Nietzsche on Pity
Where are your greatest dangers? ln pity.
One should, to be sure, manifest pity, but take care not to possess it.
Know, too, that there is nothing more common than to do evil for the pleasure of doing it.
Pity seems to be such an instance. The desire to evoke the pity of our fellow humans seems to stem from a desire to hurt and mortify them. And quite literally so.
If it is indeed true that the oldest means of solace for man is to make someone else suffer for the various feelings of indisposition and misfortune in him (hence cruelty as the oldest festive joys of our species and beyond), then the cause of pity is rather clear: Their weakness notwithstanding, the suffering are made conscious of the fact that they still possess the power to hurt. This then becomes a source of consolation for them.
As Nietzsche puts it: “in the conceit of their imagination they are still of sufficient importance to cause affliction in the world.”
Thus Nietzsche sees the thirst for pity as a thirst for enjoyment at the expense of our fellow men.
Evolutionary speaking (beginning with the Neolithic), if as an ancient farmer you are not doing so well and you can’t figure out the reason behind the good fortune of your neighbor (so that you can replicate what he’s doing), taking him down at your level might make sense: if you are not going to make it, no one else will or rather if you are not making it, you will cause havoc to other people till you make it, i.e. till you no longer have the incentive to compensate for the feelings of indisposition that spur from your current predicament. I think this is also tied to the idea of ‘lagging behind’. During most of our history, if we could not somehow keep up with the group’s average we would perish as survival was tightly knot with a small band. Hence we have this in-build drive to not ‘lag behind’.
In the case of pity, you are lagging behind because of some problem that is currently afflicting you (and not the others). By sharing the burden, by pulling the other party just a little bit down you are no longer lagging behind as much as you originally did.
We may call the above-described approached the evil Eris as opposed to the noble Eris: The envy that wants to make up for the gaps by pulling your neighbor down to your level and the envy that wants to make up for the gaps by bringing oneself to your neighbor’s level. The former deriving from impotence and impoverishment with the latter stashing away huge enhancing potential.
The effects it produces from the standpoint of the party being pitied
Thus pity seems to have a two-fold effect. The first one is consolation in the damage one has caused to the person that encompasses his immediate vision. Secondly, the other person is no longer faring better than you, that is you are not lagging behind so much.
But, thus speak the compassionate hearts: ‘pity is how we become human, and come closer to our neighbor in that we are brought closer to understanding and helping him!’
Two points can be immediately raised here: First, the help offered by pity is at the very least of a dubious nature. And second, if it is indeed true that there are many different paths that one can tread upon in order to arrive at a particular goal, why must then the path of pity be chosen to help and empathize with our fellow humans?
For the latter point we could phrase the question a little bit differently: why is it that we need suffering to come closer to our fellow humans? Why not rather have the more optimistic and beneficial moments of our life do that instead? As it is, there is more than enough suffering on Earth, why should we contribute to further increase it? Why not rather share joyous moments in order to better feel for each other?
Now, I am not saying that one should shun sharing any kind of suffering from other people, if only because any unconditional advice is bound to be erroneous given the great variety of human types and needs. Equally importantly, empathy seems to be a built-in software in us, and for very good reasons. But it seems to me that one ought not to exaggerate it. Pity could be described as exaggerated and superfluous empathy, which is necessary for stupefied people who need passions if they are to be brought to help their fellow men. If one uses reason and facts alone, one automatically, therefore, loses the drive to pity people (but not therewith, the drive to empathize with them!).
But then again, does pitying a person really help him with his current predicament? I would say, for the most part, no. Yes, it is indeed true that the person might be soothed for the here and now but it seems to me that no real actions are being taken to improve and solve the current predicament. Pity is in this regard akin to pseudo-medicine: maybe it cures the symptoms for now, but it does not solve any problem whatsoever.
Moreover, one can make the case (and can make it well) that our personal and profoundest suffering is absolutely impenetrable for the minds of the others. And that whenever people notice that we suffer they interpret it very superficially (even more so when they pity us). Let us, therefore, preserve our worth and not let people make it smaller on account of some petty and useless emotion.
One more thing that must finally be said is this: ‘Why do you, good sir think that you have a right to shield that creature from suffering by extending out the hand of pity?’
Really, when has anybody achieved anything of significance without first overcoming great resistance? In this sense, it not at all infrequent that pity converges into a crumbling philosophy of comfortableness.
As Nietzsche puts it:
Terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks, and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites…
To put it mystically: the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell…
For happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or remain small together.
From the standpoint of the party which is pitying
So far we saw some of the motivations that the party seeking pity might have. What about the party that pities, what could be their deepest psychological motivations?
