Nietzsche and Suffering—a Choice of Attitudes and Ideals I introduction

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George Wrisley

University of Iowa

Nietzsche and Suffering—a Choice of Attitudes and Ideals

I Introduction

What follows is an attempt to do primarily two things: first, to find an answer to the question of what our attitude toward suffering should be; second, to elucidate and draw on some of Nietzsche’s views on suffering to address this question. I am going to argue that our attitude toward suffering should be one in which we embrace our suffering and attempt to take on as much responsibility as possible. However, given some ideas found in Nietzsche concerning the order of rank, it is not clear that this is a possibility open to all. I will look at various passages from Nietzsche’s oeuvre, arguing that we can find there an alternative ideal to the ascetic ideal. Brian Leiter argues that before Nietzsche the ascetic ideal was the only means to give meaning to human suffering. While Leiter argues that the alternative Nietzschean ideal does not actually provide a meaning for suffering, I will argue that he is mistaken. But even if he is right, I still maintain that from Nietzsche’s texts we can find reason to think that suffering can be given a meaning without the ascetic ideal. Sections II-IV further elaborate and introduce the topics that will be addressed in this paper.

II Suffering as a Constituent of Life

“To live is to suffer”: this is only contentious if we thereby mean that to live is only to suffer. If we say that suffering pervades life, that need not mean that there are no pleasures in life. Even still, is it true that for every individual, life will involve suffering? Other than those who are born and die a quick, painless death shortly thereafter, the answer is surely going to be yes. However, before we rightfully answer whether life automatically means suffering, we should say what is meant by suffering.

If we look at suffering as a genus, we can say that psychological suffering and physical suffering are its species.1 It is easy to think of examples of both kinds.2 Under mental suffering we find depression, anxiety, fear, unsatisfied desires (perhaps even desire itself before it is satisfied), loneliness, loss, anguish, grief, separation, lamentation, distress, dissatisfaction, rejection, failure, hopelessness, stress, boredom, ennui, angst, weltschmerz, existential malaise, and so on. While all of the above admit to degrees, one could argue that any degree of any of them constitutes suffering. Physical suffering presents more of a variety of clear and unclear cases of suffering due to degrees. There is pain—really the paradigm of physical suffering3—in its various degrees (passing a kidney stone to a mild, dull, almost unnoticed ache), hunger, which can range from mild discomfort to actual pain, itching in its various degrees (most of one’s body covered in a rash to the itch one offhandedly scratches), degrees of being too hot or too cold, being tickled until one cannot stand it, and so on.4

One becomes acquainted with more kinds of suffering the longer one lives. But even a very young sheltered child has experienced many of the above kinds of suffering. At the very least, any child will experience hunger and unsatisfied desires; in all likelihood, however, a child will experience much more suffering. When we consider the full range of possible human suffering, it is hard to deny that to live is to suffer, as long as we do not mean that to live is only to suffer. However, it is not so clear that we can say that to live is to experience joy. For it seems quite clear from my experience, and that related to me by others, that it is far easier to suffer than to find joy, peace, or happiness.

III An Important Complication to Suffering

In section II, I listed many kinds of psychological and physical suffering; to those kinds of suffering we can add another: the suffering we experience due to our suffering. In its simplest form this might just be the lamentation of not being able to walk around as one would because of the pain from a sprained ankle. Such complications and additional suffering are important; however, a more pressing problem is the way we feel when we cannot find a purpose or meaning for our suffering. Nietzsche writes that man’s problem, “was not suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, ‘why do I suffer?’…The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far—”5 Lack of such meaning creates a suffocating void, opening the door to suicidal nihilism.6 In Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl writes, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice….That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.”7 So, in addressing what our attitude toward suffering should be, we need to take into consideration the problem of meaning for our suffering.8 As we will see, Nietzsche thinks that until he arrived the ascetic ideal was the only means whereby suffering could be given meaning. As Leiter does, I will argue that Nietzsche provides an alternative to the ascetic ideal.9 What the ascetic ideal and its Nietzschean alternative are will be the focus of our inquiry into what our attitude toward suffering should be.

IV What Should Our Attitude Toward Suffering Be?

