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



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Nietzsche and the “Problem” of Rank Order

Concerning profound suffering, Nietzsche writes that, “it almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer….Profound suffering makes noble; it separates.”94 But what is the order of rank and how does profound suffering help to determine the order of rank?

Nietzsche considers issues of rank order in a variety of ways and contexts. There are reasons for the order of rank and there are the ways in which it manifested. We begin by looking at its reasons. Primarily order of rank begins as a matter of biology. An indication of this in Nietzsche: “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…”95 Richard Schacht writes:

Speaking very generally, Nietzsche argues that while human beings may be allowed to have a common human nature, which sets them collectively apart from all forms of merely animal life, they differ in ways so substantial and significant that the doctrine of their essential equality requires to be judged a myth. Some, he holds, have it in them to surpass others in various respects….Those endowed with certain higher capacities others lack (either relatively or entirely), on his view, represent potentially ‘higher’ types in relation to the rest; and to the extent that these capacities are cultivated, developed and manifested in their lives, they are held actually to be ‘higher’ than others (including those in whom these capacities remain unrealized.96


The idea, then, is that humans are fundamentally unequal in their capacities and capabilities because of their nature—because of their biological make up, which affects both their physical and mental capacities. For Nietzsche, this inequality plays itself out so that there are higher types and lower types (and surely those in-between). We would probably want to add to this the idea that one’s upbringing and the conditions of one’s early development play important roles in determining the order of rank. As a corollary to our previous discussion of the idea that harsh conditions make one strong, we might want to say that the harsher the conditions one grew up in, the stronger one will be. But I do not mean to assert this as a truth that manifests itself ubiquitously or at all times.

Biology may help to determine the order of rank by predisposing individuals to be a particular type, but aside from this there are various characteristics that Nietzsche takes to be criteria for differentiating higher from lower types. Profound suffering helps to determine the order of rank in two ways. First, those who are physiologically and psychologically predetermined to be strong enough to suffer well are separated out from the weaker types insofar as they do not suffer well. Second, for Nietzsche, a part of suffering well is that one is made noble by it. Having suffered profoundly, the sufferer acquires a knowledge of terrible places that he alone knows about; he is prideful of this knowledge. He needs not to be pitied, but “to protect [himself] against contact with obtrusive and pitying hands and altogether against everything that is not its equal in suffering.”97 This pride and distaste for pity is the sufferer’s nobility. But this nobility is surely only had by those who suffer well, by those who are higher in the order of rank. The lower types, too, have gained a knowledge of terrible places, but instead of feeling pride, they feel afraid—they crave the pity and safety of others.

Another way that the order of rank manifests itself is through the degree to which one reveres oneself. Nietzsche asks, “What does the word ‘noble’ still mean to us today?”98 Part of his answer is that it is not one’s actions, works, or the desire for what is noble, but rather faith. But this is not a faith in something outside oneself. The faith that determines the order of rank is, “some fundamental certainty that a noble soul has about itself, something that cannot be sought, nor found, nor perhaps lost. The noble soul has reverence [Ehrfurcht] for itself.”99 This faith in oneself is clearly juxtaposed to that of religious faith: a faith often sought by those without it, particularly in times of profound suffering. From this, we can say that the higher type has a faith in himself and his capabilities; he does not need help from others to bear his suffering, nor does he need their pity. Insofar as one has this faith in oneself, one is distinguished from those of a lower rank.

Importantly related to the idea that one’s ability to suffer well and one’s faith in oneself determine the order of rank, Nietzsche says that a philosopher:

if today there could be philosophers—would be compelled to find the greatness of man, the concept of “greatness,” precisely in his range and multiplicity, in his wholeness in manifoldness. He would even determine value and rank in accordance with how much and how many things one could bear and take upon himself, how far one could extend his responsibility.100
If greatness is determined by the amount that one can take upon oneself, and if the weight of great responsibility is in some sense a difficult and thus sufferable weight, then one is great insofar as one can suffer great responsibility. This is not just any kind of suffering; rather, it is the desire to take on as much as one can. According to Leiter:

“What is noble?” Nietzsche again asks in a Nachlass note of 1888. His answer: “That one instinctively seeks heavy responsibilities” (WP: 944). So it was with Goethe: “he was not fainthearted but took as much as possible upon himself, over himself, into himself” (TI IX: 49). But the higher type does not seek out responsibilities and tasks arbitrarily. “A great man,” says Nietzsche displays “a long logic in all of his activity…he has the ability to extend his will across great stretches of his life and to despise, and reject everything petty about him” (WP: 962).101


Suffering makes noble, but the noble person suffers heavy responsibilities willingly. Conversely, then, the lower, the plebian, would rather take on as little responsibility as possible, for responsibility is uncomfortable at best. Therefore, in addition to suffering well and having faith in oneself, the higher type willingly suffers as much responsibility as possible, thus further distinguishing herself from the lower types.

