Reflections on Aphorisms #61

Short post tonight because it’s basically my bed time and I didn’t sleep super well last night (thanks, eye deciding to spontaneously malfunction).

Writer’s note: It was going to be a short post, but then I decided to do an aphorism from Nietzsche. It is not a short post. I am so tired right now.

Aphorism 97

Arrogance in persons of merit affronts us more than arrogance in those without merit: merit itself is an affront.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

I think that one of the things that helps to understand Nietzsche here is the question of what arrogance is.

Arrogance isn’t necessarily the same as insolence. It’s when one takes what one currently has and is more akin to pride with a lack of consideration of others.

People without merit who have traits of arrogance may often be written off as merely insolent, but at the very least they are unlikely to wield the sort of power that makes arrogance more toxic.

I think that if this case were reversed, Nietzsche might change his tune.

Take Christ’s parable of the forgiven debt for an example.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the accounting, one who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him. 25 But because he could not repay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and his children and everything that he possessed, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And his master’s heart was moved with compassion and he released him and forgave him [canceling] the debt. 28 But that same slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began choking him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow slave fell on his knees and begged him earnestly, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and he went and had him thrown in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and they went and reported to their master [with clarity and in detail] everything that had taken place. 32 Then his master called him and said to him, ‘You wicked and contemptible slave, I forgave all that [great] debt of yours because you begged me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave [who owed you little by comparison], as I had mercy on you?’…

Matthew 18:23-33 Scripture quotations taken from the Amplified Bible.

In this case we see that one without merit (a debtor who had his loan forgiven) showing arrogance is incredibly distasteful.

Of course, even in this scenario there’s a benefit of a power structure, and one could argue that the unforgiving slave had earned merit in the sense that lacking debt made him superior to the slave who had not been forgiven, but I don’t think that this is any sort of merit (the parable focuses on slaves, and not aristocrats, for a reason). At least, it wouldn’t be merit in the sense Nietzsche would consider it, as he generally considers merit either in the terms of social success or in the form of moral virtue.

I think it’s safe to say that in the context of this statement, Nietzsche refers to the idea of merit as social success. After all, arrogance runs cross-purposes to virtue.

In this case, I’d generally have to disagree with Nietzsche. I’ve always found that those who are arrogant without any good cause to be get under my skin more.

One example of this is when I have students who insist that their capabilities are greater than they really are. Now, there’s a few particular reasons why this is a really painful experience for teachers.

First, if you have a benevolent interest in helping people, it hurts to have to disabuse them of notions of grandeur. This is an example of the distinction between the “nice” thing to do and the “kind” thing to do, and it’s always a painful line to walk.

One of the issues here is that arrogance is posturing. Whether it stems from confidence, ignorance, or insecurity, it looks the same on its surface.

Obviously, you need different approaches for each of these cases. Those who are arrogant due to over-confidence need to be given a realistic perspective, as do those who are ignorant of their needs, but the method for doing so differs.

It’s dangerous to confront the arrogant because you don’t know what part of the psyche feeds into that arrogance. Sometimes it’s really obvious (we’re social creatures who want to look good, so we won’t admit weakness in public; some people overcompensate), and you’re able to talk to the person and express the inner thoughts that they’re not comfortable to say themselves.

The first time I went to a student and told them “You know, I don’t think you’re really comfortable with this” I found it to be a tremendous experience. It was a relief for both of us. I was able to help the student, who had been a little disruptive in class, move toward a less embarrassing course of action for them by working with them to give them positive opportunities to prove their potential and capabilities to their peers, and I was able to start really helping this kid with what they really needed.

Sometimes this is a repressed need and people click to it, and sometimes they don’t. Both over-confident and insecure arrogance actually function in much the same way, and I think this ties into notion of psychological complexes.

Ignorance is always difficult, at least for me, to deal with because you have to confront a need that people don’t feel.

This is often a place where you can crush someone if you do it wrong. You want to make sure that you help people improve, rather than just tearing them down. I’m not good at it, although I hope I will be someday.

Speaking as a recipient of this, it can be incredibly traumatic if handled in a way that brings destruction. If the stakes are high, disabusing someone of their ignorance can be as destructive as leaving them to fail on their own.

It requires a spirit of nurturing, not one of destruction, and it’s important to remember when dealing with the ignorantly arrogant that they never mean to cause harm.

One could argue that there’s an exceptional sting to arrogance in the life of someone who is otherwise virtuous, if we wish to interpret Nietzsche’s statement that way.

I don’t think that this necessarily makes sense. Even though a vice tends to be exacerbated in its obvious manifestations by the presence of virtues in other areas (i.e. someone who is generally virtuous shows flaws more than someone dissolute, because nobody expects much of the dissolute), a flawed saint is generally more tolerable than a monster who lacks pretension.

Of course, arrogance feeds off of self-superiority. Nietzsche could be pointing this out in this statement, since those who can legitimately consider themselves virtuous have been known on many occasions to abuse their privileges to rub it in.

Resolution

Forgive the debts others owe me, because I have been forgiven.

Don’t let a virtue distract from a vice.

Help others to become more aware of who they are to turn them into who they could be.

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