Nietzsche's great innovation is that he recognizes that these motivations should not be thought of as selfless acts, some purely moral acts performed for the sole purpose of helping our fellow humans. No, it seems that the reference, as usual, is to be sought in oneself.
On a higher level of analysis, a predicament that affects a person that encompasses our limited vision would offend us: it would make us aware of our impotence if we did not go to the assistance of that person (this feeling is for sure multiplied, should there be other people in our proximity). Moreover, an accident and suffering incurred by another could constitute a signpost to some danger to us; and it could also have a painful effect simply as a token of human vulnerability and fragility in general (evolutionary speaking). One can also relieve one’s indignation at the sight of some injustice by helping other people.
Thus Nietzsche concludes that:
Through an act of pity one repels this kind of pain and offence.
But note that this is a very personal kind of pain and something entirely different from the original pain that the suffering is experiencing. As elsewhere, Nietzsche emphasizes that language is again tricking us here (which is now by the way an established fact but no one had even started to seriously think about it at Nietzsche’s time) by calling two different kinds of sufferings with the selfsame name.
Calling the suffering (Leid) at the sight of another person, pity (Mit-leid, suffering along with the other) does not make much sense because we have two very different kinds of pains at play here, that is to say, that the pain as experienced by the suffering and the pain as experienced by the other party are two very different things. It also does not account for all the various subtleties as already partly discussed.
Bottom line is that one is acting very strongly with a reference to oneself when one is pitying another person: one wants to appear as more powerful and fortunate, as a helper, or even simply wants to relieve oneself of boredom.
Moreover, for the great and rare human beings, pity can also have a very sly and crumbling effect in that it offers a safe and acceptable way to flee and dodge their goals, for their path is after all too hard:
All such arousing of pity and calling for help is secretly seductive, for our “own way” is too hard and demanding and too remote from the love and gratitude of others, and we do not really mind escaping from it and from our very own conscience — to flee into the conscience of the others and into the lovely temple of the “religion of pity.”
In the end, Nietzsche fundamentally sees a great difference in terms of power:
There is always something degrading in suffering and always something elevating and productive of superiority in pitying.
Or more fully:
When we see somebody suffer, we like to exploit this opportunity to take possession of him; those who become his benefactors and pity him, for example, do this and call the lust for a new possession that he awakens in them ‘love’; the pleasure they feel is comparable to that aroused by the prospect of a new conquest.
To what extend one has to guard against pity
If what we discussed so far is indeed the case (and so it seems as far as I am concerned), then pity counts as a weakness, for the simple reason that it is harmful as it causes pain and enhances the general amount of suffering in the world.
A piece of good general advice would be that one sees one’s own experiences in the selfsame way as we see them when they are the experiences of others. This would discharge our thinking of all the inevitable subjectivity that always comes along when we judge our own experiences.
What the philosophy of pity demands, on the other hand, is to view and imbibe the experiences of others as if they were our own. Therefore doubling the encompass of one’s ego to include that of another person’s as well and hence increasing one’s fair load of suffering.
In summa: Yes, one should empathize with his fellow humans and No, one must not pity them or at the very least be a miser about it as much as one can.
Nietzsche mentions that the Greeks had a word for the indignation at another’s unhappiness, of which there seems to be no equivalent in our modern vocabulary. It seems that after a long training in Christian thought and feeling we have now found ourselves in need of pitying each other if we are to feel for each other’s unhappiness.
But I believe that pity is a very low-level way of feeling for one another, it does not go deep, it only looks at the surface. The Greeks at their best had already understood the harmful effects of pity and to them, it constituted a morbid recurring affect the perilousness of which could be removed by periodical, mindful discharge.
It thus seems to me that pity was appropriate for the civilization at the level of Hammurabi or lower, that is to say for an early and therefore crude form of human civilization when the drive to empathy was extremely weak and extremes forms of it (therefore pity) were needed in order to force the people into caring for each other.
This we have, however, outgrown for a very long time now.
Here, as elsewhere one is to apply the first principle approach which I believe will result in a path guided by reason for problem-solving and empathy for our fellow humans. That one understands that we are all part of the same hard game, and that love, compassion, and mutual help are the dominant strategies in the long term for helping each-other get the best out of existence.
And finally to close with one of Nietzsche’s best statement on pity:
I want to teach them what is understood by so few today, least of all by these preachers of pity: to share not suffering but joy.
In this very short essay, I have tried to capture part of Nietzsche’s thoughts on pity as well as add some of my own. As always, any constructive comments or suggestions are highly appreciated. Thanks for reading.
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