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

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What to Make of Nietzsche’s Critique of Religious Morality Insofar as it Concerns Suffering.

It is not my intention in this paper to offer a real assessment of the correctness of Nietzsche’s attack and description of religious morality in regard to the ascetic priest, the ascetic ideal, and the way the former uses the latter to give suffering meaning. However, I will say a few words concerning the extent to which Nietzsche’s critique is applicable to Buddhism. A majority of Nietzsche’s remarks are aimed at Christianity, though he does address Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. But given Nietzsche’s childhood and initial studies in theology, the religion he was most familiar with was Christianity. So, while his criticisms of religious morality in general may be applicable to religions other than Christianity, we can still ask whether his remarks concerning the ascetic priest’s redirection of ressentiment apply to religions other than Christianity: for example, Buddhism. Nietzsche’s psychological remarks about ressentiment and those that suffer seem quite plausible. That is, it is reasonable that many—it need not be all—people when suffering do develop a desire to find the cause of their suffering and often they look for the cause in the form of another person: someone they can hold responsible for their suffering. The question, then, is whether in Buddhism we can find a version of the ascetic priest who redirects the ressentiment of the sufferer back onto himself and makes the sufferer feel guilty for transgressing the ascetic ideal in such a way that the sufferer’s pain is deadened. It turns out that the notion of guilt found in Judeo-Christian ethics is not found in Buddhism. In Buddhism we find, rather, the notion of regret. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes:

it is important not to misunderstand what it means to regret our unskillful actions. We should not view the suffering we experience as an externally applied punishment for our sins; nor is it necessary to feel guilty, thinking we have offended some authority or force that is prepared to take revenge upon us. True regret is not concerned with such extraneous attitudes.114
Guilt is a self-centered emotion that actually interferes with changing one’s ways. It is true that the Buddha is a kind of ascetic priest; but while the Buddha says that we are ultimately responsible for our own suffering, and while he may be seen as teaching the first innocent means of easing suffering—that which Nietzsche calls a kind self-hypnotization—concerning the cause of man’s suffering, the Buddha does not say that, “he must seek it in himself, in some guilt, in a piece of the past, he must understand his suffering as a punishment.”115

Suffering for the practicing Buddhist could perhaps be seen to be meaningful insofar as it shows the practitioner that his actions and thoughts are still unskillful, i.e., they lead to suffering because one has not sufficiently developed the right view of desire and impermanence, for example. So, though the Buddhist does not feel he is being punished for the transgression of the ascetic ideal, he still feels that the suffering is his own doing: it is caused by his continued ignorance. While this recognition should bring regret in the form discussed by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, it is doubtful that this recognition produces the narcotic effect that Nietzsche sees guilt producing in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It may be that Buddhism is a counter example to Nietzsche’s argument that through the ascetic ideal all suffering was placed, “under the perspective of guilt.”116 Unfortunately my exposition of Buddhism, and to a certain extent Nietzsche’s thought, has been too superficial to say for sure. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Nietzsche would consider Buddhism to be an ascetic religion, if for no other reason than that its main goal is to allow people to end the cycle of rebirths, for with each rebirth one must suffer another life. This notion of ending rebirths, while not exactly opposite, is nearly antithetical to Nietzsche’s treasured idea of affirming life through the whole hearted embracing of the idea of the eternal recurrence.

