The previous post ended with Friedrich Nietzsche in Turin, his arms round the neck of an abused horse, and at that same moment falling decisively into the mental catastrophe which silenced him for the remaining ten or so years of his life (1889-1900). As I said before, it seems insensitive to go looking for meaning in what turned out to be the onset of insanity. But then the action itself was wholly right and reasonable. There was, besides, something emblematic about it, as if staged for a public enactment of the German word mitleid (= shared suffering, for which English has the less expressive equivalents ‘sympathy’, ‘compassion’, or ‘fellow-feeling’, or the still less satisfactory ‘pity’). And on account of this emblematic character, writers about Nietzsche have indeed attempted to make sense of the incident – asking, as one of them has said, “what it means for Nietzsche to embrace a horse”.
The puzzle is that Nietzsche had been so consistent in challenging the value and authenticity of mitleid, especially in so far as it was a part of the Christian moral heritage. In some of the last words he wrote, Nietzsche had said “That which defines me, that which makes me stand apart from the whole of the rest of humanity, is the fact that I unmasked Christian morality.” And in this attack on Christianity it had always been his principle charge that it promoted the anti-heroic qualities, the values that suited the weak and defeated, “all those who suffer from life as from an illness”. Correspondingly, it impeded the rise towards perfection, towards in fact the ‘superman’, of their antithesis, “the proud, well-constituted man . . . who says ‘yea’ to life”. These quotations come from the autobiography whose very title, Ecce Homo (‘Behold the man!’, the words with which Pontius Pilate is said to have presented Jesus to the crowd), announces the anti-moral coup which the author claims to have effected. And the most prized human quality represented by Jesus, at least in his posthumous career, the quality which Nietzsche scathingly refers to as Christianity’s “moral value per se”, is selfless “love of neighbour (neighbouritis!)”. In fact it’s a “religion of pity”. But as Nietzsche wrote in The Joyous Science (1882), “to live – that means: to be cruel and implacable to all that is old and feeble in us, and not only in us . . . our greatness is also our ruthlessness.”
In his earlier days, Nietzsche’s philosophical hero had been Arthur Schopenhauer, of whom he said, in an essay of 1874, “The joy of living on this earth is increased by the existence of such a man.” (Schopenhauer had died in 1860, but even today one might say the same, as I hope to have shown in the post about him titled ‘Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog’, which is linked in the notes below.) It was Schopenhauer’s plain-spoken atheism that had first impressed Nietzsche. But as well as being the first modern Western philosopher to leave no place for Christianity in his world-view, Schopenhauer had been the first to insist on a place for animals – and not just spare or concessionary accommodation (as if to say, they can tag along too), but a place in no essential way distinct from or secondary to our own. And it’s clear that in his admiration for Schopenhauer’s intellectual achievements, Nietzsche had been influenced by that aspect of his thought. In this “strong and masterful spirit”, he wrote, “we see a sufferer and a kinsman to suffering”, and he had generalized thus: “The deeper minds of all ages have had pity for animals, because they suffer from life and have not the power to . . . understand their being metaphysically.”
But Nietzsche did not follow up this line of thinking, nor did he maintain his whole-hearted admiration for Schopenhauer. Often enough he did speak of animals, especially in his greatest work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5), but not as beings of interest in themselves. Those animals that surround and indeed speak to the prophet in the final scenes of that book – eagle, lion, small birds – are really just aspects of his own thought or state of mind (another use we put them to). And now in this same work Schopenhauer himself is re-introduced, anonymously as the “prophet of the great weariness” (a reference to his supposed pessimism). This caricatured Schopenhauer warns Zarathustra “I come to seduce you to your ultimate sin”, and the sin in question – so he tells Zarathustra “from an overflowing heart” (Nietzsche knowingly libels his old hero in this sentimental image) – is “Mitleid!” Of course Zarathustra is not seduced. Indeed, it is part of the gift of wisdom which he is said to be bringing to mankind that humans have a destiny which will entail leaving the animals behind: “I teach you the Superman . . . Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman – a rope over an abyss.”
That ‘abyss’ is presumably the absence in the universe of any moral or other meaning except such as mankind himself brings to it as part of his own chosen mission. Therefore when Nietzsche turned most explicitly against his former hero, which he did in The Joyous Science, it was not just the mitleid (“the nonsense about compassion”) that he repudiated, but Schopenhauer’s ambition “to be the unriddler of the world”. He dismissed all that as “mysterious pomp”.
I’ve sketched out that ‘unriddling’ in the post already mentioned, but to provide an even more perfunctory sketch of it here I can say that Schopenhauer argued (following his mentor Emmanuel Kant) that we live in a world of appearances only, a partial reality, because as dwellers in time and space that is all we are equipped to perceive. Behind what we can perceive is reality itself, what Schopenhauer calls “the inner nature of things”. But then he shows that we can, by personal introspection, at least indirectly glimpse what it is that constitutes this reality, namely ‘will’: not a purposeful or well-intentioned will, like God’s, not even a conscious will, but a blindly creative push, of which everything in the world of time and space, everything material, is a helpless product and phenomenon, notably (but not exclusively) every living thing. Nietzsche mocked this theory for its “mystical embarrassments”, one of which was the implication that “the will to life is present in every being, even the slightest, wholly and undivided . . . the multiplicity of individuals is an illusion.” He was actually quoting Schopenhauer there, and it was indeed in this “metaphysical unity of life . . . the ultimate truth that we are all one and the same entity” that Schopenhauer claimed to have found the basis of all morality. Mitleid was not just a generous sentiment; it was a fact about the world.
Back to Nietzsche in Turin, then. This man who had not only repudiated the morality of compassion, but saw himself as the unique embodiment of that emancipation (“I am not a man, I am dynamite”, he had just said in the last pages of his last book, Ecce Homo), flings himself upon the neck of a suffering work-horse and shares its sorrow in a flood of tears. What can be made of this scene, supposing one is entitled to make anything of it?
