The Man of Reason: Part Two

Lloyd noted that the distinction between male/rational and female/non-rational dates to the development of ‘rationality’ in Greek philosophy, and towards this she cites Aristotle. She then cites Augustine who also denied to females the degree of rationality both Aristotle and he accorded to males. Touching briefly on the Renaissance, Lloyd arrives at her point of focus, the treatment of reason in the seventeenth century – essentially by Descartes and Spinoza.

A major point for Lloyd is Descartes’ attempt to contain reason in a method depending on deduction and intuition for attaining certainty. His equation between reason and reality, on the basis of a veracious God, gave reason a divine aspect. Lloyd noted that crucial to Descartes’ treatment of reason is its connection with his antithesis between ‘mind’ and matter. What existed previously as contrasts – intellect versus the emotions, reason versus imagination and ‘mind’ versus matter, now became polarisations of male (as transcendent) and female (to sustain him). ‘The stage is now set for the emergence of the Man of Reason as a male character ideal.’5

Lloyd argues that the ‘benefits’ of gaining control of one’s thoughts was fully set out in the Ethics of Spinoza who aspired to ‘nothing less than the attaining of eternity of the mind’.6 Spinoza believed ‘the passions’ should not be ignored but transformed from confused modes of perception into active ‘rational emotions’. ‘The ultimate horror for Spinoza’s Man of Reason is to be “womanish”…under the sway of passions, untransformed by reason.’7 He sought ‘detachment from the transient and…attachment to the unchanging’.8 Death has no sting for him. Lloyd regards this as ‘the ultimate glorification of reason in its ethical dimension.’9

She wrote that Spinoza’s emphasis on self-interest (through the aspiration to eternity of ‘mind’ which rises above unconnected, fragmentary ideas and a limited standpoint) anticipates the attitude in the eighteenth century towards ‘the passions’. This eternity of ‘mind’ is to be attained by “Scientia Intuitiva’ – a knowledge superior to reason. It ‘proceeds from an…idea of the absolute essence of the attributes of God.’10

Lloyd distinguished Spinoza’s form of thought from those of both Descartes, and that of the later nineteenth century ‘which saw reason as limited in contrast to the access to reality provided by the will or the imagination’,11 even though she notes that Descartes also had some awareness of ‘the limitations of reason’ with regard to his intuitions, which he intended to be ‘the fresh, spontaneous, unclouded apprehensions of a “mind” operating in accordance with its understanding of its own nature.’12 Lloyd writes that Descartes’ intuitions were bound by method and she uses that method to exemplify the Man of Reason’s conception of reason as the encapsulation of thought into artificial and discrete mental states, subject to a rigorous discipline – ‘it then becomes easy to mistake this artificial creation for the real nature of consciousness’13 which, quoting Leibniz, ‘comes from the continual beatings of innumerable waves’.14

So the Man of Reason stands as an ‘ideal of method, construed as expressing the true nature of the “mind”…this rationalist model still underlies our “rational” thought styles.’15 Intuition is currently considered to both stand in opposition to this and to be associated with specifically female thought processes. In excluding from reason that which is attributed to and thereby encouraged in the female, the female is excluded from power. Lloyd urges that ‘an awareness of the claims of “intuition” can, nonetheless, be part of a constructive assessment of the claims and the ideals of reason.’16

Part two of nine/to be continued…


5 G. Lloyd, ‘The Man of Reason’, in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, Eds., A. Garry and M. Pearsall. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, 117

6 Ibid. 118

7 Ibid. 120

8 Ibid. 119

9 Ibid.120

10 Ibid. 122

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.123

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.124

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

The Man of Reason

The Artemision Bronze, sculptor unknown, c. 460 BCE, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

The Artemision Bronze, sculptor unknown, c. 460 BCE, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

‘Everything which sets men in motion must go through their minds; but what form it will take in the mind will depend very much upon the circumstances.’1

The ‘Man of Reason’ Lloyd analyses is a man of ideals and control. His other – the female – exists both in and (as Charlotte de Brachart wrote) as his shadow. ‘Reason’, its shadow, and the results of its domination pulse regularly through the essay – ‘ideals of manhood’, ‘ideals of our culture’, ‘the perfection of man’, ‘woman… “as it were an impotent male”’, “woman is subject to man”, ‘the Man of Reason as a character ideal’, ‘a veracious God’, ‘the divine spark in man’, ‘the duties of woman for all time’, ‘the ideals of reason’, ‘to make a god of man’, ‘the pedestalising of women’, ‘the impoverishment of women’. Beneath this dichotomy and tension – that between reason (assigned to male) and the emotions (assigned to female) runs another – that between philosophical idealism and idealism, between consciousness and matter.

The subject Lloyd has chosen is of the utmost importance to philosophy. She critiques the second element we use to arrive at our determinations in the triad of sensory input, brain processing and engagement in the practice, and does so by dealing with it not in the abstract, as does the Man of Reason, but as a cultural construct of domination. In arguing the one-sidedness of the Man of Reason, she works towards the perspective of the human – distinct, as Plumwood wrote, from that of the master.2

The ideal of the Man of Reason has had immeasurable impact on western culture since the Greeks, and Lloyd’s pointing to what has been separated off and denied in the name of that construct, to the way in which it has been done and by implication, her suggesting a reintegration of these elements and a broadening in some way of the notion of reason, is liberating and offers great potential for empowerment of rather than power over.

Lloyd defined the Man of Reason as ‘the ideal of rationality associated with the rationalist philosophies of the seventeenth century. And, secondly, something more nebulous – the residue of that ideal in our contemporary consciousness, our inheritance from seventeenth century rationalism.’3 She wrote that this is a substantial component in what reason has come to be. She is most concerned ‘to bring into focus…his maleness’4 since the Man of Reason is an idealisation of the male, not of the human being – yet he still embodies fundamental ideals of our culture.

Part one of nine/to be continued…


1. F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1888; with appendix, K. Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, Moscow: Progress, 1975, 50, 51

2. V. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London: Routledge, 1993

3. G. Lloyd, ‘The Man of Reason’, in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy. Eds. A. Garry and M. Pearsall. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, 111

4. Ibid.


Foucault’s shaped subject: from disciplined to the Neoplatonic aesthetics of Self

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

In Discipline and Punish Foucault developed a view of the subject in a carceral society, in the work of his later years he sought to develop one of an ethical subject with a care for self. Both views are built on a shaped subject – the former by a range of disciplines, the latter by self on a Classical and fundamentally Platonic/Neoplatonic model.