Works Cited

Bittner, Rüdiger. “Ressentiment.” In Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Esssays on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994.
Dalai Lama. Ethics for the New Millennium. Riverhead Books, New York, 1999.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. 3rd Edition. A Touchstone Book, New York, 1959.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Meaningful to Behold: The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Tharpa Publications, London, 1980.
Hillesheim, James W. “Suffering and Self-Cultivation: The Case of Nietzsche.” Educational Theory, Spring 1986, Vol. 36, No. 2. 171-78.
Johnston, James Scott and Johnston, Carol. “Nietzsche and the Dilemma of Suffering.” The International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 1999, Vol. 13, No. 2. 187-92.
Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th Edition. Princeton University Press, 1974.
Leiter, Brian. Nietzsche on Morality. Routledge, London and New York, 2002.
Mizuno, Kogen. Basic Buddhist Concepts. Kosei Publishing Co., Tokyo, 1965.
Schacht, Richard. Nietzsche. Routledge, London and New York, 1983.
Sefler, George F. “Nietzsche and Dostoevsky on the Meaning of Suffering.” Religious Humanism, Autumn 1970, Vol. 4, No. 4. 145-150.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Anti-Christ. In Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Penguin Books, 1990.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Tans. and Ed. Walter Kaufman. The Modern Library, New York, 1992.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Trans. Walter Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale, Ecce Homo, Trans. Walter Kaufman. Vintage Books, New York, 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufman. Vintage Books, New York, 1974.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All too Human. From http://www.meta- x.htm
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Tanslated and Ed. Walter Kaufman. The Modern Library, New York, 1992.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Penguin Books, New York, 1966.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. In The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. and Trans. Walter Kaufman. Penguin Books, New York, 1968.
Thich Nhat Hanh. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. Broadway Books, New York, 1998.

1 There are of course many different ways one might categories kinds of suffering. At one point, the Dalai Lama, for example, divides kinds of suffering by the kinds of causes: either avoidable or unavoidable. The former being, for example, war, poverty, and crime; the latter being, for example, sickness, old age, and death. Ethics For The New Millennium, 133-4.

2 What follows is not meant to be an exhaustive list.

3 However, James Scott Johnston and Carol Johnston point out that, “Illness, disease and pain are not equivalent to suffering, though they may be the cause of it” (“Nietzsche and the Dilemma of Suffering,” 187). While this is probably right to a degree, we can still talk of physical pain itself being suffering without being too misleading. I suspect whether one suffers from pain depends upon the degree of pain and one’s attitudes toward that pain.

4 There are of course difficult cases to decide for both species of suffering. Does the person who is born mentally handicapped suffer insofar as she is handicapped? It is easy to project suffering on to her, for we know, so to speak, what she is missing. But it is not so clear that she actually suffers, unless she is made aware of her handicap. We all experienced hunger pains, teething pains, diaper rash, etc. as babies; however, it surely is the rare individual who remembers any of these pains. So this raises two questions: one, does the baby really suffer in the sense that even a child suffers? Two, is memory and a certain level of cognitive ability necessary for suffering? It is not my intention to answer either question; rather, I wish only to point out some complications that may arise when considering suffering and to acknowledge that the notion of suffering is not completely straightforward.

5 Genealogy of Morals, III 28. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Nietzsche in this paper are to section numbers.

6 Genealogy of Morals, III 28.

7 Man’s Search For Meaning, 117.

8 Clearly not all of our day-to-day suffering brings in the question of meaning. I may feel extremely hungry before dinner, but such “suffering” does not cry out for meaning. Surely it is the more profound suffering—the loss of a parent, existential malaise, depression, etc.—that makes us ask, “Why do I suffer like this? What is this for?”

9 For example, Brian Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality.

10 Human, All too Human, p108.

11 The answers to these questions need not be mutually exclusive: it is quite possible that we might seek to avoid suffering as much as possible, but given that we will inevitably still suffer, we will not necessarily see that suffering as entirely undesirable. I will give reasons below for thinking that this is not really an option.

12 However, in the appendix I briefly address the applicability of certain aspects of his critique of religious morality to Buddhism.

13 Basic Buddhist Concepts, 105.

14 Basic Buddhist Concepts. 106.

15 For example, he writes: “the more I see the world, the clearer it becomes that no matter what our situation, whether we are rich or poor, educated or not, of one race, gender, religion or another, we all desire to be happy and to avoid suffering. Our every intended action, in a sense our whole life—how we choose to live it within the context of the limitations imposed by our circumstances—can be seen as our answer to the great question which confronts us all: ‘How am I to be happy?’” Ethics For The New Millennium, 4.

16 To be fair, though, Buddhism does not say that you cannot be happy and suffer at the same time. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life— ” The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 5.

