University of Queensland, Australia
Michael Ure is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland. He specializes in modern German philosophy and the history of modern social and political theory. He recently published Nietzsche’s Therapy (2008) and is currently writing two books: Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press) and Post-Traumatic Societies: On Reconciliation, Justice and the Emotions (Lexington Books).
Compassion and the Affirmation of Life
The affirmation of earthly life is the core issue in Nietzsche’s philosophy. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche famously drew on Greek tragedy to formulate his own understanding of the affirmation of life. He identified Greek tragedy as the consummation of an early Greek world-view that found meaning and value in the finite conditions of life. According to Nietzsche, rather than seeking to transcend or avoid the becoming of life, Greek tragedy fatalistically affirmed finite conditions of life—mortality, suffering and loss—as conditions intrinsic to human existence. Unlike Platonism, Christianity and its secular avatars, he claimed, tragedy did not diminish the value of the finite world of becoming, but celebrated the very conditions of finitude. Nietzsche’s call for a retrieval and renewal of what he called the tragic «pessimism of strength» became a key refrain of his thought. For this reason scholars often identify Nietzsche’s rehabilitation of tragedy as basis of his challenge to the traditional conceptions of morality and the good life that began with Plato. Tragedy, they claim, is the key to Nietzsche’s affirmation of life.
In recent scholarship we have seen a significant rethinking of Greek tragedy. One important strand of this research argues that the emotion of pity lies at the heart of ancient Greek tragedy. On this view pity (the standard translation of the Greek terms eleos/oiktos) defines the general ethos of the ancient Greek tragic poets. As we have seen, Nietzsche claims to resurrect the spirit of ancient tragedy. Yet he is one of modern philosophy’s most virulent critics of pity. Pity, he observes in The Gay Science, one of his most «yea-saying» books, is the greatest danger to the affirmation of life. Pity, he claims, leads inexorably to life-denial. In order to affirm life, therefore, we must transcend or extirpate the feeling of pity. Affirmative lives are pitiless. In this paper, I argue, firstly, that Nietzsche’s repudiation of the morality of pity is a betrayal of the tragic tradition. Nietzsche’s rejection of pity, I will show, recycles the Platonic and Stoic transcendence of embodied, affective life. In broader terms, I suggest that Nietzsche’s Platonic inspired repudiation of the emotions of pity, fear, and grief is symptomatic of the fact that far from reclaiming the tragic conception of life, Nietzsche’s yea-saying philosophy simply reiterates the metaphysical ambition of rising above mortal, affective life. Secondly, I argue against Nietzsche that the total affirmation of life he sought to articulate necessarily requires the acceptance of «soft» emotions like pity, fear, and grief. It does so, I claim, because properly understood these emotions are a measure of the high value human beings place in mortal objects and this-worldly projects; a life devoid of such emotions therefore is one that does not value or affirm the becoming of life. Contra Nietzsche, I suggest that these painful emotions are constitutive of the affirmative life, not impediments to be overcome.