Nemessētichon—keeping misfortune and guilt apart

A statue of Nemesis

§78 “Daybreak” (1881) by Friedrich Nietzsche (trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, CUP, 1997, pp. 47-48)

Justice which punishes.  — Misfortune and guilt — Christianity has placed these two things on a balance [on one scale]: so that, when misfortune consequent on guilt is great, even now the greatness of the guilt itself is still involuntarily measured by it. But this is not antique, and that is why the Greek tragedy, which speaks so much yet in so different a sense of misfortune and guilt, is a great liberator of the spirit in a way in which the ancients themselves could not feel it. They were still so innocent as not to have established an ‘adequate [i.e. appropriate] relationship’ between guilt and misfortune. The guilt of their tragic heroes is, indeed, the little stone over which they stumble and perhaps break an arm or put out an eye: antique sensibility commented: ‘Yes, he should have gone his way a little more cautiously and with less haughtiness!’ But it was reserved for Christianity to say: ‘Here is a great misfortune and behind it there must lie hidden a great, equally great guilt, even though it may not be clearly visible! If you, unfortunate man, do not feel this you are obdurate — you will have to suffer worse things!’ — Moreover, in antiquity there still existed actual misfortune, pure innocent misfortune; only in Christendom did everything become punishment, well-deserved punishment: it also makes the sufferer’s imagination suffer, so that with every misfortune he feels himself morally reprehensible and cast out. Poor mankind! — The Greeks have a word for indignation at another’s unhappiness [nemessētichon]: this affect was inadmissible among Christian peoples and failed to develop, so that they also lack a name for this more manly brother of pity.  

From Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” (NE 1108b3) trans. by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

There are also means [i.e. middle ways] in the passions and concerning the passions. For a sense of shame is not a virtue, but he who is bashful is praised: in these things too there is one person said to be in the middle, another who is in excess, like the shy person who feels shame in everything. He who is deficient in this or is generally ashamed of nothing is shameless, whereas he who is in the middle is bashful. Indignation is a mean between envy and spitefulness, and these concern pleasure and pain at the fortunes that befall one's neighbours: the indignant person is pained at those who fare well undeservedly; the envious person exceeds him because he is pained at anyone's faring well; the spiteful is so deficient in feeling pain [at the misfortune of others] that he even delights in it. But about these types, there will be an opportunity to speak elsewhere.

Notes to the Aristotle reading:

The word translated as “bashful” shares the same root as the word translated as “a sense of shame”, which can also refer to the “awe" or “reverence” due to the gods and the divine things, for example.

Literally, “nemesis,” also the name of a Greek goddess, the divine personification of righteous indignation or revenge (see Hesiod, Works and Days 200, Theogany 223 and contexts).


Keeping misfortune and guilt apart

Many years ago I was told a story by a philosopher friend of mine who was brought up by parents concerned to teach him that a good, ethically upright life was in no way dependent upon either the existence of, nor belief in, god/gods. My friend took their teaching to heart and, throughout his life, he has remained both a good man and an exemplary humanist philosopher.

One day the inevitable morning arrived bringing news of his father’s death and he immediately set off home to be with his mother. There followed a time of appropriate grief and mourning but, as the weeks unfolded, a few other unrelated misfortunes befell her which, in her grief, understandably hit harder than they might have done otherwise. Talking with his mother one evening about these things she suddenly burst into tears and said, “Darling, what have I done to deserve all this?” Given his upbringing he felt impelled gently to remind her that she had taught him that there were no supernatural beings nor any moral forces “out there” deciding whether she was deserving of punishment or not and that, instead, what she was experiencing was simply a run of pure misfortune. 

This story struck me as a reminder of the truth expressed over two-thousand years ago by Lucretius, the Roman poet and follower of Epicurus who wrote:

“. . . people tend to revert under stress to their earlier superstitions and imagine cruel taskmasters, omnipotent beings we wretches ought to fear and appease . . .” (De Rerum Natura, trans. David R. Slavitt, University of California Press, 2008, p. 253).

