A friend of mine told me that he interpreted this quote as mocking the military mindset, and that it should not be taken as indicative of what Nietzsche actually thought, so I looked it up in context, and found this:


[ . . . ]
7.   What? Is man merely a mistake of God's? Or God merely a mistake of man's?
8.   Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.
9.   Help yourself, then everyone will help you. Principle of neighbor-love.

After reading this, I can see his point, but I'm not convinced, especially considering that it seems everyone else quotes this saying as if it were his actual thoughts and not thoughts he was putting into the words of others. Has there been any scholarly work that would help make this question clearer?

  • I think he's serious, or at least as serious as he gets in the maxims. There's some degree of irony there but I don't think it's at the expense of the "military mindset" per se. – Joseph Weissman Jun 8 '11 at 1:56
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    @Joe: Re: "or at least as serious as he gets in the maxims" - I think that might have been part of the context my friend has in mind. If you look at the other maxims, I don't feel that they're necessarily indicative of Nietzschean thought. Some of them might be, but others seem to just be pithy sayings. E.g., "Man has created woman—out of what? Out of a rib of his god—of his 'ideal.'" – Ben Hocking Jun 8 '11 at 2:10

Yeah, unfortunately a lot of people misquote Nietzsche. It's kind of a recurring joke among those who are familiar with his work. For example, the phrase "God is dead" is often taken completely out of context and used to justify things that Nietzsche himself never intended.

In this specific example, Nietzsche is not at all  endorsing the statement that that which does not kill you actually makes you stronger. That's only one part of the aphorism, not the entire thing. And the collective resonance of the phrases is really what makes the aphorism:

Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me makes me stronger.

(Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens: Was mich nicht umbringt, mach mich stärker.)

The above-quoted line comes from a list of aphorisms in Twilight of the Idols  that Nietzsche has labeled "Maxims and Arrows". In this section, he reflects on a series of statements that people commonly believe, but are either obviously fallacious or turn out to be true only in a surprising and unusual way. The name "arrow" reflects his hope that his analysis will pierce through people's typical complacency.

He's really making fun of the statement. And in typical Nietzschean style, he attempts to refute it using snarky, obscure jabs rather than nuanced or rigorous analytical analysis. He evokes images of hardships that are almost nearly fatal, from the physical to the emotional, to show how ludicrous it is to claim that repeatedly adversity could ever be a source of strength. In fact, people who are repeatedly confronted with such hardships tend to become depressed, unproductive, and even suicidal.

In pointing out its ironic falsity, Nietzsche also makes the point that the statement is quite useful for controlling others: convincing them to be strong and push through difficult situations, cajoling them into giving up their own lives for the larger cause of their country ("the military school of life"), etc.

In fact, Nietzsche very much despised the statist notion of warfare, as is clearly evidenced in this excerpt from "The Wanderer and His Shadow" (the third section of Human, All Too Human, 1878):

The means to real peace. No government admits any more that it keeps an army to satisfy occasionally the desire for conquest. Rather the army is supposed to serve for defense, and one invokes the morality that approves of self-defense. But this implies one’s own morality and the neighbor’s immorality; for the neighbor must be thought of as eager to attack and conquer if our state must think of means of self-defense. Moreover, the reasons we give for requiring an army imply that our neighbor, who denies the desire for conquest just as much as does our own state, and who, for his part, also keeps an army only for reasons of self-defense, is a hypocrite and a cunning criminal who would like nothing better than to overpower a harmless and awkward victim without any fight. Thus all states are now ranged against each other: they presuppose their neighbor’s bad disposition and their own good disposition. This presupposition, however, is inhumane, as bad as war and worse. At bottom, indeed, it is itself the challenge and the cause of wars, because, as I have said, it attributes immorality to the neighbor and thus provokes a hostile disposition and act. We must abjure the doctrine of the army as a means of self-defense just as completely as the desire for conquests.

And perhaps the great day will come when people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifices for these things, will exclaim of its own free will, “We break the sword,” and will smash its entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations. Rendering oneself unarmed when one had been the best-armed, out of a height of feeling—that is the means to real peace, which must always rest on a peace of mind; whereas the so-called armed peace, as it now exists in all countries, is the absence of peace of mind. One trusts neither oneself nor one’s neighbor and, half from hatred, half from fear, does not lay down arms. Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared–-this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth.

