Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Religion of Comfortableness

Phil Oliver:

The trouble with J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and western liberalism generally, for him, were their progressive, optimistic interest in maximizing happiness (though he announced his own “formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal”) and pleasure and minimizing difficulty and pain.

To be more specific, what Nietzsche really had a problem with was the idea that pleasure and pain were clearly mutually exclusive. Alain de Botton wrote a nice passage explaining his antipathy toward utilitarianism:

Yet traces of his horticultural enthusiasm survived in his philosophy, for in certain passages, he proposed that we should look at our difficulties like gardeners. At their roots, plants can be odd and unpleasant, but a person with knowledge and faith in their potential will lead them to bear beautiful flowers and fruit — just as, in life, at root level, there may be difficult emotions and situations which can nevertheless result, through careful cultivation, in the greatest achievements and joys.

One can dispose of one's drives like a gardener and, though few know it, cultivate the shoots of anger, pity, curiosity, vanity as productively and profitably as a beautiful fruit tree on a trellis.

But most of us fail to recognize the debt we owe to these shoots of difficulty. We are liable to think that anxiety and envy have nothing legitimate to teach us and so remove them like emotional weeds. We believe, as Nietzsche put it, that 'the higher is not allowed to grow out of the lower, is not allowed to have grown at all...everything first-rate must be causa sui (the cause of itself).'

Yet 'good and honored things' were, Nietzsche stressed, 'artfully related, knotted and crocheted to...wicked, apparently antithetical things'. 'Love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger...belong together,' which does not mean that they have to be expressed together, but that a positive may be the result of a negative successfully gardened. Therefore:

The emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for domination [are] life-conditioning emotions...which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life.

To cut out every negative root would simultaneously mean choking off positive elements that might arise from it further up the stem of the plant. We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.

He thought Mill, Bentham, et. al. had a simplistic, facile conception of pain and pleasure that didn't take account of the way the boundaries between the two are always in flux, and that in some cases, it wasn't for anyone else to judge what constituted unbearable suffering for another.

When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you. The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by "distress", the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed – all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to one's own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one's own hell. No, the "religion of pity" (or "the heart") commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly.

If you, who adhere to this religion, have the same attitude towards yourself that you have toward your fellow men; if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for even an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together, or, in your case, remain small together.

Of course, a lot of people are accepting of the idea that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin, and that it's impossible to have one without the other. After all, Nietzsche's own maxim that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" has actually become a worn-out cliché in our time. A different twist that I see a lot, one that I think needs addressing, is the rationalization technique in which one tries to retroactively define negative experiences as positive ones, blessings in disguise. Sometimes you hear people say that some horrible experience was "actually the best thing that ever happened to me!" Well, no. If we're going to turn negatives into positives, the negatives have to be allowed to remain negatives. That's where their power derives from, so to speak. Claiming that everything is good in one form or another is like saying that "everything is up". It makes the term meaningless. Plus, it's just semantics. You can't define or rationalize away the immediate experience of pain or fear, something no one enjoys at the time. You just have to accept the inevitability of it and cultivate techniques for getting through it without coming to pieces; the benefits come later. There's no contradiction in being glad for a useful lesson derived the hard way while also admitting that you would never willingly choose to experience such a thing again.


  1. I don't think that there's any contradiction in being grateful for the benefits that hardship has brought and maintaining that if you had it to do again, you would, because the lessons are so valuable.

    WRT my head injury, I'd do that again. Provided, of course, that I came out of it as whole as I am now. Not that I'd try another head injury just to see if I could learn something from that one, too.

  2. Well, yes, but if you're talking about having the same experience with the knowledge that it will end in the same result, that, I would say, is an easy choice. Saying "Wow, this bites right now, but at least I know what kind of good things are in store for me later on" kind of removes all the actual suffering from the experience.

    WRT your head injury, at the time, you didn't know how it would turn out a month, a year, five years later, so it would be perfectly normal to be afraid and angry. Now that we can see that you're of sound mind again, ahem, it makes sense to say "Well, that turned out okay after all," but still, there are much less drastic ways to learn a little humility than to put your head through a windshield.

  3. haha! i disagree! my arrogance was obviously hardwired and required a complete system wipe to remove.

    EVERY time someone says "I would do it again" it's with the unspoken assumption of the same outcome.

  4. Well I'm a Utilitarian who is willing to experience huge amounts of discomfort just to feel alive (backpacking, bike riding, living in a village in Africa, etc.). It would be insane to welcome suffering if one did not think it would lead to something beneficial.
    And another way to look at the "religion of pity" is that it is to be an ally against the kind of discomfort we all seek to avoid. Isn't it a stretch to say that compassion is wrong? Is N simply saying, "Attempts to help can backfire.". It doesn't follow that one shouldn't try. Teach a man to fish and so on.

  5. Is N simply saying, "Attempts to help can backfire.".

    In his own dramatic way, pretty much. I've been reading some of his letters, and he really was a lot different in his personal relationships than you would guess from his literary persona. I take this as his attempt to make people greet suffering with a little more sangfroid, or to offer their friends compassion and attention without trying to actively interfere -- he was very sensitive to the ways in which relationships became imbalanced, with one person more or less dominating the other, especially under the guise of caring (as with pity).

  6. The plutocrats dominate anyway.
    The worst thing about N is that he provides intellectual cover for the abhorrent Social Darwinists. By pointing out how his own suffering may have influenced his thinking, you've given me a different perspective on that. I almost feel sorry for... oh, dear, he's going to come back and haunt me for saying that, isn't he?

  7. Well, those idiots have never been too particular about intellectual rigor when it comes to their philosophical underpinnings, starting with the fact that they try to use Darwin's work to begin with (they should be called Spencerists). N. made it about as clear as he could that he wasn't urging any sort of physical domination of the weak by the strong, so I've never been unkindly disposed to him for that. Funny enough, Hitler himself accurately perceived that N. was no ally of his and disparaged him and his followers a few times, though he appreciated N's sister's support enough to make a few token gestures in support of her efforts to make her brother the mascot for National Socialism. She, more than anyone, is responsible for creating the image of him as some sort of proto-Nazi.

  8. You mean Gott ist tot, und Macht macht Recht is inadequate to summarize volumes of interesting prose?

  9. Brian M5:05 PM

    I refuse to believe that the new crown in my upper tooth which is now shooting bolts of metallic pain into the nerve has any positive benefit for my life at all, Scribbler. LOL. Especially knwoing that another filling on the other side of the mouth has failed and I need another crown to boot.

    Dentistry does not equal personal growth. LOL.

    cool post, though, overall, and I learned a lot. Can I interest you in designer sunglasses (j/k)

  10. Maybe not this experience itself, Brian, but who knows where the chain of events may lead -- several months from now, you may be feeling ecstatic about something or another, and you'll think back and say, "How weird; this wouldn't have happened at all if it weren't for my fucked-up teeth needing all that work!" Perhaps you'll find your soulmate working as a dental hygienist...