We live in an era where the refrain of compassion, with its psychological support units, is intermingled with the refrain of ‘personal development’, offering serenity for all at a modest price. In other words, suffering is in vogue; so is not suffering (provided one engages in self-reflection). Thus, we are at the heart of the issues of suffering. As often, the son of a German pastor explored these questions before us. And not as an intellectual, but as a man for whom what one lives and what one thinks are one and the same. Another meeting by Pierre Le Vigan with Friedrich Nietzsche. On the agenda this time: suffering.
It is often said that Nietzsche was anti-Hegel. This is entirely true in the sense that Nietzsche does not believe history follows a predetermined or purposeful path. However, it is striking to note that Nietzsche’s thought process is perfectly dialectical, giving him at least one thing in common with Hegel. But Nietzsche’s dialectics are less about the things themselves than about the perspective on those things. This is evident in Nietzsche’s stance on suffering on one hand and on happiness on the other. Nietzsche transcends the contradiction between these two notions by introducing a new value scale. This arises from the perspective he gives to the question. We will see that Nietzsche’s method can be viewed as an ascending dialectic, a spiral dialectic.
Discussing suffering is to discuss Buddhism. Nietzsche critically examines it. However, this should not overshadow one fact: Nietzsche identifies a positive trait in Buddhism – it escapes the mindset of resentment. According to Nietzsche, this absence of resentment is the common link between Buddha and Christ; it is also the point on which Saint Paul betrayed Jesus. Thus, discussing Buddhism is to discuss a philosophy that seeks to eliminate suffering.
Nietzsche criticises Buddhism for being based both on ‘hyper-excitability of sensitivity’ and on a ‘cerebral character’ (The Antichrist, 20, 1896). From this arises depression. The solution to this is indifference to the things of the world. ‘In Buddha’s teachings, egotism becomes a duty: the “only necessary thing”. The method to detach oneself from suffering sets and limits the entire spiritual diet’ (ibid). One must guard against one’s desires. ‘Buddhism is a religion for late men, for gentle, docile races that have become overly cerebral, who feel suffering too easily’ (The Antichrist, 22). In Buddhism, all suffering is discomfort, and all attachment is discomfort. Ageing and death are discomforts, but so is birth. Life should ‘be’ without ever ‘appearing’ or ‘being born’. Being without being born: quite a programme. That is the essence of Buddhism.
Moreover, every desire, every craving is viewed negatively. To cease suffering, one must detach onself from desire. Eradicate thirst, and one will no longer suffer from a lack of water. To live, thus, is to suffer. Because to live is to thirst, to desire something else, to want something one does not have. Nietzsche does not dispute the Buddhist analysis of the cause of suffering. He concurs with what appears to him a correct observation and thus summarises Buddha’s response: ‘“Life is but suffering” – they claim, and they do not lie: so ensure you cease to exist! Put an end to life which is but suffering!’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 60). Less life, thus, means less pain. But Nietzsche cannot endorse this stance. He does not say the answer is wrong. He says the question is poorly posed. He desires life, whatever the cost. However, he does not believe that more pain equals more life. Pain and its opposite, pleasure, are not two separate entities. Neither is valuable in itself. Neither hedonism nor dolorism. It has been said that Nietzsche merely tried ‘to believe that suffering was not bad’ (Derek Parfit, as cited by Nicolas Delon, ‘The Problem of Suffering in Nietzsche and Parfit’, Klesis, 43, 2019). A way to justify his own suffering, perhaps. It is entirely possible. But a psychological analysis, as relevant as it might be, does not negate a philosophical one. It is the latter that needs to be pursued.
For Nietzsche, the meaning of suffering varies depending on the types of men in question. ‘Courageous and creative men never perceive pleasure and pain as ultimate issues of value; these are correlated states, one must desire both if one wishes to achieve anything’, he writes. This is echoed in Zarathustra’s ‘Song of Intoxication’: ‘Pain is also a joy, a curse is also a blessing, the night is also a sun, go away or else learn: a wise man is also a fool. Have you ever said yes to pleasure? Oh, my friends, then you also said yes to all pain. All things are linked, tangled, in love with each other, you, the eternal ones, love them eternally and always: and to pain too say: “Perish, but come back!” For every joy desires eternity.’ Pain and pleasure prove nothing in themselves. They neither indicate health, nor its absence, nor illness. ‘The absence of pain, or even pleasure, does not demonstrate health – nor does pain prove anything against health’ (The Joyful Science, 116, 1882). What signifies health for one might indicate illness for another, and illness itself can possess virtues for some and signify life. (‘Illogic is necessary to man, and much good arises from it’, Human, All Too Human). This challenges the conventional status of suffering as something to avoid at all costs.
