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



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VI Nietzsche and the Possibility of an Alternative Ideal

Towards the end of Nietzsche on Morality, Leiter ties together his interpretation of the Genealogy of Morals, arguing for how the three essays of the Genealogy of Morals are to be unified. Leiter writes that Nietzsche’s discussion in the Second Essay of the combination of ‘bad conscience’ and ascetic religions leading to the production of guilt, leads into the Third Essay’s discussion of the use of guilt by the ascetic priest ultimately to give meaning to suffering and to block suicidal nihilism. Leiter then notes that in section 28 of the Third Essay Nietzsche writes that before the ascetic ideal there was no answer to the question “Suffering for what?” Before the ascetic ideal there was no meaning to suffering:

Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His existence on earth contained no goal; “why man at all?”—was a question without an answer; the will for man and earth was lacking; behind every great human destiny there sounded as a refrain a yet greater “in vain!” This is precisely what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking, that man was surrounded by a fearful void—he did not know how to justify, to account for, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his meaning. He also suffered otherwise, he was in the main a sickly animal: but his problem was not suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, “why do I suffer?”53
Key to Leiter’s interpretation is that, as he notes, “there is no distinction drawn here between the era of the Homeric Greeks, or the Romans, and the ‘Christian’ era, i.e., the ascetic era which encompasses the modern world as well.”54 From this, Leiter concludes that the Greeks and Romans suffered and were themselves at risk for suicidal nihilism. As Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo about the Third Essay of the Genealogy of Morals, the ascetic ideal has been so successful, “because it was the only ideal so far, because it had no rival.”55 This remark makes sense, Leiter contends, when we look at his interpretation of the Third Essay:

the triumph of the ascetic ideal is the product of the conjunction of 1) the absence of alternative ideals that render suffering meaningful and 2) the imperative (on pain of suicidal nihilism) to render meaningful the suffering that characterizes the human situation. Nietzsche’s heroic Greeks, who held bad conscience at bay, nonetheless suffered: and according to GM III: 28, they, too, lacked an answer to the fundamental, existential question of, “Suffering for what?” They, too, then had to succumb, eventually, to the attractions of the ascetic ideal, for that was the only device available so far for giving a meaning to suffering and thus blocking “suicidal nihilism.”56


So, the idea is that slave morality triumphed because it produced the ascetic ideal, the first and only ideal available that could give meaning to human suffering.57

Leiter notes rightly that if the ascetic ideal has been the only ideal so far available, the appearance of an alternative ideal would be of “enormous significance.”58 Nietzsche writes concerning the ascetic ideal, “Above all, a counterideal was lacking—until Zarathustra.”59 So it seems Nietzsche sees himself as offering such a counterideal with his Zarathustra. Leiter writes that a new ideal must be able to answer the question “Suffering for what?” and thus be able to block suicidal nihilism. But what kind of ideal is Nietzsche offering?

In his discussion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes that the penultimate section of the fourth book of his The Gay Science contains “the basic idea of Zarathustra.”60 As Kaufman notes, the idea here referred to is the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche starts the discussion by writing that, “The fundamental conception of [Thus Spoke Zarathustra] [is] the idea of the eternal recurrence, this highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable….”61 To this Leiter adds that the embracing of the eternal recurrence would remove suicidal nihilism, since someone who is nihilistically suicidal is not going to want to repeat life eternally, but end it prematurely. From this Leiter concludes that the teaching of the eternal recurrence is the alternative ideal offered by Nietzsche through Zarathustra, “for whom, ‘Pain is not considered an objection to life’ (EH III: Z-1) and who ‘says Yes to the point of justifying, of redeeming even all of the past’ (EH III: Z-8).”62 Further, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil that if we “look down into the most world-denying of all possible ways of thinking”, free of the delusive force of religious morality, we may see the opposite ideal:

The ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo—not only to himself but to the whole play and spectacle….63


If the ideal that Nietzsche offers is the eternal recurrence and this ideal can stave off suicidal nihilism, there still remains the question of what meaning, if any, can be found for suffering in relation to the eternal recurrence.

