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Nietzsche and the Problem of Suffering

Van Harvey on the metaphysical aspects of an anti-metaphysical philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche shared at least one fundamental concern with the religions and metaphysical systems that he so criticized: the problem of suffering and how one deals with it. This concern underlies all of the distinctive positions he took on the role of tragedy in Greek culture, his critique of morality, his view of human nature, his theory that ‘ego’, ‘thing’ and ‘substance’ are ‘fictions’, as well as his criticisms of religion and metaphysics. This is why Henry Aiken once pointed out that Nietzsche was not a secular but a religious thinker. Thus Spake Zarathustra, he wrote, “can only be regarded as his religious testament.”

As Nietzsche criticized religion and metaphysics, he pondered again and again the reasons why the human mind is bewitched by the notion of a true world behind the apparent world. His answer can be seen in this remark found among his notes after his death:

“It is suffering that inspires these conclusions: fundamentally they are desires that such a world should exist; in the same way, to imagine another, more valuable world is an expression of hatred for a world that makes one suffer: the ressentiment of metaphysicians against actuality is here creative.” (Will to Power, 579)

Nietzsche wrestled with this problem in his first published book, The Birth of Tragedy. There he argued that the Greeks were “keenly aware of the terrors and horrors of existence” and to endure those terrors had interposed between life and themselves the “shining fantasy of the Olympians.” The Greeks folk wisdom was enshrined in the myth in which King Midas hunts down the wise Silenus and asks him what is the most desirable thing of all and Silenus answers: “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon”.

In this early work Nietzsche himself was under the spell of a metaphysician, Arthur Schopenhauer, who conceived of suffering and evil as being metaphysically necessary. It is necessary because the finite world is the result of a creative life force or Will that pours itself out into individual organisms that persist for a while but then perish. He called this the principium individuationis or principle of individuation. This cosmic Will has no purpose but to perpetuate itself in individual beings who are also in the grip of a need to perpetuate themselves. But as finite wills seeking to perpetuate themselves they necessarily come into conflict with other beings also enslaved by the same desire. Consequently, the world of individual existence is necessarily a world of conflict and suffering. Individuals only exist at the expense of others, an insight that prompted a more recent author, Ernest Becker, to write: “Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures.” Even if there are cultures in which conflict is not the norm, the individuals in those cultures are still finite and still must die. Consequently, every narcissistic ego in the grasp of the will to live faces the existential problem of how to deal with its death.

The Greeks confronted the principium individuationis first through the creation of the gods. But they also developed an art form, tragedy, in which this principium individuationis was associated with the god Apollo, and the life force that shatters this principle of individuation was identified with the god Dionysius, the deity of drunkenness and ecstasy. Dionysius tears apart the form of individuation and leads back to the mystical oneness beyond language that is felt in music and dance. To experience the Dionysian element present in tragedy enables individuals to overcome momentarily their isolation and experience the ecstasy of participation in the universal cosmic Will underlying all things.

Nietzsche believed that one of the possible responses a culture could make to this terror of life was to cast a veil (Schleier in German) of illusion over the structures of existence, and that this is what the theologians and metaphysicians of Western culture have done. (He called them Schleiermacher – veil makers – in a joking reference to the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher). They have fused the idealism of Plato with Jewish-Christian moral ideals. The result is a religion that has not only preserved the Forms that Plato had reified but appropriated them in the service of a providential moral scheme. Christianity, he once wrote, was “Platonism for the masses”, a religion that has dominated Western culture for some two thousand years and that was “the most extravagant set of variations on the theme of ethics ever produced.” But the result was an illusion that was hostile to life itself, a hostility cleverly concealed by the doctrine of another, better life after death. Christianity, Nietzsche believed, represented a hatred of the world, a contempt for beauty and a fear of sensuality. It was a religion that only cared for ‘moral values’ and Nietzsche confessed that this “had always struck… [him] as being the most dangerous, most sinister form the will to destruction can take.”

For Nietzsche the crisis facing Western culture is that this veil of illusion that Christianity had cast over reality has been ripped beyond repair. His slogan ‘God is dead’ was meant to convey that the powerful God of the Bible had gradually been surrendered in the modern world – “bled to death under our knives” – and that humanity must now once again face the terrors of existence, must realize not only that the Universe is basically indifferent to the welfare of individual lives but that individuals die and kill one another only to make room for more life. And when the Western world realizes this meaninglessness and purposelessness of human life it will be faced with nihilism. Nietzsche’s problem then was the same as that of the religion he despised: how to overcome this nihilism. How can one come to affirm life in the face of suffering and meaninglessness?

