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The Antichrist

Nietzsche: Antichrist or Lutheran Preacher?

(07 October 2007)

When Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, he had travelled as far as he could from his Lutheran upbringing. The meaning of the world, as guaranteed by God, no longer existed. Morality had ceased to have a moral basis. Good and evil were now subjective; mere matters of opinion. All of society’s values lay naked, exposed as fake. Nietzsche had reached a position of absolute nihilism. It was necessary for him to either embrace the void he had entered, or create new values.

In R.J. Hollingdale’s introduction to his translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he speculates that Nietzsche’s response to the crisis he had diagnosed was to resurrect the pillars of Christianity in disguise i.e. celebrated concepts such as the Übermensch, the will to power and eternal recurrence are all in fact Christian motifs. He makes the following explicit comparisons between Nietzschean and Christian (Lutheran) themes:

Amor fati: Lutheran acceptance of the events of life as divinely willed, with the consequent affirmation of life as such as divine, as a product of the divine will, and the implication that to hate life is blasphemous.

Eternal recurrence: the extremest formula of life-affirmation, strongly influenced by the Christian concepts of eternal life and the unalterable nature of God: what is, ‘is now and ever shall be, world without end.’

Will to power: divine grace. The clue to the connexion is the concept of ‘self-overcoming’, which is one of Nietzsche’s terms for sublimation and the hinge upon which the theory of the will to power turns from being a nihilist to a positive and joyful conception. The corresponding Christian concept is that of unregenerate nature redeemed by the force of God’s grace. In both conceptions the central idea is that a certain inner quality (grace/sublimated will to power) elevates man (or some men) above the rest of nature. The pathos with which ‘will to power’ is invested derives to some extent from ‘Thy will be done’ and the juxtaposition of ‘power’ and ‘glory’, together with the Christian doctrine that to God’s will all things are possible.

Live dangerously!: ‘Take up thy Cross, and follow me’ – Christian deprecation of the easy life.

Great noontide: the Second Coming, the Last Judgement, the division of the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff.

Superman: God as creator and ‘highest being’, the ‘Son of Man’ as God, man as the receptacle of divine grace who rejoices at the idea of eternity: the embodiment and actualisation of everything regarded as desirable. What the Christian says of God, Nietzsche says in very nearly the same words of the Superman, namely: ‘Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.’

While some of these comparisons are perhaps overstretched, Hollingdale has raised the interesting possibility that Nietzsche’s answers to the problem of nihilism are uncomfortably close to those of the targets he regularly castigates (Christians, metaphysicians, moralists etc).

By examining the key Nietzschean concepts of  the eternal recurrence, the will to power and the Übermensch, is it possible to demonstrate that Nietzsche, far from being a disciple of Dionysus, was little more than a Christian moralist, or the humanist described by Walter Kaufmann in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist? If his most cherished concepts have evolved from Christian roots, they cast his tirades against Christianity in a new light. Does he have any right to inveigh against this religion if he has simply recycled its most sacred tenets?

1) Eternal Recurrence: Nietzsche hypothesises that we have lived our lives an infinite number of times in the past, and will live them again an infinite number of times in the future. This world exists as a member of an infinite set of identical worlds separated in time. Of course, this infinite set is absolutely indemonstrable. If, as Nietzsche insists, belief in a ‘true’ world devalues the ‘apparent’ world, doesn’t the reduction of this world to a fleeting echo within an infinite, repeating set achieve the same result? Also, the concept of identical worlds seems to contravene Nietzsche’s oft-stated principle that there are no identical things; that identity is an illusion of human logic.

Kaufman warns against interpreting the doctrine of eternal recurrence as akin to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, whereby Nietzsche would be prompting us to ask before every action: ‘Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?’ In fact, this is probably the only useful way to approach eternal recurrence since you need not believe it is literally true to use it in this way; it’s the attitude you adopt towards it that’s important. Moreover, if from your first moment of consciousness, you asked yourself this question before everything you did, you would presumably have the best chance of leading the perfect Nietzschean life, one you would personally have designed, created. You would surely take nothing but pleasure from the idea of such a life echoing endlessly through eternity because you chose it with exactly this in mind. This must be the life the Übermensch would choose.

Nietzsche describes the eternal recurrence as ‘the most scientific of all possible hypotheses’, but science has provided no endorsement of this view. In fact, within Nietzsche’s pseudo-scientific descriptions of eternal recurrence, there lies a logical trap. He says [Will to Power 1066]: ‘In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place…a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated.’

Nietzsche is claiming that everything that can happen will happen, and moreover be repeated an infinite number of times. But this must include every possible life that we might lead. It is not just this life of ours that is repeated over and over, but all the alternative lives we might lead. Amongst these possible lives will be ones where everything goes right for us, every decision we take is the right one, and we get everything we desire. The eternal recurrence then becomes a promise of a heavenly afterlife. Nietzsche’s ‘demon’ would be whispering, ‘This life hasn’t worked out well for you, but don’t worry, the eternal recurrence will grant you the life of your dreams. You can take comfort that at some point you will lead a perfect life, and indeed you will get to repeat it an infinite number of times.’ In this form, eternal recurrence is little short of a Christian promise of a better life in the next world.

