Part 4: The Übermensch (Superhuman)


Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Übermensch’


Towards the Superhuman

The antithesis of the last human being is the Overman. A word first on the lexicon used by Nietzsche and its translation in English. The German concept is “Übermensch”. “Mensch” is man in the sense generic – man and woman, the human being. For a long time “Übermensch” was translated in English as Overman, and later as Superman, but today we prefer to translate Übermensch by Superhuman, both to defuse a connotation too masculine, even macho and to avoid a too fast association with a figure of superhero or man of superior race.

The misunderstandings and racist interpretations of the concept have been numerous, as one knows. However, if the concept of Übermensch concerns humanity in its various polarities, we cannot deny that Nietzsche makes a rather virile representation of his concept of Superhuman. All examples of great personalities he cites in his work, which gives an idea of the type of human achievement that Nietzsche calls for (artists, politicians, writers), are men.


What is the Superhuman, according to Friedrich Nietzsche?

In Zarathustra’s Prologue [i], when Zarathustra is speaking to the crowd, he gives several definitions:

In the prologue chapter 3: “I teach you the superhuman. Human being is something that must be exceeded. What did you do to overcome him? “.

Or, in the prologue, chapter 4: “Mankind is a rope fastened between the animal and the superhuman – a rope stretched over an abyss.”

How to understand Zarathustra’s idea of ​​‘overcoming”?

This overcoming is above all a work on oneself, a creation of oneself, a self-discipline, which consists mainly of the elimination of negative affects: resentment, the desire for revenge.

For that mankind be redeemed from revenge:  that to me is the bridge to the highest hope and the rainbow after long thunderstorms. [ii]

Nietzsche formulated this requirement already in the 1870s. It is a common thread in fact in his life and work; and this thread is strongly tinged with biographical considerations. Thus, he wrote to an Italian correspondent in 1874 (10 years before the Zarathustra): “I can not set myself higher goals than to become one day, one way or another, an “educator” in a higher sense: but I am very far from this goal. I must first eradicate from myself any controversy, any negation, all hatred, all malice, and I tend to think that to be free we must first of all sum up what we flee, fear, hate: but then, never look back for the negative and the sterile! From then on it will be no-thing more than to plant, to build and create!” Letter to Emma Guerrieri-Gonzage (May 10 1874).

Nietzsche therefore conceives the education of himself as an internal struggle to extirpate resentment. This self-transcendence is not only an individual affair. Because what you need to neutralize, is more generally the ascetic morality conveyed by our Christian culture, the morality of renunciation and contempt, contempt for life and body. This implies expelling ascetic values, so a good deal of inherited culture.

This re-education of the self exposes a danger, the danger of isolation, of being alone against all (the danger for an exceptional human being who tries to rise above the mass), danger of inner emptiness – we have to replace the old values, the old illusions, which were perhaps partly harmful, but which structured us despite everything.

This reeducation and transformation requires necessarily time. It’s a slow process, a passage, a progress. From there this image of a rope stretched towards the superhuman, above of an abyss: the abyss is the risk of cynicism, nihilism, a relapse in bestiality. This passage, this tension is at the same time transition and decline: Übergang and Üntergang.

What is great about human beings is that they are a bridge and not a purpose: what is lovable about human beings is that they are a crossing over and a going under.

I love those who do not know how to live unless by going under, for they are the ones who cross over.[iii]

Indeed, we must accept to decline, to deny a part of oneself, to perish (this is the Üntergang idea) to cross the bridge that separates the human being from the Superhuman (this is the Übergang idea) and Zarathustra love those who can only live if they can perish, because by perishing they go beyond themselves.

The Superhuman is in fact the one who fully acquiesces in life. To life in all its aspects: destruction and creation, suffering and enjoyment, malice and goodness. In this respect, one of the most fantastical incarnations of the superhuman is undeniably Dionysus. This reference allows us to visualize what Zarathustra means when he says in chapter 3 of the prologue (still a defining element):

The superhuman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the superman shall be the meaning of the earth! [iv]

So the Superhuman is the meaning of the earth (“der Sinn der Erde”). This means in fact a sanctification of life here below, earthly, corporal, of its pleasures, of his sensual, sexual, instinctual truths. And, the reverse, it is the rejection of all the metaphysical, idealistic projections that construct imaginary worlds; “back-worlds,” [“Hinterweltern”] says Nietzsche, to better despise this world, the only one yet truly existent. Let me refer to the speeches of Zarathustra: “Of the Hinterworldly”, “On the Despisers of the Body” or even “On the Bestowing Virtue” (Book I):

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of extraterrestrial hopes! They are mixers of poisons whether they know it or not. [v]


Nietzsche’s idea of Superhuman, where does it come from?

First of all, from the Greek culture. The idea is fed of Greek mythology. Friedrich Nietzsche’s early writings testify his interest in the Titans, in Prometheus (the one who steals fire from the Gods to offer it to men – this makes one think of Zarathustra, who goes down into the valley carrying the fire of his wisdom). Greek culture is also a culture of aristocrats, which exalts personalities of exception, the exploits of an Achilles or a Ulysses. This aristocracy is naturally magnetized, in Nietzsche, towards the creative geniuses, the artists, poets, and writers.

It is also during his schooldays in Pforta, in a piece devoted to the English poet Byron, that Nietzsche would have used, for the first time, the term Übermensch. He characterizes Byron as a “Übermensch who commands over spirits”, like a man who has known how to make of his life a work of art.[vi]

So Greek culture and classical culture – Friedrich Schiller, for example – are an important source of inspiration for Nietzsche, as a teenager, especially the young Schiller of the Sturm und Drang period who magnifies herofigures. At 15, Nietzsche writes: “I reread yesterday The Brigands: each time, it gives me a singular feeling. The characters seem to me almost superhuman. It looks like a titanic fight against religion and virtue, a struggle at the end of which it is the celestial omnipotence that wins an infinitely tragic victory “[FP 6 [77], August 24, 1859].

Nietzsche bathes in all this mythology, at once classic and romantic, which celebrates the aristocratic ideal of the great man. Another reference, generally less well known, more discreet in the work of Nietzsche is that of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, attached to the transcendentalist movement, who is developing on the east coast of the United States towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche discovers Emerson from his high school years. In 1881 Nietzsche will say, regarding Emerson’s Essays: “Never did I feel so much at home in a book “[FP 12 [81], autumn 1881]. He enjoys among other things in the American his gaiety of mind, the famous “Heiterkeit”, and his ability to create a beautiful interiority, as he says – to acquire a true culture, and not a simple erudition.

When Nietzsche wrote The Gay Science, he was reading Emerson, and in the first edition of The Gay Science he paraphrases Emerson: “Dem Dichter und Weisen sind alle Dinge befreundet und geweicht, alle Erlebnisse nützlich, alle Tage heilig, alle Menschen götlich.” Litterally: To the poet and sage, all things are friendly and allowed, all experiences profitable, all days hole, all men divine. Emerson’s original wording being: “To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine”.[vii]

Emerson is also developing a concept which owes much to his reading of Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism and Hinduism – and this will interest Nietzsche: this concept is the “over-soul” (or the supreme soul). By this concept, as Nietzsche understands it, Emerson means the result of a process of appropriation by the individual of experiences historical and cultural extra-individual, the reception in itself of multiple potentialities of existence. Nietzsche has a dynamic conception of self, of individuality; a self in motion, in extension.

And besides the obsession of the great personalities, the other spring of the reflection of Nietzsche concerning the Superhuman, as we have just mentioned, it is the obsession with education, which must create a surpassing of oneself. Basically, Nietzsche is an educator, of himself and others. The Self-formation is certainly a personal asceticism, but it needs encouragement, It is for this reason that Zarathustra decides to dispense his wisdom.

This figure of the educator, Nietzsche approaches it from 1874, especially in his third Untimely consideration, entitled ‘Schopenhauer educator’, of which he says himself in Ecce Homo that it could have been called Nietzsche educator:

The way I understand the philosopher, as a terrible explosive that is a danger to everything, how remote my idea of a philosopher is from anything that includes even a Kant, let alone academic ‘ruminants’ and other professors of philosophy. The piece gives an invaluable lesson here, if we admit that what is basically at issue is not ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’ but instead it’s opposite, ‘Nietzsche as Educator’.  [viii]

In Schopenhauer educator Nietzsche claims:

[…] for your true nature lies, not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you that the true, original meaning and basic stuff of your nature is something completely incapable of being educated or formed and is in any case something difficult of access, bound and paralyzed; your educators can be only your liberators. [ix]

This quote contains a paradox: trainers are supposed to unveil something that escapes any training. This paradox is found in Nietzsche’s well-known aphorism, which he borrows from the Greek poet Pindar: “Become the one you are”. Indeed the ‘Gay Science’ aphorism 270 reads:

What does your conscience say? – ” You shall become the person you are.” [x]

Nietzsche gave later his Ecce Homo the subtitle: “How one becomes what one is.”

Nietzsche is not very faithful in paraphrasing Pindar’s idea. This can be translated into English as “As you have learned to know yourself” or even better as “Become as you have learned to be, to know yourself.” In this translation we find two things: a) the dimension of action (i.e. to become) and b) the dimension of knowledge (i.e. what you’ve learned). And it is this last dimension that will disappear in Nietzsche. Indeed, the concept of Pindar is: “As you have learned to know yourself through action.”  Pandor writes this sentence in a poem to Hieron who has just been victorious in the Pythian games (in this case the second Pythian games). These are athletics games, which measure the human potential (such as the Olympic Games). So it is about what Hieron is able to do and, in this case, he won. He is glorious and the task of Pindar is to manifest this glory, to versify it so that it does not fall into oblivion. In other words, to eternalize the glory of Hieron so that indeed something remains. The task of the poet is indeed essential for Hieron to become aware of and know what he has learned to be, what he has become by his action.

To “become the one we are”, means, to Nietzsche, not to attain a certain fulfillment of oneself, which would have been predetermined, as all the characteristics of an adult apple tree are in power in an apple seed; but rather to give shape to its existence according to unexpected experiences, experiments, without preconceived ideas, without a path drawn in advance, but with the desire to confront the contradictions of life, to open up to the multiplicity of the perspectives and not to be evasive and avoids the struggles. It must be remembered that Pindar launches his exhortation to a Pythian winner: the context is that of struggle, of rivalry and heroic surpassing oneself.

The action is to excel at games includes the idea of ​​being better than others and, as a result, one learns to know the qualities that make one better, so exceed the one we were before, in other words, what one is really capable of doing, and, at the same time, what other men are capable of doing; this also compared to other men. If I exel, I’m the best. This is related to another maxim in ancient Greek, maybe even more known, which is “Know yourself.” A precept engraved on the pediment of the temple of Delphi. This adage has been interpreted traditionally, more than an exhortation to self-knowledge, as a call to the awareness of one’s own limitations; in other words, take the measure of the human being and know that this measure of man is different from the divine measure. Since beside the “Gnauthi seaton” (“Become the one we are”) we have the phrase “Mêden agan” (“Nothing too much”), an obvious appeal to moderation; all this warns, according to Pindar, the human not to take himself for a God (if he does so he will burn his wings …).  Pindar invites us to understand the radical difference between the human species and the species of the gods, and Pindar in his odes, especially in the one he addresses to Hieron, puts the dimension of the action in the center. It’s about becoming who we are and in order to do so, we must act.  And that’s probably what interests Nietzsche the most and he takes it a step further when he says “Werde der du bist” (Becomes the one you are) and so the dimension of knowledge disappears.

The reason for this, Nietzsche explains in his more mature texts – from Gay Science and Zarathustra. He writes that to him, the concept of knowledge, as it is developed in Western philosophy – ie the concept of objective, adequate knowledge, etcetera – is devoid of meaning. He writes that the concept has a lot of lead in his wing; since when one knows, one only assimilates, one only appropriates, the exteriority, the otherness so that one misses the otherness for itself. So knowledge is always biased, since to Nietzsche, one can not think independently of one’s head.

The problem that Nietzsche has with the formula: “Become what you are!”, is that it states that you have to become this ‘thing’: the true self which would be at the bottom of us. As we have already seen, Nietzsche wrote: “The true nature [self] is not hidden deep within us, it is on the contrary infinitely beyond us; or at least above of that which you usually take yourself to be[what we commonly take as our true self].”, so according to Nietzsche, this true self is not to be reconstituted, it is not to be rediscovered”; we are not at Plato’s point of view, the real self is in Nietzsche to be build.

So according to Nietzsche, we must not think of knowledge as we do classically, but as an interpretation; knowledge is only interpretative and suddenly the question of knowing in an interpretative way becomes a knowledge that is also energizing; that is to say, a dynamic interpretation of Self, affirmative of Self, which enables us to go forward, towards a beyond Self. “To become self” to Nietzsche is a paradox, since it is always about overcoming oneself, surpassing oneself, there is a kind of dynamic tension in always renewing oneself.

On the other hand, education, rather than revealing content (for example, a set of virtues that would be necessary to develop), has to assert a principle: that of a transformation of oneself in adverse circumstances and self-transcendence. This is the very principle of the Superhuman. For Nietzsche the aim of a good education is to create the best conditions so that the true true philosopher can appear. What’s really interesting, in the second part of the above cited text from the 3rd untimely Meditation, is that the educator is not only the one that makes the qualities fructify, the educator is also the one who in this attempt, at a given moment, will discover something that resists. This resistance, basically, is what in a certain sense makes us original and what must be overcome to become our real Self. Because, and this is my Wiemanian interpretation, becoming one’s Original Self is becoming Authentic and overcoming an obstacle (i.e. freeing oneself from the Vicious Circle).

Moreover, we read in aphorism 2 of the Antichrist that in having to overcome an obstacle, on the path of becoming Self, lies a true joy in the strong sense.

What is good? – Everyting that enhances people’s feeling of power; will to power, power itself.

What is bad? – Everything stemming from weakness.

What is happiness? – The feeling that power is growing, that some resistance has been overcome. [xi]

So happiness is also about overcoming obstacles. Happiness is not a kind state, not a ‘democratic’ happiness, a state without waves and pure simple pleasure at bottom. Reading the above lines of Nietzsche regarding ‘walking the path of becoming Self’ with a Wieman mindset is, to me, really amazing:

What is good? – Everything that enhances people’s living of Creative Interchange (Nietzche’s Power being Yoda’s Force, being Wieman’s Creative Interchange), commitment to Creative Interchange (cf. Man’s Ultimate Commitment’), Creative Interchange

What is bad? – Everyting stemming from being a prisoner of the Vicious Circle.

What is happiness? – The feeling that (one’s ability to live ) Creative Interchange is growing; that the negative working of the Vicious Circle has been overcome.

In a posthumous fragment of 1882, Nietzsche confirms this existential ontology: “I want to teach men the meaning of their being: who is the superhuman”. If this idea of transformation, surpassing, perfecting of the self has in the beginning especially a psychological meaning it is, from the 1880s, taking in a biological connotation. When Nietzsche makes his Zarathustra say (Prologue, §3): “You have made the path from the earthworm towards becoming human, and you still have a lot of earthworms in you. In the past, you were monkeys, and even today the human being is more ape than any other monkey “, we can not but see an allusion to the theory of evolution species of Charles Darwin. The Origin of Darwin’s Species has been published in 1859; it is therefore a theory, for Nietzsche, of a burning topicality – and it is indeed extensively discussed in the second half of the nineteenth century.

How does Nietzsche relate to Darwin’s theory? Let’s say Nietzsche, like many of its contemporaries, is interested by the idea of an evolution of species, but he questions the principle of a struggle for survival. Nietzsche considers that life is “wealth, opulence” and not “scarcity” – and that if there is a struggle, it is most of all a struggle for power. In addition, he does not believe in Darwinist idea that during the course of natural selection the strong would prevail over the weak.

Nietzsche rather thinks opposite:

What surprises me most when surveying the great destinies of man is always seeing before me the opposite of what Darwin and his school see or want to see today: selection in favor of the stronger, in favor of those who have come off better, the progress of the species. The very opposite is quite palpably the case: the elimination of the strokes of luck, the uselessness of the better-constituted types, the inevitable domination achieved by the average, even below-average types.[xii]

Unless our-ape-genealogists gave him reasons why Homo sapiens were an exception to Darwinian evolution, Nietzsche was persuaded that “the school of Darwin has everywhere deceived itself.” [xiii]In struggle for man’s existence, it is not the highest, the strongest, the fittest and the fortunate that survive but the lower and the weaker who “predominate through numbers, through prudence, [and] through cunning.” Nietzsche argued that chance variation, contrary to Darwinian’s survival for the fittest, does not yield any benefit to the fittest. He observed that “nature is cruel towards its favourites, it spares and protects and loves the humble.” [xiv]

To use the vocabulary of Zarathustra, Nietzsche considers that the last human beings outweigh the supermen, he means that the reactive forces (anger, instinct of revenge, weak will, …) prevent the emergence of superior human types (creative, original, …). It is to remove this obstacle that he supports the project of training, a breeding (“Züchtung”) of humanity. Nietzsche writes in a posthumous fragment of 1885 (NF-1885,35 [72] & NF-1885,35 [73] May-July 1885):

There must be many superman: all goodness evolves only among its equals. A god would always be a devil! A ruling race. To “the lords of the earth.”[xv]

The hierarchy carried out in a systems of earth government: the lords of the earth last, a new ruling caste. Emerging from them here and there, quite Epicurean God, the Superman, the transfigurer of existence.[xvi]

Thus, becoming a Superhuman is certainly a work that the human being must lead on his own. And it is also a collective project. Nietzsche does not have a clear and detailed representation of the work to be done, and he does not imagine a specific political and institutional system that would dominate the caste of supermen. But he does speak of a hierarchical system. He draws up a typology of types of humanity (priest, scientist, philosopher, man of action, warrior) according to the degree of development of the vital forces within these types. The Superhuman is of course the type of superior fulfillment.

It should be noted that the emergence of the Superhuman is, according to Nietzsche, possible within many different cultures. This emergence has even already taken place at other times, in others places, and those have always been lucky shots of fate. He presents thus in L’Antichrist the men of the Italian Renaissance. The “philosopher-legislator”, which Nietzsche gives as an example, is he, who, by creating and teaching new values, helps to reduce the element of chance and favors the conditions for the advent of the Superhuman.

This is the meaning of this rather disturbing idea of dressage and breeding:

[…] what type of human must be bred, should be willedas having greater value, as being more deserving of life, as being more certain of future. [xvii]

We will come back on this problematic aspect of Nietzsche’s theory, notably certain eugenic traits; rather disturbing and which cannot be ignored.


Henry Nelson Wieman’s ‘Human committed to creative transformation’

Nietzsche’s point of view of the “Übermensch” brings me to Henry Nelson Wieman’s view of the “Human committed to creative transformation”.

According to our interpretation of Henry Nelson Wieman’s philosophy Nietzsche’s Superhuman is the Human who is committed to creative transformation, thus committed to the Greatest Good, to Creative Interchange. He wrote an entirely book on this concept: ‘Man’s Ultimate Commitment’. That this ‘Ultimate Commitment’ will lead to conflict is, according to Henry Nelson, inevitable, since the Human committed to creative transformation will go against the grain:

One cannot escape the conflict by abandoning society because interchange with others is necessary for any creative transformation of the mind at the highest human level.

[…] man is made not for human life as it is,  but for the creativity which transforms life. Therefor he must seek his freedom, his peace and his power, and all the great human values by commitment to a creativity, which overcomes the world as now existing by giving it a dimension and form of possibility beyond the compass of human ideals. [xviii]

We’ve already seen that to Wieman ‘creativity’ is a synonym of ‘creative interchange’. As Nietzsche’s ‘Superhuman’, Wieman’s ‘Human committed to creative transformation’ is constantly evolving. Another synonym that Wieman uses for Creative Interchange is ‘The Greatest Good’. With that in mind the following paragraph shows that Creative Interchange is a state of becoming and that there exists two processes of change: one that we call Creative Interchange and another that Charlie Palmgren coined the Vicious Circle:

The greatest good is not a changeless state of being. The most complete satisfaction can only be found in a process of change but this change must have the character which satisfies. If the process ceases to be the kind of change which satisfies and becomes the kind of change which frustrates and reduces satisfaction to a minimum, it is no longer good. [xix]

Indeed the Vicious Circle frustrates and leads to stress and to evasion and to a changeless state of being. Henry Nelson Wieman has described the opposite, the process of change which satisfies, repeatedly. About this creative transformation of the human, he writes, for instance:

It is that creative transformation of the individual which enables him to enter into fuller and more enriching interchange with other individuals, which enable him to find more to appreciate in a greater diversity of situations. […]

This process which expands and enriches the appreciable world cannot stop if the individual is to experience the greatest good. No matter what range and depth of positive value the individual may have reached, he cannot find satisfaction of his individuality in its wholeness unless the expansion and enrichment continue. If it stops at any level, no matter how rich his life may be, misery, frustration, and desperation can occur of the creative transformation does not continue. [xx]

This brings us back to ‘my’ formula: CI2: Continuous Improvement through living Creative Interchange. And Wieman writes repeatedly: “The individual must commit himself to creative good, here called creative transformation, to find satisfaction.”[xxi]

This ‘ultimate commitment’ requires work, hard work:

This commitment requires action to modify all the conditions of human existence in such a way that this creative transformation can operate most effectively throughout society ad human history. [xxii]

These conditions must enhance the probability that Creative Interchange thrives and The Vicious Circle slows down. I’ve always presented this with following picture:



Wieman’s take on, what Charlie Palmgren coined decades later the Vicious Circle, was based on what Harry Stack Sullivan called “security operations”[xxiii]. He paraphrase’s Sullivan’s thoughts as follows:

These are devices by which the individual protects his self-esteem. The individual ordinarily is not conscious of his own security operations; but he uses them to protect that sense of his own self-worth without which he cannot live with any hope nor any confidence. These security operations, however, do not give the individual a correct knowledge of himself nor of his own worth. They are essentially deceptive.


