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Moral Psychology

Nietzsche's Revaluation of Schopenhauer as Educator

David Conway
Middlesex University

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ABSTRACT: On the basis of his metaphysics, Schopenhauer was led to advocate quietism and resignation as attitudes toward life. In the course of his career, Nietzsche reversed his estimation of Schopenhauer from initial agreement to final excoriation. In what follows, I examine and assess the grounds on which Nietzsche revised his opinion of Schopenhauer as educator of humanity. I argue that three fundamental issues divide Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. The first concerns the eliminability of human suffering. The second regards the value of sympathy to those who feel rather than are recipients of this sentiment. The third is the value of cultivating indifference to the suffering of others. Schopenhauer considers suffering as inextricably bound up with human existence, whereas Nietzsche views suffering as a sign of weakness that is ultimately eliminable from human existence. Schopenhauer assumed that sympathy and compassion have a benign effect upon those who experience these emotions; Nietzsche maintains they have the opposite effect. Contra Nietzsche, Schopenhauer deplores the cultivation of indifference towards the suffering of others. I defend Schopenhauer against Nietzsche on all three issues, though I argue that Schopenhauer exaggerates the ubiquity of human suffering and hence the need and desirability of the cultivation of self-denial.

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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.

I judge a philosopher by whether he is able to serve as an example....[Schopenhauer's] greatness is the fact that he faces the picture of life as a whole in order to interpret it as a whole.... Schopenhauer's philosophy should be interpreted ... by the individual ... in order to gain insight into his own misery, needs and limitations and to know the antidotes and consolations; namely, sacrifice of the ego, submission to the noblest intentions, and above all, justice and mercy. He teaches us how to distinguish between real and apparent advancements of human happiness, how neither becoming rich, nor being respected, nor being learned can raise the individual above his disgust as the valuelessness of his existence, and how the struggle for all these good things is given meaning only by a high and transfiguring goal: to win power in order to come to the help of nature, and to correct her foolishness and clumsiness a little — at first, admittedly, solely for oneself, but eventually for everybody.... This is a struggle which in its deepest and innermost nature leads to resignation. (1)

Contrast that with this mature verdict of Nietzsche's on his early 'educator' to be found in Twilight of the Idols.

Schopenhauer...is for a psychologist a case of the first order: namely, a mendacious attempt of genius to marshal, in aid of a nihilistic total devaluation of life, the very counter-instances, the great self-affirmations of the 'will to live', the exuberant forms of life. He interpreted in turn art, heroism, genius, beauty, grand sympathy, knowledge, the will to truth, tragedy, as phenomena consequent upon the 'denial' of or the thirst to deny the 'will' — the greatest piece of false-coinage in history, Christianity alone excepted. Looked at more closely he is in this merely the heir of the Christian interpretation: but with this difference, that he knew how to take what Christianity had rejected, the great cultural facts of mankind, and approve of them from a Christian, that is to say nihilistic, point of view (- namely, as roads to 'redemption', as preliminary forms of 'redemption', as stimulants of the thirst for 'redemption'...). (2)

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:

The struggle for life ...does occur, but as exception; the general aspect of life is not hunger and distress, but rather wealth, luxury, even absurd prodigality — where there is a struggle it is a struggle for power. (3)

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:

The invalid is a parasite on society. In a certain state it is indecent to go on living....The highest interest of life, of ascending life, demands the most ruthless suppression and sequestration of degenerating life — for example in determining the right to reproduce, the right to be born, the right to live.... To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death of one's own free choice, death at the proper time, with a clear head and with joyfulness, consummated in the midst of children and witnesses. (4)

Again, consider the following statement from the Anti-Christ.

What is good? — All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is happiness? — The feeling that power increases. (5)

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:

Everyone who has ...a moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable; and unless ...a person, through bad laws, or subjection to the will of others, is denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach, he will not fail to find this enviable existence, if he escape the positive evils of life, the great sources of physical and mental suffering — such as indigence, disease, and the unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of objects of affection. The main stress of the problem lies, therefore, in the context with these calamities, from which it is a rare good fortune to escape....Yet, ...most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits. Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society, combined with the good sense and providence of individuals. Even that most intractable of enemies, disease, may be indefinitely reduced in dimensions by good physical and moral education, and proper control of noxious influences;.... As for the vicissitudes of fortune, and other disappointments connected with worldly circumstances, these are principally the effect either of gross imprudence, of ill-regulated desires, or of bad or imperfect social institutions. All the grand sources, in short, of human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort. (6)

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:

Pity stands in antithesis to the tonic emotions which enhance the energy of the feeling of life: it has a depressive effect — one loses force when one pities....This depressive and contagious instinct thwarts those instincts bent on preserving and enhancing the value of life....Nothing in our unhealthy modernity is more unhealthy than Christian pity. (7)

Schopenhauer's opinion of the effects of pity upon the pitier could not be more opposite. He writes:

The bad (that is, uncompassionate] man everywhere feels a thick partition between himself and everything outside him. The world to him is an absolute non-ego and his relation to it is primarily hostile; thus the keynote of his disposition is hatred, spitefulness, suspicion, envy, and delight at the sight of another's distress. The good character, on the hand, lives in an external world that is homogeneous with his own true being. The others are not a non-ego for him, but an "I once more". His fundamental relation to everyone is, therefore, friendly; he feels himself intimately akin to all beings, takes an immediate interest in their weal and woe, and confidently assumes the same sympathy with them. The results of this are his deep inward peace and the confident, calm, and contented mood by virtue of which everyone is happy when he is near at hand. (8)

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.

4. Conclusion

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)

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(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.

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