In the chapter ‘The carceral’ Foucault wrote that the opening of Mettray in 1840 was the baptism of a new type of supervision over individuals who resisted normalisation. In the functioning of Mettray were to be found ‘cloister, prison, school, regiment’1 This ushered in a new age of institutions and disciplines which grew from the carceral network, which Foucault called a ‘counter law’ and which the administrative power of state bureaucracies and agencies did nothing to restrict from expanding to dominate modern society.

In this de-centred archipelago of diffuse power, the bureaucrat and the lawyer give legitimacy to the power of wardens, doctors, psychiatrists and teachers who all make punishment seem constructive and humane. They extend the control of the regime by making power most economical and its processes most efficient through internalising it in the bodies of the individuals they work with. Doctors and teachers complement the network of prisons – hospitals and schools are equally instruments of subjugation and subjection. The power to punish is not different from the power to cure and educate. Foucault asked ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’2

In a society where all relations are power relations, judges of normality are everywhere – the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge – the universal reign of the normative is based on them and all are subject to it. The carceral network is the greatest support in modern society of normalising power. Teachers, doctors and psychologists are tentacles of normalisation who disperse a manner of living and thinking that originated in the prison. All individuals are shaped by disciplinary power to the requisite form of subjectivity from cradle to grave – their bodies, behaviour and gestures. What we think are aspects of our socialisation and consider reasonable are in fact normalisation, gone beyond socialisation. The subject is not an expression of self. We have all been normalised, lulled into the carceral continuum. The ‘human sciences’ assist in this.

Foucault came to think that his writing in the period of Discipline and Punish put too much emphasis on disciplinary power and passive subjects, that he had not sufficiently considered how the subject constituted their self through their practices and ‘games of truth’. He discussed this in a interview in 1984, published as ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom’. Rather than individuals being shaped by disciplinary techniques and prescriptive ethics, he theorised them shaping their selves on the basis of the Platonic and particularly, Neoplatonic model of an aesthetic care for the self.

Not only is power not an evil, it is the play of strategic games (rules for the production of truth) and such a model of care for the self obviated any requirement that the individual conform. When one thinks of, acts for and transforms oneself, one is thinking of others and the person who is thereby free has the power to speak the truth. The ‘beautiful’ individual is not the ‘normal’ person but one who has the courage to transgress. Foucault extended this into the notion of parresia or truth-telling in a rectangular field of competing values comprising isegoria (the right to speak/participate), ascendancy (who does speak?), normative truth and risk.

Foucault made liberty the criterion for an analysis of power. For the Greeks, having an ethos implied a competency to have relationships and to a place in the city and a city comprised of such citizens would function on a stable ethical principle. One only seeks to dominate others when one does not care for one’s self. In the case of pedagogical institutions the concern is not in the fact of the student being taught but in the mere exercise of power for its own sake. Such problems should be addressed through the law, the practice of self and the functioning of the community ethos.

Foucault argued that an ethics of care for the self was an urgent task. But this task is not the activity of an atomised individual, that self-formation requires a teacher and mentor. In the interview he referred to the end of the Alcibiades where that character, whose beauty was fading, said he will become the disciple of Socrates and Socrates his master, guiding him to true beauty. Foucault described this as the individual soul turning its gaze on itself in order to recognise itself and recall the truth to which it is related.

Plato describes this in the Phaedrus: ‘So each selects his love from the ranks of the beautiful according to his own disposition and, as if that love were the very god he followed, fashions and adorns him like a statue for himself, in order to honour him and celebrate his mystic rites. Thus those who belong to Zeus seek that the one loved by themselves should be Zeus-like in respect of his soul; so they look to see whether he is naturally disposed towards philosophy and leadership, and when they have found him and fallen in love, they do everything to make him like this.’3 The essence of this fashioning of another’s soul became the sculptor of Plotinus and Foucault’s real interest – the spiritual aestheticisation of self.4

In his attempt in the interview on care for the self to rise above a career of negativity Foucault is not convincing precisely because he looked not merely to a Classical but more specifically to a Platonic/Neoplatonic model which he agreed with the interviewer should be actualised.5 Foucault described this practice of the self as ‘ascetic’ saying that he used the word much as Weber had used it and this ‘asceticism’ can be traced back to Nietzsche.

In this interview on how to address core problems of modernity there is not merely an argument that if the self is formed ethically the community will reflect the benefits of this (a sound argument) but the ‘self’ referred to, as the man of ‘calling’ and overman in the writing of Weber and Nietzshe is inwardly focused. Further, not only is there a need of labour of self on self but that labour should be an occupation.6 But the interview ended with excellent words: ‘philosophy is precisely the challenging of all phenomena of domination at whatever level or under whatever form they present themselves – political, economic, sexual, institutional, and so on.’ If only that were true.



1. M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Trans., Alan Sheridan, Vintage, New York, 1995, 146
2. Ibid., 145
3. Phaedrus 252d5-252e5
4. Foucault said ‘I believe that, in ancient spirituality, there was identity or almost so between spirituality and philosophy. In any case, the most important preoccupation of philosophy revolved about the self, the knowledge of the world coming afterwards, and, most of the time, as a support to this care for self.’ ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom,’ interview with Foucault 20.01.84 by Raúl Fornet-Betancourt, Helmut Becker and Alfredo Gomez-Müller.
5. ‘Q.: Should we actualise this notion of care for self, in the classical sense, against this modern thought? MF: Absolutely…’ Ibid.
6. Ibid.


Hegel and Marx – Mystic and Materialist: On Civil Society

The bases of Hegel’s and Marx’s theorising on civil society were diametrically opposed – Hegel’s was that of the spiritual progress of a ‘rationalised’, universal and mystical Geist which functions in nature and history and is manifested in consciousness, Marx’s was the material world. Yet there are several points of commonality between the two, particularly since the theorising of the former was fundamental to that of the latter.

