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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Why I Read Nietzsche

The suggestion that conservatives, and even religious conservatives, might find something of value in the writings of that prophet of the death of God, Nietzsche, seems to have been poorly received. It may not be possible to help this, but it might be of some value to explain why one conservative, even reactionary, soul found some berries amidst the briers of Nietzsche.

If I had to offer a one-sentence explanation of why I ever bothered to read Nietzsche, it would be the following: I read Nietzsche because I was raised as a low-church evangelical Protestant.

This statement might seem enigmatic or perverse, but there is a logic to it, a logic born of the fact that some quarters - apparently, those quarters in which I learned of Christianity as a child - of evangelicalism are resolutely plebeian; a spirit of egalitarianism suffuses them, and often suffocates and stifles those who cannot abide those things which, while not necessarily base, are... other than they ought to be. For the evangelicalism in which I was raised was a Christianity only then entering upon the long, downward slide of "relevance", then "seeker sensitivity", then megachurches and multimedia entertainment as "worship", until the nadir is reached in the emergent church movement. And with each development along this trajectory - which in my case was limited to the period of "relevance" - the banalization of worship, and the substitution of happy-clappy sing-along choruses for grand, old hymns, with their profound theological and devotional content, was justified by that egalitarianism: those who complained were dismissed as stick-in-the-mud, stuck-in-the-past elitists who couldn't grasp that all aesthetic taste is subjective. And so there was no difference between "A Mighty Fortress" and "Shine, Jesus, Shine", no difference between mediocre jingles and Bach chorales.

It did not help matters that I was a student of classical piano in my youth, and to overhear these arguments among the adults, and to hear equivalences drawn that implied that some musical abortion was "spiritually equal" to Bach, or even to the better output of Wesley - well, this was too much to bear. If I said "Marty Haugen" (I believe that is the name.), some Catholics might understand my disquietude. Which is why, upon reading words such as these:


... All the sciences have from now on to prepare the way for the future task of the philosophers: this task understood as the solution of the problem of value, the determination of the order of rank among values. (Genealogy of Morals, Essay 1, Section 17)

I experienced this as the very dawn: Whatever else might be contained in the depths of Nietzsche's thought - and there is much - this much is certain, that there is a rank-ordering of aesthetic values, because there is nobility and commonality, the beautiful and the ugly. To absorb these thoughts as expressed by a contemner of Christianity - this seemed preferable than reading the diffident expressions of Christian critics of the newer fashions, who never seemed able to escape the egalitarianism and subjectivity of the levelers, who never mustered the strength to say that because there is an order of rank, some expressions do not belong in the Church.

Then there were the eschatological enthusiasts, those who immersed themselves in popular prophetic texts and evinced an odd enthusiasm for what they believed would be an outpouring of wrath so implacable that billions would perish. I will tread gently and state that it is not so much the fact of belief in these interpretations - though I find them other than plausible - as the earnest desire on the part of some I knew that all of these horrors come to pass: a reveling in a dream of divine vengeance:


--"I understand; I'll open my ears again (oh! oh! oh! and close my nose). Now I can really hear what they have been saying all along: 'We good men - we are the just - what they desire they call, not retaliation, but 'the triumph of justice; what they hate is not their enemy, no! they hate 'injustice', they hate 'godlessness'; what they believe in and hope for is not the hope of revenge, the intoxication of sweet revenge (--'sweeter than honey' Homer called it), but the victory of God, of the just God, over the godless; what is there left for them to love on the earth is not their brothers in hatred but their 'brothers in love', as they put it, all the good and just on earth." (From Genealogy of Morals, Essay 1, Section 14)

Now, I understand even more now what I knew then, that even amongst the better sort of Christian writers there could be found admonitions against this desire to call down and revel in wrath and judgment; but to find in the writings of an arch-calumniator of the Faith a confirmation of just how loathsome in the eyes of the unbelieving we can be made to appear by the wrath-desiring among us - this, paradoxically, was something to be savoured, for it confirmed the ruination that certain vices could bring into the world.

Nevertheless, reading Nietzsche was not only salubrious insofar as he could be enlisted against those who dragged down the Faith by their lack of wisdom, but because he is so honest:


Against Christianity -- What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reason. (Gay Science 132)

Christianity is not rejected among moderns because they have reasoned out a proof that it is untrue, but because it is distasteful to them, chiefly on moral grounds. Though the excesses of the eschatology enthusiasts might be loathsome, and might prompt sensitive souls to recoil in horror on moral grounds, this is, in fact, no disproof of Christianity, or even of the theories against which it is a reaction. It is merely disgust - and disgust, as we are reminded whenever we turn to the subject of our culture's valorization of deviant sexualities, is ostensibly no reason to proscribe them or stigmatize them.

In other words, Nietzsche is saying, we reject Christianity not because we find it repugnant to reason, but because we simply dislike it. After all,


Compared to them (the common natures), the higher type is more unreasonable, for those who are noble, magnanimous, and self-sacrificial do succumb to their instincts, and when they are at their best, their reason pauses. (snip) They have some feelings of pleasure and displeasure that are so strong that they reduce the intellect to silence or to servitude: at that point their heart displaces the head, and one speaks of "passion". (From The Gay Science, 3)

We subordinate reason to passion, and this is why we reject Christianity - Christianity bids us reverse this relation, and we will have none of that.

