Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nietzsche on Suffering and the Best Life

One of the thought experiments to which Nietzsche often returned, in different forms, went like this:
What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?
Other times he simply insisted that this is true:
Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.
Or here:
To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.
It must be admitted, of course, that Nietzsche was crazy, and that most of us would not really want his awful life even as the price of his philosophical stardom. But I believe there is quite a lot in these ruminations. At least for a person of melancholy temperament like me, the highest joy is always mixed with sorrow and regret, and the greatest satisfactions come after long toil and weary suffering.

6 comments:

David said...

In reading these quotes, I'm struck by the quest for status inherent in Nietzsche's statements: "the best and most fruitful people"; "whether one is worth anything." And his focus on despair is all about wounded narcissism: "profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished." I'm by no means unaffected by this way of thinking--by no means at all. But I can't help thinking also that there's something low and discreditable in it--that, in a sense, the quest to be excellent undoes itself. And, is this quest to prove oneself actually worthwhile? Is it even important? By its very nature, it can't help but consign the majority of one's fellow humans to an abyss of mediocrity. Not that Nietzsche would have been bothered by that; but I don't care. I'm bothered by it.

John said...

One of Nietzsche's famous lines is that a whole civilization is nature's way of creating a handful of great men. So, yes, he dismissed almost everyone. He valued suffering because it was part of the background of so many great artists and philosophers.

But I value suffering because it is part of my own background, and that of so many of my friends.

David said...

Indeed, but I suppose my point is Nietzsche is so much himself, so completely wrapped and interpenetrated with his agenda of establishing "worth," and (apparently) so little else, that I wonder if he is a good source for understanding other people's problems of melancholy, highest joy tinged with sorrow, and satisfaction requiring grueling effort.

G. Verloren said...

Adversity itself doesn't make one "great", nor is it a necessary component of a person becoming "great".

The only connection I believe the two have is that adversity can sometimes be a powerful motivator - but it even more frequently is a powerful demotivator. For every inspiring success story of someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve "greatness" despite adversity, there are thousands of cases of simple mediocrity and abject failure, where adversity simply won out and did a bang-up job of keeping potentially promising people disempowered and miserable.

Likewise, there are also plenty of people who find success despite never facing true adversity, because they spend their lives in privilege and good fortune, with all the odds in their favor, making it easy for them to succeed.

As a reformed pessimist, I'm well aware of the fact that adversity can feel valuable to a person who suffers through and manages to overcome it in the end. And yet, on reflection it seems to me that what I value is not the adversity itself, but how I chose to respond to it. I'm not proud of having suffered - I'm merely proud of certain choices I was able to make despite my suffering.

And there are certainly times when I wonder what might have been if I had led a happier life. As proud as I am of having being passed through the crucible and come out essentially intact, I know for absolute fact that despite surviving the journey, I did develop some cracks and flaws as a direct result of it. There are very negative aspects of who I am, failings that I struggle sometimes daily to overcome, that are 100% the product of what I went through. Whatever strength I gained from my trials, I also gained quite a lot of weakness that I fear I'll never truly overcome.

So when I think on it, I'm sorely tempted to say that yes, I would have preferred to avoid a certain degree of adversity. But I don't believe in having regrets, so I never really think on it with any degree of seriousness.

John said...

Whether adversity really helps you get ahead or not, it changes you. I find that my best friends have suffered a lot of it.

G. Verloren said...

Well presumably you yourself have undergone adversity and resultant change as well, yeah?

People seek out those similar to themselves, who can understand them and their experiences. Someone who has led a life of adversity and change is not terribly likely to seek the company of people who have led placid, static, unchanging lives - they simply don't have enough in common in terms of shared experiences.