The surprising value of a broken mind

By Jules Pye,  Graduate of Climate Academy, EEB2.

We all have two biological parents, without which, nothing would have got started at all. During our childhood they most often become our legal guardians, mentors and are the ones who give us our first set of manners, morality, traditions and beliefs. At birth we are thrown into the world as lost and clueless tabulae rasae. There is therefore no way around sucking up our parents’ values like dry sponges; even if we were to be pre-pubescent Nietzsches.

However, not only do we accept our parents’ view of things as the only and true one and adopt these, we are also completely dependent on them; a dependency which reaches far beyond a material one. They teach us the rules of all kinds of social ‘games’, such as how to efficiently and correctly interact and communicate with other humans. Being able to play by the rules of everyday life is vital for our survival in any society, making us heavily dependent on our parents (or similar equivalents) for our future adult success. This is true regardless of whether we approve or oppose them.

According to ‘The School Of Life’​*​ the ones who loved and cared for us during childhood (who were most often our parents) also gave us a solid emotional bedrock, equally valuable for later life as the social skills they taught us: “In the course of being loved, we got an encyclopedic emotional education”. These emotions include endurance, self-love, patience and forgiveness and are a very important part of a healthy human’s daily life.

Research conducted in 2016, which examined hundreds of children in two US metropolitan areas, found that fatherless children were at a much higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse and that children from single-parent families were twice as likely to commit suicide. (However, children living with their married biological parents were less anxious, depressed and delinquent than children living with one or more non-biological ‘parent’. This could suggest that all of the previously mentioned characteristics we get from our parents, only lead to a stable mental state if they really are our biological ones).

It is this broken mindedness that we will analyze, with a focus on the lack of a father figure. For examining the issue of growing up without a father on a personal level, Nietzsche will be used as a ‘case study’ and Freud will help us to explain the implications and results of it. To bridge the gap between the individual and society we will use Lacan’s idea of a good political leader. Then with Hobbes, we will look at the importance of a role model for a society as a whole, by considering Somalia’s anarchy as a case study. Finally, Kierkegaard will help us make the link between broken, fatherless or leaderless minds and solving climate change.

Although this summary might seem like it has a rather eclectic mix of ideas, concepts and thinkers there is a common thread running through them. This essay is going to argue that unless we are prepared to think about climate change outside of our normal comfort zone and unless we are ready to let go of some very basic assumptions about the world, then our response to climate change will remain far too limited.

Philosophy is a subject that can pull together a wild range of thoughts, events, people and theories – and build arguments out of them.  It can line these elements up in a new way that can suddenly make everything much clearer.  But you have to be ready to think and suffer a bit first.

Nietzsche and Freud – How important are father figures for the individual?

Friedrich Nietzsche was mad. The mental breakdown he suffered in 1889 was only the beginning of 11 years of unhinged behaviour. In the days that followed his collapse (when hugged the horse in Turin), he wrote many letters​†​; these Wahnzettel (lit.: ‘Notes of craze’) were either signed Dionysus or der Gekreuzigte (‘the crucified one’, i.e. Jesus). In one of the letters he even claimed to be “Buddha [among the Hindus], in Greece Dionysus” and that “Alexander [presumably the Great] and Caesar were incarnations of [him], as well as the poet of Shakespeare, Lord Bacon. Most recently [he also] was Voltaire and Napoleon, perhaps also Richard Wagner”, and many other big declarations and statements were made throughout the series of letters. It is still debated what the exact cause of this mental state of his was, but it almost certainly was the symptom of a physical illness he had.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Relevant to us is the fact that Friedrich’s father died just before he turned five. His brother’s death 6 months later meant that the only other male in the family was his grandfather. As previously discussed, the absence of one’s father whilst growing up can have dramatic consequences.