Yet the individual’s own idea of himself is very largely shaped by what others think of him, not that he necessarily agrees with what others think, but what he thinks of himself is built up in defense of their judgments. Consequently security operations are ways of thinking, feeling and acting performed to build and perpetuate a false picture of oneself, a false picture of other people and of the social situation.

These security operations which misrepresent oneself and others and the conditions of human existence cannot guide one into situations, which satisfy the individual in his true character and wholeness. They do the contrary. They mislead. Yet these security operations determine in great part what the individual thinks is his own worth and the worth of other people and what he thinks are the good things to seek and cherish in life. Yet so far as security operations dominate the individual, he seeks the opposite of what can satisfy himself in the wholeness of his being. [xxiv]

In other words: When one is committed to his Vicious Circle (cf. Charlie Palmgren) one is everything but committed to Creative Interchange (cf. Henry Nelson Wieman), so this human is no Superhuman (cf. Friedrich Nietzsche). A Human who is committed to creative transformation is living from its original worth, or, in Wieman’s words, from “the unity of the self”:

The chief evil of security operations is that they disrupt the unity of the self. Evidence seems to indicate that the newly born are unified as individuals and continue to have this unity until it is disrupted by security operations. [xxv]

Wieman states here that we are born as unifiedand that this unity is broken by the Vicious Circle. The unity of self is what sometimes is called the Creative Self or even the Original Self living from his Intrinsic Worth. Wieman goes on to describe the reunion of the created self with the Creative Self, the goal of the Human committed to creative transformation, in his words the ‘unified self’, as follows:

A unified self does not mean a self free of all conflicts. It does mean a self, free of conflicts which cannot be treated in such a way as to promote creative transformation. The unified self is not a static or completed condition but the very opposite. It cannot be achieved or approximated except by commitment to creativity [i.e. creative interchange]. Only by learning from others in depth and others learning for oneself in depth, thus releasing the wholeness of individuality in each, can man be unified and this unity be satisfied. But this involves continuous creative transformation with inner conflicts continuously undergoing modification.

This seems to indicate that man in his present condition is transitional to something beyond what he is now. He must either destroy himself or rise toward a level of being not yet within his reach of imagination. This was the teaching of Nietzsche and many others. But the imaginative picture of the super human set forth by Nietzsche cannot be correct precisely because no man in his present state can imagine what that higher level of being may be. The chief thing to be transformed in man is imagination [his mind], not his biological organism. Since the higher being will be chiefly distinguished by a transformed imagination, the imaginings of man today, including the imaginings of Nietzsche, cannot picture that transformed imagination. [xxvi]

Thus Nietzsche’s ‘Superhuman’ is Wieman’s ‘Human committed to creative transformation’. A transformation, which has to be continuous and the final outcome is not known, cannot be imagined. We’re talking about the Creative Self who transforms the created self continuously and that transformation cannot be controlled from the outside-in. That creative transformation is a reality, which Wieman explains as follows:

The goal of this commitment is to unify the self for action, to attain that reorganization which will have right intuitions, and to join oneself with the most important reality there is. The most important reality is the creative transformation of man, which is going on in human history.

That man can undergo creative transformation is demonstrated by the fact that it has actually occurred to various degrees in many cases. […]

Albert Camus has said, “man has not been endowed with a definite nature… is not a finished creation but an experiment of which he can be partly the creator.” Nietzsche, Paul Sartre, G.B. Shaw, Hegel, Karl Marx, Arnold Toynbee and others have expressed the same idea. […] These men do not agree on the kind of transformation, which will bring man to the kind of being which he must become if he is to be saved from degradation or destruction, nor do they agree on the procedures to be followed to this end.  But that man is not complete, that he is in process of being created, that he must be further transformed before he can attain his definitive nature, on this crucial issue they all agreed.[xxvii]

This transformation we consider is in fact a transformation of the mind. We’re coming back to one of Wieman’s basic questions: “What can transform the mind, since the mind can’t do this on its own?” Henry Nelson Wieman claims in this context:

The reorganization of the conscious and unconscious levels [of the mind] of the human being is the greatest good to be sought because [1] it is triumphant over the dark realities, [2] it enables one to act effectively under the guidance of reliable intuition, [3] it unifies the self so that all the resources of his life can be bought into action, [4] it satisfies the wholeness of his being as nothing else can do. [xxviii]

The commitment to Creative Interchange has thus four major benefits: it is triumphant over the dark realities, including death; it enables one to make the right decision in the midst of a crisis and the accompanying ambiguity; it reconnects with the OIriginal Self so that the whole self can brought into action and it is incredible satisfying. The goal of personal commitment to Creative Interchange is to bring about this creative transformation of the self and like transformation in others. Wieman sees technology as one of the needed conditions that must be present for creativity to operate widely and securely throughout human life:

A technology must be created capable of providing all men with the utilities and environmental conditions to undergo creative transformation indefinitely beyond the present state of human existence. Such a technology carries with it a system of communication and interdependence reaching all people of the planet. This magnified power of control and this worldwide interdependence can bring on great evils and can reduce creativity to a minimum. In many cases such has been the consequence and it will continue to be so, with greater evils to come, unless a [last] condition is added to [this one]. [xxix]

So Henry Nelson Wieman predicted the invention of communication systems like the worldwide Internet and the interdependence of all people, together with some of the great dangers of this technology, like the potential danger of Artificial Intelligence. To cope with this dangers he identifies his ‘last’ condition, that our world must bring forth the next two or three hundred years, in order to reach the fullest attainment of human good:

The [last] condition is what we have been describing throughout this writing. It is change of institutions and action of individuals resulting from recognition of the moral predicament of man and from practice of personal commitment. It is a change in institutions and action of individuals which will bring into the lives of many people the dominance of creativity which in the past has occurred only in the lives of a few. This is not only our vocation and opportunity. It is a demand forced by a peril hanging over us more deadly than ever before threatened the whole of humanity at once. This peril may never cease to threaten so long as civilization continues. But it may be mastered by turning it into a servant of man’s creative transformation. [xxx]

In this part Henry Nelson Wieman is in fact talking about the Vicious Circle and the Creative Interchange process, and states that we must know them both and understand them appreciatively if life is ever to rise to greatness. But understanding both is not a guarantee for success. We must live up to the responsibility to choose for the commitment to Creative Interchange. We won’t live the process always perfectly. Fact is that a human being has now the power to meet the demands of Creative Interchange as it could not before. Henry Nelson Wieman closes his book ‘Man’s Ultimate Commitment’ with following remarkable paragraphs:

I have explained what I mean by creative and transforming power. I mean two things [1] interchange which creates appreciative understanding of unique individuality; [2] integration within each individual of what he gets from others in this way, thus progressively creating his own personality in power, knowledge, and capacity to appreciate more profoundly diverse individuals, peoples and things.

I know that I cannot be in error in holding the belief that I am at least partially in error concerning the character of the reality to which I am ultimately committed. Hence I know with certainty that I am ultimately given to what is more than, and in some respects different from, everything affirmed in this book. With this triumph over error I make my last commitment: I cast my error, my failure, and my guilt into the keeping of creative and transforming power. [xxxi]


Nietzsche’s ‘Superhuman’ vs. Wieman’s ‘Human committed to Creative Interchange’

Nietzsche’s and Wieman’s thinking are both unfinished works. This is in adequacy with their major subjects: the ‘Superhuman’ and the ‘Human committed to Creative Interchange’. Indeed, both are promises open on the future, a steep path without a predefined goal; it’s a direction towards a higher level of humanity.

To Nietzsche, the ‘Superhuman’ is “the meaning of the earth” and to Wieman, the ‘Human committed to Creative Interchange’ is committed to “what operates in all human life to create, save and transform.”

Both, Nietzsche and Wieman have a dynamic conception of self: a self in motion, extension, and expansion. They are paraphrasing somehow Pindar’s formula “Become what you are.” The difference between the two is that Nietzsche denies and Wieman embraces that it states that you have to become your Original Self. To Nietzsche, the real self is to be build and to Wieman the Original Self is to be re-discovered; both agree that this can only happen through struggle and action.  “To become self” is to Nietzsche about surpassing yourself and to Wieman about becoming your Original Self by surpassing your actual created self using your Creative Self, core part of your Original Self.

A main difference between Nietzsche’s ‘Superhuman’ and Wieman’s ‘Human committed to Creative Interchange’ is that Nietzsche speaks of a hierarchical system, so the Superhuman is still part of the happy few and according to Wieman everybody can commit himself to Creative Interchange and obtain superior fulfillment that way.

Both, Nietzsche and Wieman were interested in Buddhism. In this essay Nietzsche’s interest in Buddha and Buddhism has been described several times. Less known is that Wieman has been considered as a Buddhist by several writers and even by his daughter. For instance, in his article, “Creativity in the Buddhist perspective” Nolan Pliny Jabobson cites a paragraph of Wieman’s ‘Intellectual Autobiography’ that “might have been written by a Buddhist” [xxxii]You can find more in ‘Buddhism and Wieman on Suffering and Joy’ written by David Lee Miller, chapter 6 of a book edited by Kenneth K. Inada and Nolan P. Jacobson ‘Buddhism and American Thinkers’. [xxxiii]

In another book, Nolan P. Jacobson cites Miller: “Creative interchange as the Bodhisattva Ideal is a model that calls for a certain kind of rationality that is integral to the flow of life, centering us in the depths of the sustaining and transformation foundations of life.” And continues:

On hearing Miller’s paper at the Conference, Wieman’s wife Laura, came forward to tell Miller that Wieman’s daughter, Kendra, had come to much the same conclusions, presenting a paper entitled “Creation Without a Creator” at a recent meeting in Berkeley. “I’ve always believed,” Kendra Smith says, “that there was more similarity between my fathers thinking and Buddhism than he ever conceded.”[xxxiv]


[i]Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A Book for All and None.Translated by Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2006, pp. 3-16.

[ii]ibid. – On the Tarantulas – p. 77.

[iii]ibid. Prologue 4,p. 7.

[iv]ibid. Prologue 3,p. 6.

[v]ibid. Prologue 3,p. 6.

[vi]Safranski, Rüdiger, Nietzsche A Philosophical Biography, Translated by Shelley Frisch, London: Granta Books, 2002, p. 35.

[vii]Nietzsche, Friedrich,The Gay Science, Translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York, NY: Vintage Books, A division of Random House, 1974; Translator’s Introduction, pp. 7-8.

[viii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, The Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Translation Judith Norman. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.115.

[ix]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Untimely Meditations,Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2007, p. 129.

[x]Nietzsche, Friedrich,The Gay Science, Transl. by Walter Kaufmann, op. cit. aphorism 270, p. 219.

[xi]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, The Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Translation Judith Norman. Op. cit. p. 4.

[xii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Writings from the late Notebooks, Translated by Kate Sturge, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2003, p. 258.

[xiii]ibid. p. 259.

[xiv]ibid. p. 260.


[xvi],35[73] II

[xvii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, Translated by Judith Norman, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Aphorism 3, p. 4.

[xviii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America ®, Inc. Reprint, Originally published: Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958, p. 73.

[xix]ibid. p. 105.

[xx]ibid. pp. 105-106.

[xxi]ibid. p. 107.

[xxii]ibid. pp. 107-108.

[xxiii]Sullivan, Harry Stack. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry,New York NY: Norton, 1953, pp. 261-263 and 290-291.

[xxiv]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment, op. cit. pp. 108-109.

[xxv]ibid. p. 109.

[xxvi]ibid. pp. 109-110.

[xxvii]ibid. p. 294.

[xxviii]ibid. p. 295.

[xxix]ibid. p. 303.

[xxx]ibid. p. 304.

[xxxi]ibid. pp. 305-306.

[xxxii]Jacobson, Nolan, Pliny. Creativity in the Buddhist Perspective. The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2, October 1976, p. 55.

[xxxiii]Ed. Inada, Kenneth, K. & Jacobson, Nolan P. Buddhism and American Thinkers, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, pp. 90-110.

[xxxiv]Jacobson, Nolan Pliny. Understanding Buddhism, Carbondale ILL: Southern Illinois University Press. 1986, p. 125.


Part III: God is dead


Friedrich Nietzsche’s view on ‘God is dead’

What Nietzsche diagnosed with a provocative and famous formula: “God is dead” is at the heart of his work ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ and is about the consequences of secularisation, the slow but apparently unavoidable reflux of the Christian religion and of its influence, in European societies of the late nineteenth century.  The Gay Science In fact, Nietzsche evoked the death of God already in the Gay Science, a year before him beginning to write ‘Zarathustra’. So, let’s have a close look at Aphorism No.125 of the Gay Science, entitled “The madman”:

The madman. — Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly, “I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!” Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter. “Has he been lost, then?” asked one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” asked another. “Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone to sea? Emigrated?” — Thus they shouted and laughed, one interrupting the other. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Where is God?’ he cried; “I’ll tell you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? Don’t lanterns have to be lit in the morning? Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? — Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed — and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!” Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and looked at him disconcertedly. Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. “I come too early”, he then said; “my time is not yet.” This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’ It is still recounted how on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there started singing his requiem aeternam deo[1].Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but, “What then are these churches now, if not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”[i]

This text is of course a parody of the gospel: it is not an angel who comes to announce the good news – the coming of the messiah – but a madman, who announces the news of the death of God. This text contains several essential theses:  the death of God, the fact that these men are the murderers, the fact that these men are not even worthy of the act they perpetrated and, finally, the fact that this death has unforeseen repercussions; indeed it triggers a shockwave and humanity is just beginning to feel its first effects.

God is dead.  But what kind of God is dead? The Christian God or the God of Christianity; a religion that according to Nietzsche devalues ​​life. Nietzsche is not against any form of religion or religiosity: to him religion is one of those necessary illusions, one of the typically human inventions that help to live. The problem for Nietzsche is that, in his eyes, Christianity promotes a negative, oppressive form of life. That’s why he rejects it. But, he is willing to adhere to more positive forms of religion – such as ancient polytheism or, in some respects, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. And we will see that his doctrine of the Eternal Return is entirely related to a new belief that he would like to inculcate the coming humanity.

God is dead, announces the fool in the aphorism 125, because mankind has killed him. How to understand this assertion? It is first, on the part of Nietzsche, a twofold statement:

  1. first, a sociological statement. With modernity (industrial and political), the effects of which are particularly felt in the second half of the nineteenth century, the religious as structuring principle undeniably loses authority. So the slogan of “The death of God” refers, as I have already suggested, to the process of secularization of European societies that Nietzsche has witnessed so to speak;
  2. secondly, it’s also a philosophical observation. Many philosophers, especially since the Enlightenment, have taken note and have, by their work and their reflections, contributed to this secularization.

Thus, the Christian God has become, to Nietzsche, an object of study, philosophical, philological, historical and an object of antiquity.  On this subject, in aphorism 113 in ‘Human, All Too Human’, Nietzsche expresses with some irony his disbelief at the persistence of a belief that seems to him totally anachronistic:

Christianity an antiquity. When on Sunday we hear the bells ringing we ask ourselves: is it possible! This is going on because of a Jew crucified 2000 years ago who said he was the son of God. The proof of such an assertion is lacking. —  In the context of our age the Christian religion is certainly a piece of antiquity intruding out of distant ages past, and that the above-mentioned assertion is believed – while one is otherwise so rigorous in the testing of claims — is perhaps the most ancient piece of this inheritance. A god who begets children on a mortal woman; a sage who calls upon us no longer to work, no longer to sit in judgment, but to heed the signs of the imminent end of the world; a justice which accepts an innocent man as a substitute sacrifice; someone who bids his disciples drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sin perpetrated against a god atoned for by a god; fear of a Beyond to which death is the gateway; the figure of the Cross as a symbol in an age which no longer knows the meaning and shame of the Cross — how gruesomely all this is wafted to us, as if out of the grave of a primeval past! Can one believe that things of this sort are still believed in?[ii]

In short, a double observation: sociological and philosophical. But Nietzsche not only takes note of the death of God, he seeks – secondly– the causes. The first cause, which seems rather obvious, is the progress of science, and the dissolving, disenchanting effect of its rational model of explanation of the world. The science which circumscribes ever more the part of mystery. Nietzsche thus speaks of a “scientific atheism” (in Gay Science Aphorism 357). Nevertheless, this is not the main cause, because in the end, belief, according to Nietzsche, is not an affair of scientific knowledge or ignorance, it is above all an affair of need. One can have learned from the discoveries of science and still be believer; as we can be ignorant of these discoveries and be atheist. We must therefore look for the cause elsewhere. In fact, for Nietzsche, the death of God is inherent in Christianity itself. First, Christianity is the victim of its own claim to hold the truth, to nurture an ideal of knowledge, an absolute, an ideal of transparency and morality; in the end, “the lie of belief in God” couldn’t not to be unmasked (says Nietzsche in Gay Science, aphorism 357). Next, Christianity is a carrier of nihilism: it produces mediocre individuals, so cowardly, that they end up not wanting to submit to the prescriptions of a God who seems to them too demanding. Finally, Nietzsche suggests, we have the God we deserve. Hence this crowd of individuals who no longer believe in God, whom we meet in the aphorism 125 of the Gay Science (see above); and of course in the Zarathustra — it’s the crowd that Zarathustra will try to convert, without success, to the ideal of the Superman. To believe or not to believe is not the discriminating criterion for Nietzsche between a superstitious humanity, therefore inferior, and an enlightened and therefore superior humanity. There are petty, mean-spirited, vulgar atheists, and profligate believers, generous and valiant. The atheism of his contemporaries is for Nietzsche the mark of a spiritual laziness, of physiological exhaustion, of creative helplessness. It is this mediocrity, which prevents the birth of new great illusions. And life needs illusions to prosper. Without beautiful and great illusions, and without the strength to believe in it, to adhere to it, one is poured quickly into a kind of indifference, relativism, cynicism. And that is what Nietzsche fears: that cynicism and nihilism become the dominant moral traits of future Humanity.

This brings us to the third thesis contained in the aphorism 125 of Gay Science, men are not worthy of the act they perpetrated. And here we find the typical Nietzschean touch of inversion of valuations. This assassination is not an act of heroism, it is an act of cowardice. Finally, the truly grandiose act is that of creation, not that of the death of God. Men are also compared in an unflattering way to “gravediggers”: an image that suggests anonymous, obscure actions at dusk of the night. We find this image of “gravediggers” especially in the Zarathustra (§8 and 9 of the Prologue); where gravediggers dig the grave of a tightrope walker who has been falling from his rope into the empty space, a funambulist who symbolizes the superior man, the artist, who has the courage to take risks, even at the risk of one’s life. Gravediggers dig, but what are they capable of building or rebuilding? This is obviously the crucial question. Nietzsche places us before the historical alternative: nihilism or renewal of values.

The fourth thesis contained in aphorism 125 of Gay Science concerns the scope of the event.  An idea that Nietzsche repeats in different texts; for example, in aphorism 108 of Gay Science. He changes God, this time it is Buddha, but the idea remains the same:

New battles. After Buddha was dead, they still showed his shadow in a cave for centuries – a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow. And we – we must still defeat his shadow as well! [iii]

Here we find the idea that the death of God is an event that is part of the very long span of time of human history and that there is a huge time lag between an act, especially if it is large, and the perception of this act —  (let alone the appreciation of this act). The cognitive and cultural upheaval caused by this event requires relearning, a new perception, a new form of appreciative understanding, new habits; in short, a profound cultural change (makes me think of the Crucial Dialogue Model, a lemniscate based on Creative Interchange). All this takes a lot, a very lot of time.

Let’s go back to a portion of aphorism 125 of Gay Science:

“This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard.”

We note in passing that Nietzsche likes to formulate his ideas with emphasis to produce dramatic effects. This pathos has no doubt helped to establish his reputation as a visionary philosopher. Still, behind the desire to impress the reader, there is in these passages, let’s recognize it, a powerful intuition that has proved to be accurate, when one takes a retrospective look at the 135 years that separate us from Gay Science and Zarathustra. This is what the sociology of religion teaches us in the last twenty years or so. Undeniably, European societies have become secularized, but nothing is not settled so far. On the one hand, sociologists of religion agree to talk about a redevelopment of the religious, and no longer of a reflux; on the other hand, the famous religious exit is endlessly payed by a prize: social and political blockages. It seems not so easy to find new forms of social organization entirely secularized, as it is not obvious to find an orientation in existence disconnected from all transcendence. Moving from a millennial heteronomy to a radical autonomy requires a process of cessation, which can only be slow and chaotic.

In this sense, the shadow of God continues to hover over Europe, as predicted Nietzsche in the Gay Science (especially in the aphorism 343). In this aphorism, Nietzsche points out a paradox created by the news of the death of God.

 […] — Why is it that even we look forward to this darkening without any genuine involvement and above all without worry and fear for ourselves? Are we perhaps still not too influenced by the most immediate consequences of this event – and these immediate consequences, the consequences for ourselves, are the opposite of what one might expect – not at all sad and gloomy, but much more like a new and barely describable type of light, happiness, relief, amusement, encouragement, dawn . . . [iv]

What Nietzsche describes here is a paradoxical reaction following the death of God: on the one hand, of course, the feeling is intoxicating, galvanizing with an unheard, unprecedented liberation; we have all reasons to rejoice wholeheartedly the death of the old Christian God; on the other hand, a form of unconsciousness, carelessness that could have serious consequences. For the space liberated will have to be occupied. The horizon that has been erased will have to be redrawn in one way or another.

The philosopher, the free spirit, can feel an exaltation, a joy (the famous ‘Heiterkeit’ — Nietzsche uses the word later in the text) and nurture some confidence in his abilities to find a new direction, new cardinal points on the “vast sea” which now opens before him; remains that humanity is not just constituted by free spirits – far from it. And that’s where the concern comes up. And this anxiety, the madman of aphorism 125 expresses it with clairvoyance; ironically, a demented person who sees crystal clear. Remember: “Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? “ “An infinite nothingness,” says the madman.