Where Hegel’s view of society was tripartite and concentric, Marx’s was essentially dualist and antithetical. Hegel’s model comprised the family which was contained within civil society which in turn was contained by the centralised bureaucratic state which he regarded as the highest form of ethical life, the most stable expression of Geist. Marx rejected Hegel’s notion of a spiritual unfolding and saw in its stead a struggle between a dominant and exploitative bourgeoisie and the proletariat and a division between the state and civil society. He thought that rather than being the institutional and philosophical expression of ‘reason’, Hegel’s argument was ideological – the bourgeois view of the world, that Hegel’s view was contemplative and impotent – it did not seek to change the world by identifying and guiding the concrete participants who are going to do this.

Hegel’s model of civil society was a balanced and interdependent system of the needs of individuals and their satisfaction, informed by the individual’s contractual and legal rights and obligations based on market mechanisms. Through the individual’s interaction with others, the progress of the universal finds its expression in the developing consciousness of their own universality – from individual to citizen: ‘through its reference to others, the particular end takes on the form of universality, and gains satisfaction by simultaneously satisfying the welfare of others.’1 Hegel’s civil society functioned in a ‘rational’ inter-relationship between the family, civil society and state such that the dynamism of the modern world could be given expression and yet the society would be able to bear a degree of conflict as normal.

For Marx, as with Hegel, civil society was where the productive forces and social relations functioned but he focused on the forces of production as a base on which all else socially was built and argued that the tension in how those forces operated and were controlled by the bourgeoisie impacted in a profoundly negative way on civil society which represented, through ideology, the interests of the bourgeoisie – those interests maintained by the state.2 Where Hegel argued for fundamentally harmonious ‘rational’ relations in civil society, all knowing their place, and that his model embodied ‘the end of history’, Marx argued that this could never be, due to the class relations – the proletariat, exploited for their potential for surplus value, were excluded from the benefits of bourgeois society that they had produced and denied their humanity. Where Hegel held a contradictory position regarding the family – that it was the basis and first ethical power of the state even as it had been pulled apart and replaced by the corporation,3 Marx also argued that normal ties such as family were being eroded by the dynamics of capitalism, leaving the workers only their collective solidarity. This, Marx argued, could only be overcome by the overthrow of bourgeois property relations by the proletariat as the key stage for socialism.

Hegel, with his interest in political economy,4 recognised the division of labour and its impact on workers, the increasingly mechanical nature of work, that exploitation was essential to capitalism and that the capitalist economy produces great disparities in wealth – his writing on this echoes the force of Marx’s writing.5 But, contrary to Marx, he not only thought that these problems could be ameliorated by the welfare provided by the police and the corporation (he was the first philosopher to theorise on a version of the welfare state – which welfare state did not concern Marx) or regulated (in order to avoid ‘dangerous convulsions’6), that there was no lasting solution to them – his theorising on civil society was a justification for capitalism. Where Hegel believed the dependence and reciprocity of work and the satisfaction of needs was a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of all, Marx saw them as the satisfaction of the needs only of the bourgeoisie, at the great expense of the proletariat. Likewise, Hegel believed that through interdependence the individual multiplies his needs and means of satisfying them – for Marx, this only applied to the bourgeois who is a self-interested maximiser of their needs.

Both Hegel and Marx were very positive about the dynamism of capitalism but Marx, while recognising its historically progressive role, argued that this dynamism is ultimately self-defeating in its irrationality and dehumanising effect. Again, both Hegel and Marx following him positively recognised the creativity in civil society. Hegel believed that in satisfying needs we are continually transforming the world, continually creating ourselves morally and socially through both practical and theoretical activity – in transforming nature we transform ourselves. Marx’s focus was on the proletariat as creators, on their transcendence of capitalism, not only so that they can regain control of their collective creation but that they can liberate all human creativity.

Even though he recognised the importance in the growth of trade and commerce, Hegel’s limit of social organisation was the nation-state. Marx, because capitalism functions trans-nationally, believed that the proletarians all over the world would recognise their collective interest in struggle against it. He believed that the struggle against capitalism could only have an international solution.

Marx’s analysis is clearly the most adequate – it is built on a study of objective reality not mysticism. Yet Hegel was a ‘keen observer’ of the world and like Marx, recognised the dynamic power and potential of capitalism. What for Marx had to be overcome, for Hegel was, in the nation state, the highest and end-point. It is very interesting that for such a profound and brilliant materialist as Marx, his theorising, which he derived substantially from that of Hegel, seems also to arrive at an end-point – in socialism. It is as if in their theorising they both had attained their telos and ideal.

Many, in their criticisms of Marx point to what he ‘failed’ to do – that he failed to address the complexity of modernity, that he failed to account for democracy, that he failed to account for nationalism, that he failed to see that the proletarians would soon begin to get a cut of the cake, binding them to capitalism. One such criticism is that Hegel’s analysis was more modulated, enabling him to recognise what was to become an enormous element of the bourgeois state – welfare, to recognise the part that ‘freedom’ and the satisfaction of the needs of all plays in the modern economy.

Such criticisms carry limited weight. Marx’s life’s work was a superb analysis of the commodity and its economic implications. His focus was not on the continuation for a period of time, of capitalism and its ideology (the reflection in consciousness of the objective world), it was on a far better, more humane society beyond it and the contradictions within capitalism that would, at some stage, present and drive the potential for its achievement.

Hegel’s theorising on civil society is premised on a positive understanding of the basic trends of bourgeois society and is bounded by the nation state. He failed to see the true potential and implications of global trade as did Marx. Where Hegel thought of the state and civil society working together, the latter happily under the domination of the former, Marx saw a split between them which could only be joined by the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Civil society since the time of Hegel and Marx rapidly became central to capitalism – and the relevance of the term has broadened substantially to incorporate a wide range of organisations and institutions – if anything, increasingly under the sway of the bourgeois state and capitalist ideology



1. G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Ed., Allen W. Wood, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 220, #182.

2. In an essay with strong racist elements the young Marx wrote that only under Christianity ‘which objectifies all national, natural, moral and theoretical relationships, could civil society separate itself completely from the life of the state, sever all the species-bonds of man, establish egoism and selfish need in their place, and dissolve the human world into a world of atomistic, antagonistic individuals.’ K. Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, 1843. For Marx, while the system of need satisfaction increases the level of social interdependence necessary in the economy, the potential proletarian solidarity remains latent until the struggle against individual atomisation assumes a collective form. At this point, capitalism begins to produce its own ‘grave-diggers’.

