“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure”—letting ‘fellow suffering’ go and encouraging ‘fellow rejoicing’

An espalier
READINGS: Matthew 22:39
Jesus said: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Friedrich Nietzsche in Dawn [1881] (trans. Brittain Smith, Stanford University Press, 2011)

Moral fashion of a commercial society. — Behind the fundamental principle of the contemporary moral fashion: “moral actions are actions generated by sympathy for others,” I see the work of a collective drive toward timidity masquerading behind an intellectual front: this drive desires utmost, uppermost, and foremost that life be rid of all the dangers it once held and that each and every person should help toward this end with all one’s might: therefore only actions aimed at the common security and at society’s sense of security may be accorded the rating “good”! — How little pleasure people must take in themselves these days, however, when such a tyranny of timidity dictates to them the uppermost moral law, when, without so much as a protest, they let themselves be commanded to ignore and look beyond themselves and yet have eagle eyes for every distress and every suffering existing elsewhere! Are we not, with this prodigious intent to grate off all the rough and sharp edges from life, well on the way to turning humanity into sand? Sand! Tiny, soft, round, endless grains of sand! Is this your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections? — In the meantime, the question itself remains open as to whether one is more useful to another by immediately and constantly leaping to his side and helping him — which can, in any case, only transpire very superficially, provided the help doesn’t turn into a tyrannical encroachment and transformation — or by fashioning out of oneself something the other will behold with pleasure, a lovely, peaceful, self-enclosed garden, for instance, with high walls to protect against the dangers and dust of the roadway, but with a hospitable gate as well.

What we are free to do. — One can handle one’s drives like a gardener and, though few know it, cultivate the shoots of one’s anger, pity, musing, vanity as fruitfully and advantageously as beautiful fruit on espaliers; one can do so with a gardener’s good or bad taste and, as it were, in the French or English or Dutch or Chinese style; one can also let nature have her sway and only tend to a little decoration and cleaning up here and there; finally, one can, without giving them any thought whatsoever, let the plants, in keeping with the natural advantages and disadvantages of their habitat, grow up and fight it out among themselves — indeed, one can take pleasure in such wildness and want to enjoy just this pleasure, even if one has one’s difficulties with it. We are free to do all this: but how many actually know that they are free to do this? Don't most people believe in themselves as completed, fully grown facts? Haven’t great philosophers, with their doctrine of the immutability of character, pressed their seal of approval on the presumption?

According to Seneca (in Epistle XXI of Epistulae morales ad Lucilium) above the door to Epicurus’ Garden Academy, were written the words:

“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”


“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure”—letting ‘fellow suffering’ go and encouraging ‘fellow rejoicing

“Compassion”: from the latin meaning “to suffer with”. Given that common synonyms for the word include . . .

pity, sympathy, feeling, fellow feeling, empathy, understanding, care, concern, solicitude, solicitousness, sensitivity, tender-heartedness, soft-heartedness, warm-heartedness, warmth, love, brotherly/sisterly love, tenderness, gentleness, mercy, mercifulness, leniency, lenience, tolerance, consideration, kindness, humanity, humaneness, kind-heartedness, charity, benevolence 

. . . what’s not to like about this word?

Well, the first thing not to like — especially in our own liberal circles — is that the word is, almost without exception, believed unquestionably to be beyond criticism. Try saying — as I am going to try to say today — that compassion may not be a good thing, and see what, in most contexts, then happens! This knee-jerk defense alone should make us highly suspicious that there may well be “something nasty in the woodshed” of compassion.

The second thing is that, when we properly follow the through on the trajectory of the radical Reformation and Enlightenment traditions out of which our own church was born, we can see the use and need always to be heeding Descartes’ (and then Marx’s) call to question everything (de omnibus dubitandum).

So why am I turning my attention to compassion today? Well, in part, it’s because in our 24/7, media driven world everywhere we look — whether in the wider world or here within the UK — we are being shown countless images of people seriously struggling in all kinds of (real and imagined) ways and our (mostly Christian influenced) upbringing in consequence unconsciously demands from us endless acts of “compassion”. But, if you are anything like me, the perceived need for compassion far outstrips my actual resources to show compassion and, to be frank about it, the felt need always and everywhere to be compassionate brings with it only increasing exhaustion and distress — both mental, spiritual and physical.