Let us look at one last aspect of the order of rank, an aspect that will tie in with our previous discussion of religious morality. Nietzsche writes:

None of these ponderous herd animals with their unquiet consciences (who undertake to advocate the cause of egoism as the cause of the general welfare) wants to know or even sense that “the general welfare” is no ideal, no goal, no remotely intelligible concept, but only an emetic—that what is fair for one cannot by any means for that reason alone also be fair for others; that the demand of one morality for all is detrimental for the higher man; in short, that there is an order of rank between man and man, hence also between morality and morality.102
There is a great deal going on in this passage. Nietzsche is arguing against the idea that English utilitarianism should be viewed as right for humanity as a whole. Nietzsche wants to make clear that a desire for a universal morality is not only a bad idea—because of the order of rank—but also a dangerous one. The morality of the ascetic priest is dangerous to the higher type of man, for it is the morality of the meek and those that do not suffer well. And a morality that would be appropriate for the higher type would be dangerous for the lower type. Those in the lower ranks could not bear the burden of responsibility and suffering that comes with the higher type. This is, in part, why Nietzsche says that a further difference among people, one that further differentiates the order of rank, is their table of goods (what they take to be good) and what they take to be having something good. The higher type, for example, takes strength, self-reverence, and the ability to bear heavy responsibility as goods; the lower type takes timidity, humbleness, and altruistic ideals as goods (or poverty, humility, and chastity).

Much more could be said about the higher and lower types in Nietzsche’s writings. However, the point here has been to elucidate the reasons for and manifestations of the order of rank in relation to suffering. People are predisposed by nature to be higher or lower types. One’s subsequent experiences further mold one’s type. How the different types view and respond to suffering is a key aspect of what differentiates the higher from the lower types. The higher type not only can endure more suffering, but gladly takes on more suffering in the form of heavy responsibility. The higher type is self-assured and full of self-respect, and seeks to avoid being pitied. The lower type is just the opposite.

Now that we have a general sense of the difference of types and rank order, we need to address three issues. First, are Nietzsche’s views on the order of rank justified? Second, how does this relate back to our previous discussion of how suffering makes strong? Third, what does this mean in regard to what our attitude toward suffering should be? We will address these issues in that order.

The Question of Equality

As we have seen, Nietzsche essentially advocates inequality. In today’s world of political correctness and attempts by universities to push multiculturalism, to advocate inequality is blasphemous.103 But however distasteful the idea might be, we should give it a fair hearing. To begin, it is undeniable that humans are born with greatly unequal natural characteristics, abilities, and capacities. I will not try to list all the ways, but some of them include size, physical strength, metabolism, genetic predisposition to disease, eyesight, mental acuity, ability to concentrate, general disposition, demeanor, and so on. It is true that if you are not naturally a fast runner, you can train very hard to improve; nevertheless, if you are not predisposed to being really fast or to having great endurance, regardless of how hard you train, someone who is predisposed to these things will be faster or have greater endurance.

We might be willing to acknowledge that people are physically and psychologically different, at which point we say that though they are different in body and mind, everyone should have equal rights and equal opportunities. But from what we have already seen, even this is repugnant to Nietzsche. For example, the higher types should have the right to rule, whereas the lower types are not fit to rule. Speaking disparagingly of those he takes to be falsely called “free spirits” in his time, Nietzsche writes, “the two songs and doctrines which they repeat most often are ‘equality of rights’ and ‘sympathy for all that suffers’—and suffering itself they take for something that must be abolished.”104 For Nietzsche, those who want to guarantee equality of rights and opportunity also want to do away with suffering. Their hearts bleed for the suffering and inequality that they perceive. They do not realize the importance and necessity of suffering, Nietzsche would say. This is not to say that there are not actual cases where individuals are done wrong. Racism, in the sense, for example, of taking an individual of one race to be boorish or stupid simply by virtue of being of a particular race, can rightly be seen as doing that individual wrong. However, there is also the case of the violation of the rights of the higher type by the lower type’s calling for equality:

