Is Nietzsche’s philosophy of suffering compatible with the Christian meaningfulness of suffering?
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German philosopher, whose life has been largely plagued with suffering due to health problems, shared these thoughts about suffering:
1. Man is inevitably beset with two basic questions: “Why do I live?” and “Why do I suffer?” In his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche wrote: “For now he (the “higher man”) will have to descend into the depths of existence with a string of curious questions in his lips: Why do I live? What lesson have I learned from life? How do I become what I am, and why do I suffer from being what I am?”
Nietzsche believed that these two questions – “Why do I live?” and “Why do I suffer?” – are actually one and the same, that is, life is synonymous with suffering. To live is to suffer, to suffer is to live.
2. Man suffers for a reason. If life has to be meaningful, this meaning can only be derived from suffering. “Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” (On the Genealogy of Morals).
3. The “meaninglessness” of suffering is worse than suffering itself. Suffering is a sine qua non (cannot be without it) of life – this is a given supposition. But there are those who suffer but do not find any meaning in their suffering – this is the worst kind of suffering. “The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.” (On the Genealogy of Morals).
Nietzsche understood that without the conviction that life has a goal or purpose, many individuals would fall into despair at the thought they are nothing but meaningless animals in a meaningless universe.
4. Not finding meaning or reason in suffering would lead one to a state of nihilism (the belief that everything is devoid of meaning). “Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure of existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in suffering, indeed in existence...it now seems as if there is no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.” (The Will to Power).
5. Suffering is a precondition of greatness. “You want, if possible – and there is not a more insane ‘if possible’ – to abolish suffering? And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?” (Beyond Good and Evil).
With the knowledge that with great suffering comes great advancement, Nietzsche understood that the “higher man” would be in need of an ideal or a vision of perfection to keep him motivated in his quest for greatness even in his darkest hours. For this reason, Nietzsche invented the “overman” or “superman” (Ubermensch) – an ideal, perfect and powerful being, one who has overcome all his inner fears, weaknesses and deficiencies, and thus one who soars above the rest of mankind.
Now, in comparing Nietzsche’s philosophical views on suffering with Christian theological strands, let me adduce the following thoughts:
1. Contrary to Nietzsche’s contention that suffering is inherent to human nature or life, Christian theology teaches that suffering or “death” is but a consequence of sin (i.e., of Adam’s fall in the history of salvation). Prior to man’s fall, original justice was in place and there was no suffering.
Hence, suffering cannot have originated from God, nor does God intend that man should suffer. If God permits suffering, it has to have a reason or meaning, which transcends suffering itself – like the Christian notion of “sacrifice,” which is construed as “suffering for the sake of some good, of or a greater or worthier cause.” Thus, for a Christian, “Pain without Christ is suffering, and pain with Christ is sacrifice.”
That there is meaning in suffering is affirmed similarly by Nietzsche: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
2. I am inclined to think that Nietzsche’s supposition of “suffering as a precondition to greatness” is akin to the Christian view that “suffering – either by Christ in the cross or by the individual person – is a means to or requisite for salvation.”For the Christian, Christ’s suffering and death was a prelude to his victorious resurrection, in the same manner that one’s suffering – borne out of one’s finiteness or imperfection – can be a prelude to a heavenly state of perfection which is devoid of suffering. The attainment of an end-state that is free from suffering is absent though in Nietzsche’s philosophy, which instead suggests an “eternal recurrence” or repeat of the struggle of life, of suffering, over and over for eternity.
Finally, it is quite striking to take notice of Nietzsche’s allegorical concept of the “superman” or “overman” (Ubermensch), an “ideal, perfect and powerful being.” But Nietzsche admitted that since ideals can only be approached but never realized, “never yet has there been an overman or superman” (Zarathustra). Perhaps, Christ, the God-man, best fits Nietzsche’s “overman” or “superman.”