This was one conversation that sparked at our last meeting that was interesting. I’d like to pitch a view on it in one of the areas I know a fair bit about, through the philosophy of Nietzsche.
A recent study may have confirmed the well-known Nietzsche maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” actually holds some truth (http://phys.org/news/2010-10-doesnt-stronger.html). In a nutshell, the study found that those who had suffered adversity (and had not been killed) at some point were more resistant to the impact of negative events in their life. IMO, it seems that what’s happening here is that when we’ve experienced some of the worst in life, we break all our complacency that we have and come out appreciating the positive more than ever.
This maxim has found it’s way into a mainstream audience, even as a verse in one of Kelly Clarkson’s songs “Stronger”. It seems that when people run with the idea that their suffering is something that can be battled and overcome, that they can come out stronger, and it really empowers them. A patient who battled cancer said that he found the words of Kelly’s song to be really empowering, and it really suited his fight (http://healthland.time.com/2012/05/15/young-cancer-patients-may-get-a-boost-and-a-visit-from-kelly-clarkson/).
But how far did Nietzsche take this idea? “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?” (via Beyond Good and Evil).
So maybe you’re thinking, why the flip would Nietzsche want us to endure suffering? Why was he personally fixated on thinking it enhances us? I think it’s because he himself overcame many events in his life that would shatter most people, and it motivated him to create something positive out of these events. At a young age, both his brother and his father passed away, his true love Lou Salome rejected him, he fell out with his friends Richard Wagner and Paul Ree who he kept the upmost admiration and respect for, he fell out with his sister for having anti-semitic views and refused to attend her wedding for marrying an anti-semite, he was infatuated by Wagner’s wife Cosima by her intelligence – which he kept secret (which leaked after his collapse), and finally he suffered from ill physical health for a large part of his life, where he described nausea, pain throughout the body, eyesight problems and migraine headaches. Here’s his reflection of these events in his self-biography Ecco Homo;
“Agreed that I am a decadent, I am also the very reverse. Among other things there is this proof: I always instinctively select the proper remedy in preference to harmful ones; whereas the decadent, as such, invariably chooses those remedies which are bad for him. As a whole I was healthy, but in certain details I was a decadent. The energy with which I forced myself to absolute solitude, and to an alienation from my customary habits of life; the self-discipline that forbade me to be pampered, waited on, and doctored-all this betrays the absolute certainty of my instincts in regard to what at that time was most needful to me. I placed myself in my own hands, I restored myself to health: to do this, the first condition of success, as every physiologist will admit, is that the man be basically sound. A typically morbid nature cannot become healthy at all, much less by his own efforts. On the other hand, to an intrinsically sound nature, illness may even act as a powerful stimulus to life, to an abundance of life. It is thus that I now regard my long period of illness: it seemed then as if I had discovered life afresh, my own self included. I tasted all/ good and even trifling things in a way in which others could not very well taste them-out of my Will to Health and to Life I made my philosophy”
Nietzsche re-affirms the running theme of his own efforts to overcome his suffering resulted in the increase of appreciation of his life. His senses were heightened to the positive elements of his life. His idea is also a huge part of his disgust in traditional morals such as pity for those who suffer, as to Nietzsche, pitying people will result in a prolonging of one’s suffering rather than strengthening themselves by enduring it. He not only said that we must endure suffering to come out stronger to replace this kind of counter-intuitive morality, but as a general rule we should enjoy our lives by learning to replace suffering with a holistic affirmation to life – which he demonstrated best as he coined the phrase Amor Fati; which literally means a Love of Fate.
In reflection, I don’t think we should go and inflict hideous amounts of suffering onto people just because it may result in happiness afterwards, but I think the reality of life is that we’re going to come up against events in our life that we have no control over that cause us suffering or will inevitably result in suffering. So why not make something positive out of it? Why not overcome it and turn it into your own strength? What do you guys think?
Too long didn’t read? Here’s Alain de Botton’s short documentry on Nietzsche’s view of hardship;
Check out this video:
So here’s a pretty interesting video on the power of empathy based on the philosophy of Roman Krznaric (and various others). I don’t think we necessarily need to know a lot about Krznaric or the scenarios he talks about in the video to have a productive and interesting discussion about it. My favourite type of philosophy doesn’t necessarily involve reading heaps of philosophy and then critically analysing it (though there is certainly a place for this); it involves finding an interesting concept and running with it. So with this in mind I want to focus on the general message of the video: that is, that empathy can be the driver not only of knowledge of oneself, but also of radical and much needed social change, and specifically with the latter half of this message – if others want to take up the former ‘knowledge of oneself’ part go ahead!
Exactly how important is empathy to radical social change?
I think empathy is incredibly important to radical social change, because empathy helps us to understand things not only at a rational, academic level, but also at an emotional level; a level on which most humans live and which most humans strongly relate to. I think most of us would say that understanding is key to radical social change, and I hope to show how empathic understanding is an important component of this understanding.
There are plenty of situations in which a rational, academic understanding can only take us so far. Reading about wars, droughts, famine and various other instabilities throughout the world, for example, can sometimes seem a little surreal, a little detached from reality. The human impact of various conflicts is often (not always but often) lost in a sea of detail and numbers and that is a great, great loss. War, after all, is as much about the lost husbands and sons, the raped wives and daughters as it is about power shifts in local or global political systems. Empathy, I think, is key to understanding and really feeling the impact of such events, though in some ways it is also tho most difficult way to do so because it hits you HARD.