Nietzsche often characterized himself as a physician of culture, someone who not only diagnosed the sickness of a culture but also prescribed a cure. Since the sickness of the West arising from the fear of suffering has led to a religious and moral view of the world, the cure must be an affirmation of this life that surrenders any moral justification of it. And if the veil of illusion has given rise to a false confidence that we can know the real world, then the cure must be the acceptance that we deal with the world out of a ‘niche perspective’. In brief, Nietzsche came to the conclusion that the cure for revulsion by life must be the affirmation of that life. We must learn to become ‘yea sayers’ to life.

This was clearly Nietzsche’s own aspiration. On the day of a new year in which he had recovered from one of the dreadful attacks of ill health he often suffered, he wrote:

“I still live, I still think … and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year – what thought shall be for me the reason, warranty, and sweetness of my life henceforth? I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati [love of fate]; let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yea-sayer.” (Gay Science IV 276)

But what does it mean to affirm fate, to say yes to life? What is involved? Is it a stoic acceptance of suffering and terror, or does it mean something so severe that it initially repels us; namely, to say “I embrace the evil in life. I no longer regret it.”? Or to use Nietzsche language: “Thus I willed it.”

Although there are passages in Nietzsche’s writings that support the stoic reading, I think the more severe reading occurs in Nietzsche’s long philosophical poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, the book that Henry Aiken believed “can only be regarded as his religious testament.” It is religious not only because of its parallels to the New Testament but because it offers Nietzsche’s view of what it means to affirm life.

In the Prologue of the poem, the thirty-year-old prophet Zarathustra comes down and preaches to the people in the marketplace that “man is an overture,” that he can become greater than he is, that he should long for a further shore, to become an Overman (Übermensch). But “One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” One has to suffer anxiety in oneself to become creative. Zarathustra fears that the day of the ‘Last Man’ is coming, a day in which men shall not want to give birth to a dancing star, men who will ask “What is longing? What is a star?” They will just want to be a part of a herd. They will have their little pleasures for the day and those for the night. They will claim, “We have invented happiness.”

No sooner has Zarathustra finished his first sermon than he is interrupted by the crowd that jeers: “O Zarathustra, turn us into these Last Men! Then we shall make you a gift of the Overman!” And Zarathustra becomes sad and says “They do not understand me. I am not the mouth for these ears.”

Decades pass and then, fearful that his teaching is in danger, he comes down from the mountain to preach again. At first, it is the familiar teaching that it is a mistake to believe in a world behind the world or in a god. All of life is a flux and becoming, and in order for there to be redemption there must be creativity. But creativity involves suffering. One must accept impermanence and, above all, one must give up the notion that there must be justice in life, that everyone has an equal right to happiness. This moral view of life can only breed the spirit of revenge. Life is inherently unjust and one must learn to love it as such. Life is the will to power and it is always overcoming itself. Whoever will be a creator must be an annihilator and breaker of tables of value.

Then a deep sadness overcomes Zarathustra and he has a vision that puzzles and horrifies him. While walking one day he unexpectedly discovers a dwarf sitting on his shoulders, a dwarf he feels to be an arch-enemy. They quarrel but then Zarathustra says to the dwarf that he has just had the most abysmal thought, the same thought that Nietzsche had first articulated in The Gay Science. The thought is that everything that possibly could happen has already happened and will happen again and again. Any given moment will return eternally. This thought is horrible to Zarathustra because it means that not only will his joyous moments reoccur but so too will the contemptible Last Man. “Eternally recurs the man of whom you are weary, the small man … Alas man recurs eternally … that was my disgust with all existence.”

Although the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence was at first Zarathustra’s most abysmal thought, he nevertheless dimly recognized that only if he could embrace this thought would he be able to embrace life itself. Actually, this idea had come to him earlier (in Book 2). There he had argued that willing is what liberates the person, and yet there was a chain on the will from which it could not be freed. The chain is that the will cannot will backwards. It can only will the future and not change the past. And it is this inability to change the past that is the basis for a sense of injustice and revenge. This alone, Zarathustra preaches, is what revenge is: it is the Will’s ‘ill will’ because of the ‘it was’. But what if the Will could say of the regrettable, even horrible past, “this is precisely what I willed”? What if a person could look at everything that happened and say, “this is what I wanted”? “Consequently,” Zarathustra concludes, “to redeem those who live in the past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’ – that alone should I call redemption.”