How should we comport ourselves to the suffering we find in our lives? When touching a hot stove or confronted with danger, our natural reactions are to pull back, to flee, to find safety. In general it seems that we naturally shy away from discomfort and pain—suffering of all types. The child laments his boring afternoon and the adult fears the impending death of a parent and the subsequent anguish the loss will bring, hoping and wishing they will never come. Suffering, it seems, is quite rightly seen as undesirable. However:

When a misfortune strikes us, we can overcome it either by removing its cause or else by changing the effect it has on our feelings, that is, by reinterpreting the misfortune as a good, whose benefit may only later become clear.10
So, should we seek to abolish suffering as far as we can by removing its cause, or should we attempt to change our attitude toward suffering such that it is no longer seen as (always) undesirable?11

Taking Nietzsche seriously when he says that it is the meaning of our suffering that has been the problem, I will attempt to indirectly answer this question by looking at two possibilities found in Nietzsche for giving meaning to our suffering. The first possibility concerns a religious ethic that, according to Nietzsche, views suffering as undesirable, but which ultimately uses mendacious and deleterious means to provide a meaning for human suffering. The second possibility concerns the extent to which we can say Nietzsche endorsed the idea of giving meaning to suffering through acknowledging its necessary role in human enhancement and greatness. Since the religious ethic sees suffering as undesirable and thus something ultimately to be avoided (being itself the paradigmatic means for easing suffering), and the means it uses to give suffering meaning are ultimately mendacious, I will argue that if Nietzsche is significantly correct in both his attack on religious morality and his alternative ideal, we can take this as evidence that the avoidance of suffering is not the proper attitude. Unfortunately, I will not be able to address the question of whether Nietzsche is significantly correct in this paper.12 Secondly, given Nietzsche’s positive alternative—one that embraces the necessary role suffering has for the enhancement of human life—I will argue that we can take this as evidence that it is our attitude toward suffering that needs to be modified, i.e., we should modify so that we no longer see suffering as something to be avoided. Because of this, the middle position of avoiding suffering when possible and then seeing its positive attributes when it does occur does not recommend itself. That is, since it will be argued that suffering has a positive and necessary role to play, to seek to avoid it as far as possible and then to acknowledge its positive aspects when it does occur, is not really to acknowledge and accept suffering’s positive and necessary role. However, as we will see, all of this is complicated by the issue of the order of rank as found in Nietzsche’s writings.

V Religious Morality and the Easing of Suffering

To begin I will look at the possibility of desiring the abolishment or minimizing of suffering. There may be various ways that one might try to do away with or avoid suffering, but religion provides a good if not paradigmatic example of such a way. In his explication of basic Buddhist concepts, Kogen Mizuno writes, “The major purpose of all religions is to cure the illness of the spirit and create a wholesome, integrated psychological condition…[their] major task is the essential improvement of the psychological being to ensure spiritual health and immunity to spiritual illness.”13 There are surely those who might disagree to this being the major project of religion; however, it is not objectionable that many turn to religion for solace from their suffering.

In Buddhism we can most easily find a direct expression of the notion of abolishing suffering. At the center of the Buddha’s teachings are what are usually called the four noble truths: “that life is suffering, that ignorance is the cause of suffering, that suffering can be eliminated, and that the Eightfold Path is the way to eliminate suffering.”14 The Buddha is said to have been shaken out of his naïve view of life by viewing the suffering of sickness, old age, and death. It was upon seeing these that he realized the true nature of life. The Dalai Lama often says that all sentient beings desire happiness and freedom from suffering.15 Here we find the idea that happiness and suffering are separate; the latter interferes with the former.16 We all want happiness, so we all desire freedom from suffering. Buddhism supposedly offers a way to achieve this freedom—a freedom which is ultimately to be found in enlightenment and the cessation of the cycle of births and deaths; however, Buddhism also tries to cultivate happiness and the cessation of suffering caused by such things as sickness and death even before enlightenment occurs and Nirvana is found.

If we are to abolish or ease suffering, it is crucial to know why we are suffering. According to the second noble truth of Buddhism, we suffer out of ignorance. Without going into detail, this ignorance essentially consists of holding mistaken views about desire and impermanence.17 So each individual is responsible for his own suffering—it is up to each sufferer to try to cultivate the right views about desire and impermanence, among other things: a task not so easily accomplished.18

In Nietzsche’s critique of religious morality we also find a critique of the role of suffering in religion. Let us use what he says to shed light on the question of the fecundity of a religious attempt to ease suffering. Nietzsche writes that every sufferer naturally seeks the cause of her suffering. He believes that the sufferer seeks a guilty other upon whom the sufferer can vent herself in an attempt to relieve the suffering. According to Nietzsche, the ascetic priest tells the sufferer, in regard to there being someone to blame for her suffering, “Quite so, my sheep! Someone must be to blame for it: but you yourself are this someone, you alone are to blame for it—you alone are to blame for yourself!19 To see what Nietzsche means here, we need to look at his discussion of ressentiment, the ascetic ideal, the ascetic priest, and how the ascetic priest uses the ascetic ideal to give meaning to suffering.