And even though this lack of male role- models during Nietzsche’s childhood might not be the direct cause of his breakdown, it certainly didn’t help. Moreover, it is likely that such a traumatic experience and unique upbringing caused his ability to not only do philosophy, but to revolutionize it. It is difficult for us to imagine a human being – who hasn’t had this unique childhood – to come up with ideas and insights as radical as Nietzsche’s; since any philosopher must first distance himself from the common sense, opinions and widely accepted facts, before being able to examine and undermine them. Nietzsche’s unusual start in life would have already given him a head start for this.

To try and understand the whole idea of the effects of growing up without a father, we can turn to the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud divided his highly sexualised view of a child’s development into five psychosexual stages, from the oral stage up until the child’s first birthday – in which the world is discovered and enjoyed through the mouth – to the genital stage from puberty onwards, in which sexual desires reawaken [yes, re-awaken, as they supposedly first awoke in the phallic stage (when the child is between 4 and 6)].

Nietzsche experienced his father’s death in the middle of his phallic stage in which a young boy is supposed to be reducing emotional and sexual tension caused by the Oedipal Complex by imitating his father’s behavior and taking on board his attitudes, values and behavior – something Nietzsche wouldn’t have been able to do with his dead father. It would have led to a build-up of frustration and had serious effects on Nietzsche’s mental health.

According to Freud’s theories (of which this following part has remained largely unchanged over the years) such a serious primal wound (i.e. his father’s death and the traumatic experiences that surround it) would then lead on to manifest itself in adult life. In Nietzsche’s case, the manifestation would be his ideas and writings that led him to become the famous madman he was.

The second of Freud’s theories that could help explain Nietzsche’s case and that of many other fatherless geniuses is that of sublimation. Freud argued that we have the ability to transform any kind of egoistic and destructive frustration and disappointment (mainly from childhood) into its exact opposite: a highly positive energy that can be used to, for example, be creative or centering one’s life around helping others.

Indeed, Freud himself lost his father in 1896 which he said caused depressions and a neurasthenia, but it also led him to revise many of his theories. Freud understood that this event had very significant impact on him, and it is true that after this date he wrote prolifically for the rest of his life with revolutionary new ideas. In Nietzsche’s case, it could be argued that he sublimated all of the sadness and male loneliness of his childhood into the creativity – such as poems, music and philosophy – he excelled at.

Lacan – A bridge from the individual to society

The French philosopher Jacques Lacan was intellectually very active during the 1960s, a time which was full of protests, revolutions and events of great social change – the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, Woodstock and the debuts of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Sesame Street’ being just a few of those. His ideas will help us bridge the gap between the ontogenetic and phylogenetic level in two ways: with his idea of an ideal political leader and with his ‘Name-of-the Father’ theory, the latter being based on Freud’s Oedipal Complex.

Lacan’s Name-of-the-Father is a very  clever name for his view of the father’s role in his symbolic order: it plays on the nearly identically sounding French phrases ‘le nom du père’ (‘the name of the father’) and ‘le non du père’ (the ‘no’ of the father) and was probably intentionally designed to have its mocking undertone towards the Christian God. In the Oedipal Complex the father’s role is a both prohibitive and legislative one. It’s up to the father to keep the son’s sexual desires for his mother at bay and to install law and order. Lacan makes the link between the individual and society by giving the father figure this importance both on an individual family’s and on a societal level. He is both the counterpart of the son’s sexual incest desires and the one who is responsible for imposing laws; the ‘le nom du père’ being the one imposing laws and ‘le non du père’ being the antagonist to his son’s repressed desire for his mother.

“It is in the Name-of-the-Father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law.” ~Jacques Lacan

Lacan’s message for the student protesters during the ‘60s was: “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.” The ideal political leader (or “master”) Lacan thought we all aspire to, is one who is able to convince people of the disappointing nature of reality without causing outrage, protest and uproar from the masses. By doing so, these leaders dare to be adults and are thereby also ‘the-ones-who-will-make- everything-ok’, the ones who will solve all issues and who will be there in time of disaster. In other words: they are ideal parents. This links the individual’s need for a strong and reliable parent to society’s need for a similar role-model wonderfully.

