In this short passage from his philosophical autobiography Ecce Homo, the last book he wrote before succumbing to insanity, Nietzsche gives us the story of how his philosophical vision was born. It is the product of a convalescence, the remainder of a battle for survival against the depression and physical pain that Nietzsche battled his entire adult life. He turned his will to health, to life, into a philosophy.
Indeed, Nietzsche is often proclaimed as a great philosopher of life, of power, of overcoming. But just as essential to the Nietzschean corpus--or should we say corpse?--is the sickness and death that ultimately prevented him from completing his master work. Sickness and pain created the silences between his productive years and probably forced upon him the aphoristic style for which he is famous. The boundless ideas, short and intense gems, scattered about in disarray, dew on morning grass, are left for future philosophers to develop and use. Nietzsche was too sick to develop them himself. The silences that appear throughout his texts testify not only to the incapacity of language to account for the richness of lived experience, but also to the incapacity of the ailing body and mind to concentrate, to fill in the gaps, to communicate fully.
This sickness and death is a gift to us, his inheritors. The raw and unfinished looseness of his texts is a stimulus to the imagination, his half-formed aphorisms future books bequeathed to students he will never meet. But his sickness has also left Nietzsche weak and vulnerable, open to violent misinterpretation and abuse.
The Nietzschean quip: "What does not kill us makes us stronger," is used flippantly by amateur athletes. We take it to mean that suffering leads to greatness, something equivalent to "No pain, no gain." We tell it to ourselves after hard workouts or great races: we use it to motivate ourselves to drive into the pain of training. It was also used to motivate Nazi troops.
But say it again, without thinking of a tanned and muscular body in the youthful prime of life. Say it and think of Nietzsche, a skinny intellectual with no audience, ravaged by intestinal pain, facing the immediate decline of his faculties of concentration, staring out at a world that, for all its intense beauty and possibility, remains indifferent to his suffering. What does not kill us makes us stronger--and how many things make us stronger? And how many things do not?
The uneven dialectic of sickness and health occurred to me today as I ran once more on an achilles that has pained me for almost two years now. We runners say that we run for health, as Nietzsche philosophized for health. And it is true that we do. But this means that we also run out of sickness. We run to stave off mental and physical demons. We run from the specter of the decrepit or obese body. We run from a society intent upon making all acts of pleasure into sellable commodities. We run from the duties and responsibilities imposed upon us. Running is a respite from darker neuroses and emergent insanities. It is a cure for loneliness. And if we cannot escape these large brains that pain us, we can at a minimum control the pain, funnel the sicknesses, channel our weaknesses together so that they become health from a certain perspective.
I imagine myself from the non-runner's perspective. A lean and leathery body. A face carved with lines of effort. I move down the road, hardly anything at all among the unceasing flow of steel cars, the black asphalt, the buzzing on-and-on of the world. We are the least of human beings. Our muscles are long and wiry, the skin pulled taut over not much more than bone and gristle, we stride forward among a humanity that grows larger every year as we grow smaller, lighter, leaner, sick and frail relics of times long past. The act of running produces nothing at all. We arrive, incessantly, from where we begin. We are sick from this perspective.
But out of that sickness we runners, like Nietzsche, carve a peculiar sort of health. We have the health of endurance, the ability to go on, the strength to not only run for hours, but to enjoy our bodies and the sensations they give us when they are working. We need almost nothing at all to find our happiness: only a few hours, a stretch of road, perhaps a friend, or even better a competitor. We hide in our spindled chests an unusually large and heaving heart--and in our heads a warbled tune, a song, as we move on down the road. Do you know the feeling I know? When your legs have disappeared, and there is only your heart, your lungs, and your eyes skimming disembodied through the air? We are Aristotle's featherless bipeds, we runners. Though we have no wings, we have taught ourselves to fly.
Like this, running from our sickness, as far as we can, through the pain of injury, the endless repetition of footfalls, and the loneliness of the open road, we run on, drawing on what strength we have, making ourselves healthy.