Bergson on Sympathy and Freedom: What Nietzsche Got Wrong

Nietzsche’s corpus of writings is filled with anecdotes and aphorisms with poignant, but often under-developed insights into human psychology and morality. One of his most famous claims centered on a critique of sympathy in morality—often translated as pity to fit the critique. Nietzsche argues that pity does nothing for anyone and ends up diminishing the welfare and psychological health of those who pity the less fortunate. His logic is that, sure, the conditions of the person you are tempted to pity are poor, but there is no use in pitying them. All you are doing is making yourself less happy while the person you pity remains the same. Pity as a mere psychological phenomenon, Nietzsche argues, helps no one and makes those who pity worse off.

Bergson offers a similar description of pity, at least at first. He argues that, “[Pity] consists in the first place in putting oneself mentally in the place of others, in suffering their pain” (Bergson, Time and Free Will, 19). However, he goes on to say what might be taken as a direct critique of Nietzsche’s overly simple description; “But if it were nothing more, as some have maintained, it would inspire us with the idea of avoiding the wretched rather than helping them, for pain is naturally abhorrent to us. This feeling of horror may indeed be at the root of pity; but a new element soon comes in, the need of helping our fellow-men and of alleviating their suffering” (ibid 19). So, Bergson argues correctly that an analysis of pity that only takes into account the feeling of horror and pain that accompanies it remains a naïve and incomplete understanding of something that is more complicated and diverse in nature. While pity indeed lowers the individual at first—causes him or her pain—this pain is one of practical psychological conditioning. The individual, in and through their sympathy with another, becomes much more likely to help that individual after all, not only in the moment, but moving forward as someone conditioned to not only pay close attention to the ills of others, but as someone more likely to help. Furthermore, one recognizes in others the real possibility of oneself undergoing the same harms, if not actually in one’s future, at least conceptually, in terms of the possibilities that one could have been born in different circumstances. So, pity is “a shrewd insurance against evils to come” (ibid 19, Bergson is quoting Rochefoucauld here in agreement).

Bergson doesn’t stop here, in his examination of the process of moral sympathizing. He calls these two stages of pity—that of taking the pain of others into oneself, and of seeing the praxis entailed—as lower forms that have a chance to develop into something more. It should be noted as an aside that Bergson goes on to eventually equate the movement of consciousness through its stages and transformations as freedom itself. That the mind can, for example, transition from the state of painful and depressed pity to further stages of positive, uplifting and practically beneficial pity is an ability that we have because we are free. Through one’s pain in pity, Bergson argues, one implicitly condemns events that have naturally occurred, like injustice and social ills, and wants to make it so one is not complicit with nature. Pity is rebellious and self-effacing, at this stage. Since it is nature that dispenses with fate, one wants to make sure that, on behalf of all those that nature has wronged, one is not in the party of those who nature has benefited—one is not grateful for nature because one recognizes that, even if one is privileged and happy, one is merely lucky. Even if one happens to have been in the good graces of nature, one recognizes that nature is no beneficent master, but an unruly and potentially unjust beast. One would rather be miserable and debased oneself than be complicit with nature, so long as nature brings so much pain into existence.

This opposition to nature is another facet of sympathy that Nietzsche takes issue with. He wants individuals to be affirming of one’s fate—the totality of all existence. He, wrongly, takes every moment that has ever occurred as necessary, so that the individual, at every moment, must re-affirm what has happened as that which must have happened. This mentality however, holds no ground with respect to the future—with respect to potentiality. It all too easily falls into lazy reasoning. One could easily imagine an affirmation of chattel-slavery as necessary and natural—something not to be opposed but embraced and affirmed. This, of course, would be absurd, because what is natural and what is subject to change—what is worth fighting for the sake of change—is up for debate. Pinpointing what is necessarily natural and what could change is precisely what Nietzsche’s philosophy of fate fails to consider. One could just as easily argue that the moral faculty in the mind—the very act of conditioning and change pursued in and through sympathy and pity—is natural. So, the dichotomy between fate and its opposite holds no ground and is easily dissolved when anything can, even remotely, be conceived as something capable of alteration. Since human beings can actually alter their own habits of thought and behavior, can be conditioned and live purposeful, directed lives that legitimately and actually change existing conditions—one understands oneself to be always in the midst of change, always free in one’s psychological and practical mobility. The activity of moral freedom stands over and against unfortunate elements in nature for the sake of positive change.

Bergson adds another element to the psychological experience of sympathy—elevation and grace. He likens these, not so much to religious ideas, but instead to aesthetic experiences. One feels elevated from the fated, sensuous attachments of every day life. One feels superior and empowered. One, on behalf of the experience of sympathy, gets to feel enlightened. The transition from pain and debasement to elevation and grace is the positive transition and free movement of the mind through sympathy. This does not contradict moral sentiment for Bergson but acts as a sort of added bonus of an already admittedly practical phenomenon. What historically has been covered in religious ideology and rhetoric can simply be understood in the psychological sense as the moral equivalent of a runner’s high. A painful experience is accepted and moved through, and the subject is rewarded with an experience of elevation and superiority. Just as one who works out pushes through the pain to achieve a further end outside of the immediate moment, so too does the moral agent push through the pain of pity to a more advanced subjective state. One becomes stronger in body through exercise, and stronger morally through active sympathy and pity. Bergson describes pity not as a singular phenomenon of simple self-abasement, as Nietzsche does, but as genuine qualitative progress— “a transition from repugnance to fear, from fear to sympathy, and from sympathy itself to humility” (ibid 19). Humility is the experience of grace and freedom that accompanies the devotion to genuine sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves. Not only does sympathy generate more than the initial pain inherent in its primordial stages, but it also leads in many cases to legitimate moral progress as a result of the higher cognitive feelings and experiences felt through moral superiority. Just as those who work out take satisfaction in their self conditioning and genuine progress, so too does the moral individual who embraces sympathy for the sake of cultivating humility and conditioned moral behavior.

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