At the close of Book 3, Zarathustra, after all of his temptations and periods of despair comes to the place where he must decide whether or not he loves life, whether he can accept Eternal Recurrence. He is faced with the question whether he can accept that there will always be mediocrity as well as greatness in life. He is faced with the question whether he can affirm all that is ugly, disgusting, including the religious, the moral, and even the Last Man.

In the poem, the question comes to him in the form of the question whether he will marry the feminine figure of Life. Zarathustra is ambivalent. He both fears and yet loves her. He no sooner tells her that he loves her than she tells him that he will have to leave her at the stroke of midnight; that is, that he will have to die. And it is this knowledge that he like all others must die that is the occasion for him to doubt his love of life. It is only when he can affirm death that he can truly affirm life. Zarathustra then whispers something in her ear “right through her tangled yellow foolish tresses. And then Life said to him, ‘you know that, O Zarathustra? Nobody knows that.’ And then they look at each other and gazed on the green meadow over which the cool evening was running just then, and they wept together.”

Zarathustra mountain
Zarathustra in the mountains

I think we can assume that what Zarathustra whispered in her ear was the thought of Eternal Recurrence, and that it was this to which she replied, “O Zarathustra, You know that?” She is correct in one deep sense: Nobody does know that because it is not knowledge but faith. It is the faith that the past is redeemed because one can not only will forward, so to speak, but backward as well. One can say “Thus I willed it.”

The question a critical reader must ask, of course, is what one can make today out of Nietzsche’s doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. What does it mean to say that every event will recur again and again? And is it the case that one can only truly affirm life if he or she can say that they also will or would will the horrible events of the past?

Like many of Nietzsche’s ideas, commentators differ regarding their interpretations. Some argue that Nietzsche meant this doctrine of Eternal Recurrence literally, that his notebooks reveal that he tried to prove it. He did experiment with the idea that if there were a finite number of forces in the world and an infinite amount of time, this would mean that “all possible transformations must already have taken place. Consequently, the present transformation is a repetition.”

There are other commentators who argue that Nietzsche, the great enemy of speculative metaphysical doctrines, could hardly have believed this one, not to speak of making it central to his conception of existence. Rather, they argue that the doctrine only has an existential meaning and that Nietzsche intentionally framed it in symbolic or mythical form. The myth of Eternal Recurrence simply means that you should affirm every moment as if you wanted it to exist eternally. This is surely the meaning of the idea in the poem Zarathustra recites to Life in the last section of Book 3:

The world is deep
Deeper than the day has been aware
Deep is its woe;
Joy – deeper yet than agony;
Woe implores: Go!
But all joy wants eternity –
Wants deep, wants deep eternity.

The proponents of this existential interpretation tend to overlook those texts in which Nietzsche embraces a determinism in which every event is the necessary consequence of past events so that if one affirms any one moment one affirms all the moments and events which made that moment possible. One of his notebook entries seems to suggest this view.

“The first question is by no means whether we are content with ourselves, but whether we are content with anything at all. If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things, and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.” (Will to Power, 1032)

There is also a passage that occurs in the last line of the chapter ‘Why I am so clever’ in Ecce Homo that is more explicit. “My formula for greatness in men 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 … but love it.”

There is a third possible response to the problem that admirers of Nietzsche rarely consider: that while suffering and death are basic human problems, Nietzsche’s formulation is elitist. While it is relatively easy for those who live in the small comfortable bubbles created by a peaceful culture to affirm moments of joy, it is quite another for a bound African slave in the hold of a ship to will the countless moments he must endure during the Atlantic crossing. And it is somehow offensive for the cultured citizen to say of the bound slave’s experience “Thus I willed it.”

Like most of Nietzsche’s teaching, there are texts such as these that support contradictory interpretations. But contradictory as the interpretations of these may be, there is no question that Nietzsche was concerned about the most fundamental question humans beings must face: how they face suffering and death. The religions of the world have offered various types of answer. Atheisms, if they are to prove relevant, must also be able to say something relevant to this issue.

One of the more interesting of these was by the late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in his book The Denial of Death. There, after considering many solutions to this problem, he finds himself more and more simply arguing for something like courage in the face of the chaos of existence. Eschewing any grandiose solution he, like Camus, argues that we must simply face the realities of suffering and death honestly, be more open to life and others, and then “fashion something – an object or ourselves – and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.” (p.285)

© Prof. Van A. Harvey 2016

Van Harvey is George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus) at Stanford University.

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