Nietzsche the Pessimistic Philosopher

Nietzsche the Pessimistic Philosopher September 16, 2018

Guest post by Daniel Reynoso

Part 3 of 7 “The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, a speck of dust”


Nietzsche: A Cranky Bigot? (370)

Another myth that clings to Nietzsche’s legacy is that he was a curmudgeonly old crank who offered nothing but scathing criticism of the world around him. The image is one of a pessimistic philosopher, a miserly man who sat alone in his room scribbling away in his notebooks about how he hated everyone and everything. But here, too, the truth is exactly the opposite!

It’s true that Nietzsche had once been a “pessimistic” philosopher, which is a technical term that refers to whether or not life itself is justified and whether we should go on willing to live. Nietzsche, like so many others, was influenced by the late German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who, in his treatise The World as Will and Representation, came down on the side of pessimism: life was not justified, and the most we can do is seek for a kind of retreat from life in order to avoid suffering.

However, Nietzsche underwent a life-changing conversion from pessimism when he became very sick in his mid-30s. He had been withering away in scholarly academia, and he came so perilously close to death that he had to leave his teaching post and head into an early retirement. He even suffered from a near blindness that kept him from reading, as he relays so picturesquely, “Crawling with meticulous care and short-sighted eyes through old Greek metricians—that is what I had come to!”[19]

While many people might wind up resigning themselves to a pessimistic fate in the face of such a tragic turn of events, Nietzsche tells us that his own period of convalescence had the exact opposite effect on him. “In my decadent period,” he explains, “I forbade myself the indulgence of the . . . feelings [of pessimism and resentment] because they were harmful; as soon as my life recovered enough riches and pride, however, I regarded them again as forbidden, but this time because they were beneath me.[20]

Once Nietzsche became a convalescent, he began turning his attention to the most personal matters of his life, concerns like nutrition, place of residency and living conditions, the choice of work and recreational activities, and the selection of educators and companions. He was now working toward the future.

A New Philosophy for a New Direction (264)

Looking back from the vantage point of his last months of lucidity, he says that “it was during those years in which my vitality reached its lowest point that I ceased from being a pessimist: the instinct of self-recovery forbade me to entertain a philosophy of poverty and desperation.”[21]

Moving forward, Nietzsche builds his philosophy from the antitheses between concepts like sickness and health, decline and virtú,[22] and resentiment[23] and joy. As a man well-acquainted with the physiological and psychological conditions and effects on both sides of the binary, he considered his ability to exchange value judgments to be his true area of expertise—“today my hand knows the trick,” he tells us; “I have a knack for reversing perspectives.”[24]

Actually, Nietzsche had a kind of mystical experience in August of 1881, and from that point forward he espouses a philosophy that considers everything to be wholly interdependent and completely unified.[25] From that time forward he grows increasingly insistent that, in the grand mystery of life, “nothing that exists can be subtracted,” that “nothing is dispensable,” and he considered this philosophical perspective to be “the one most supported by both truth and science.”[26] As he confesses:

I want to learn more and more to see necessity in things as beautiful; then I will be one of those who make things beautiful . . . I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse . . . Looking away will be my only negation. And on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-say[ing person].[27]

The Tragic Perspective (355)

This was the point in his life where Nietzsche adopted some key ideas that stuck with him for the rest of his life, ideas for which he has become very famous. We’ll be looking at those ideas very soon, but, going back to Nietzsche’s renunciation of pessimism, we should be clear that he did not then turn into an optimist. He thought optimism was indicative of the need to justify the world as being the product of a benevolent God, which Nietzsche absolutely rejected.

Rather, Nietzsche adopts and promotes a point of view he calls the tragic perspective. This perspective transcends the “pitifully foolish gabble about optimism and pessimism”[28] and, instead, embraces an unabashed Yes-saying to life without any reservation. As he explains,

Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems, the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types–THAT is what I called Dionysian, THAT is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous emotion by its vehement discharge–Aristotle [mis]understood it that way–but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity–that joy which included even joy in destroying.[29]

So Nietzsche’s worldview embraces all the destructive, strange, and questionable aspects of life that others might obscure or negate. He identified this perspective in the tragic writings of the Greeks, and this perspective, he thought, was the wholehearted refutation of any pessimistic point of view. Rather, it embraces even pain, suffering, and destruction as an indispensable part of existence.

This tragic perspective finally culminates in a “joyous and trusting fatalism,” wherein “everything is redeemed and affirmed in the whole.” The one who embraces this joyous and trusting fatalism “stands amidst the cosmos” with the faith that everything is necessary and completely and fatally intertwined. Nietzsche thinks this is the highest of all possible faiths that one can have, and he discusses it at length in his late writings.


