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The Joys of Schadenfreude

ISSUE:  Summer 2000
When Bad Things Happen To Other People. By John Portmann. Routledge. $26.95.

When President Bill Clinton in August 1998 finally ceased his prevarications and admitted to having an intimate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Americans experienced a mixture of emotions. Some were mainly angry and indignant that he had lied to the public for so long, while others felt either betrayed because they had believed his lies or vindicated because they had never believed them. Among Clinton’s political opponents and many others, however, what may have been uppermost was a strong feeling of schadenfreude in seeing the mass of troubles in which he found himself following the exposure of his unscrupulous falsehoods and his involvement in an extramarital affair.

Schadenfreude, meaning the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others, is one of those useful German compound nouns that have been naturalized into our English language and dictionaries (weltanschauung and weltschmerz are two more), and it serves as the focal theme in John Portmann’s interesting treatment of the moral problem of how we react to the bad things that happen to others. In the course of his wide-ranging discussion, Portmann deals not only with schadenfreude, but manages to bring in numerous related subjects such as envy, ressentiment (another term of foreign origin denoting resentment and hostility plus a sense of being powerless to express these feelings directly), the meaning of suffering and the justice of punishment, and even questions connected with feminism and homosexuality, all of which he enlivens by examples. The author is a moral philosopher of a distinctively contemporary kind. In an earlier period one of the main concerns of moral philosophers was to determine the fundamental ground or criterion of moral judgment which could provide us with a constant and consistent rule of conduct. Of such philosophers the most eminent is probably Kant in formulating the imperatives that we should treat every person as an end and never only as a means, and should always act as though the principle of our action were a universal law applicable to everyone. Portmann does not approach problems of morality and the examination of schadenfreude from this abstract standpoint. He is primarily interested in applied ethics, moral psychology, and the analysis of the emotions based on a sensitive realization of the diverse and concrete situations of human existence. For aid in moral understanding he looks as much to the work of novelists and poets as of philosophers, and he considers Nietzsche and Freud as among the best diagnosticians of our emotional lives and moral difficulties. This type of moral philosophy, unsystematic, empirical, and humane, has numerous virtues. Its great defect, however, is that it may fail to offer us any broad guiding principles in confronting moral issues and leave us wandering confusedly in the forest of the author’s observations without a compass to bring us to a goal. Although Portmann has many illuminating things to say about the moral aspects of schadenfreude, it is hard to discern any overall structure or logical order in the ideas he presents or any general conclusions that emerge from his discussion. Turning the pages of his book, one might also wonder whether schadenfreude is a sufficiently important or complex emotion to warrant such a lengthy treatment. But if the emotions of love, sexual desire, and jealousy, for instance, have been much considered in literature and philosophy, then why not also schadenfreude, which is one of the commonest ways that human beings respond and relate to the troubles of others.

As an analyst of human character and conduct, Portmann is both an acute observer and charitable interpreter rather than a severe judge. Persons with a well-developed moral sense who experience schadenfreude are apt to feel a certain amount of shame and unworthiness at being possessed by this emotion even momentarily. Is it not mean-spirited and detestable to be glad when bad luck or adversity strikes someone else, even an enemy or rival, and much more so in the case of a friend? (It was one of the foremost French moralists of the 17th century, the Due de La Rochefoucauld, who made the penetrating comment in his Maximes that “in the misfortunes of even our greatest friends we take a certain pleasure.”) Portmann, however, would relieve us of some of our guilt on this score by means of various distinctions. He believes that schadenfreude is rational and therapeutic in certain circumstances, and makes the important point that it can include a sense of justice when we regard the bad things that happen to people as deserved punishment for their actions. He strives consistently to distinguish between pleasure in the justice of someone’s suffering and pleasure in the suffering itself. This distinction, though, is psychologically so difficult to sustain that I would guess that the two sorts of pleasure continually merge. In an example mentioned by Portmann, the blessed in heaven, according to the great theologian Thomas Aquinas, both see and rejoice in the torments of the damned. This conception, which astounded Nietzsche by its cruelty, is schadenfreude at its highest, and it confirms my opinion that a God who inflicts eternal punishment on his creatures is one of the most wicked and immoral ideas the Christian religion ever introduced into the world. It is also among the reasons that make me question whether, despite Portmann’s lucid arguments, schadenfreude can ever be a healthy and justifiable emotion and is not simply a base and nasty feeling which we should do our best to resist and overcome.

Although Portmann’s careful discrimination of the differing aspects and circumstances of schadenfreude place this part of human psychology in a fresh light, he seems to me to overlook that in a certain land of justice this particular emotion probably has no place at all. Thus, when we see individuals legally convicted and punished who are guilty of great crimes such as deliberate cold-blooded murder or genocidal acts, political torture, and other violations against humanity, or these same persons afflicted by disease or loss, our belief in the justice of their suffering and misfortunes contains no tincture of schadenfreude. What we feel is likely to be a more pure emotion from which the egotism of self is largely absent, and marked by a deep impersonal satisfaction and relief that justice exists and has prevailed. When the oppressed Titan Prometheus in Shelley’s poem Prometheus Unbound is freed by the tyrant Jupiter’s overthrow, he knows no schadenfreude at the god’s downfall but joy and exaltation that love and justice are victorious.

Portmann enters perhaps the deepest waters in his observations on the meaning of suffering, a suggestive exploration of the problem from several angles. As he points out, if suffering has no meaning, schadenfreude could not arise, since it relies on the belief that someone else deserves to suffer. Moreover, many people, as he also notes, “think suffering happens for a reason: it does not, could not, befall us randomly.” What this means is that we want a moral rationale for our own suffering and for the satisfaction we might take in that of other people. It is certainly true that we can sometimes rationalize our suffering by the conviction that we are the innocent victims of malevolent others or have brought it upon ourselves by our own bad or stupid actions. Likewise, we can rationalize our schadenfreude by telling ourselves that the objects of this feeling deserve their misfortune. Very often, however, there is no moral rationale or justification for suffering, and an adequate moral philosophy should face up to this truth. The huge amount of pain and suffering human beings undergo due to mortal diseases, birth defects, the deterioration of mind and body in old age, and calamities of nature like earthquakes and floods, have absolutely no moral meaning. (How we respond to such things, of course, may very well have moral significance.) Brute events, these misfortunes are simply the result of a process of intelligible natural causalities for which no one is responsible and a reminder of the fact that despite the powers of mind with which nature has endowed us homo sapiens, the universe is indifferent to our personal and collective fate.

Although the requirements of civilized living together mandate a certain minimum morality from everyone, great differences exist in the moral capacities of individuals. Some people, who are of course a minority, simply have finer characters and are much more moral and virtuous than others. While Portmann might not agree, I am inclined to think that his analysis is indulgent to our human failings when he approves schadenfreude as reasonable and morally justifiable in some circumstances. His judgment in this matter can be contrasted with the position of Proust, who remarks in one of his letters that “the most splendid moment of triumph is spoiled because there’s always someone who suffers.” The 17th-century thinker Thomas Hobbes, a great moral philosopher and exceptional analyst of the passions, described human nature in general as invincibly self-interested, yet he also left room for the rare magnanimous man who scorns to break his word or do anything dishonorable. Possibly, then, moral philosophy should keep in view at least two categories of people, the many who conform to the minimum or average morality and the few who rise higher and are capable of magnanimity, a difference that might be said to correspond to that of the pass degree and the honors degree in a university education. A part of what Portmann tells us about schadenfreude may perhaps apply more to those who take the pass degree rather than aspiring to an honors degree in morality.

As a specimen of moral philosophy, Portmann’s work combines broad knowledge with an appealing humanity and numerous insights into real problems. His book can be strongly recommended as a stimulating and perceptive examination of issues and questions relating to our attitudes toward the misfortunes of other people with which all of us are familiar in our moral lives.


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