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Philip J. Kain, Nietzsche and the Horror of Existence

Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009. 172pp. ISBN: HB: 978-0-7391-2694-3. Cloth, $60.00.

Reviewed by Michael J. McNeal

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 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 to the problems of meaninglessness and suffering, as an immoralist and cultural physician (10–12). According to Kain, Nietzsche believes that the cosmos is “essentially horrific” and that although “[j]oy 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 focused him 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. From The Birth of Tragedy, in which he advocated a re-naturalization of man through a return to the catharsis provided by classical Greek tragedy, he came in later works 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, anti-natural 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 hailed 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 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 as a means both of testing one’s mettle and of enhancement through self-overcoming.

It is the consequences of our terror in contemplating our purposeless existence and the insignificance of life that concerned Nietzsche. When we ponder our existence, or “gaze into the abyss,” its ultimate meaninglessness confronts us, or “gazes back” (BGE 146), illuminating the fearsome indifference of the universe. The void thus revealed reminds us of the inexplicableness of life and frightening certainty of death––our impending non-existence. Before Nietzsche Western philosophy responded to this by propagating life-denying essentialisms and transcendental truths––illusions intended to hide, or hold in abeyance, the indissociable relationship between suffering and life. Against thinkers who cannot endure such stark realism, “Nietzsche finds it impossible to accept the metaphysical notions […] traditionally used to fabricate being behind becoming” (31).

Kain notes Nietzsche’s observation that, dependent upon the natural world for our survival and at one with it “at the unconscious, biological level,” we are at odds with it as conscious beings (5). As individuated, self-aware animals we undergo inescapable agonies “of pain, suffering and death,” which the natural world brings (5). And while we experience the universe as alien and utterly unresponsive to our concerns, the tragic truth is that the intrinsic horror of existence would destroy us if we became fully aware of it (5).

To effectively cope with the problem of horror, Nietzsche suggests perspectivalism and self-creation as a means of overcoming the nihilism which life-denying approaches recommend. Against philosophical systematizers who devised metaphysical truths and corresponding ethical ideals to conceal the meaninglessness of existence, Nietzsche suggests that through love of their individual fates (amor fati) the healthy may cultivate the strength to create more salubrious meanings. The affirmation of life itself—and its innocence—via a tragic worldview, ought to serve as the basis for the highest values (62–3). Nietzsche argues that fructifying works of art generated within a thriving culture are most effective at imbuing existence with wholesome meaning(s).

Kain notes that “eternal recurrence is [Nietzsche’s] attempt to deal with meaningless suffering” (61), and that it “makes suffering eternal,” so that “its meaninglessness [clarifies] the innocence of existence” (122). But Kain objects that “[e]ternal recurrence offers little […] of value to ordinary people” (122). “[I]t makes little sense,” he argues, “to expect anyone to want to relive a life of happiness or of great moments” eternally, as consequently “those great moments […] would be sapped of their greatness” (61). Moreover, “[f]or most people eternal recurrence […] would strip suffering of meaning,” as well (122). Yet, self-overcoming—the perfectionist aim of healthy, free-spirited individuals—requires resisting the seductive power of resignation to the fact that there is no definitive answer to the question “Suffering for what?” (GM III:28). The innocence of existence is enough to spur the yes-saying amor fati of the healthiest exemplars of humankind.

Kain endorses the ethos characteristic of our ultra-liberal-modern age, which Nietzsche anticipated would steadily intensify the decadence that typified Wilhelmine Germany. Against Nietzsche’s insistence “that we patronize and demean those whose suffering we seek to reduce,” or that the Übermensch “be the privileged object of our philosophical concern—let alone the meaning of the earth,” Kain argues that “we have no business inflicting suffering, tolerating it, or encouraging it in order to give any sort of meaning (Christian, Homeric, or Nietzschean) to existence” (126). Moreover, Kain argues, our recognition that God is dead should prompt us “to increase our compassion,” a suggestion not adequately distinguished from the pity Nietzsche opposes. Kain says, “if we start to think that we cannot significantly reduce suffering […] it can grievously demoralize us. It could even throw us into despair—even lead to nihilism” (127).

A liberal-modern improver of mankind, Kain argues that “compassion can protect us from despair,” (127) and declares his desire to eliminate suffering and “reject the innocence of existence” (126). By insisting that compassion can ameliorate suffering, Kain disregards his earlier acknowledgement of Nietzsche’s recognition that “the meaninglessness of suffering means the innocence of suffering” (63). Kain forgets that when we impugn the innocence of that which lives, becomes, and suffers, we increase the horror of existence and promulgate a spirit of revenge against the whole.

Kain’s engagement with the challenges Nietzsche’s thought poses—sustained through the first seven chapters—gives way to a refusal to accept Nietzsche’s suggestion that “we must [redirect and] externalize [our] suffering—make it infinite […] to empower an Übermensch,” from whose creative works meaning may be derived that “can save us from the abyss” (120). Kain reverts to a common oversimplification of Nietzsche’s call to increase suffering in his rejection of Nietzsche’s program for dealing with the dilemmas arising from our experience of horror. This seems intended to reassure those who want their liberal values and faith in progress confirmed. Nietzsche—who sought medical treatment for his own maladies—would not oppose feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless, as Kain suggests. While correct that “[e]ven if we cannot significantly reduce the total suffering in the world, we can alleviate the particular suffering of the particular person that stands before us” (126), Kain incorrectly suggests that we can assuage the horror of existence by depriving individuals the privilege of improving themselves through their experience of suffering. While the infliction of gratuitous suffering is abominable, as Kain recognizes (126–7), Nietzsche’s challenge is to accept that the aim of disallowing suffering out of a “moral hatred” of it, when posited as the goal of life, diminishes human experience (BGE 202). Kain rejects this challenge.

Kain acknowledges Nietzsche’s insight that it is we who invent free will, responsibility, guilt, and punishment to instill suffering with meaning (73), without accepting its full implication. Sans willful delusions of free will and responsibility, guilt and punishment are absurd and tantamount to gratuitous cruelty. In the name of a fictive justice the mediocre and incurably sick reduce everyone to a function of an altruistic society in which it is imagined that “the ‘exploitative character’ [of life] will fall away” (BGE 259). Their emphasis on equality, which “levels mountain and valley,” promulgates anti-natural values that inflict the greatest cruelty: the diminution, or “herd-animalization” of all that prospers (TI “Skirmishes” 38).

However, a major, if unintended, source of suffering is our transfiguration of ourselves and our world as we become who it is we are. The affective capacity to conduct force—will to power—compels unavoidable “cruelty” in valuing and acting. But a great, cheerful health indicates that a will to power has interpreted and transformed much that generates suffering—“become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it the character of a function” (GM II:12). As an ineliminable condition for an authentically human life, suffering is indispensable.

Whereas Nietzsche thought salubrious meanings could be conferred on suffering by revaluing life-denigrating values, Kain re-affirms the Christian-Platonic view that compassion for what suffers ought to trump becoming. Kain largely ignores Nietzsche’s concern with erotic self-creation for hastening humankind’s down-going and eventual overcoming, denies that horror ought to “be taken as the primary reality,” and “reject[s] Nietzsche[’s] response to suffering” (125). Declaring that “compassion can protect us from despair,” Kain believes that humankind needs to “continue […] to reduce suffering” (127). Kain thereby refuses Nietzsche’s challenge that we respect rather than pity sufferers, and rejects Nietzsche’s immoralism—a part of his response to the innocence of this horrifying existence.

Metropolitan State University of Denver