beyond compassion

Friedrich Nietzsche writes:

Whoever lives among the good is taught by pity (Mitleid) to lie. Pity fouls the air for all free souls. The stupidity of the good, after all, is unfathomable. (…) The gravediggers dig themselves diseases. Under ancient ruins rest noxious fumes. One should not stir up the morass. One should live on mountains. With blissful nostrils I once again breathe mountain freedom! My nose is finally redeemed of the odor of all human nature! Tickled by sharp breezes as if by sparkling wines, my soul sneezes – sneezes and jubilates to itself: “Gesundheit! (good health)”

~ Thus Spoke Zarathustra “The Homecoming”

Grave-digger, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1871.

And therefore let’s have fresh air! fresh air! In any case, let’s keep away from the neighborhood of all cultural insane asylums and hospitals! And for that let’s have good companionship, our companionship! Or loneliness, if that’s necessary! But by all means let’s stay away from the foul stink of inner rotting and of muck from sick worms!… In that way, my friends, we can defend ourselves, at least for a little while, against the two nastiest scourges which may be lying in wait precisely for us — against a great disgust with humanity! against a great pity for humanity!

~ On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, Section 14

For Friedrich Nietzsche, the mountain air symbolizes distance: The distance of the super-man or Übermensch over and above the ‘sickness of humanity’. Indeed, as I took the photo at the top of this post in the icefields of Alberta, I too felt invigorated and strengthened by the crisp mountain air. There is something powerful about the raw, solitary height and expanse of a mountain that Nietzsche taps into to contrast with physical and moral sickness. It must be remembered that in the ‘revaluation of all morals’, that which is considered ‘sick morality’ contains much of what he perceives as  Christian virtue.

In my initial thoughts around Nietzsche on sickness, I hoped to highlight Nietzsche’s use of ‘pity’ and ‘nausea’ or ‘disgust’ as legitimate critiques of our othering tendencies when it comes to compassion. I was going to protest the pity that distances ourselves from the other in the very approach toward the other, or the disgust we hide when we encounter that which is foreign and uncomfortable to us.

As I looked into Mitleid, though, the word used by Nietzsche for pity, while it is translated pity it contains within it mit- (with) +‎ Leid (pain, sorrow). In other words, it is too close to compassion (suffering with) to draw a distinction.

It is compassion itself that Nietzsche asserts we need to distance ourselves from.

The Turin Horse - When Nietzsche WeptThe irony of this lies in Nietzsche’s own sickness and death. Those insane asylums and hospitals that he vehemently protests here are where he spends many of his last days. The fabled tale is that his mental illness became apparent when he threw himself on a horse to save it from a flogging – compassion/pity for a service animal. While Nietzsche strives to be more than, higher than man, he eventually must confront the fact that he is human, all too human.

One could end here, observing that Nietzsche’s harsh attack on compassion is reduced to absurdity in his own sickness and compassionate action. This would be the easy out.

Nietzsche’s attack goes further, to the very nature of neigbour-love. As Zarathustra proclaims,

You crowd around your neighbor and you have pretty words for it. But I say to you: your love of the neighbor is your bad love of yourselves. You flee to your neighbor to escape yourself and you want to make a virtue of it: but I see through your ‘selflessness.’… Do I recommend love of the neighbor to you? I prefer instead to recommend flight from the neighbor and love of the farthest!

He points to the reflexivity of compassion, where our action toward the other says something powerful about ourselves. In his critique, compassion for one’s neighbour is not primarily about one’s neighbour but about not knowing how to love oneself. We take compassionate action to feel better about ourselves:

You invite a witness when you want someone to speak well of you; and when you have seduced him into thinking well of you, you then think well of yourselves.

In other words, we act compassionately because we want to see ourselves as being compassionate people. Doubting that we are, in fact, compassionate people (and being unable to assess this for ourselves) we then rely on others to confirm, for us, that we are genuinely good and caring. Nietzsche’s observations serve as a legitimate challenge to our acts of compassion.

Are we merely seeking to see ourselves as someone loveable in our acts of love for one another?

Love Your Neighbor as YourselfOn the other hand, Nietzsche’s own response to people who are ‘sick’, his wish to escape any possibility of pity or disgust by breathing ‘fresh air’, in turn may be revealing about his own failure to love or come to terms with his limitations. Our inability to face death, sickness, or disability in another is most often related to an inability to face the possibility of those things in our own lives. The power of empathy is such that we cannot escape looking into a mirror when we look into the eyes of another – in a very real way, our own identity is tied up in the eyes we stare into. Desparate for power, strength and health, Nietzsche reveals an inability to confront his own humanity, vulnerability and limitations. He is unable to behold the man” (Ecce Homo) that he is.

“You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39) can thus be seen both as a command – an exhortation to love one another well – and a truism: Just as Nietzsche observes, our love for our neighbour is powerfully intertwined with both our ability and inability to love ourselves well.

We DO love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

Was Nietzsche correct that compassion (suffering with) should be surpassed, overcome? In a sense. With-ness is at the heart of Emmanuel (God-with-us)  yet suffering is never the telos or the end. We read that “for the joy that was set before him” Christ “endured the cross, despising its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). The disgust of Christ is towards shame itself, not towards those whom he came to save. “Suffering-with” was never the end goal, rather his joy was to know that those he loved and cared for would experience resurrection – new life – as precious children of God.

In our being-with, then, we must move beyond compassion to rejoicing in “that which is set before us.”

To call out the beauty, dignity, and priceless worth of the image-bearer of God who we are with is to simultaneously demonstrate God’s unrestrained love for our neighbour and to proclaim that this same love sustains us with each crisp, clean breath we breathe.




4 thoughts on “beyond compassion

  1. Nietzsche’s aspirations may seem fine as long as one is strong, healthy, and able to function independently. To be a mountaintop hermit has its appeal in freeing one from claims of others. But as you observe, a time comes in life when we may well need ourselves those services we once eschewed offering to others. His words are a fitting challenge to our North American penchant for walled suburb developments and big-screen cocooning.


  2. Needing to be needed can be pretty unhealthy. But no need to refrain from compassion.
    “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Matt 9:36.


    1. Great clarification, thanks for reading Adam! I guess the danger is that we can get so caught up in sharing suffering that we don’t get to the point of seeing hope in the other: hope in who God has created them to be, in their gifts, ability, and potential. Compassion is a crucial part of this process as long as we don’t stop there.


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