One of the defining achievements of the modern age has been a vast improvement in the physical well-being of the members of modern societies. People are far less at risk to disease and illness than those of premodern generations, and life expectancies have risen while infant mortality has fallen. While the accomplishments of modern medicine are unparalleled in human history, no less remarkable has been the softening of manners and the condemnation of various social practices for their harshness and cruelty. But such achievements do not appear to foster a greater feeling of spiritual well-being or stimulate great artistic breakthroughs. What gratitude we might feel in having been released from the agonies and afflictions of the past is overshadowed by an ever increasing sensitivity to the pains we encounter in our daily lives, pains which would hardly have bothered those of past generations. Moreover, we discover ceaselessly new areas of vulnerability and new occasions for distress. Even the cessation of pleasures becomes a source of intolerable anguish. Pessimism becomes widespread not only among intellectuals but also in the general public, so that health and the love of life come to take on the appearance of loot acquired by theft or some other underhanded means.
In paragraph 48 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche reflects on how the spread of well-being and comfort goes hand in hand with the rising popularity of pessimistic philosophies:
“Knowledge of distress. – Perhaps nothing separates human beings or ages from each other more than the different degrees of their knowledge of distress – distress of the soul as well as of the body. Regarding the latter we moderns may well, in spite of our frailties and fragilities, be bunglers and dreamers owing to lack of ample first-hand experience, compared with an age of fear, the longest of all ages, when individuals had to protect themselves against violence and to that end had themselves to become men of violence. In those days, a man received ample training in bodily torments and deprivations and understood that even a certain cruelty towards himself, as a voluntary exercise in pain, was a necessary means of his preservation; in those days, one trained one’s surroundings to endure pain; in those days, one gladly inflicted pain and saw the most terrible things of this kind happen to others without any other feeling than that of one’s own safety. As regards the distress of the soul, however, I look at each person today to see whether he knows it through experience or description; whether he still considers it necessary to fake this knowledge, say, as a sign of refined cultivation, or whether at the bottom of his soul he no longer believes in great pains of the soul and reacts to its mention in much the same way as to the mention of great bodily sufferings, which make him think of his toothaches and stomachaches. But that is how most people seem to me to be these days. The general inexperience with both sorts of pain and the relative rarity of the sight of suffering individuals have an important consequence: pain is hated much more now than formerly; one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one can hardly endure the presence of pain as a thought and makes it a matter of conscience and a reproach against the whole of existence. The emergence of pessimistic philosophers is in no way the sign of great, terrible states of distress; rather, these question marks about the value of all life are made in times when the refinement and ease of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malicious, and the poverty of real experiences of pain makes one tend to consider painful general ideas as already suffering of the highest rank. There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophies and excessive sensitivity, things which seem to me to be the real ‘distress of the present’ – but this recipe may sound too cruel and would itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge, ‘existence is something evil.’ Well, the recipe against this ‘distress’ is: distress.”
While acts of physical violence were more common in past ages and individuals were more prepared to bear them, it is clear that Nietzsche is more interested in the suffering of the soul, which, he implies, is doubly endangered in an age where people have become more sensitive to the pains of the flesh. Such people who associate pain with a physical discomfort (“toothaches and stomachaches”) would be incapable of even conceiving of the spiritual anguish necessary for thought. Indeed, to believe that all pains are ultimately physical calls out for merely physical remedies, whether in the form of political institutions or technological advances. Our age is an aberration not only in its conquest of pain but also in its hypersensitivity, which could the very path by which the pendulum swings back into history and back toward life. Or in the case that the pendulum has broken down, then we may have to contend with euthanasiasts who nevertheless cling stubbornly to an eccentric interpretation of the golden rule.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.