Fridays with Fred: Sacrifice and Significance
Nietzsche writes in Aphorisms on Love and Hate, “A valiant army convinces us about the cause for which it is fighting.” He uses this analogy to develop his idea that we tend to allow the effort and energy spent on something to determine our evaluation of it. Or, as Nietzsche puts it, “We universally honour acts of love and sacrifice for the sake of one’s neighbour…In this way we heighten the value of the things loved in that way, or for which sacrifices are made, even though they are in themselves perhaps not worth much.” The manner in which we pursue something does not give it meaning. To put it another way, sacrifice does not impart significance. Therefore Nietzsche’s observation is simultaneously common sense and seriously challenging. Let’s consider each of those in turn.
Firstly, we should not transfer honour to any activity or ambition simply because someone is committed to it. To pick an easy example few would question: consider the man who expertly cheats on his wife, ingeniously devoting all his spare time to adultery and remaining undiscovered. One might say that this man excels at extra-marital affairs. He certainly has to make sacrifices, surrendering all sorts of things from his personal integrity to intimacy with his spouse. Yet despite the passion and purpose he pours into other women, few would dare to call his efforts honourable. We do not esteem such men. Sure, grunting primitively around a bar while clutching at their beers a handful of men will pat our adulterer on the back, celebrating his sexual conquests. But most of us would bristle at those sorts of conversations. For the time and effort given to a practise does not render it worthwhile or valuable.
Secondly, following from the above example, Nietzsche’s reflection strikes close to all of our hearts. No, I’m not suggesting you’re conducting an affair—if you are, you should stop that. Rather, each one of us is devoted to numerous practises and purposes. Perhaps you have a vision for your own future - be it short or long term - so you make sacrifices in the present. But remember: the value of your desired aim is not determined by how much you are willing to give up for it. Therefore we must critically evaluate how we spend our time, energy, commitment and efforts based on what we hope the result will be. This is not easy. But don’t fall into the trap that says worth is created by effort. I think a lot of motivational speakers and personal trainers are guilty of this sort of approach. They will say: if you want something, then you need to make the sacrifices; you must be willing to give up on other things to possess the object you desire—be it plush, early retirement or that perfect body. Yet we rarely question whether those ambitions are in and of themselves honourable or worthy. Like Nietzsche’s army, our valiant efforts do not create a worthy cause.
Finally, I want to join Nietzsche’s observation with another. Being a bit of a skeptic, if you will forgive an understatement, Nietzsche was suspicious of the things we typically associate with virtue. One such attribute is selflessness. Listing an author, lover, soldier and mother - and all that each of these sacrifices in their respective office - he asks, “Are these really selfless states?” He then answered his own question, “Isn’t it clear that, in all of these cases, man is loving something of himself…more than something else of himself; that he is thus dividing up his being and sacrificing one part for the other?” Here the German philosopher steers his surgical blade close to the bone—and our hearts. We have seen already that what we sacrifice does not confer value or worth, but now he turns his gaze onto our ‘selfless’ sacrifices. If we are honest much of what we do, even if it is personally costly, benefits us and could ultimately be considered as self-serving. Just as sacrificing for something does not impart value to that thing, self-sacrifice is not necessarily selfless.
Reading Nietzsche often leaves one with more questions than answers—along with a fair measure of discomfort. There are a few reasons for this. One of them was explored in my previous post, where I quoted Nietzsche saying, “A certain blind faith in the goodness of human nature, an inculcated aversion to dissecting human behaviour, a kind of shame with respect to the naked soul, may really be more desirable for man’s overall happiness than the trait of psychological sharpsightedness.” The depths of our humanity can be frightening. Especially when we learn that many of our pursuits only appear valuable because we are willing to make sacrifices for them. Linked to this, much of our virtue and so-called selflessness may be little more than sophisticated and subtle personal ingratiation.