Jacques Lacan

Hobbes and Somalia – Role models for societies

For fifteen years Somalia went without central government: The ever increasingly unpopular Siad Barre was overthrown by the ‘Somali Rebellion’ in 1991 and wasn’t replaced until the ‘Transitional National Government’ took power in 2006. It was, in essence, an anarchy. The country was divided into countless fiefdoms controlled by rival warlords, who occasionally clashed for territory. Even though some private companies thrived, they were unaffordable to most of the population and chaos reigned. Levels of daily violence were described as “catastrophic”3 by ‘Médecins Sans Frontières’, all political institutions broke down, mass migrations and makeshift refugee camps caused the rapid spread of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhoea and dysentery and the country turned into a terrorist haven.

It seemed like an incarnation of Hobbes’ stateless state of nature theory: life really was “poor, nasty, brutish and short” and the fear of violence was enough to cause it. But to get back to our initial question, it could easily be argued that the presence of a strong role model in form of a political leader would have been able to at least mitigate the chaos and violence during those fifteen years, which eventually led into the civil wars that have been going on since 2006. The intertribal conflicts probably took place because of conflicts of beliefs and interests, which set different groups against each other right from the beginning. United under one political framework and a certain set of ideologies imposed by it, violence might have been avoided to some extent.

This is not to endorse state violence  at all, but rather to point out the fundamental value of having stability in a country where people buy into the ‘imaginary’ authority of the ruler, who would then be acting as a cornerstone in the public imagination. Establishing order as a role model does not have to be violent.

Hobbes would have argued a very similar point, giving it the same justifications for a totalitarian like ruler he called ‘the sovereign’. During its anarchy, the people of Somalia showed very clearly what Hobbes had predicted the state of nature would look like: Everyone, fueled by the fear of being the first victim of violence, started to be aggressive to make sure they were the attacker rather than the attacked. It certainly was not because of an ‘evil human nature’. One former Somali army major even reports of being caught in  children’s holdups: “There is nothing you can do when kids with guns steal everything you have, even your clothes. I’m from a small clan, so I was unable to fight back”. Even once the transitional government and its president were all set and ready to go in 2004, the situation was so unstable that they had to wait two years before even being able to enter the country. This particular witness account and the situation the alleged president was in shows just how badly everyone and anyone can be affected by the nervousness that rises without the presence of a strong government.

Kierkegaard – crises as wake-up-calls

The Danish 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard lost all but one of his six siblings by the time he was 22. His traumatic breakup with his fiancé in 1841 and the death of his siblings – even if not that of his father – had a tremendous impact on him and his philosophy. He is, like many others, a philosopher whose traumatic experiences norms, common sense and general opinion. In his case his philosophy has gone towards how we should stop thinking we can know anything and stop pretending our lives are comfortable, happy or without mystery or paradoxes in any way. It is Kierkegaard’s (and Nietzsche’s) coming to terms with the reality of life and the outside world through devastating experiences and their responses to it that will link us to climate change. As mentioned, one of Kierkegaard’s main philosophical aims was to get us to wake up from our safe and cozy emotional illusions around work, love, family and a purposeful and meaningful life. Much like Nietzsche, he wanted us to see that life was wonderful because it was full of contradictions, paradoxes and unanswerable questions. For Nietzsche this ended in an embrace of life and its mysteries, whereas Kierkegaard ended up making his famous ‘leap of faith’. In it, he had contempt for systems of thought that were overconfident in human reason – especially for Hegel and his System, and for those in the Danish church who followed the Bible with little thought and were just going through the motions. And so, Kierkegaard, instead of trying to resolve the tension between subjectivity and objectivity, just threw himself to God. He described this leap as follows: “To have faith is to lose your mind and to win God”.