According to Leiter, the whole-hearted embracing of the eternal recurrence involves an acceptance of there not being any meaning to our suffering. To substantiate this claim Leiter quotes Nietzsche’s claim that the human will needs an aim and it would rather will nothing, i.e., the ascetic ideal, than not will. The eternal recurrence provides no meaning or justification for our suffering but it does provide another aim for the will: rather than will the ascetic ideal, one can will the eternal recurrence of every pleasure and pain, every small detail of one’s life.64 There is the problem perhaps that only the strongest can embrace the idea of the eternal recurrence, and therefore, the ascetic ideal will still be needed for the majority of wretched souls. But the eternal recurrence is at least a true and great possibility for those great human souls who are strong enough to handle its consequences.65

To be fair, the least developed part of Leiter’s interpretation of the Genealogy of Morals is this last part, where he speaks of the eternal recurrence as an alternative to the ascetic ideal. Nevertheless, this is where is interpretation is weakest and, I believe, needs to be revised. A case can be made, and I will now attempt to make it, that suffering can be given a meaning along the lines of the eternal recurrence by way of acknowledging the necessity of suffering for greatness in human achievement and development. Let us now turn to this possibility.
VII A Nietzschean Justification of Suffering

If we are not to try to abolish all suffering, which ultimately amounts to merely avoiding suffering some of the time, then how can we view suffering in a way that is fecund and best for the enhancement of life? Perhaps one way to change our view of suffering is through the sincere acknowledgment that suffering has positive aspects, some of which might be necessary for human greatness.66 Nietzsche addresses the positive aspects of suffering from many different directions. Unfortunately, I will only look at two of them in turn.67 First, there is the idea that suffering and joy (happiness) are inseparable; further, to enjoy great joy requires submitting oneself to (at least the possibility of) great suffering. Second, suffering makes one strong.



Suffering and Joy as Inseparable

Commenting on what he calls the religion of pity, Nietzsche writes the following about suffering and happiness:

If you, who adhere to this religion, have the same attitude toward yourselves that you have toward your fellow men; if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible stress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together.68
Here Nietzsche plainly disparages the preference for comfortableness over pain: those who “worship” comfort know so little of happiness, for since happiness and unhappiness are twins, when you avoid unhappiness in your pursuit of comfort you avoid happiness as well. The obvious question is why should we believe that happiness is so tied to unhappiness?

In “Nietzsche And Dostoevsky On The Meaning Of Suffering,” George F. Sefler offers a possible answer. Unfortunately without citing his quotations, Sefler writes that for Nietzsche it is a “philosophical prejudice” of the metaphysician to postulate “antithetical absolutes”; for every good or pleasurable concept there exists an opposite concept: pleasure and pain are paired but antithetical.69 Further, according to Sefler, the metaphysician has claimed the impossibility “of the generation of one absolute from its respective opposite.”70 Nietzsche, according to Sefler, thinks these prejudices need to be reexamined, the implication being that the metaphysician is wrong to postulate such absolute opposites and that pleasure and pain really are not opposites in this sense. But so presented the case for great pleasures requiring great suffering remains unconvincing. James W. Hillesheim, discussing Nietzsche and self-overcoming, writes that we must get rid of the “dualistic view of pleasure and pain.”71 Appealing to Ryle’s notion of a category mistake, he calls this dualistic view of pleasure and pain a misclassification. In making the case on Nietzsche’s behalf that pleasure and pain really are connected, in particular for one engaged in self-overcoming, he cites a strange passage from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power:

Nietzsche cites examples of pleasures in which a number of painful stimuli are necessary:

This is the case, e.g., in tickling, also the sexual tickling in the act of coitus: here we see displeasure at work as an ingredient of pleasure. It seems, a little hindrance that is overcome and immediately followed by another little hindrance that is again overcome – this game of resistance and victory arouses most strongly that general feeling of superabundant, excessive power that constitutes the essence of pleasure.

