Newsletter: Highs & Lows

Today, I wanted to share with you some ideas from the German Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the finest philosophers in history -and one of the most frequently misunderstood and misquoted. Though his books are rather difficult to read (he has a powerful, direct style, yet he insists on shrouding some of his best ideas within metaphors and through obscure lines of thought – he had the conviction that one should exert oneself to truly access his ideas), they contain invaluable pearls of wisdom. He questioned everything, from the identity of the self to the value of seeking truth, and attacked fiercely that which he regarded as of no value, as he did with Christianity – he was a stranger to the notion of biting one’s tongue when discussing ideas.

It has always been an entertaining notion for me: to experience the highest moments of exhilaration one must also risk experiencing the lowest moments of sadness. That might be, perhaps, the defining notion of love (as C. S. Lewis put it, to love at all is to be vulnerable). But it might also be the defining notion of a truly satisfying life. It was in fact a belief in the duality between hardship and joy, that Nietzsche would proclaim in The gay science:

<< What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?


    You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.


Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible. >>

 In The consolations of philosophy, Alain de Bottom further analyzes this train of thought, beautifully summing it up:

<< The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

    Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.

    Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.


avoiding pain rather than seeking pleasure, living quietly, [was an advice that] struck Nietzsche as both timid and untrue, a perverse attempt to dwell, as he was to put it pejoratively several years later, ‘hidden in forests like shy deer.’ Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good. >>

And it is here the wonderful Maria Popova (as most of you already know, the source of or the inspiration for many of my newsletters, and one of my main sources of books to read) that captures why embracing this nihilist philosophy might not be a bad idea after all:

<< Quoting Nietzsche, in other words, is a way for us to signal others that we’re unafraid, that difficulty won’t break us, that adversity will only assure us.

And perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. After all, Viktor Frankl was the opposite of a nihilist, and yet we flock to him for the same reason — to be assured, to be consoled, to feel like we can endure. >>

In fact, it was Frankl himself who would quote Nietsche in his own Man’s search for meaning: He who has a why can overcome almost any how.

 Enjoy the week, and stay tuned!

[Sources: Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, Alain de Bottom’s The consolations of philosophy, Nietzsche’s The gay science]

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