17 Basic Buddhist Concepts, 115-17

18 In Buddhism this is further complicated by the belief that one’s karma has an effect on what occurs in one’s life.

19 Genealogy of Morals, III 15.

20 Beyond Good and Evil, 260.

21 Genealogy of Morals, I 2ff.

22 Nietzsche on Morality, 208.

23 Beyond Good and Evil, 195. Genealogy of Morals, I 7. As Bittner points out, for Nietzsche the term ‘slaves’ is not restricted to slaves in the economic sense; the slaves are those who “wish to better their situation, but they cannot, because those better off are powerful enough to prevent it. So they set up values instead—slave values, that is.” “Ressentiment” 129. Hence, it is not the Jews alone that make up slave morality; rather, Nietzsche is making the claim that it is with the Jews that the slave revolt began.

24 Genealogy of Morals, I 7.

25 Nietzsche on Morality, 208.

26 Genealogy of Morals, I 10.

27 Nietzsche on Morality, 202.

28 Beyond Good and Evil, 219.

29 “Ressentiment,” 130.

30 Genealogy of Morals, III 14.

31 Genealogy of Morals, III 11.

32 Nietzsche on Morality, 254-55.

33 Genealogy of Morals, III 11.

34 Genealogy of Morals, III 11.

35 Genealogy of Morals, III 11.

36 Genealogy of Morals, III 13, 28.

37 Genealogy of Morals, III 15.

38 Genealogy of Morals, III 11.

39 Genealogy of Morals, III 17.

40 Genealogy of Morals, III 17.

41 Genealogy of Morals, III 17.

42 Genealogy of Morals, III 18.

43 Genealogy of Morals, III 19.

44 Genealogy of Morals, III 15.

45 Genealogy of Morals, III 15.

46 Genealogy of Morals, III 28.

47 Nietzsche on Morality, 260.

48 Genealogy of Morals, III 8.

49 Nietzsche on Morality, 261.

50 Genealogy of Morals, III 20.

51 Genealogy of Morals, III 17.

52 Genealogy of Morals, III 21-22.

53 Genealogy of Morals, III 28.

54 Nietzsche on Morality, 285.

55 On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, p312.

56 Nietzsche on Morality, 285.

57 Nietzsche on Morality, 286.

58 Nietzsche on Morality, 287.

59 On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, p313.

60 On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, p296.

61 On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, p295.

62 Nietzsche on Morality, 287.

63 Beyond Good and Evil, 56.

64 See for example, The Gay Science, 341, for a more complete description of the eternal recurrence.

65 Nietzsche on Morality, 287-8.

66 Clearly, then, those who do not view human greatness as a worthy goal, will not see what follows alternative as a viable option. Presumably Nietzsche would cast them aside as weak souls.

67 The other main one that I am not addressing is the role that suffering plays in being creative and how creativity is considered a mark of the higher type for Nietzsche. See Walter A. Brogan, “The Central Significance Of Suffering In Nietzsche’s Thought” in International Studies in Philosophy, Volume 20, 1988, pp53-62, for an interesting discussion of this issue. There is also the issue of self-overcoming in Nietzsche and the role that suffering plays there. Due simply to constraints of space, these important aspects cannot be addressed in this paper.

68 The Gay Science, 338.

69 “Nietzsche And Dostoevsky On The Meaning Of Suffering” 145.

70 “Nietzsche And Dostoevsky On The Meaning Of Suffering” 145.

71 “Suffering and Self-Cultivation: The Case of Nietzsche” 176.

72 “Suffering and Self-Cultivation: The Case of Nietzsche” 176-77; The Will to Power, Kaufman and Hollingdale, 371.

73 I write “in the same way” because it seems one might try to argue that excesses of pleasure, e.g., drug use, can give rise to pain in the form of addiction and all it entails. However, this is not the opposite of Nietzsche’s example where the overcoming of pain brings about feelings of power and therefore pleasure. There does not seem to be any possibility of the overcoming of pleasure bringing about pain; it is even unclear if that idea is intelligible, for what does it mean to overcome pleasure in this sense. We might imagine being in ecstasy from a drug and somehow overcoming the pleasure, stopping ourselves from becoming an addict, but it is not at all obvious that this is the opposite of the case Nietzsche describes of the overcoming of pain leading to pleasure.

