Similarities Between Nietzsche's Uebermensch and The Survivor Personality
Al Siebert, PhD (Revised May, 1996)
- Historical Background
- Emergence of a New Psychological Disorder
- The Emergence of a New, Exceptional Level of Mental Health
- The First Description
- A Schizophrenic Connection
- What Would Happen to Nietzsche Today?
- There is No Proof That Schizophrenia is An Illness
- Research Questions
Two states of mental and emotional functioning, new to the human race, were observed in Germany about 100 years ago. Nietzsche recognized the emergence of a new human he called an "Uebermensch," a new, better human with personality qualities far beyond those of the ordinary person of that time. As described by Nietzsche, this higher, advanced person was a self-created person who was emotionally "harder" than the average person in part because of having synthesized many contradictory personality dimensions. In addition, such "free spirits" were morally stronger and easily resistant to external social controls because of the development of their own individual values for living.
At the same time in Germany, Kraepelin observed the emergence of a new, spontaneously occurring mental disorder in young people which he called "dementia praecox." A few years later, Bleuler named the phenomenon "schizophrenia" (a splitting apart of the personality) to make the diagnostic term reflect the primary symptom of the condition.
The picture drawn from the long term study of people who are life's best survivors is similar to Nietzsche's description. Such persons are seen as deriving their flexibility, resiliency, and psychological strengths from the successful assimilation of many major paradoxes into their ways of thinking, feeling, and functioning. In addition, people with survivor personalities are above average in operating independently from external social forces, in successfully defending themselves against negative, judgmental reactions to their way of existing, and in resisting efforts by others to control or change them.
The Emergence of a New Psychological Disorder
E. Fuller Torrey writes in Surviving Schizophrenia that schizophrenia is a relatively new disease. (Torrey, 1985, p. 208.) He states, "The more one peruses these ancient sources, moreover, the more striking it becomes that nobody clearly described the disease we now call schizophrenia." (p. 209)
Torrey goes on to observe, "Overall it is a strange history for a disease. Virtually unknown or at least undescribed for centuries, it suddenly appears all over the western world simultaneously and is noted to be increasing rapidly." He asks, "How could it have been missed if it affected one percent of the population, as it does now?" (p. 215)
Eugen Bleuler wrote Dementia Praecox or The Group of Schizophrenias, in 1908 and published it in 1911. From the beginning, the phenomenon of "schizophrenia" has been very difficult to name, describe, understand, and treat. According to Bleuler, Kraepelin used the term "dementia praecox" to refer to a dementing or deteriorating condition afflicting young adults, in 1896. Referring to the condition as a mental deterioration in young adults was an awkward diagnostic term, however, because a number of conditions could cause that. It was not very useful.
Bleuler suggested that the term "schizophrenia" be used instead. He wrote, "In every case we are confronted with a more or less clear-cut splitting of the psychic functions. If the disease is marked the personality loses its unity; at different times different complexes seem to represent the personality. Integration of different complexes and strivings appears insufficient or even lacking. The psychic complexes do not combine in a conglomeration of strivings with a unified resultant as they do in a healthy person; rather, one set of complexes dominates the personality for a time, while other groups of ideas or drives are 'split off' and seem either partly or completely impotent.... Thus the process of association often works with mere fragments of ideas and concepts. This results in associations which normal individuals will regard as incorrect, bizarre, and utterly unpredictable." (Bleuler, 1911, p. 9)
The Emergence of a New, Exceptional Level of Mental Health
A primary research activity of the author, for many years, has been to understand and describe people with such exceptional mental and emotional health that they gain strength from extreme adversities instead of becoming psychological casualties. For descriptive purposes an operational definition "the survivor personality" was created. Questions about why some people survive better than others, what consistent personality traits appear in life's best survivors, and how the survivor personality develops have been core questions. (Siebert, 1967; Water and Siebert, 1976; Siebert, 1983; Siebert, 1985a., Siebert, 1994; Siebert, 1996.) Other questions about the survivor personality include, "How many people have the survivor personality?" and "How long have there been people with this sort of personality?"
