As much as I respect Friedrich Nietzsche, the interpretation of his works on the inevitability of suffering and the affirmation thereof are, more often than not, fundamentally flawed and present a view of the world and of humanity’s attitudes toward death that is not only ahistorical, but antithetical to Nietzsche’s concept of life affirmation.
Now before I begin, we need to understand two view points. The first being Nietzsche’s (and contemporary’s) idea that suffering is inevitable and trying to change that fact is merely a denial of life, and the second being historical views towards suffering and death.
1. Nietzsche and Death
So first, let’s discuss the concept of suffering and Nietzsche’s (and contemporary’s) attitude toward it. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche argues that in the face of the absurdity, man is able to react with one of two attitudes. The first is succumbing to the utilitarianism of the state and the state’s desire to try to control the world which, according to some philosophers (as well as a post I wrote here) is a perfect way to create violence in a society. The second however, is to become what Nietzsche calls the Ubermensch (or in Zarathustra, Last Man). When one ceases to try to run from death and suffering and instead learns to embrace it, one rises above the herd. Additionally, Aphorism #284 in Human, All Too Human speaks to this as well when Nietzsche says:
Rendering oneself unarmed when one had been the best-armed, out of a height of feeling—that is the means to real peace … [r]ather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared…
Additionally, in the writings of Philip Kain and Emil Cioran, the same sentiments of agony and suffering as natural parts of life are echoed. These arise out of a lack of understanding of the world around us and the inevitable chaos that exists within it. When we try to understand the chaotic, or absurd, world, we are doomed to failure and thus ask “why this suffering?”. So for Nietzsche, the only legitimate option is to open your arms and embrace the pain and suffering, using it as a tool to make the self stronger. Essentially, what Kanye West won a lawsuit off of.
2. History and Death
Next, we must discuss the socio-historical views on death, suffering, and the alleviation thereof. Now this will require a bit more explanation and a few sections, pre-history/”primitive”, ancient/post-antiquity, and modernity.
This was an interesting time because during this period, there was no communication between different cultures which means that there was no commonly shared view of death. Since there was no shared view of death, there were individual tribes that viewed death a certain way. During this period, some tribes probably feared death as the destroyer of things, other openly embraced it seeing it, as Nietzsche and others would, as a natural part of life.
(To be fair, Freud, in Reflections on War and Death, indicates that there is some contradiction amongst “primitive” peoples. Additionally, he indicates that, in his view at least, death is something that is embraced and not feared, per se.)
Ancient/post-antiquity (roughly 6th-16th century):
Here is where things change a bit because this is where a written language was developed/widely disseminated. Additionally, during the period before modernity, cultures became more connected what with the Greek and Roman empires and all. This interconnectedness, as well as a written language (and subsequently religion), helped to build a common view of death.
In the long period following the 6th century until the invention of medicine (that worked), death was not something that was feared, it was just there. This fact was well known to people and that made some people okay with it. However, like the pre-historical period, there was not universal acceptance. Some people were embracing of death as a natural part of life (as per what Nietzsche would say) whereas others were afraid of it. The fear was exacerbated by two very important factors, the first was the belief in an afterlife and, depending on the religion/ethnic group, belief in ghosts scared people and caused a natural aversion to death. And second, at least in Europe, the creation of the church. The church was used as a tool to coerce and control people by playing with their fear of death and the ultimate fate of one’s “soul”. It is here that we see a dramatic turn. Because before the notion of “heaven” or “hell” arose, death was just a thing. But once incentives/dis-incentives were offered, people became scared and a culture of fear and gloominess surrounded death.
Additionally however, this period saw weird changes including the subsequent rise of secularism, particularly in art. With this rise, there was a new found respect for death as something that was beautiful (probably something Nietzsche would like *let’s ignore the aesthetic ideal*).
And so what happened up until the widespread dissemination of modern medicine, was that there existed two worlds – the religious world wherein death was something that was feared and controlled by the church, and the secular world wherein death was something that was, to some extent, idolized. In fact, it’s even said that “[b]y the end of this period death remained ‘familiar and tamed'”.
But all that changed…
With modernity not only did we see the rise of liberalism, the United States, and globalization; but we saw the rise and widespread dissemination of life saving medicines. What’s more, life expectancy went up and infant mortality went down. These two factors led to a delay in death and thus a less personal experience with it. Now this is where most of our attention should lie because it are these views that stick with us today.