Now my friend’s story came back to mind last month because of an unexpected, momentary response I had to two irritating but, in the grand scheme of things, minor misfortunes that befell me whilst on leave. Firstly, I put my back out getting to a gig in central London and, secondly, my brand new glasses (upon which, being very short-sighted, I am utterly dependent) broke due to a fault in the frames. There were a couple of other very minor things that went wrong as well which, when mixed together with my Christian upbringing, surprisingly quickly, if only momentarily, brought to mind the niggling thought that, somehow, these misfortunes might be some kind of divine judgement upon my general guilt. But, perhaps, I shouldn’t be surprised by this because, as a child, I was regularly made to sing in morning school assembly and church on Sunday, hymns such as Isaac Watts’ “Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed” (1707) which contains the line “Would he [i.e. God] devote that sacred head [i.e. Jesus] for such a worm as I?”, what else should I expect?! These kinds of hymns and the theology that underlies them were designed precisely to induce this feeling of guilt into Christians.

Fortunately, these days, as a thoroughgoing Epicurean and Lucretian inspired religious naturalist, as well as a species of Christian atheist, I dismissed this involuntary thought almost instantly but, nonetheless, it was salutary to experience once again my childhood feeling that these misfortunes, vanishingly small though they were in comparison to my friend’s mother’s, might be expressions of divine judgment upon me for my guilt in some matter or other.

As I lay on the floor dosed-up with paracetamol waiting for a painful back spasm to ease it was, therefore, splendid to read the passage you heard earlier from Nietzsche’s “Daybreak” which served as a therapeutic reminder that Christianity has always wrongly placed misfortune and guilt on the same scale and, therefore, assumed that misfortune always follows on from, and is structurally underlain by, guilt. But when I looked back upon my own recent minor misfortunes a more reasonable and, I would argue, truer view of them can only come into focus when looked at them through more ancient, Greek eyes.

In pain at the gig . . . I'm not looking too happy am I !
Let’s take the case of my back. The chain of events leading to it begins by sensibly deciding to go to the gig in London by car with my pianist friend only as far as Blackhorse Road station, then taking the Victoria tube line into town from there and finally walking my bass to the club from that point. All perfectly doable . . . when all things remain equal that is. But, alas, one stop on the tube and we were all told to leave the train and to take a bus to the next station where we could rejoin a functioning train. This involved lugging the bass up a great many stairs into the bus station, on to a very over-crowded bus and thence down dozens more stairs to the next station. On arriving there we were told the whole of the Victoria line was now closed and that we needed to make alternative travel arrangements. So, I haul the bass back up the stairs and across a major road junction to the bus stop where we joined the back of an immense queue of people all trying to do the same thing. Now my friend and I had to be at the club at a specific time to do the sound-check and this way of getting into town was clearly not going to do the job so we decided to walk beyond the bus-stop and hail, at great expense, a black cab. Fortunately, we managed to attract the attention of one and so I then found myself on the back seat, bent over double as I leant forward to hold my bass to stop it slipping about all over the place. And all the time there is the tension of whether we are going to make it on time. We do but, on arrival, as I uncurl myself out of the taxi, I discover to my painful horror that my back has gone into spasm. I managed to do the gig and catch the tube back but the damage was done.

Now, about this, the worst one could say to me as a lay on the floor in pain was ‘Yes, Andrew, you should have gone your way a little more cautiously and with less haughtiness!’ I’d have been a bit irritated by being told this as there might be a tiny ring of truth to it. After all I’m not sure opening the door to the possibility one might have to carry a double bass up and down flights of stairs, in and out of tube stations and taxis, is a good idea for anyone, let alone a fifty-three year old who isn’t used to doing that kind of heavy and awkward lifting on a daily basis. But, in truth, overall, surely what I had experienced was the result of simple misfortune, pure innocent misfortune. If the tube had been working I would have easily managed the journey but the breakdown of the train and its knock-on effects threw everything akimbo and the rest is history.

