Angry driver in the rain

Continued from: A milder form of revenge

It took the best part of two hours to reach the village, by which time I was soaked and it was starting to get dark. The house was tucked away up a little lane. The lights were on inside but the curtains were drawn, so I could not see inside. I crept up to the front door like a burglar, trying not to make a sound on the gravel, and I carefully deposited the phone on the front step, under the portico, out of the rain. I then sneaked away back down the lane like a two-penny Santa Claus.

How had that been for me? Unsurprisingly, though I had dodged any gestures of thanks for my helpful act, I still had to suppress that virtuous glow. In fact, worse, because of my selflessness in trying to avoid any and all recognition, I couldn’t help feeling even more righteous. To carry out good works without any desire for reward is all the more laudable in our moral system, right? I didn’t get any pat on the head, but I still knew I deserved one. It is just so conditioned into us.

So, the question that I mulled over was this: is it actually even possible to do a good deed without serving one’s self in some way? If there is always some kind of pleasure in it, isn’t one always doing it for one’s self on some level? And if there is no pleasure in it, how is it possible to even be motivated to carry out such a deed at all? The motivating forces in our lives are pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain (we get out of bed and go to work for the salary; we get out of bed and go to work to avoid getting fired; we have that extra glass of wine because it makes us feel good; we refuse yet another refill because we don’t want the hangover). Are there any willed acts that do not find their due measure on this hedonic calculus? To will a virtuous action is to desire something; to carry out that virtuous action is to fulfil that desire, ergo, it is to serve one’s self, even if there is another beneficiary too.

As I tossed this puzzle around in my head, I was startled by a car approaching down the lane from behind me. It pulled up and the window was wound down. There was a middle-aged man in the driving seat and a teenage girl was sat next to him. It was clear to me who they were. He leaned out and asked if I was the guy who returned his daughter’s phone. I said I was. He held out a crumpled twenty to me and thanked me for returning the item. Damn it, he was blowing my experiment. I said ‘No’ to the money and kept walking. He pulled alongside me again and insisted I take the reward. I declined again. ‘It was fine’, I said, and strode on. He pulled up again and pleaded with me to at least let him give me a ride somewhere - it was raining for heaven’s sake! I declined his offer and hurriedly headed off once more. He trailed me in the car for a little while, perhaps wondering how else he could offer some means of reciprocation. Then, somewhat reluctantly, he gave up and drove away.

I had refused the reward and declined the offer of a ride. I hadn’t even really acknowledged the thanks that had been communicated to me. The fascinating thing about this exchange was the expression on the driver’s face. My rebuttal of all gestures of gratitude had elicited confusion, dismay and then, gradually, a kind of frustration. The driver was increasingly, visibly pained by my repeated refusals to allow him his gesture of thanks. Clearly, he had decided that he would take responsibility for the requisite gesture of gratitude that his daughter owed, either because he considered himself head of the household, or perhaps because he actually paid for his daughter’s cell phone. In refusing to accommodate the gesture of thanks, I was denying him something important – the chance to reciprocate the favour in some small, token way. His face had been contorted in irritation by the end of our exchange.

Looking back on this strange little event from all those years back, from a time well before I began this Nietzschean project, I cannot help but recall Nietzsche’s words from Human all too Human: ‘The powerful man feels gratitude for the following reason: through his good deed, his benefactor has, as it were, violated the powerful man’s sphere and penetrated it. Now through his act of gratitude the powerful man requites himself by violating the sphere of the benefactor. It is a milder form of revenge. Without the satisfaction of gratitude, the powerful man would have shown himself to be unpowerful and henceforth would be considered such. For that reason, every society of good men (that is, originally, of powerful men) places gratitude among its first duties. Swift [the Irish author and satirist, Johnathon Swift] remarked that men are grateful in the same proportion as they cherish revenge.’ (HH.44)

Here, by ‘the powerful man’, Nietzsche means someone who has some power, some status, some self-respect. He has been placed in a position of indebtedness though the good deed done to him by his benefactor. To be indebted is to be subordinated in some symbolic sense. He therefore seeks to restore balance as a point of pride. This is justice in its most ancient form. This is his act of reciprocity, restoring equilibrium, but it is also his revenge. It is driven by the ever-pervasive, absolutely inexorable, will to power. To deny the beneficiary of the good deed the chance of making requital is to disempower him. The good deed subordinated him – forced him into the position of a dependent. Withholding from him the rite of gratitude is to keep him subordinated – to keep him a dependent. This is an affront to his pride.

Of course, this principle holds for the most part between individuals of roughly equal power, or between strangers who have not yet established if there is a power differential between them. And we don’t always seek to reciprocate immediately. Small gestures of generosity may, in fact, be part of a collective culture in which we participate - we are confident that what goes around, comes around and it all evens out in the end.

But Nietzsche wrote of one who has power; what about the one who is not powerful. How might he or she respond to acts of generosity? One seemingly counter-intuitive, perhaps even perverse, strategy is to denigrate the benefactor, usually behind their backs. Maybe you have, at one time or another, observed expressions of resentment where gratitude had been expected. This is one way for someone who is weaker to requite a good turn done for (to?) them by someone stronger. In this case, they requite with a bad turn. This might be their only path to revenge; their only means of salvaging some self-esteem. Much more can be said on this, but we shall leave that to another time.

To return to my beneficiary, my good deed was inflicted on him without so much as a by-your-leave. The poor man was left driving around frustratedly in the rain, unable to fulfil the urge to strike back at his benevolent assailant. Myself, I learnt two things from this experience. Firstly, it is impossible to do a good deed that is not about pleasing oneself, at bottom – arguably, there is no such thing as selfless morality. Secondly, in many cases when you do someone a good turn without them requesting it, you put them in the awkward position of having their personal power undermined in some subtle way, and now they have to find an opportunity to make an equivalent redress.

Something to think about next time you are feeling ‘generous’.

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