Sunday, July 31, 2011


From The Gay Science, Sec. 325:
What belongs to greatness--Who will attain something great if he does not feel in himself the power to inflict great pain? Being able to suffer is the least; weak women and even slaves often achieve mastery at that. But not to perish of inner distress and uncertainty when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of this suffering--that is great; that belongs to greatness.
Rob Sica brought this passage to my attention when I first introduced the notion that facing others as subjects is an essential part of moral courage, the taking of stand for one's moral convictions. This is no doubt one of the "terrible" moments in Nietzsche's work--that is, roughly, the sort of thing that the Nazis would have liked.

I don't know enough about Nietzsche's life to speculate much about the psychological motivations for this kind of statement, though my general impression is that he was a generally civil, gentle, and frail man. Perhaps there was some self-loathing here?

Whether we want to agree that what he describes is a feature of greatness, he is at least right that we do not like to look at suffering, and it is furthermore difficult, as Gaita has said, to see the humanity in another who is suffering greatly from some affliction. There is a greatness of soul in the person who can see that. (Gaita would say that it takes a saint to see it in the hardest cases, but that seems rather different from what Nietzsche has in mind.)

But what about Nietzsche's seemingly terrible point about inflicting suffering? I think it is connected to the point about, for to "hear the cry of this suffering" could be read as hearing the cry of a fellow human (or even fellow creature). It might seem that Nietzsche's great man is capable of being utterly heartless.

On the other hand, it might seem that he has a point to make that connects to what I've suggested about facing others: if genuine moral courage involves facing others as subjects, and should the stand one takes cause others to suffer (either physically or psychologically), then it is one thing to avoid facing those effects of one's actions by objectifying (or demonizing, etc.) those one opposes, and something different to remain steadfast in one's aims, while recognizing the humanity of those one opposes. As Duncan Richter has recently noted, it will be tempting to see those one opposes in abstract, objectifying terms. This, I suspect, makes it easier to justify doing terrible things to them, because this objectification allows one to act without facing the particularity (and distinct humanity) of those others. One might think that this is where the Nazis failed, though I'm not sure how plausible this is, and such a sweeping suggestion is an abstraction itself.

So, maybe Nietzsche is thinking that it is only if one can honestly face the other as a fellow human that one shows greatness. We could understand such an honest facing as being fully alive to their suffering--to how bad it is, not "alive" in the sense of enjoying it. In many cases, I would guess that being fully alive to it would force us to stop what we are doing, and in many cases, that might be the point (even Nietzsche's point). But then Nietzsche leaves open that one's cause could be worthy enough to overrule this empathetic engagement. And this would be part of saying "Yes!" to everything, as Richter notes (in the post above). At the moment, I can't think of a way of describing such a situation that wouldn't still leave it seeming terrible--"I'm sorry, but this is what I must do..." or, "I know you are suffering, but you deserve it..."--but perhaps that's Nietzsche's point. This is related, among other things, to revenge, and I hope to return to that topic soon (in connection with moral courage).


  1. i think the kind of greatness nietzsche has in mind there is the one he associates with moral lawgivers and geniuses of culture (including science), and given that the kind of suffering he often has in mind in those cases is either the suffering caused by imposing a morality upon others by compulsion, or the suffering caused by having broken with the customary behavior of some moral community or having repudiated its governing fictions, it's easy to read the talk about 'hearing the suffering' as a way of referring to the fact that the lawgiver or the genius of culture is still, in fact, a part of the group with which his greatness is driving him to break, and so the kinds of moral behavior that cleave its members to it retain a claim upon him which threatens to impede his attempt to attain something great.

    i think putting it in terms of 'recognizing the humanity of those one opposes' is already to frame the opposition in terms of which nietzsche is critical. he seems awfully close to emerson or thoreau here—like the bit in emerson about, 'they are not MY poor'. is someone like emerson refusing to recognize the humanity of the poor just because he is insisting that morality does not extend so far as to deny him moral-perfectionist pursuit of his genius?

  2. Thanks, j. Yes, I was also thinking particularly about what you said about those who undermine the "fictions" of one's cultures, though I didn't mention this. (Does that cause great suffering? I guess perhaps if the undermining is successful...) And I see the point of the comparison to Thoreau and Emerson. I just got done teaching T's "Civil Disobedience," and I appreciate T's line in CD where he says that while it is not any person's duty as a matter of course to devote himself to the eradication of injustice, he must at least wash his hands of it, and not lend it his support. And that he cannot pursue his own "contemplations" while standing upon another. This all helps to modify his remark that his only obligation is to do at any time what he thinks is right. So, at least T acknowledges the "humanity" of another (or something like that) as a limit on his own action. I haven't thought as much about Emerson's line; I suppose they would be "my poor" if my way of life did contribute to keeping them in poverty...

  3. i think (leaning heavily on cavell) it would be less that they're your, or emerson's, poor because he's responsible for or complicit in their poverty; and more that in their poverty they're kindred, there are affinities between them in respect of what's needful for them.

    nietzsche does seem to have a tendency to inflate his estimate of how painful it is to have one's convictions denied or criticized. but compare e.g. to daybreak §77, 'on the torments of the soul', which opposes the typical horror at bodily torment to the torment suffered by those who live under the christian worldview. it's really striking, and pretty perceptively sympathetic, for all that it's critical.