The ‘system-thinking’ that Kierkegaard opposed himself to are similar to some today’s ritual recyclers, polar bear mourners, ‘make-sure-you-turn-the-light-off-ers’, ‘technology-will-save-us-ers’ and ‘our-kids- will-solve-it-ers’. These people lack the depth of thinking and understanding of the scale of the problem that would lead them to realize the banality of their actions and beliefs. When tackling climate change intellectually and in terms of emissions, we need a similar approach to Kierkegaard’s: we also need to ‘lose our minds’, which can happen in two different ways.

Firstly, by thinking outside the box – or rather, outside the system; just like Kierkegaard continuously attacked “the system” of Hegelian idealism. We need to do this because the current one – which is purely focused on economic profit, based on the false assumption that the world has infinite natural resources and is totally tolerant of human interference – won’t be able to offer us any feasible solutions. And it isn’t just our disastrously consumptive system we need to change, it is also our ways of thinking when seeing ourselves as humans in relation to the rest of planet earth. We need to lose our current homocentric state of mind and realise that we, not just the fluffy polar bears and hungry pandas, will be (very close to) wiped out by a climate that grows out of control.

The second is to lose our minds by starting to panic. In Hobbes’ state of nature, there is a certain point of no return, beyond which tremendous effort is required to put the affected society back onto its feet (just like Somalia still hasn’t recovered from its time of anarchy). The same tipping points will happen with climate change, mainly on an ecological level. However, since humans are simply of part of the world’s ecosystems, these break downs will pull us with them. The collapse of ecosystems will bring about the collapse of countries and societies, as natural stress (less food production, less available land, etc.) will turn us into nervous ‘grabbers’, higher direct human competition and the accompanying violence.

However, one of Kierkegaard’s approaches that we could be skeptical about adopting given the urgency of climate change is his use of laughter. He writes of his philosophical enlightenment: “I opened my eyes and saw the real world, and I began to laugh and I haven’t stopped since.” When being confronted with the reality of climate change and the necessity to act now due to its width and depth, one might let out a short-lived nervous laugh at the absurdity of the situation (before heading off to go and cry in the corner). When one sees how little has been done in terms of climate mitigation given the fact that the science has been rock-solid for over 50 years, one might laugh at the tiny amount of resolve politicians around the world are showing and how insufficiently and in what twisted manner the situation is covered by the media.

Nevertheless, climate change most definitely is not a laughing matter. Humanity, thousands of ecosystems and animal and plant species are at risk. We have no time to waste in laughing, unless we use it as a way of dealing with the absurdity of the climate state we are in, whilst keeping a sane and clear mind. Only then will we be able to solve the sixth mass extinction by being laughing children (similar to Nietzsche’s third metamorphosis, the child).

We need radical people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who are not afraid to face the truth and live according to it. It is people like them should become the role models of our societies, the ones who direct us, the ones who teach humanity to handle bare truths, the ones who make us sapere aude.


We have seen that different kinds of brokenness can lead to different outcomes. After having analyzed Nietzsche’s example of a fatherless upbringing and Kierkegaard’s traumatic youth and early adulthood and the effects they have had on their philosophy, we have seen that these philosophers have managed to sublimate their tough starts in life into great thoughts and works. They might even be able to help us tackle climate change, as they have found a way of dealing with absurd realities and brutal, devastating facts, whilst still holding on to and celebrating some kind of higher life; in Nietzsche’s case raw existence, and in Kierkegaard’s case, God.

And so, it seems, that when faced with the crisis of climate change, broken minds like theirs could be the ones to help save us from the jaws of our own egoism.

About the author

Jules Pye

Graduate of Climate Academy, EEB2

After Gap year, will read Geography at Cambridge University from September 2020.

French, Aged 18

  1. ​*​
    The School of Life : An Emotional Education, (Hamilton Hamish) 2019
  2. ​†​
    “Nietzsche Briefe”, (1889) www.thenietzschechannel. com/correspondence/ger/nlett1889g.htm

5 thoughts on “The surprising value of a broken mind

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