3. ‘civil society tears the individual away from family ties, alienates the members of the family from one another, and recognises them as self-sufficient persons. …(it) subjects the existence of the whole family itself to dependence on civil society and to contingency.’ Hegel op. cit., p. 263, #238.

4. Marx also believed that political economy was a science, but that it was a bourgeois science, tainted by its commitment to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

5. ‘the emancipation of slaves is of the greatest advantage to the master.’ Hegel op. cit., p. 269, #248, ‘When a large mass of people sinks below the level of a certain standard of living…that feeling of right, integrity and honour which comes from supporting oneself by one’s own activity and work is lost. This leads to the creation of a rabble, which in turn makes it much easier for disproportionate wealth to be concentrated in a few hands.’ Hegel op. cit., p. 266, #244.

6. Hegel op. cit., p. 262, #236. Where Hegel rejected democracy, fearing the ‘uneducated masses’, Marx showed little interest in it, believing it to be a front for political domination by the bourgeoisie – his focus was on revolution.

Nietzsche and his master

Plotinus 204/5-270

Plotinus 204/5-270

Plotinus wrote: ‘But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.’  The Enneads I.6.9

Nietzsche wrote: ‘Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: the artistic power of the whole of nature reveals itself to the supreme gratification of the primal Oneness amidst the paroxysms of intoxication. The noblest clay, the most precious marble, man, is kneaded and hewn here, and to the chisel-blows of the Dionysiac world-artist there echoes the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries, ‘Do you bow low, multitudes? Do you sense the Creator, world?’ The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music

As Christ had John the Baptist, Dionysus and the ‘higher man’ had Nietzsche. This man of god who derivatively (of Lutheranism, of Hegel and of the egoist Max Stirner – ‘Saint Max’ to Marx and Engels) told us ‘God is dead’ – so that his god may enter centre stage – built his philosophy on a simile of Plotinus that recurred over and again in his, as a metaphor (as it has throughout our culture, prior to and post Nietzsche). This tortured lover of ‘life’ had as a goal that which he knew was impossible – a mystical perfection of self in this world. Given this, the direction of his life was inevitable.

From The Birth of Tragedy to the final so-called aphorism of The Will to Power – which contains a synopsis of The Enneads – the bond is unbroken between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Neoplatonism – particularly The Enneads.

The will to power of Nietzsche (as did the world as will of Schopenhauer) derives from The Enneads in which the Good wills itself and all else. It boils with willing. Its emanations are manifestations of its willing. Again, free will (and this before Augustine) carries the soul of the contemplator back to the Good, to itself. Ennead VI tractate 8 is on ‘Free Will and the Will of the One’.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism is based on what he called ‘the limits of reason’. As with the ‘limits of language’ of his fellow disingenuous mystic Wittgenstein (Heraclitus without the Heraclitus), Neoplatonism and particularly Plotinus are the source. The impossibility of facts for Nietzsche – this lover of ‘truth’ – is set against the impossibility of Absolute Truth and the ineffable, not a deepening relative truth by which it was once correctly held that the earth is flat.

Nietzsche subscribed to ‘free will’ no less than did Kant – but for Nietzsche it was the ‘free will’ of the ‘higher man’.

He subscribed to a connection between morality and imperative no less than did Kant, but for him it was the imperative of the ‘immoralist’.

Nietzsche’s at best contradictoriness, at worst – hypocrisy – was free-wheeling and through his rhetorical skill he demanded we submit and be swept along. Behind his lyricism, he was the ultimate bower bird, the ultimate used-car salesman.

Nietzsche 1882

Nietzsche 1882

The writing of Nietzsche, as with that of other German romantic philosophers, is steeped in Neoplatonism – where romanticism, there Neoplatonism. But this is only one brief period in Western culture. We could discuss the influence of Plotinus and apophaticism in the visual arts, in literature, in music and more, in this and other periods. Every university in this country at which philosophy is taught runs courses on Plato and Aristotle, but to my knowledge never one, once, on a figure of equal significance – Plotinus. Vanderbilt University is the one university I know of in the West where such courses have been run, for several years – by William Franke.

The suppression of this pervasive current in Western philosophy (which I refer to as the pornography of philosophy – assiduously studied by predominantly male philosophers, and its influence on their work dissembled about and denied) by academic philosophers is a disgrace and a profound failure of intellectual and social responsibility. A display of the most determined, ideologically motivated ignorance.

My questions are these:

Are we so ashamed of ourselves that we cannot look openly at who we are and at what has contributed so significantly to forming us  – even as we draw on its creative power?

How much longer – particularly at a time of an immense global and cultural re-orientation – must we in the West cling to the myopic arrogance that we are the bearers of ‘reason’ while those in other cultures stare at their navels or are obsessed with filial piety?

Where are the barriers between ‘reason’ and emotions, ‘reason’ and intuition, ‘reason’ and what our brains do when we day-dream and when we are asleep, between ‘reason’ and all those other brain functions ‘below it’?

How else can these questions be addressed other than on a material basis?


Images: Plotinus/Nietzsche

Plotinus and Thoreau: the spiritual sculpting of Self – a crystal lake of light within

Morning at Walden Pond

Morning at Walden Pond

‘But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.’

The Enneads I.6.9

‘Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.

John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labour more or less. Having bathed he sat down to recreate his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbours were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard someone playing on a flute, and that sound harmonised with his mood. Still he thought of his work; but the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his will, yet it concerned him very little. It was no more than the scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him, Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these. But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practice some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.’

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), The Portable Thoreau, Ed., Carl Bode, Viking Penguin, New York, 1982, 468-469



Psychoanalysis, Metaphysics and Platonism

Plato, Raphael's The School of Athens, 1509-11

‘psycho-analytic treatment is founded on truthfulness. In this fact lies a great part of its educative effect and its ethical value. It is dangerous to depart from this foundation. Anyone who has become saturated in the analytic technique will no longer be able to make use of the lies and pretences which a doctor normally finds unavoidable’1

In The Ego and the Id Freud wrote that the division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis and that psychoanalysis situates the essence of the psychical not in consciousness but that what finds expression in consciousness has its source in the unconscious, the basis of the ‘non-rational’.2

Psychoanalysis focuses on bringing the unconscious to consciousness, on what has been made unconscious by repression.3 The unconscious is the realm of the ‘non-rational’ and the non-propositional, of the emotions.

