Maxims and Arrows

10 Dec 2011

Christopher Hitchens, for Vanity Fair:

However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Hitchens is not so much taking on Nietzsche as he is taking on the “facile maxim” – contemporary usage of a proverb that has been stripped of all original context or meaning. When read as an assault on super-masculine notions of “no pain, no gain”, Hitchens’ piece is an excellent, if somewhat somber, exploration of disease as an obstacle to be avoided altogether instead of a trial by which we are forged into something greater.

It is a good read, but I am more interested in salvaging Friedrich Nietzsche from baseless criticisms, if only to help make way for stronger critiques. As such…

Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker1 comes from a work called Twilight of the Idols; more specifically, from the first section: “Maxims and Arrows”. The stärker is but one in a multitude of such aphorisms. They can be taken as advice or words to live by, but Nietzsche is careful to warn us of their sharpness and velocity. These are not simply words strung together; they are arrows, strung upon a bow, drawn taut, and launched.

One of the difficulties in understanding Nietzsche comes from his tendency to subvert traditional language. He will use words in ways and with meanings that do not necessarily map just to their common definitions.2 This can be frustrating when attempting to make sense of even his most basic ideas, let alone off-handed comments or isolated concepts.

In this instance, Nietzsche uses the word “stronger” and does not bother to explain himself. His arrow is slung and we have but the point to focus on until much later in the work:

Great men are necessary, the age in which they appear is accidental; that they almost always become masters over their age is only because they are stronger, because they are older, because for a longer time much was gathered for them.3

Strength, as Nietzsche defines it, has nothing to do with physical prowess and everything to do with the measure of time. Ten is stronger than nine, a woman of fifty is stronger than a woman of thirty, etc. It appears that Nietzsche’s claim is an obvious truth instead of a profound maxim: if something does not kill us, it does not kill us. Put in this context, we can rephrase the stärker: whatever does not kill me makes me older.

And with that, Nietzsche welcomes us back to familiar, nihilistic territory.

  1. “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.”

  2. Interestingly enough, stärker appears to be used in music to mean an increase in volume, to make louder. There may be no significance to this at all, but it is difficult to ignore when one knows the value that Nietzsche placed upon art and music. I really am going to have to learn German if I want to keep studying this stuff, if only because I do not entirely trust existing translations.

  3. Twilight of the Idols, 44.