foucault describes the emergence of  an attitude of severity concerning sexual pleasure manifested in the thinking of philosophers and physicians in the first two centuries: “there was greater apprehension concerning sexual pleasures and more attention was given to the relation one might have with them” (39). There was, however, no proposal for general or coercive legislation of sexual behaviour but rather austere self-regimentation of sexual pleasure spurred by anxiety concerning disturbances of the body and the mind. Subsequently, Foucault attributes the severity concerning sexual practices in the first two centuries not, as typically thought, to raising of moral standards or a preoccupation with moralization, but the rise of individualism and preoccupation with the self. Austere regimentation of sexual pleasure was seen as self-respect for one’s nature.

While reading this chapter I made a funny connection to the third essay is Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality. In Nietzsche’s description of “the philosopher” he paints a picture of the latter as celibate, neither marrying nor engaging in extra-marital pleasures with women. Nietzsche insists, however, that his depiction of the philosopher is not moral or intended to be “virtuous” (76) but merely “the truest and most natural conditions of [the philosopher’s] best existence, of his most beautiful fruitfulness” (76). Consequently, this seems to fit exceptionally well with Foucault’s description of the austere sexual regimens in the first two centuries as a kind of self-respect for one’s nature. Considering Nietzsche’s use of words such as “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” and reference to Diongenes the Cynic in the story of The Mad Man which suggest the Nietzsche was at least in some respects, influenced by ancient Greek figures, I wonder if his description of the philosopher was  not influenced by the ancient Greeks as well?

2 thoughts on “Nietzsche’s Cultivation of the Self

  1. Christina Hendricks

    Hey, nice connection! Nietzsche was well-versed in ancient Greek language and philosophy, and thus he may have taken some of his ideas of the philosopher shaping him/herself for the sake of doing philosophy under the best conditions from how some of the ancient Greeks talked about caring for the self. I hadn’t made this connection at all until someone brought up N’s idea of “ascetic practices” vs the “ascetic ideal” in class yesterday, which is similar to your point here. Foucault’s emphasis on creating the self as a work of art (which he talks about in “On the Genealogy of Ethics”) is sometimes compared to Nietzsche, who at times makes similar claims. For example, in The Gay Science aphorism 290 Nietzsche talks about giving style to one’s character, creating it as an artist might. I want to bring this up in class on Tuesday.

    But I really like this link to the philosopher in Treatise III of GM too. Thanks for bringing it up!

  2. swoo

    To add to professor Hendricks’s point,
    Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, claimed that only as an aesthetic phenomenon, is life justified.
    This was his answer to the Silenus’s wisdom that he cites in the beginning of the book, which states that the best thing for man is never to be born at all, and the second best thing is to die quickly. Nietzsche’s declaration that life should be treated as an aesthetic phenomenon is often construed to be his rebuttal against pessimism of Schopenhauer which echoes Silenus’s wisdom, that we as humans rush from desire to satisfaction, and from satisfaction, we immediately run back to desire, alluding that there is only more suffering to be gained in our earthly pursuits. He asserts that in life there is more pain than pleasure and Schopenhauer thus prescribes renouncing oneself from the will that drives us to struggles that will give us more pain, only to throw us back out to desire once we achieve our aims.

    Nietzsche’s statement that we should treat life as an aesthetic phenomenon was interpreted as him saying that life should not be judged based on how much pleasure one has accumulated, but judged for its aesthetic value, as if one is looking at an artwork, and that there is beauty in our struggle.

    So here, he points to his conception of life that emphasizes the element of play rather than a rational contemplative/speculative stance towards life. This was the Dionysian dimension of his philosophy which he associates with the frenzy that the Greek chorus would create in the theatre.

    This also reflects his preference of Heraclitus over Socrates and Sophocles over Aristophanes. (Heraclitus being a philosopher that embraced the Dionysian element more so than Socrates who was more of a logician, and Sophocles who created plays that expressed inexplicable/unresolvable tragedy opposed to Aristophanes who Nietzsche associated with Socrates who together ruined the tradition of Greek tragedy by creating drama with more logical, rational plots, taking the Dionysian element out)


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