The question of nihilism is central in Nietzsche’s philosophy (Nihil est: it’s “nothing”, in Latin, nihilism; it’s not believing in anything, in any value). It is essential to clarify Nietzsche’s position because the claim that Nietzsche is a nihilist philosopher is certainly one of the biggest misunderstandings of the history of philosophy. So, is Nietzsche a nihilist philosopher? The very term “Nihilismus” appears abundantly in Nietzsche’s texts, especially in unpublished fragments, written from the years 1885, 86, 87 and 88, therefore rather late. In a fragment of 1887 precisely, Nietzsche gives the following definition of nihilism: “Nihilism: the goal is lacking; the answer to ‘why?’ is missing. What nihilism? the fact that supreme values ​​are devalued.” So nihilism is a loss of meaning, of references; as if the transmission is not done, or better, is no longer done, between individuals, mind, body, and ideals external to them. A loss of adequacy. The cause of this loss of orientation is that the highest values ​​of the culture concerned are weakened, devalued. They lost their motivation power.

To understand this idea, one must understand what a value is for Nietzsche. Values ​​are not disembodied moral and intellectual constructions. Of course, they exist outside individuals, pre-exist, and survive, but they have a reality only if they are incarnated, carried, by persons, or institutions, social and cultural practices. They are literally “incorporated” (“einverleibt” says Nietzsche – same lexical and semantic construction – inserted inside the body). Values ​​are preferences that engage us, our minds, our bodies (Nietzsche does not separate the two) with the strength of evidence, often in a unconscious way, which make us make choices and shape our existence in a particular way. Another element of definition: values, which are necessarily plural, are not isolated from each other, but organized at the individual level and at the collective level, in a structured and hierarchical way (“Rangordnung”). They form ‘leveled’ systems; with dominant, superior, primordial values and less important, subordinate values. This hierarchical organization of values produces, at the individual level, particular human types; and at the collective level, particular types of culture. These ‘leveled’ systems are bound to, sometimes over very long periods (for example in Christian Europe: over 2000 years), evolve or even to decline, to lose their power of regulation.

And how is this loss of authority of values ​ translated? On one hand, by a lag, a discord, disharmony between these values and the goals that they set, and on the other hand,  the instinctive organization of individuals (the way in which they have incorporated these values), their strengths, their aptitudes. From the moment individuals no longer recognize the motivating and constraining power and persuasion of values, those lose their credibility and individuals no longer adhere to them. So much for the general process of devaluation of values ​​and disaffection vis-à-vis of them, proper to nihilism.

But, and this is where Nietzsche’s approach is original, this lag is not always harmful. In fact, there are, according to Nietzsche, two types of nihilism: active nihilism and passive nihilism. Passive nihilism, the one Nietzsche fears and fights, is due to physiological and spiritual exhaustion of individuals for whom cultural ideals become inaccessible. They no longer believe in these ideals, feel a feeling of fatigue and emptiness. They no longer have the will to meet the requirements set by the higher values of their culture.  Let me quote Nietzsche, still in this fragment of 1887:

“Nihilism as a decline and regression of the power of the mind is passive nihilism. It’s a sign of weakness: the strength of the spirit is so tired, exhausted, so that the goals and values ​​until then so prevalent are nowadays inappropriate, inadequate and no longer believed in.” And these values ​​that individuals can not honorably honour any more end up appearing to them not only subjectively but also objectively inappropriate, artificial, and ultimately inconsistent.

The speculative audacity of Nietzsche, perhaps his imprudence, drives him to consider his analyzes on very large scales: he does not hesitate to speak of European nihilism. For him, European culture (which includes Russia) is unified by Christianity and suffers as a whole from nihilism. He sees signs, for his century, in the literature, of German romantics, to the novels of Tolstoy, passing by the poetry of Leopardi, Baudelaire or the Flaubert’s novels – all presenting symptoms of decadence (feeling of distress, weakness of the will, pessimism and disenchanted dilettantism). Nihilism is thus a slow process of cultural decomposition produced by two thousand years of Christianity. Nietzsche’s epoch is an advanced form, but not yet completed. This decomposition may well become worse in the future: “What I’m telling is [in fact] the story of the next two centuries,” he writes in 1887.

Beside this passive nihilism, there is an active nihilism. Discrepancy, specific to nihilism in general, between dominant social values ​​and organization. Individual drive can be a chance, the symptom of something great who is preparing, the symptom of a renewal: the fact that the supreme values can no longer find credit from individuals can be the sign, not of exhaustion of those, who would no longer live up to the ideals consecrated, but on the contrary, a strength, independence, creativity, on the part of individuals who no longer find fulfillment for the purposes set by the value system of a given culture, who consider these goals, these ideals as henceforth unproductive, infertile. Let me, once more, quote Nietzsche: “Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the mind: as active nihilism. It can be a sign of strength: the strength of the spirit has been able to increase. So that the goals set so far (“convictions”, articles of faith) are no longer to his measure.”

I think we can now answer the question: Is Nietzsche a nihilist philosopher? If we take the term “nihilist” in its most common sense (Someone who no longer believes in anything, does not have the taste to action anymore, or when acting he/she is moved by death instincts), Nietzsche is the opposite of a nihilist philosopher. What can be said, on the other hand, is that he is a philosopher who theorizes ‘Nihilism’, and that in his theoretical scheme he identifies an active nihilism, a “good” nihilism, that is to say an aptitude, a force capable to get rid of old values ​​and to establish new ones. In this sense, and in this sense only, we can say that Nietzsche is a nihilist philosopher. So one has to be very careful with this formulation. Now, we are able to better understand what “the death of God” means to Nietzsche. This death is not a theological question (whether one can prove the existence or not of God); it has something to do with the weakening of Western culture, the fading of its cardinal values, those which were put in the spotlight by Christianity for nearly twenty centuries: love of neighbor, charity, pity, the ideals of chastity, purity, disinterestedness, truth, justice, kindness. In his Zarathustra, Nietzsche will continue his criticism of Christian values, and call for a creative, transformational and evaluative surge to a renewal of Western values.

Thus spoke Zarathustra: genesis of the work 

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra strucks the minds, unquestionably, and inspired many artists, writers, and even politicians. This success is due to the undeniable originality of this work.

First, originality of the form: absolutely atypical form, which detonates and in Nietzsche’s production, and in the history of philosophy. Here is a succession of sermons, speeches, and parables, given by a character, for the least eccentric, a prophet from whom one does not know where. A philosophical poem written in a language saturated with images and metaphors. It is not entirely clear whether it is a pastiche, a parody or an absolutely serious text.  It is a work that is philosophical but deliberately breaks with the Western philosophical tradition based on rational demonstrations, well-constructed reasoning, a well-argued language.  Secondly, the singularity of this work also lies at the heart itself, the themes it addresses and the motives, the concepts it introduces: the death of God, the superhuman (the famous “Übermensch”), the transmutation of values, the eternal return … So many concepts that are original, intriguing and disconcerting, which gives Nietzsche’s work a special aura. This work is finally singular by the megalomaniac goal it pursues. Nietzsche’s ambition is indeed to provoke a cultural and civilizational change by re-educating old Europe and winning it to new values, substituting to Christian morality an “active immoralism”. This book is according to Nietzsche “the first book of the reversal of all values.” (“Das erste Buch der Umwertung Werte”)

Nietzsche himself has not lost any praise for his work. You should read the pages of his autobiography Ecce Homo which are devoted to ​​Zarathustra. To our delight, it must be admitted, he does not bother with false modesty: “My Zarathustra has a special place for me in my writings. With it, I have given humanity the greatest gift it has ever received.” [v]Or again: “[My book, Zarathustra] cuts the history of humanity into two pieces. One lives before him, one lives after him.” [vi]The reference to Jesus and to Christianity is obvious. Just as Jesus inaugurated a new era, there is a before and after Christ, Nietzsche claims to embody a new break and a new beginning in the history of humanity.

By the way, who is Zarathustra? Zarathustra is Zoroaster, a character whose existence is historically attested, a priest of the god Mazda. In the religion of Mazdeism. He founded his own religion – so-called Zoroastrianism. He would have lived, somewhere between the 10th and 6th centuries BC, in Persia, in a part of present-day Iran, or perhaps Uzbekistan or Afghanistan. We will not go into the details of his doctrine; what matters is what Nietzsche decides to retain from it. Nietzsche retains two main ideas: First, Zoroaster is the founder of a moral dualism. He develops a doctrine where Good and Evil appear as two poles who determine everything that happens in the universe.The whole philosophy of Nietzsche is certainly opposed to this dualism, but precisely, Nietzsche’s rather brilliant idea is that it is up to Zoroaster to deny his own doctrine, to break the tables of his own laws, of some sort, and to found a new world order. I quote: “Zarathustra created this most fateful of errors, morality: consequently he must also be the first to recognize it as such.”[vii]

And, second idea, Zoroaster has for this a rare and indispensable quality: truthfulness says Nietzsche (“Wahrhaftigkeit”). The ability to see clearly in one’s own intentions, not to be deluded, to show intellectual courage: veracity. According to Nietzsche, it is the antidote to idealism.

Let us add that Nietzsche is certainly seduced by the strength of a man capable of imposing his own vision of the world, his own moral doctrine to his contemporaries, able to found a religion – he is fascinated by the founders, the “legislators” as he says. He is fascinated at bottom by their will to power; and then he is also seduced by Eastern religions, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, which are not religions of capital sin and fault. So, for once, we stay in the horizon of Christian culture with Zarathoustra (and we must confess that this association of a Persian prophet and Christian themes sometimes gives an impression of kitsch). There are many references to the Bible, places familiar to the Christian reader (for example, the Mount of Olives), ritual formulations, the very form of the text, made of sermons, prayers, allegorical stories … remind us of the Bible. The fact that Zarathustra speaks to his ‘folowers’ or to disciples, even if he urges them to emancipate themselves; even if he refuses to be held for a prophet, for a guru, all this obviously recalls the figure of Jesus and his apostles. Nietzsche has also described his work as “the fifth gospel” (Letter to his publisher 13.02.1883). And indeed, Zarathustra brings good news, a gospel. In this case the death of God and the coming of the Superhuman; the Superhuman being not a Messiah, a single God, but, let us say it immediately: “humanity in what it has the best.”

A word on the biographical context of the writing of Zarathustra. The Zarathustra revolves around three main ideas or concepts: death of God, the superhuman and the eternal return. (this part of this essay and the next two). According to Nietzsche, it was the idea of ​​eternal return that gave the decisive impetus to the work. This idea would suddenly come to him, as an inspiration, on a summer day when he was walking around Lake Silvaplana near the village of Sils-Maria, Switzerland. Nietzsche reports the episode in Ecce Homo, with, as always, a keen sense of the staging:

Now I will tell the history of Zarathustra. The basic idea of the work, the thought of eternal return, the highest possible formula of affirmation -, belongs to August of the year 1881: it was thrown onto paper with the title ‘6,000 feet beyond people and time’. That day I went through the woods to the lake of Silvaplana [Engadin, between St. Moritz and Sils-Maria];I stopped near Surlei by a huge, pyramidal boulder. That is where this thought came to me. [viii]

But Nietzsche does not start writing the Zarathustra yet. What occupies him in 1881 and 1882 is the Gay Science, a work that contains some warning signs of Zarathustra: §125, which we presented “The Madman”; § 341, entitled “The most heavy weight” and which states the idea of ​​eternal return and § 342, entitled “Incipit tragoedia” – “tragedy begins”, which is the last paragraph of book 4 of Gay Science, and which contains only a few words. The Incipit of Zarathustra: this text is about the decision of Zarathustra to return among men and teach them the superhuman. Nietzsche will write his Zarathustra in stages, in four parts, written between January 1883 and January 1885, while in different places, Genoa, Rapallo, Rome, Sils-Maria, Menton and Nice. He does not have a clear vision of the overall composition: he even thinks that he must stop after the first part; then, after the first three parts, he plans to resume everything to zero; the fourth part will be refused by its publisher; Nietzsche will publish it in forty copies at his own expense. Later, he will even consider a 5th or 6th part. He will, in any case, oppose the publication of the four parts in one set – and that is yet the version we have today. The Zarathustra is therefore an unfinished work. Which is finally in adequacy with its subject: the superhuman is a promise open on the future, a path – steep – without a predefined goal, it is an “arrow” that we draw, says Nietzsche.

The important biographical fact that forms the backdrop of Zarathoustra is his meeting at the end of April 1882, in Rome, with Lou Salome.  “What stars did we fall to meet us?” He would have asked her at their first meeting, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Nietzsche was in fact in Rome in the spring of 1882, at the invitation of the two friends with whom he had stayed in Sorrento a few years earlier: Malwida von Meysenbug and Paul Rée. Lou is a Russian girl in her twenties, who moved from Russia with her mother, after the death of her father who was a general, to Zurich to study. And then, because of health problems, she was recommended an extended stay under a more favorable climate, a Mediterranean climate. It is in Rome that she comes into contact with the circle of Malwida. Malwida and Paul Rée, who is also present, are immediately conquered, subjugated by the exceptional intellectual maturity of the young woman. Paul falls in love with her immediately. And both Malwida and Paul are convinced that Lou is the right sparring partner To Nietzsche, since she is, like him, a Free Spirit.Nietzsche responds to the invitation, his curiosity is stoked by the praise of the young woman that his friends make in their mail and he goes to Rome. And indeed he too will fall in love with Lou. He does not hesitate to ask her to marry him. Twice even – requests that the young woman rejects. Never mind, so that their intellectual complicity can continue to grow and flourish, Lou, Paul and Friedrich consider forming an intellectual household of three, a community of work and studies. They think about Paris, Vienna. I pass the details: it will not succeed. Worse, relations will quickly fester between Nietzsche and his two friends, Lou and Paul. Nietzsche developing jealousy regarding Paul and suspecting Paul and Lou of getting along behind his back and betray their three-way community project. What is certain, Nietzsche’s sister, who had the opportunity to meet Lou during the summer, in Germany and who did not like her at all, played a harmful role in this story, whispering in her brother’s ear that Lou would have publicly suggested that he was suffering from a form of madness. The episode, in any case, will leave traces, all the more profound. The hopes Nietzsche had placed in this relationship, perhaps in a rather candid and precipitated way, were great. It is this terrible disappointment that he confesses to his friend Overbeck in a letter of December 1883 (6.12.1883): “The real misfortune of this year and last year was the fact that I thought I had found a being who had exactly the same mission as me. If I had not believed that too quickly, I would not have suffered and would not suffer at this point a feeling of extreme loneliness, as I did and as I do: because I am and I was prepared to complete my journey of discovery alone. But as soon as I had once dreamed of not being alone, the danger was frightening. There are still hours today when I do not know how to support myself.”

The disappointment, the difficulty of making lasting contact with one’s surroundings, the feeling that he will have to carry out alone his philosophical enterprise, undoubtedly constitute the biographical and existential of Zarathustra. At Overbeck, still writing his book in February 1883, he writes:  “This book […] is a bit like my testament. It contains an image of my being (“ein Bild meines Wesens”), perfectly clear, and shows what it looks like as soon as I manage to put down my whole burden.” (10.02.1883).

The prologue: Zarathustra descends into the valley

Let’s go back into the work. Does this work have a unity, is there a common thread? Not really. The plot is very tenuous. The book starts when Zarathustra decides to leave the loneliness of his mountain and to go in front of men to lavish his wisdom on them. Men are indifferent to what Zarathustra wants to teach them and he chooses to address himself only to a small number of disciples, whom he often calls “Brüder”, my “brothers”. The main subject is formed by the speeches of Zarathustra; his teaching. We’ve already said that this teaching consists of parables, sermons, oscillating between imprecations and exhortations. On several occasions, tired of his teaching, Zarathustra returns to his loneliness and holds a monologue. Zarathustra’s speeches are in reality self-sufficient. These are style exercises on a particular theme, for example: on moral preachers, on the deniers of the body, on chastity, on charity, on new idols (state, nation), on egalitarian ideals, on war, on marriage and on friendship. Topics that affect, in fact, the organization of society in its moral and institutional dimension. And then there are amazing encounters, for example, in Book IV: with an old magician, a Pope, a sad devine, a shadow, a volunteer beggar and even a donkey … Is there a progression through these discourses? Very light. We can consider that the third book forms the heart of the book, with the revelation of the eternal return. Is there an outcome? Not really. As we have said, Nietzsche had even thought of writing a sequel, a 5th or even a 6th part. The superhuman does not appear, because it’s not the messiah, it’s more of a process, a tension, an attempt, than a clearly determined goal.

I have presented so far the four books that make up Zarathustra; the prologue must be added. The prologue is composed of 10 small chapters that condense the essence of Zarathustra. Ultimately, if only one part of the book were to be read, that would be this prologue. Everything is there: the death of God, the superhuman, the eternal return, the last men, etcetera. On top of that, the text is very pleasant to read, lively, a true narrative (the only true narrative of the book, by the way), organized around a plot – which intrigues Zarathustra in miniature: Zarathustra’s attempt to convert the inhabitants of a small town with the superhuman ideal and his decision, in the face of its failure, to address his teaching only to a few disciples.

So, I propose to present in what folows several excerpts from the prologue.

1st excerpt: These are the very first lines of ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ (I specify that I made some cuts).

“When Zarathustra had reached his thirtieth year, he left his home and ​the lake of his home and went into the mountain. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it.  But at last his heart transformed, – and one morning, he arose with the dawn, stepped before the sun and spoke thus to it: “O great star! What would your happiness be, if you had not those for whom you shine? For ten years you have come up here to my cave:  You would have tired of your light and of this route without me, my eagle and my snake.  But we awaited you every morning, we took your overflow form you and we blessed you for it. Behold! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that has gathered too much honey. I need hands that reach out. I want to bestow and distribute until the wise among human beings have once again enjoyed their folly, and the poor once again their wealth. For this I must descend into the depths […] Zarathustra wants to become human again.” – Thus began Zarathustra’s going under.”[ix]

So, let’s try to explain this passage. It is difficult at first not to guess autobiographical motives behind the frame of the narrative. A lake, a mountain, a stateless person: these are the living conditions of Nietzsche himself for several years. Zarathustra descends to his fellow men at forty; this is Nietzsche’s age when he composes his work. Beyond biographical comparisons, there is of course a symbolism, which goes beyond Nietzsche’s person. Zarathustra retired to solitude at age 30 about the same age Jesus exercised his teaching before being sentenced to death. For 10 years, Zarathustra will meditate on the death of God. Zarathustra appears here as a worshiper of the sun: facing the sun, he experiences a feeling of happiness, gratitude, overflow of life. It is a form of paganism assumed, joyful and dispenser: his happiness must be shared. The sun is also a kind of metonymy, midday, the sun at its zenith, who comes back every day, eternally – so from the beginning of the book an allusion to the doctrine of eternal return. The serpent and the eagle, the two animals of Zarathustra, symbolize the earth and the heaven, the bodily and the spiritual, the sensible and the intelligible. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive; they complement each other, without one prevailing over the other.Zarathustra’s paganism is directed against the dualism of Western culture, and in particular the Platonic dualism which is based on a series of oppositions, the second term being each time devalued: intelligible vs. sensitive, know vs. opinion, spirit vs. body, being vs. phenomenon, etcetera. By praising madness (Zarathustra says “wise men must become again happy with their madness “), Zarathustra engages a criticism of conformism and rationalism; and while in Matthew’s gospel, the poor are rewarded the Kingdom of Heaven, it is here below that it must happen (“the poor [must be] happy with their wealth”, says Zarathoustra) And the values ​​to be promoted are fundamentally human, They owe nothing to an afterlife. The higher value is humanity. “Zarathustra wants to be human again” (“Zarathustra will wieder Mensch werden!” writes Nietzsche). One more word on the phrase: “Thus began Zarathustra’s going under.” Going under, “Untergang, in German”, is an idea that is at the heart of the life experience and thought of Nietzsche. It is a necessary moment of denial of self, of self-transcendence, usually associated with a new start. “I am at once decadent and beginning,” Nietzsche will thus assert in Ecce Homo [x].

Let’s continue reading the prologue. On his way, as he descends into the valley, Zarathustra meets a hermit, leading, far from men, an existence of religious meditation:

“But when he [Zarathustra] came in the wood, suddenly an old man stood before him, who had left his saintly hut in search for roots in the woods. And thus spoke the old man to Zarathustra:

“This wanderer is no stranger to me: many years ago he passed by here. Zarathustra he was called: but he is transformed.

Back then you carried your ashes to the mountain; would you now carry your fire into the valley? Do you not fear the arsonist’s punishment?

Yes, I recognize Zarathustra. His eyes are pure, and no disgust is visible around his mouth. Does he not stride like a dancer?

