Recently a good philosophical friend dropped in to visit and, after a pre-emptive apology, said, “Aren’t you just a chicken-sh*t Nietzschean? Because you accept his view of the world, his psychology, and his critique of religion and traditional morality, all the way up to the last point — his claim that pity is weakness — and you blink; you turn back and want to say that sympathy or pity is a virtue.”
It was interesting to try to work out an answer. I’m not sure how much of Nietzsche’s actual world view I do buy. I certainly don’t think of the will-to-power as a metaphysical force (and I’m not sure he really did, but he did flirt with the idea, at least). And his critique of morality is too Hegelian for me: I can’t believe that one strain of people can be categorized as “slavish” and another as “masterful” and then see the history of human society as playing out between these two groups. I think what I admire most about Nietzsche is the project he is trying to achieve by putting forward these ideas. I think his main effort is to free himself, as an individual, from ideologies and superstitions and psychological failings, and his way of doing this is to reconceive human psychology and human history in ways that get him to rethink his own. His theories are levers, in a way, to lift up the rock that is hiding deeper elements of his mind from his awareness. I could easily imagine a “Nietzschean” in this sense who advocates a radical, fundamentalist Christianity, simply because it is the tool he or she needs to get at some deeper intrapersonal forces.
Nietzsche, I think, was powerfully moved by pity and compassion — particularly self-pity. So he tried to find a way to free himself from its pull, and ended up with Zarathustra’s powerful commands to “get over it.” I guess I do blink at this point. Getting over self-pity is one thing, but getting over other-directed sympathy is another. Of course, maybe I’m just wimpy. Sympathy certainly does limit our actions, and even the range of what we can imagine doing. But at this point I can’t see the removal of that limitation as more advantageous to me, spiritually and philosophically, than keeping it. By keeping sympathy, it becomes possible to be part of a social community, a partner in friendship, and a lover, and those are all good things which encourage my growth more than the lone-wolf style of life. (And these are good things which Nietzsche never really could get a handle on — so who’s the limited one, brother?)
So let me identify myself as not a chicken-sh*t Nietzschean, but as one who admires Nietzsche’s “self-growth” project, but amends it so that even greater growth is possible. (And if that don’t sound chicken-sh*t, I don’t know what does!)
When I think about this, I think of two replies:
1. Does one have to uphold slavery to be an Aristotelian? Does one have to believe in alchemy to do Newtonian physics? Of course not. Thus, one could still be a Nietzschean and not uphold everything that Nietzsche says.
2. However, I believe your friend may be talking about something else. The analogy is that one cannot be a Marxist unless one also critiques capitalism, or one cannot be a Satrean unless one is more or less an existentialist. So I guess the question comes down to is this: can one be a Nietzschean but still hold on to the “positive” virtues such as pity and sympathy?
I won’t pretend to be an expert on Nietzsche, but it seems that Nietzsche really didn’t want any followers and so to be a Nietzschean is a contradiction in terms. Ehh, that may be the easy way out.
I, for one, think that it is possible, perhaps. After all, if the master morality necessarily means that one must give up pity and sympathy, then it seems that one really isn’t a master after all. The master creates his/her own ethics and if someone is sympathetic just simply because that’s who s/he is, then I don’t see that as a problem. But if someone is sympathetic because society is or because of a future reward (a la Christianity), then it is a form of slave morality. However, if one is saying that one MUST give up sympathy and pity because that’s just what masters do, and if one doesn’t do that, then one really isn’t a master after all. I still say that’s a slave morality kind of thinking. After all, the slave REacts whereas the master just acts. If the master is acting through pity, then I don’t see what the problem is. But to say that the master must not feel pity because of some standard, well, isn’t that what Nietzsche was critiquing in the first place?
So if being sympathetic and having pity is what makes you grow, then by all means do it. But I think Nietzsche would say that come up with your own values and not rely on what anyone else says.