Nietzsche, Pity and Virtue: From the Superfluous to the Exceptional


The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall even be given every possible assistance (The Antichrist, 570).

In the opening sections of The Antichrist, Nietzsche raises the question of what type of man shall be bred, continuing a line of thought developed in Twilight of the Idols in relation to the Laws of Manu. In former times, Nietzsche argues, the exceptional human was a fortunate accident; it was never willed that an individual would become exceptional—for the most part, this was dreaded. It is this denial of the exceptional that constitutes for Nietzsche the development of the other type of breeding in man’s history, that of the herd animal domesticated through Christianity.

Nietzsche argues that instead of ‘progress’ in the modern sense, the European of today has only degenerated over time; therefore, Nietzsche posits that as a whole (one could say as a species, insofar as this is directed against a crude form of social Darwinism) we are only getting weaker. Although Nietzsche predicts that there may be families or peoples that are of a higher type, he mainly argues that it is only in individual cases that one finds successful exceptional cases.

Nietzsche claims that this insight has dawned on him like “a painful horrible spectacle” because he has “drawn back the curtain from the corruption of man” (572) This is an interesting claim (one that recurs throughout Nietzsche’s work—in Daybreak and Human All Too Human, for example, where he calls modern democracy as decay. Simply put, Christianity, in harvesting and emphasizing the weaknesses of mankind, has constituted one of the primary forces behind human degeneration and cultivation of weaker values in general. Nietzsche writes,

I understand corruption, as you will guess, in the sense of decadence: it is my contention that all the values in which mankind now sums up its supreme desiderata are decadence-values (572).

More specifically, corruption takes place where an individual or a species “loses its instincts, when it chooses, when it prefers, what is disadvantageous for it” (572). The disadvantage comes from cultivating weakness, because following closely in Spinoza’s footsteps, Nietzsche will define what is good as that which increases power: where it is lacking is due to decline.

And it is not simply coincidental that I mentioned Spinoza. These first sections of The Antichrist strongly resemble Part IV of the Ethics. For example, there Spinoza begins with definitions of good and evil in relation to power; moreover, Spinoza is one of the few philosophers to explicitly say (as he does in the beginning of this same part of the Ethics) that pity is something inherently bad. This is precisely one of Nietzsche’s primary attacks against Christianity: it is a religion of pity. It is not only that pity reduces are strength; more importantly, pity supports the superfluous who Nietzsche claims are ripe for destruction and who give life a gloomy aspect by propagating it with their failures (573).

Of course, Nietzsche consistently attacks pity as a negative and harmful (re)activity. More interesting to me is his section on Kant:

One more word against Kant as a moralist. A virtue must be our own invention, our most necessary self-expression and self-defense: any other kind of virtue is merely a danger. Whatever is not a condition of our life harms it: a virtue that is prompted solely by a feeling of respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is harmful (577).

The reason why I jump to this section is because Nietzsche claims that not only has pity been labeled a virtue, it has “been made the virtue, the basis and source of all virtues” (573). In a sense, pity is not a virtue that we have invented; or better, pity was invented by the weak, for the weak. It is not our virtue, nor is it the source from which all virtues flow. Pity comes to overcode the natural expression of virtue (or power in Spinoza’s sense, what accords to the laws of our nature insofar as we have knowledge of it) and starts to proliferate an image of respect for a certain social relation that we have come to believe is expected of us.

Pity in German is Mittleid, or “suffering with.” The herd is an assemblage that functions so as to mediate suffering equally within a collectivity—the herd suffers together. The shepherd suffers alone, the exceptional individual. God’s pity, too, is a suffering with, and the ugliest man (who is, consequently, not the weakest) could not take it anymore. The ugliest man, being an individual and an exception (neither by choice, more through the negative force of exclusion from the collective) is not the spotless lamb of Christ. He is the spotted beasts of Jacob, who proliferate because the cultivation of a particular weakness was actually in itself the empowerment of a singular, monumental individual.