What is sought in psychoanalysis regarding ‘non-rational’ behaviour is not a reasoned causal sequence of thought but an explanatory over-abundance, a multiplicity of interpretations – none of which themselves are definitive – which derive from behaviour patterns, contingent non-determining associative connections between memories, images, words, unconscious conflicts, and desires.

Towards this, free expression of imagination and the play of fantasy are encouraged. These explanations are ‘first person’ – the analysand is the authority, because the explanations concern therapeutic self-knowledge.

In the case of Mr R,4 Freud explored the ‘non-rational’ unconsciously motivated behaviour of a man who was torn between love for (of which he was conscious) and hate towards (which he had repressed) his lady friend. This was represented symbolically by his removing a stone from the road along which her carriage was to pass and then replacing the stone so that she might have an accident.5

Freud notes that Mr R’s behaviour was a compulsive pathological action and such actions, in two stages, are typically the manifestation of obsessive neuroses. In a footnote a couple of pages later,6 Freud gave another instance of a man who had done something very similar, throwing a branch into a hedge from the ground in his way, going towards home then, filled with unease, was compelled to hurriedly return and put the branch back in its original position, even though it would have been more dangerous to passers-by there than in the hedge. Freud described the second act (as with Mr R’s action) as hostile but in the conscious view of the man, philanthropic.

Mr R did not understand his two actions, that they were part of a pattern, and how they related. If his actions had been intentional he could have easily provided a rational explanation. In removing and replacing the stone Mr R was re-enacting the same unconscious behavioural pattern and emotional reaction from his childhood when his father had beaten him. His inability to recognise it as such made his behaviour unconscious.

Donald Davidson in ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’ exemplifies the metaphysical understanding of the rational explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour. He began his article ‘The idea of an irrational action, belief, intention, inference or emotion is paradoxical. For the irrational is not merely the non-rational, which lies outside the ambit of the rational; irrationality is a failure within the house of reason.’7

He wrote that reason explanations are built into our intentions and intentional actions, into our attitudes and emotions and asks how we can explain irrational thoughts, actions or emotions and why someone would knowingly and deliberately act contrary to their own best judgement.

Davidson believes that all intentional actions, irrespective of whether they are or are not in some further sense irrational, have a core rational element, that since beliefs and desires are causes of actions for which they are reasons, reason explanations include causal elements.8

He considers the example of the man who returned to the park to move the branch back to its original position. In his retelling, he strips the event of all the emotive ‘non-rational’ elements (a sudden seizure with unease, an obligation to get off the tram and return to the park and compulsion to behave in particular ways which in the parallel case of Mr R were, in addition to compulsion anxiety, hatred, love and fear – elements of which both men had no clear understanding) that are in Freud’s telling, concluding that everything the man did was done for a reason and discusses the story within the bounds of the rational, beyond which lies simply ‘the irrational’. For Freud it is ‘beneath which’.9

The problem for Davidson is how a ‘mental’ event can cause another ‘mental’ event without being a reason for it and in such a way that there is not necessarily any irrationality. He exemplifies this happening when cause and effect occur in two ‘minds’ – a person wishing that another enter their garden, grows a flower.

The other craves to see the flower and enters the garden. The desire of the first was not a reason for the craving of the second nor the reason for why the second acted, even though it caused both the craving and the acting of the second. ‘Mental phenomena may cause other mental phenomena without being reasons for them’.10

Arguing against the psychoanalytic position which he himself refers to – ‘the holistic character of the mental’11 – he then claims that the same can happen in the one ‘mind’ by partitioning it into two, which parts are able to interact at a causal level.

Each mini-‘mind’ has all the functions of the single ‘mind’ but one of those structures ‘must show a larger degree of consistency or rationality than is attributed to the whole.’12 – unless this is the case, the point of the analogy with social interaction is lost. Irrationality would occur when the less rational side, against the rational determination of the other, persisted with a desire, causing a failure of the principle to act according to one’s own best judgement.

That Davidson did not include a discussion of the unconscious in this article emphasises his focus on the operation of reason.13 His account is locked in a dichotomy between reason and irrationality. He treats irrationality as an inconsistency, thereby failing to recognise and incorporate into his discussion the patterns, recognised by psychoanalysis, that characterise obsessive compulsive behaviour.

Davidson’s treatment of ‘non-rational’ behaviour shows not merely a bias towards rationalisation and inferential reason but a failure to recognise and understand the significance of inner conflict in our behaviour.

Psychoanalysis does this. Just as Davidson places a premium on reason, so psychoanalysis does on our imaginative capacities. Davidson’s article shows no recognition of what repression is and how it functions – which recognition is fundamental to psychoanalysis.

Lear wrote ‘(Psychoanalysis) is a technique that allows dark meanings and irrational motivations to rise to the surface of conscious awareness. They can then be taken into account’.14

Yet the theorising of both Davidson and psychoanalysis share a common heritage in metaphysics, particularly Platonic. Lear wrote that Freud ‘self-consciously brought psychoanalysis into the Platonic tradition15 and quoted him having written of ‘the divine Plato’, an expression repeatedly used by the Neoplatonist Nietzsche.16

Lear quoted Freud linking Eros to Plato: ‘In its origin, function and relation to sexual love, the “Eros” of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love-force, the libido of psychoanalysis.’17

Freud was not the first to identify an underlying structure of our ‘minds’, of our psyches. The latter term points to Plato whose divisions of the soul Freud based his own, and equally arbitrary divisions on.18 His ego (representing ‘reason’) and id (representing ‘the passions’) derive from the allegory of the chariot in the Phaedrus.19

On such an emotive subject as that of Freud’s significance, it is to Lear’s credit that he recognised and acknowledged the problem that Freud’s metaphysical and arbitrary divisions of the psyche presented for the psychoanalytic explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour.