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[18] Ibid, 27: Consequently, absolutely unconditional atheism (—and that’s the only air we breathe, we more spiritual men of this age!) does not stand opposed to this ideal, as it appears to do. It is much rather only one of its last stages of development, one of its concluding forms and innerly logical outcomes. It demands reverence, this catastrophe of two-thousand years of breeding for the truth which concludes by forbidding itself the lie of a faith in god. (The same process of development in India, which was fully independent of Europe and therefore proof of something—this same ideal forced things to a similar conclusion. The decisive point was reached five centuries before the European calendar, with Buddha, or more precisely, with the Sankhya philosophy. For this was popularized by Buddha and made into a religion.) Putting the question as forcefully as possible, what really triumphed over the Christian God? The answer stands in my Gay Science, p. 290: Christian morality itself, the increasingly strict understanding of the idea of truthfulness, the subtlety of the father confessor of the Christian conscience, transposed and sublimated into scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price. To look at nature as if it were a proof of the goodness and care of a god, to interpret history in such a way as to honor divine reason, as a constant testament to a moral world order and moral intentions, to interpret one’s own experiences, as devout men have interpreted them for long enough, as if everything was divine providence, everything was a sign, everything was thought out and sent for the salvation of the soul out of love—now that’s over and done with. That has conscience against it.”

[19] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Write Such Excellent Books, 3

[20] Ibid, Why I Am So Wise, 6

[21] Ibid, Why I Am So Wise, 2

[22] Nietzsche uses the Italian term virtú, popularized by Niccolò Machiavelli, rather than either the German word vorteil (or ‘advantage’) or the German word tugend (or [moral] ‘virtue’) because he tries to capture a Renaissance notion of efficiency or excellence, a concept that is “free from [the taint of] moralic acid” (The Antichrist, 2). For Machiavelli, this concept centered on the martial spirit and ability of a population or leader, but it also encompasses a broader collection of traits necessary for maintenance of the state and “the achievement of great things”. (Wikipedia)

[23] Nietzsche uses the French term resentiment rather than the German word groll (or ‘resentment’) due to its wider meaning and more nuanced characteristics.

[24] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How to Become What One Is, Why I Am so Wise, 1: “To look upon healthier concepts and values from the standpoint of the sick and conversely to look down upon the secret work of the instincts of decadence from the standpoint of abundance and certainty as to the richness of life—this is what I have practiced most, my particular field of experience. If in anything at all it was in this that I became a master.  I came to know how to reverse perspectives: this is perhaps the first reason why a revaluation of all values has been possible to me alone.

[25] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book For All and None, “The Drunken Song,” 10: “Pain is also a joy, curse is also a blessing, night is also a sun,- go away! or you will learn that a sage is also a fool. Said you ever Yes to one joy? O my friends, then said you Yes also to all woe. All things are entangled, entwined, and enamored, –Wanted you ever once to come twice; said you ever: ‘You please me, happiness! Instant! Moment!’ then wanted you all to come back again! –All anew, all eternal, all entangled, entwined and enamored, Oh, then did you love the world, –You eternal ones, you love it eternally and for all time: and also to woe do you say: Hence! Go! but come back! For joys all want eternity!”

[26] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Write Such Excellent Books, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 2: “I was the first to see the actual contrast: the degenerate instinct which turns upon life with a subterranean lust of vengeance (Christianity, Schopenhauer’s philosophy and in some respects too even Plato’s philosophy—in short the whole of idealism in its typical forms) as opposed to a formula of the highest life affirmation born of an abundance, a superabundance, an affirmation free from all reserve even of suffering, even of guilt, even all that is questionable and strange in existence. This last most joyous most exuberant and exultant Yes to life is not only the highest but also the profoundest conception and one which is most strictly confirmed and supported by truth and knowledge. Nothing that exists must be suppressed nothing can be dispensed with. Those aspects of life which Christians and other Nihilists reject belong to an incalculably higher order in the hierarchy of values than that which the instinct of decadence calls ‘good’ and may call ‘good’. In order to understand this a certain courage is necessary and as a prerequisite of this a certain excess of strength: for a man can approach only as near to truth as he has the courage to advance—that is to say the extent of the advance is a measure of his strength. Knowledge and the affirmation of reality are just as necessary to the strong man as cowardice, the flight from reality—in fact the ‘ideal’—are necessary to the weak when inspired by weakness.  These people are not at liberty to ‘know’—decadents stand in need of lies—it is one of their self-preservative measures.”

[27] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, 276: “For the New Year.  I still live, I still think; I must still live, for I must still think. Sum, ergo cogito: cogito, ergo sum. Today everyone takes the liberty of expressing his wish and his favorite thought: well, I also mean to tell what I have wished for myself to day, and what thought first crossed my mind this year, a thought which ought to be the basis, the pledge and the sweetening of all my future life! I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful: I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yes sayer!

[28] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Write Such Excellent Books, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 2

[29] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize with a Hammer, What I Owe to the Ancients, 5

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