The Engine of Suffering
To Buddhism, which seeks to avoid suffering, and to all ideologies of happiness for all, Nietzsche counters that the widespread adoption of well-being would lead to the end of individualities and thus of geniuses, the end of ‘powerful energy’. ‘Humanity would be too lethargic once this state is achieved [a “socialist” state of well-being for all (author’s note)] to still produce genius. Should we not then hope that life retains its violence, and that wild forces and energies are continuously spurred into existence?’ (Human, All Too Human, I 235, ‘Genius and Ideal State in Contradiction’). In this sense, pain and suffering can be a driving force of genius. ‘The swiftest animal to carry you to perfection is suffering’, Nietzsche says in Schopenhauer as Educator, quoting Master Eckhart. Thus, man should not spare himself. ‘He needs to be in a state of war, sparing neither men nor things, even though he too suffers from the wounds inflicted on them’ (ibid).
Nietzsche also rejects the Buddhist project to eliminate suffering. He believes this project is indeed effective. But he thinks it is missing the point. ‘Hedonism, pessimism, utilitarianism, eudaimonism, all these systems that measure the value of things according to the pleasure or pain that accompany them, that is, based on incidental states or facts, are shallow views and naiveties, which every person endowed with creative strength and an artist’s consciousness can only view with irony and pity.’ (Beyond Good and Evil, 225). Hedonism is not a solution. The pursuit of pleasure is not a noble path. Rejecting suffering does not lead to anything grand. On one hand, with Buddha, we have ‘the release of nirvana’ (the extinguishing of desires, and thus of pains); on the other hand, with Nietzsche, we have the ability to ‘will the eternal return’ (see Marcel Conche, Nietzsche et le bouddhisme [Nietzsche and Buddhism], Encre Marine, 1997). On one side, there is Buddha’s so-called euphoric wisdom, which escapes suffering; on the other, Nietzsche’s tragic wisdom, which accepts suffering as ‘undoubtedly an essential part of every existence’ (Posthumous Fragments, XI, 360). On one hand, the will to nothingness; on the other, the ‘yes’ to the world. ‘The nostalgia, like the Buddhist one, for nothingness is the negation of tragic wisdom, its opposite’, says Nietzsche (Posthumous Fragments, X, 45).
However, it is not suffering that is good in itself. It is the discipline it implies. ‘Has not everything that has ever been given to man in depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning, grandeur, been acquired through suffering, by the discipline of great pain?’ (Beyond…, ibid). The question is thus how peril and suffering have allowed man to ascend. ‘We think that hardness, violence, slavery, danger in the street and the soul, that concealment, stoicism, tricks and devilries of all kinds, everything that is bad, terrible, tyrannical, everything that in man comes from the beast of prey and the serpent, serves just as well for the elevation of the human type as its opposite.’ (Beyond Good and Evil, 44). ‘Just as well.’ This means that while violence, hardness, and cunning might be seen as qualities, it is also conceivable that their opposites could be qualities too. Generosity and magnanimity should not be dismissed from what might allow a person to rise. Everything is a matter of circumstances and perspectives.
Neither cruelty nor suffering are values in themselves. Nietzsche merely observes that to ascend, it is often necessary to go through one or the other. Similarly, happiness is not a value in itself. ‘What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is being overcome.’ (The Antichrist, 2). The desirable happiness is this: having more energy. The undesirable happiness is satiated satisfaction. Happiness through power is reserved for a minority. ‘The superior caste – being the smallest in number – being the most perfect, also has the rights of the smallest number: it must therefore represent happiness, beauty, goodness on earth.’ (The Antichrist, 57). Feeling one’s power is a sensation. We are far from Buddha’s thought which says: ‘Having no sensation is happiness itself.’ Nietzsche, on the other hand, wants sensation. He desires it even if it has to be paid for with the price of suffering, which is usually the case.
Today, Buddha Has Triumphed over Zarathustra
But what is the drama of our era? It is that it has chosen Buddha over Nietzsche. The ‘last man’ has forsaken the bow and arrow. He has relinquished strength, energy, war, and he has abandoned art and music. He has withdrawn from life and history. ‘Zarathustra began to speak to the people: “It is time for man to set a goal for himself. It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. Now his soil is still rich. But one day this soil will be poor and barren, and no large tree will grow there. Alas! The days are near when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man, when the strings of his bow will have forgotten how to whir! I tell you: one must have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have this chaos in you. Alas! The days are near when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! The days of the most despicable man are near, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold! I show you the last man.”’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue 5). The time of the last man is that of a man who no longer accepts the chaos within him. He no longer compels himself to order this chaos. His life becomes a series of drawers. He opens and closes them at will. The sense of God’s death has stripped him of all ambition. He believes he has invented happiness. A universal happiness at a fixed price. He desires warmth. He is cautious. He fears stumbling over stones and getting hurt. ‘A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death.’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 15).
Thus, Buddhism has triumphed over Nietzsche. Yet there are fruitful sufferings that one should not flee from, argues the author of Zarathustra. They are fruitful if they promote creation and beauty, or self-growth, or clarity, or the development of the will to power. Want to eradicate suffering? Nietzsche does not dispute that the Buddhist method, the elimination of desires and will – a method also embraced by Schopenhauer – might be effective. But Nietzsche would rather suffering serve a purpose. Nietzsche does not hold the same values as Buddha. And their paths are indeed very different!