The biographer Curtis Cate interprets it as a purely personal reaction: Nietzsche recognized in the horse’s ordeal, he says, all the many “humiliating slights and physical sufferings” of his own life. But such a reading introduces an element of self-pity, a sentiment which had at all times been completely alien to Nietzsche’s personality as well as to his philosophy.
A more convincing account is given by Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Near the end of that story, while the woman Tereza sits comforting a loved dog who is dying of cancer, she thinks about the terrible history of human relations with animals. In particular she thinks about the “dominion” so dangerously vouchsafed to man in the Book of Genesis, and that concept of animals as machines with which the philosopher Rene Descartes helped to weaponize it. The author contemplates this image of the woman turning against her kind in sympathy with the animals, and says “Another image also comes to mind: Nietzsche leaving his hotel in Turin.” He describes the incident and then says, “I feel his gesture has broad implications.” Firstly, “Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse for Descartes.” But more generally it signalled “his final break with mankind”.
And that is the Nietzsche I love, just as I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head in her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along which mankind, ‘the master and proprietor of nature’ [so Descartes called us], marches onward.
It’s a beautiful and sympathetic exposition. I shall just add to it that in a letter of 1880 Nietzsche spoke to a friend about the isolation which his “path in life and thought” had entailed for him, and he said that “even now the whole of my philosophy totters after one hour’s sympathetic intercourse even with total strangers!” If his chosen path in life asked too much of him, so too did his philosophy, at least that part of it which made ruthless mastery of self and world, against every odds of pain and scruple, the measure of human success. More importantly (and one might say fortunately) it asked too much of humanity. In fact I would say that the Turin incident stands as a vivid repudiation of every philosophy or ethic which fails to take into account the clamouring presence in the world of all those beings who inhabited it for so many countless millennia before humans put in their appearance.
And that same impossible demand conditions John Davidson’s Testament of a Vivisector, the poem which I wrote about in the previous post and unfortunately undertook to make some sense of now. As I said there, this poem has a lot of Nietzsche-thinking in it, notably the strained contempt for “vulgar tenderness” and the self-punishing enthusiasm for “Discomfort, pain, affliction, agony” as creative media – in this case, creative of scientific discovery. But as the vivisector sets about experimenting upon his subject, an abused horse of the Turin kind, he faces a preliminary “riddle”: how is it that this ruined animal, “gelded, bitted, scourged, starved, dying”, actually persists in living – is in fact “Laden with lust of life”?
The answer he finds is straight out of Schopenhauer. The horse, just like the man, is driven forward by “Matter’s stolid will”: that is, by the will which animates all material phenomena. Neither has choice in the matter. Horse and man are in every essential way equals in suffering – for it’s made very clear that the vivisector is suffering. But then he imputes a purpose or at least a direction to this unfeeling will (something Schopenhauer expressly denied): it will become gloriously aware of itself at last through human intelligence. And so committed is he to this fantasy of a momentous culmination – his equivalent for Nietzsche’s goal of the ‘superman’ – that he blinds himself to the real and certain truth of that solidarity in suffering, the mitleid. The poem leaves him fixed there, with all the data but not the intuition for the Turin revelation – where vivisection itself still is, in fact.
Incidentally, in his essay titled The Basis of Morality, where Schopenhauer shows that mitleid is indeed that ‘basis’, he lists among the “odious and revolting” practices which violate it both vivisection and the beating of draught-horses.
Notes and references:
The quotation “what it means . . .” comes from the book Nietzsche in Italy, ed. Thomas Harrison, ANMA Libri, 1988, p.124. Actually the words there are “What it means for a Nietzsche to embrace a horse”, but I excised that rather pretentious ‘a’.
Quotations in para 2 are from Ecce Homo (Nietzshe’s last book, written in 1888 and first published in 1908) in the Wordsworth Classics edition titled Twilight of the Idols, translated by Anthony Ludovici, p.258-60; Beyond Good and Evil, transl. Helen Zimmern, Modern Library (n.d., first published 1886), p.69; and The Joyous Science, transl. R. Kevin Hill, Penguin Books, 2018, pp.217 and 275.
Quotations in para 3 are from the essay ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, which in its German form was originally published as part 2 of Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen in 1874, but in this case come from an English edition, Thoughts out of Season, transl. Adrian Collins, published by T.N.Foulis, 1909, pp. 116, 128, and 149.
The earlier post about Schopenhauer is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/schopenhauer-and-the-chained-dog/.
Quotations in para 4 are from Thus Spake Zarathustra, transl. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 255, 41, and 43.
Nietzsche’s attack on Schopenhauer’s philosophy comes in The Joyous Science, as cited above, pp. 107-8. Schopenhauer himself is quoted from The World as Will and Representation, transl. E.F.J Payne, Dover Publications, 1969, vol.1, p. 274; also from The Basis of Morality, transl. Arthur Bullock, Allen and Unwin, 1915, pp. 274-5. The original German editions were first published in 1819 and 1840 respectively.
The fine biography Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate (Hutchinson, 2002), describes and interprets the Turin incident on p.550. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Faber, 1984) is quoted at p. 282.
Nietzsche’s letter is quoted from Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar Levy, transl. Anthony Ludovici, Heinemann, 1921, p. 131.
The quotation from Schopenhauer’s The Basis of Morality (text already cited above) is at pp. 94-5.
The portrait of Nietzsche was painted in 1906 by Edvard Munch (Thiel Gallery, Stockholm). Schopenhauer is shown in a detail from an engraving made from the painting of 1815 by Ludwig Ruhl (collection of the Frankfurt University Library).