The opposite, an increase in the sensation of pain through the introduction of little pleasurable stimuli, is lacking; for pleasure and pain are not opposites.72
Citing tickling and sexual tickling as examples of the combination of pleasure and pain hardly proves the case that great pleasure requires great pain. However, the idea we find here, that the constant overcoming of hindrances gives rise to feelings of excessive power, which in turn is the essence of pleasure, is important. It is at least plausible to view hindrances as, in some sense, displeasurable in themselves, and their overcoming as giving rise to feelings of power, which are, according to Nietzsche, the very essence of pleasure. If they are the essence of pleasure, or at least give rise to pleasure, it further seems plausible to say that the greater the hindrance, i.e., the greater the displeasure, the greater the feeling of power, and therefore, pleasure that will result. Further, we do find here some reason to disregard the idea that pleasure and pain are strict opposites. That is, Nietzsche points out that while certain kinds of pain will give rise to pleasure, certain types of pleasure will not give rise to pain in the same way.73

If we accept the idea that overcoming certain hindrances can lead to pleasure, and that the greater the hindrance the greater the pleasure, we do not thereby have to accept that this is the only way to bring about great pleasure. That is, we do not have to accept it as the only means to pleasure unless we really take Nietzsche’s assertion that the essence of pleasure is the feeling of superabundant, excessive power; and it is not obvious that Nietzsche is right about this.74 It is easy to imagine great pleasures that do not require feelings of excessive power. For example, I can love my job, earn money by it, and then go on a wonderful vacation where everything runs smoothly: I relax, play, perhaps on a deeper level I commune with nature, and thereby experience great, non-shallow pleasure. Nietzsche could argue that such pleasures are not really pleasures after all, much like Socrates does in Plato’s Republic, when he argues that physical pleasures are really illusions and therefore not real pleasures at all.75 But without serious argumentation, such a move would be a cheap trick. Nevertheless, there is something to the idea of great pleasure being cultivated by the overcoming of great hindrances, even if it does not turn out to be the only means for experiencing great pleasure.

Sefler tries to tie pleasure and pain together in another way. Life, he writes, is “situational”; it is made up of interrelated elements whose configurations determine the meaning of the overall whole:

Elements of experience are such because of their relationality to their co-elements. Pain has no meaning “in-itself”; it is meaningful only in reference to pleasure….And…happiness has no meaning “in-itself,” it is meaningful only in reference to suffering. If suffering were to disappear from the world, happiness would likewise disappear; that is, the happiness-suffering dimensions of life would combine into a constant, unchangeable state which would be indifferentiable.76


We might agree that what pain means to us is dependent upon how it fits into the rest of our lives, including its relation to the pleasure we experience. If we feel our pleasures are mediocre and our pains significant, this may be a result of their relation. That is, the pleasure feels particularly mediocre in light of the great pain we experience, and the pain we experience is particularly significant in light of the meager pleasures we experience. Or it might be the case that after suffering a great pain, what would otherwise be a mediocre pleasure is experienced as something truly great. For example, our experience of a hot bath will surely be different depending on whether we have been doing manual labor all day or whether we are just bathing upon awakening. However, it is not entirely clear that if suffering were to disappear, so would happiness. True, happiness may mean something different with the disappearance of suffering and thereby what was happiness strictly speaking disappears, but this does not seem to imply that we would not experience any kind of happiness or pleasure. If we live somewhere where the summers are around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the winters around 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the great difference will surely color our experiences of hot and cold temperatures; nevertheless, if we lived somewhere where the temperature never got below 85 degrees Fahrenheit, we would surely still sweat and feel the heat, even if its “meaning” in some sense were to be different without the contrasting experience of the cold temperature. So, while it does not speak against their being opposites, we can accept that pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering are so connected that the qualitative experience of one colors our qualitative experience of the other in a reciprocal fashion.

In summary, it seems reasonable to say that pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering, are so related that they are in some sense “twins,” or at least not complete opposites, in the following ways. First, there are some cases where pleasure results from pain in the form of hindrances overcome: the greater the hindrance the greater the feeling of power and therefore pleasure. Second, while pain may give rise to pleasure in some cases, it does not seem that the opposite holds, i.e., pleasure overcome does not give rise to pain. Third, and this does not necessarily speak against their being opposites, pain and pleasure have a reciprocal relationship in which the experience of the one colors our experience of the other. This coloring of experience could go either way: the greatness of suffering may either increase or decrease our feeling of pleasure, and vice versa.