As I have mentioned before, a great deal of my pastoral time is taken up with people who have succumbed to this kind of exhaustion and burn-out. In some circles this phenomenon has been given the name “compassion fatigue” (also known as secondary traumatic stress) and it’s common among people who work directly with victims of disasters, trauma, or mental and physical illness. Symptoms frequently experienced are hopelessness, a decrease in their experience of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasively negative attitude. Naturally, these things have some serious effects on people in both their professional and personal lives, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, depression, isolation and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.

Taken together these things suggest that we really should be asking some serious questions about the overly positive view of compassion we have inherited and whether it’s really the best way to go about firstly, most effectively ameliorating the suffering of others and then, secondly, about how we might best offer people a different, practical, better, more creative and joyful way of going on.

To my mind the best critique of compassion and the best replacement for it is that offered by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in his three mid-period free-spirit books, “Human, all too human” (1878), “Dawn” (1881) and “The Gay Science” (1882/1887).

At the heart of Nietzsche’s critique of compassion lie at least three things.

The first is that the idea that all our moral anxieties can be addressed by compassion shown to others is a fantasy. As my examples above illustrate whenever that’s been tried by anyone the result is nearly always the creation of more and more anxiety, some of it clearly moral (Keith Ansell-Pearson, Nietzsche's Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings, Bloomsbury, 2018, p. 92).   

The second is that laying so much weight on compassion can serve to fool us into thinking (especially if we are from monotheistic cultures) that there exists an underlying single moral-making morality. But, as I’ve tried to explore with you in many past addresses, belief in the existence of such a single underlying morality (such as is found in ideas of a supernatural God or in the secular doctrines of, say, Soviet Communism or National Socialism) has an unnerving and unacceptable tendency to move towards tyranny (ibid. p. 92).

The third is that since we are not wholly transparent to ourselves and cannot, therefore, see all our motives, the idea that we are ever being truly compassionate in the way we think (or would like to believe) we are, is itself another fantasy. Here’s a simple illustration of this. When we display compassion to another person are we not with that same act surrendering “to an impulse for pleasure, for example, in the thought of praise and gratitude which will come our way” either in this world or the next? (As Keith Ansell-Pearson notes) “The performer of the act can thus take a delight in him or herself, for example, in the sensation that the action has put an end to an injustice that arouses one’s indignation [and] the release of this indignation can have an invigorating effect (ibid. p. 93).

This critique doesn’t mean that Nietzsche thinks people don’t suffer and are, therefore, at times in need help both from ourselves and others, rather he is of the view that (again as Keith Ansell-Pearson notes) “to be a proper physician to humanity one needs to be cautious with regard to the sentiment of compassion; otherwise . . .” — because of all the problems I’ve just briefly noted — “. . . we will be lamed in all the decisive moments and our knowledge and benevolent hand will be paralysed” (ibid. p. 93). Nietzsche believes that like all other human affects (emotions) compassion “needs to be brought under control and sifted by reason; otherwise it is as dangerous as any other affect” (emotion).

So what does Nietzsche think compassion under control of reason looks like. Well, it is a kind of enlightened self-care and it is this which is alluded to in the first reading from his book “Dawn” we heard earlier.

Nietzsche believes that what is required, if we really wish to help others, is to find a way healthily and creatively to acknowledge and use well the fact that, as we have just explored with compassion, who we are is always to be a complex, multilayered, ever-developing creature concerned in some way with its own interests and that there exists no such thing as pure altruistic compassion.

In consequence he thought that what we must be doing — in a conscious and disciplined way — is to begin to fashion “out of oneself something the other will behold with pleasure, a lovely peaceful, self-enclosed garden, for instance, with high walls to protect against the dangers and dust of the roadway, but with a hospitable gate as well” (D 174).