Ironically, just as Nietzsche had observed elsewhere (and as some readings of the work might claim, was attempting to demonstrate through the "Maxims and Arrows" section), writers are remembered primarily for and by such simple aphorisms. The well-known American rapper, Kanye West, even includes a paraphrase in his hit song Stronger  (again, requoted without the phrase that prefaces it):

Th-th-that that don't kill me
Can only make me stronger

Surely this apparent demotion of Nietzsche to "idle talk" would only incense Heidegger, but Nietzsche appears to have grown content with this state of affairs some time later, following his initial rant against modern media systems in Human, All Too Human.

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    +1, unreal: "Rendering oneself unarmed when one had been the best-armed, out of a height of feeling—that is the means to real peace, which must always rest on a peace of mind; whereas the so-called armed peace, as it now exists in all countries, is the absence of peace of mind" – Joseph Weissman Jun 8 '11 at 5:54
  • @Joe: Indeed, it's quotes like that that really lend credence to the quip that all philosophers since have merely been re-interpreting Nietzsche. Nearly everyone who's written a book on the morality of warfare, hegemony, and international relations has made such an argument. I assume by unreal that you mean "unlikely", but one can only hope... – Cody Gray Jun 8 '11 at 6:12
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    "In fact, people who are repeatedly confronted with such hardships tend to become depressed, unproductive, and even suicidal." No, in fact, Seery et al. found "U-shaped quadratic relationships [indicating] that a history of some but nonzero lifetime adversity predicted relatively lower global distress". They don't attribute their title to him though and I have issues with their method. – Ruben Jun 8 '11 at 8:24

"Out of life's school of war, what does not destroy me makes me stronger." -Maxim 8, Twilight of the Idols

In the Preface section at the beginning of Twilight of the Idols, Neitchze opens by speaking of the value of strength, and concludes the second paragraph by clearly stating without any hint of contempt or illusion:

"A maxim, the origin of which I withhold from scholarly curiosity, has long been my motto: Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus. ("The spirits increase, vigor grows through a wound.")

While its understood that the Maxim and Arrows section of the book is about questioning and/or making fun of the listed aphorisms, he further states in the Preface that he wishes to look at the maxims not just with "a hammer" but also with "a tuning fork". But regardless of which he uses (the hammer or tuning fork) there is no denying that the one solitary aphorism he uses in the Preface, which he unquestionably states as his own motto, is very similar in meaning to "What does not destroy me makes me stronger."

As for war, it should be noted that while Neitchze was no fan of physical war, he also stated quite clearly before the maxim in question: "Out of life's school of war...". Is one to believe he actually meant government-to-government acts of violent warfare? Or by saying "life's school of war" is he actually referring to the war of competing philosophies, the war of humanity's need for idols, and/or one's war within themselves?

He further explains in the Preface:

This essay — the title betrays it — is above all a recreation, a spot of sunshine, a leap sideways into the idleness of a psychologist. Perhaps a new war, too? And are new idols sounded out? This little essay is a great declaration of war; and regarding the sounding out of idols, this time they are not just idols of the age, but eternal idols, which are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork

so it can be easily seen that he does use the concept of war outside its physical gov-to-gov meaning, and therefore it would be reckless to suggest that his maxim on strength is referring merely to soldiers fighting for a commander and/or being controlled by others.

But above all, at his core Neitchze believed in the virtue of struggle and hardship to attain intrinsic happiness. The fact that he lists this idea in Maxims and Arrows does not mean he simply wants to ridicule the concept, instead he is doing unto his own beliefs what he is doing to all other listed "idols": questioning the validity of ideas to see if they hold truth.

At the end of the Twilight of the Idols he closes with the following paragraph which pretty much sums up his whole thoughts on "what does not destroy me makes me stronger". Its pretty unambiguous especially after spending much of the essay questioning the suffering=strength concept, as he concludes its validity by stating how he is very much in favor of this maxim:

The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism (in Schopenhauer's sense) of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction.