Zarathustra is transformed, Zarathustra has become a child, an awakened one is Zarathustra. What do you want now among the sleepers?” [xi]

A few words of explanation. The ashes: undoubtedly symbolize the beliefs of before, belief in a Christian God, in Christian values ​​and morals – these beliefs are now consumed, destroyed, they die slowly. Zarathustra went to the mountain to meditate on the death of those values ​​of which he himself was a heir, and on the death of God and its consequences. And he comes back with a new fire: new values, synonymous this time vitality, energy, creativity. His gaze is limpid, says the old man: he is not troubled by bad passions; his mouth is not distorted by contempt, resentment. He is “awake,” said the hermit. There is certainly an allusion to Buddha, who is just “the awakened, “Erwachte “. Why this reference? Because Buddha managed to expel all toxic feelings, such as resentment, guilt, bad conscience. Another image used by the hermit, is that of Zarathustra as a child. The child represents the absence of prejudices, it is not yet formatted by the conceptions good and bad of its culture. The child is also joy, exuberance, curiosity about life and lightness. But be careful, it’s not the child, synonymous with innocence and purity, as represented in the Christian tradition, especially through the image of the child Jesus  – one would otherwise remain in a moral register; it’s the child as Heraclitus puts it: Heraclitus  – a great reference for Nietzsche, as we have seen  – evokes the child who tirelessly made and destroyed sandcastles on the beach. A child who has a jubilation to destroy what he has just built. The child of Heraclitus thus incarnates, says Nietzsche, the “innocence of becoming”. Let’s say it right away: the child is one of the representations of the superhuman. We are far from the wild beast thirsting for conquest and domination (representation, which is also found in other texts, we will refer to it later, but who has had ​​tendency to conceal everything Nietzsche says is more subtle about the superhuman). In the text “The Three Metamorphoses”, which is, in fact, the first speech of the first book of the Zarathustra, just after the prologue, Nietzsche stages three figures: the camel, the lion, the child. Each figure symbolizes a modality: the camel is the man who bears the burden of moral requirements; the lion embodies the revolt against these prescriptions; the child is the end of the process of transformation and therefore represents the eternal recommencement, below the moral categories of good and evil. It represents the unreserved adhesion to life. Now that we understand why the hermit told Zarathustra that he has been transformed; let’s continue:

[…] Zarathustra answered, “I love mankind.”

“Why,” asked the saint, “did I go into the woods and the wilderness in the first place? Was it not because I loved mankind too much?

Now I love God: human beings I do not love. Human beings are too imperfect a thing for me. Love for human beings would kill me.”

Zarathustra replied, “Why did I speak of love? I bring mankind a gift.”

“Give them nothing,” said the saint. “Rather take something off them and help them to carry it – that will do them the most good, if only het does you good!

And if you want to give to them, then give nothing more than alms, and make them beg for that too”


“And what does the saint do in the woods? ” asked Zarathustra.

The saint answered: “I make songs and sing them, and when I make songs I laugh, weep and growl;  thus I praise God.

With singing, weeping, laughing and growling I praise God who is my god. But tell me, what do you bring us as a gift?”

When Zarathustra had heard these words he took his leave of the saint and spoke: “What would I have to give you! But let me leave quickly before I take something from you! “ – And so they parted, the oldster and the man, laughing as two boys laugh.

But when Zarathustra was alone, he spoke thus to his heart: “Could it be possible? This old saint in his woods has not yet heard that God is dead?”[xii]

Nietzsche suggests that the ascetics, self-denying, renunciation ideals claimed by the hermit, are, in fact, expressions of cultural nihilism. Christianity has gradually decomposed under the effect of the reactive forces and Christian morality eventually fell short of its founder who preached ‘Love your Neighbor’. Zarathustra loves humanity, he wants to give him a gift, he is in the prodigality, generosity, and affirmation. He refuses to play the role of scapegoat, the one that Jesus played: unburden men of their sins and take care of them. Of course, the teaching that Zarathustra brings, the gift he wants to give to men, is to make life easier. This relief can only be total and definitive if those men themselves are actively engaged in their inner transformation. To forgive is a fault to keep believers guilty. What Zarathustra and Nietzsche want is basically to return to a philosophy of  before the original sin: pre-Christian philosophy. It is, to use his parable, to go from camel to lion and from lion to child.

When Zarathustra came into the nearest town lying on the edge of the forest, he found many people gathered in the market place, for it had been promised that a tightrope walker would perform. And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:”I teach you the overhuman. Human being is something that must be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? [xiii]

I pass on this speech and will come back to it in the next part devoted precisely to the superhuman. In any case, the crowd does not take Zarathustra seriously, is not interested in what he says and since it is not sensitive to the ideal of the superhuman, Zarathoustra attempts another strategy: he tries to scare them, to disgust them by making them a very unflattering portrait of the antithesis of the superhuman: the last man – the last men are actually those who form this crowd and who represent the image of cultural nihilism:

Thus I shall speak to them of the most contemptible person: but he is the last human being. And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people:  “It is time for mankind to set themselves a goal. It is time that mankind plant the seed of their highest hope. Their soil is still rich enough for this. But this soil will one day be poor and tame, and no tall tree will be able to grow from it anymore. Beware! The time approaches when human beings no longer launch the arrow of their longing beyond the human, and the string of their bow will have forgotten how to whir!I say to you: one must still have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star. I say to you, you still have chaos in you.Beware! The time approaches when human beings will no longer give birth to a dancing star. Beware! The time of the most contemptible human being is coming, the one who can no longer have contempt for himself.Behold! I show you the last human being.” “What is love? What is creation ? What is longing? What is a star ?“ thus aks the last human being, blinking.Then the earth has become small, and on it hops the last human being, who makes everything small. His kind is ineradicalbe, like the flea beetle; the last human being lives the longest. “We invented happiness” – say the last human beings, blinking. They have abandoned the regions where it was hard to live: for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs up against him, for one needs warmth. Becoming ill and being mistrustful are considered sinful by them: one proceeds with caution. A fool who still stumbles over stones or humans!A bit of poison once in a while; that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death.One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one sees to it that the entertainment is not a strain.One no longer becomes poor and rich: both are soo burdensome. Who wants to rule anymore? Who wants to obey anymore? Both are too burdensome.No sheperd and one herd! Each wants the same, each is the same, and whoever feels differently goes voluntarily into the insane asylum. […]” And here endded the first speech of Zarathustra, which is also called “The Prologue’’, for at that moment he was interrupted by yelling and the merriment  of the crowd. “Give us this last human being, oh Zarathustra,” – thus they cried –  “make us into this last human beings! Then we will mak you a gift of the overman!” And all the people jubilated and clicked their tongues.[xiv]

This text expresses urgency. Humanity – at least Western civilization – is at a crossroads. After the death of God, two ways are open: a) humanity can take advantage of the chaos provoked by the dissolution of Christian belief and give birth to new expectations – to give birth to a “dancing star”, says Nietzsche nicely; for there is still time, says Zarathustra or b) humanity sinks into this chaos and remains in an attitude of passive nihilism. “Woe, the times of such immoralism are close,” warned Zarathustra. The last men, painted by Zarathustra, embody this nihilistic attitude. We find once again the theme of § 125 of The Gay Science: The last men killed God, because God is too demanding, has set too high ideals.  They do not deny God because God shortens them, but because God is growing them. They prefer to spoil themselves in ease, comfort, mediocrity. Nietzsche describes a very conformist society, sanitized, a therapeutic state where everything is taken care of instead of individuals; no struggle, no effort, no surpassing oneself, no courage. Happiness, one of the great promises of moral philosophy, from Aristotle to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, is lowered to the level of a selfish comfort. Love, the cardinal value of Christianity, is misguided in search of a little emotional security. The last men swarm and stifle the desire for greatness: this is the greatest danger, according to Nietzsche, for the superhuman. The strong are constantly in danger of being vanquished, broken by the conspiracy of the weak, the jealous, the vindictive. Here there is a violent criticism of democratic and socialist ideas that then progress throughout Europe, and especially in Germany. For example, Karl Marx writes his Capital between the 1860s and the 1880s, the First International Labor was founded, in London, in 1864 and the German Socialist Party was constituted in 1875.


Henry Nelson Wieman’s Creative Interchange

 Nietzsche’s point of view regarding “God is dead” brings me to Henry Nelson Wieman’s view of “Creative Interchange”. For Wieman, God is better thought of as a verb rather than as a noun.

Let’s go back to Wieman’s Epiphany: as he sat alone looking over the Missouri River in the faint light of dusk, a sudden conviction came over him – a conviction that he should devote his life to religious inquiry and its central problem.

The central problem of religious inquiry, as it presented itself so forcefully to him that evening, was to seek a better understanding of the nature of whatever it is in human life and experience that transforms us in ways that we cannot transform ourselves, that rightfully deserves the kind of ultimate commitment and total self-giving that we associate with ‘religious faith’. What is the nature of that process or structure of events or reality actually at work in the universe, which, in religious language, has been, designated “God”? And how can human lives be so adjusted to this reality that the power of Creative Good can be unleashed and thereby human life enriched? It was this problem, and the attendant questions which emerged from it, that came to consume Wieman during all the rest of his life. He ultimately coined that process: Creative Interchange.

During his ‘Chicago’ years in the 1920s Henry Nelson Wieman proclaimed that “God is an object of sensuous experience,” that God is “as real as a toothache,” and therefore that religious inquiry should not be focused on socio-historical issues or on human ideals. Thus, he sought to clarify the nature and workings of “God,” which Wieman defined as “that ‘something’ upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare, and increasing abundance”:

Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be denied. The mere fact that life happens, and continues to happen proves that this Something, however unknown, does certainly exist.[xv]

For Wieman, that ‘Something’ for which he is trying to find empirical evidence is a process within nature, along with, over and against other processes that either sustain and destroy human thriving. His quest gave centrality to sense experience, guided by reason, his goal was to discover how we can put ourselves in the keeping the Creative Good, that power which is the integrative activity at the heart of the cosmos.

His major books include Religious Experience and Scientific Method(1926), The Wrestle of Religion with Truth(1927), The Source of Human Good(1946), Man’s Ultimate Commitment(1958), and Creative Freedom: Vocation of Liberal Religion(posthumous – 1982). In these works Wieman developed his defense of naturalism and empiricism in religion, his opposition to humanism, his assurances concerning the reality of God, and his focus on creativity and Creative Interchange. He embodied a naturalistic world-view. In religion, just as in science, said Wieman, there are not two realms of reality, namely, natural and supernatural. There is but one dimension of reality, and it must be studied through the observations of the senses. So God, for Wieman, is a natural creative process or structure—superhuman, but not supernatural. Our supreme devotion, then, must be to the Creative Good that is the activity of Creative Interchange, not to the created relative goods of human construction or the social ideals of the human mind. For Wieman, this was an ultimate commitment to what in his later years he increasingly came to label ‘Creative Interchange’.

So ‘God’ isn’t dead for Wieman; on the contrary Creative Interchange is alive and kicking. If God would be dead, Creative Interchange would have stopped living too and, as a consequence, there wouldn’t be Human’s any more. Conclusion: Man’s Ultimate Commitment to Creative Interchange is a condition sine qua non for the survival of mankind.

Creative Interchange

Henry Nelson Wieman gave to the fruit of his – what he called – ‘religious inquiry’, different names during the years of that quest: his particular take on ‘creativity’, creative event, creative transformation, … and, as being already stated, ultimately Creative Interchange.

In the introduction of his perhaps most readable book ‘Man’s Ultimate Commitment’ he explains his take on creativity:

Creativity is the central theme of this book. […] By creativity I do not mean creative work whether in art or science or technology or social organization or in any other area of human achievement. To be sure, creative work may accompany the kind of creativity, which I shall discuss. But I shall examining not creative work but the creative transformation of the individual in the wholeness of his being[xvi].

Thus, Henry Nelson Wieman does not mean by creativity the activity by which the individual produces innovations, but the creative transformation of the individual himself. He goes on to present the four characteristics that distinguish the creative transformation of the individual from any other kind of change:

[1] Creativity is an expanding of the range and diversity of what the individual can know, evaluate, [imagine], and control. [2] Creativity is an increasing of his ability to understand appreciatively other persons and people across greater barriers of estrangement and hostility. [3]Creativity is an increasing of the freedom of the individual, when freedom means one’s ability to absorb any cause acting on oneself in such a way that the consequences resulting from it express the character and fulfill the purpose of the individual himself. […][4] Increasing the capacity of the individual to integrate into the uniqueness of his own individuality a greater diversity of experiences so that more of all that he encounters becomes a source of enrichment and strength rather than impoverishing and weakening him. [xvii]

Henry Nelson Wieman made his unique point of view that God is Creative Interchange clear in a metaphorical way when he described the working of Creative Interchange within the group of people formed by Jesus and his disciples:

Jesus engaged in intercommunication with a little group of disciples with such depth and potency that the organization of their several personalities was broken down and they were remade. They became new man, and the thought and feeling of each got across to the others. It was not merely the thought and feeling of Jesus that got across. That was not the most important thing. The important thing was that the thought and feeling of the least and lowliest got across to the others and the others to him. Not something handed down to them from Jesus but something rising up out of their midst in creative power was the important thing. It was not something Jesus did. It was something that happened when he was present like a catalytic agent. It was as if he was the neutron that started the chain reaction of creative transformation. Something about this man Jesus broke the atomic exclusiveness of those individuals so that they were deeply and freely receptive and responsive to each other. He split the atom of human egoism, not by psychological tricks, not by intelligent understanding, but simply by being the kind of person he was, combined with the social, psychological, and historical situation of the time and the heritage of Hebrew prophecy. Thus arose in the group of disciples a miraculous mutual awareness and responsiveness toward the needs and the interests of one another.

But this was not all; something else followed from it. The thought and feeling, let us say the meanings, thus derived from each other, were integrated with what each had previously acquired. Thus each was transformed, lifted to a higher level of human fulfillment. Each became more of a mind and a person, with more capacity to understand, to appreciate, to act with power and insight; for this is the way human personality is generated and magnified and life rendered more noble human.

A third consequence followed necessarily from these first two. The appreciable world expanded round about these men, thus interacting in this fellowship. Since they could now see through the eyes of others, feel through their sensitivities, and discern the secrets of many hearts, the world was more rich and ample with meaning and quality.

Also – and this might be called a fourth consequence – there was more depth and breadth of community between them as individuals with one another and between them and all other men. This followed from their enlarged capacity to get the perspectives of one another and the perspectives of all whom they might encounter. [xviii]

I’m sure you have recognized the four characteristics of Creative Interchange in the text above.And Henry Nelson continuous:

Thus occurred in the fellowship about Jesus a complex, creative event, transforming the disciples as individuals, their relations with one another and with all men, and transforming also the appreciable world in which they lived.

Let us not be misunderstood. The creative transformative power was not in the man Jesus, although it could not have occurred apart from him. Rather he was in it. […] The creative power lay in the interaction taking place between these individuals. It transformed their minds, their appreciable world, and their community with one another and with all men. [xix]

So, Henry Nelson Wieman repeated in several of his writings that, to him, God was that creative transformative power, which he ultimately coined Creative Interchange. To Wieman, Jesus was living Creative Interchange from within; a living role model, so to speak, that ‘taught’ Creative Interchange by example and experience to his disciples. The Story of Jesus and his disciples continued of course and Jesus was crucified. To many of his followers he was not THE messiah they had expected, and as far as they could see, he was no messiah at all. This was the immediate consequence of the Crucifixion. But Henry Nelson Wieman’s interpretation of the New Testament continuous as follows:

After the third day, however, when the numbness of the shock had worn away, something happened. The life-transforming creativity previously known only in fellowship with Jesus began again to work in the fellowship of the disciples. It was risen from the dead. Since they had never experienced it except in association with Jesus, it seemed to them that the man Jesus himself was actually present, walking and talking with them. Some thought they saw him and touched him in physical presence. But what rose form the dead was not the man Jesus, it was the creative power. It was the living God that works in time. [xx]

“If God is understood the creator of the universe known to mankind” wrote Henry Nelson Wieman, “then creative interchange is God’.

So to Henry Nelson Wieman, the God of Christianity is not dead; that God is alive and working as Creative Interchange! In Wieman’s thought, God is an object of experience as well as thought. God is perceived and conceived:

God must be found at the level of sensation as well as at the level of thought if God is that creativity which creates our own minds in community with others. This is so because sensation can reach consciousness only when it takes on meaning; and the meaning which sensation has at the level of perception is the anticipations of further sensations which will occur if I gaze more intently, or change my position, or listen or approach or touch or perform any of the innumerable activities by which sensations follow one another according to an anticipated sequence. If sensations do not occur in the sequence anticipated, I recognize that my perception was mistaken.

Of all the sensations I am able to have, only those are selected which association and cooperation with other people have endowed with anticipation of an orderly sequence of further sensations, when appropriate actions are performed. […]

If the name of God is given to that kind of interchange between individuals which leads people to cooperate and understand each other and share a common vision to which each unique individual can make his own contribution, then God is found at the level of sensation because only those sensations develop into perceptions which are endowed with anticipation of a further sequence of sensations, and this comes from communication with others and from cooperation with them.  The spontaneous responses of the organism play a part in this selection, but these responses are profoundly shaped from early infancy by intimate association with other human beings. The shaping of perception by interaction with others is that creativity which creates my mind in community with others and also creates what we call nature. In this sense God is found at the level of sensation, if God is identified with this creativity. [xxi]

This text underlines, to me, the importance of Awareness and Consciousness during the operation of Creative Interchange. Awareness, which is observing clearly, is called here sensation. I sometimes call Awareness ‘Uncolored Consciousness’. Nevertheless, what is observed takes indeed meaning when it is interpreted at the level of perception; coloring what is observed so the speak. This ‘Colored Consciousness’ leads to further Awareness, which will occur if I observe more intensely, or change my position. In fact I question my ‘Mindset’ asking the following questions: “Do I interpret what I see through Awareness correctly? Are their other interpretations of that perceived reality possible?” I know that my interpretation feeds my appreciation of reality, so it’s useful to use some other mindsets during Creative Interchange to enhance our vision, which is our common appreciation of reality.

And Wieman pleads for an ultimate commitment to Creative Interchange. He further states that Creative Interchange cannot be controlled from the outside in:

Indeed it should not be sought directly. When it occurs, it will always be spontaneous. The commitment to this kind of interchange [read Creative Interchange] means that one will always seek to provide those conditions that are most favorable for this relation between individuals and peoples. These conditions are not only those prevailing in the immediate situation of interpersonal relations. The prevailing conditions of the entire culture are involved.[xxii]

One has to be open and install the necessary conditions so that Creative Interchange can happen! Wieman did not identify all possible conditions and Charlie Palmgren devoted most part of his life, after having met, studied and collaborated with Wieman, to his quest to identify those conditions and connected behaviors to enhance the probability that Creative Interchange will happen. And this is in fact also the reason that I’ve been talking for the last twenty years about the necessity of a new organizational paradigm, a new organizational culture, which I finally coined the ‘Creative Interchange’ culture, where those conditions are provided and those behaviors are sought after.

Creative Interchange and values

Where Nietzsche has a tremendous problem with the Christian values and has spend a good deal of his life inventing ‘new’ values and trying to proof that ‘his’ values were of more value than the despised Christian one’s, Henry Nelson Wieman has a more pragmatic view (and I adhere to his view):

Creative interchange creates appreciative understanding of the diverse perspectives of individuals and peoples. It also integrates these perspectives in each individual participant. Thus commitment to creative interchange is not commitment to any given systems of values. It is the commitment to what creates ever-deeper insight into the values that motivate human lives. It creates an ever more comprehensive integration of these values so far as this is possible by transforming them in such a way that they can mutually enhancing instead of mutually impoverishing and obstructive. This commitment is not to any one perspective on self and the cosmic whole of things but to an ever more comprehensive and penetrating perspective gained by integrating many perspectives. This kind of commitment is not to what is objective merely, or to what is subjective only, but to what unites the subjective and objective by interchange and communion between the two. In sum, this kind of commitment keeps the mind open to new insights concerning the ultimate determinants of good and evil. [xxiii]

I call that kind of commitment CI2: Continuous Improvement through living Creative Interchange.

Creative Interchange a natural process

 Henry Nelson Wieman goes further with his description of Creative Interchange as a natural process:

The kind of interchange between individuals and peoples calling for this kind of commitment with these consequences is here given the name of creative interchange to distinguish it from many other kinds that are opposed to it. It is that kind of interchange; perhaps better called that kind of communion, that does two things. First, it creates appreciative understanding of the perspective of the other person or other people. By perspective is meant the way the other person sees things, feels things, values things – in a word, what life means to him. This understanding of the other may be very imperfect and very limited, and it may be mistaken. But it can be more or less correct, profound, and comprehensive. If the apprehension of the perspective of the other person, and its integration with my own, did not occur with a high degree of correctness, no infant could ever acquire the culture into which it is born because his precise the way every individual comes to embody the culture which history bestows on him. [xxiv]

Therefor, I often say that we are born with that natural process of growth, Creative Interchange. And Henry Nelson Wieman made it in the next paragraph of “Commitment for Theological Inquiry’ crystal clear that this process is more than a mere interchange of facts and ideas:

This internal integration within each individual, which occurs in creative interchange, is essential to the creativity of it. Yet this creativity is always in danger of being concealed in the word ‘interchange’. Interchange provides the diverse perspectives, but they must be integrated in the personality of the individual if there is to be any creative transformation of his own perspective. When this integration occurs, it expands the range of what the individual can appreciate as good and distinguish as evil. This expansion may continue indefinitely, widening and deepening the sense of values involved in human existence. [xxv]

That’s why my Crucial Dialogue Model, that is based on Creative Interchange, has four phases: the first phase is communication, which is the interchange part of Creative interchange; the next two phases – appreciation and imagination – are the creative part of Creative Interchange and finally the fourth phase – transformation – is the creative transformation part of the Creative Interchange process. In the next paragraph of the same article, Henry Nelson Wieman explains what he means by ‘appreciative understanding’:

This integration of perspectives does not mean, necessarily, that I agree with the other person, although agreement may be attained. It does mean that I comprehend his way of valuing, even when I judge to be evil what he calls good and judge to be good what he calls evil. This creative communion with the other party, when in opposition to him, yields a greater good than agreement. It is the good of learning from the enemy. It is the good of being corrected by conflict and deepening my sense of good and evil by comprehending the values of my opponent. In the Christian tradition this is called “loving your enemies.” It saves man from the self-destructive propensity out of arrogance, tyranny, and being un-teachable. [xxvi]

 Creative Interchange and Authenticity

 One of the basic conditions that Creative Interchange needs in order to thrive is Authenticity. Therefor one has to be open and trust others; openness and trusting being the two sides of the same Authenticity coin. When one is open, one will be trusted and when one trusts the other one will be open. Henry Nelson Wieman understood that authenticity is needed:

Creative Interchange meets the deepest need of each individual because the deepest need of each is to be appreciated and understood for what he truly is and not be compelled to put on a false front and pretend to be something other than he is in order to win acceptance from others. [xxvii]

 Creative Interchange and its required conditions

Creative Interchange is greatly working if the conditions are present to make it thrive. Henry Nelson Wieman started the quest for those conditions; quest that was, as already said, continued by Charlie Palmgren, after Wieman’s death in 1975:

So far two of these required conditions have been indicated. One is that the commitment be to something that is accessible to empirical inquiry because only in such case can our commitment be corrected by what we experience. The second required condition is that our commitment be to what creates in us the most profound appreciative understanding and integration of the values that motivates the lives of others. This is required because only in this way we can learn […] more profoundly and more comprehensively.


