The Uncomfortable Life

From Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

You want, if possible — and there is no more insane “if possible” — to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it — that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible — that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering — do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? (BGE, Walter Kaufmann translation, §225)

In this passage, “we” means Nietzsche and others like him who have the courage to accept suffering as necessary, and “you” means those who seek universal comfort and pleasure as essential or overriding life goals, and dream of “ending all suffering” in the world — the essence of progressivism, utilitarianism, soft despotism, Brave New World, call it what you will.

The thrust of the passage: Every great life or society, every great achievement, all great art and philosophy — everything that ultimately makes human life beautiful and worth living — grows out of pain. Self-development and self-overcoming are born only as the resilient soul’s response to suffering. To restate this in terms of a much older, and equally profound, phraseology: Necessity is the mother of invention. And what is necessity, i.e., existential need, but a form or cause of pain?

The progressive might respond to this criticism — progressives have in fact repeatedly responded to it — by saying, “Suffering was indeed the mechanism of change and growth in the past. But it is precisely because mankind’s development has been nothing but a series of attempts to extricate itself from various forms of hardship that we believe the final aim and achievement of morality and politics is to end all suffering, thereby attaining at last the release from pain that all human history has been seeking.”

This response is equivalent to saying that since learning to walk involves many failures and frustrations, life would be substantially improved if we could somehow provide machines to transport everyone from place to place without their ever having to endure the discomfort and humiliation inherent in struggling to acquire the skill of standing on their own two feet. One indispensable premise of such moral reasoning is that there is no important difference, in principle, between having and earning, or between provision and learning. For what the progressive, utilitarian, or soft despot misunderstands — or pretends he misunderstands for the sake of advancing his petty power lust — is that the motivation to overcome pain and suffering is not primarily, or even significantly, the will to comfort, but rather the will to overcome: to survive hardships, to climb over obstacles, to extricate oneself from abysses of pain and dark caverns of ignorance. All efforts to circumvent or elide the painful processes of overcoming in the life of an individual, a community, or a civilization, are therefore, in truth, efforts to end life. For such efforts would (and do, in practice) artificially drain the vital energy of mankind — the energy that humans, like all life forms, must jealously preserve and protect as the fuel of whatever growth and meaning they may ever hope to achieve.

What the preachers of “ending all suffering” are overlooking, or hoping their victims will overlook, is one of life’s precious secrets, namely that the practical goal implicit in the natural impulse to overcome suffering is not to achieve the “perpetual peace” of a life without challenges, but rather to find ever more profound and spiritualized challenges to overcome

You may also like...