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Trial of the Will
December 8, 2011 9:10 AM   Subscribe

Trial of the Will. "Reviewing familiar principles and maxims in the face of mortal illness, Christopher Hitchens has found one of them increasingly ridiculous: 'Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.' Oh, really? Take the case of the philosopher to whom that line is usually attributed, Friedrich Nietzsche, who lost his mind to what was probably syphilis. Or America’s homegrown philosopher Sidney Hook, who survived a stroke and wished he hadn’t. Or, indeed, the author, viciously weakened by the very medicine that is keeping him alive." [Via]
posted by homunculus (27 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Whatever doesn't kill you only makes you wounded.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:27 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wait... is this an entire essay that starts with the premise that one should read Nietzsche literally?
posted by hoyland at 9:29 AM on December 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back.

Fuck cancer.
posted by jcreigh at 9:31 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's Nietzsche. The maxim has two sides: First, the current popular interpretation, outlined here; second, the inverse, the only way in which it becomes anything resembling useful advice, i.e., That which one does not wish to be made stronger must be killed outright.

In other words: Genocide is justified.

Taken that way, the essence of the maxim is pure cowardice. That it is commonly used as a mantra of bravery is, frankly, perverse.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:31 AM on December 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


To be fair, that's one of the stupiest and most misinterpreted cliches there is. Of course whatever doesn't kill you won't always make you stronger. Think Alzheimer's, for one of a million examples. Or a bullet in the gut that takes a long time to kill you. You aren't stronger while you're dying. Anyway.

one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

OK.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:33 AM on December 8, 2011


@sys rq

im kind of iffy on anything that purports to connect nietzsche to the nazis

not that he is a great philosopher or anything but
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:36 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, it is not always darkest just before the dawn.

And sometimes a bent wheel can be mended.


In case anyone was wondering.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, it is not always darkest just before the dawn.

Amen. I hate that cliche even more than Nietzche's. Anyone who has ever been up early enough knows that the sky begins to lighten at least an hour before daybreak BUT it is very often COLDEST right at dawn. Like this morning. Brrr.

But whatever doesn't kill you should teach you something. If only how to avoid getting almost killed again.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:57 AM on December 8, 2011


The full quote from Twilight of the Idols is: "Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger." The 'what does not kill me makes me stronger' part comes originally from Ecce Homo, specifically the section "Why Am I So Wise?" The full quotation is long, but is worth reading, to understand the context in which it was written:
Agreed that I am a decadent, I am also the very reverse. Among other things there is this proof: I always instinctively select the proper remedy in preference to harmful ones; whereas the decadent, as such, invariably chooses those remedies which are bad for him. As a whole I was healthy, but in certain details I was a decadent. The energy with which I forced myself to absolute solitude, and to an alienation from my customary habits of life; the self-discipline that forbade me to be pampered, waited on, and doctored-all this betrays the absolute certainty of my instincts in regard to what at that time was most needful to me. I placed myself in my own hands, I restored myself to health: to do this, the first condition of success, as every physiologist will admit, is that the man be basically sound. A typically morbid nature cannot become healthy at all, much less by his own efforts. On the other hand, to an intrinsically sound nature, illness may even act as a powerful stimulus to life, to an abundance of life. It is thus that I now regard my long period of illness: it seemed then as if I had discovered life afresh, my own self included. I tasted all/ good and even trifling things in a way in which others could not very well taste them-out of my Will to Health and to Life I made my philosophy. . . . For I wish this to be understood; it was during those, years of most lowered vitality that I ceased from being a pessimist: the instinct of self-recovery bade a philosophy of poverty and desperation. Now, how are we to recognize Nature's most excellent human products? They are recognized by the fact that an excellent man of this sort gladdens our senses; he is carved from a single block, which is hard, sweet, and fragrant. He enjoys only what is good for him; his pleasure, his desire, ceases when the limits of what is good for him are overstepped. He divines remedies against injuries; he knows how to turn serious accidents to his own advantage; whatever does not kill him makes him stronger. He instinctively gathers his material from all he sees, hears, and experiences. He is a selective principle; he rejects much. He is always in his own company, whether his intercourse be with books, men or natural scenery; he honors the things he chooses, the things he acknowledges, the things he trusts. He reacts slowly to all kinds of stimuli, with that tardiness which long caution and deliberate pride have bred in him-he tests the approaching stimulus - would not think of going toward it. He believes in neither "ill-fortune" nor "guilt"; he can digest himself and others; he knows how to forget-he is strong enough to make everything turn to his own advantage.

Lo then! I am the very reverse of a decadent, for he whom I have just described is none other than myself.
It is a lot more specific in context, though it does indeed refer to health. For further context, Nietzche had a whole host of physical ailments which affected his life badly. I have a hard time reading the full context in the martial spirit of the shorter Twilight of the Idols. It seems a lot more fragile to me, more human (fittingly).
posted by Kattullus at 10:02 AM on December 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


It's telling of most people's dismissal of Hitchens as a man, rather than engaging with his arguments, that this discussion hasn't made it much past the 4th paragraph of the essay.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:07 AM on December 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, I'm not feeling any stronger, so this must be killing me.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 10:21 AM on December 8, 2011


I have always thought that, if frogs had wings, they would bump their asses pretty much as often as they do now, and that, even if wishes were horses, they would not ride because they could not afford riding lessons.

