Nietzsche’s Fascinating Little Quote

“If you regard as deserving of annihilation, any suffering and pain generally as evil, as detestable, and as blots on existence, well, you have then, besides your religion of compassion, yet another religion in your heart (and this perhaps the mother of the former) – the religion of smug ease. Ah, how little you know of the happiness of man, you comfortable and good natured ones, for happiness and misfortune are brother and sister, and twins, who grow tall together, or, as with you, remain small together.”

This short quote stirred up a bunch of questions in my mind.

  1. Is pain deserving of annihilation?
  2. Is smug ease the mother of compassion in all its forms?
  3. Is smug ease the mother of a specific type of compassion that wishes to “reduce suffering?”
  4. Are happiness and misfortune twins?
  5. Can a compassionate person, who escapes from pain, experience “tall” happiness or are they doomed to a shallow and unimportant existence?
  6. Is the reduction of suffering a religion?
  7. If it is a religion, who is it for? Is it for compassionate people, small people or people who wish to make others small?

I’d love your answers. If you want mine, here’s how I’d answer:
1. No. Pain is usually an opportunity to grow.
2. No, smug ease cannot coexist with the desire to ennoble another.
3. Yes. Of all the people I know who openly proclaim their desire to “reduce suffering,” there’s only one who isn’t a stereotype of smug ease.
4. Yes. Triumph without struggle is meaningless.
5. No. If you avoid pain you will never have important things to say.
6. Not sure. It is certainly based on faith, but most religions offer some sort of redemption. “Reduced suffering” seems purely nihilistic.
7. I feel it is most appealing to people who’ve been crushed by life and to people who want pity objects against which to contrast their glorious compassion.

9 comments

  1. Pain has an evolutionary adaptive function. There are people who, due to some pathology, cannot feel pain. Their life expectancy is usually not very long. So even if we could annihilate it, we’d have to replace it with something of equal functionality.

    But for most people, pain (including physical and emotional) is going to exist regardless of what we do. I don’t think we need to cherish or fight to preserve it. It’s going to be there nonetheless. But as someone who has felt a fair amount of it, I’m happy when it can be alleviated, and when someone helps me do so.

    Are the motivations of people who provide that help going to be “pure”? No. They’re doing it for their own, often self centered reasons, even if it’s just to feel good about themselves. But I’m still grateful for it.

    It’s only when there is a stigma attached to the help, that I think it becomes problematic. But in my view, it’s the stigma that’s the issue, not the help itself. It seems to me that we can help people without demeaning them.

    So I’m all for teaching people to fish rather than just feeding them for a day, but I’m not for scolding them for being in the position of needing to be taught.

    Pain has an adaptive function, but like all evolutionary mechanisms, it’s messy, blunt, and often misfires, and shouldn’t be held up as something more than it is. We arguably evolved reason and sociality to minimize the things it signifies.

    1. Hey Mike,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that pain serves an evolutionary purpose and the pain you criticize – I think you’re mostly talking about stuff like migraines or arthritis – I’d agree is somewhat undesirable. However, I don’t think that “the reduction of suffering” is actually possible but it does seem to be at least partially transferable.

      Here’s why I don’t think “reduced suffering” works: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180628151752.htm

      Short version, whenever things get easier or less painful, people simply become more sensitive until the baseline of suffering is restored. If you prefer the folk version of this, simply read the letters people wrote in Renaissance France or the Tang Dynasty or the Akkadian Empire. They had life expectancies half our own, they underwent surgical procedures without anesthetic and were subjected to a jillion times more danger than we are. They were also, if you read those letters, no less happy than us. In other words, suffering doesn’t seem to be a slider on your radio, it appears to be determined by “deviation from the norm,” whatever that norm happens to be.

      The other reason I praise suffering is because, as I said before, I think it’s transferable. Let me use two students of mine as examples. We’ll call them W and S.

      W is short and a little fat (things which embarrass him) and he had some mild social anxiety. In order to avoid hurting him, W’s parents let him escape from embarrassing and anxiety provoking environments. School was painful, so he was allowed to skip all outside school activities. Classes provoked his anxiety, so he was allowed to put the homework off. When he went to the store, he felt that customers were judging his height and weight and so mother started doing the shopping for him. W, now in his early 20’s, has never held down a job for more than 2 weeks, has no skills and never leaves his room. He has escaped suffering more than any other person I can think of and I’d be shocked if he doesn’t kill himself soon.

      S has a heart condition that was diagnosed when he was 18 years old. I think you’ll agree that’s a hell of a problem to face when you’re still a kid. S talked to his friends, his mentors and his family. They told him that his heart problem was shitty, but that they respected his resilience and wanted him to live life to the fullest, however long that might be. S responded by embracing stuff that hurts, a lot. He quit smoking cold turkey. He joined the ROTC and started training jiujitsu. He gets up at 6 am every morning and runs. He did this in conjunction with medication and I’m not saying he should be reckless, but I am saying this frank confrontation of suffering and death has made S’s life a million times more worthy of living than suffering-reduced W’s. Not only is S achieving his career and social goals, I’ll bet he outlives W even with the faulty heart valves.

      1. Hey Ben,
        I agree that the spectrum of happiness and suffering tends to get renormalized to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. If we suddenly got everything we wanted, we’d be very happy for a short time, but then would discover new wants and problems with whatever the new situation was. Likewise, I don’t doubt that people in leading very poor lives are able to find day-to-day joy. But while I think someone in North Korea can find some joy in their day to day circumstances, I have no desire to join them, while I suspect they’d be very happy to join the developed world.

        Anyway, I think that reality makes sense when we remember what feelings of happiness and suffering evolved to do, which is motivate us in certain ways. But again, we also evolved reasoning abilities to recognize when those feelings are leading us astray.