2) Will to Power: Kaufman describes Nietzsche as a dialectical monist. He says, ‘His basic force, the will to power, is not only the Dionysian passionate striving, akin to Schopenhauer’s irrational will, but is also Apollonian and possesses an inherent capacity to give itself form. The victory of the Dionysian is thus not complete, and the will to power is a synthesis of Nietzsche’s earlier two dualistic principles.’ It is unclear that Nietzsche really conceived of the will to power in this manner: dialectical monism sounds suspiciously like dualism. It’s the concept of self-overcoming in relation to will to power that causes Kaufman a particular problem. He says that any form of overcoming must involve a conflict of at least two forces. However, if the world is will to power, and nothing besides, as Nietzsche asserts, then self-overcoming is built into Nietzsche’s definition since there is literally nothing else for the will to power to act upon.

If we conceive of the Will to Power as a dynamic mesh of connected, interacting local wills to power (in the manner of the sea being composed of vast numbers of water molecules) then Kaufman’s requirement for a second force is redundant. ‘Self-overcoming’ becomes a description of how some wills to power within the human self gain mastery over others e.g. a will to power manifesting itself as a sex drive may be overcome by other wills to power manifesting as religious prohibitions or social taboos.

Liberal interpreters of Nietzsche such as Kaufman and Hollingdale make considerable play of sublimated will to power versus unsublimated. Nietzsche, they say, regarded the sublimation of primitive drives as essential for the Übermensch. There is support for this stance in Nietzsche’s writings, but perhaps not quite the emphasis one would expect if this were a critical aspect of his thinking. He was arguably ambivalent about this issue because he recognised the danger: that sublimation of the passions might be considered as tantamount to the extirpation of the passions that he accused Christianity of advocating.

If sublimation is key to Nietzsche, it would indeed allow him to be portrayed as an enemy of illiberalism (assuming that sublimation leads to moderate, liberal behaviour), but given the sheer volume of illiberal remarks he makes throughout his writings and his frequent attacks on liberals, this seems questionable.

If sublimated will to power is equated with Apollonian tendencies, and unsublimated with Dionysian then we are returning to the territory of The Birth of Tragedy. If Nietzsche goes too far in the direction of sublimation, he ends up committing the sin of Euripides and Socrates of relegating the Dionysian world. But if he doesn’t go far enough, he must defend those who exhibit unsublimated will to power. To some extent he does this, but he also expresses profound reservations about such people (Cesare Borgia, for example). He never adopts a definitive stance, and there is always the suspicion that part of his dilemma stems from his Lutheran upbringing, forcing him to find fault with those people who would traditionally have been condemned by Lutheranism. If Nietzsche had expressed unqualified admiration for a figure like Cesare Borgia there would have been no question he was intent on rearranging the moral landscape, yet he consistently draws back from such a step.

If sublimation is indeed the end-point of Nietzsche’s conception of will to power then he has effectively restored conventional morality by the back door. He has suppressed Dionysian excess, exactly as would be expected of a good Lutheran.

3) Übermensch: In an appendix to his translation of The Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, Hollingdale briefly outlines how Nietzsche’s concept of ‘Dionysian’ changes during the course of his works. In The Birth of Tragedy, the Dionysian is characterised as a ‘witches’ brew’ of sensuality and cruelty. Latterly, it is short-hand for sublimated will to power, and ‘Dionysus’ becomes an alternative label for the Übermensch. When he concludes his autobiography Ecce Homo with the words, ‘Have I been understood? – Dionysus against the Crucified’, he’s proclaiming that he’s putting up the Übermensch against Jesus Christ as the man-god in which the modern European should invest his future.

Nietzsche says [WP 1052]: ‘The god on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemption from life; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life: it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction.’ However, by equating Goethe with the Dionysian man [Twilight of the Idols 49], while referring to Napoleon [Genealogy of Morals I 16] as ‘this synthesis of monster [Unmensch] and Übermensch …’, and Cesare Borgia [Beyond Good and Evil 197] as a ‘tropical monster’, Nietzsche has deliberately distilled off any monstrous qualities from his Übermensch. He has in fact excised all of the cruelty and sensuality so characteristic of the mythological Dionysus. These are now to be regarded as bestial, primitive, unsublimated traits. In fact, the Übermensch is so sanitised, so purged of intoxication and uncontrolled passions, that it’s probably more accurate to describe him as Apollonian rather than Dionysian. In Art, the Dionysian must be given form by the Apollonian, but surely this doesn’t extend to life too. If Nietzsche wasn’t so blinded by his instinctive Lutheranism, he would have recognised Goethe as a disciple of Apollo, and held up Cesare Borgia as a true Dionysian man.

Conclusion: Ultimately, even Nietzsche was unable to escape the values instilled in him as a child. He gazed with curiosity at the likes of Cesare Borgia and Napoleon, men consumed with tremendous passions and lusts, but finally turned away in revulsion. He hero-worshipped Goethe and yearned for a ‘Caesar with the soul of Christ.’ These are essentially mild-mannered, non-threatening figures, unlikely to torment God-fearing Lutherans. Hitler, with his extreme nationalism, his racism, his euthanasia, his eugenics and his industrial-scale death camps posed far more practical challenges to conventional morality than Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed first immoralist, ever did. Which of the two truly resembles the Antichrist?

Apollo as a safe replacement for the Crucified – Have I been understood? It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but despite Nietzsche’s bluster, this is probably where his philosophy ended up: not so much dynamite as firecrackers (big bangs but no damage done). Against his wishes, his sister Elizabeth gave him a full Lutheran burial. Perhaps it wasn’t as ridiculous as it seemed.