The pattern of traits usually found in life's best survivors include:Behavioral...
A playful curiosity, an inclination to experiment, try things out on their own, a preference to find out for themselves how things work rather than accept other people's perceptions. They ask lots of questions. As adults they show that they have retained from childhood the ability to be playful, toy with things, and learn directly from experience.
Laugh and play with life, with their own minds and feelings, with people and situations. They enjoy being mirthful, foolish, laugh at their own foibles.
They enjoy finding out how things work. They show the natural neurogenic, self-motivation described by White in his classic paper on the concept of competence. (White, 1959)
Motives and personality characteristics...
Their endurance, persistence, resiliency in new and complex situations is primarily derived from having integrated major mental and emotional paradoxes into their ways of functioning. They act with a selfish unselfishness, approach challenges with an optimistic pessimism, have a sensitive toughness, engage in self-confident self-criticism. They have achieved an independent dependency, the list goes on and on. Each person's paradoxical make up is unique, however, because their response patterns are a function of the world they interact with.
A central motive emerging from self-managed learning is best described as a synergy motivation (Siebert, 1976, 1983, 1985a). They are good at making things work well, need to have things working well, expect to be able to make things work well, and are creative in coming up with unique solutions that work. They function well in ambiguous, confused situations because of their inner directed sense of direction. They feel motivated to change situations and conditions from low synergy to high synergy, this having many signs of being a neurologically based need.
Capacity for empathy for people, groups, things. They have pattern empathy, can "read" situations quickly with their eyes and feelings; can draw meaningful impressions from little data; have empathy (not sympathy) for enemies and attackers.
Consciously attuned to subliminal perceptions. They read their own bodies well, notice little physical clues that something is not right or that everything is OK. Will consider as valid hunches, intuitions, ESP experiences.
Defend themselves well. Anticipate danger and take avoidance or preventative action before it can happen. They can be highly resistant to threats, con jobs, pressure, and trickery. They can be deadly opponents if forced into that position.
Life gets better and better for them as the decades go by. They get stronger and stronger from the various adversities, strains, and difficulties they encounter. The best survivors have usually been through the worst experiences. They match up with descriptions of people who are the small percentage of individuals who recover from cancer, alcoholism, or major medical conditions. (Siegal, 1986)
Function autonomously within society according to own personal values. They are responsible rebels, cooperative non-conformists. While they can't be controlled or made to be responsible citizens, they voluntarily participate in making things run well.
Exercise a talent for serendipity. They convert misfortune into good luck. Typically refer back to the worst things that ever happened to them as being the best thing that ever happened.
The First Description
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a trained observer. He called himself a philosopher and a psychologist. He was a superb observer of the workings of the human mind, including his own, and the processes promoting or impairing clear thinking and personal improvement.
At the same time that Kraepelin, Bleuler, and other European psychiatrists were first observing a puzzling mental disorder, Nietzsche was observing and describing a new, better, "higher" Uebermensch. In his descriptions he describes almost every element of development and traits of the survivor personality:
Playful curiosity--the final metamorphosis of spirit is to be a child, a free spirit who dances across truths, beliefs, and values. A free, independent mind and spirit "cannot be taught, one must 'know' it from experience" (Beyond Good and Evil, p. 155) and from questioning everything.
Laughing--throughout his writings he emphasizes laughing. Zarathustra says to laugh ten times a day (p. 24); it is important to laugh at oneself, confirm the validity of insights and discoveries with laughter, and let wisdom about all aspects of the human experiences be coupled with gaiety and joy.
