Friedrich Nietzsche: Pessimism Of Strength

On Overcoming Pessimism, and Nietzsche’s ‘Pessimism of Strength’

Harry J. Stead
Oct 20 · 6 min read

The pessimist despairs at the fact that time is transient, that the present is always passing away, and he has accepted that this pattern is unalterable and thus must be tolerated, rather as one tolerates having a runny nose or having to stand on a train — that is, grudgingly and sulkily. This feeling of sorrow as the present moment disappears forever into the past makes it easy to doubt whether anything is worthwhile at all. As Arthur Schopenhauer writes, ‘For that which in a moment ceases to exist, which vanishes as completely as a dream, cannot be worth any serious effort.’ (On the Suffering of the World, Arthur Schopenhauer.) We spend most of our lives in a state of endless striving for satisfaction; and once we achieve this satisfaction the desire and the pleasure ceases — as a result, satisfaction ‘can never be more than a deliverance from pain.’ Moments of happiness rarely last long, and if they are repeated often enough they only lead to boredom; thus human existence, according to Schopenhauer, is essentially swinging ‘like a pendulum to and from between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.’

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, Schopenhauer made a moral judgement against life; he recognised that chaos is in the world, but he then generally accounted this chaos as ‘evil’, and he imagined ‘good’ to be peacefulness, tranquillity, order. Rather than celebrate this natural chaos, as Greek tragedy did, Schopenhauer preferred to shy away, that is, he dismissed it as immoral. This is telling of Schopenhauer’s Buddhistic influence, as he believed it true that suffering is caused by desire, and that the extinction of desire leads to liberation. Schopenhauer’s conclusion was that man ought to subdue his lust and desires, to stay in the middle, avoiding the highest of pleasures and the lowest of pains; this narrowness is justified as it keeps the mind at peace, keeps fear away, and encloses one in the safety of logic. Only a life of resignation, Schopenhauer believed, through the practice of ascetism (as practiced by eastern sages and Christian monks) can free oneself from the vanity of striving for fulfilment.

Pessimism became rather fashionable in Europe after Arthur Schopenhauer’s death, and there were many thinkers and poets in the nineteenth century— Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Wagner, to name a few — who in their works declared their disillusionment towards the absurdity of human existence. Nietzsche did accept that there is wisdom in pessimism, in knowing the ‘perishability of all things existing in time’, as Arthur Schopenhauer put it; and he thought fools of those romantics who refuse to recognise evil. He referred to pessimism as a kind of ‘hammer’ one uses to break apart traditional values and ways of thinking; it is a personal revolution in which one liberates himself from his conditioning. But for Nietzsche this phase of destruction is only the beginning, and eventually one has to ‘make oneself a new pair of wings.’ After he declared the death of God, Nietzsche believed that people would now be impelled to seek new values for themselves, to create their own ideal in their image, which may give one more reason to fulfil their potential than religious faith.

Nietzsche noticed that none of these self-proclaimed pessimists ever overcame their pessimism; instead they were all in desperate pursuit of something which they hoped would save them from themselves. Nietzsche then simply asked the question, do such people seek Christianity, Buddhism, stoicism, art, vegetarianism for their own good, or are these all attempts to find relief from their burdens, to be enveloped and infatuated? For Nietzsche the answer was the latter, and he concluded that the weakest are those who wish to lose their selves, and who seek to be liberated by something outside of themselves — whether it be God, philosophy, art, or ‘nature cures’. This desire for a refuge is, as he puts it, ‘morally speaking, a sort of cowardice…amorally, a ruse’. (Dienstag 2009, p. 172) Though he admired Schopenhauer, Nietzsche believed his pessimism to be one of weakness and timidity. Yet he wondered whether pessimism necessarily has to be this way, whether there could be a middle way, a passage between strength and pessimism:

‘Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts — as it once was in India and now is, to all appearances, among us, “modern” men and Europeans? Is there a pessimism of strength?’ (The Birth of Tragedy)

Nietzsche’s philosophy depends on the baseline of pessimism; though he did not like to admit it, he never escaped from the early influence which Schopenhauer had on him. However, he believed that Schopenhauer misjudged the potential of suffering when he thought of it as something which invariably leads to decadence. Why should we assume that misfortune and disaster leads to resignation? As Nietzsche put it: ‘Life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one gloomy. Even love of life is still possible, only one loves differently.’ (The Gay Science) This world we encounter in our everyday is never quite what we were promised, since it does not embrace us, does not smother us in happiness; instead it is unforgiving and cold, and is bound up in hatred, fear, sadistic violence, and jealously. For the pessimist of weakness this is enough reason to resign from life; but for Nietzsche this is an opportunity to overcome. If we are to leave infancy and enter adulthood, we must understand that the world will not happen for us; that it will continue to make demands upon our courage, our masculinity, and can only be outdone through will and acceptance. The real strength is to be found in disorder; for as we confront the unknown we adapt to the ‘fearful and questionable’, and develop our character so that we might one day become as threatening as the unknown.

This here is the core value of Nietzsche’s ‘strength of pessimism’: that the world is corrupt and painful there is no doubt, but we have the chance to overcome suffering through the pain of the suffering itself. The unspoken optimism in Nietzsche’s attitude is in his refusal to be defeated. Happiness — real happiness, not ever-lasting contentment as Schopenhauer proposed — then is essentially the result of victory, of gratitude, of retrieval, of recovery; it is experienced after triumphing over pessimism. The pessimist of strength understands along with the German poet Friedrich Holderlin that, ‘He who steps upon his misery stands higher. And it is glorious that only in suffering do we truly feel freedom of soul.’ For it makes a great deal of difference whether one has inherited money or whether one has earned it, whether one has been granted his freedom or whether he acquired it for himself; the difference being that one develops the strength associated with overcoming and triumph. The end which Nietzsche had in mind was that if we continuously overcame malevolence, and did not numb ourselves with any anaesthetics, then we would eventually become greater than the malevolence itself. Healing then is not merely the activity which repairs decay and corrosion, but rather a brilliant process of transformation in creativity and potential.

In The Will To Power, Nietzsche imagines a ‘Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying.., without goal… Do you want a name for this world?… This world is the will to power-and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power-and nothing besides!’ What Nietzsche is illustrating here is that we are no different from the world in which we find ourselves; and because this world is in a constant state of growth, ‘of becoming’, against elements which are trying to destroy it, we too must join in this cosmic dance, this rhythm of creation and destruction, and be actually glad that change is always happening. In this respect, Nietzsche is refusing to cast a moral judgement upon life, and instead chooses to believe in the beauty of the dance between the opposites. Here we come across Nietzsche’s principle of ‘amor fati’, which is defined by an attitude of uncompromising acceptance. As Nietzsche put it:

‘I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.’

The Gay Science, section 276.


Thank you for reading, Harry J. Stead

Harry J. Stead

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Watch my video essays here — https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCox0arNMck5WJeUVCE0AXiQ

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