He wrote that as soon as Freud determined that neurosis should be understood in terms of conflict between psychic parts, he should have changed his conception of therapy. He asked how any talking cure can harmonise these warring elements. On this basis, neurosis could no longer be conceived in terms of repressed ideas in the unconscious but must be understood as structural conflict.20

As did Freud and as does Lear, Davidson also drew heavily on Plato. As the ego and id of Freud so Davidson’s Plato and Medea Principles – but where Freud’s treatment of his concepts was more complex and creative, Davidson’s Principles were closer to the rigid Platonic distinctions – one of his ‘semi-autonomous departments of the mind’ was ‘the side of sober judgement’ the other ‘the side of incontinent intent and action.’21

As Plato argued that metaphysical ‘reason’ should control contrary forces in the soul and that his philosopher should ascend to ‘pure’ reason, Davidson argued that metaphysical reason should perform a similar function in the ‘mind’ where his philosopher would find ‘pure’ reason.22 The psychic models of Plato, Freud and Davidson are all equally arbitrary.

While the psychoanalytic explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour, precisely because it entails a far greater degree of recognition of the complexity and contradictoriness in how our brains function, especially ‘non-rational’ behaviour, offers far more than does Davidson’s stunted model, both are metaphysically based.

Both seek to extend the metaphysical concern with underlying structures of reality to the ‘mind’, using ancient Greek and Platonic concepts and models. But these ‘underlying structures of reality’, as Aristotle made clear, are those things that lie beyond process and change – which nothing does. To focus on the therapeutic potential of a non-existent ‘mind’ using such models is to deny the vitality, complexity and potential of the brain.

The assertion that rationality will always be language based again exemplifies the impact of Plato – it binds a narrow understanding of ‘reason’ (that it is conscious, that it is deliberate, that it is inferential) and language together. To so do denies what psychoanalysis lays greatest claim to – an understanding of psychic behaviour.

What Lear disparagingly referred to as ‘elemental mental operations that occur below the level of linguistically informed thought’ and ‘the cunning of unreason’ entail our most complex and subtle thought which finds its expression in conscious deliberation.

Psychoanalysis must shed metaphysical thinking and, if it is to maximise its recognition of the complexity of the brain’s functioning (particularly manifest in ‘non-rational’ behaviour) and the therapeutic potential made claim to in its name, reflect developments in science.

The choice is not between metaphysics and science, it is between basing psychoanalysis on metaphysics or on science. Lear wrote of future brain research reinvigorating psychoanalytic ideas by revealing their organic basis. He writes that Freud predicted this and that Freud had no doubt that science would lead to a revision of his hypotheses, that his work would be superseded by science.23

This is the way for psychoanalysis to develop. Any understanding of the brain can only be on a materialist basis which therefore recognises the unity and plasticity of the brain’s functioning. The dynamic unconscious is material, not metaphysical.



1. Sigmund Freud, “Observations on transference-love”, S.E. XII: 159-171, p. 164

2. Sigmund Freud, The ego and the id, S.E. XIX: 13-66, p. 13

3. ‘The point is not merely that ideas can operate in the mind outside of conscious awareness; it is that the mind is motivated to keep ideas out of awareness because they are forbidden, rejected.’ Jonathan Lear, Freud, Routledge, London, 2005, p. 6

4. Sigmund Freud, Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, S.E. X: 152-249

5. Ibid., p. 190

6. Ibid., p. 192

7. Donald Davidson, ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’, in Wollheim, Richard and Hopkins, James, Eds., Philosophical Essays on Freud, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 289- 305, p. 289

8. Ibid., p. 293

9. Lear wrote that the mind is inherently irrational. Jonathan Lear, Open Minded, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 87

10. Davidson, op. cit., p. 300

11. Ibid., p. 302

12. Ibid., p. 300

13. Lear wrote (regarding Mr. R’s engaging in the love-and-hate two-step) ‘‘To search for unconscious reasons is only to increase the confusion. It is to treat the unconscious as though it were a repository for already formed reasons’ In Freud, op. cit., p. 39

14. Lear, in ‘The Shrink is In’, New Republic, December 25, 1995, reproduced at:

15. Freud, op. cit., p. 254

16. Ibid., p. 19

17. Ibid., p. 227 note. SE XVIII: 91. Also re- psychoanalysis on sexuality: ‘it had far more resemblance to the all-inclusive and all-embracing Eros of Plato’s Symposium.’, ‘Resistances to psychoanalysis’ SE XIX: 218 in Freud op. cit., p. 19

18. Lear referred to Plato’s account of the psyche as ‘a remarkably well-worked out account of psychological structure.’ Ibid., p. 191

19. Plato, Phaedrus 246a-254e. Freud wrote ‘‘The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions. All this falls into line with popular distinctions which we are all familiar with; at the same time, however, it is only to be regarded as holding good on the average or ‘ideally’. … Thus in its relation to the id it is like a man on horse-back, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.” S. Freud, The ego and the id, op. cit., p. 25

20. Freud, op. cit., pp. 187 and 190 Earlier in the same chapter ‘The structure of the psyche’ which begins with Plato’s division of the soul, Lear advocated these same Freudian divisions. The knots Lear got into regarding the superego – the heir to a so-called complex (the Oedipus complex) that never occurs and ‘never exists as such’ but which ‘plays a crucial role’ are exemplary. Lear was correct when he wrote ‘It is a little difficult to follow the developmental story’ … p. 183

21. ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’ op. cit., p. 300

22. Ibid., p. 294 Davidson’s ‘Plato Principle’ is the view that no intentional action can be internally irrational. He wrote that this is the doctrine of ‘pure rationality’

23. Freud, op. cit., pp. 6, 7


The Mystical Hero of Nietzsche and Weber

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

‘Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?’

In The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche sliced and diced priestly asceticism. In The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism Weber asserted that it is a ‘purely historical study’1 of the impact of Protestant asceticism. In his writing he argued for a resolute facing of the facts, yet the true attitudes of these two hard men towards ‘priest’ and ‘Protestant’, indicatively stated by them in those books is conveyed by Nietzsche’s ‘ascetic ideal’ and in Weber’s concept with double meanings of ‘innerworldly’, superficially distinct from the ‘otherworldly’ asceticism of monastic life. Despite the forceful and bitter rhetoric of Nietzsche and the more scholarly (until criticised, as in his rejoinders) tenor of Weber’s writing, their critiques of asceticism, built on its mystical essence, embody a defence of that essence and are calls for its centrality to modern life.

