Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: IV.319-IV.334

Jonathan Edwards


Today’s reading wraps up Nietzsche’s reflection on pain as a necessary component of the happy life. Here he notes its connection with wisdom:

There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure: both belong among the factors that contribute the most to the preservation of the species. If pain did not, it would have perished long ago; that it hurts is no argument against it but its essence. (IV.318)

This is a step beyond his earlier argument that pain and pleasure must of necessity go together and that if we have the one we have to have the other as well. Instead, Nietzsche’s argument here is for the merits of pain in and of itself. Pain is, for Nietzsche, the sign that some great opportunity is about to come our way—just as a change in the weather signals that a great storm is coming. Most people, on the coming of pain, shrink down and try to avoid it. A very few, “the heroic type, the great pain bringers of humanity,” rush to embrace it for the opportunity it heralds (IV.318).

Again, we should notice that Nietzsche is giving us an argument that is partially in line with and partially opposed to Christianity and Plato—no doubt that was his intent. Both Platonism and Christianity understand that pain does provide opportunities, but both of them also steadfastly refuse to admit that pain is inherently a good thing. It is an evil that is wrenched to the purposes of good—to which Nietzsche would cry “foul” and argue that we are being two-faced in our analysis. Either it’s good or it’s evil; we don’t get to have it both ways. And he suggests that the most influential Christians know this but intentionally skew their words to hide the truth about pain by explaining it through sin and the need for repentance (IV.326).

If we are to take a Nietzschean view of pain (or pleasure, for that matter), then we need to undergo some serious self examination:

One sort of honesty has been alien to all founders of religions and their kind: They have never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? What happened in me and around me at that time? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will opposed to all deceptions of the senses and bold in resisting the fantastic?” None of them has asked such questions, nor do any of our dear religious people ask them even now. (IV.319)

This is simply nonsense, at least within Christianity. Christians ask these sorts of questions all the time. (I can’t speak to whether this is true of other faiths.) From the New Testament to the present, numerous examples could be given of ways Christians have pursued an intense examination of their own experiences. To save time and give just one, the single greatest work of theology to have been written in the Western Hemisphere (so far) is Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections, which has exactly the goal Nietzsche is talking about:

My design is …. to show the nature and signs of the gracious operations of God’s Spirit, by which they are to be distinguished from all things whatsoever that the minds of men are the subjects of, which are not of a saving nature. (Preface, Religious Affections)

In other words, all of us are obligated to examine ourselves to determine whether or not that experience was a legitimately transcendent one, or just brought on by indigestion.

Both Nietzsche and Edwards agree that in the deepest sense this is to be an individual exploration. While Edwards would go on to note that the community does have a role to play, both agree that the bulk of the responsibility falls on the individual (IV.321) and is done largely for the individual (IV.329). And what’s more, both agree that there is an element of joy to this self-examination. While it may involve pain (who could deny that?) Edwards sees in it a chance to develop our delight in the glory of God; while Nietzsche sees this as an exercise of the “gay science” (IV.327). For both, reflection should be joyful rather than dour.

And a final point of comparison, for both Edwards and Nietzsche the whole person is to be considered. Reason, emotion, appetite, conscious, and subconscious are all connected and cannot be separated as if they were made of Legos (my example, not theirs). More specifically, the thoughts that actually enter our minds are not the beginning of ourselves but are rather the end of a very complicated organic process. Since we only see the end of that process, we assume that it is somehow separate from other parts of it, and so Nietzsche argues that we are led to set our intelligence against our instincts, when really both are different components of the same person (IV.333).

But! Lest we start thinking Nietzsche is really just arguing for a Pauline soul-searching, he reminds us that his view of the individual is something inherently different than the Christian one:

Who will attain anything great if he does not find in himself the strength and the will to inflict great suffering? Being able to suffer is the least thing; weak women and even slaves often achieve virtuosity in that. But not to perish of internal distress and uncertainty when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of this suffering—that is great, that belongs to greatness. (IV.325)

Nietzsche’s individual examination begins alone, operates alone, and ends alone—to the point where the individual is to be deaf to the suffering of others, even if it is suffering that he himself has caused. This is radically different from the Christian approach, where the individual might step apart from the crowd for a moment of self-examination, only to find that apart from the crowd he is not truly himself. Honest Christian self-examination ought to begin with the individual and lead back (through Christ, of course) to the congregation. For that matter, it is something that may even involve the congregation along the way.

What’s more, Nietzsche takes issue with some of the results of this examination. He specifically rejects both the Christian conclusion that selfishness is the root of our problems and the Platonic view that stupidity is (IV.328).

Before wrapping up today’s post, a word needs to be said about IV.329. Having said in the last post that energy is essential to the happy life, it seems odd that apparently out of nowhere Nietzsche goes full-blown cranky-old-man on us and gives us an extended rant on kids these days (especially Americans) and how they’re always in a hurry and never stop to have a leisurely stroll or conversation.

Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretense and overreaching and anticipating others. (IV.329)

It’s easy to see why Peter Viereck classed Nietzsche among nineteenth-century conservative thinkers. And although I don’t know that I would go quite as far as Viereck, I do think this gives us an important window into understanding the kind of energetic life Nietzsche expects us to pursue. It is not a life that makes a fortune or runs a marathon, it is a life of intense and energetic reflection, appreciation, and personal growth. And as far as that goes, maybe there is a touch of conservatism to it after all.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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