The third condition is to practice commitment of faith at two levels. [xxviii]

The third condition is known as the two-level commitment and was expressed by Henry Nelson Wieman in the form of a prayer. Here, I prefer to stick to the interpretation given by Charlie Palmgren. He paraphrases the two-fold commitment as follows: “A commitment to act on the current bestwe know and a commitment to remain open to what in truth can transform our current best to what is better.” In fact my preferred formulae – CI2: Continuous Improvement through living Creative Interchange – is nothing more and nothing less than paraphrasing Charlie Palmgren’s interpretation of Henry Nelson Wieman’stwo-fold commitment.


Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ vs. Wieman’s ‘Creative Interchange’

For Friedrich Nietzsche, the God of Christianity is dead; to him Christianity is a religion that devalues life. For Henry Nelson Wieman, the God of Christianity is Creative Interchange, not a religion but a process that enhances life.

For both, Nietzsche and Wieman, the Christian God has become an object of study. To Nietzsche as an object of antiquity, to Wieman as an actual living reality.

For Nietzsche Jesus of Nazareth did not proof he was the Son of God and that therefor the Christian religion is a piece of antiquity. For Wieman, Jesus Christ is a (the?) role model of living Creative Interchange, the process being God. In the following paragraph Henry Nelson makes this, once more, very clear:

The creative communion between individuals and people, when lifted to a high level of dominance with saving and transfiguring power, is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Was not the revelation of God the saving and transforming power of the kind of interchange that occurred between Jesus and his disciples? The power lay neither in the man Jesus nor in any of the individuals that they transmitted from person to person and group to group and age to age. This kind of interchange is sometimes called love, but the prevailing idea of love is hopelessly inadequate to comprehend the depth and power of it. The Power of God unto salvation is the most fitting name for it.

This revelation of the saving power of God in the form of creative interchange has been called the “Word”, with a capital “W”. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. […] [xxix]

Nietzsche suggests that we have the God that we deserve and Wieman suggests that we should ultimately be committed to Creative Interchange so that we can deserve the fruits of that life giving process; thus can be said that we have the God that we deserve.

Nietzsche states that the atheism of his contemporaries is marked by creative helplessness and a lack of what he calls ‘great illusions’, and that cynicism and nihilism will be the moral traits of the future Humanity; while Wieman definitely hopes that Creative Interchange will not become a ‘great illusion’ but a ‘splendid reality’ and will play a dominant role for future Humanity.

In fact, Nietzsche underlines that not the ‘death of God’ is the truly grandiose act, but creativity; creativity which is at the heart, at the center of Wieman’s philosophy. Nietzsche stated, “the horizon has to be redrawn”, which Wieman did discovering Creative Interchange.

To Nietzsche, nihilism is a loss of meaning, as if the transmission is not done, or better, is no longer done, between individuals, mind, body, and ideals external to them; in Wiemanian terms, nihilism, could be defined as the loss of Creative Interchange and being the prisoner of one’s own Vicious Circle.

Nietzsche searched during his life to obtain a renewal of values, Wieman found that renewal of values in Creative Interchange. They both agree somehow on the definition of a value; to Nietzsche a value is only a reality if it is incarnated and carried and to Wieman “a value is a goal seeking activity.”

Nietzsche searched continuously to occupy the space liberated by the death of God; Wieman filled that void from the very start having understood that God is Creative Interchange.

Nietzsche and Wieman use very different writing styles. Nietzsche’s is atypical for a philosopher, since a succession of aphorisms and, in the case of Zarathustra a succession of sermons, speeches, and parables given by eccentric prophets, while Wieman’s style is in line with the Western philosophical tradition based on rational demonstrations and well constructed reasoning.

While Nietzsche introduces a lot of themes and concepts: the death of God, the Superhuman, the transmutation of values and the eternal return, Wieman introduces and sticks to one concept – the creative event (i.e. Creative Interchange) that encompasses all Nietzsche’s themes.

According to Nietzsche, the ‘last men’ do not deny God, because God shortens them, but because God is growing them. They prefer to spoil themselves in ease, comfort, mediocrity. In Wieman and Palmgren terminologie this reads: the ‘last man’ do not deny Creative Interchangee, because Creative Interchange shortens them, but because Creative Interchange is growing them. The last men prefer to spoil themselves in their ‘cage’ (Wieman)/’Vicious Circle’(Palmgren).

Basically, Nietzsche and Wieman have a similar goal and the same ambition; to provoke a social, cultural, organizational and institutional paradigm shift. Nietzsche wants to obtain that goal by transforming Christian morality in an “active moralism” and Wieman by giving new meaning to Christianity through the creative event, through Creative Interchange.

While Nietzsche is not afraid to praise his own work, Wieman is more humble and testifies that a lot can still be discovered about his major concept Creative Interchange. Nietzsche described his work as “the fifth gospel”, and Wieman writings are in fact the answers to his crucial question he finds during what he called his Religious Inquiry. Both bring good news, thus a gospel; in Nietzsche’s case the death of God and the rising of the Superhuman, in Wieman’s case the identification of the life transforming process which he coined Creative Interchange and men, committed to Creative Interchange, becoming each a Superhuman, not a single god, but humanity what it has the best.

Perhaps less known is that both, Nietzsche and Wieman, had a ‘link’ to Zoroastrianism in common. Of course, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is Zoroaster and dr. Martin Luther King quotes in his dissertation “A comparison of the conceptions of God in the thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman” Paul Tillich who “commented on dr. Wieman’s complete break with the Christian tradition and Greek philosophy, and characterized his position as in direct line with Zoroastrianism.” [xxx]

Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the work of Henry Nelson Wieman regarding Creative Interchange is unfinished; as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Wieman’s Creative Interchange is a promise open on the future, a path – steep – without a predefined goal; it’s a direction that we take, says Henry Nelson Wieman.


[1]“Grant God eternal rest.” A transformation of that part of the service of the death, which reads: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Lord, grant them [the dead] eternal rest).

[i]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, Translation by Josefine Nauckoff. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001, Aphorism 125: The Madman.

[ii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Human, All Too Human, A Book for Free Spirits, Translation by R.J.Hollingdale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996, Aphorism 113.

[iii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, op.cit. Aphorism 108: New Battles.

[iv]Ibid. Aphorism 343: How to understand our cheerfulness.

[v]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, The Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Translation Judith Norman. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005, page 72.

[vi]Ibid. page 150.

[vii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo: How One becomes how One Is. Translation by Thomas Wayne. Op. cit. page 91.

[viii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, The Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Translation Judith Norman. Op. cit. page 123.

[ix]Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A Book for All and None.Translated by Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Prologue 1, page 3.

[x]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, The Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Translation Judith Norman. Op. cit. page 75.

[xi]Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A Book for All and None. op. cit. Prologue 2, page 4.

[xii]Ibid.. Prologue 2, page 4-5.

[xiii]Ibid. Prologue 3, page 5.

[xiv]Ibid. Prologue 5, page 9-10.

[xv]Wieman, Henry, Nelson. Religious Experience and Scientific Method, New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1926. Page 9.

[xvi]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America ®, Inc. Reprint, Originally published: Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958. Page 3

[xvii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment, op.cit. Page 4.

[xviii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. The Source of Human Good.Originally published: Chicago, ILL : University of Chicago Press, 1946. Atlanta, GA : Scholars Press, 1995. Pages 39-41.

[xix]Ibid. page 41.

[xx]Ibid. Page 44

[xxi]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Seeking the Faith for a New Age. Essays on the Interdependence of Religion, Science and Philosphy. Edited and Introduced by Heppler, Cedric. L. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1975. Page 159.

[xxii]Ibid. Page 136.

[xxiii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Journal of Religion, Vol. XLII (July, 1962) N°3, pp. 171-184, page 176.

[xxiv]Ibid. Page 177.



[xxvii]Ibid.Page 179.


[xxix]Ibid. pp. 177-178.

[xxx] I, Introduction, Statement of the Problem.


Part Two: The Free Spirit


Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit”

Friedrich Nietzsche introduces the “Free Spirit” in ‘Human, All Too Human’, it’s subtitle being ‘A book for Free Spirits’. What resonates with me the most is Nietzsche’s take on the “Free Spirit”: one “who goes against the herd”, and “onwards along the path of wisdom” in order to “improve society.”

So, what does this mean, a “Free Spirit”? Nietzsche has first of all in mind the prototype of the“Enlightenment”philosopher, the ‘enlightened’ spirit who fights moral prejudices, religious fanaticism, superstition and arbitrariness of political power. By the way ‘Human, All Too Human’ is dedicated, in a significant way, to the memory of Voltaire on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his death. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche will retrospectively say that by introducing the figure of the “Free Spirit” the goal was to “emancipate from a foreign body”, and this foreign body is idealism.

“Human, All-Too-Human” is the monument of a crisis. It calls itself a book for free spirits: almost every sentence in it expresses a victory — with this same book I freed myself of that which did not belongto my nature. Idealism does not belong to me: the title says, “Where you see ideal things, I see — things human, alas all-too-human!”…I know humanity better…In no other sense is the term “free spirit” to be understood here: a spirit that has become free, that has once again taken possession of itself.[i]

Nietzsche describes his underground approach very suggestively? This approach is undermining, methodical and irresistible and overcomes all idols, all ideals sanctified by the European culture whether in matters of morality, philosophy, religion or art, holiness, genius, moral superiority, essence, the absolute, etcetera… :

If one looks more closely, one discovers a merciless spirit that knows all the hideouts where the ideal is at home — where it has its castle keeps and final security, as it were. With a torch in hand that gives off absolutely no “torch and go” light, with a penetrating brightness this netherworldof the ideal is brought to light. It is war, but war without powder and smoke, without warlike poses, without pathos and dislocated limbs — all this would itself still be “idealism.” One error after another is put on ice, the ideal is no longer opposed — itfreezes…Here, for example, “the genius” freezes; a little ways further “the saint” freezes; beneath a thick icicle “the hero” freezes; in conclusion “faith” freezes, so-called “conviction” freezes; “pity” also cools down considerably — almost everywhere “the thing-in-itself” freezes…[ii]

“The thing-in-itself” is an allusion to the Kantian philosophy which, although critical and embodying the spirit of the Enlightenment par excellence, does not manage to permanently expel the last vestiges of a metaphysical thought, and continues to postulate an essence of things, beyond their simple appearance. So, if Nietzsche salutes the emancipatory momentum prompted by the Enlightenment, he warned against a criticism that would not go until the end, until its last consequences. A criticism that would depend still too much on dualistic thought patterns and the Christian matrix (there is a good, there is a bad; there is an essence, there are appearances; there is a relational, there are absolutes). The risk of an incomplete critique being to replace one thought content with another, without calling into question the type of thought, its hidden springs; the danger being basically to replace an idealism by another idealism, God by Man, Faith by Reason, a dogmatic belief by an equally dogmatic atheism. To Nietzsche, professed atheism by his contemporaries is very often an idealism which ignores itself. One of the figures of this atheism is, according to Nietzsche, the “Free Thinker” (“der Freidenker”) who he resolutely opposes to the “Free Spirit” (“der Freigeist” or “Freie Geist”) – one should be careful not to confuse those two!

One of the characteristics of the “Free Spirit” is its ability to break with cultural habits and to escape from the pernicious constraint of tradition:

Free Spirit a relative concept– He is called a free spirit who thinks differently from what, on the basis of his origin, environment, his class and profession, or on the basis of the dominant views of the age, would have been expected of him. He is the exception, the fettered spirits are the rule [ … ] – In any event, however, what characterizes the free spirit is not that his opinions are the more correct but that he has liberated himself from tradition, whether the outcome has been successful or a failure. As a rule, though, he will nonetheless have truth on his side, or at least the spirit of inquiry after truth: he demands reasons, the rest demand faith.[iii]

So, Nietzsche says that the criterion is not the correctness of the vision, nor the success of the enterprise, but rather the desire to emancipate and the pulling force that imply a courage and an increase of energy of which only a few are capable. And this will and force are constantly needed to break the lethargy of cultural evidence that constantly threatens to lull individuals into a prefabricated, stereotypical thought. In other words, the “Free Spirit” wants to break free from its cultural cage. Nietzsche uses in another passage of ‘Human, All Too Human’, a metaphor, that of  “The spider’s web”, in which habits surround us, imprison us. The “Free Spirit” must hate habits, rules, norms, conventions,  as so many intellectual laziness, narcotics that anesthetize the body as well as the mind. And this wrenching is painful because it’s actually a kind of self-mutilation. It is of one’s self that one must eradicate routines and inheritances. Bad habits, they lodged themselves in all the fibers of our body, in every nook and cranny of our brain:

That is why the free spirit hates all habituation and rules, everything enduring and definitive, that is why he sorrowfully again and again rends apart the net that surrounds him: even though he will as a consequence suffer numerous great and small wounds – for he has to rend those threads from himself, from his own body and soul. [iv]

Nietzsche uses a German term that characterizes the breaking attitude of the “Free Spirit” – or whoever aspires to be, for the mind is never free immediately, spontaneously; it is a “spirit becoming free” says Nietzsche, and becoming free continuously. The term that characterizes this attitude – its positioning marginal or out of step with the mainstream of the time, with the doxa – is  the term: “unzeitgemäß”. “Unzeitgemäß” literally means “who is not in conformity with the present time “, with the time, which is out of step, thus inopportune, untimely. Nietzsche loves this word and idea, and gives the elements of definition, of what he means by unzeitgemäß:

It was thus truly roving through wishes to imagine I might discover a true philosopher as an educator who could raise me above my insufficiencies insofar as these originated in the age and teach me again to be simpleand honestin thought and life, that is to say to be untimely, that word understood in the profoundest sense; for men have now become so complex and many-sided they are bound to become dishonest whenever they speak at all, make assertions and try to act in accordance with them.[v]

The “Free Spirit” does not live a comfortable life and he does not really care. To him, the essential factor of living close to his needs lies in the intensity that this lived experience brings him; a life that is attentive to its own laws of development:

[The Free Spirit] will, to be sure, destroy his earthly happiness through his courage; he will have to be an enemy to those he loves and to the institutions which have produced him; he may not spare men or things, even though he suffers when they suffer; he will be misunderstood and for long thought an ally of powers he abhors; however much he may strive after justice he is bound, according to the human limitations of his insight, to be unjust: but he may console himself with the words once employed by his great teacher, Schopenhauer: “A happy life is impossible: the highest that man can attain to is a heroic one.” [vi]

The “Free Spirit” is therefore untimely. Not only out of step with its time, but even more so, as suggested by this quote, contrary to his time, against his time. Why this radicality? Because, according to Nietzsche, it is necessary not only to challenge such and such aspects of its culture (for example: a trait of the German mentality, Bismarck’s government policy, a literary fashion), but more generally and more fundamentally to reverse the hierarchy of values ​​prevailing within the German and even European culture.

The inadequacy of the “Free Spirit” with its culture must be reduced, Nietzsche hopes, in a future time. In fact, Nietzsche very often refers to the “philosopher of the future” who, finally, will be understood by subsequent generations. Meanwhile, the “Free Spirit” is condemned to be misunderstood, condemnation that he accepts willingly,  according to Nietzsche, as an elector sign of its exceptionality:

We incomprehensible ones– Have we ever complained about being misunderstood, misjudged, misidentified, defamed, misheard, and ignored? This is precisely our lot– oh , for a long time yet! Let’s say until 1901, to be modest – this is also our distinction; we wouldn’t honor ourselves enough if we wanted it otherwise.[vii]

How ironic that Nietzsche evokes the year 1901 – he who died in 1900. As he wrote in Ecce Homo: “My time has not yet come, some people are born posthumous”[viii] and in the preface of the AntiChrist: “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some people are born posthumously.”[ix] So, the “Free Spirit” is also untimely in its relation to the past, even to history. Basically, the “Free Spirit” is inactual by default, although he would like to be deeply actual; he aspires to shape the culture of the future. The “Free Spirit” must face the reality of life whatever the narcissistic wounds it causes. Nietzsche rejects idealistic worldviews, he accepts the share of cruelty, inequality, absurdities. What does life hold? According to Nietzsche, it basically accepts the Dionysian part which constitutes it and which animates all existence. To be able to accept that is to be intellectually honest and have courage. Knowledge remains an ideal, in fact, for Nietzsche, but an ideal for the strong, for the “Free Spirit”:

The final, most joyful, most excessively – exuberant yes to life is not only the highest insight, it is also the deepest, the one most strictly confirmed and supported by truth and science. Nothing is to be neglected, nothing is to be dispensed with — those aspects of life which Christians and other nihilists reject are of an even higher order in the ranking order of values than those, which the decadence-instinct might think good and call good. To grasp this requires courage and, as a condition of that, an excess of strength: for exactly as far as courage dares to venture forward, exactly to that degree one approaches the truth. Knowledge, the yea-saying to reality is just as much a necessity to the strong as cowardice and the flight from reality — the “ideal” — is to the weak, inspired by weakness…[x]

“How much truth can a spirit endure, how much can it dare?”[xi] It’s a question Nietzsche asks in Ecce Homo and which indicates the criterion of what is a “Free Spirit”. Truth, in this quote, does not mean, it has been well understood, an ideal of truth, but the capacity to accept reality as it is. The ideal of knowledge that animates the “Free Spirit” is not the quest for truth, with a great T – the truth as absolute knowledge, closed, definitive – for  Nietzsche it is the “gay knowledge” or “Gay Science.”  The formula seems to hold an oxymoron. This becomes even clearer when we look at the original language: in German, the work is entitled “Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft”: “The Joyous, Gay Science”.  How to interpret this idea of ​​”The Gay Science”? There is at first a form of provocation, the will to take the opposite of the German university philosophy and in particular that which is its core target: the “Idealist” philosophy, represented by Kant, Hegel or Fichte. The goal of these thinkers was precisely to make philosophy an absolute knowledge. Now, to Nietzsche, this science is anything but joyful, anything but liberating or light;  it encloses the individual in complex, oppressive, closed systems. Systems who, in the end, fail to satisfy the legitimate thirst for knowledge, that the human being feels, and which restrains his need for freedom. In place of this heavy science, Nietzsche therefore claims a joyful science. To what extent can science, knowledge, be joyful? Why should they be so, by the way? Because knowledge, to Nietzsche, must be considered for what it is: the product of a lived experience, of an experimentation, still in progress, which allows to adopt a multiplicity of points of view on the existence, and thus to give a greater amplitude to this existence. Life is not always joyful, of course, but the certainty, viscerally tested, of being able to draw from moments of exaltation, enjoyment, to be able to move upwards, inseparable from downward movements, inclined to a form of confidence, lightness, and serenity.  Nietzsche uses in many places of his work a specific word for this quiet state of assurance: the word “Heiterkeit”, which is translated in different ways in English: serenity, but also joy, good mood, serene mood, like a clear sky. The adjective “heiter” qualifies, in German, a sky which no cloud obscures. And indeed, Nietzsche often makes this association between the state of the sky and his own state of mind. A serene sky is to him more and more indispensable, a condition of physical and mental health. Well, Nietzsche will find this sky, this favorable climate, in Genoa, Italy, during the winter of 1881-1882, which are months of calmness on the front of his disease and where he will write most of the Gay Science – in particular during the month of January, 1882. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche returns to the genesis of Gay Science, six years later, in passing this biographical detail:

“Daybreak” is a yea-saying book, deep, but bright and kind. The same applies once more and in the highest degree to the gaya scienza: in almost every sentence of this book profoundness and playfulness go softly hand in hand. A verse, which expresses my thankfulness for the most wonderful month of January I have ever experienced – the whole book is a gift – sufficiently reveals from out of what depths the “science” here has become gay:

You who with a fiery spear

Melt the ice of my soul,

So that it roars down to the sea

Rushing toward its highest hope:

Ever brighter and even healthier,

Free in most loving necessity —

Thus it praises your wonders

Fairest January [xii]

“Profoundness and playfulness goes softly hand in hand,” says Nietzsche nicely in this quote: it is, again, the idea that lightness is acquired at the price of many experiments, at the price of a wrenching out of gravity; a wrenching sometimes painful, but whose pain ends up being overcome. We can be happy and deep, it is not contradictory, it is even probably complementary.

So what the“gaya scienza”says is that life is the source of our values and not the truth. This makes me think of a famous quote of Parker Palmer:

“Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” [xiii]

The drive and affective determinations are paramount, it is they who produce the thoughts and various interpretations of reality. And among these impulses, Nietzsche values ​​those that stimulate creativity, pugnacity, and self-transcendence.