The question then is whether we have found reason to think we should not try to avoid suffering as far as possible. In the first case, unless superabundant, excessive feelings of power really are the essence of pleasure, it doesn’t seem that the overcoming of hindrances is going to be the only way of achieving pleasure. And even if the essence of pleasure is as Nietzsche claims, it is not obvious that the overcoming of hindrances is the only way to achieve such levels of feeling. However, it does perhaps give reason to believe that there are instances of suffering that can bring about great feelings of pleasure. In the case of the reciprocal coloring of pleasure and pain, it gives reason to think that, at least in some cases, the experience of great suffering may be conducive to the experience of great pleasure. However, this reciprocal coloring does not seem to imply that we cannot experience great pleasure without great suffering. Therefore, we have been given reason to think that joy and suffering are connected in a way that implies they are not strict opposites, but not in a way that makes them wholly inseparable. Concerning the giving of meaning to our suffering, we might say that in those cases where suffering gives rise to great joy, insofar as we find a life of joy and happiness meaningful, we ought to find the suffering that allows for further joy to be meaningful as well. However, this is not altogether satisfying since it would not seem to be enough to stave off suicidal nihilism. So, let us now turn to other ways in which suffering is conducive to the enhancement of human life.

Suffering Makes Strong

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:



Evil.— Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible. The poison of which weaker natures perish strengthens the strong—nor do they call it poison.77
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes that the unfree spirits want sympathy for those that suffer and want even to abolish suffering:
We opposite men, having opened our eyes and conscience to the question where and how the plant “man” has so far grown most vigorously to a height—we think that this has happened every time under opposite conditions, that to this end the dangerousness of his situation must first grow to the point of enormity, his power of invention and simulation (his “spirit”) had to develop under prolonged pressure and constraint into refinement and audacity, his life-will had to be enhanced into an unconditional power-will. We think that hardness, forcefulness, slavery, danger in the alley and the heart, life in hiding, stoicism, the art of experiment and devilry of every kind, that everything evil, terrible, tyrannical in man, everything in him that is kin to beasts of prey and serpents, serves the enhancement of the species “man” as much as its opposite does.78
And later:
You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible—that makes his destruction desirable.

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?79


And finally, “A species comes to be, a type becomes fixed and strong, through the long fight with essentially constant unfavorable conditions.80 These passages are clearly complex, and each has a role in its particular context. However, it is still reasonable to take away from these passages two basic points. First, that suffering and harsh conditions are required to make an individual great and fruitful. Second, that suffering, man’s evil to man, and harsh conditions in general are necessary to the advancement of humans as a species. The first point is plausible to a degree, for it does seem right to say that insofar as we are exposed to harsh conditions, we are forced to learn to overcome them or perish; in successfully overcoming adverse and painful situations, we naturally become smarter, stronger, and wiser.81 We should remember that painful situations can be physical, psychological, or both; and thus, the strength gained need not be thought of as physical strength—one often gains a mental strength, a strength of will, a strengthened sense of one’s self and abilities. The second point is also plausible to a degree, for harsh conditions would weed out weakness, and through the reduction of weak individuals, their genes are removed from circulation. This is, of course, reminiscent of the idea of the survival of the fittest. When conditions are comfortable, those that may degrade the species are allowed to propagate. As with strength, weaknesses should not be thought of as only physical.82

That harsh conditions somehow better both the individual and the species is surely only true to a degree. For example, when Nietzsche writes, “Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”,83 this is clearly not universally true.84 There are two constraints: first, there is a point of diminishing returns. If I am shot in the head, survive, but lose my memory, many motor skills, and the ability to fully grasp what is happening around me, I am not destroyed but I am surely not stronger because of it (though this will possibly depend on the second constraint). Conversely, if my cat scratches my hand by accident, the “suffering” I thereby experience is not going to the kind from which I can become stronger. So, there are low and high degrees of suffering that seem to be ruled out. Second, even if what I suffer is only the loss of a pet, my job, or a hand, I am not automatically made stronger by living through it. There are times where all we can do is hold on as best we can, hoping that the pain will stop; in such cases we do not overcome the suffering, but just do our best to ride it out. Whether I come out stronger depends on what my attitudes towards suffering are and whether I can use those attitudes to see the suffering as an opportunity for growth and strengthening, and then whether I have the strength to carry out the growth. Concerning the strengthening of the species through harsh conditions, we can also imagine limiting cases. Conditions of great plague or natural disaster in which our strength of will and body are of no use are not going to be conditions under which the species is strengthened.85 Further, it is not entirely clear why we should think murder and theft strengthen the species, as Nietzsche seems to claim.

