Sentimentality and Compassion, or Fire in the Belly

Those who can breathe the air of my writings know that it is an air of the heights, a strong air…. Philosophy, as I have so far understood and lived it, means voluntarily living among ice and high mountains… How much truth does a spirit endure, how much does it dare? More and more that became for me the real measure of value. Error (faith in the ideal) is not blindness, error is cowardice…. Every attainment, any step forward in knowledge, follows from courage, from hardness against oneself, from cleanliness in relation to oneself…. What one has forbidden so far as a matter of principle is–has always been–truth alone.

–Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (cited in Luc Ferry, What is the Good Life?)

The big error Nietzsche alludes to–a metaphysical error involving positing a Beyond outside of the real world we inhabit–is not a mistake in judgment, not a mistake in reasoning, not an illusory perception but an instance of cowardice. Truth is attached to courage as the consequence that follows from an act.

Courage is no mere idle concept, either, not something to be talked over or written nauseatingly about. It is the fire of fire people! It is choosing to dwell ‘among ice and high mountains.’ It means enduring, indeed cultivating a spirit that endures the nastiest shit of existence. It is hardness against oneself, a ruthless hygiene, a brutal self-accounting. All these, of course, are metaphors for the development of my power to the point of self-mastery, that, as Ferry argues, requires taking conflicting active and reactive forces and, without fighting against them or pitting them in conflict with each other, allows them to express themselves in a ‘grand style’ with an overall sense of harmony. Self-mastery is power expressed as grace, as quietness, as command.

When I master myself, I quietly command. I find a way to express beautifully the fire in my belly.

Fine. But look around you, and notice how our soft culture has trained us to be the opposite of this. Yes! On the one hand, we gush our untrained emotions, pouring them out in a way that would have enraged–did incense!–Nietzsche. The mere gushing of emotions he called ‘romanticism,’ and I call ‘sentimentality.’ We believe that sentimentality breeds social attachment as well as social solidarity, and it just ain’t so. Sentimentality is the illusion of friendship. Remember Nietzsche’s cut and thrust: ‘Error is cowardice.’ Sentimentality is also cowardice.

On the other hand, now not feeling sentimental but the itch of hostility, we are trained in various techniques for softly restraining ourselves from having strong, adverse reactions to what is occurring. We are supposed to cool ourselves down (1) by using ‘I’ statements only, (2) by relativizing all claims to ‘I hear you say…’ and ‘It makes me feel Y…,’ (3) by learning nonviolent forms of communication, etc. All these techniques too are bullshit, are cowardly since we do not really look at and stand up to each other as well as, in Nietzsche’s sense, reactive. We are learning to cultivate reactive forces that serve to restrain us from releasing strong impulses. Our first word is: No! No–to ourselves! Thus are we confined, restrained, trained to hold back, to be craven, small, weak. Pitiable.

Then when we are fed up and neither sentimentality nor ‘compassion education’ work, then either we give in to sadness (the diminution of our powers) or finally we give vent to moral indignation. Not moral outrage but moral indignation, this passive aggressive spleen, words petering out. The other party must be opposed, for he is morally wrong. The moral rightness of our view must be defended, upheld, indirectly rammed down his throat, roundaboutly and in the form of cool research papers. Right is on our side, we contest and whimper.

This too is cowardice as the reactive forces taken over us and are thereby launched into the world.

Nietzsche urges us to live otherwise, inviting us to enlarge our theater, our spirit, our thumos so that (Ferry’s argument again) we learn to ‘coordinate’ the active forces–those most expressive of Life–and reactive forces with the aim of achieving concordance, harmony, the graceful display of power.

Becoming Nietzscheans, though, would mean becoming ruthlessly, dangerously tough with ourselves. And only the rarest and most excellent have, so far, dared as much. Will you dare to join us?