74 In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche writes, “What is good? – All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? – All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? – The feeling that power increases – that a resistance is overcome” (2). So, a discussion of whether the essence of pleasure is the feeling of superabundant power would have to address Nietzsche’s thoughts on the will to power; because it would lead us to far afield, this is not the place for such a project.

75 At 584c.

76 “Nietzsche And Dostoevsky On The Meaning Of Suffering” 146.

77 The Gay Science, 19.

78 Beyond Good and Evil, 44.

79 Beyond Good and Evil, 225.

80 Beyond Good and Evil, 262.

81 At least to some extent; it seems we could say the harsher the conditions overcome, the more one learns or the stronger one becomes. In The Gay Science, while discussing our tendency to exaggerate our pain and suffering, Nietzsche writes, “A loss is a loss for barely on hour; somehow it also brings us some gift from heaven—new strength, for example, or at least a new opportunity for strength” (The Gay Science, 326.) So, it is clear that Nietzsche does not think that through suffering or loss we become automatically stronger; rather, we have been “given” an opportunity for new strength.

82 In the beginning of The Gay Science, section 4, entitled What preserves the species, Nietzsche approaches these issues from another angle. He concludes from that discussion: “One holds that what is called good preserves the species, while what is called evil harms the species. In truth, however, the evil instincts are expedient, species-preserving, and indispensable to as high a degree as the good ones; their function is merely different.”

83 Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, 8.

84 None of this is to imply that Nietzsche thought what he wrote was a universally applicable maxim that went into effect automatically. Unfortunately this is an oft quoted statement—one that is used either to show Nietzsche was foolish or to show that we should think that suffering, regardless of the sufferer and the context, makes one stronger. Nietzsche writes, afterall:

One must shed the bad taste of wanting to agree with many. “Good” is no longer good when one’s neighbor mouths is. And how should there be a “common good”! The term contradicts itself: whatever can be common always has little value. In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare. (Beyond Good and Evil, 43)

85 Again, this is not to say that Nietzsche would have thought otherwise; furthermore, it is reasonable to think that to a degree, those who posses a great will and great physical strength have a better chance of surviving sickness. However, physical strength and will can only go so far depending on what the sickness is, and will help even less in cases of natural disaster.

86 “Suffering and Self-Cultivation: The Case of Nietzsche” p177.

87 “Nietzsche And Dostoevsky On The Meaning Of Suffering” 145.

88 Human, All too Human, 591.

89 One might object to greatness being more desirable than happiness; such an objection plays into the issue of rank order, which we will address shortly.

90 Beyond Good and Evil, 62.

91 Genealogy of Morals, Preface, 6.

92 Daybreak, 163.

94 Beyond Good and Evil, 270.

95 Beyond Good and Evil, 219. My emphasis.

96 Nietzsche, p327.

97 Beyond Good and Evil, 270.

98 Beyond Good and Evil, 287.

99 Beyond Good and Evil, 287. Ehrfurcht means either deep respect or reverence.

100 Beyond Good and Evil, 212.

101 Nietzsche on Morality, 117.

102 Beyond Good and Evil, 228.

103 This is, of course, not to say that multiculturalism is inherently bad or that there was not, and is not, the need to correct for inequality, racism, sexism, etc.

104 Beyond Good and Evil, 44.

105 Beyond Good and Evil, 212.

106 Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, pp404-05.

107 Beyond Good and Evil, 238.

108 Nietzsche, 388.

109 To our ears Nietzsche may sound like a beast, and we are quick to dismiss out of hand the ravings of a beast; if this happens, it is good remember Nietzsche also wrote the following:

When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible—such descent I call beauty.

And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest.

Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you.

Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws. (Zarathustra, On Those Who Are Sublime, p118).

110 Nietzsche on Morality, p288.

111 The Gay Science, 341.

112 On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, p258.

113 In “Nietzsche and the Dilemma of Suffering” the authors attempt to argue that nurses should encourage their patients to make their pain their own instead of trying to always simply ease their patient’s pain. They unfortunately ignore the important issue of rank order.

114 Meaningful to Behold: the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, 63.

115 Genealogy of Morals, III 20.

116 Genealogy of Morals, III 28.

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