There is also this:


On the critique of saints -- To have a virtue, must one really wish to have it in its most brutal form - as the Christian saints wished - and needed - it? They could endure life only by thinking that the sight of their virtue would engender self-contempt in anyone who saw them. But a virtue with that effect I call brutal. (Gay Science 150)

The deepest truth in this is not the risible misunderstanding of asceticism and virtue - to be certain, any would-be saint who craved the inducement of self-contempt in those who beheld his virtue would have been felled by luciferic pride and knocked from ladder of ascent long before such virtue sprouted within him - but the horror modernity has of the saint, of the deepest virtue. For moderns, real virtue is often a threat, a reproach, a form of violence insofar as the experience of virtue in another exposes the conscience which has tried to lacerate itself into unknowing. And so modernity must corrupt virtue, must debauch the minds of the innocent: it must counter the "violence" of virtue with its own violence.

Nietzsche admits this all for us, and admission eases diagnosis.

Alas, Nietzsche is also worth reading on account of the demonstration of where the privileging of passions takes us:


Holy cruelty -- A man who held a newborn child in his hands approached a holy man. "What shall I do with this child?" he asked; "It is wretched, misshapen, and does not have life enough to die," "Kill it!" shouted the holy man with a terrible voice; "and then hold it in your arms for three days and three nights to create a memory for yourself: never again will you beget a child this way when it is not time for you to beget." -- When the man had heard this, he walked away, disappointed, and many people reproached the holy man because he had counseled cruelty; for he had counseled the man to kill the child. "But is it not crueler to let it live?" asked the holy man. (Gay Science 73)

Look beyond the surface of the text, the vileness of the "counsel". Three days and three nights: not resurrection, but the dealing of death - a satanic parody of the holiest mystery, revealing that the life of the passions mandates death-dealing, and embraces it as holiness, as sacramental.

Sometimes, in order to know one's adversaries, one must gaze into their eyes, so to speak, and peer into the depths of their souls, to see the very void of hell consuming them. There is wisdom - profound wisdom - in horror.

Comments (13)

Nietzsche said we must choose either Christ or Dionysus. The choice, structurally, is manifestly clear in our world today. Ostensibly, people reject Christ and the Church for a host of reasons: they are "atheists"; they are Muslim; they are agnostics; they like new age religions more. But surreptitiously they are making Nietzsche's choice.

Sadly, in doing so, they are also choosing a path that will lead them into the direction of the Dionynisiac behavior laid out for us in near clinical accuracy by the Greek Tragidian, Euripides in his BACCHAE. The choice for Dionysus leads, finally, to the place of human sacrifice. (This is all in the work of René Girard and his mimetic theory.) Arid secularist society keeps the sacrificial flames burning in the Moloch factories of abortion, structurally. The Jihadists behead, explode bombs, and give their children up as suicide bombers, structurally for Dionysus (never, ever thematized in so many words, however).

While the Holy Father and the Magisterium keeps a different flame burning, not covering it with a bushel: the light of the revelation of Christ, the deposit of faith. May the gates of hell never prevail against It.

Sadly, in doing so, they are also choosing a path that will lead them into the direction of the Dionynisiac behavior laid out for us in near clinical accuracy by the Greek Tragidian, Euripides in his BACCHAE. The choice for Dionysus leads, finally, to the place of human sacrifice.

Yes. And the important point is that this is not an accident of paganism or secularism, or any other system of ideology: it is structural, a product of the immanent logic of the disorder of the soul. As it is written, "All who hate Me love death."

At least to me, that you read Nietzsche needs no defense. Nietzsche is dangerous, yes, but he is the philosopher of modernity, who must be engaged by anyone who would hope to think seriously about our present age.

First let me say in response to Cyrus that there are many philosophers of modernity, some of whom are not viewed as such. That Nietzsche is preeminent among them is at least questionable but if valid, a matter of opinion, more to his detriment than to his credit.

If I may give an example of one who thought of and was wary of the future the name of Edmund Burke would suffice. And if there was only one precursor of modernity, likewise the French Revolution would suffice. Burke's reaction and thoughts on the matter do not need my gloss as the readers here don't appear to require my feeble attempts at analysis. I will say that there were phenomena painfully aware to Nietzsche that didn't exist or barely so during Burke's time, again no one here needs my explanations.

Where this gave F N the broader view of democracy and an increasingly populist culture and added to his apprehension of Christianity this in no way detracts from Burke's understanding of where events and misshapen ideas could lead. Put simply, with less to work with, or lament, Burke, from an entirely different perspective, saw dangers and potential dissolution much of which if not all plague us to this day. And much if not all go under the name of modernity.

I ask for patience for my long winded efforts. I have yet to comment on Maximos essay but perhaps later.

Maximos said: "I read Nietzsche because I was raised as a low-church evangelical Protestant."