Today…when only the herd animal receives and dispense honors in Europe, when “equality of rights” could all to easily be changed into equality in violating rights—I mean, into a common war on all that is rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, and the abundance of creative power and masterfulness….105


Equal rights, when preached by the lower type, mean the violation of the higher type’s rights, since the equal rights preached by the lower type are befitting the lower type alone. Kaufman writes:

In our time…equality is confused with conformity—as Nietzsche sees it—and it is taken to involve the renunciation of personal initiative and the demand for general leveling. Men are losing the ambition to be equally excellent, which involves as the surest means the desire to excel one another in continued competition, and they are becoming resigned to being equally mediocre. Instead of vying for distinction, men nurture a ressentiment against all that is distinguished, superior, or strange.106

Wanting equal rights is a mark of shallowness107—such a shallow thinker fails to see the depth of distinctions that lie in human natures. A great many people easily feel nervous when they see others excel; they do not like to be reminded that they are not equal. This can be seen in certain initiatives to do away with grades in school—the general desire by some to spare children, if not adults, the feeling of not being as good as someone else.

All this is not to say that the lower types do not have a necessary role to play. Concerning this, Schacht writes:

Differences in rank and greater and lesser worth are relative notions; and [Nietzsche] is far from considering even those he calls ‘the herd’ to have no significance (let alone negative significance) according to his revaluation. On the contrary, he insists upon the value of the human ‘herd’ – instrumental, to be sure, but substantial nonetheless….The herd animal ensures that life goes on, and establishes conditions through the exploitation of which the qualitative enhancement of life may occur.108
Similar to how we might say that if we are going to have the kind of society in which we live, regardless of whether it is capitalist or socialist, for example, there are going to have to be those who fill the “lower” positions of society: for example, waste management positions and positions in the service industry. So too, the higher types in many ways stand on the shoulders of the lower types.109

It may very well be difficult to swallow all of what Nietzsche has to say about higher and lower types; but I do not think we have to swallow it all in order to acknowledge that there are natural differences among people, and those difference predispose some for greatness and others for mediocrity, and others to positions in-between. And those differences also predispose some to be able to suffer well and others to be incapable of such feats.



The Question of Rank Order and Suffering

The more general question that we are concerned with is whether we can find an alternative ideal to the ascetic ideal: an alternative ideal that will give our suffering meaning. I am suggesting that our suffering can be seen to be meaningful insofar as it is necessary for certain kinds of joy and insofar as suffering in its many forms plays a necessary and important role for the enhancement of human life. On an individual level suffering provides an opportunity for the growth and strengthening of one’s being. In these ways we can see suffering as meaningful. However, we must now take into consideration the order of rank for humanity. If some individuals are predisposed to suffer well and others poorly, and if suffering can be meaningful for its life enhancing qualities, and if those who suffer poorly cannot find opportunities for enhancement in suffering, then the alternative ideal of suffering as life enhancing is not going to be equally available to all.

We saw earlier that Leiter thinks that the eternal recurrence is the alternative ideal and that suffering does not actually have a meaning under this ideal. I have tried to argue that suffering can be given a meaning; however, it now seems that this possibility of giving suffering a meaning is reserved primarily for the higher types (not necessarily just the highest). Leiter comes to a similar conclusion about the eternal recurrence:

Of course…it is only the highest human being who can embrace the doctrine of eternal return; in that sense, the ascetic ideal will remain essential for the rest of humanity. But Nietzsche thinks it is at least possible for some – those higher human beings, presumably, who are Nietzsche’s recurring concern – to avoid both suicidal nihilism and asceticism.110


So, the ascetic ideal still has a role to play insofar as it is the primary means for the majority of people to stave off suicidal nihilism. Therefore, whether Nietzsche’s alternative ideal is the eternal recurrence, but without there being meaningful suffering, or whether his alternative ideal is as I have argued, it will not be an alternative equally available to all.