Nietzsche, the Ascetic Ideal, and the Ascetic Priest

Let us go over the steps that lead to Nietzsche’s assertion that suffering acquires meaning through the ascetic priest and the ascetic ideal. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche introduces the terms “master morality” and “slave morality.”20 A main characteristic of this distinction lies in what is considered good and bad/evil for each. According to Nietzsche, it was the noble and powerful who established themselves and their actions as good in contrast to the low, the common, the plebian, which are bad.21 In the master morality ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean roughly ‘noble’ and ‘contemptible’ respectively. As Leiter emphasizes, the master morality begins with the good, calling the low and contemptible bad only secondarily.22 In contrast to the noble, the Jews are born of slavery; it is with them that the “slave rebellion of morals” begins.23 This moral rebellion of the slaves is marked by the inversion of prior values: they cry:

“the wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are blessed by God, blessedness is for them alone—and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned!”24
With slave morality, good is in contrast with evil, not the bad: as Leiter emphasizes, slave morality begins by designating what is evil—the noble, the powerful, the strong and high-minded—designating only secondarily the good as whatever is not evil.25 Hence, with slave morality it is the meek, the timid, the low-minded that are good.

This slave revolt of morality is characterized by the inversion of prior values. The good of the noble becomes the evil of the slaves; the mediocre, the bad of the noble becomes the good of the slaves. This “begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge.”26 This ressentiment is a psychological reaction to the unpleasant conditions of the slaves; it is expressed by a revaluation of values.27 The slaves are weak and unable to take real action against their powerful, noble masters. In bitterness and hatred, the slaves can only create new values: they invert the values of the noble and powerful, thereby devaluing them: “Moral judgments and condemnations constitute the favorite revenge of the spiritually limited against those less limited—also a sort of compensation for having been ill-favored by nature….”28 However, “in the broader sense…ressentiment is at work where people who are unhappy, who wish to improve their lot and who are incapable of doing so, invent a story according to which they really are well off.”29 In the case of the Christians, they tell themselves that it is they who are the blessed ones of God; it is they who are better off, for, as in Mathew 5:5, it is the meek that are the blessed inheritors of the earth. The masters for all their power are really evil and God will judge them harshly. But it is important to emphasize that ressentiment is not limited to Jews and Christians; it is found in all those who are unhappy and sick, where it is directed against the happy and healthy.30

Let us now tie this together with the ascetic ideal, the ascetic priest, and suffering. Nietzsche writes that it is in beholding the ascetic priest that we “come to grips” with the problem of the meaning of the ascetic ideal.31 But what are the ascetic priest and the ascetic ideal? Leiter notes that the ascetic priest is in many respects well represented by the early Christian proselytizers whose existence is tied to the success of the ascetic ideal.32 However, the ascetic priest is not limited to Christianity; he “appears in almost every age; he belongs to no one race; he prospers everywhere; he emerges from every class of society.”33 A central characteristic of the ascetic priest is his negative valuation of life: this life and this world are to be transcended—used merely as a “bridge” to another existence. For the ascetic priest, life is “a wrong road…or as a mistake that is put right by deeds—that we ought to put right: for he demands that one go along with him; where he can he compels acceptance of his evaluation of existence.”34 According to Nietzsche, the life advocated by the ascetic priest appears self-contradictory through its denial of life, through its veneration of “ill-constitutedness, decay, pain, mischance, ugliness, voluntary deprivation, self-mortification, self-flagellation, self-sacrifice,” through the ruling presence of the most intense ressentiment that seeks “to become master not over something in life but over life itself, over its most profound, powerful, and basic conditions….”35 This self-contradictoriness is merely apparent, however. The ascetic ideal comes out of the “protective instinct of a degenerating life” trying to sustain its existence. The ascetic ideal is a means for dealing with exhaustion and disgust with life; it is a means for giving meaning to one’s suffering.36 The question is how the ascetic priest eases and gives meaning to the suffering of his followers.

The ascetic priest is the shepherd of the wretched; he has dominion over suffering.37 As the shepherd of the wretched he is “a tool for the creation of more favorable conditions for being here and being man—it is precisely this power that enables him to persuade to existence the whole herd of the ill-constituted, disgruntled, underprivileged, unfortunate, and all who suffer of themselves….”38 Nietzsche observes that there are many ways in which the ascetic priest deals with the pain of the sufferers: consolation of every kind is the “genius” of the ascetic priest.39 Nietzsche divides them into “innocent” and “guilty” means.