In other words “compassion under control of reason” is to give a person an attractive, positive and pleasurable way (and context)  in which to live that can provide them with a real measure of protection for the self (a high wall) as well as genuine place in their being for displaying hospitality (a hospitable gate). 

In using the image of a garden Nietzsche is drawing upon (as he does throughout “Dawn”) the ancient Greek philosophy of Epicurus whose community and school was located just outside Athens in a garden during the third century BCE. Seneca records that written above the entrance gate in the high garden walls were written the words:

“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure” (Epistle XXI of Epistulae morales ad Lucilium)

As Kevin Ansell-Pearson observes in a very accessible book exploring (in part) the Epicurean influence on Nietzsche (and upon which this address has heavily and gratefully drawn):

“Nietzsche’s ethical commitment is . . . [ therefore, to] a pleasure and care of self that strives for independence and self-sufficiency. One does not isolate oneself from others, but neither does one seek to effect a tyrannical encroachment upon them [as compassion so often does]. Instead one offers a ‘hospitable gate’ through which others can freely enter and leave, and through self-cultivation one fashions a style of living that others will behold with pleasure” (Nietzsche's Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings, Bloomsbury, 2018, p. 96).

The self-cultivation about which Nietzsche is writing concerns the need, as I have already noted, to bring human affects (emotions) such as compassion “under control and sifted by reason”. Now Nietzsche doesn’t think we have anywhere near as much freedom and control over our lives as we like to think we have but one thing over which he thinks we do have some meaningful control are our emotional drives and they are what we are to cultivate. You heard something about this in our second reading from “Dawn” today. Notice how, once again, Nietzsche conceives the project of self-care in terms of gardening and that “[o]ne can handle one’s drives like a gardener” who is attempting to cultivate fruit on an espalier (D 560). (Notice also that he thinks there will always be various styles/ways of doing this — i.e. there he does not have in mind any one-size-fits-all, single moral-making morality.)

Nietzsche feels that only individuals who practise this kind of enlightened self-love or self-care — and remember here Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour as ourselves — are capable of truly generous and beautiful actions. However, despite Jesus’ teaching we, who come mostly from Christian backgrounds, can struggle to see approach this as really anything other than an example of egoism where egoism is, by unthinking default, branded as immoral. But Nietzsche believes — as do I — that egoism is the root of all virtues and so “without [a] cultivation of the self and the pleasure of the assertion of this self [can bring] the virtues are meaningless (Nietzsche's Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings, Bloomsbury, 2018, p. 103).        

Another key governing idea in all this is that of friendship because it’s “one arena where . . . there can be genuine knowledge and sympathy for another” and where “a narrow-centred egoism” can be overcome. (Again, as Kevin Ansell-Pearson notes):

“Although Nietzsche acknowledges that there can be poor or inadequate friendships — friendships lacking in trust, confidence and genuine concern for the other — he sees it at best, as an effort at ‘fellow rejoicing’ rather than ‘fellow suffering’ (HAH 499); it is the ability to ‘imagine the joy of others and rejoicing at it’, which he thinks is a very rare human quality (MOM 62)” (ibid. p. 104).     

So, to conclude, I think Nietzsche and Epicurus are right and that, in the face of the increasing frequency and depth of “compassion fatigue”, one important task of a community such as our own (for me THE most important task) is to attempt create garden communities full of individual, philosophically, theologically and spiritually-inclined gardeners dedicated to the development of an enlightened, rational self-care that can simultaneously provide people with firstly, an attractive environment (and way of being) which offers them a real measure of protection against the dangers and dust of the roadway (a high wall), secondly, a genuine place in their being that allows them still to display genuine hospitality (a hospitable gate) to others that doesn’t effect a tyrannical encroachment upon them, and thirdly, the opportunity to make real, lasting and sustaining friendships.

Such a garden community drawing heavily upon both Epicurus’ and Nietzsche’s ideas remains my personal, preferred vision of how we might best be serving the world in these apparently darkening times — not by offering to strangers com-passion, i.e. ‘fellow suffering’, but by offering strangers an attractive and hospitable way to experience ‘fellow rejoicing’. All in all, one day, I would love to see above our own front door the words you heard earlier:

“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”


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