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Nietzsche's “Cruelty of Thoughtlessness” is an Unforgettable Lesson on Love

How we experience the tiny defines how we love the immense


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Angela Yurchenko

4 months ago | 5 min read
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How we experience the tiny defines how we love the immense

To dream of love is to dream big.

In the experience of love, we thirst after big emotions, big experiences, big hearts. The very thought of love is the thought of looking into distant heavens and quenching our dry hearts in the immensity of the universe.

It’s not the thought of stooping down to the ground and, on all fours, paying heed to some microscopic happenings of life. When in love, we want to jump out of ourselves and exist only in the immense space-time. But the thing about love is that to jump to its heavens, one must first stoop to its atoms.

Nietzsche on the paradox of morality

Countless forms of life exist all around us — unrecognized, unnoticed, untamed — at each given moment.

A trampled flower, a squished insect, an abandoned animal, a lost human, an aborted fetus.

These are all forms of life invisible, unseen, or irrelevant to social life at large. They are useless for experiencing the rush of infatuation, useless for closing a valuable deal, useless as yardsticks of our social image. This means that for society, they’re as good as morally nonexistent, as good as dead. But they exist. And they are the invisible skeleton of the universe.

It was sorting through such images in his heart that Nietzsche wrote the unforgettable lines included in Part II of Human, All Too Human, “The Wanderer and His Shadow”. The lines that call together our faculties for attention like little else.

“The origin of our morality may still be observed in our relations with animals. We kill or wound insects or let them live, and as a rule, think no more about it …If animals do us harm, we strive to annihilate them in every possible way. The means are often cruel enough, even without our really intending them to be so — it is the cruelty of thoughtlessness.”

It is our relationship to the tiny forms of life: the insects, animals, plants, Nietzsche argues, that define what is usually termed “our morality” — and this influences our deeper relationships with other greater forms of life.

It is not the morality sealed up in a civil law, but the law of love to which all inscribed laws are what the alphabet is to a great orator.

But perhaps the most tragic in Nietzsche’s remark is his observance of the human inaptitude for attention even when the intention is present.

“We are so clumsy that even our gracious acts towards flowers and small animals are almost always murderous.”

This “inattentiveness” he calls the “cruelty of thoughtlessness”. But it is from another age and continent that comes to the complement to the German philosopher’s words, voiced by American poet J.D. McLatchy.

Love’s antidote to thoughtlessness

If the various definitions of love could be jammed into a single line without losing their characteristics, they may as well claim J.D. McLatchy’s brief credo:

“Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”

Attentiveness is the antonym to Nietzsche's’ “forgetfulness”. For where there is a high quality of attention, forgetfulness does not abide. And where there is not enough of attentiveness to an object of love, it will inadvertently tear a gap in love — a gap of thoughtlessness.

What Nietzsche means is that our “human, all too human” nature is most prone to cruelty not by malicious intent but by lack of attention towards what we’d term “small” things.

It is not the forgetfulness of “forgetting to buy milk at the grocery store”. It is the conscious and regular inattention towards “insignificant” things of life. A problem that comes from a lack of our sensing the utility of the small in a life that’s grown increasingly reasonable and utilized.

Experiencing life from the ground up

In human relations, we use attentiveness as the yardstick to measure the scope of love. We know that forgetfulness in little things is a red flag for either the lack of love or its dwindling.

Yet, when Nietzsche writes that in respect to things like “flowers and small animals…even our gracious acts… are almost always murderous”, it’s easy to shrug the whole off as “too much”. The great German philosopher’s words may sound harsh and even whacky. Yet we better believe them.

Everything big starts with the little. Forgetfulness of watering a plant and finding it withered a week later, forgetfulness towards a sick animal, forgetfulness of a child’s request, forgetfulness of small service to a friend…

if we follow it through, we’ll see at the end of this chain of insignificant, regular forgetfulness the inevitable “cruelty of forgetfulness” towards something big and important.

Forgetfulness is like a worm that takes the vacant place of love and eats out a void that grows wider until it tears us apart from the object of love. Love, on its part, mends that void through its attentiveness and awareness of being, in whatever life form it takes.

To understand Nietzsche deeply, let us, for a moment, look away from the familiar perspective — that of gazing at love from on high.

Let us descend on all fours and become, for a moment, small children who experience love from the tiny, from the unseen, from the irrelevant-to-society upwards, and not as grown-ups who attempt to love from the big and “significant” downwards.

And now, from this new-found angle, let us snatch back our most precious human ability— attention.

Let us grab it back from the society that ferociously steals it, with a smirk handing us a pack of dollars in return; from the social culture hypnotizing us into trading it for an artificial replacement; from someone or something who’s regularly abusing the attention we give them by neglecting it.

As a child on all fours, let us crawl around attentively in this playground of our human feelings and experiences, looking at the world from the ground up, snatching back and re-learning what we’ve dropped somewhere along the way of our grown-up lives.

Relearning that nothing in the natural universe is too little or insignificant to be experienced with the full, undivided faculty of attention.

Rediscovering connections to the natural world and its inhabitants from tiny to immense that have been lost. Consciously connecting pieces that have been disconnected for years. Studying the intricate kaleidoscope of overlooked moments of existence.

Somewhere in the midst of playing around in this new angle, we will realize that attentiveness is love’s antidote to Nietzsche's poignant “cruelty of forgetfulness” and that no creature, event, or idea is too little or insignificant to merit cruelty through inattention.

In conclusion

Like a living cell, the inherent quality of attentiveness never stands still. It’s always either multiplying or dying inside of us. But without the nurtured habit, both our attempts at love for big things and love for small things are equally doomed to become black holes.

For wherever there’s a gap in love, “the cruelty of thoughtlessness” will come to fill the void.

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Angela Yurchenko

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Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Writing about the Human Experience.


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