The first of the innocent means involves attempting to:

reduce the feeling of life in general to its lowest point. If possible, will and desire are abolished altogether; all that produces affects and “blood” is avoided (abstinence from salt: the hygienic regimen of the fakirs); no love; no hate; indifference; no revenge; no wealth; no work; one begs; if possible, no women, or as little as possible; in spiritual matters, Pascal’s principle il faut s’abetir [One must make oneself stupid] is applied.40

This is supposed to bring about a kind of hypnotization—something similar to the hibernation of animals. One removes oneself as far as possible from the traffic of life with all of its inevitable painful accidents. An example in Indian religion is the idea of trying to become one with Brahma, trying to effect a mystical union with God. By entering into this kind of “deep sleep” one achieves freedom from suffering, but at the cost of effectively removing oneself from this world.41

The other innocent means are the following. Mechanical activity. By engaging in mechanical activity one’s consciousness is preoccupied by the activity, thereby excluding the suffering from one’s consciousness, often to a great degree. Petty pleasure. Often done in conjunction with mechanical activity, petty pleasure involves giving some pleasure to others through such activities as charity work. The “slight superiority” felt in helping others brings some happiness. Connected to petty pleasure is the “will to mutual aid,” love of one’s neighbor, and the desire for the formation of a community: “All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organization as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness….”42 Further, the individual is distracted from her own concerns by focusing on the needs and wellbeing of the community.43 All of this is encouraged by the ascetic priest.

The ascetic priest must protect the wretched from the healthy and the envy of the healthy, but primarily he must protect them from themselves, from the explosive accumulation of ressentiment that is a result of their suffering and envy of the healthy. He does this by a “guilty” means. Every sufferer seeks a cause, a culprit for his suffering upon whom the sufferer can vent his feelings; this venting deadens the pain. Nietzsche takes this narcotic effect to be the “actual physiological cause of ressentiment, vengefulness, and the like….”44 But this venting requires an object upon which the sufferer can discharge his feelings of vengefulness. Indeed the sufferer looks about himself for a culprit—he becomes mistrusting and makes “evildoers” out of his friends and family.45 But the ascetic priest redirects the ressentiment by means of a lie—by informing the wretched, the sick that they themselves are the cause of their suffering. It is here that the ascetic priest provides the sufferer with not only a means for deadening the pain but also a meaning for his suffering. For this is the ultimate problem of suffering according to Nietzsche: man’s “problem was not suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, ‘why do I suffer?’”46 Leiter argues that by changing the direction of ressentiment, the ascetic priest gets the sufferer to “discharge his emotions against himself…by lacerating himself with feelings of guilt.”47 The ascetic ideal is a valorization of self-denial: “The three great slogans of the ascetic ideal are familiar: poverty, humility, chastity.”48 Humans are creatures of desire, creatures whose instincts go against the ascetic ideal. Seeing this, the ascetic priest uses it to give meaning to suffering: suffering is punishment for going against the ascetic ideal.49 Man is made to feel guilty for transgressing the ascetic ideal—man as sinner deserves to suffer. With this, not only does suffering acquire meaning, one actually welcomes more suffering. Through the sorcery of the ascetic priest, “one no longer protested against pain, one thirsted for pain; ‘more pain! more pain!’ the desire of his disciples and initiates has cried for centuries.”50

Nietzsche has various criticisms concerning the ascetic priest, his use of the ascetic ideal, and the “herd” that has accepted such things; however, two are of particular interest. The first is the idea that the ascetic priest with his various means of alleviating suffering only addresses suffering as such, not its actual causes.51 The ascetic priest offers mere palliatives. Further, and what is worse, by use of the guilty means, the ascetic priest actually makes the sick sicker. Through his use of the guilty means of alleviating suffering, he makes the sick tame, weakened, refined, effete, and emasculated.52 So, meaning is found for one’s suffering, and suffering is itself in some sense alleviated, but at the price of not really understanding suffering and ultimately an increase in suffering.

To summarize, a vast majority of humans suffer; a vast majority of humans are sickly and unhappy. Their weakness and sickliness gives rise to ressentiment, but because of that very infirmity they are capable only of ressentiment—imaginary revenge. The ascetic priest sees this ressentiment as both dangerous if left to accumulate and as a way to give meaning to the suffering of the sick. While the sufferers naturally seek to ease their suffering, they also seek a guilty party to blame for their suffering. The ascetic priest convinces them that they themselves are that guilty party; they are guilty of transgressing against the ascetic ideal, the ideal of self-denial: poverty, humility, and chastity.

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