Not only was life expectancy increased and infant decreased, but medicine served to increase the life expectancy for terminally ill patients in an attempt to “tame” death. This was furthered by the creation of hospitals and a public health system. The creation of hospitals and public health system did wonders to depersonalize death because the dead and dying were no longer readily visible. Instead of having one’s family member dying in their house, they would be dying in a hospital. This served to make death less personal and thus help to extend the church’s creation of a fear of death as well as support the human fear of the unknown.
This sense of fear was further heightened during the Cold War with propaganda and talk of “human extinction” and so called “nuclear anxiety“.
Thus, coming out of the 20th century, humanity had a collective fear of death due to increases in medicine, increases in life expectancy/decreases in infant mortality, and a collective fear of extinction via. nuclear war.
3. What Does This Mean?
So by this point, you may be wondering “why did Peter just go on a 700 word rant about how we’ve viewed death in the past?”, but fear not, it shall be tied together! What we’ve learned from part 2 is that death, over the ages, has taken on many shapes but there is only one view of death and suffering that has been held continuously for centuries in spite of opposing views, and that is the fear of death and suffering. From pre-history until modernity, despite what some have thought, there has still been a group of people, be they religious or not, that have been afraid of death and suffering and thus tried to alleviate it. (This is proven also by the very invention of medicine to increase the life expectancy)
Thus it is safe to conclude that the fear of death and suffering, if not innate to the human condition because of our fear of the unknown, is something that has evolved with us and is here to stay as part of the human psyche.
So the question thus arises, how does this relate to Nietzsche? According to Nietzschean theory, when confronted with a scenario for death or a way to alleviate suffering/minimize the risk of death, one should ignore that, because that denies the inherent suffering in life, and instead embrace it, become the Ubermensch…or so Nietzsche says.
But no. This is flawed. The idea that we should deny a fundamental part of the human psyche (the fear of death and suffering) is going to be net worse for any sense of life affirmation because by ignoring the natural human tendency to avoid death, one is in fact avoiding a key part of what it means to be human.
Commenting on Camus, David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton observed that this distancing from death’s reality is yet another aspect of our insulation from life’s most basic realities. “We make love by telephone, we work not on matter but on machines, and we kill and are killed by proxy. We gain in cleanliness, but lose in understanding.” If we are to heed Camus’s call to refuse to be either the victims of violence like the Jews of the Holocaust, or the perpetrators of it like the Nazi executioners of the death camps, we must revivify the imagination of what violence really entails. It is here, of course, that the literature of nuclear holocaust can play a significant role. Without either firsthand experience or vivid imagining, it is natural, as Frank points out, to deny the existence of death machines and their consequences. In psychiatric usage denial means to exclude from awareness, because “letting [the instruments of destruction] enter consciousness would create too strong a level of anxiety or other painful emotions.” In most life-threatening situations, an organism’s adaptation increases chances of survival, but ironically, adapting ourselves to nuclear fear is counterproductive. We only seal our doom more certainly. The repressed fear, moreover, takes a psychic toll.
Additionally, Buddhist ethical teachings take into account Nietzschean views on death when the discussion of “a healthy fear of death” is broached. This so called “healthy fear” is dying unprepared, having not made sure one has lived life. If one has not fully lived life, then a fear of death would be, according to Buddhist theory, critical the maintaining a sense of spirituality and ultimately reaching that ultimate fulfillment in life.
Thus, if one follows the teachings of Nietzsche (and others) strictly and in the face of calls for change to prevent suffering and death do nothing, rather, embrace life and understand pain positively, that negates a fundamental part of the human psyche that has been conditioned*, grown, and embraced within us for centuries – the fear of death and the desire to alleviate suffering.
*I recognize that people will probably say “oh, well the fear of death is another part of Judeo-Christian morality that must be smashed” but I would say a few things in answer:
- That isn’t inherently true, rather, the fear of death is probably innate for it fosters survival and organisms tend to like that.
- Even if it is a product of Western morality, the centuries that we have lived with it and understood our relation to the world both via faith and science means that smashing it is both impossible, and still net worse because it would be denying countless generations their understanding of life and death.