I have said little about the notion of the eternal recurrence except in connection with Leiter’s interpretation of Nietzsche. It is now time to say more. In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes:

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?111


Relating this back to suffering, if one cannot embrace all that one lives through, which includes profound suffering, then one cannot embrace the idea of the eternal recurrence. In embracing the eternal recurrence one embraces every aspect of one’s life. I want to say that part of this embrace involves the recognition of the necessity and life enhancing aspects of suffering—the recognition that suffering thereby has a meaning. To my knowledge, Nietzsche does not say directly that suffering can or cannot be given a meaning through the acknowledgment and embracement of its necessary and life enhancing aspects. But it is clear that insofar as Nietzsche’s alternative ideal involves the eternal recurrence it also involves embracing one’s suffering:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacious in the face of what is necessary—but love it.112


To live is to suffer; to be able to embrace one’s life means being able to embrace, to love, one’s suffering—one’s fate as a creature who is born to suffer.

Seeing our suffering as meaningful for its necessary and life enhancing aspects should mean a rejection of suicidal nihilism. For suffering would then no longer be without a meaning, which is the central motivating factor of suicidal nihilism; further, if we couple this alternative ideal with the eternal recurrence, we affirm life and thus do not want to end it.




The Question of What Our Attitude Toward Suffering Should Be

We have now come back to our original question. I said at the beginning of this paper that I would try to answer it indirectly by looking at two different ways of giving suffering meaning. The first way involved the ascetic ideal, which turned out to be a mendacious and deleterious means. Correlated with the ascetic ideal is the idea that suffering is to be avoided as far as possible: suffering is undesirable. But while it is undesirable, it is ultimately unavoidable. But worse than not being able to avoid suffering is not being able to see it as meaningful. The ascetic ideal provided a meaning, which is essentially that we suffer as punishment for our sins; however, this turns out to actually increase our suffering through our intense feelings of guilt. At first the guilt acts as a narcotic for our suffering, but it ultimately gives way to more suffering. The unavoidability of suffering, and the mendaciousness and deleteriousness of the ascetic ideal and its associated idea that suffering is undesirable, I take as evidence that our attitude toward suffering should not be one of avoidance. Further, I take the life enhancing attributes of suffering and its subsequent meaningfulness coupled with the eternal recurrence to be a positive alternative ideal. It is an ideal that involves the wholehearted embracing of one’s suffering, an attitude that seeks not to avoid suffering, but to see it as necessary and an opportunity for growth and strengthening. This I take to be evidence that our attitude toward suffering should not be one of avoidance. However, when I say that our attitude toward suffering should be one of embracement and not avoidance, I do not mean to suggest that we not try to avoid sickness or pain. Rather, the idea is that while we should neither seek out suffering nor never seek to circumvent it, when it does happen we should not bemoan or lament our situation, but seek to embrace it as an opportunity for enhancing ourselves in some way. At the same time, however, we should not try to make things too easy for ourselves, for it is harsh conditions that make strong; in this sense we should seek great responsibilities and take much upon ourselves.

There is a problem, however. We have seen that this alternative ideal is not open to all. There are some, the lower types, who are predisposed to suffer poorly. What should they do? Presumably they should stick with the ascetic ideal; however, I am reluctant to suggest that anyone stick with something mendacious and deleterious. This leads to an important question that I must leave unaddressed: is it possible for a lower type to struggle to become a higher type? From what we have seen, Nietzsche probably would say no; but while a lower type, because of his natural capacities, may not be able to become one of the highest types, I do not see why he would not be able to become a type higher than before. Further, insofar as there is truth to what I have argued, it will have profound implications for ethics: for example, in how we ought to treat others, in particularly how we ought to respond to the suffering of children and the sick.113

I said at the beginning of the paper that there is not a middle position between the two ideals available. That is, the attitude of avoiding suffering as far as possible and embracing it when it actually does happen, as it inevitably must, is not really a possibility. This is because to really adopt the Nietzschean alternative ideal, as I have tried to spell it out, is not compatible with trying to avoid suffering as far as possible, for reasons already given. Again this does not mean that one does not avoid an oncoming car or that one blithely walks into a pit of snakes.

In suggesting that our attitude toward suffering should be one of amor fati, I do not intend to imply that this is something easily done, even for those who suffer well. Further, as I suggested in the introduction, I have attempted to cover much ground in this paper. In doing so, I have had to treat some subjects unequally and superficially. Additionally, I do not believe that I have done full justice to the subtlety and detail of Nietzsche’s writings. Nevertheless, I hope to have at least outlined some of his main ideas accurately. Further, even if Nietzsche would not agree that suffering can be given a meaning in the way that I have taken him to, this does not mean that we cannot attempt to give suffering a meaning through the acknowledgement of the necessary and life enhancing roles it plays in our lives.

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