Learned Vol. 2, Issue 36
That which does not kill me makes me stronger.
Nietschze’s a funny old beast. He is, arguably, one of the most quoted and most misunderstood philosophers the Western world has ever seen. His writings on religion and culture had, and continue to have, a profound effect on modern language and thinking. He’s given credit (or blame) for nihilism as a school of thought even though he thought we could all be, and should be, better humans than we usually are.
One of his most quotable lines is this week’s topic, and one that we all, including me, are using differently than Nietschze actually meant it. For most of us, I think, the maxim takes on a tone of “getting through” or maybe just surviving. Which is strange, because, on the face of it, most things that don’t kill us actually make us weaker and more prone to recurrence and, well, death. Of course, that’s mainly true for the physical ailments - cancer, heart attacks, and lime disease, oh my. Mentally, though, mentally we’re all tough as nails and what doesn’t kill us just makes us more ready to kick ass! Or something like that.
The thing is, though, good old Fred had a great interest in the effects of religion on society. And a lot of what he wrote could be said to be in character, or at least, could be said to be from a point of view he did not necessarily hold, but that he wanted the reader to consider. So, when he writes about the things that kill us, he wants us to think about the values we, as individuals and collectively, as a society, hold. What is it in our way of thinking that says that life is a collection of trials and hardships meant to be endured and survived?
Nietzsche’s health problems dogged him for much of his life; by suggesting that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, he told a kind of parable about how his hardships had forced him to reconsider his views on life. He meant for people to avoid resentment at life’s mistreatments in favor of actively considering and pursuing meaning and value in spite of them. In other words, what does not kill me, makes me reconsider my values and my situation and seek to derive meaning and value from what I have and am able to do rather than resent what I cannot. Not quite as pithy.
In 1991, Mtv ran an animated program called Liquid Television. I, along with all my friends, was transfixed by it. In particular, one segment saw one of the central protagonists utters the line, “That which does not kill us makes us stranger.” How much change in meaning can a single vowel bring?
Now, because I am a clever, clever boy who is somewhat obsessed with wordplay, this subtle alteration sent me over the moon. To the point where I entertained, er, annoyed my friends for decades to come by appending my own, situationally appropriate, endings to the thesis: That which does not kill us makes us sweaty and smelly. Or, that which does not kill us makes us horribly hungover. Yes, I am a clever boy.
But, more seriously, I wonder what Nietzsche himself would have thought of the change. From a modern perspective, stranger makes more sense than stronger. After all, all the things we survive alter and change us, no matter how much we wish they wouldn’t. Sometimes that change might make us stronger. Other times…other times we’re left weakened and desperately seeking shelter. Both outcomes invariably leave us farther from who we were and farther from those who know us best. Stranger, in other words, even to ourselves.
I think Nietzsche would have approved. I think it would have tied in with his other thoughts on humanity and how we can be, and should be, more than we are just because we can. But, I also think he would have coached it in the same terms as his original: who are we that we think the world is so fickle and cruel that we hold our ability to survive a storm as an upright value?
I don’t have an answer to that. Not right now, anyway. But it’s something to think about.
So, the caveat for this entire essay is that I last read Nietzsche in college, which was a couple of decades ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve got this helicopter-level view of his work correct, and Wikipedia is backing me up, but, well, half the point of philosophy is arguing about how everyone else has gotten it wrong. (The other half is pure hedonism. Fight me.) In other words, this is just my take. Your mileage may vary.
Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1888:
#8 From the Military School of Life — Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.
Notable Events of 1888:
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What Doesn’t Kill Me, Redux
As it turns out, Nietzsche’s maxim is a pretty common motif in the pop culture landscape. Here are some examples in one nifty supercut:
And, because that doesn’t seem enough to go out on, here is another supercut, this time by DJ Earworm:
Next time: The Devil take the hindmost. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.