Yet, empathy is not only applicable in obviously emotional events like war.
Take a case concerning environmental issues: we can’t figure out how to change companies that pollute profusely without understanding why they do. Once we understand that part of the reason that companies pollute profusely is because polluting is cheap (monetarily, legally and ideologically), and that ultimately, companies are there to make a profit and fear losing support from various stake-holders, we can use this understanding to target campaigns that aim to change such practices. The most effective campaigns, in this case, are those that pander to the company’s desire to make a substantial profit, whilst still protecting the environment (note: these, may be the most effective, that doesn’t mean they are the easiest to create). Book learning can take us part of the way in this understanding, but I think understanding the needs, desires and particularly fears of companies on a non-academic, emotive level, requires empathy.
Empathy is not only a useful tool for those who have already decided to act (by informing their understanding of the situation); it can also be a useful tool for motivating people to act. It was one of the great catalysts of civilian protest against the Vietnam War, for example. When people actually saw what was happening in Vietnam on TV as opposed to merely reading or listening to radio reports about it, they were more easily able to empathise and sympathise with the troops and civilians involved. They comprehended the atrocity of war on an emotional rather than purely rational, academic level and this caused a wave of emotionally-driven protests predominantly in the USA but also here in Aus. Krznaric further evidences the idea that empathising, understanding and really feeling the impact of situations can be a great catalyst for action, in his discussion of the Anti-Slavery movement in the USA and UK. If we want to motivate people to take action on any given topic, one of the most effective ways of doing so is to appeal to their emotional rather than rational side (and this is not necessarily a negative thing!).
If we want to support radical social change we need to encourage people empathise with the victims of a give situation and thus encourage them to act, and then encourage them to empathise further with all the relevant parties in the given situation, so they will be able to decide how to act most effectively. Empathy is not the only condition necessary for social change (having the physical, economic and ideological security to empathise in the first place is also key) but it is clearly an important one. When Krnzaric asks, who should we empathise with? I think the answer is really, whoever we want to understand, whoever we want to interact with and make a difference toward. Empathy is important for radical social change. It is important in informing the understanding and thus actions of those who have already decided to act, and it is important in motivating people to act in the first place, both of which are important to implementing effective social change. That’s how I see it. What do you think?
Note: there is also a very significant and related issue regarding empathy’s role in making moral judgements, and I’ve hinted at here and there but haven’t gone into it in depth (I didn’t want to make this too long!). For those who are interested see Wilks, Colin. 2002. Emotion, Truth and Meaning. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht. Particularly chapters 5 and 6. There’s a couple of copies in the Auchmuty Library.
Ok, it’s the first post on a forum. How could it not be a geeky subject?
I just finished watching the latest Chris Nolan Batman effort (The Dark Knight Rises).
I’ll admit it now – I see comics as the closest thing modern day has to old school hero myths. They provide cultural meta-narratives, and not just to kids. Grant Morrison (who wrote Supergods, all about this phenomenon, and has also written for all the major superhero comics) put it like this: the creators of these characters are now dead, and other people will be writing stories about them long after the current writers are also dead. They’re bigger than that. Much like the “Homeric question”. The Iliad was written by generations of bards before anyone put stick to papyrus.
Batman has been my personal favourite of these modern myths for a long time. I’ve never bothered with the ongoing stuff with Robin and all that crap – just the quality, finite stories that, up until recently, could have their status upgraded to “graphic novel” and sold in hardcover at Borders for upwards of $50. (Eg Frank Miller and Alan Moore stories).
The key reason he’s my favourite is the sheer determination he has towards self-mastery for a noble cause. Until tonight, I had focused on the “self-mastery” side of that equation, but I’m now thinking of it in a different light.
Nietzsche saw people as belonging to one of two types of morality. Master morality and slave morality.
Master morality is that of the ancient Greeks, with an emphasis on pride of ability and personal power. Good = capable. They’re myths are full of warriors and tricksters that can make sh!t happen for themselves, sometimes at the expense of the Gods.
Slave morality is that of the Christians. Nietzsche’s idea was that common, incapable people make themselves feel better about being plebs by demonising the powerful masters. “The meek shall inherit the earth”. Good = pious; obedient; God-fearing.
Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to us for our own advancement.
Jesus gave us early warning that the boss was planning to downsize, and we should be on our best behaviour.
So, back to Batman.
He’s as feared as Achilles, for good reason. Let’s assume he’s at least black belt in an arbitrarily long list of martial arts styles; owns and can expertly use any weapon under the sun – and even invents his own, better weapons (in the first Nolan film, he even makes his own bat-ninja-stars by hand). And, in his spare time, can continue to amass a fortune to pay for it all, and still be philanthropic with big chunks of cash.
Some of the comics develop his self-mastery even further, with him learning Buddhist meditation techniques to prepare for death and create an alternate personality as a contingency in case he was ever under psychological attack. (Did I mention he was awesome?)
Clearly a master, in Nietzsche’s books, right?
BUT – and this is what I realised tonight – he could also be seen as a slave. A slave to a traumatic childhood experience, a slave to some moral ideal that he can break people’s bones, but not use guns or kill people that are about as evil as Hitler. A slave to an ideal that prevents him from being in love and having a family. A slave to maintaining an alter ego, so he doesn’t even get any credit.
Achilles would not be cool with wearing a mask.
So which one is he? Or is there some hybrid thing going on?
It doesn’t seem as black and white as Nietzsche would have us believe.