Friedrich Nietzsche’s and Oscar Wilde’s Critique of Sympathy

Essay, 2011

9 Pages, Grade: 1,9


EPG II: “Empathy, Cognition, and the Ethics of Reading“

June, 25th 2011

Friedrich Nietzsche’s and Oscar Wilde’s Critique of Sympathy

Arthur Schopenhauer, one of Germany’s famous nineteenth-century philosophers, was a great thinker of his time. Most of his colleagues being present and highly regarded in the nineteenth-century era understood themselves as Idealists and tried to complete the work of Immanuel Kant. But Schopenhauer broke new ground. His most influential work, The World as Will and Representation, claimed that the world is fundamentally what humans recognize in themselves as their will. His analysis of will led him to the conclusion that emotional, physical, and sexual desires can never be fulfilled. As a consequence, he described a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the ascetic teachings of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism and the Church Fathers of early Christianity. On the basis of his assumption that every human being acts egoistic, according to its own advantages, he separates the purpose of human acting into two types. Is the purpose of acting the own advantage, it is an egoistic act. Is the purpose the welfare of another human being, then it is a moral act. The only reason for moral acting to help other people can be found in the assumption that there is identification of oneself with the one who is being helped. The will generated human being recognizes that the other humans are driven by exactly the same blind will as he is, and is therefore able to identify himself with another one. According to this theory, sympathy expresses the fact that deep inside all the humans are equal. It also helps to vanquish egoism and it is a central piece for the process of will negation. Through his works on sympathy, Schopenhauer became the great theoretician of sympathy within the classical German philosophy.

According to Aristotle sympathy is defined as a kind of pain induced by the suffering from another person. This suffering which the person has not deserved in this case could also happen to the person who is experiencing the sympathy in this situation. In the late nineteenth-century a new way of regarding sympathy came up. There were artists and scholars who did not support the thesis any more that sympathy is a part of humanity and functions as a base factor of our moral system. The following essay will introduce the reader to the two most famous proponents of the rejection of sympathy as a human necessity. One of them will represent the philosophical world, one of them the world of arts. As a conclusion there is the attempt of an explanation for the agreement of those two different proponents of the theory.

The late nineteenth-century philosopher, poet, and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche was impressed by Schopenhauer’s philosophy. In his young years he developed a fascination for Schopenhauer’s works and studied them accurately later on. After recognizing that Schopenhauer’s works were often misinterpreted as pessimistic, he created a very optimistic, life-affirming tone for his own philosophy. But still his works mostly contain harsh criticism on moral, religion, philosophy, science, and arts. Nietzsche is famous for his statement that “God is dead” and for his creation of his philosophy of the “Übermensch” or “Superhuman” which presents the human being as a status which is just temporary and should be overcome by the humans to reach the status of “Übermensch”. The statement of “God is dead” can be interpreted on the one hand as rejection of Christianity as a whole and a therefore connected wish of God’s decease on the other hand it is more than that. It is the connected representation of the “Superhuman” philosophy. Nietzsche thought that a human being needs to think and to ask questions, on which the answers of the church were too easy and would keep the human’s mind small. This free thinker would be the proto-type of his “Übermensch”. If God would be dead as he is in Nietzsche’s assumptions, it would be the humans now, who could reach a higher sense, a God-like state, and thereby need to overcome their human status.

In one of his works Nietzsche states that he belongs to the readers of Schopenhauer “who definitely know after reading one page of his work, that they will read all pages he wrote, and listen to every single word which he ever said” (Nietzsche 346). But he did not admire the core of Schopenhauer’s works as much as Schopenhauer as a person, as a sense and truth searching individual so to say. So he later on broke with Schopenhauer’s philosophy and wrote more critically about his assumptions. This can be observed very well on the example of the sympathy theory.

Schopenhauer was a supporter of sympathy and had a positive attitude towards it. Nietzsche instead can definitely be regarded as a critic of sympathy. To go further, Nietzsche can be described as a sympathy despiser. There are several critics of sympathy among the philosophers but Nietzsche should definitely be the most famous one. Not only because of his name of awareness but also because of his clarity and easy structured arguing against it. This argumentation can be understood by regarding the three basic assumptions as roots of Nietzsche’s life philosophy. The first would be the proclamation of the hard, rough, and cruel life, the second is the opposition towards Schopenhauer’s negation of life because of the metaphysics of will, and the third is his contempt of Christianity as a religion of the weak and suppressed humans which derived from his life affirming philosophy. Between those aspects there is not much space for sympathy.

Sympathy as Nietzsche understood it is a part-taking in the suffering of others. It therefore does not help to minimize the suffering in the world, no, it increases it. Everyone who has sympathy for another human being adds up more sympathy to it by developing a suffering in oneself. In Human, All Too Human he states that, “if one places all misery one can find in his environment in front of his soul, one gets inevitably ill and melancholy” (Nietzsche I, 207). He reacts on Schopenhauer by stating that this is a direct counterpart to Schopenhauer’s, “badly described sympathy as source for all moral acting” (1106). As a contrast or counterpart so to say, he gives the master morality of the immoral not-sufferers, egoists, and cruel men. “Cruelty is one of the oldest pleasures of humanity” (1026) and it would be a “noble virtue to overcome the strength and health injuring sympathy” (1075). But one has to differ between sympathy and suffering. Suffering is a noble virtue as well, according to Nietzsche. It is the reason that it has to be founded in a higher sense. It is not the process of suffering itself which he decries as weak it is the process of suffering for, and with others.

The abovementioned is expressed quite well in another quote from Human, All Too Human. “The expression of sympathy is perceived as a sign of contempt, because once one gets sympathy by another human, one obviously is stopped to be a matter of fear any longer. One has sunk below the level of balance, while this level of balance for itself is not good for the human vanity. Just the saliency and awe-inspiring state of soul gives the human the required feeling. Because of this fact, there is a problem in the way how sympathy came up, and it has now to be explained why the altruistic is praised, while elsewhere he is violated and feared for his malice” (Nietzsche 461 f.). Again, this shows how Nietzsche is convinced that humans should aspire after something higher, further that this aspiring underlies their natural sense.

In another quote from the second book of Human, All Too Human one can read out very intensely how he connects sympathy to the ones who are not thinking free and are caught in their world of morality.


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Friedrich Nietzsche’s and Oscar Wilde’s Critique of Sympathy
University of Stuttgart
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friedrich, nietzsche’s, oscar, wilde’s, critique, sympathy
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Timo Dersch (Author), 2011, Friedrich Nietzsche’s and Oscar Wilde’s Critique of Sympathy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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