        I don’t know enough about W or S to comment. What I would say is that I’ve known people who fit W’s description who eventually turned out fine when they were forced to grow up. Likewise, I know someone similar to S’s profile who committed suicide, despite seeming to have it all together right up until that point.

        So I think we have to be very careful in judging whose life is more worthy of living. Frankly, I question our ability to do that in any meaningful fashion. What gives W satisfaction in life might be very different from what gives S, or us, satisfaction. I think of Tycho Brahe, a man who dedicated his life to astronomical observation. Much of his family thought he was wasting his life, but he found something that gave him satisfaction and pursued it intensely.

      2. You’re absolutely right. I should have been more careful saying which lives are worth living. What I meant to say is that W is living what, to me, would be pure hell.

        I did have two things I wanted to explore a little bit from your comment: your observation that people from North Korea would want to escape even if they’re happy (while even miserable Canadians would be slow to do the opposite) and your observation about W potentially “being forced to grow up.”

        So, North Koreans. The first thing I’d point out is several North Koreans have asked to go back. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-26340583

        The second thing I’d propose is that I think we’re making the error of assuming that humans want only happiness or even happiness the most. I don’t think either of those things is true and propose that many people will choose to live a meaningful but unhappy life rather than a meaningless but pleasant life. This is of course dependent on context. In the context of the North Koreans who ‘re-defected’ there’s a pretty common sense that in North Korea, they had an opportunity to matter in their communities whereas in South Korea, for all the freedom/justice/refrigerators/etc, they had become nobodies. In the context of ancient Rome, nobody seemed to think Julius Caesar was unreasonable to kill himself with overwork and stress on the logic that his efforts (good or bad I leave to you to decide) were immensely meaningful. Nietzsche says as much when he defines happiness as “power increasing” and unhappiness as “power decreasing.” Power is always relative, which is perhaps why moving to North Korea would be very disempowering and unappealing to you or I but not to a re-defector or a Russian dreaming about the good old days of Stalin (another very common thing).

        “Being forced to grow up.” Isn’t this just “learning to endure and manage suffering?” Wouldn’t it be, in W’s case, confronting his anxieties, diving into something scary and losing his various crutches? I ask because, as an educator, I see a lot of kids drowning in swamps of ultimately-very-cruel “compassion.”

      3. On people wanting to return to NK, the article talks about a lot of them wanting to do it for family reasons. I can totally understand that. If the US became an oppressive police state, I’d have to consider balancing all my friends and family connections against escaping to freedom. It’d be a brutal choice. I imagine many never leave due to those factors. It does sound like some want to do it because they’re not succeeding in the south. But the article also mentions this is a tiny minority, a few people in comparison to thousands who have no desire to go back.

        On happiness vs doing something meaningful, I guess it depends on how we choose to define “happiness”. We can define it as very short term pleasure, or longer term satisfaction. Usually when someone talks about doing something meaningful, like pursuing a career, raising a family, etc, they’re sacrificing short term happiness for longer term happiness. I think most of us learn that pursuing short term happiness often doesn’t lead to the long term variety. So maybe we’re saying the same thing in different ways.

        You could describe having to grow up that way. My view is the same as above, learning to sacrifice shorter term pleasure for longer term goals. But also in some cases, building confidence in being able to do those things. Some people just take longer than others, and many just aren’t interested in pushing it further than they have to, or they’re interested in pushing in in different places than others.

      4. I think we mostly agree, though I’m tempted to quibble. 😉

        I do have a rather light example I’d like your thoughts on, though. I’m currently trying to really clean up my eating habits. They weren’t bad before, but in particular, I’m trying to overcome my very old habit of eating dinner late at night. I’ve been pretty good about fixing this for the last couple weeks but the downside is that I go to be hungry every night. This has had two amusing side effects:

        1. I normally can’t remember dreams but, suddenly, I’m having these vivid, vivid dreams about food.

        2. Breakfast has suddenly become such an incredible pleasure. I had avocado and poached eggs yesterday and it was so delicious I had to really restrain myself lest I make some deeply inappropriate sounds in front of the guests.

        I assume you would consider this putting off immediate pleasures (late dinner) for long term pleasures (amazing breakfast, dreams).

        What I’m curious about is if you agree with Nietzsche, the idea that breakfast becomes amazing in proportion to the extent skipping dinner is unpleasant? In other words, would breakfast become even more amazing if I skipped lunch as well?

      5. Hmmm. Well, I lean toward Epicureanism, which sees pleasure as essentially the absence of suffering. Certainly if suffering is prolonged before it’s remedied, the remedy feels better. Starve yourself long enough and a cracker will provide an orgasmic-like experience. I know people who won’t eat for a day before a scheduled big feast, for exactly that reason.

        But it seems like a personal preference whether you want to orchestrate that rush. I tend to not sleep well and wake up cranky if I go to bed hungry, which the relief of breakfast, while definitely pleasurable, doesn’t make up for. So I go for more frequent smaller meals.

        But along the lines of Epicureanism, I think there’s a lot to be said for finding satisfaction in simple pleasures, like breakfast.

  2. […] This is not necessarily bad, incidentally. Most people seem to need religions and dogmas to escape the Nietzschean “death of god” and the Arendtian crisis of superfluity. I’ve never met anyone who was able to follow through on their atheism and live as a nihilist. At the very least, dogma and religion are superior to letting our millions of surplus, expendable citizens feel the full weight of their uselessness or, worse, smothering them to death with our “compassion.” […]

  3. definitely I wish I could cherry pick my pains — but yes, many of them have helped me to grow, to become more compassionate. on the other hand, challenges can make one turn away, become frightened of being hurt again…

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