Self-actualization--Nietzsche was compelled to explore and understand his own nature. He wanted to find out how his mind worked and the way that thoughts and sentiments influence human actions. He said, "We ourselves want to be our own experiments, and our own subjects of experiment." (Joyful Wisdom, p. 248)
Paradoxical--throughout his writing he makes reference to the paradoxes, opposites, and antitheses in himself and the new human. About Zarathustra he said, "all opposites are in him bound together into a new unity." (Ecce Homo, p. 106) He described himself as lonely and friendly, decadent and decent, terrible and beneficent, and Janus faced. He wrote "viewed from his angle, my life is simply amazing. For the task of transvaluing values, more abilities were necessary perhaps than could ever be found combined in one individual; and above all, opposing abilities which must not be mutually inimical and destructive." (Ecce Homo, p. 45 - KaufmannF)
Synergistic--he was deeply bothered seeing how much human energy was wasted through people trying to live by values and beliefs taught to them. He was distressed by the harm people do to themselves and others in trying to act unselfishly. He tried to tell, teach, and show people how life could be better for everyone if, through a process of experimenting, developing their own values, and enjoying a healthy selfishness, they became free spirited individuals.
Sensitivity--he stated, "I have in this sensitivity psychological antennae with which I touch and take hold of every secret: all the concealed dirt at the bottom of many a nature, perhaps conditioned by bad blood but whitewashed by education, is known to me on first contact." Being around people was so difficult for him that he needed many periods of solitude to recover, and to return to himself with "the breath of a free light playful air...." (Ecce Homo, p. 48-49)
Toughness--with enthusiasm Nietzsche describes the new human as "better and badder," as needing hardness, as being strong willed. He says, "another form of sagacity and self-defense consists in reacting as seldom as possible." (EH p. 63) He observes that all creators are hard. They have to be because they are, in the act of creating something new, destroying the old. He says, "We premature born of a yet undemonstrated future need...a new health, a stronger, shrewder, tougher, more daring, more cheerful health than any has been hitherto...a great health." (Ecce Homo, p. 101)
Serendipity--throughout his writings he talks about the value of an illness. "The man who lies in bed sometime...gains wisdom from the leisure forced on him by his illness." "It was sickness that brought me to reason." (Ecce Homo, p. 56); "It was in the years of my lowest vitality that I ceased to be a pessimist." (Ecce Homo, p. 40) He also said that with every hurt or injury he revitalized himself and became stronger.
There are many more examples in Nietzsche's writing, but this is sufficient to demonstrate that he covered most of the elements in the survivor personality pattern. These qualities, traits, and abilities must be searched for among the many other things he wrote about, but they are present to a degree far beyond what appeared in any writing before his time.
In his writings, Nietzsche demonstrated more self-understanding than was ever recorded before his time. According to Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud's biographer, Freud said several times of Nietzsche that "he had more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live." (Jones, 1955)
Nietzsche obviously understood the process of self-actualization very well. Scattered throughout his volumes, he showed an awareness of the many abilities and traits that facilitate self-managed, self-motivated personal development. He had a good grasp of how to learn directly from experience while freeing one's thinking from perceptions and beliefs taught by others. And, of course, he knew this. He said, "out of my writings there speaks a psychologist who has not his equal." (Ecce Homo, p. 75)
More importantly, he understood that no one could equal him by attempting to act in the ways he described. He wanted no followers, no cult, and no believers. He saw that uniquely created, individual self-discovery was the only way to have a free spirit.
A Schizophrenic Connection
How is all this connected to the emergence of schizophrenia in Germany in the late 1800s? For a partial answer, let us look to Nietzsche himself...
On July 24, 1876, at 32 years of age, he arrived in the city of Bayreuth to attend a festival. He experienced "a profound estrangement from all that surrounded me...It was as if I had been dreaming...'Where was I?' I recognized nothing. I hardly recognized Wagner." (His mentor and close friend.) (Ecce Homo, pp. 90-91) Nietzsche goes on to describe how he left, went to a forest retreat, sent a curt telegram to Wagner which ended their relationship, and withdrew from the world. Isolated from other humans, he spent months splitting his mind apart and clearing it of "ten years of a trash of dusty scholarship."
