Investigation: Why does Nietzsche despise pity and compassion?



One has to be careful reading Nietzsche (or maybe brave and courageous). He was not trying to build a system or dogma for people to believe in. As an amateur reader of Nietzsche, having spent hours arguing against him, puzzling over him and sometimes embracing him, I would say that his meaning and intent is less important than what you honestly think after having engaged with him in open minded fashion. I think he would have been disgusted by any attempt to build a dogma around his work. A lot of people misunderstand what Nietzsche meant when he rejected pity and compassion. Although I'm not a big fan of Nietzsche I do agree with some of his reasoning on this point.


Nietzsche was trying to make people think. He was trying to destroy the conceptual shackles that imprisoned him and others. I won’t deny that he seemed to have had some messed up ideas, but much of what he was doing was taking apart the general system of German morality as he saw it. He didn’t want to convert people to his system of thought, he wanted to de-convert them from the ones they were indoctrinated into in school and church.


It’s important to note that Nietzsche elevated generosity and what he called the bestowing spirit (“Uncommon is the highest virtue, and unprofiting, beaming is it, and soft of lustre: a bestowing virtue is the highest virtue. Verily, I divine you well, my disciples: ye strive like me for the bestowing virtue. What should ye have in common with cats and wolves? It is your thirst to become sacrifices and gifts yourselves: and therefore have ye the thirst to accumulate all riches in your soul. Insatiably striveth your soul for treasures and jewels, because your virtue is insatiable in desiring to bestow”).


Nietzsche saw pity as corrupting both the pitied and the pitier. I agree, and this is how I have come to see it, having been in both roles: Pity, or what sometimes passes as compassion, involves one person viewing the other as a “poor thing.” I (as pitier) feel myself above the pitied one; I am stronger, wiser, and somehow better than the pitiable person. I may behave kindly to those less fortunate, but I do see them as somehow “less.” The transaction between the two is elevating (even if corrupting) for the pitier, and debasing for the pitied (but potentially corrupting as well because the debasement comes with needed or desired goods).


Nietzsche did not despise pity and compassion. Rather he rejected pity, and he thought compassion should not be made into a self-justifying principle, as it would cause shame to focus on someone who seemed lacking and then try to give them what they were seemingly missing, because it was a hallmark of slave morality. In The Anti-Christ, he says, “Suffering itself becomes contagious through pity,” which is a pretty astute observation.


Nietzsche’s idea was that pity, at all the levels where it occurs, causes us to degenerate. It has a seductive allure because it promises status: if you do something out of pity, you get to look like the Messiah by helping “those less fortunate” and cement your image as the powerful giver as over against the weak, languishing receiver. There is a certain amount of contempt in pity, which means you get to stand over the person you’re feeling pity for. The issue is that this has a degrading effect, because if compassion is your cardinal virtue, then you’ve basically deified weakness. You’ve made being weak and useless a good thing. The natural conclusion of this is that being strong and successful is now a bad thing; if you are strong and successful, you have committed a mortal sin by being that way, and the only way to redeem yourself is through acts of pity for the sainted riff-raff.


The social result of this is pretty obvious: it spreads weakness all around, because a society that implicitly hates strength and success will slowly fill up with weaklings and losers. In other words, it drags us all down to the lowest common denominator. Once pity is enshrined as a cardinal virtue, as the basis of morality, it becomes a means by which parasitic people can manipulate those who are stronger and more successful. Creation, scientific advancement, art, culture, and everything else are subordinated to pity, so nothing can be justified except in terms of pity. One example of what happens when we become infected with this mindset can be found in the article, Is Science Hitting a Wall? on Scientific American:


Should we spend billions of tax dollars on a next-generation particle accelerator, gravitational-wave detector or manned mission to Mars when millions of people lack decent health care, housing and education?

Notice how this works: it is implicitly assumed that the only legitimate enterprises are those that “help the less fortunate.” Until the world is perfect and there are no people starving or without housing and health care, we implicitly should not be spending a single penny on science unless it fulfills our neurotic pity complex. The person who wrote this article, whatever other virtues they may have, were evidently brought up in a society where pity is the cardinal virtue — and now we have to justify science in terms of benefit to the suffering masses. Wait until the world is perfect, and then you can study things that don’t benefit the poor.


Any response to this question says a lot of apt things, especially about the infectious nature of pity, once it takes hold as a social mannerism. It’s not the most elevating of emotions, but it may seem seductively so, if we feel that by pitying another we can also go one-up from them and feel superior. That kind of stimulation seeking is very opportunistic, because really one should be aiming to achieve something more culturally perfect and glorious in its own right. Stooping to exercise pity is for a certain type of person that does not feel that they have the ability to be glorious in their own right. It embraces a totally different logic and set of feeling sensations than seeking to elevate oneself does.


I think a word of caution is absolutely necessary. Nietzsche is the king of subtle concepts, and there is the danger of turning his ideas into something else, for instance a division of the world into winners and losers, in a manner that is cheap and ungracious.


Despising the weak would be something extremely ungracious, moreover even more so if one turned it into one’s principle to do so. Nietzsche himself was not “a success” in his lifetime. By all surface appearances, he was one of the losers.


We should put all crude and especially contemporary notions of winners and losers aside, since winning big in the material stakes, or being superior influencing others with one’s ideology are modern ideas of success. They are not Nietzschean.


To live with a sense of spiritual elevation, however, is Nietzschean. It means having a different focus other than pity. One can, through cultural self-elevation, learn how to expand one’s spirit to take care of one’s own wounded. That is not against the principle of a warrior class or warrior society. One can in fact do all sorts of things and in fact every sort of thing. It’s not prohibited to show a caring streak. In fact, if you grew up within a warrior society, it was very common to do so.


Compassion implies equality (“suffering with”) and pity implies inequality, the quantum of consideration freely given by those graced by God with more to those graced by God with less. Pity is always and without exception a scam—a maneuver to flatter the pitier, rather than to humble himself and serve God. Compassion cannot be ‘commanded’: you either feel it or you don’t. What Nietzsche is really railing against is the idea that morality must entail some denial—of your own self interest, of the manifest reality, that all there is is the will to power.


This whole mindset is broken and sick, but we’re still caught in it. Guess we should’ve listened to Friedrich???


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