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What can the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) tell us about today’s trends for January health commitments and resolutions?

'Nowhere else have alcohol and Christianity – the two great European narcotics – been abused with greater depravity’ Nietzsche liked to quip.

You won’t find better confirmation of this than during the Christmas period; for many, if the holidays are not a festival of Christianity, then they’re a festival of alcohol. It’s no wonder, then, that Dry January – abstention from alcohol for the first month of the year – has become a popular New Year’s resolution. So too has an equally self-disciplined programme, Veganuary – cutting meat, dairy, eggs and all other animal-derived products from one’s diet and lifestyle.

Personal experience

The German philosopher Nietzsche had some personal experience of both of these endeavors, albeit with varying levels of commitment and success. His first and last notable encounter with alcohol occurred in April 1863 while attending Pforta school near his childhood town of Naumberg. After a Sunday spent drinking with his friends, Nietzsche was discovered so rotten drunk that the school barred him from receiving visitors, including his mother and sister to whom he later wrote a groveling letter of apology. From then through to his late writings as a mature philosopher, Nietzsche recommended avoiding alcohol:

‘I cannot recommend seriously enough that all spiritual natures give up alcohol entirely. Water is enough…’

It was also in the 1860s that Nietzsche experimented with vegetarianism, joined by the lifelong friend he’d made at Pforta, Carl von Gersdorff. Before long, however – in a letter of September 18, 1869, to be precise – Nietzsche confessed to von Gersdorff that he’d been persuaded against vegetarianism once and for all by his new friend and idol, the composer Richard Wagner.

‘The rule which experience in this field offers is this,’ Nietzsche explained: ‘Intellectually productive and emotionally intense natures must have meat.’ Perhaps non-coincidentally, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who exerted a huge influence on both Nietzsche’s and Wagner’s thinking, had taken a limited progressive view on the moral significance of animal suffering. ‘Compassion for animals goes together with goodness of character so precisely,’ Schopenhauer said, ‘that we can confidently assert that anyone who is cruel to animals cannot be a good human being’. But Schopenhauer too drew the line at adopting a meat-free diet: ‘Compassion for animals must not lead so far that we … should have to refrain from animal food. … Without animal food the human race would not even be able to survive in the North,’ he dubiously claimed (though he did recommend that animals be anaesthetized before slaughter).

Mental strength and energy

Both Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s justifications for not adopting a meat-free diet are ultimately self-serving. A notable difference between them, however, is that whereas Schopenhauer cites the importance of meat to our mere survival, Nietzsche is concerned to preserve his own intellectual productivity and emotional intensity. In the same letter to von Gersdorff, Nietzsche notes that vegetarianism ‘consumes an unbelievable amount of mental strength and energy, these being thus withdrawn from nobler and generally useful aspirations’.

Nietzsche was not unprepared to deny himself in principle, then, but he would only deny himself for the right cause, in this case his calling as a great thinker. Making sacrifices out of compassion for animals wasn’t just unsustainable; it was beneath him.

Necessary sacrifice

In contrast to vegetarianism, teetotalism was clearly a sacrifice worth making for Nietzsche, indeed a necessary sacrifice. Alcohol, to Nietzsche, drained intellectual productivity and emotional intensity just as much as the effort it took to avoid eating meat. So to put the above-quoted quip back in its proper context, Nietzsche said of the beer-loving German people that they had ‘spent the better part of the last millennium willfully making itself stupid: nowhere else have alcohol and Christianity – the two great European narcotics – been abused with greater depravity.’ So from his life at least, a life of mental energy intent on keen thought, alcohol had to go.

Given his views on alcohol then, Nietzsche’s comparison of it with Christianity represents a serious dig at the latter. (Karl Marx had made a similarly unflattering comparison a few decades before, calling religion ‘the opium of the people’.) Christianity, according to Nietzsche – ‘a large treasure-trove of the most ingenious means of consolation’ – soothed the world-weary like alcohol might, with its promise of another reality, a hidden moral order according to which the meek and the downtrodden were secretly the victors. And like alcohol, then, Christianity was resolutely not for the philosopher determined to take a hard and sober look at this reality, our reality, the only reality.

Free from moralising

But it’s interesting that Nietzsche’s abstention from alcohol, while charged with all this palpable disgust for the substance, is free from any moralising. Nietzsche is not wagging his finger at consumers of alcohol for breaking any moral law against it, much less claiming to hold himself to such a law. They may need their alcohol just as much as he needs it not. Indeed, it’s partly the moralizing, and thus elevating, of what are ultimately personal needs that turned him off the vegetarians: that they ‘would like to make [vegetarianism] a law of the masses: thus they want to call forth and increase a need that they are able to satisfy.’

Can Nietzsche have any advice for us, then, about the question of whether to drink or not to drink, to eat meat or not? Rather than refer us to a moral law for the answer, he might encourage us to be honest about what need within ourselves each choice – if it is a choice – serves. For Nietzsche himself it was the need, above all, to become a philosopher.


Nietzche's New Year's Resolution

Nietzsche once included his own New Year’s resolution in one of his published works. In doing so, he expounded one of his key ideas: amor fati, the love of fate.

'For the new year. - I'm still alive; I still think: I must still be alive because I still have to think. Sum, ergo cogito: cogito, ergo sum. Today everyone allows himself to express his dearest wish and thoughts: so I, too, want to say what I wish from myself today and what thought first crossed my heart – what thought shall be the reason, warrant, and sweetness of the rest of my life! I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus I will be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! I do not want to wage war against ugliness. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!'

(The Gay Science [1882], §276)