Did Nietzsche develop acute schizophrenia? If we look at Nietzsche from the perspective of clinician aided by DSM-III, we find in his self reports:
the sudden onset of a state of mental deterioration triggered by a major depersonalization experience.
withdrawal from contact with other humans, loss of capacity for close contact with others. History of many brief relationships with women. Never married, his strong sexual drives were usually satisfied through brief encounters with street women.
stated that he purposefully worked at not responding to things said or done to him.
claimed that his mind and feelings were controlled by others. Refused to read any books for years at a time claiming the authors were trying to put their thoughts into his head.
deterioration from previous levels of functioning, had to take a long leave of absence from his work because of recurring physical problems, ill health, and migraine.
rejected traditional values calling himself "the Anti-Christ" waging a war on Christianity, "an immoralist," "a decadent," a "Satyr" and "by far the most terrible human being there ever has been...." A sign of his moral deterioration and loss of capacity for judgment is that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister and wrote about it.
expressed incongruous thought patterns. For example, he said most people disgusted him. "This makes traffic with people no small test of my patience.... Disgust at mankind, at the 'rabble,' has always been my greatest danger." (Ecce Homo, pp. 48-49) Then he said, "My formula for greatness in a human being is...not merely to endure that which happens of necessity...but to love it." (Ecce Homo, p. 68) Another example is his bragging about not reading any books for years while he was busy writing books for future generations to read and study.
demonstrated little empathy for the people and groups he was so critical of; showed little empathy for the effect his behavior had on others.
in his writings he produced long lists of unrelated, sometimes bizarre aphorisms, assertions, and metaphors.
experienced a period in which he became possessed by a personality named Zarathustra. For a year he was totally absorbed in listening to the conversations of this imaginary person and writing an account of Zarathustra's life in an imaginary world. He claimed that Zarathustra is "the highest species of all existing things." (Ecce Homo, p. 107)
while writing about Zarathustra he could, by his own account, be seen laughing, dancing and talking to himself as he went for long walks.
showed many signs of grandiosity. Stated "It is my fate to be the first decent human being." And "I am the bringer of good tidings such as there has never been." Predicted that in the future, universities would have professorships or "chairs" endowed for the sole purpose of studying the Zarathustra volume. Upon completion of Human, All Too Human, which he describes as a memorial of a crisis, he said he felt tremendous certainty that he held in his hands a "world-historic" book. In an autobiography he included essays on "Why I am so wise," "Why I am so clever," and "How I write excellent books." He predicted that his existence would create a crisis in the human race like none other before, stating, "I am not a man, I am dynamite." (Ecce Homo p. 126)
His best friend and acquaintances believed that he had a mental breakdown. He interpreted that as information about how far advanced beyond their comprehensions he had become.
What Would Happen to Nietzsche Today?
If you saw only the description above, without knowing the name of the person, what would you think? If Nietzsche were alive today in our country, what do you think would be the reaction to him? Would he be respected as a great teacher of how to self-manage a deep, healthy metamorphosis? Would he be diagnosed as "a schizophrenic"?
Did Nietzsche go through a classic peak experience in which he achieved a higher level of consciousness and then defied the world to understand? Was he, as he claimed, an example of great health, of abnormal mental health? Did he experience a schizophrenic breakdown which was too much for him to accept, that he tried to deny? What was "Nietzsche's syndrome"?
There is No Proof That Schizophrenia is An Illness
After all these years, the case has still not been proven that schizophrenia is a disease or an illness. As summarized elsewhere (Siebert, 1985b), no one can catch schizophrenia from someone else, it has a correlation of occurrence in families and twins close to that of IQ, athletic ability, music ability, etc., no one dies from it, there is no known cure for it, people can recover from it on their own with no treatment, the longer a person is given drugs or treated in a mental hospital the worse off they are, the less treatment given the better the recovery, and some people are made stronger by the experience. No illness known to medical science acts like this.
