Hardship Makes You Stronger Says Nietzsche: Here’s Why

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Friedrich Nietzsche. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does hardship make you stronger? What can we learn about hardship and philosophy?

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the influential novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra to share his views on life and philosophy. According to the novel, enduring hardship makes you stronger and is even a necessity in life.

Read on to learn why hardship makes you stronger, according to Nietzsche’s philosophy.

How Hardship Makes You Stronger

While Friedrich Nietzsche encourages people to pursue happiness, in his novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he warns them not to pursue comfort. On the contrary, he emphasizes the importance of cultivating strength by enduring hardship. He claims that hardship makes you stronger because, for humans to make evolutionary progress, life must become harder over time so that humans become stronger over time.

In this article, we’ll explain why hardship makes you stronger, according to Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Hardship Cultivates Strength & Endurance

In the novel, the primary example the protagonist, Zarathustra, gives of why hardship makes you stronger is his experience of cultivating endurance through dealing with the winter cold. He likens winter to an unwelcome houseguest, whom he mocks by taking a cold bath every morning. By subjecting himself to such hardship, Zarathustra grows stronger. 

(Shortform note: Zarathustra’s example is particularly interesting, given that many years later, Wim Hof would argue (and arguably demonstrate) that you can fight stress, heal yourself, and improve your health by subjecting your body to freezing temperatures.)

Nietzsche on Helping Others During Hard Times

Zarathustra says that hardship makes you stronger but he also applies the principle of cultivating strength and endurance to how you interact with other people. He says you should cultivate strength by never letting others do anything for you that you can do for yourself, and by never doing anything for someone else that she can do for herself.

What about helping people who can’t help themselves—would hardship make someone stronger when they’re unable to help themselves? That’s a bit of a gray area. On several occasions, Zarathustra befriends other people or comes to their aid. But he also says there are too many people who don’t die soon enough. When you see them headed for destruction, you shouldn’t intervene to help them. If anything, you should seek to expedite their demise. He refers to pity as his “ultimate sin.”

(Shortform note: We can infer that Zarathustra believes many people are basically dead-end branches on the pathway of human evolution and that the faster they die off, the faster evolution can progress. This would explain why he helps some people but not others. He helps those that he sees as candidates for human progress but not those who are evolutionary dead-ends.)

Zarathustra also teaches that receiving charitable aid is demeaning. And because it’s demeaning for the recipient, the one giving the aid feels ashamed as well, at least if she has any empathy whatsoever for the recipient. He says he would rather let poor people steal from him than give them donations or, worse yet, see them begging for donations.

(Shortform note: We can infer that, in Zarathustra’s view, stealing is less shameful than begging for two reasons. First, stealing isn’t necessarily wrong because, as we’ve discussed, Zarathustra doesn’t believe in traditional, objective morality. If you’re good at stealing or passionate about developing your skills as a thief, Zarathustra would call that one of your virtues and encourage you to cultivate it. Second, it takes more initiative to steal something than it does to receive a gift or beg for a handout. This makes it more honorable because, as we’ll discuss next, Zarathustra emphasizes the importance of initiative.)

The Psychological Nature of Poverty

More recent studies of poverty and poverty-alleviation methods corroborate some of Zarathustra’s assertions about hardship, becoming stronger, and the demeaning nature of charity. In When Helping Hurts, Christian missionary organizers Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert explain that poverty isn’t just a lack of money or material resources. Fundamentally, poverty is a sense of shame and helplessness that arises when you’re unable to fulfill your purpose in life.

They go on to point out that this has significant implications for poverty alleviation efforts: When a missionary or other aid worker steps in and gives a poor person something or does something to help her, it often insinuates that the poor person couldn’t help herself. This reinforces her sense of shame and helplessness, ultimately making her poverty worse, even if the aid temporarily meets her physical needs.

Unlike Zarathustra, Corbett and Fikkert advocate helping the poor to climb out of poverty, not helping them to die off. But, like Zarathustra, they do advise you not to do anything for a poor person that she can do for herself. They go on to offer advice on how you can empower the poor to help themselves, rather than shaming them with handouts that only make their poverty worse.
Hardship Makes You Stronger Says Nietzsche: Here’s Why

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  • Friedrich Nietzsche's views about life and philosophy
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  • Why you should never let others do something for you that you can do yourself

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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