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The Aristocracy of Suffering

The Aristocracy of Suffering

“Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering.”
- from “Toward A Genealogy of Morals” (1887)

Nietzsche believes that human strength and wisdom is elevated in direct proportion to the depths of human suffering and the overcoming of suffering. Direct experience of the harsh and impersonal nature of the universe leads to a unique understanding of reality that sets a person above and beyond the comparatively shallow belief systems and illusionary hopes of the mass of humanity (the herd).

For the herd, suffering is an affliction upon humanity either wrought as judgement by higher forces or as part of our “pitiful lot in life.” For Nietzsche, however, suffering is an opportunity. It challenges us as individuals to discover previously unfathomed strength within ourselves. It is the well-spring of greater human existence.

He writes in “Beyond Good and Evil” that: “The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”

The act of taking on profound human suffering as a means of personal empowerment makes such an individual GREATER than other human beings. It allows individuals to cast aside old values and beliefs and forge their own intimate meaning in life. In doing so, they emerge free of the herd. They can rightfully look down upon those still squandering their lives, avoiding suffering as much as possible, reacting in fear when suffering comes forth, relying on ridiculous belief systems and avoidance mechanisms to fight suffering. Far better to face it courageously, with unflinching hardness of spirit, learning what it can teach, and experiencing the entire endeavor as a transformation rather than as an affliction. This is the “discipline” to which Nietzsche refers and it should justifiably be a source of pride in the individual.

Again from “Beyond Good and Evil”: “The spiritual haughtiness and nausea of every man who has suffered profoundly – it almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer – his shuddering certainty, which permeates and colors him through and through, that by virtue of his suffering he knows more than the cleverest and wisest could possibly know, and that he knows his way and has once been ‘at home’ in many distant, terrifying worlds of which ‘you know nothing’ – this spiritual and silent haughtiness of the sufferer, this pride of the elect of knowledge, of the ‘initiated,’ of the almost sacrificed, finds all kinds of disguises necessary to protect itself against contact with obtrusive and pitying hands and altogether against everything that is not its equal in suffering. Profound suffering makes noble; it separates."

It is this transformation that sets individuals above the herd, beyond the late man, and paves the way for the overman.

From a broader perspective, there is a universal benefit to suffering within society as a whole. Suffering is an indicator of creative forces at work in humanity. Nietzsche believes that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Society cannot advance as a civilization without experiencing a corresponding degree of disruption in its cultural fabric. “Actually, every major growth is accompanied by a tremendous crumbling and passing away: suffering, the symptoms of decline belong in times of tremendous advances…” (Notes - 1887).

The suffering of society in times of change and development is a natural consequence of the dynamics of change. It actually has a strangely liberating quality, as Nietzsche implies in his writings, to the extent that human beings who accept this as a discipline are distinguished and elevated from the masses who know nothing beyond the pain of uncertainly and woe.

For Nietzsche, suffering makes one “hard.” If it is true that that which does not kill us makes us stronger, then it is equally true that by overcoming suffering, by facing it squarely and by not turning toward such overworn tools as “faith” and “hope”, we become something greater than what we were without suffering. “And if your hardness does not wish to flash and cut and cut through, how can you one day create with me? For creators are hard. And it must seem blessedness to you to impress your hand on millennia as on wax, blessedness to write on the will of millennia as on bronze – harder than bronze, nobler than bronze. Only the noblest is altogether hard. This new tablet, O my brothers, I place over you: become hard!” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Third Part - 1884).

In the true nobility of humanity, the endurance and conquest of suffering is a critical component to achieving greater rank. Buddhists claim in the first “noble truth” that “life is suffering.” Nietzsche’s twist on that truth might very well read: “The greater the suffering, the greater the life.”

Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1999
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