But if it isn't a disease or illness then what is it? Is it possible that in some instances of schizophrenia we are observing some sort of desirable development? Does something happen in the human brain during young adulthood that is a version of what Jaynes has described as a breakdown in the bicameral mind? Is there an unrecognized process of neurological integration going on that takes years to occur?
Is there another developmental stage beyond those already identified? Is there a cerebral stage that occurs when a young person tries to take control of his or her brain functions? Are some versions of schizophrenia a developmental crisis that is being interfered with rather than facilitated?
Two mental and emotional states, the survivor personality and schizophrenia, have followed a parallel course of development during the 20th century. Now, almost 100 years later, the incidence of schizophrenia and the survivor personality is each estimated at being present in 1% to 2% of the population. The author's assertion is that they are manifestations of the same basic phenomenon. The classic "dementia praecox" form of schizophrenia is a misunderstood, mishandled, disrupted, interfered with, version of the survivor personality and, conversely, a person with a survivor personality demonstrates a successful form of schizophrenia.
The organizing theme of this paper is that the survivor personality and some forms of schizophrenia are two aspects of the same phenomenon. Research is needed to explore the perspective that the survivor personality is a successful outcome of what is currently perceived during metamorphosis as schizophrenia and, conversely, that schizophrenia, when it becomes chronic, a disrupted, aborted, malfunctioning version of the survivor personality.
If there is validity to this hypothesis, two variables seem to play a key role in determining the outcome. First, is the person distressed by the experience? Are they frightened? Do they ask for help? Do they want "it" to go away? Or, is the person OK with it and willing to let it happen? Does the person experience it as desirable, as opening doors to understanding while family, friends, and therapists are the ones distressed and feel compelled to act for the person's own good to try to make "it" go away?
Second, is the person street smart? An invulnerable? Able to tell people offering unwanted help to go away? Able to defend his or her mind and feelings from intrusion, therapy, and help even during a vulnerable period? Or, is the person passive and compliant with what others want him or her to do? Does he cooperate in the recommended treatment program to the best of his ability even though no cure takes place?
In the present circumstances, these two variables within the person appear to determine whether or not the Nietzsche syndrome produces "a survivor" or "a schizophrenic."
The problem is that there is a serious lack of information. Even though over 100,000 books and articles have been published on schizophrenia, important research areas have been neglected:
Anyone with experience in psychiatric wards knows that many patients do not agree that they are mentally ill. The question is, if schizophrenia is a disease or illness, then why do so many people diagnosed as schizophrenic have to be talked into believing they are sick? What differences are there between people who agree that they are schizophrenic and those who do not?
Why are people who refuse to believe that they are mentally ill viewed by therapists as the sickest of all?
What is the long term outcome when people diagnosed as schizophrenic disagree that they are sick and successfully avoid treatment? How do escaped mental patients compare with cooperative patients years later? Are the treated patients more healthy and improved when compared to the ones who got away?
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Bleuler, Eugen. Dementia Praecox or The Group of Schizophrenias (1911), International Universities Press, Joseph Zinkin, M.D., translator, 1950.
Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, II, p. 344, 1955.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. Human, All Too Human, 1878.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. Joyful Wisdom (also known as the gay science) 1882-1886. Thomas Common translation, 1910, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1960.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883-1885. Thomas Common translation, The Heritage Press, 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. Beyond Good and Evil, 1886. Helen Zimmern translation, 1907, George Allen & Unwin Publ., 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, (1888). Penguin Books, Hollingdale translation, 1979.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, (1888), in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann, The Modern Library, 1968.
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Siebert, Al. "Should Some Cases of Schizophrenia be Facilitated Instead of Treated?" Western Psychology Association Convention, San Jose, CA, 1985b.
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Siebert, Al. The Survivor Personality, Berkeley/Perigee, 1996.
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