–Taylor Adkins

This entry was written by Taylor Adkins and published on Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 9:51 am. It’s filed under Antichrist, breeding, Christianity, corruption, exception, individual, kant, morality, Nietzsche, overman, pity, power, species, Spinoza, suffering, superfluous, values, virtue. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Nietzsche, Pity and Virtue: From the Superfluous to the Exceptional

  1. Wonderful work, this is so rich, thank you Taylor!

    I like the way you connected pitilessness back with higher types. I think Nietzsche can be skeptical of idealizing ‘great men,’ ultimately they are just ‘apes’ of their ideals. It’s an interesting point because it’s about filiation as well as about the production of exceptional individuals, not of ‘subject-assemblages’ but of precisely those flows which exceed, which add something more or take something away from subjects. But I think we must remember that ultimately nothing is given, everything must be produced. Genealogy allows us to perceive and even to analyse, and perhaps even to shift, the heterogeneous medium of subjectivity itself.

    I also like your point about decadence, I think it is probably very like an infiltration, that it is not only decadence but decay, and the melting away of power through expenditures, through exposure, ultimately through a break: the security-mechanisms fail, there is an infestation of poisonous and foreign elements. Dangerous possibilities (memories?) here for ‘pure’ scholars, no? Decadence is always an interception, the introduction of a parasite. The spotted beast, the leprous beast, the anomalous body — vectors of viral transmission, but also points of access. The beast is spotted by shame, by hatred; the lamb is clean, free of disease, orderly and innocent. It is Dionysos and Apollo, perhaps, or Mars and Venus… Alternate routes, cyclic patterns: perhaps it is not about empowering individuals as much as disintegrating and dissolving individuals. Instead of thinking individuality as simply the alien force of anomaly, the generic equality of the species — we should think that organisms are immersed in a machinic unconscious, that bodies are ultimately subject to the kinds of metaphors we use to describe them. How can philosophy escape hermeneutics, philology?

    Only when thought has gotten beyond grammar… We could examine this one way, with respect to its ontology, along more or less critical anthropological lines: archaeology, genealogy, paleo-ontology, etc… but also perhaps, in the direction of the future, to a post-grammatical stage of communication (teleneurocontrol?) At any rate, individuals are precisely what inconsist, they present a heterogenous multiplicity at the level of neurotically ordered multiplicity. (Decoding goes as far as you want, it’s terrifying.) Becoming unfolds with a desire and a power co-extensive to the degree of their unconscious organization — which means that we assert our power as individuals to the degree we control and organize our desires. Nietzsche’s point is that we cannot escape this cross-over between the human and physical sciences; because of this feedback, evidenced in transference, we will not easily accomplish Freud’s dream of placing psychoanalysis ‘within’ biology. Not because the subject is dislocated, as in Lacan — but because the subject hasn’t finished dissolving.

    What is Nietzsche’s theory of the self? That it is self-destructive, that it annihilates itself. That it feels the surge of power strongly or weakly: it is a greater or lesser transducer of types of energy. But there are no transducers left, or rather everything is a transducer so you can no longer tell! It’s an evacauted landscape, a postmodern wilderness. There are no subjects left. Remnants are still here, schismatic quasi-subjects, broken desiring-machines. What is left, behind the face, but wreckage? Burnt machines. An unconscious holocaust. The evidence speaks : the point is the pathetic-ness of the human condition. Indeed, pathos is the only reason it is possible for greatness to arise, in response to a call from the other, a call which commands us to command. Pity can move us to reconsider our actions in terms of justice, implicit in the face of the other, of our written and unwritten responsibilities to the other. The depth of human pity is quite interesting in an of itself. Arguably most philanthropy is moved by pity. There’s definitely a case to be made for pity, even as scornfully as Nietzsche rejects it! I mean, aren’t we moved a little to pity for the scorned animal, the expurgated beast? The beast is noise, isn’t it — we are frightened by the noise and we are really pitying ourselves. It’s altruism but without an outside, without a real relation to the other. So in one way, pity dislocates our relation to the Other; in another, it can possibly move us to change ourselves, which could be good or bad. Here’s my question: Do you think pity for lower types is always bad?

  2. Pity is bad no matter what.

    It does nothing and provides for no one. It eases no one’s pain. It is reactive. It is anti-virtue.

    I’m with Spinoza and Nietzsche on this one. Any justice that comes from pity does not come from strength, but from the drive for distinction, the movement of contempt that creates all hierarchies in the world. Only the hegemonic have pity because the are horrified by the fact that the pitied subject is accidental; in reality, they pity the creature in them that is just as sub-human as the victim is through the intellectual image-overcoding that pity produces.

    Pity of man? This will bring us down, force is down into the going under of man. It is better to envy the overman–if pity really is beneficial to us as a moral relation, then we have become custodians of the soft nihilism that will choke on itself.

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