Actually, I have not always thought those things, but only since they occurred to me. In the spirit of Full Disclosure and all.

Onward. This is very true:

It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory.

Good heavens, yes. I have had a relatively benign life, but, if I could clearly remember some of the times I have been seriously in pain, I might never do anything again.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:27 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It isn't correct in this particular instance" doesn't equate to "It's never right".

Some of the rather negative experiences I've had in my lifetime so far have actually had a beneficial effect, down the line, even though they nearly killed me at the time.

I'm sorry to hear this guy has cancer.
posted by Solomon at 10:29 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


BUT it is very often COLDEST right at dawn. Like this morning. Brrr.

I was gonna say I bet you live in California ... yep. WTF, right? I don't like seeing my breath outside let alone in my own bedroom. BRRRR. (Unfortunately, 4am is even colder when you're sleeping on the floor of your vomiting toddler's bedroom. Poor me.)

It's telling of most people's dismissal of Hitchens as a man, rather than engaging with his arguments, that this discussion hasn't made it much past the 4th paragraph of the essay.

It seemed like a pretty standard argument for euthanasia or self-directed suicide (for other people, of course), combined with the expected "but I'll continue to fight, even though it sucks." Or more basically (early in the 5th paragraph), "In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker. "

Did I miss something more interesting? I read it fast.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2011


I feel somewhat indebted to the way he painstakingly describes the process of death. As he suggests, it's something that we all have to face, as far away as it may seem in healthier moments. He writes about it in a manner that we don't usually get, stark but compassionate, without pulling any punches.

The value of those cliches is, I think, to help us get through all of the smaller hurtles in life. They might break down when things are truly absolutely bad, but for all of our little challenges they remind us to have perspective and deal with it. Because for now, they are as true as they need to be.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:40 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I feel somewhat indebted to the way he painstakingly describes the process of death. As he suggests, it's something that we all have to face, as far away as it may seem in healthier moments. He writes about it in a manner that we don't usually get, stark but compassionate, without pulling any punches.

I too am grateful for that, and wish I'd said it. It may seem like EOL navelgazing, but it's a perspective that's too often shushed away, imo.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:30 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


This particular maxim previously.
posted by stebulus at 11:40 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


We are all fellow travelers on a journey to the grave, and Hitchens' writings (and Roger Ebert's, I'd argue) are dispatches from the border of that far country. They're not easy reading, but they have great value for those who want to be more than tourists in this life.
posted by slab_lizard at 11:52 AM on December 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


"The most he could have meant, I now think, is that he made the most of his few intervals from pain and madness to set down his collections of penetrating aphorism and paradox. This may have given him the euphoric impression that he was triumphing, and making use of the Will to Power."

He gets the distinction between declaration and distinction but he still doesn't give it enough credit. Nietzsche was hardly such an idiot to have never considered conditions like dementia. It's not some sort of absolute truth, but a maxim that he's suggesting has utility. To call it a "euphoric impression" makes it out to be a small thing, and it isn't.
posted by BigSky at 2:13 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I look at Nietzsche's aphorism in this context:

"Never in outstanding health, further complications arose from Nietzsche's August-October 1870 service as a 25-year-old hospital attendant during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), where he participated in the siege of Metz. He witnessed the traumatic effects of battle, took close care of wounded soldiers, and contracted diphtheria and dysentery."

One story I heard is that he spent several days in a railway freight car crowded with seriously ill soldiers, most of whom died. This adds a bit of perspective.

posted by ovvl at 2:50 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


In other words: Genocide is justified.

Interesting...

Let me know what else you find up there.
posted by howfar at 6:40 PM on December 8, 2011


For what it's worth, Nietzsche almost certainly didn't die of syphilis. The "syphilis" rumor is nonsense that comes from the notion people seem to have had in the late 19th century that anybody who suffered from worsening mental illness and death had syphilis. In fact, Nietzsche likely had very few occasions on which he could have caught syphilis, given that he wasn't really "sexually active." Moreover, his father died of "softening of the brain" – another earlier euphemism for mental illness culminating in death – so it's highly likely that he died of some congenital disease.
posted by koeselitz at 7:27 PM on December 8, 2011


Sys Rq: “It's Nietzsche. The maxim has two sides: First, the current popular interpretation, outlined here; second, the inverse, the only way in which it becomes anything resembling useful advice, i.e., That which one does not wish to be made stronger must be killed outright. In other words: Genocide is justified. Taken that way, the essence of the maxim is pure cowardice. That it is commonly used as a mantra of bravery is, frankly, perverse.”

Have you ever actually read Nietzsche?
posted by koeselitz at 7:30 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's courageous and admirable the he still writes and as puts pictures of himself in his deteriorating condition.

He is a magnificent writer. I really hope he pulls through.
posted by hellslinger at 9:22 PM on December 8, 2011


Whoops, that should be "distinction between declaration and description"
posted by BigSky at 5:06 AM on December 9, 2011




Stranger in a Strange Land
posted by homunculus at 3:37 PM on December 26, 2011


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