In the aphorism §324 of Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

‘Life as a means to knowledge’ — with this principle in one’s heart one can not only live bravely but also live gaily and laugh gaily![xiv]

We tried in this part to make a small inventory, non-exhaustive, of the main features of the “Free Spirit”: he/she has the strength and the courage to break with traditions, forms of cultural habituation, even, and especially, with the habits who have insinuated themselves into their own fibers; it is an untimely spirit, who navigates against the current, who puts an offbeat and is skeptical regarding his time, which abstains from all hypes; it is a viscerally anti-idealistic mind, who considers that ideals are inventions designed to divert us from life; it is a light spirit, because it has been able to emancipate itself from the authority prohibitions and absolutes (political, religious or moral), light also because he/she is the bearer of a “gay knowing” (the fact that life is an experiment and that it belongs to him/her, the free spirit, to be the active subject of knowledge and to set one’s own scale of values). Let’s finally add that the free spirit understands that one can only acquire all these features, in struggle, trial and error, falling and rising up and mostly in loneliness.


Henry Nelson Wieman’s view on Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit”: the “Creative Self”

Nietzsche’s point of view of the “Free Spirit” brings me to Henry Nelson Wieman’stake on the “Creative Self”. Warning: what I’ll write in the sections of this essay regarding Henry Nelson Wieman are my interpretations of Nelson Wieman’s philosophy based on some of his books and, mainly, of what I’ve learned through the help of my mentor, Charles Leroy ‘Charlie’ Palmgren, whose mentor precisely was Henry Nelson Wieman:

In 1966, Wieman met and formed a working relationship with Dr. Erle Fitz, a practicing psychiatrist, and Dr. Charlie Palmgren. Together, the three founded the Center for Creative InterChange. Fitz, Palmgren, and Wieman met regularly in Wieman’s home to focus on how creative interchange could be the basis for psychotherapy, applied behavioral sciences, and organizational development. After Wieman’s death in 1975, Palmgren continued to nurture the creative interchange philosophy, identifying the conditions necessary for the CI process to occur and developing tools to help people remove the barriers to those conditions. [xv]

Charlie Palmgren puts it this way:

We were born with our Creative Self and we are conditioned into a created self. Our Creative Self enters the world aware. That awareness is conditioned into a conscious created-self. They are not two “separate selves.” They are two aspects of the same self. Unfortunately, in the conditioning process most of us end up being conscious of and identifying with the conscious aspect of our Creative Self. In short, we become conscious at the expense of remaining aware of our awareness.[xvi]

Indeed, Henry Nelson Wieman underlines the importance of being and staying aware. Awareness is obtained through observation of reality. To understand this ‘reality’ awareness is combined with consciousness:

All observation involves sense experience, but it is sense experience combined with some interpretation. This interpretation may bring into action the resources gathered by a lifetime devoted to absorbing thousands of years of culture combined with emerging insights rising out of profound struggles to find the way of life for humankind. [xvii]

The “Creative Self” is, to Wieman, aware and conscious and holds itself subject to correction and receptive to ever-deeper insights that may help to save him from a misdirected commitment. Awareness and Consciousness are both needed. In Wieman’s words: Sense experience (Awareness) is interpreted (Consciousness) in context. In other words awareness is giving meaning by the way the individual interprets it. This interpretation is done using one’s individual mindset. So, the ‘Creative Self’, who transforms the created self, is my interpretation of what Nietzsche calls the ‘Free Spirit’. This “Creative Self” is not the prisoner of the Vicious Circle” as the “Free Spirit” is not a prisoner of its foreign body(or “the spiders web”). Both, the Vicious Circleand the foreign body are metaphors for the actual created self. The “Creative Self” should continuously transform this created self towards the Original Self. Wieman writes that man is made for this creative transformation:

Man is made for creative transformation as a bird is made for flight. To be sure he is in a cage much of the time. The bars of the cage are the resistances to creative transformation, which are present in himself and in the world round about. Also, like most birds long confined, he settles down in time     and loses both the desire and the ability to undergo creative transformation. But in childhood creativity dominates. The mind expands its range of knowledge and power of control, its appreciative understanding of other minds and its participation in cultural heritage. At no other time there is so much expansion and enrichment of the mind and the world, which the mind can appreciate. But resistances are encountered which bring on anxiety, frustration, failure and misunderstanding. To avoid suffering, the mind becomes evasive and creativity dies down. The bird ceases to beat against the bars of the cage.[xviii]

This means that the “Creative Self” is in the cage of its created self much of the time. Charlie Palmgren has identified this cage and coined it the Vicious Circle:

Consider the following logic spiral. When an adult’s demands are disrupted, frustration sets in. If the demands are important enough, or if such disruption occurs repeatedly, stress erupts, and the adult fight-or-flight emotions of anxiety, hostility, shame and blame are triggered. Once caught in this negativity, the adult begins to reject herself and her own behavior.  Because such rejection is in direct violation of her sense of worth, the cycle begins again of conditional worth, striving to overcome inadequacy, gaming, demands and expectations, frustration and stress. This is the vicious circle. And unfortunately, we are all caught in it to varying degrees at various times in our lives.[xix]

When we are locked up in our Vicious Circle, we are disconnected from our Intrinsic Worth. Charlie Palmgren beliefs that this human worth is the capacity to participate in transforming creativity [i.e. Creative Interchange]:

Human worth is our potential to continually expand what any one of us can know, appreciate, imagine and do. We are designed especially for this transformative process – just as the eagle was designed for flight. The ability to learn, grow, change, develop, imagine, and discover is what constitutes our human worth and fulfills the purpose of our design. While our worth originates in this capacity, we live out of our worth by engaging in transforming creativity. In this way, human worth is both about “being” and “doing”.[xx]

Our purpose should be to continually transform our created self towards our Original Selfthrough our “Creative Self. In order to be able to do so, we must be committed to the transformative process, to Creative Interchange; and in order to commit ourselves to creative interchange, three conditions should, according to Henry Nelson Wieman, be met:

The first of these three required conditions is not in itself sufficient. It is one necessary condition when taken in conjunction with the other two. It is the requirement that worshipful commitment be directed to what is accessible to empirical inquiry. […]

A second condition must be met if worship is to combine ultimate commitment with a mind open to correction and continuous inquiry. The commitment must be to what creates in me appreciative understanding of the basic values motivating the lives of other people with whom I deal. […] When ultimate commitment is given to this creative kind of interchange, my mind is open to new insights, to learning, to correction, and to inquiry […]

The third condition required for an ultimate commitment combining the most complete self-giving with a mind open to inquiry and subject to correction is to practice commitment to creative interchange on two levels. […] If one can be mistaken, there is a truth that can be missed. This is the certainty sustaining the two-level commitment, giving it a foundation at the deeper level more secure than any other. […] In the two-level commitment one is committed to the good, win or lose. […][xxi]

I love Charlie Palmgren’s paraphrase of Wieman’s two-level commitment:

The Original [Creative] Self and the created self can become integrated into a whole self that is both being and becoming. You can be a chicken and an eagle […]

To integrate our self and become mutually supportive of others who are being [becoming] their original selves, we must practice a two-fold commitment. It isn’t enough to be committed to being and doing our best to be open to change, growth, and transformation. It isn’t sufficient to be committed to ongoing learning and transformation if we’re unwilling to be and act on the best we now know.[xxii]

So, Henry Nelson Wieman spoke of the need for two levels of commitment. I like to present those two levels this way, making a synergy between the definitions of Henry Nelson and Charlie:

  1. On the first level we should commit ourselves to the best we now know (empirically, scientifically, experientially) about the source of human good, the “Creative Self”; to that which transforms human life by expanding the range of what we know, appreciate, imagine and control from the inside-out; and
  2. On the second and deeper level, we must finally (ultimately in the words of Henry Nelson Wieman) be committed to whatever it is that in fact transforms human life in the direction of the better, no matter how different that operating reality, which is creative interchange, may be from our ideas about it.

So our interpretation of Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit” is Wieman’s “Creative Self”, who is committed to be and act on the best he/she now knows and stays open to the transforming power of Creative Interchange in order to upgrade that best he/she now knows. So the “Creative Self” is Authentic and Humble, stays open and trusts Creative Interchange, which is, to me, Yoda’sForce; “May the Force be with you!”


Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit” vs. Wieman’s “Creative Self”

Both – the “Free Spirit” and the “Creative Self” – are what Nietzsche called ‘inactual’ and therefor do not live a comfortable life. And both do not really care since both know that their lived experience will develop them to a ‘higher’ level. Both know that one has to break “the spider web” of habits.

To become a “Free Spirit” and to live from your “Creative Self”, both, Nietzsche and Wieman underline that courage is needed. Wieman add a second characteristic, which is, I assume, not Nietzsche’s cup of tea: humility. Being “untimely” means for Nietzsche: “being again to be simple and honest in thought and life”, which combines the ideas of being authentic and humble of Henry Nelson Wieman.

Both the “Free Spirit” and the “Creative Self” aspire to shape the future. Nietzsche and Wieman understood that the inadequacy of the “Free Spirit” c.q. “Creative Self” with its culture must be reduced. Therefor a transformation of the culture – a culture paradigm shift – is needed.

Friedrich Nietzsche very often refers to the “philosopher of the future”. I hope you’ll understand by now that to me that philosopher is Henry Nelson Wieman.

To Nietzsche and Wieman, knowledge must be considered for what it is: the product of a lived experience, of an experimentation, still in progress, which allows to adopt a multiplicity of points of view on the existence, and thus to give a greater amplitude to this existence by obtaining wisdom.

Both, Nietzsche and Wieman reject idealistic worldviews, they accept the reality of cruelty, inequality and absurdities. Nietzsche states that profoundness and playfulness goes hand in hand, while Wieman states that “We have to live richly with dark realities.” [xxiii]

While Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit” has once again taken position of itself, Wieman’s ‘Creative Self’ evolves the created self in the direction of the “Original Self”; so Wieman’s “Creative Self” is capable of creating – once again – the “Original Self”, the Self we’re born.


[i]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo: How One becomes how One Is. Translation by Thomas Wayne. New York, NY; Algora Publishing, 2004, p. 58.

[ii]Ibid. pp. 58-59.

[iii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Human, All Too Human, A Book for Free Spirits, Translation by R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996, Aphorism 225.

[iv]Ibid. Aphorism 427.

[v]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Untimely Meditations, Translation by R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997, Schopenhauer as Educator, p. 133.

[vi]Ibid., page 153

[vii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Gay Science, Translation by Josefine Nauckoff. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001, Aphorism 371

[viii]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo: How One becomes how One Is. Op. cit. p. 40.

[ix]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The AntiChrist: A  Curse on Christianity. Translation by Thomas Wayne. New York, NY; Algora Publishing, 2004, page 101.

[x]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo: How One becomes how One Is. Op. cit. p. 50.

[xi]Ibid. p. 8.

[xii]Ibid. p. 66.

[xiii]Palmer, Parker J. Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2000, Chapter 1, p. 5.

[xiv]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Gay Science, Op. cit. Aphorism 324, p. 181.


[xvi]Palmgren, Charles.

[xvii]Wieman, Henry, Nelson. Commitment for Theological Inquiry, Journal of Religion, Vol XLII (July, 1962) No. 3, pp. 171-184.

[xviii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment.Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958. p. 72.

[xix]Hagan, Stacie and Palmgren, Charlie. The Chicken Conspiracy. Breaking the Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore, MA: Recovery Communications, Inc. 1998, p. 77.

[xx]Ibid. p. 21.

[xxi]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Seeking the Faith for a New Age. Essays on the Interdependence of Religion, Science and Philosphy. Edited and Introduced by Heppler, Cedric. L. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1975. pp. 134-142.

[xxii]Palmgren, Charlie. Ascent of the Eagle. Being and Becoming your Best.Dayton, OH: Innovative InterChange Press, 2008. p. 129.

[xxiii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. Op. cit. pp. 56-77.


Part One – Introduction


How I ‘met’ Nietzsche and Wieman

In this essay I’ll treat some concepts of two philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry Nelson Wieman, who both have influenced my thinking.

Let me start by stating that I’m not a philosopher myself. During the publication process of my latest book I liked to call myself a ‘thought philosopher’, but my publisher refused to put this into print on the back cover of ‘Cruciale dialogen’. This because, to him, I had no right to call myself a philosopher (having not done the proper studies); so I switched to the label: ‘thought engineer’ (being a civil engineer twice and doing a lot of thinking, I assumed I could do that)[i]. So, I’m not a philosopher and did not study philosophy at all; nevertheless I have been intrigued by Friedrich Nietzsche and strongly influenced by Henry Nelson Wieman.

I was introduced to Friedrich Nietzsche through reading Milan Kundera’s bestseller ‘The unbearable lightness of being’[ii] in which he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche and uses the German proverb: “Einmal ist keinmal’. Gallimard first published this book in 1984, although originally written in Czech two years before, in French: ‘L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être’. I bought this French edition in Paris in the fall of that year and I enjoyed it that much that I read it in one sitting.

The phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is Kundera’s own, but to understand it one actually has to start with Friedrich Nietzsche and the idea of eternal return. Eternal return is the idea that our universe and our existence has occurred an infinite number of times in the past, and will continue to occur ad infinitum. In this theory, time is cyclical rather than linear. The idea of eternal return is an ancient one, but Nietzsche popularized it for modern times. That’s why the narrator of Unbearable Lightness refers to it as Nietzsche’s concept. Nietzsche explored what the consequences of such eternal return would be. In his eyes, eternal return was das schwerste Gewicht, or “the heaviest weight.” It was a petrifying concept to imagine that our lives have been and will continue to be repeated endlessly. But one could learn, through philosophy, to love the idea. The proper mind can embrace this weight, rather than be terrified by it. Nietzsche seems to conclude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we must live and act as though our lives functioned in eternal return, suggesting that we give our own lives meaning and weight by behaving this way. Kundera argues that Nietzche was wrong and states: “Human time does not turn in a circle,” he argues; “it runs ahead in a straight line”. This is where Kundera’s use of the phrase einmal ist keinmal comes into the picture. And Tomas, one of the main characters of the book, translates this for us: “What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”. Nietzsche said that eternal return gives our lives the heaviest weight. So if our lives only occur once, it must mean – according to Kundera – that they are filled with lightness.

For what it’s worth, let me express my view on Kundera’s argument. I agree: ‘Einmal ist Keinmal’; you simply cannot live two lives in parallel. I cannot, at the same time, be married to Rita and be single. The consequence of this fact is that I cannot compare those two ‘lives’ the moment of the decision and throughout my whole married life, neither can Rita. Regarding Kundera’s question: “Is ‘being’ light or unbearable?” the only right answer is, as I learned from my mentor Charlie Palmgren, since the question is a ‘or’ question: YES![iii] Finally I really can’t say Amen to Kundera’s statement “that because we cannot judge we are not responsible for the consequences of our decisions.” To me we definitely are responsible for those consequences and what’s more they become bearable if we live Creative Interchange from within. In other words we should stay aware of the unfolding of our lives and take the right measures and decisions when needed. Let me be clear: we are responsible for our actions, period.

Beginning this year, 2018, I enrolled in a MOOC course: “Introduction à la Philosophie de Friedrich Nietzsche” proposed by the University of Sorbonne (Paris). During this course it struck me that Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy made me almost continuously think of Henry Nelson Wieman’s Creative Interchange. At the end of the course I got the idea to write this essay.

I was introduced to Henry Nelson Wieman in the early nineties of last century through my mentor Charlie Palmgren. At that time Charlie was one of the two senior consultants of Daryl Conner’s ODR. It happened during a five day course in the fall of 1992 in Atlanta’s Swissotell. Charlie labeled Wieman’s Creative Interchange process in those years the Synergistic Process, although he called it, ‘off the record’, by its genuine name: Creative Interchange and disclosed at the same time the name of its discoverer: Henry Nelson Wieman, who had been his mentor. I became a follower of Charlie Palmgren in 1994 and learned more about Creative Interchange and slowly started to live it. In January 1995 I attended a conference “From Drift to Direction’ (as the title of chapter 2 of Henry Nelson Wieman’s book ‘Man’s Ultimate Commitment’[iii]) and learned more about the Religious Philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman. I did not dig deep in the overall philosophy of Henry Nelson though; appreciatively understanding and living Creative Interchange from within stayed my focus. So the Wieman part of this essay is essentially built on my actual understanding and living of Creative Interchange thanks to my mentor Charlie Palmgren, whith whom I still have regularly Skype meetings around Creative Interchange.


Philosophers of Religion

The two philosophers had a particular relation towards religion. Friedrich Nietzsche(1844-1900), the German philosopher, is still famous for his attempts to unmask the motives that underlie Western religion, crystalized by his observation: “God is dead”[iv].

Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975), the American philosopher of Religion, is known for discovering and coining the unique living process of transformation we’re all born with: “Creative Interchange”[v], which rings to me as “God is alive and kicking”. Indeed, Wieman’s God is transpersonal but not supernatural, it’s a process within the universe rather than the universal creator.  So for Wieman, God is the character of the universe – creating, integrating, transforming into greater wholes of greater value.

Friedrich Nietzsche taught philology at the University of Basel (1869-1877) and had to take leave due to serious health problems.  Most of his work at the university was in philology although he was very interested in philosophy. Nevertheless, his plan to pursue a (second) ph. D. in philosophy was cancelled due to his unforeseen appointment at the University of Basel. 

Henry Nelson Wieman taught at many universities: philosophy at Occidental College in Los Angeles (1917-1927), professor of philosophy and religion at the Divinity School of University of Chicago (1927-1947) and philosophy at Southern Illinois University (1956-1966).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran minister and Friedrich himself published during his leave from university of Basel ‘Human, All too Human’ (1878) introducing his readers to corrosive attacks on Western Religion for which he became famous.

Henry Nelson Wieman’s father was a Presbyterian minister and Henry Nelson planned for a career in journalism, but in 1907 he had an epiphany that sealed his new vocation and he became first minister himself and later professor in philosophy.

So both young man were raised in a clerical atmosphere and family and social intercourse compelled both to religious practices and the pursuit of theological studies. Nietzsche detached himself being a young adult and left the Burschenschaft and switched from the study of theology to philology, while Wieman continued troughout his whole life what he called his “Religious Inquiry”.


Their Epiphany Experiences  

Friedrich Nietzsche had his ‘epiphany experience’ in August 1881 in Sils-Maria, in the Swiss Alps. In ‘the middle of life’, like Dante, he walked down the wooded Alpine slope and entered his own Inferno. On the anniversary of long-buried loss and pain, his psyche was temporarily flooded by archetypal imagery. From the turbulent and frightful experience, a symbol of transfiguration emerged in the shape of Eternal Return. To Nietzsche an Epiphany is to be understood as a ‘monumental’ great moment that leave a lasting impression and are striking for their perfection:

That the great moments in the struggle of the human individual constitute a chain, that this chain unites mankind across the millennia like a range of human mountain peaks, that the summit of such a long-ago moment shall be for me still living, bright and great – that is the fundamental idea of faith in humanity which finds expression in the demand for a monumental history.[vi]

Henry Nelson Wieman enrolled in Park College, as both his parents before him, intending to become a journalist and right before graduation in 1907, he had an epiphany that would shape the rest of his life:

“I came to my room after the evening meal and sat alone looking at the sunset over the Missouri River. Suddenly it came over me that I should devote my life to the problems of religious inquiry. I never had a more ecstatic experience. I could not sleep all night and walked in that ecstasy for days.”[vii]

Although he had little interest in becoming a minister, he then enrolled in San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California, and later attended Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. and started his quest to solve the problems of religious inquiry, which ultimately brought him to discover Creative Interchange.


[i]Roels Johan, Cruciale dialogen, Het dagdagelijks beleven van ‘Creatieve wisselwerking’[Crucial dialogues, the daily living of creative interchange]. Antwerpen-Apeldoorn: Garant, 2012.  Back cover.

[ii]Kundera Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1984.

[iii]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America ®, Inc. Reprint, Originally published: Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958, pp. 36-55.

[iv]Nietzsche first used the term ‘God is dead’ in the Madman, aphorism 125 of the Gay Science [Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science.Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 119-120].

Haven’t you not heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern hours and ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!”… “Where is God?” he cried; “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers.”… “ God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

[v]Wieman’s doctoral thesis ‘The Organization of Interests’can be seen as the seedbed for the basic principle of his naturalistic metaphysics – the creative event – as exemplified in creativity as creative interchange. Wieman analyzed creative interchange brilliantly in important books as The Source of Human Good, Man’s Ultimate Commitmentand Religious Inquiry: Some explorations [Wieman, Henry Nelson. The Organization of Interests, Originally presented as the author’s thesis (Ph. D. – Harvard University, Department of Philosophy, 1917), Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.; Edited by Hepler, Cedric Lambeth, 1985, pp. iii-iv].





In these series of columns I’m using a lot of paragraphs of “Beyond The Self’[i] and add comments regarding the links I see with the Creative Interchange process. To me, Creative Interchange, is a process of inner transformation – and after reading this book I add – not only through dialogue, also through meditation. I’ve put my comments between vertical brackets and in italic. These series will give you a good insight of the content of the book and I recommend you to read and comment this brilliant book yourself.






What is the unconscious? For the Buddhist monk the most profound aspect of consciousness is alert presence. In Buddhism there is the concept of habitual tendencies that are opaque to our awareness. For Buddhism, the deepest, most fundamental aspect of consciousness is this sun-like awareness, not the murky unconsciousness. [I’m always distinguishing awareness and consciousness as follows: awareness is crystal clear consciousness, while what here is called unconsciousness is, to me, colored consciousness – i.e. coloring or interpreting of what is observed through crystal clear consciousness or sun-like awareness.]

Usually we are not aware of the rules that govern the interpretation of sensory signals, the construction of our percepts, or the logic according to which we learn, decide, associate, and act. [This logic is using my Crucial Dialogue Model: observe and interpret (i.e. learn), feel, associate and imagine (i.e. create), decide and finally act… followed by … starting all over again; and indeed we are usually not aware of what I call the Crucial Dialogue Model.]

