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  • Nietzsche and the Horror of Existence by Philip J. Kain
  • Michael J. McNeal
Nietzsche and the Horror of Existence, by Philip J. Kain. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. 172 pp. ISBN: HB: 978-0-7391-2694-3. Hardcover, $60.00.

In Nietzsche and the Horror of Existence, Philip J. Kain makes a compelling case for taking Nietzsche’s concern with the subject of horror seriously and then challenges his conclusions about it. A corollary of existence, horror is an ineliminable part of being human. Our experience of horror prompts reflection on life and the act of philosophizing. Arguing it is a formative yet often overlooked theme in Nietzsche’s oeuvre, Kain recognizes that the experience of horror is central to “Nietzsche’s vision” of life, truth, beauty, and knowledge (1).

Kain examines Nietzsche’s interrogation of philosophical responses to horror, tracing his approach from his innovative reinterpretation of the function of tragic drama in ancient Greece (6–9), through his proposed solution, which he offers as an immoralist and cultural physician, to the problems of meaninglessness and suffering (10–12). According to Kain, Nietzsche believes that the cosmos is “essentially horrific” and that although “joy can arise in [it], it arises despite the horror of existence, along with it, without removing the horror or significantly reducing it” (13). Kain examines the significance of horror to Nietzsche’s account of various philosophical responses to suffering and its importance to his theory of decadence. He then connects this to Nietzsche’s thought that our response to horror can worsen the dissipation or augment the health of individuals and the societies they inhabit.

Kain shows how Nietzsche tackled epistemological and ontological issues that the contingency of our existence and imminent oblivion raise, and engages controversies generated by Nietzsche’s response to conventional remedies for the problem of horror. In this context Kain tackles debates in the secondary literature over Nietzsche’s critique of truth, rejection of ascetic ideals, and call for a revaluation of all values, as well as the quasi ideal of the Übermensch and theory of the eternal return.

Recurring bouts of illness from Nietzsche’s adolescence to the end of his (productive) life led him to focus on the experience of suffering (108). Nietzsche’s affliction prompted his insight that there is no cure for suffering, the fundamental condition of existence, and he developed a life-affirming, pessimistic philosophy that favored a radical embrace of it. After The Birth of Tragedy, in which he advocates a renaturalization of man through a return to the catharsis provided by classical Greek tragedy, he came to see the varied responses to suffering exhibited by individuals as symptoms of their innate vitality, an insight he develops into a corresponding notion of pathos of distance between individuals and types.

Kain acknowledges Nietzsche’s discovery that both master and slave moral systems of valuation imbue suffering—“which must be given a meaning for life to be possible” (93)—with significance. The horror of existence can be affirmed to augment ascending forms of life or denied in the form of ascetic ideals (92). The latter, antinatural stratagem compounds life’s horror by engendering ressentiment of all that prospers. Our responses to sources of affliction indicate a will to power and also incite a will to truth. The truth or meaning we posit expresses the degree and kind of power we are.

In Nietzsche’s vitalist conception, the type or power one is corresponds with the force one involuntarily discharges into the world. Nietzsche hails strong individuals who adopt improvisatory tactics to contend with failure and anguish and are able to thrive. However, a system of morality that denies life by mitigating its horror as a means of coping with distress frustrates the native drives [End Page 123] and impulses of vigorous individuals. Décadent moral systems dissipate communities through a “disgregation of the instincts” that encourages many to “instinctively choose what is harmful” to themselves (TI “Skirmishes” 35). Yet while Kain recognizes Nietzsche’s view that the liberal aim of eliminating suffering hinders the flourishing of the tragic man who is strengthened by it (9), he is repelled by Nietzsche’s call to intensify suffering...


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pp. 123-125
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