Another Take on Nietzsche

After a brutal divorce a friend writes:

Nietzsche says that which does not kill us makes us stronger. But the truth is: That which does not kill us wears us down to the point that the next thing, which would normally be no problem, kills us.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Another Take on Nietzsche”

  1. Nietzche was talking about his rejection of Christianity and conventional thinking. Sure, every time I hear this I want to whale on him with a hammer, screaming “Feeling stronger yet?”, but having finally read some of his writings I realized that this quote is usually taken out of context.

    Otherwise, my sympathy to your friend. Divorces are real millstones when it comes to grinding.

  2. The best advice I got from my divorce attorney was to give myself time to heal before I got into another committed relationship. The time he suggested was two years, and he had me sign a promise to that effect.

    In my limited experience (both my parents and both my siblings are alive, my grandmother lived with us for the last year of her life), divorce is worse than a death in the family.

    My condolences to your friend. Please assure him that it gets better.

  3. Yeah, Nietzsche is largely full of crap. There’s great stuff in there, and lots of who knows? stuff. But given that so much of what he writes is more like a Rorschach test than an argument, and given that he’s willing to say all sorts of things that seem to be basically shot from the hip…well, lots of what he says is just going to be wrong. Often he seems to go for the catchy bumper-sticker version of his claims rather than the carefully qualified version. It’s not so memorable if you say “Hey, did you ever think about how adversity–if it doesn’t kill you nor do *too* much harm to you, can ultimately make you stronger and better?” But anyway, it might be worth nothing that neither FN nor professor Humphreys’s friend is right–sometimes that which harms but does not kill us ultimately does more harm than good, but sometimes it does the opposite. It doesn’t always make us stronger, but it doesn’t always wear us down so much that the next thing kills us. There’s a lot of variation in what it does. Once you put in all the necessary qualifiers, I’m not sure how interesting the point ends up being…

    FWIW, I really did think my own divorce was going to kill me, but it didn’t, and it did end up making me a substantially better person. So there’s that…

    1. Well, there are other, better, ways to say something like that:

      Sweet are the uses of adversity,
      Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
      Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

  4. My sympathies to your friend.

    However I do have to object to Winston’s characterization above. My admittedly limited and no doubt naive reading of Nietzsche impressed me. He’s incredibly insightful (and by the same token incredibly funny) about a lot of things although often his insights are expressed rather obliquely.

    1. FN’s style evolved from rather purplish, over-written, Romantic prose to a very disconnected, telegraphic, reliance on aphorisms. He seems to have gradually given up hope of being intelligible to unsympathetic readers and lost interest in providing a lot of sequential argument. In blogistan, we are all familiar with the futility of persuading anyone of anything. This seems to have been FN’s experience of traditional publishing as well 🙂

      I find it amusing that Wittgenstein wound up in a similar place — choppy, aphoristic writing — having started from the hyper-rational style of the Tractatus. Such an extreme contrast in their original dispositions, yet contact with the practical challenges of making oneself understood led them both to a similar conclusion: I’ll just say what I think, and try to make it memorable. Then wait for sympathetic readers to explain it to everybody else. That has worked out better for Wittgenstein than Nietzsche, which might mean W had more insights that proved valuable to the next couple of generations. W’s approach to language caught on with the social sciences, while N’s thinking seems to have gotten enmeshed with the Marx/Freud ship as it sank to the bottom of the ocean. Striking metaphors without much that empirically-minded people could hold on to.

  5. A true-that musing if ever there were one!
    Post-divorce IRS audit, perhaps,
    may indeed be that next “little” problem!

    I felt purged and stronger
    after facing that killing field!

  6. Didn’t Nietzche say the defining charateristic of the overman/superman was to overcome vengeance. Something to ponder when undergoing divorce proceedings.

  7. I recall thinking something of the sort, after my divorce: “That which does not kill me leaves me crippled and bitter.” But I did eventually recover.

    I think my favorite Nietzche aphorism would be, “He who hunts dragons must beware lest he become a dragon himself.” Truer words were never spoken, and every crusader should take them to heart.

    Should my employer ever get around to delivering that Rosetta Stone disk, I think I’ll revisit him in the original German, to see if the gem to trash ratio looks better that way.

    1. I like Confucius’ version better: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

  8. When Homer Simpson tried to quote Nietsche at his doctor, Dr. Hibbert replied that that which hadn’t killed him had left him as weak as a kitten (whereupon he proceeded to slap Homer around a little).

    I imagine your friend feels similarly.

  9. For what it probably isn’t worth, there’s a fairly direct connection from the Nietszchean formulation through the Byomtov version to the modern Pain Caucus, where if the poor can’t be productive members of society (ahem) at least they can be ennobled a little by by suffering.

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