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  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE! This is a very good post, but one bit of feedback to make it stronger: it would help if you opened the post by making it more clear what your main point is. (Are you arguing in the affirmative, or negative?) – James Kingsbery Feb 18 '16 at 17:25

He defines the will to power as "life overcoming itself." (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) Here we see the word "life" and it should key you into the fact that he is referring to a process of nature---and in particular, human nature.

-> In the warlike school of human nature, that which overcomes becomes stronger for it.

Another person here answered with the related quote from Twighlight of the Idols

"A maxim, the origin of which I withhold from scholarly curiosity, has long been my motto: Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus. ("The spirits increase, vigor grows through a wound.")"

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OK, but;"Some but non-zero lifetime adversity...", isn't really what the people who use the "That which does not kill me..." quote wrongly are getting at, is it. I agree with the previous answer that Nietzsche was having another pop at the ever increasing Prussian Military presence. He was an advocate for a real peace, one made through strength of personal and National actions and morals.

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Nietzsche was very serious about what he wrote in that maxim, you cited, and he truly meant it. There is not a hint of sarcasm or irony in it.

Which tree is strongest? That which has bent but not broken or that which has never bent nor broken?

"That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger". That which has learned to bend, is stronger than that which has not.

Nietzsche was all about pain, torture and misery, because that is what would make the right people stronger, and thus weakness could be overcomed, and people could be able to bear other nations, and people in general, in their hearts, and people would then rather die than live in a state of hate and fear, and thus common rationality could be brought back as the domineering instinct in peoples, instead of rabid pain giving expression to mutual self-destruction.

Thus, he very much meant that people grow stronger by the things which makes them bend without destroying (killing) them, like the sturdy plants which has been exposed to hard but fitting wind.

Nietzsche was certainly not a pacifist by any means, but only one who saw that true happiness and peace can only come by by the means of an overfullness and strength to lay down arms, to laugh at murderer of you, if you cannot conquer him, out of super-rationality, embodied in Supermen.

"Haha, you cannot kill me, because I live on - even beyond you! Now I would rather die than live in a state of meaningless fear and panic - so kill me if you would bear arms, but know that I will try to kill you first. Thus, the victor and therefore the strong has survived, and this is the just thing. Let us be champions or be dead!"

Thus, the strongest must be the one has bend the most, that has come home from war victorous the most, and which have even conquered himself at last. Then, will he lay down arms out of a feeling of value, in that his aggression would only do damage to himself, or in other words his eternal life, and he would rather perish than scar his eternal life - or his eternal joy, eternal feeling of conquest and power. "I will only fight the battles that are meaningful to me or else I will gladly perish - and your fight is meaningless to me - therefore, goodbye!"

It's the same with muscles - that which bends (exercises) but does not destroy (ruin, injure f.ex) muscles make them stronger. The muscle that has never been to war, in some metaphorical sense, and come out alive is weak, whereas that which has done so is strong. It's the same with the mind - train it (in pain and under pressure) and you make it stronger, if you do not destroy it, that is, and this is what Nietzsche meant by his aphorism and the long quote above noted by someone else.

Only he who has been to war and has come out alive is strong; he who has never been to war or has perished from war (in some way and to whatever degree) is weak.

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  • To add a few supporting, I suppose, but at any rate related quotes, here are a few taken from www.nietzsche.com: "To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities - I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not - that one endures." (The Will to Power, p 481) – Morten Melgaard Jan 29 '14 at 15:40
  • "You want, if possible - and there is no more insane "if possible" - to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it - that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible - that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?" (Beyond Good and Evil, p 225 ) – Morten Melgaard Jan 29 '14 at 15:45
  • "I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been." Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) – Morten Melgaard Jan 29 '14 at 15:46
  • Or in other words as a whole: Let us have the right fight or no fight - and for the right fight, we must be strong - and when there are no more fights left that are right, then let us "break the swords", so that large-scale peace will be unavoidable, and the only fights left will be of a minor and very different nature. – Morten Melgaard Jan 29 '14 at 16:44

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