Meaning and Suffering: Nietzsche and Jung
This is a follow-up to my previous article in which I criticised a quote from Yuval Noah Harari which concluded “any meaning that people inscribe to their lives is just a delusion”. My reason for doing a follow-up is that since then I have come across two Medium articles by Som Dutt on Friedrich Nietzsche’s views on meaning and suffering¹. Here are some selected quotes:
- "He suggests that suffering can help us learn and grow, and can lead us to become more authentic and fulfilled individuals".
- "He also believes that suffering can actually be a good thing if it leads to a spiritual rebirth".
- "He argued that overcoming suffering can lead to a higher level of existence. He saw it as a chance for growth and development".
As I was reading them, even though these quotes are describing Nietzsche’s thinking, I thought that they could have just as easily have come from Carl Jung. He was what we would now call a psychotherapist, and we assume that people employ psychotherapists to free them from their suffering. Jung, on the other hand, encouraged his clients to choose to suffer consciously in order, in Nietzsche’s words, to lead to a higher level of existence, what he called the individuation process. Spiritual rebirth was also a central feature of his approach.
However, Som Dutt then continues with Nietzsche’s thoughts on meaning in life:
- “He talks about how suffering can help us create our own meaning in life. He believes that we can find value and purpose in life by making our own choices and living in a way that is authentic to us”.
- “He says that ‘suffering makes us invent our own values’ and that it can help us ‘invent our own meaning in life’ ”.
- “He argued that without suffering, we would be unable to find value or purpose in life. In fact, for him, life was all about creating our own meaning and purpose, rather than blindly following others”.
I haven’t read the original texts to discover the context for Nietzsche’s thinking, so am assuming that Som Dutt has represented his views correctly, and for current purposes will take the statements at face value. It is interesting to note, however, that a further quote says: “It was important to find our own way in life, rather than living according to someone else’s values or ideas. He felt that suffering was necessary in order to discover our own unique path”. Whereas the first two quotes say ‘invent’ and ‘create’, the third says ‘discover’, which seems a significant difference to me. That will be the theme of what follows.
On the basis of the first two quotes, it would seem that Nietzsche has come to the same conclusion as existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre who believed that in a godless, meaningless universe, humans are left to create their own meaning. Can that be said to be meaning in the deepest sense? Who or what is choosing in such circumstances? It would seem to be the ego. I would argue, however, that true meaning and purpose can only come from serving or surrendering to a higher cause, something which transcends the ego. As Nietzsche said in the third quote, we need to discover the meaning and purpose of our lives; we do not create it.
At the end of the previous article I quoted Michael Meade from his book Fate and Destiny. Both those words suggest that the meaning and purpose of our lives in not something we invent or choose; it is something we have to discover, something chosen for us.
How we discover this fate or purpose is an interesting question. We have to be guided by that which knows or chooses what our fate is. Words like ‘soul’, ‘Higher Self’, or ‘spiritual self’ seem appropriate. In my personal experience, this Higher Self communicates through dreams, divination (for example Tarot readings and I Ching consultations), synchronistic events, powerful intuitions, and so-called Freudian slips.
The psychiatrist R. D. Laing, whom I quoted in another recent article, believes that one can come to understand one’s fate as part of the process of the spiritual journey, during which one presumably receives certain revelations: “True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self completely adjusted to our alienated social reality: the emergence of the ‘inner’ archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual re-establishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer”².
Therefore, in the words of Carl Jung: “Free will is doing gladly and freely that which one must do”.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile.