I have observed that many people often stop thinking about a phrase, and simply accept it, if they hear it repeated enough times. Since I don’t want to make this error, I’ve developed a habit of questioning such phrases. This quote, from Friedrich Nietzsche, definitely qualifies as a phrase which many believe because it’s repeated a lot, and it is certainly questionable. More than that, in fact: it is utter nonsense — and I can prove it.
The method I will use for this proof is reductio ad absurdam, in which one temporarily assumes the statement is true, then shows that it leads to a conclusion which is pure nonsense, which, in turn, shows that the original assumption of truth was a faulty one.
So the Nietzsche quote, purely for the purposes of this proof, is now (temporarily) assumed to be true. Since being stronger is beneficial, it now follows that we should actually seek out things which damage us, but without killing us. It isn’t hard to think of examples of such behaviors.
If a person were to drive to a hospital’s emergency room, and, while standing just outside the entrance with a hacksaw, started using one hand to attempt to saw off the other one (warning: do not try this yourself!), damage would certainly result. This hypothetical person probably wouldn’t completely lose his hand, for (a) hacksaws are not fast, and (b) someone else would no doubt notice, and take action to stop the self-damage, in time to get him medical attention. He is, after all, already in the perfect place for it.
Another, much more common example:
It’s possible for a person to drink these boxes of inexpensive red wine at a rate of five a week, but it’s an incredibly bad idea. Alcohol will do serious damage, consumed at that rate, given enough time, as can be verified with virtually any physician. Surviving prolonged binge-drinking is possible (but not guaranteed), even if done for a few years; I know this to be true because I have witnessed it. It wasn’t a pretty thing to watch, and the binge drinker could not be persuaded to stop. The binge drinking finally ended, but with an emergency trip in an ambulance needed, for immediate medical care, to prevent imminent death.
In each case, (1) the hypothetical person who tries to saw off his own hand while standing outside an emergency room, and (2) the real person (an adult whom I will not name) who consumed dangerous quantities of alcohol, something happens which damages them, but doesn’t kill them. Does it make them stronger? The first person could easily lose some functionality in his hand, and could also end up in a psychiatric institution. The second person suffered numerous forms of permanent damage to multiple systems of the body, resulting in permanent disability. Both rack up huge medical bills. These aren’t good things, for either person, and they are quite unlikely to “make one stronger.” A far more likely outcome is the exact opposite — each person is weakened, in the sense that are are rendered less able to deal effectively with the rest of their lives.
The proof is now complete. It turns out that those things which do not kill you can, quite possibly, weaken you, and expecting them to make you stronger simply makes no sense. So, world, please stop repeating this insipid Nietzsche-quote. Not only is it logically invalid; it’s also become one of the most annoying clichés in existence.
Fortunately, for those who want advice which actually makes sense, there are many sources available which are not Friedrich Nietzsche.
[Note: I did not create the images in this post, but simply found them with Google image-searches for “hacksaw” and “box of wine.”]