Can we say now, as Hillesheim does, that since harsh conditions and suffering can “function as a psychological stimulant to further growth” that “Suffering is thus not without meaning; man’s suffering is transfigured by the knowledge that it serves a life-enhancing end”?86 Or as Sefler says, in regard to an individual giving meaning to her suffering, “The proper way of understanding suffering, Friedrich Nietzsche proposes, is to acknowledge its existence and to give it a positive and necessary status within human life”?87 We still have yet to look at the role of the eternal recurrence, which is what Leiter takes to be the center of Nietzsche’s offered alternative ideal to the ascetic ideal, yet at this point we can say, pace Leiter, that suffering can be given a meaning, we can answer the question “Why do I suffer?” with, “I suffer, not as a punishment, but in order to become better and stronger; it is up to me to use my suffering.” This answer differs in an important way from that of the religious answer, say, that of the Christian or Buddhist. Whereas they are backwards-looking, looking for a cause or reason for our suffering, our Nietzschean answer is forward-looking: suffering has meaning not because it is deserved but because of its possible life enhancing capabilities. Suffering is not to be endured as a deserved punishment, but embraced because it is pregnant with possibilities for growth and power.

We must, however, be careful with this answer. The idea that suffering is somehow justified through its life-enhancing capabilities does not mean that the great joy that may result from profound suffering is a justification for our suffering. At least this is not what Nietzsche wanted to say: “The more volcanic the earth, the greater the happiness will be - but it would be ludicrous to say that this happiness justified suffering per se."88 But this brings to light another issue: if the joy that might result from suffering does not justify suffering, why should the strengthening aspect of suffering justify or give meaning to suffering? After all, if both happiness and enhancement are possible results of suffering, and happiness does not justify suffering, why should enhancement? For Nietzsche, the answer might be that human greatness is a goal, but human happiness is not. It is suffering, not happiness, that makes great. So, since happiness is not to be desired over suffering to begin with, any happiness that results from “volcanic earth” is not going to justify our suffering. But the life-enhancing aspects of suffering do give suffering meaning because human greatness is more desirable than human happiness per se.89 However, this possible response to suffering and its meaning is still incomplete. We must turn to further considerations.

The strengthening role of suffering in human life is another mark against religious morality for Nietzsche. He saw the strengthening of the species as desirable; or more precisely, he saw the cultivation of higher types of humans as desirable (more on this below). This is one of the reasons his tongue was so sharp in his polemic against religious morality. In previous sections we witnessed his reasons for considering the ascetic priest’s method of giving meaning to our suffering mendacious and deleterious. Here we can bring forth another reason for his distaste for religious morality. We saw the various palliatives provided by the ascetic priest for his flock—a flock that consists of the meek, those who have twisted earlier valuations and who have found ways to protect and propagate themselves. As such, Nietzsche sees them as weakening the species, and this is why he says of Buddhism and Christianity:

They seek to preserve, to preserve alive whatever can possibly be preserved…the sovereign religions we have had so far are among the chief causes that have kept the type “man” on a lower rung—they have preserved too much of what ought to perish…to preserve all that was sick and that suffered—which means, in fact and in truth, to worsen the European race….90


So, here too, we see another reason against religious morality and its desire to ease suffering, its desire to give suffering a meaning through guilt. This is why, in the Preface to the Genealogy of Morals he asks, what if “morality would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that precisely morality was the danger of dangers?”91 Further, “Our weak, unmanly, social concepts of good and evil and their tremendous ascendancy over body and soul have finally weakened all bodies and souls and snapped the self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men, the pillars of a strong civilization….”92 Appealing to such remarks, Leiter argues that it is religious morality’s detrimental effects on the propagation and cultivation of the higher types of humans that causes Nietzsche to object so strongly to such a morality.93 An important question now arises: are these higher types simply a result of any human’s being able to confront and benefit from harsh conditions, or are the higher types a product of harsh conditions and a certain predisposition to greatness? An answer to this question is all important in deciding what our attitude towards suffering should be. If we can give meaning to suffering by acknowledging its necessity and enhancing effects, but it is only a certain type that is capable of really benefiting from suffering, then whether one should embrace suffering or retreat to the shelter provided by the ascetic priest will depend upon one’s type.
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