The Irony of Pity: Nietzsche contra Schopenhauer and Rousseau
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The Irony of Pity:
Nietzsche contra Schopenhauer and Rousseau

It has almost become an unwritten law among those who defend Nietzschean ideals of self-cultivation to skirt the issue of his critique of pity, dismissing it as an extraneous diatribe or an embarrassing fulmination.1 On the other hand, critics who denounce Nietzsche's ideal of self-cultivation as a dangerous solipsism that all too easily gives license to indifference or outright contempt for others seize on this aspect of his thought as cut-and-dried evidence for the claim that, as Charles Taylor coyly phrases it, "Nietzsche's influence was not entirely foreign [to fascism]."2

Rather than dismissing or denouncing the "pitiless" Nietzsche, this essay carefully examines his subtle psychological analysis of pitié/Mitleid. It does so by training a spotlight on his principal object of criticism: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Arthur Schopenhauer's ethics of pity. I shall argue that Nietzsche's psychological analysis presents a compelling case for interpreting Rousseauian and Schopenhauerian pity not as a sign of living for others or as a form of mutuality and recognition, as its defenders routinely assume, but as a veiled means of assuaging narcissistic loss at the other's expense. In this respect, I claim that Nietzsche joins hands with and strengthens Stoic arguments and anxieties to the effect that pity breeds vengefulness and cruelty and that he does so by drawing on his psychoanalytic insights into our subterranean intrapsychic and intersubjective stratagems for restoring to ourselves the illusion of majestic plenitude.3

The Gilded Sheath of Pity: Rousseau and Schopenhauer

Pity.—In the gilded sheath of pity there is sometimes stuck the dagger of envy.

AOM 377

Nietzsche is intent on stripping away pity's golden luster. He builds his case against pitié/Mitleid largely on the basis of his suspicions about the psychological dynamics that, so he claims, we can use to lay bare Schopenhauer's and Rousseau's gilded rationalizations of this pathos. According to Nietzsche, the type of pitié/Mitleid they expound is symptomatic of what we might call, drawing on psychoanalytic terms, the narcissistic malaise.4 Boldly stated, he argues that as a psychological transaction Mitleid satisfies the ego's desire to assuage its loss of narcissistic plenitude. In making this case, Nietzsche dramatically [End Page 68] reverses their perspective, arguing that Mitleid should not be understood as an affective bond with the other, not as a sign of living for others, but, rather, as a veiled means of restoring self-affection at the other's expense. To show this he analyzes the moral psychology that underpins the precepts of the ethics of pity. If Nietzsche's psychological analysis is correct, then Mitleid is not antithetical to revenge against others but, in fact, closely linked to one of its subtle shadings and masks, which he calls envy. "In the gilded sheath of pity," as he puts it with signature pithiness, "there is sometimes stuck the dagger of envy" (AOM 377).

Whereas Rousseau and Schopenhauer claim that Mitleid is the only source of ethical concern for others, Nietzsche argues that their psychology of Mitleid uncritically accepts a paranoid-schizoid splitting of the object world, to borrow Melanie Klein's terminology, into the enviable and the pitiable.5 He claims that because these forms of pity are generated by a paranoid-schizoid psychological constellation, they are better characterized as what we might call "hateship" rather than friendship. In this respect, Nietzsche sees in the psychology of the pitier an immature or infantile attempt to resolve the narcissistic malaise. Nietzsche pursues this critique of Rousseau and Schopenhauer as part of a broader concern that informs his middle period: his concern with theorizing a mature transformation of narcissism that does not entail such damaging splitting and projection.

We can reconstruct and elaborate three steps in Nietzsche's critical analysis of the psychological configuration that engenders the type of pity that Rousseau and Schopenhauer advocate: his claim that pity is deeply complicit in envy and its projective identifications; that it ultimately tends toward a diminution of others; and, finally, that the twinning of pity and envy in the construction of the object world blocks our ability...