Ha, "The Nietzsche Study Bible" woulh have been just the thing for you! I think it came out the same time as "The Desperate Housewife Study Bible." Both from Zondervan.

Would that be the NIV, too? :)

No, the TNIV: Tomorrow's NIV, using a new predictive algorithm for determining tomorrow's correct Bible language.

Yes, Nietzsche did not reject Christianity through a series of logical propositions. He didn't lay out syllogisms or work towards logical conclusions. That doesn't mean that he tossed everything to randomness, which is what your portrayal of him seems to indicate. Rejecting Christianity wasn't a matter of some temper tantrum about being told what to do. Nietzsche, I think, should be read at least partly with Spinoza in hand. The will to power and Spinoza's conatus are not that far apart. Both are the desire to perserve and enhance one's life ("life," here, is something more than biological mechanisms that resist death). Nietzsche thought Christian morality stymied those goals.

It was scarcely my intention to ascribe to a belief in randomness Nietzsche's repudiation of Christianity; rather, his programme of the enhancement of life through the heroic cultivation of masterly instincts is intrinsically at odds with the Christian obligation to chasten passion and instinct, to confine them to their licit measure by the exercise of a spiritualized reason - and, as such, Nietzsche was bound to reject Christianity as a sort of Platonism for the masses (which is a notion both true and false).

I appreciate the reference to Spinoza's conatus, because it is one that had not occurred to me, since I was never much taken with Spinoza (alas?). It seems to me that there are significant affinities, though from my perspective, a crucial difference: Spinoza, on account of his metaphysics, would be more inclined to accept the inevitable oppositions to the enhancement of the will-to-life, while Nietzsche would view such oppositions as more obstacles to be overcome and mastered. There is something of a Stoic streak of acceptance or resignation, even humility, in Spinoza, whereas in Nietzsche there is nothing of this type, merely an accent upon the outward thrust of vital drives.

No, it wasn't a temper tantrum at all. But it was an inversion of what Christians and Platonists and Aristotelians would regard as the right ordering of human faculties.

[i]"Both are the desire to perserve and enhance one's life ("life," here, is something more than biological mechanisms that resist death). Nietzsche thought Christian morality stymied those goals."[/i]

Ayn Rand seems to have picked up on this theme wouldn't you say?

Ayn Rand did indeed pick up on that theme; in combination with her vulgarization of the Nietzschean doctrine of the Ubermensch - by which she deified the Titan of Industry who creates the world in his image - this would be why Whittaker Chambers was right to read her out of conservatism, noting that her work seemed to say, "To the chambers, GO!"

To Athos:

I'm not necessarily ideologically aligned with Nietzsche, in fact, I reject quite a lot of his ideas. However, I have to point out that your characterization of Nietzsche was radically incorrect. First, Nietzsche did not say we had to either choose Christ or Dionysus or that there was even a choice to make here. Rather, in "the Birth of Tragedy" he said the world is comprised of chaos (Dionysus) and order (Apollo) and that we have to affirm and recognize both of these aspects as integral parts of our existence on this earth, without condemning the twisted chaotic parts. Nietzsche would say that a Muslim rejects Dionysus just as much as a Christian or an agnostic because none of those persons can come to terms with life's fundamental spontaneity, chaos and inevitable suffering.

In addition, the examples you gave really have nothing to do with Nietzsche. If they all accepted life as chaotic and there was nothing they could do about it, why would they have the desire to do any of the things you described? I mean, this is integral to his philosophy - that is, the idea of "amor fati" or a "love of fate".

This quote clarify's Nietzche's beef with Christianity: "In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of "world history" — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die." Nietzsche believes that Christianity is bad because it devalues our lives because it deceives people into thinking that this life does not matter because "there will a next one" when in fact this is the only one they have and they need to enjoy it and experience it as best they can.

Henry,

Unless I misunderstand you, it seems you are missing the chief argument against Nietzsche. As was said above, Christianity demands a subjugation of passions and appetites to reason. Nietzsche on the other hand dismisses that ordering, rejecting the chains of reason, seeking freedom in passions and appetites (will, after all, is an appetite). Unfortunately, he fails to understand that passions and appetites which are not constrained by reason are bound to imprison a man in a chaotic "ineffectuality" where he is pulled and tugged in each direction by capricious forces, depriving him of the very power Nietzsche sought to deliver to, or rather inspire in Man. If Man is to seek only power in an ordered way, he is bound to use some semblance of reason to direct and constrain the other forces operating inside of him. In short, Nietzsche is a modern overreaction to other modern overreactions.

I suspect that what motivated Nietzsche to a large degree is, among other things, again, what was alluded to above, namely a rising democratization and egalitarianization of Mankind in the modernist tradition of the French Revolution. In addition to that, I believe the sway of Cartesian mathematicism, which was to rear it's ugly head again around Nietzsche's time in the form of positivism, was a major straitjacket around the intellect. Nietzsche is a mystic/skeptic in a way, just as in centuries prior, philosophy tended to flop between

I doubt Nietzsche would have had as much impetus to protest in prior centuries. It's the comfortable smugness of the intelligentsia that he was probably protesting. But it still doesn't justify his philosophy.

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