Nietzsche believed that the focus of asceticism – from the origins of Christianity through the Enlightenment to his time – and what has undermined Christianity – modern science – is the ‘ascetic ideal’ – ‘with its sublime moral cult, with its brilliant and irresponsible use of the emotions for holy purposes’.2 This ideal, expressed in different forms such as God or knowledge, is ‘truth’ – the goal of a deluded faith in reason. While asceticism can benefit the philosopher’s and scholar’s intellectual work, it is none the less excessively repressive, world and life-denying.

The ascetic ideal is held by the virtuoso of guilt the priest above the herd, his sick patients, as symbol and proof of their guilt. The ascetic ideal is an artifice for the preservation of life, because it gives meaning to what is otherwise without meaning. Yet although it is generated by the instinct of self-preservation, its banner is ‘triumph in agony’.3 Nietzsche wrote that the ascetic ideal is the greatest disaster in the history of European health. With the ‘death of God’ his bourgeois society was free – to live well, to be selfish, secure, passive and mediocre. He thought his society’s cultural condition was meaningless exhaustion – nihilist. But this same climate offered a potential for renewal for those with the strength and capacity to live without illusions.

Weber believed he had made a discovery in the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism that could be traced to Luther’s spiritual revolution – his liberation of everyman from the priest – to become his own ‘priest’, and his notion of a secular ‘calling’ (Beruf) which gave religious and moral dignity to activity in the world. Weber argued that Calvin developed on this, and the elements and asceticism of Calvinist doctrines (and their offshoots in other churches), particularly predestination with the possibility of grace through works or the sanction of damnation took priority in his argument.

Since the eternal fate of the believer was unknown and, fearing damnation, he should live as if he were one of the elect by enhancing God’s glory and enriching His world through work and enterprise. He should not do so for the sake of idle pleasure or greed – he should live as an ‘(inner)worldly ascetic’, channelling his disciplined and concentrated energy into economic activity. He should contain uninhibited emotion, avoiding erotic pleasure and the instinctive enjoyment of life. He should avoid displays of wealth. Living simply, rationally, with order and method, he should accumulate the profits from his enterprise and re-employ them, building on what he had created, thereby enhancing the possibility of his grace. Seeking salvation through immersion in his vocation, he imbues the world with religious significance. Economic success was a sign of God’s blessing. Not only did this success result in the accumulation of capital which became the engine for the growth of capitalism, more importantly for Weber was the development of a bourgeois economic ethic – the ‘spirit of capitalism’ – which developed from the ascetic rationalism of the early Protestants to the rationalisation of economic and political life today.

Under the burden of predestination and a severe ethics, ‘innerworldly’ asceticism and the ‘spirit of capitalism’ progressed together but by the late nineteenth century, as concern with salvation and Christianity itself had declined, and rationalisation had advanced in science, technology, bureaucracy and law, there was left a society suffused with a disciplined work-focused inner orientation suited to the nature of capitalism but without the religious foundation. People suffered disenchantment and a loss of freedom and meaning. What had been a ‘light cloak’ for the religious had become a ‘steel shell’ (stahlhartes Gehause) for the modern. To counter this, Weber argued that individuals should find a Beruf or ‘calling’ in a value sphere (art, science, politics, religion) and to practice that calling with ‘passionate devotion’. His focus became the heroic individual who might be a model for others, one whose fearless life echoed the same principled asceticism of the earlier Calvinists.

Numerous differences can be found between Nietzsche and Weber regarding their positions on the effects of asceticism – Christianity, which Nietzsche hated and regarded as a millennial catastrophe that had promoted the decadence of modern man but which, in Protestantism, Weber thought had given an ethical core to capitalism; Christian guilt, which Nietzsche saw as the priest’s means of crippling humanity but which, as it operated with the requirement of proof as a sanction through predestination, Weber thought was his great discovery to understanding the origins of the ‘spirit of capitalism’; science, which Nietzsche regarded as ultimately a delusion but which Weber was committed to and democracy which, echoing equality before God was for Nietzsche another execrable continuation of ascetic Christianity but which Weber believed was necessary for a society’s health. Where Nietzsche hated modernity and the reduction of life to quantitative measures, Weber argued that modernity had liberating potential and that Protestant asceticism was fundamental to the efficiencies of rationalised modern life.

But the differences begin to blur on closer inspection: the approaches by both Nietzsche and Weber to asceticism (despite Weber’s assertion to the  contrary) are psychological. Weber believed that rationalisation together with bureaucratisation had resulted in ‘warring’ autonomous spheres of activity in which people worked as functionaries, disenchanted and deprived of meaning and freedom. He also thought that the conditions that had sustained liberal democracy had been undercut by modernity and came to focus his hopes on plebiscitary democracy and charismatic leadership as a counter to rationalisation and bureaucratisation.

Nietzsche’s propensity for the most freewheeling hypocrisy is well exemplified by ‘I have great respect for the ascetic ideal so long as it really believes in itself and is not merely a masquerade.’4 And this is the point with both Nietzsche and Weber – it is necessary to push through their words, through their surface arguments, to their deeper purpose – one which arose among intellectuals in response to the increasing pressure on belief in God and its overt acknowledgement by the rise of science, by the rise of our objective knowledge of the world that Nietzsche was in turn so critical of and denied and that Weber expressed commitment to – the defence of Neoplatonic mysticism – the major mystical current in the West, which suffuses philosophy, which philosophers are so afraid to address for fear of what doing so will expose in the achievements of ‘rigorous philosophic reason’, and the influence of which is throughout our culture.5

From the Dionysiac ineffability in The Birth of Tragedy to the final synoptic ‘aphorism’ in The Will to Power, Nietzsche was a post-Christian Neoplatonist. Why is this not commonly stated? No modern philosopher has been more committed to the ‘ascetic ideal’, to a life of religious asceticism than Nietzsche. His rage and bitterness are those of a man who had been conditioned in Christianity, who understood and hated its hostility to life but who, unable to release its ideal, knew his time had passed. With God in heaven now dead, the stage was cleared for his appearance on earth in Nietzsche’s response to late nineteenth century capitalism – Dionysus as the overman.

