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Nietzsche & Schopenhauer On Compassion

Timothy J. Madigan explains the crucial distinction between compassion and pity.

“You want if possible – and there is no madder ‘if possible’ – to abolish suffering; and we? – it really does seem that we would rather increase it and make it worse than it has ever been!”
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche was destined, like his father and grandfather before him, to become a Lutheran minister. From his earliest days he was steeped in a Christian setting, growing up in a household of sanctimonious women who encouraged him to read the Bible and the works of Protestant theologians. He even acquired the nickname “the little pastor” because of his obvious piety. Who could have predicted that this devout young man would grow up to become the most ferocious opponent of Christianity, and author of a book with the provocative title The Antichrist?

While it was Nietzsche’s own restless searching for knowledge which ultimately led to his breaking away from his pious upbringing, one seminal cause of his rejection of religion was his chancing upon the writings of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). While a student at Leipzig University in the autumn of 1865, Nietzsche purchased a copy of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation at a second-hand bookstore. “I don’t know what daimon whispered to me: ‘Take this book home’ ”, he was to write years later, but the reading of it changed his life. “Back at home”, he continued, “I threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic, dismal genius work on me.” What Nietzsche encountered was a worldview he had never considered before – one that was thoroughly atheistic. Indeed, Nietzsche was to call Schopenhauer the first honest atheist in modern philosophy.

While Schopenhauer himself had been dead for five years (luckily for Nietzsche, since the old man did not encourage acolytes and would have likely responded to any letter of praise with the scorn and sarcasm for which he was famous), there were many admirers in Germany who shared Nietzsche’s high regard. The most noted of these was the controversial composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who was delighted to learn of the younger man’s interest in the philosopher whose works he claimed to read every night. Wagner, who had sent Schopenhauer some of his own musical compositions, was fortunate not to have known of the latter’s low regard for them; for instance, when Wagner wrote at one point in the score “the curtain falls”, Schopenhauer scribbled next to this “and not a moment too soon.”

Yet the restless Nietzsche was not to remain a follower of Schopenhauer’s, or a friend of Wagner’s. In 1876 he startled Cosima Wagner, the composer’s wife, with a letter stating that he had rejected Schopenhauer’s teachings. In particular, Nietzsche broke with the very aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy which was so inspirational to the Wagners – the emphasis upon compassion.

It is compassion, or mitleid (fellow-feeling), which Schopenhauer argued is the real basis of morality, rather than rational rules or God-given commandments. Moral behavior consists of an intuitive recognition that we are all manifestations of the will to live. All the great religions, he felt, were attempts to express this metaphysical reality, but they all lost sight of this due to their endless doctrinal disputes. What unites us all is the realization that life itself consists of endless suffering through the pursuit of goals which can never be satisfied. This pursuit ultimately results in a meaningless death.

It would be better not to live at all, Schopenhauer stated, but since we are alive (because of the ceaseless desire of the blind will to perpetuate the species) then we at least have a moral obligation not to increase suffering. We must be patient and tolerant, and show charity toward other fellowsuffering beings. A moving attitude, but one rather incon-sistent with the actions of a man who delighted in skewering his opponents in print, who quarreled so viciously with his own mother that she cut off all contact with him, and who was charged with pushing his landlady down a flight of stairs. Still, as Schopenhauer himself pointed out, one should judge a theory on its own merits, not by the flaws of its practitioners.

Nietzsche, while initially referring to Schopenhauer as “the only serious moralist”, felt the need to draw away from his doctrine of compassion, which he came to consider to be an unacceptable form of asceticism. He agreed that there is a will to life underlying all existence (which he preferred to call “the will to power”) but, unlike Schopenhauer, he did not flinch from it. Nietzsche came to see compassion as a weakness, not a virtue to be cultivated.

For Nietzsche, it was pity which needed to be overcome. To show pity for others is to treat them with contempt. Better to encourage them to face up to their difficulties and struggle against them as best they can. In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity in particular was a religion of pity, basing itself upon the image of a bleeding and suffering deity. He contrasted this with the pagan religions of ancient Greece and Rome, with their heroic gods who took pleasure in engaging in warfares and love affairs.

It is by no means clear that what Nietzsche denounced as pity was the same thing which Schopenhauer called compassion, and attempts have been made to reconcile their points-of-view. But looking at Nietzsche’s own development as a philosopher, it was necessary for him to break away from what he took to be Schopenhauer’s unhealthy denial of life, as well as his pessimistic resignation that suffering was an evil. For Nietzsche (whose ill-health, lack of public recognition and poverty surely caused him more personal grief than that experienced by the robust, famous and well-to-do Schopenhauer), suffering was an inevitable outcome of the struggle for achievement.

Still, for all his fierce criticisms of Schopenhauer (a style which Schopenhauer would certainly have appreciated, since he too was a noted user of the art of ad hominem attacks), Nietzsche continued to refer to him as his “great teacher”. He always gave credit to this clear-eyed atheist for helping him to break away from theology, and for showing him that there were other paths one could follow in the search for knowledge. In an oblique way, Nietzsche pays homage to this cantankerous curmudgeon in his own masterpiece, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885). The sage Zarathustra encourages his followers to leave his sanctuary and venture out on their own, and even to question what he himself has told them. “One repays a teacher badly,” Zarathustra says, “if one always remains nothing but a student.” Nietzsche honored his great teacher Schopenhauer by challenging his views, and thereby creating his own unique philosophy.

© Timothy J. Madigan 2000

Christopher Janaway, ed., Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer CUP, 1999.
Christopher Janaway, ed., Willing and Nothingness: Schopenhauer As Nietzsche’s Editor. Clarendon, 1998.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Selected Letters. (ed. C. Middleton) Hackett, 1996.
Georg Simmel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. (trans. Helmut Loiskandl, Deena Weinstein, and Michael Weinstein) Chicago, 1991.

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