Nietzsche’s breakdown and his view on pity

Martin asked:

What do you think the horse episode before Nietzsche’s mental breakdown means if we consider it within the context of his philosophy as a whole? His reaction of pity towards an innocent suffering is indeed very surprising after reading his work and it really contradicts the kind of ideal man he wished to be?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I think we have to define what Nietzsche means by Pity. I understand that people will use the incident where Nietzsche displays pity to attack his philosophy which is apparently dismissive of Pity. I think his philosophy can be undermined by other false premises — such as the non-Darwinian theories of evolution — it is based upon.

Nietzsche is condemnatory of pity in his wholesale rejection of modern ideas. He believed that Modern ideas ‘of equality and sympathy for all that suffers’ (Beyond Good and Evil 44) are the latest manifestations of Christian values, Christian values originate in a slave rebellion in morality. The slaves rebellion and underpinning values and perspectives were symptoms and semiotics of a declining and sick physiology.

As you probably know Martin, the slave rebellion in morality triumphed, usurping the master, noble morality of the aristocratic rulers. Consequently, the history of Western Europe is the history of slave/Christian inspired values.

The physiological sickness is attributed by Nietzsche to the disaggregation of the drives. The old slaves has sought to escape this sickness in the expression of ressentiment against the Aristocratic rulers. It was a temporary escape, a ‘narcotic’. Modern people — equally sick according to Nietzsche — vent their ressentiment against the existing state of affairs and those who uphold it. Hence in his time, Nietzsche attacked the political and social movements campaigning for the extension of the franchise for working people, attacked socialists, anarchists the ‘levellers’ in general; attacked all those who like the slaves before them, trace their suffering to the structure and nature of society and not, to their own inability to give order to their chaotic drives. Resentment seeks revenge against society in the establishment of another world, of a new tomorrow. The millenarianism of religious Christian and atheist Anarchist are in this respect, alike.

One of the values valued by the modern ideas of the suffering majority is Pity. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes of this majority that:

“… they are likewise united in their religion of pity, of sympathy for whatever feels, lives, suffers (down to the animal, up to God — the excessive notion of ‘pity for God’ belongs in a democratic Age), they are all united in the cries and impatience of pity, in deadly hatred against all suffering In general, in the almost feminine inability to sit watching, to let suffering happen… they are United in their faith of the morality of communal pity, as if it were morality itself, the height, the Achieved height of humanity, the sole hope for the future, the solace of the present, the great Redemption of all guilt from the past: — they are all united in their faith in the community as Redeemer, which is to say, in the herd, in themselves…” (BGE #202)

United, collective Pity against suffering, against pain, against struggle, a unity for social revolution. The consequences a successful revolution with the institutionalisation of its modern values will be to prevent humanity from becoming what it could (#203 ibid). For according to Nietzsche’s understanding of evolution, its highest types (those who give coherence and direction to the struggle of strong drives of will to power) will be prevented by external law and internalised morality from taking risk, for being creative, from being who they are.

Life is suffering, in various degrees and modalities, for healthy life is expansive, vital: agonistic.

“… life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating and at least, at the very least, exploiting…” (BGE #259}

Institutionalised Pity would negate life itself, life understood by Nietzsche as the will to power.

This does not entail Nietzsche opposing all pity, only Christian pity — which as written, is expressive of a weak, degenerate life and is perhaps described as pathological pity. Pity can be expressed by strong, affirmative life along the lines of what might be called ‘tough love’. It is not about trying to avoid suffering, pain and the like-the ‘negative experiences’ of life — it is rather to recognise it is part of the economy of life, to learn from it, to embrace it, to incorporate such experiences and emotions in life so as to further grow. Witness Nietzsche’s distinction between ‘Pity for the Creature’ and ‘Pity for the Creator’ in BGE #225 of which I only quote little:

“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering -don’t you know that this discipline has been the sole cause of every enhancement in humanity so far?… In human beings creature and creator are combined: in humans there is material, fragments, abundance, clay, dirt, nonsense, chaos; but in humans, there is also creator, maker, hammer-hardness, spectator divinity and seventh day: — do you understand this contrast? And that your pity is aimed at the ‘creature in humans’ in at what needs to be moulded, broken, forged, torn, burnt, seared and purified — at what necessarily needs to suffer and should suffer? And our Pity — don’t you realise who our inverted pity is aimed at when it fights against your pity, as the worst of all pampering and weaknesses? — Pity against Pity then!…”

I don’t think Nietzsche’s reaction of Pity regarding the horse negates his philosophy, I think if he had had more time and clarity then in accordance with his philosophy, Nietzsche would have perhaps encouraged the horse to trample his tormentor and to stop allowing itself as being treated as a mere slave.

See my Nietzsche and the Politics of Physiologyin Philosophy Pathways Issue 176.

Hope this was useful Martin, it’s a big subject.


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