What belongs to greatness--Who will attain something great if he does not feel in himself the power to inflict great pain? Being able to suffer is the least; weak women and even slaves often achieve mastery at that. But not to perish of inner distress and uncertainty when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of this suffering--that is great; that belongs to greatness.Rob Sica brought this passage to my attention when I first introduced the notion that facing others as subjects is an essential part of moral courage, the taking of stand for one's moral convictions. This is no doubt one of the "terrible" moments in Nietzsche's work--that is, roughly, the sort of thing that the Nazis would have liked.
I don't know enough about Nietzsche's life to speculate much about the psychological motivations for this kind of statement, though my general impression is that he was a generally civil, gentle, and frail man. Perhaps there was some self-loathing here?
Whether we want to agree that what he describes is a feature of greatness, he is at least right that we do not like to look at suffering, and it is furthermore difficult, as Gaita has said, to see the humanity in another who is suffering greatly from some affliction. There is a greatness of soul in the person who can see that. (Gaita would say that it takes a saint to see it in the hardest cases, but that seems rather different from what Nietzsche has in mind.)
But what about Nietzsche's seemingly terrible point about inflicting suffering? I think it is connected to the point about, for to "hear the cry of this suffering" could be read as hearing the cry of a fellow human (or even fellow creature). It might seem that Nietzsche's great man is capable of being utterly heartless.
On the other hand, it might seem that he has a point to make that connects to what I've suggested about facing others: if genuine moral courage involves facing others as subjects, and should the stand one takes cause others to suffer (either physically or psychologically), then it is one thing to avoid facing those effects of one's actions by objectifying (or demonizing, etc.) those one opposes, and something different to remain steadfast in one's aims, while recognizing the humanity of those one opposes. As Duncan Richter has recently noted, it will be tempting to see those one opposes in abstract, objectifying terms. This, I suspect, makes it easier to justify doing terrible things to them, because this objectification allows one to act without facing the particularity (and distinct humanity) of those others. One might think that this is where the Nazis failed, though I'm not sure how plausible this is, and such a sweeping suggestion is an abstraction itself.
So, maybe Nietzsche is thinking that it is only if one can honestly face the other as a fellow human that one shows greatness. We could understand such an honest facing as being fully alive to their suffering--to how bad it is, not "alive" in the sense of enjoying it. In many cases, I would guess that being fully alive to it would force us to stop what we are doing, and in many cases, that might be the point (even Nietzsche's point). But then Nietzsche leaves open that one's cause could be worthy enough to overrule this empathetic engagement. And this would be part of saying "Yes!" to everything, as Richter notes (in the post above). At the moment, I can't think of a way of describing such a situation that wouldn't still leave it seeming terrible--"I'm sorry, but this is what I must do..." or, "I know you are suffering, but you deserve it..."--but perhaps that's Nietzsche's point. This is related, among other things, to revenge, and I hope to return to that topic soon (in connection with moral courage).