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A Straight Line to Greatness


The status of suffering is key in Nietzsche's thought. He rails against our natural aversion to suffering - an aversion that, of course is understandable. For couldn’t suffering be defined, generally speaking, as that which displeases us; as that which we tend to try and avoid?

Nietzsche feels that this aversion has gone too far, however, making modern humanity weak, risk-averse and obsessed with mere comfort and wellbeing when instead it should be striving for Greatness - with a capital G!

This striving for Greatness necessarily entails suffering, for Greatness means going beyond one’s ordinary capacities, moving out of one’s comfort zone and taking on the most arduous struggles. Discipline and grit and hard, hard work will be required. We all know this and take on our own more modest burdens of suffering to one extent or another. These tend to be reasonably manageable most of the time. We go to the gym to get fit. We go to jobs that we might not love in order to earn money. We study hard to pass exams. In this respect, suffering is a kind of investment toward something worthwhile. Suffering is a price paid in pursuit of a second-order goal: to look good in a swimsuit; to pay the rent; to improve our career prospects.

Presumably, the burden of suffering borne in attaining to true Greatness is considerably weightier than in these examples. Think of the valorous captain, overcoming his terror, and leading his men into battle; the revolutionary opposing the overwhelming force of entrenched power in the cause of political justice; or the religious devotee, under torture, resisting recantation to hold to his ‘truth'.

But let us be clear, by Greatness, we should mean our own idea of our highest and best self. We can’t all be Napoleon. Most of us don’t want to be Napoleon!

Nietzsche had another take on the value of suffering. Not only is it a necessary investment in realising other good things, in improving ourselves. No, it should be embraced because it is, in the final analysis, unavoidable. In seeking to escape it, we devalue life, close-off avenues of opportunity, and denigrate our experience of existence. We end up creating fake heavens to console ourselves because we cannot bear this ‘veil of tears’. But suffering is an inalienable part of the world and must be accepted as such, without letting that hard fact crush us.

Maybe the trick is not to try and be rid of suffering, which is impossible, but to make sure it is meaningful. We must suffer for something, and that something must be worthwhile. Does that mean that where there is no meaning for our suffering, we should find meaning? Even, manufacture it?

Perhaps.

Ostentatious suffering for a lofty and noble end is hard to bear (I imagine), but what about the minor sufferings, the little disappointments, the everyday hardships, the ones that serve no great end? How do you sublimate that pain? At least in the former case, you have a meaningful idea to inspire you. But with those little things, the leaden ordinariness of them can be the real source of suffering.

Must I tidy this mess? Must I drag myself out of bed when all I want is to sleep? Must I deny myself this little pleasure for the good of my health or to avoid flouting common decency? Must I resist the impulse to lose my shit when this computer won’t do what it is designed to do?

Choose the salad, avoid alcohol during the week, use the stairs, not the lift, be nice to the person you suspect holds nothing but contempt for you, don’t get angry with your intransigent laptop, agree with your boss - et cetera, et cetera. What compensation of meaning is there here? This is why people sign up for marathons or join meditation classes or have five-year career plans – to give meaning to life’s enterprise.

Sometimes this works.

It is too easy to get swept away in the irritating minutiae of the day-to-day. If you don’t have the sense of being at the centre of an immense or urgent existential drama, as do those aspiring to Greatness, you can become disheartened. Depressed even. The key therefore is to have an overriding, meaningful and, as Nietzsche would say, ‘unifying’ project - one to which all is subordinate. The pursuit of this project is our own path to Greatness. Nietzsche writes:

‘The art of "putting ourselves on the stage" before ourselves. It is thus only that we get beyond some of the paltry details in ourselves! Without that art we should be nothing but foreground, and would live absolutely under the spell of the perspective which makes the closest and the commonest seem immensely large and like reality in itself.’

The Gay Science

To retain the wider perspective, the macro view, and not get sucked into the irksome vicissitudes of the minor stuff - that makes life an adventure. Nietzsche argues that we need to see ourselves as the ‘hero’ in a life-unifying narrative. All our drives, indeed all our thoughts, words and actions should be seen as pursuant to this life project - this Great Work. We all need a Great Unifying Idea. He is clear, we must know where we are going (somewhere exceptional), and we must know why (for a sacred purpose). This means – we must choose!

‘The formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.’

Twilight of the Idols

What is your Great Unifying Idea?

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