Abundant evidence indicates that attentional mechanisms play a crucial role in controlling access to consciousness. When attended to, most signals from our senses can reach the level of conscious awareness. It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that signals permanently excluded from conscious processing as well as transitorily excluded signals such as nonattended sensory stimuli still have a massive impact on our behavior. In addition, these unconscious signals can control attentional mechanisms and thereby determine which of the stored memories or sensory signals will be attended and transferred to the level of conscious processing.

The phenomenon of change blindness, the inability to detect local changes in two images presented in quick succession, demonstrates impressively our inability to attend to and consciously process all features of an image simultaneously.

Perception is actually not as holistic as it appears to be. We scan complex scenes serially, and actually much of what we seem to perceive we are in fact reconstructing from memory. It appears also that we are not always capable of controlling which contents enter consciousness.

Wolf considers the workspace of consciousness as the highest and most integrated level of brain function. Access to this workspace is privileged and controlled by attention. Moreover, the rules governing conscious deliberations such as consciously made decisions most likely differ from those of subconscious processes. The former are based mainly on rational, logical or syntactic rules, and the search for solutions is essentially a serial process. Arguments and facts are scrutinized one by one and possible outcomes investigated. [Makes me think of a tool I’ve used a zillion times in my Safety years: Root Cause Analysis] Hence conscious processing takes time. Subconscious mechanisms seem to rely more on parallel processing, whereby a large number of neuronal assemblies, each which represents a particular solution, enter into competition with one another. Then a “winner-takes-all” algorithm leads to the stabilization of the assembly that fits the actual context of distributed activity patterns. [Which makes me think of a phenomenon I disliked a zillion times in my Safety years: Jump to Conclusion or Groupthink] Thus, the conscious mechanism is suited best to circumstances in which no time pressure exists, when not too many variables have to be considered, and when the variables are defined with sufficient precision to be subjected to rational analysis. The domains of subconscious processing are situations requiring fast responses or conditions where large numbers of undetermined variables have to be considered simultaneously and weighed against variables that have no or only limited access to conscious processing, such as the wealth of implicit knowledge and heuristics, vague feelings, and hidden motives or drives.

The outcome of such subconscious processes manifests itself in either immediate behavioral responses or what are called “gut feelings”. [The “problem” with Jump to Conclusion or Groupthink is that the “solution” or behavioral response is at first sight the “right” one and after a while – humans being lazy – Jump to conclusion becomes a habit… until…]

What is said above corresponds with what Daniel Kahneman explains in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.[ii]Although we are generally convinced that we are rational, our decisions, economic or otherwise, are often irrational and strongly influenced by our immediate gut feelings, emotions and situations to which we have been exposed immediately before taken a decision. Intuition is a highly adaptable faculty that allows us to make fast decisions in complex situations, but it also lures us into thinking that we have made a rational choice, which actually takes more time and deliberation.

By dwelling in the clarity of the present moment, you are free from all ruminations, upsetting emotions, frustrations, and other inner conflicts. If you learn to deal, moment after moment, with the arising of thoughts, than you can preserve your inner freedom, which is the desired goal of such training.



In the end what we need is to be freed from inner conflicts, one way or the other. If you become an expert in meditation methods, the so-called afflicted thoughts no longer have the power to afflict you because they undo themselves the moment they arise. But that is not all. Experience shows that by repeatedly doing so, you not only deal successfully with each individual arising of afflictive thoughts but you also slowly erode the tendencies for such thoughts to arise. So in the end, you are free of them entirely.

To openly confront our differences can be a way to pacify a conflict, but it is not the only way. To begin with, a conflict requires two protagonists confronting each other in antagonistic ways. As the Tibetan saying goes “One cannot clap with one hand only.” In fact, if one of the persons involved disarms his or her own antagonistic mind, then it will contribute greatly to reduction the conflict with the other person. [This is done through living Creative Interchange from within due to postponing an insight or your ‘conclusion’ and starting to appreciatively understand the point of view of the other person. “Oh Master grant me … that I understand before being understood” – The Song of Saint Francis.]

As far as your own inner conflicts are concerned, if you use meditation simply as a quick fix to superficially appease your emotions, you temporarily enjoy a pleasant deferral of these inner conflicts. Unfortunately, these cosmetic changes have not reached the root of the problem.

True meditation is not just taking a break. It is not simply closing one’s eyes to the problem for a while. Meditation goes to the root of the problem. You need to become aware of the destructive aspect of compulsive attachment and all of the conflictive mental states that conflicts create. They are destructive in the sense of undermining your happiness and that of others, and to counteract them you need more than just a calming pill. Meditation practice offers many kinds of antidotes [cf. Creative Interchange practice]

One of the antidotes is to be aware of desire or anger, instead of identifying with it. Then the part of our mind that is aware of the anger is not angry, it is simply aware. In other words, awareness is not affected by the emotion it is observing. Understanding this makes it possible to step back and realize that the emotion is actually devoid of solidity. We need to provide an open space of inner freedom, and the internal affliction will dissolve by itself.



As for romantic love, there is usually a strong component of grasping and self-centeredness that will most often turn into a cause of torment. In this kind of love, one often loves oneself through the guise of loving someone else. To be a source of mutual happiness, genuine love has to be altruistic. This does not mean at all that one will not flourish oneself. Altruistic love is win-win, whereas selfish love soon turns into a lose-lose situation. [This part makes me strongly think of the love between Tereza, one of the main characters of Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and her dog Karenin. Milan writes extensively about the love between Man and Dog. In chapter 4 one can read:

It is a completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; she did not ever ask him to love her back. Nor had she ever asked herself the questions that plague human couples: Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.
And something else: Tereza accepted Karenin for what he was; she did not try to make him over in her image; she agreed from the outset with his dog’s life, did not wish to deprive him of it, did not envy him his secret intrigues. The reason she trained him was not to transform him (as a husband tries to reform his wife and a wife her husband), but to provide him with the elementary language that enabled them to communicate and live together.
Then too: No one forced her to love Karenin; love for dogs is voluntary.
But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. It knows no conflicts, no hair-raising scenes; it knows no development.”]

The universal nature of extended altruism does not mean that it becomes a vague, abstract feeling, disconnected from reality. It should be applied spontaneously and pragmatically to every being who presents him or herself in the field of our attention. [i.e. Living Creative Interchange from within]

You give your full, undiminished love to those who are close to you; those for whom you are responsible, andyou also reserve a complete openness and readiness to extend that altruism to whoever crosses your path in life.

Unconditional altruism is a state of benevolence for all sentient beings, a state of mind in which hatred has no place.

The aspiration of the bodhisattva: “May I transform myself and achieve enlightenment so that I become able to free all things from suffering.”



Having inner peace and equanimity does not mean that you cease to experience things with depth and brilliance, nor does it necessitate a reduction in the quality of your love, affection, vivid openness to others, or joy. In fact, you can be all the more present to others and to the world because you are remaining in the freshness of the present moment instead of being carried away by wandering thoughts.

Researchers in positive psychology, such as Barbara Frederickson, have concluded that love is the “supreme emotion” because, more than any other mental state, it opens your mind and allows us to view situations with a vaster perspective, be more receptive to others, and adopt flexible and creative attitudes and behavior.[iii]



Figuring among the similarities Aaron Beck noticed was elimination the “six main mental afflictions: attachment, anger and hostility, arrogance [i.e. pride], [ignorance, doubt] and mental confusion [i.e. afflicted views]”, which are to be slowly replaced by serenity, compassion and inner freedom. He also noted similarities in the application of procedures and meditation techniques aiming to reduce the mental fabrications leading to these afflictions: in particular being absorbed in intransigent egocentricity.

Beck notes that people suffering from psychotic problems experience intensified self-focalization: They relate everything to themselves and are exclusively concerned with the fulfillment of their own wants and needs. It must also be said that “normal” people often display the same type of egocentricity but to a lesser extent and in a more subtle way. Buddhism tries to diminish these characteristics.

We need to be more skillful in paying attention to all the nuances of what is actually happening in our mind and in successfully freeing ourselves from being enslaved by our own thoughts. This is how we can gain inner freedom.

If we are able to transform the way we perceive things, then we will transform at the same time the quality of our lives. [Makes me think of what my friend Carol Lischalck used to say:Change Management IS Perception Management.”]

Society and its institutions influence and condition individuals, but those individuals can in turn make society and institutions evolve as well. As this interaction continuous over the course of generations, culture and individuals keep on shaping each other. [To me, society can’t transform if the individuals do not. W. Edwards Deming once stated: “There is no change without personal transformation.”]







Can we understand reality as it is? On the level of ordinary perception, the neuroscientist and the Buddhist thinker say no: We never stop interpreting sensorial insights and construction ‘our’ reality.

Is there an objective reality independent from our perception? In this chapter the first-person approach will be distinguished from the second- and third-person exterior approaches.

We have two different sources of knowledge to call on. The primary and most important source is our subjective experience because it results from introspection or our interactions with the world around us. The second source is science, which attempts to understand the world and our condition by extending our senses with instruments, applying the tools of rational reasoning to interpreting observed phenomena, developing predictive models, and verifying our predictions through experiments.

Emanuel Kant distinguished between a hypothetical Ding an sich– literally the ‘thing in itself’, or the essence of an object of cognition that cannot be reduced further to anything else – and the phenomenological appearance of that object, which is accessible to our senses.

Objectivity of perception (i.e., the ability to recognize the hypothetical Ding an sich) has never been a selection criterion. We know today that we only perceive a narrow spectrum of the physical and chemical properties of this world. We use those few signals to construct our perceptions, and our naïve intuition is that these provide us with a complete and coherent view of the world. We trust our cognitive faculties; we experience our perceptions as reflecting reality and cannot feel otherwise. In other words, our primary perceptions, whether mediated by introspection or sensory experience, appear to us as evident. They have the status of convictions.

We believe that we experience reality as it is, without realizing how much we interpret and distort it. Indeed, a gap exists between the way things appear and the way they are.

Neither our sensors nor our cognitive functions have been adapted by evolution to cope with these aspects of the world because they were irrelevant for survival at the time when our cognitions evolved.

For example, it is quite difficult to imagine something that appears either as a wave, which is not localized, or a particle, which is localized depending on the way we look at it.

When Buddhism speaks of apprehending ‘reality as it is,’ it does not refer to mere perceptions but to the logical assessment of the ultimate nature of reality. Buddha himself called the proper investigation of the ultimate nature of reality: the sublime path.

 Our basic cognitive functions were initially selected to help us cope with the conditions of a pre-social world. At later stages of biological evolution, there was with all likelihood some coevolution between the emerging social environment and our brains, a coevolution that endowed our brains with certain social skills, such as the ability to perceive, emit and interpret social signals. These abilities were then further complemented and refined by epigenetic modifications of brain architectures that occur during the development of individuals and are guided by experience and education.[Cf. Henry Nelson Wieman’s basic question: ”What can transform the mind since the mind cannot transform itself?” and the answer he gave to his question: “The Creative Interchange Process!”].

Epigenetics refers to the fact that we inherited a set of genes, but the expression of these genes can be modulated by influences that we encounter during our lifetime.

Our brains are the product of both biological and cultural evolution and exist in these two dimensions.

The possibility needs to be considered that, not only our perceptions, motivations, and behavioral responses, but also our way of reasoning and drawing inferences are adapted to the particular conditions of the world in which we evolved, including the world of social realities that emerged during cultural evolution.



We consider perception as an active, constructive process, whereby the brain uses its a priori knowledge about the world to interpret the signals provided by the sense organs.

Brains harbor a huge amount of knowledge about the world. The use of this knowledge is implemented in and determined by the functional architecture of the neural network This functional architectureis the way in which neurons are connected to each other, which particular neurons are actually connected, whether these connections are excitatory or inhibitory, and whether they are strong or weak. When a brain learns something new, a change in the functional architecture occurs: Certain connections are strengthened, whereas others are weakened. Hence, all the knowledge a brain has at its disposal, as well as the programs according to which this knowledge is used to interpret sensory signals and structure behavioral responses, resides in the specific layout of its functional architecture.

This leads to the identification of the three major sources of knowledge about the world. The first, and certainly not the least important, is evolution because genes determine a substantial part of the brain’s functional architecture. This knowledge resides in the newborn’s brain and is implicit – we are not aware of having it. Still we use it to interpret the signals provided by our sense organs.

Extensive epigenetic shaping of the brain’s neuronal architecture, which adapts the developing brain to the actual conditions in which the individual lives, subsequently complements this inborn knowledge. Because after birth neuronal activity is modulated with the environment, the development of the brain architectures is thus determined by a host of epigenetic factors derived form the natural and social worlds.

Although young children learn efficiently and store contents in a robust way through structural modification of their brain architecture, they often have no recollection of the source of this knowledge. Because of this apparent lack of causation, knowledge acquired in this way is implicit, just as evolutionary acquired knowledge is, and often assumes the status of conviction – that is, the truth is taken for granted.

Like innate knowledge, this acquired knowledge is used to shape cognitive processes and structure our perceptions. Yet we are not aware that what we perceive is actually the result of such a knowledge-based interpretation. This has far-reaching consequences: The genetic dispositions and, even more important, the epigenetic, culture-specific shaping of different brains introduce profound interindividual variability. Thus, it is not surprising that different persons, particularly those raised in different cultural environments, are likely to perceive the same reality differently. Because we are not aware of the fact that our perceptions are constructions, we are bound to take what we perceive as the only truth and do not question its objective status.

According to two American researchers, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, two evolutions occur in parallel: the slow evolution of genes and the relatively fast evolution of cultures, which allows psychological faculties to appear that could never have evolved under the influence of genes alone – hence the title of their book ‘Not by Genes Alone.’ They think of culture as a collection of ideas, knowledge, beliefs, values, abilities, and attitudes acquired during teaching, initiation, and every other kind of socially transmitted information.[iv]

For normal human perception, assume linearity is a well-adapted strategy. As a consequence, we seem to have difficulty imagining processes that have nonlinear dynamics and drawing the right conclusion about these processes. For example, because we intuitively assume linearity, we misperceive the complex dynamics of economic or ecologic systems, nurture the illusion that we can forecast and hence control the future trajectories of these systems, and then are surprised when the outcome of our interventions differs radically form what we had expected. Given these evolutionary limitations of our cognitive abilities and intuitions, we are left with the burning question of which source of knowledge we should trust. Especially when we are confronted with contradictions among our intuitions, primary perceptions, scientific statements and collectively acquired social convictions.

Buddhism also emphasizes the fact that a correct understanding of the phenomenal world acknowledges the fact that all phenomena arise through almost numberless interdependent causes and conditions that interact outside of a linear causality.



Consciousness associated with sensory experiences never directly experiences reality as it is. What we perceive are images of past stages of a phenomenon that are already devoid of intrinsic properties. On a macroscopic level, we know, for instance, that when we look at a star, we are looking at what that star was many years ago because it has taken that many years for the light emitted by the star to reach our eyes. In fact, this is true of all perceptions. We are never looking directly at phenomena in real time, and we always distort them in some way

What’s more, the mental image of a particular flower (or any other object) is also deceptive because we generally perceive that flower as being an autonomous entity and believe that the attributes of beauty or ugliness belong intrinsically to the flower. All this proceeds from what Buddhism calls ignoranceor lack of awareness. This basic ignorance is not just a mere lack of information (re. the flower for instance), ignorancehere refers to a distorted and mistaken way of apprehending reality at a deeper level.

Someone with insight will understand that the world we perceive is defined by a relational process taken place between the consciousness of the observer and a set of phenomena. It is therefor misleading to ascribe intrinsic properties to outer phenomena, such as beauty, ugliness, desirability, or repulsiveness. This insight has a therapeutic effect: It will disrupt the mechanism of compulsive attraction and repulsion that usually results in suffering. [cf. Anthony de Mello – Awareness: Labeling]

It is possible to transcend the deluded perception and achieve a valid understanding of the nature of the phenomenon (for instance the flower) as being impermanent and devoid of intrinsic, autonomous existence, as being devoid of any inherent qualities. Achieving this understanding is not dependent on our sensory perceptions or past habits. It comes from a proper analytical investigation of the nature of the phenomenal world, culminating in what is known in Buddhism as all-discriminating wisdom, an insight that apprehends the ultimate nature of phenomena without superimposing mental constructs on them.

Evidence from psychophysical investigation of perception and neurophysiological studies on perceptions underlying neuronal processes suggests that perceiving is essential reconstruction. The brain compares the sparse signals provided by our eclectic sense organs with the vast basis of knowledge about the world that is stored in its architecture and generates what appears to us as a percept of reality.

When we perceive the outer world, we first arrive at a coarse match between sensory signals and knowledge-based hypotheses about the world, and then we usually enter an iterative process to obtain approximations that gradually converge to the optimal solution – a state with a minimal number of unresolved ambiguities. In other words, we perform an active search for the best matches between signals and hypotheses until we obtain results with the desired clarity. This latter process of active search-and-match requires the investment of attentional resources, takes time, and is interpretative in nature. What is actually perceived is the result of that comparative process. It appears that this scientific scenario is fully compatible with Buddhist views! It suffices to replace what science addresses as ‘a priori knowledge’ with the Buddhist term ‘consciousness’.

So, there are two different ways of phrasing that: one from the third-person perspective, in the language of neuroscience, and the other from the first-person perspective, based on introspective experience. The first described how our perception of the world is shaped by evolution and the increasing complexity of the nervous system. From a Buddhist perspective, one would say that our world, at least the world we perceive, is intimately intertwined with the way our consciousness functions.

Buddhism says that our phenomenological world, the only one we perceive, depends on the particular configuration of the consciousness we have and is shaped by our past experiences and habits.



Perceiving is always interpreting and hence attributing properties to sensory signals. In this sense, perceptions are always mental constructs.

However, when we think, “This is truly beautiful” or “This is intrinsically desirable or detestable” we are not aware that we project these concepts onto outer phenomena and then believe that they are intrinsically belong to them. This gives rise to all kinds of mental reactions and emotions that are not attuned to reality and will therefor result in frustration.

Buddhism calls phenomena events. The literal meaning of samskara, the Sanskrit word for ‘things’ or ‘aggregates’ is ‘event’ or ‘action’. In quantum mechanics, too, the notion of object is subordinate to a measurement, hence an event. To believe the objects of our perception are endowed with intrinsic properties and autonomous existence is, to take again a comparison with quantum physics, like attributing local properties to particles that are entangled and belong to a global reality.

The problem is that in the case of the perception of social realities, there are no ‘objective’ measurement devices. There are only different perceptions: there is no right or wrong. This has far-reaching consequences for our concepts of tolerance. Solving such problems with majority votes is clearly no fair solution. What we therefor should do is grant everybody that her or his perceptions are correct and assume that this attitude will be reciprocated. Only if this agreement on reciprocity is violated have the dissenting parties the ‘right to exert sanctions’.

One must be fully aware of people’s ingrained beliefs and moral values and take them into consideration. This being said, social and cultural perceptions can be as deceptive as cognitive delusions, and they are built up in similar ways. From our mental fabrications arise many of our human-made problems.

The purpose of the Buddhist approach is not to confront people’s views head on by imposing another view that one considers to be superior but to help people see that all such views can be misleading and that we should not casually take them for granted. The idea is not to coerce people into seeing things as we see them or adopt our own aesthetic and moral values and judgments, but to help them reach a correct view of the ultimate nature of things as being devoid of intrinsic reality.

In truth, people from different cultures are all superimposing their particular mental fabrications on reality. The problem can be solved if these people investigate reality through logical reasoning and realize that they are simply distorting reality and that neither the object they are looking at nor the subject who perceives it exists as independent, truly existing entity.

Let’s remember that the goal of Buddhism is to put an end to the root cause of suffering. As long as the mind is under the influence of delusion and of any afflictive mental state such as hatred, craving or jealousy, suffering is always ready to manifest itself at any time.

To take the example of impermanence, at each moment everything changes, from the change of seasons and of youth at old age, to the subtlest aspects of impermanence that that take place in the shortest conceivable period of time. Once we have recognized that the universe is made not of solid, distinct entities, but of a dynamic flow of interactions among countless fleeting phenomena, it has major consequences in weakening our grasping onto reality we see before us. A proper understanding of impermanence helps us to close some of the gap between appearances and reality. [And helps us to continue to stay in Creative Interchange with everything and everyone, or in other words, in constant dialogue with our surroundings. All this means to me: Continuous Improvement in closing the gap between our perceptions and realities through Creative Interchange.]



There is no way to prove that a reality exists out there behind the screen of appearances, a reality that exists in and of itself, independent of us and the rest of the world. Even before the advent of the quantum physics, the mathematician Henri Poincaré said, “A reality completely independent from the mind that things, sees or feels is impossible. Even if it did exist, such a world would be utterly inaccessible to us.”[v]

We all keep on assigning an element of truth in our superimpositions on the world. What Buddhism does is deconstruct ordinary perceptions by conducting an in-depth investigation of the nature of what people see to make them understand that they are all distorting reality in different ways. One should not say, “distorting” because if there is no objectivity, you can’t distort anything – there is nothing objective to distort. People simply give different interpretations.



Objective is not just one of the many versions of what various people perceive but the irrefutable understanding that all phenomena are impermanent and devoid of intrinsic characteristics. This applies to all appearances, all perceptions, and all phenomena. Distortions, therefore, is not defined in comparison with a true, self-existing reality. Distortion is to attribute any kind of intrinsic reality, permanence or autonomy to phenomena.

The realization that the phenomenal world is a dynamic, interdependent flow of events and the knowledge that what we perceive is the result of the interactions of our consciousness with these phenomena is, in fact, the understanding of the process of delusion. That understanding is correct in all situations.



In Buddhism, absolute truthrefers to the recognition that phenomena are ultimately devoid of intrinsic experience. Relative truthis to acknowledge that these phenomena arise not in haphazard ways but according to the laws of causality.

There is a difference between apparent, relative, conditioned properties and intrinsic ones, but typically we ignore it. This not a mere intellectual distinction – ignoring its causes us to act in ways that stands at odds with reality and are, therefore, dysfunctional.

