Nietzsche's Revaluation of Schopenhauer as Educator
1. Nietzsche's Revaluation of Schopenhauer
On the basis of his metaphysics, Schopenhauer was led to advocate quietism and resignation as an attitude to life. As is well known, Nietzsche held Schopenhauer's views on this and other matters in far higher esteem at the start of his intellectual career than he did at its end. To illustrate, consider two brief quotations, one from either end of his career. The first is from the early text, Schopenhauer as Educator.
Contrast that with this mature verdict of Nietzsche's on his early 'educator' to be found in Twilight of the Idols.
There could hardly be greater reversal of attitude than that. What considerations led Nietzsche to reverse his opinion of Schopenhauer's philosophy and how cogent are they?
2. What Led Nietzsche to Reverse His Estimate of Schopenhauer?
At one level, the answer to this question is clear. Nietzsche abandoned his former enthusiasm for Schopenhauer's philosophy because he came to conceive of Schopenhauer's advocacy of quietism as symptomatic of decadence, of a descending order of life that is tired and impaired and unable to enjoy and relish life in the way that alone the most physiologically and psychologically robust can and should.
Although this answer is fine as far as it goes, it hardly goes far enough. For it does not identify precisely enough what in Schopenhauer's philosophy Nietzsche came to find unacceptable. Was it Schopenhauer's thesis that denial of the will was a wholly fitting attitude towards existence, given how the world is according to Schopenhauer? Or, was it Schopenhauer's conception of how the world is?
The answer is that it was both the reaction and conception. So far as concerns the conception of the world, what, according to Schopenhauer, evokes denial of the will where it occurs is the knowledge of the inordinate suffering that is inextricably bound up with all existence. In my view, Nietzsche did not share this conception of the world. This difference in estimate of the volume of suffering in the world was reflected in Nietzsche's notion that life was will-to-power not will-to-existence. Nietzsche wrote:
Of course, to claim that Nietzsche did not regard inordinate suffering as so inextricably bound up with existence as did Schopenhauer is not to suggest that Nietzsche was oblivious to the existence of suffering in the world. Far from it. But, for Nietzsche, suffering was the lot of the vanquished in life's struggle, namely, the weak and unhealthy. It was not the lot of the strong and healthy to whom Nietzsche essentially addresses his philosophy.
Now, I have no direct textual warrant for attributing to Nietzsche the view that the strong and healthy, those in the ascending line of life, are immune to suffering. However, there is considerable indirect textual evidence. Consider what Nietzsche says about being an invalid:
Again, consider the following statement from the Anti-Christ.
It is surely not implausible to infer from this last quoted sentence that, on Nietzsche's view, unhappiness or suffering is the feeling that power decreases. If one couples this with the thought that Nietzsche advocates eugenics, euthanasia, and suicide so as to breed and maintain only the healthy, then the conclusion is surely clear. On Nietzsche's view, suffering is eliminable from human existence. This, of course, is not to say that struggle is eliminable. On the contrary, the feeling that power increases is obtained, in Nietzsche through struggle and overcoming obstacles.
So far as the suffering of the weak and unhealthy is concerned, as I read Nietzsche, it is both unnecessary and inappropriate for one of the strong and healthy to respond to a knowledge of this suffering in others by denial of the will. For, if strong and healthy are constitutionally as such immune to suffering in their own case, why should the fact that others suffer be of any concern to them? It is a fact that the strong can acknowledge, but without any real emotional import.
This interpretation is borne out by the following pair of considerations. The first is that, on Schopenhauer's view, what immediately occasions denial of the will as a response is not so much the knowledge of the suffering of others simpliciter, but that particular form of it that consists in sharing that suffering through compassion or pity. The second is that Nietzsche regarded the propensity to feel pity as an unnecessary and baneful trait. Pity merely multiplies the amount of suffering in the world, and, in addition, by arousing on the part of the pitier action intended to help the object of his pity, it tends to preserve that which evokes it, namely, the weak who suffer. It is therefore of no positive value whatsoever.
It follows that, if one is, or is capable of being, unaffected by the suffering of others, and if one does not suffer oneself, there is simply no need or cause to respond to the knowledge of such suffering as is contained in the world by denial of the will.
3. How Cogent Were Nietzsche's Reasons for Repudiating Schopenhauer?
I have claimed that Nietzsche's rejection of Schopenhauer's advocacy of renunciation as a fitting attitude towards life stemmed from three convictions of Nietzsche's. The first is that, contrary to Schopenhauer, suffering is not integral to human existence. The second is that sympathising with the suffering of those who do suffer is of no benefit at all to those who do not suffer. The third is that indifference to the suffering of those who suffer both can and, in their own interests, should be cultivated in strong and healthy individuals, if it is not already itself a symptom of health and strength.
Assuming these were Nietzsche's grounds for rejecting Schopenhauer's pessimism, how cogent are they? Let us consider them in turn.
(A) Are the healthy and strong immune from suffering?
I suppose that one could choose so to define health and strength as to make immunity to suffering a consequence of them. However, in a world such as our own, it is somewhat far-fetched to suppose that even those most well-endowed physically and psychologically are necessarily immune to all forms of suffering. Consequently, one should resist the temptation to regard a healthy specimen as one immune to suffering.
However, Schopenhauer enjoyed a susceptibility to suffering and irritation that bordered on the pathological, and he does tend to represent the everyday life of the physically healthy individual as prone to far more in the way of unpleasantries than is in fact the case.
