Nietzsche’s Opposition to Pity and Comfort

Nietzsche on pity and comfort

In much of his writing, Friedrich Nietzsche railed against pity – which he saw as a soul-crushing, enfeebling emotion and ethic – and comfort, which again he thought was the enemy of strength, health, and vitality. Nietzsche’s fierce opposition to Christianity originates from the centrality he believes it places on pity, and how this feeling (for both the pitier and the pitied) diminishes human growth. In The Gay Science (1882), he argues:

…if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible stress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together.

Here we see how Nietzsche links pity to comfort, as well as assert that happiness is married to unhappiness – an entwining that means the heights of joy are only made possible by the depths of dissatisfaction. When we pity others (or ourselves), in his view, we are both negatively evaluating suffering and trying to eliminate it, which might make us more comfortable, but this comfort will be our downfall; it will stifle our capacity for fortitude, and deprive us of greater happiness. 

Walter Kaufmann, the renowned scholar of the philosopher, states the following in his work Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950):

According to Nietzsche, pity is bad both for those who feel it and for those who are being pitied. It is bad for the pitied because it does not help them toward happiness and perfection and well-being. It even degrades, for pity includes a measure of condescension and sometimes even contempt. We do not pity those we admire. Moreover, the pitying one rarely understands “the whole sequence” and the “entire economy of the soul”: “he wants to help and does not realize that there is a personal necessity of suffering.” A religion that preaches pity assumes that suffering is bad; it is in that sense a “religion of comfortableness.” Self-perfection, however, is only possible through suffering, and the ultimate happiness of the man who has overcome himself does not exclude suffering. 

Nietzsche remarked in The Antichrist (1895) that “Pity stands in opposition to all the tonic passions that augment the energy of the feeling of aliveness: it is a depressant. A man loses power when he pities.” And this feeling not only drains our strength; it also causes the pitier to forgo self-perfection: “How is it possible to stay on one’s own path? Always someone crying calls us aside; our eye rarely sees a case where it does not become necessary to leave our task immediately…”

In his posthumous work The Will to Power (1901), Nietzsche goes beyond just positively valuing suffering; he wishes to see more of it in the world:

I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day be more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been.

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.

These quotes may seem peculiar: Nietzsche here is saying, in the second quote, that he wants those he is concerned about to suffer more. This may appear intuitively ridiculous, and callous, but based on the value Nietzsche places on suffering, it makes sense. This does not mean that all suffering is valuable and vitalising; in The Genealogy of Morals (1887), Nietzsche writes, “What really raises one’s indignation against suffering is not suffering intrinsically, but the senselessness of suffering.” Contrary to certain critiques of Nietzsche, Stewart Smith contends that the philosopher was sensitive to excessive, useless suffering. 

Regarding the quotes above from The Will to Power, it is also true that this work is considered controversial among scholars. It was compiled in large part from notes by his sister Elisabeth and published after his death. The siblings had a strained relationship, so many believe that she took liberties with his ideas and writings. Nevertheless, the notion that Nietzsche would welcome more meaningful suffering in the world is not so contentious when we look at more of his thoughts on the subject. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), he said:

In man creature and creator are united: in man there is material, fragment, excess, clay, dirt, nonsense, chaos; but there is also the creator, the sculptor, the hardness of the hammer, the divinity of the spectator, and the seventh day – do you understand this contrast? The body must be fashioned, bruised, forged, stretched, roasted, and refined – it is meant to suffer.

This is a passage that would likely resonate with many bodybuilders, and be a source of motivation. In the same book, he again rebukes the attitude of anti-suffering: “You want, if possible – and there is no more insane “if possible” – to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever.”

Nietzsche was opposed to Buddhism for the very same reasons he opposed Christianity: he saw it as a religion based on pity and, thus, encouraged a lowly, mediocre life of comfortableness. He would certainly be opposed to the practice of metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation: the ancient Buddhist practice where people train themselves to wish themselves and others well. (Bhavana means “development” or “cultivating”.) The four phrases that you silently repeat to yourself to instil these feelings, which are directed towards yourself, a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and all beings – in these five stages – are as follows:

  • May I/you/all human beings be well
  • May I/you/all human beings be free from suffering
  • May I/you/all human beings be peaceful and at ease
  • May I/you/all human beings be happy

Metta is an important part of Buddhist ethics, as a way to help people wish for – and take steps to – eliminate or reduce suffering. But this is the complete antithesis of Nietzsche’s worldview. He would be anti-metta, and I can imagine he would perhaps have his own practice of anti-metta bhavana, involving the following phrases:

  • May I/you/all human beings be unwell
  • May I/you/all human beings be full of suffering
  • May I/you/all human beings be agitated and uncomfortable
  • May I/you/all human beings be unhappy

Again, most of us would perceive this Nietzschean attitude as heartless. Yet, to Nietzsche, it was precisely the opposite. To care about others, truly, is not to wish that they don’t suffer but that they suffer well. And this means becoming stronger individuals through hardship, which is the direction that many of us could perceive in the course of our lives, if we think about what kind of people we have become since acute or chronic periods of pain and distress. 

Could some middle ground be struck between the Nietzschean stance and, let us call it, the compassionate stance? Pity and compassion are not synonymous, after all. The former may involve an undercurrent of condescension and contempt, but the latter may not. Perhaps as individuals, we can perceive the value of suffering while at the same time wish for ourselves and others not to suffer too much

‘Too much’ is a nebulous and subjective term. It might mean a number of things, such as not being reckless with one’s life and physical and psychological health, or not suffering so much that the kind of personal growth Nietzsche has in mind doesn’t actually materialise. And, with respect to metta, a Nietzschean response would be that being well, peaceful, and happy does not mean shirking suffering but actively embracing it.

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