To conclude that phenomena are impermanent and interdependent is the only outcome of a careful, logical investigation.

Conclusion, if you think, “Phenomena appear as interdependent events devoid of autonomous, inherent characteristics and existence,” since such understanding is congruent with reality, you are much less likely to relate to objects in ways that lead to disappointment and suffering.



Brains construct their views of the world on the basis of inherited and acquired knowledge. Because different brains have different knowledge bases, they may arrive at different views. We perceive the world as we do because our brains are the way they are. Because the genetically and culturally transmitted cognitive schemata (priors) are quite similar, we tend to perceive the world in a similar way [if we are ‘member’ of the same culture].

The goal is not to agree on sensory perceptions but to understand that these perceptions result from constructing a fictitious reality [we call this Appreciative Understanding, the goal of this is not to agree on what the other ‘sees’ but to appreciatively understand that what one sees is constructed and not the ‘reality’]. All parties can free themselves from cognitively deluded ways of apprehending reality. In other words, one would continue to see what one sees, but one would become aware that this not the only way that it can be seen. And it doesn’t stop there. One would further acknowledge that one’s way of seeing is fabricated. Analytical meditation and mental training would allow one to recognize that one’s habitual tendencies causes one to attach various qualities to objects even though these qualities are not invariable attributes of the objects.

When all mental fabrications are unmasked, you perceive the world as a dynamic flow of events, and you stop freezing reality in various deluded ways. And if we don’t freeze reality, we will not be caught in reifying it as something solid, endowed with true, intrinsic existence, and we will not be deluded. [Makes me think of the ‘Change Model’ of Kurt Lewin vs the ‘Change Model’ of Charlie Palmgren; the first uses stages as ‘unfreezing’ – ‘changing’ and ‘refreezing’ and the second sees ‘Change’ as a continuous process – see Part I, chapter 3: ‘Change is a Process’ of my book ‘Creatieve wisselwerking’ [vi]]



Therefor you need to make the mind’s telescope more focused, clear and stable. Introspection has long been discredited because the subjects who were asked to engage in it in laboratory studies did so with minds that were distracted most of the time. Distraction creates an unsteady mind. In addition, an untrained mind lacks the limpid clarity that allows one to see vividly what is happening within oneself. So whether the mind is carried away by distractions or sinks into a cognitive opacity, it will not be able to pursue proper introspection.

A clear and stable mind brings inner peace and deeper insights into the nature of reality and the mind itself.

Your experience is your world.



The second-person perspective involves an in-depth properly dialogue between the subject and an expert who leads the dialogue, asking appropriate questions and allowing the subject to describe his or her experience inall its minute details.

Meditation is not mathematics but rather a science of the mind, and it is conducted with rigor, perseverance, and discipline. [vii][as is living Creative Interchange from within]

The Buddha encouraged contemplatives to practice assiduously by saying: “I’ve shown you the path, and it’s up to you to travel it by yourself. Don’t believe what I say simply out of respect for me, but examine the truth of it very thoroughly, as when examining the purity of a piece of gold by rubbing it on a flat gold, beating it and melting it.” We should take not things for granted without verifying them for ourselves.

What is not clear to you can become completely clear in the future through investigation and training.

A trained contemplative will be highly aware of his cognitive processes, of the way thoughts unfold, and of the way emotions arise and how they can be balanced and controlled. The meditator will also have some experience of what is known as pure awareness, which is a clear and lucid state of consciousness devoid of mental constructs and automatic thought processes. The meditator may also understand that there is not such thing in the mind as a central, autonomous self, which I think fits quite well with the views of neuroscience.



It is the reality of recognizing the nature of pure awareness, as well as the nature of suffering and its causes – the mental toxins – and the possibility of getting rid of these causes through cultivating wisdom. And it is also apprehending outer reality in a more correct way, as interdependent events devoid of intrinsic existence.

Not all information is equally useful. It also depends on your purpose. Valid knowledge about the process of cognitive delusion is immensely useful if one falls prey to compulsive attachment or hatred because this will help dispel suffering.



Knowledge obtained through scientific inquiry has no moral value on its own. It is the way we make use of such knowledge that morality comes in.

In Buddhism, which invokes no divine authority, ethics is a set of guidelines from empirical experience and wisdom to avoid afflicting suffering on others and yourself. The Buddha is not a prophet, a God, or a saint but rather an awakened one. Ethics is really a science of happiness and suffering, not a set of rules proclaimed by a divine entity or dogma thinkers. Because ethics is all about avoiding inflicting suffering on others, having more wisdom and compassion, together with gaining a better understanding of the mechanics of happiness and suffering and the laws of cause and effect, [meditation] will foster ethical systems and practices that are more likely to fulfill their purpose.



One is the philosophical, epistemic position of Buddhism, which is clearly a rather radical, constructivist position that declares that most of what we perceive outside of our own mind, and for untrained, naïve humans, also most of what one experiences with one’s inner eye, as delusive.

The second aspect is the conviction that it is possible to fine-tune one’s inner eye through practice to experience what one’s mind and reality is all about.

Thirdly – and this seems the most important point and consequence of the first two – if the goal is to purify one’s mind is achieved and perception is no longer contaminated by false beliefs, then one changes basic traits of one’s personality and thus becomes a better person who can contribute more effectively to the reduction of suffering.

Once again, in Buddhism knowledge is used to relieve suffering. So one needs to distinguish the kinds of actions, words, and thoughts that will cause suffering from those that will bring fulfillment and flourishing.

Values can also be related to a correct understanding of reality. Understanding the interdependence of all beings and phenomena is the logical ground for growing altruism and compassion.[viii]

Reality is neither good nor bad, but valid and invalid ways of apprehending reality exist. These various ways have consequences: A mind that does not distort reality will naturally experience inner freedom and compassion, instead of craving and hatred.

If you recognize that reality is interdependent and impermanent, you will adopt the right attitude and be much more likely to flourish. Otherwise, as Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.”[ix]

The brain can impose on itself a training process that induces lasting changing in its own cognitive structures [We call this process, the Creative Interchange process]. And this is more than mere theoretical understanding. Training implies cultivation, repetition that leads to slowly remodeling your way of being, which will be correlated with a remodeling of your brain. You need to acquire correct understanding and then cultivate that understanding until it becomes fully part of yourself [Thus not only understanding the Creative Interchange process, one has to live it fully from within until it becomes fully part of oneself].

The internal drive [to live the Creative Interchange process from within] arises from a deep aspiration to free oneself from suffering [i.e.from the counter process, the Vicious Circle]. This aspiration, in turn, reflects the potential that we have for change and flourishing. A qualified teacher plays a crucial role in showing and explaining us the means to achieve that change. [In order to learn the skills of the Creative Interchange process a role model plays a crucial role].



Clinging and attachment act like distorting filters on one’s perceptions that prevent us from perceiving the real world – and should therefor be avoided. [Clinging and attachment are elements of the Vicious Circle]

Mental practice, introspection, and cultivation of the mind are used to attain more objectivity. In addition, this ‘science of the mind’ can serve as the basis of an ethical system. [cf., once again; the Creative Interchange process, the process that transforms the mind, whilst the mind cannot do this on its own].

We have to understand ethics as a science of happiness and suffering, not as a dogma disconnected from lived experience.

The premise is that mental practice leads to the construction of realistic models of oneself and the world. These novel insights, together with the effects of the practice, would then entrain changes in attitude, which, if shared with many in the long run, could improve the human condition [in and through the new Creative Interchange paradigm].

This will arise from a way of being that has become free of those biases and mental entanglements, and therefore naturally expresses itself as altruism, compassion and genuine concern for others.

If you maintain proper understanding or perspective, proper view, proper motivation, proper effort, and proper conduct, then it will certainly work in the best possible way. Even if life events and circumstances are unpredictable and beyond our control, we can always (try to) maintain our direction using our inner compass of right view and right motivation [i.e. using our Intrinsic Worth]. This is the best way to achieve the goal of freedom from suffering for oneself and others.

A correct understanding of reality leads to a correct mental attitude and moment-by-moment behavior that is attuned to that understanding. This in turns leads to a win-win situation of flourishing oneself while acting in a way that is also beneficial to others. Such an optimal way of being will have positive effects first in the family and then in the village or local community and gradually in society at large. As Ghandi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Unless a substantial fraction of individuals follow the path of individual transformation, the danger remain that those clinging to power and selfishness will usurp the benevolence of a peaceful minority for their interests.


[i]M. Ricard and W. Singer, Beyond the Self: conversations between Buddhism and neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

[ii]D. Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011.

[iii]B. Frederickson, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become.New York NY: Hudson Street Press, 2013.

[iv]R. Boye and P. J. Richerson, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution.Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 5.

[v]H. Poincaré, La Valeur de la science.Paris: Flammarion,1990.

[vi]J. Roels, Creatieve wisselwerking, Apeldoorn-Leuven: Garant, 2001, pp 117-147.

[vii]M. Ricard, Why Meditate? New York, NY: Hay House, 2010.

[viii]M. Ricard, Altruism:The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. New York, NY. Little, Brown and Company. 2015.

[ix]R. Tagore, Stray Birds. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1916, LXXV.


Henry Nelson Wieman suggests in his book Man’s Ultimate Commitment that we have a natural need to achieve in our lives the infinite potentialities present in us at birth. He goes on stressing the importance of our commitment to a life-long process that enables us to live our lives to the fullest. In order to have the Greatest Human Good he argues one has to commit to live Creative Interchange from within.

This special human interchange that Henry Nelson Wieman coined Creative Interchange is our ability to learn what others have learned, to appreciate what others appreciate, to feel what others feel, imagine what others imagine and to creatively integrate all this with what we have already acquired and form this way our true individuality. This Creative Interchange uniquely distinguishes the human mind from everything else.

The choice to commit oneself to live Creative Interchange from within is in fact a big decision that involves a choice to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself. Someone who has never been fully aware of being in genuine Creative Interchange with another person can only know what contemporary science can tell him or her about the experience of Creative Interchange and/or what friends can describe to him or her, as best they can, what it is like to engage in Creative Interchange. Before engaging in Creative Interchange one might imagine undergoing some sort of experience that is surprising and intense and emotional. As it turns out, many of life’s big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach things that we cannot really know from any other source but the experience itself.

When we face the choice whether or not to commit oneself to Creative Interchange, we can’t know what our lives will be unlike we’ve undergone the new experience, and if we don’t undergo the experience, we won’t know what we are missing. I know from experience that committing oneself to Creative Interchange is life changing, thus personally transformative. In the case of commitment to Creative Interchange you make the choice without knowing what it will be like if you choose to have that new experience, but the choice is big, and you know it is big. You know that undergoing the experience will change what it is like for you to live your live, and even change what it is to be you, deeply and fundamentally.

What makes it even more fundamental, that it is not just a one-time choice committing oneself to live Creative Interchange from within and not just a commitment to one person, like a marriage; it is a life-time commitment to every person you’ll meet from the moment you commit yourself to live Creative Interchange from within. And the outcome of this commitment is far from sure. While committing to live CI from within is a personal life-changing decision – for after all, your decision concerns mainly your personal future – we find ourselves confronted with the brutal fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us – speaking rationally – that we do know. The choice for Creative Interchange is no different as for many other big life choices, where we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. To me, in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become, what our beyond the actual, created self will be.

When a person has a new and different experience that teaches her something she could not have learned without having that kind of experience, she has an epistemic transformation. Her subjective point of view, her knowledge of what something is like, changes. With this new experience, she gains new abilities to cognitively understand certain contents, she learns to understand things in a new way, and she may even identify new information.

I had such an experience in 1977 during the start up of a Sulfuric Acid Plant in Visag (India). I was the start up engineer and thus overall responsible for the success of the start up of the new facility. During that start up an Indian engineer was heavenly burnt having been splashed with hot sulfuric acid when the valve he was opening on the sulfuric acid circuit suddenly burst open, while his body was just protected by a cotton work overall. This experience changed completely my mindset regarding safety, which ultimately changed completely my professional life. It was indeed the starting point of what I called later my second professional life. Safety became in one split second one of my values, a subjective personal value grounded by what it is like to have lived that particular experience.

The sorts of experiences that can change who you are, in the sense of radically changing your point of view, are experiences that are personally transformative. In my life those experiences included: experiencing a traumatic accident (as described above), having a daughter (Daphne 1972), experiencing the death of a parent (father Richard 1982 and mother Donatine 1987), fundamentally changing my career path (1988 and 1995), having a career setback (losing the ISRS rights in 1992), becoming grand father (Eloïse 2002, Edward 2004 and Elvire 2008), living through a deep depression (2008 – 2010), undergoing radiation and chemical therapy and a major surgery (colon cancer 2013), to name the most important ones. Those experiences were life changing in that they changed what it is like for me to be me. In other words, those experiences can change your mindset, and by extension, your personal preferences, and perhaps even your values and thus even change the kind of person that you are, or at least take yourself to be. In my case each of those experiences turned out to be a personally transformative experience.

So, such experiences are very important from a personal perspective, for transformative experiences can play a significant role in one’s life, involving options, that, metaphorically speaking, function as crossroads in one’s path towards self-realization. The path you choose determines where you take your life, what you will become, and thus by extension, your subjective future. While some of those experiences happen to you without you having chosen them, I learned through the years than you can have your own choices involving transformative experiences. Those transformative choices allow you to causally form what it will be like to be you in your future. In this sense you own your future (Peter Senge would say, you create your future), because it is you who made the choice to bring this future – your very own future self – into being.

The problem is that when you face a transformative choice, that is, a choice of whether to undergo an epistemically and personally transformative experience, you cannot rationally make this choice based on what you think the transformative experience will be like. Consider, for instance, the transformative choice of marrying ‘The One’. When you decide to marry someone, you are not deciding to be married at that time or for just a couple of weeks. It is not as deciding where you will spend your holidays: at the coast side or in the mountains. In fact you are deciding whether you want to commit yourself to an extended life event. This extended life event is in fact a continuous relationship between your future self and the future self of another person. You’re about to marry someone not just for the here and now, you are marrying this person for a long term. You are marrying to be part of each other’s life as you grow and transform, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Is the decision regarding getting married rational? In my personal case I dare to doubt this. We both made our decision by attempting to project forward our subjective future, to see what it would be for us to make a life with each other. Since we were the last of the Mohican’s (a metaphor I often use since we were both virgins when we got married) and thus did not live with each other for many years, like young people do nowadays, we did not know what being married really meant, let alone having an extended marriage. So we did not marry based on knowing what our future life would be like; we married based on a commitment to discover our future life together. This meant that we took on commitments that involved providing mutual support even though we knew that unexpected events and other kinds of events that life brings – for instance having a child – would happen. We committed ourselves that we would face these new experiences as one unit, a couple, not as a single person. While we knew some things before we got married, such as our current dispositions and inclinations, we could not know what it would be like to have the marriage that we would actually have. The only thing we knew was that our marriage would be an extended transformative experience.

Milan Kundera described beautifully what such a transformative experience is in his bestseller ‘The unbearable lightness of being’ in which he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche and uses the German proverb: “Einmal ist keinmal’. Gallimard first published this book, although originally written in Czech two years before, in French: ‘L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être’ in 1984. I bought this French edition in Paris in the fall of that same year and I enjoyed it so much that I read it all in one sitting.

The phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is Kundera’s own, but to understand it we actually have to start with Friedrich Nietzsche and the idea of eternal return. Eternal return is the idea that our universe and our existence has occurred an infinite number of times in the past, and will continue to occur ad infinitum. In this theory, time is cyclical rather than linear. The idea of eternal return is an ancient one, but Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher, popularized it for modern times. That’s why the narrator of Unbearable Lightness refers to it as Nietzsche’s concept. Nietzsche explored what the consequences of such eternal return would be. In his eyes, eternal return was das schwerste Gewicht, or “the heaviest weight.” It was a petrifying concept to imagine that our lives have been and will continue to be repeated endlessly. But one could learn, through philosophy, to love the idea. The proper mind can embrace this weight, rather than be terrified by it. Nietzsche seems to conclude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we must live and act as though our lives functioned in eternal return, suggesting that we give our own lives meaning and weight by behaving this way.

Kundera argues that Nietzche was wrong and states: “Human time does not turn in a circle,” he argues; “it runs ahead in a straight line”. Nietzsche said that eternal return gives our lives the heaviest weight. So if our lives only occur once, it must mean – according to Kundera – that they are filled with lightness. This is where Kundera’s phrase einmal ist keinmal comes into the picture. And Tomas, one of the main characters of the book, translates this for us: “What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”

The point which is interesting in our context is that if we live only once, then we can never compare the decisions we make to any alternatives. And if we can never compare different outcomes, we can never know if the decisions we made are correct or not, which means – according to Kundera – we can never judge them properly or take responsibility for them. Hence, Kundera suggests that to live only once is to live with lightness.

The question then becomes: “Do we want lightness, or do we want weight?” Which do we choose? Kundera takes a look at Parmenides, a Greek philosopher in the 5th century B.C. who considered the same question. Parmenides argued that lightness was positive and to be desired, while weight was negative. The narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being isn’t so sure about this. “The heaviest of burdens is […] simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment,” he says. “The heavier the burden, […] the more real and truthful [our lives] become”.

During the course of the novel, the narrator refers to the lightness of being in two different ways: the sweet lightness of being, and the unbearable lightness of being. Kundera argues that lightness is unbearable, but it is up to us as readers to understand the reasons behind his argument. The lightness may seem at first to be a sweet deal – no responsibility, no judgment, no meaning. Sounds like fun – at first. But eventually, as I’ve argued in my previous column[ii], we desperately would like for our lives to mean something. We want them to have weight and significance, because we want them to matter. The problem is then, still according to Kundera, try as we might to give our lives weight…we cannot. Our lives are fundamentally light precisely because they occur only once. So Kundera’s argument is two-fold:

  1. Nietzsche was wrong; there is no eternal return; our lives occur only once, and that makes them light.
  2. Parmenides was wrong; such lightness is not sweet, it is unbearable.

Notice that both these arguments are established right in the title of the novel and it takes (Kundera) the entire novel for the argument behind these ideas to unfold. By the way, as I’ve argued in my last book ‘Cruciale dialogen’, the title is a metaphor.

For what it’s worth, let me express my view on Kundera’s argument. I agree: ‘Einmal ist Keinmal’; you simply cannot live two lives in parallel. I cannot, at the same time, be married to Rita and be single. The consequence of that is that I cannot compare those two ‘lives’ the moment of the decision and throughout my whole married life, neither can Rita. Regarding Kundera’s question: “Is ‘being’ light or unbearable?” the only right answer is, as I learned from my mentor Charlie Palmgren, since the question is a ‘or’ question: YES![iii] Finally I really can’t say Amen to Kundera’s statement that because we cannot judge we are not responsible for the consequences of our decisions. To me we definitely are responsible for those consequences and what’s more they become bearable if we live Creative Interchange from within. In other words we should stay aware of the unfolding of our lives and take the right measures and decisions when needed. We are responsible for our actions, period.

Personally, I adhere to Wieman’s two-fold commitment, which keeps the “old” from obstructing the emergence of the “new” and keeps the “new” from abandoning and discarding the value of the “old.” Wieman’s said this requires following two-fold commitment: “A commitment to act on the current best we know and a commitment to remain open to what in truth can transform our current best to what is better.” Through living this two-fold commitment from within we will continually transform our mind as it cannot transform itself. The language surrounding the death of the old self and the creation of a new self takes on a new kind of significance. For Wieman, such a person is able to have the old self transformed in a way that takes on a wider world, a wider range of concerns, experiences, and valuations. For him, the greatest barrier to emergence of the new is the convulsive clinging to present beliefs, values, and habits giving them the loyalty and commitment that should be given to the Creative Good (i.e. Creative Interchange). Wieman’s central theme is self-commitment to growth and transformation through Creative Interchange; in other words, a self-commitment to the Creative Interchange process that transforms human life toward the Greatest Human Good.[iv]

So, Creative Interchange changes the mind in ways that the mind cannot do this by itself. The challenge of life is not to realize goods that we can now imagine but to undergo a change in consciousness in which there will arise possibilities of value that we cannot imagine on basis of our present awareness. This transformation of the mindset cannot be imagined before it arises and therefor cannot be planned or controlled, neither from the outside nor from the inside. One must cultivate a willingness to set aside present held values and open oneself to a creativity that leads the mind toward a wider awareness and a new consciousness. The human task is not to contrive a better form of living based on present understanding but rather to set the conditions under which creative interchange may operate to expand our awareness. The good of human life increases, as the mind becomes a more richly interconnected network of meanings.

Charlie Palmgren took the challenge of continuing the search for the conditions necessary for Creative Interchange to thrive. One of his first contributions was to make the barriers within ourselves to Creative Interchange visible by discovering the counter productive process: the Vicious Circle, his articulation of Wieman’s greatest barrier to the emergence of the new. The Vicious Circle is Palmgren’s view of how humans become disconnected from their innate Worth. He believes that human worth is the capacity to participate in transforming creativity. Worth is innate, in other words Worth is the innate need for creative transformation. He drives home his point clearly: “Our need for creative transformaton is to our psychological and spiritual survival what oxygen, water, food, exercise, and sleep is to physical well-being.”[v]

Concluding note: Man’s Ultimate Commitment – i.e. providing for the conditions for and living Creative Interchange from within in an awareness way – leads to a continuous transformative experience.


[i] This column is based on three books:

  1. H.N. Wieman. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. University Press of America®, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 1991
  2. L.A. Paul. Transformative Experience. Oxford University Press. Oxford UK – New York NY, 2014
  3. M. Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. New York NY, 1984.




[v] Stacie Hagan and Charlie Palmgren, The Chicken Conspiracy: Breaking The Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore, MA: Recovery Communications, Inc. 1998. p. 21.