And this overman, this sculptor and perfecter of self, this rejecter of the (modern) world can be traced to Plotinus’ resonant sculptor around whom The Enneads are written. Weber shared Nietzsche’s romantic mourning.6 His solution to ‘the crisis of modernity’, within modernity – the exemplary individual devoted to his Beruf – a solution more scholarly, more sociable through service, less aggressive in depiction, less colourful and bilious, (his success in life – compared with Nietzsche’s failures – no doubt bore on this) drew on Nietzsche’s writing and the Neoplatonic tradition.

Weber’s use of Beruf derives from Luther7 whose believer, seeking unio mystica with God practised his calling in the world, thereby giving his worldly activity a religious significance. Weber’s exemplary individual, in a world where meaning had been destroyed by rationalisation and the loss of an over-riding salvific religious belief, with equal devotional self-sacrifice, seeks to re-establish harmonious meaning within himself. In so doing, he ‘rationally’ shapes himself.8 As with the subscriber to Nietzsche’s ascetic ideal, he ‘subordinates “mere” life to a value or purpose “out-side” and above life as it is. (He) interprets and values life as a bridge to a higher form of existence’9

With his hair-splitting concept of ‘innerworldly’ asceticism, Weber emphasised the ‘hard’, rational and ethical asceticism practised in the world by Calvinists and distinguished it from the ‘otherworldly’ asceticism of the contemplative Catholic. Yet he wrote ‘It is evident that mystical contemplation and rational asceticism in the calling are not mutually exclusive (Weber’s emphasis).’10 Weber’s blending of Lutheranism and Calvinism in his concept of ‘innerworldly’ asceticism is most interesting. According to Weber, in both Lutheranism and Calvinism faith must be proven in its effects, but the former enables union with God in this world, the latter is oriented to that with God in the next. Where Weber concentrated in The Protestant Ethic on the influence of Calvinism, the mystical element in Lutheranism sustains his argument in that book and in his other thought on these matters. It is as if the body of Calvinism conveys the spirit of Lutheranism.11

Weber indicates his heritage and summarises his underlying argument in the following words from The Protestant Ethic: ‘Christian asceticism, which was originally a flight from the world into solitude, had already once dominated the world on behalf of the Church from the monastery, by renouncing the world. In doing this, however, it had, on the whole, left the natural, spontaneous character of secular everyday life unaffected. Now it would enter the market place of life, slamming the doors of the monastery behind it, and set about permeating precisely this secular everyday life with its methodical approach, turning it toward a rational life in the world, but neither of this world nor for it.’12

The ‘flight from the world into solitude’ are the concluding words of The Enneads.13 The wish of both Weber and Nietzsche was that the ascetic who was no longer, could be no longer Christian, an overt believer in God, now with his religious beliefs concealed, as a subscriber to the ‘ineffable’, would leave the monastery of faith and enter the Nietzschean marketplace of modernity and live ‘God in heaven is dead, but creates on earth as me’. Nietzsche’s version as Dionysiac overman, as true Redeemer,14 was more deeply romantic, Weber’s man of the Beruf more consonant with modernity, less noisily integrating mysticism with capitalism – methodical and rationalising. Both figures were to heal the ‘dissolution of spiritual unity’15 in late nineteenth century capitalist society. Nietzsche damned religion and pointed the way forward through mysticism. Weber advocated mysticism but allowed that the embrace of religion was there for those not up to his mystical challenge.

Nietzsche’s overman and Weber’s man of the ‘calling’ have a common heritage in Plotinus’ sculptor. While, of the three, Weber’s model is most comfortable within his society, even there Weber had built a wall between the everyday and the value-spheres. His proscription of the mixing of the calling with ‘everyday’ life, as if the latter were something less than, is evidence of the striving for transcendent spiritual purity which is in all three models. All three face away from this world. The story of the impact of Neoplatonism on our culture is the great hidden, little explored and told story.



1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon Wells, Penguin 2002, 121

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Francis Golffing, Doubleday, New York, 1956, 280

3. Ibid., 254

4. F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, op. cit., 294 These words, amongst his railing against ‘rotten armchairs’, ‘prurient eunuchdom’ and ‘coquettish dung beetles’, not to mention the basis of his argument through the entire text of The Genealogy of Morals and other writing, are at the end of The Genealogy of Morals.

5. William Franke’s groundbreaking two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 2007 traces the history of apophaticism in the West through the writing of its greats in philosophy, religion, literature and the arts. Mark Cheetham has written on its impact in the visual arts. M. Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity, Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

6. In Nietzschean language he wrote ‘In (the Puritan) Baxter’s view, concern for outward possessions should sit lightly on the shoulders of his saints “like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become a shell as hard as steel. As asceticism began to change the world and endeavoured to exercise its influence over it, the outward goods of this world gained increasing and finally inescapable power over men, as never before in history. Today its spirit has fled from this shell – whether for all time, who knows? … No one yet knows who will live in that shell in the future. Perhaps new prophets will emerge, or powerful old ideas and ideals will be reborn at the end of this monstrous development. Or perhaps … it might truly be said of the “last men” in this cultural development: “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart, these nonentities imagine they have attained a stage of humankind never before reached.”’ The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, op. cit., 121

7. ‘the German mystics did a great deal of preparatory work on the idea of the calling in the Lutheran sense.’ The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, op. cit., 32

8. ‘The ascetic style of life … meant a rational shaping of one’s whole existence in obedience to God’s will.’ Ibid., 104

9. Harvey Goldman, Politics, Death, and the Devil, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992, 264

10. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, op. cit., 141

11. The impact of Lutheranism and its ministers in his family on Nietzsche is well known.

12. Ibid., 104-105

13. ‘This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary.’ Plotinus, The Enneads trans. Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, London, 1991, VI 9, 549. Armstrong translated this as the ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’ Plotinus Enneads trans. A.H. Armstrong, William Heinemann, London, 1966-1988. vol. VII, 345. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche wrote ‘Thus they came to a cross-road: there Zarathustra told them that from then on he wanted to go alone: for he was a friend of going alone.’ F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra – A Book for Everyone and No One, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin, 2003, 99-100

14. The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, op. cit., 229. Weber’s figure was no less self-redemptive.

15. ‘In the present, where we operate so much with the concept of “life,” “experience,” etc., as a specific value, the inner dissolution of that unity, the contempt for the “man of the calling” (cf. ‘the man of the cloth’) is tangible.’ The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, op. cit., 313