So it was a genuine comfort a week later to have Nietzsche remind me that it was only in Christendom that a misfortune like this could “become punishment, well-deserved punishment” which was intended by God (and the Church) to make my imagination suffer so I should feel myself “morally reprehensible and cast out” and then desperately seek the forgiveness of God and the Church and, in so doing, place myself back under their authority so I would not, later on, “have to suffer worse things.”

But what utter nonsense this is. It’s not, of course, that I am white as the driven snow and have never done anything about which I feel, or should feel, guilt and for which I, perhaps, should have received some kind of punishment — to claim this would be an equally great piece of nonsense. But what I am saying, along with Nietzsche, is that we would be doing our wider culture a great favour were we regularly to make it much more widely known that Christianity has wrongly, and often with very damaging moral and ethical consequences, placed misfortune and guilt on the same balance, on one scale. This remains a necessary task since too many people continue to believe and promulgate the idea that the misfortunes of others (and ourselves) are always clear signs of some underlying moral guilt and why they (or we) should not be helped by any appropriate forms of social security, national health care, foreign aid and so on.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, even though they might not have been able to see this clearly themselves, were able intuit that misfortune and guilt are not on the same scale and that there does exist “pure innocent misfortune” and that the right response to it was not patronizing pity at another’s unhappiness but rightful indignation at it — nemessētichon. This was something which, at least ideally, should be followed up with some kind of practical help and assistance to ameliorate the misfortune. Nietzsche, as you heard, calls this “the more manly brother of pity” but we, in a more gender inclusive age, might want to call it something like the more confident and strong brother or sister of pity.

The cottage (on the right) where we were staying
Now most of this painful (yet blessedly guilt free) reflection was undertaken lying on the floor of a friend’s cottage in deepest, rural Devon. One of the many pleasures of staying there is found in the opportunity it affords for us to reconnect with the lovely neighbours, John and Heather. Heather is a fine creative writer and John, as some of you may recall, is a retired professor of classics who taught for many years in Exeter University. This means that his shelves are packed with just the right kind of books to track down the use of the word nemessētichon and it was he who gave me the reference to the passage you heard earlier from Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics”.

Aristotle reminds us of the great value of practising “means”, i.e. of finding the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and one of deficiency. Aristotle points out, as you will recall, that

Indignation is a mean between envy and spitefulness, and these concern pleasure and pain at the fortunes that befall one’s neighbours: the indignant person is pained at those who fare well undeservedly; the envious person exceeds him because he is pained at anyone’s faring well; the spiteful is so deficient in feeling pain [at the misfortune of others] that he even delights in it.

Now, surely, this nemessētichon — the righteous indignation at another person’s misfortune — is a splendid virtue to try to revive in our own age which is too often being overrun by an excess of envy and spitefulness across the political, social and religious spectrum. It’s also important to revive because we’re all also acutely aware of the hyper-wealthy few who are are undeservedly faring exceptionally well at the expense of the wider population thanks to the dreadful systems of structural financial and social inequality deeply embedded in our capitalist systems of government and governance.

About this state of affairs I think we should feel considerable righteous indignation and I have hopes that this can help to drive us once again to initiate pressing practical reforms. But, at the same time, we most assuredly do not want to slip into envy, becoming pained at anyone’s faring well, nor into spite, where we begin purely to delight in causing anyone suffering for suffering’s sake.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining, so, all in all, although my back is still twinging painfully now and then and, until last Wednesday, I still could not see clearly, I’m very grateful that together these very minor misfortunes gave me pause to reflect upon the social, political and religious need always to keep misfortune and guilt on different scales and of responding to the misfortunes of others, not with patronising pity, but with strong and confident righteous indignation, nemessētichon which, in turn, can inspire in us a powerful sense of the need to help one’s neigbours whom we find, for no fault of their own, in distress.