On this matter, Nietzsche finds an unlikely ally in Mill. In replying to the objection to utilitarianism that happiness is unattainable, Mill remarks as follows:
Nietzsche, I believe, would have concurred with Mill on this point. This part of the issue between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche must be given to the latter.
(B) Is sympathy with those who suffer of no benefit to those not suffering themselves?
On this second issue, one meets with a most spectacular and seldom-remarked disagreement between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Nietzsche claims that the effect of sympathy with the suffering of others is baneful. He writes:
Schopenhauer's opinion of the effects of pity upon the pitier could not be more opposite. He writes:
One could hardly meet with a more opposed assessment of the effects upon a person of being sympathetic to others. What is less remarked is that Schopenhauer attributes to the unsympathetic person, namely, envy and spite, are precisely the rancorous motives which Nietzsche claimed lie at the root of slave morality which so lauds sympathy! It is almost as if Nietzsche wanted to deny precisely what Schopenhauer was claiming here.
Which of the two is correct? My own inclination is very much on the side of Schopenhauer on this matter. Of course, it is open to Nietzsche to say that this feeling of at oneness with the world and one's fellows though more pleasant than its opposite is less conducive to life. But I hardly think this response is convincing.
(C) Can and should indifference to the plight of suffering be cultivated in the healthy and strong?
It has been argued above that being sympathetic to the suffering of others is on balance an asset to the sympathetic person by virtue of making of his world a friendlier place than it would otherwise be. In consequence, on the question of whether indifference should be cultivated, Nietzsche's claim that it should must be rejected.
Where then does this leave us with respect to the issue from which we started. Was Nietzsche correct to repudiate his 'teacher' Schopenhauer in the way he does? My answer must be complicated.
Nietzsche was certainly correct in supposing that Schopenhauer grossly exaggerated the case for denial of the will as the most reasonable and attitude to adopt in the face of suffering. Nietzsche is correct in supposing that, contrary to Schopenhauer, suffering is not inextricably bound up with all human existence on the scale on which Schopenhauer alleged it must be.
Nonetheless, Nietzsche was mistaken in supposing that it was contrary to the interests of an individual who is otherwise free from suffering to feel sympathy and pity for those who do suffer (through no fault of their own). Pity is not the baneful emotion which Nietzsche claims it to be.
This verdict leaves unresolved the ultimate issue. In a world which does as a matter of fact contain the enormous amount of suffering that ours contains, is not an individual who is open through sympathetic identification to this suffering bound like Schopenhauer says to be revolted by the world to the point of revulsion with it? Nietzsche, of course, thought the strong can and should disengage their sympathies from the suffering of the weak. I think this is a mistake. One's world is impoverished by such disengagement of sympathies. Yet how can one continue to affirm the will when one feels with all the suffering there is?
Nietzsche is correct that existence could only be tolerable if we were able to live without being constantly affected by the suffering of others. However, it was wrong to think that in order to achieve this enviable state, pity should be condemned and avoided. No, on this matter I think we are entitled to place more trust in life itself than did Nietzsche. The fact is that there are strict psychological limits on our susceptibility to feel pity. Pity is in part a function of our attention. To what we attend is a function of our will. Our sentiments very largely determine to what we attend. Consequently, it is only where people have disengaged themselves from pursuit of personal projects, like appreciating and producing art or caring for loved ones, and so on , that there can be scope for a degree of pity of the sort that alone can give rise to denial of will. Where denial of will becomes psychologically possible, therefore, it can hardly be thought of as unwarranted. Nietzsche himself spoke approvingly of taking leave of life at the time before one became a burden and life lost its point. Surely, he would not have wished to frown on Sannyasis who give up all attachments at that stage in life after they have made their way through it.
In conclusion, therefore, I wish to say that their are elements of truth and error in both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on the matter of greatest divide between them. Schopenhauer is right to see denial of will where it occurs in such figures as religious recluses as a legitimate response to the suffering of the world. Nietzsche is right to see denial of the will as not always a legitimate response to the world's suffering. Nietzsche is right that life need not contain suffering of the magnitude Schopenhauer claims is integral to it. Schopenhauer is right that an attitude of sympathy for all suffering creatures is a benefit and not a bane to the person who has the attitude.
If my conclusion is untidy in not coming down unambiguously in favour of one philosopher or the order, I think I can take some comfort from Nietzsche's observation that "one repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil". (9)
(1) Nietzsche, Friedrich (1965), Schopenhauer as Educator, trans. J.W. Hillesheim and Malcolm R. Simpson, (South Bend, Indiana, Gateway), pp. 25-26
(2) Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968), Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ, trans. R.J.Hollingdale, (Harmondsworth, Penguin), pp.79-80
(3) Nietzsche, Friedrich, op cit, p.75
(4) Nietzsche, Friedrich, op cit, p.88
(5) Nietzsche, Friedrich, op cit, p. 88
(6) Mill, John Stuart (1962), Utilitarianism, (ed.) M.Warnock, (Glasgow, Collins), p.26.
(7) Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968), Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ, trans. R.J.Hollingdale, (Harmondsworth, Penguin), pp.118-119.
(8) Schopenhauer, Arthur (1965), On the Basis of Morality, trans. E. F. J. Payne, (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill), pp. 211-212.
(9) Nietzsche, Friedrich (1969), Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, trans. R.J.Hollingdale, (Harmondsworth, Penguin), p.103.