“Poor mankind!—”: Rethinking Nietzsche’s Critique of Compassion


Speaker: Jessica Berry, Georgia State University

When: Apr 14, 2023 - 03:30pm - 05:00pm

Where: Mitchell Hall 102



Between his calling into question, on the one hand, the apparently unquestionable value of compassion itself, and his refusal, on the other hand, to concede that suffering is unconditionally bad, Nietzsche has been understood by many as expressing a callous indifference, or worse, to most human suffering. I argue, however, that this interpretation relies on a grossly oversimplified characterization of the relevant moral emotions. ‘Compassion’ (or ‘pity’, either of which word can be used to translate the German ‘das Mitleid’) is “a polyphonous being,” as Nietzsche insists in Daybreak (1881). A closer look at some key passages in Nietzsche’s text, and some help from Greek thinkers Nietzsche points us toward, will help us appreciate that this term has meanings that have been lost to us and that we may now have difficulty even conceiving. Recovering those meanings and restoring their nuance and complexity will shed light not only on Nietzsche’s response to suffering, but perhaps on our own philosophical efforts to come to grips with the problem of suffering and what morality demands.