A philosopher once made the following formulation. He was speaking on the topic of guilt, and he said this: Guilt is cruelty turned inward. Which is interesting, which is really something to think about.
Guilt is cruelty turned inward. The philosopher who said this was Friedrich Nietzsche, and it’s an interesting thing to think about. It doesn’t make sense until you think about it. What Nietzsche said was this: as children, we learn that we can be cruel. At first, we are cruel to others — we taunt other children on the playground, we say nasty things, we get in fights, we even throw rocks at them.
Then, we become adults. As adults, we learn that we cannot express every cruel thought and impulse that we have. If you’re sitting in a bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, you cannot throw a rock at someone. (Well, you can, but you’ll go to jail.) If you’re sitting in a boardroom with your boss, you cannot tell him that he’s ugly, that he sucks. There are rules, and as adults, we learn to obey them. We are living in a society, after all.
But even as children, we start to understand that we cannot express every cruel impulse. There must be some crucial moment when guilt flickers into existence, like a light switch flickering on. You pick up a clod of dirt on the playground to throw it at another child. Then you realize — you cannot do this. This is wrong. You put the clod of dirt down. You feel guilty for even having the impulse to throw the clod of dirt in the first place. The feeling has metamorphosed. Cruelty has turned inward. The cruelty you wished to express outward, out into the world, you have started to express towards yourself instead. You are mad at yourself for even thinking of throwing the dirt. The feeling has turned inward. Cruelty has mutated into guilt.
Let me tell you a story:
The city of Turin, Italy. A man in a black frock-coat and a white shirt steps out of the doorway of number six, Piazza Carlo Alberto. At the other end of the Piazza, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with his horse. The horse is stubborn; he will not move. The driver urges the horse to move repeatedly. Despite his persistent entreaties, the horse will not move. The man needs the horse to move — he is a hansom cab driver; his livelihood depends on his animal behaving — he is a 19th century taxi driver and the horse is his taxi and without his horse behaving, he will make no money and his family will starve. So he begins to beat his horse with a whip, flogging his horse cruelly out of frustration.
The man in the black frock-coat rushes down the avenue and throws his arms around the horse’s neck and begins to sob. The man weeps, with his arms thrown around the horse. The driver is startled and stops whipping the horse. Then the man collapses to the ground. Two policeman arrive and are mystified. The man is still lying on the ground, on the cobblestones. Then the man’s landlord arrives; he helps the man up, supports him on his shoulder, takes the man back home.
Once he is home, the man has a mental breakdown. He begins to write letters to his friends, where he seems to be in the grip of a religious mania. He demands the death of the German Emperor. He demands the invasion of Germany. Then he lies on a divan for two days in his house and remains silent. Then he mutters out some obligatory last words. Then he remains silent for the next ten years, living in the care of his mother and his sisters. Then he dies. No one knows what happened to the horse.
Let’s start over.
The man in the story was Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher. A few of the details of the story are in dispute, and are impossible to confirm historically. But he definitely did it. He saw an animal being whipped. A horse being flogged. He grabbed the horse, started weeping. The police came. Friedrich Nietzsche then suffered a complete mental breakdown.
I think what happened in that moment was that Friedrich Nietzsche had a brief instant where he saw all the cruelty of the world, all its pain. The pain that happens to the defenseless. He saw an animal being beaten, and he couldn’t handle it. He had one of those brief moments. He saw that animals are beaten, animals suffer, children suffer, that the innocent are punished for no particular reason. He saw all the cruelty of the world, and instead of being cruel back, he took the cruelty inward. And he wept. He felt guilty for the cruelty of the entire world, and he couldn’t handle it. And in the end, it destroyed him, broke his mind.
And the moral of the story? Well, there is no moral of the story. But be wary, you. Be wary of the cruelty of the world. But try to not to beat yourself up about it any more than you have to. Try not to ruin yourself with guilt. We are all part of the world, and we all feel guilty for it. We are all the man with the whip, the horse, and the man crying.
image – U.S. National Archives
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”