On the Genealogy of Morals part 1: Meet Dr Nietzsche

Monday 27 October 2008

He ought to be the undisputed patron saint of atheism.

I can write in letters which make even the blind see. I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty. I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.

Yet for all this, Friedrich Nietzsche is woefully underappreciated by the fashionistas of contemporary media atheism. Despite his huge philosophical reputation and widespread influence, Nietzsche makes an uncomfortable ally for the Dawkins brigade. He will not stand in line behind received opinions. He won’t nod along with the reduction thinking to some narrow empiricism. And, worst of all, he does Christianity the compliment of first seeking to understand it.

But if he makes no new friends amongst trendy unbelievers, he is ignored completely by the vast majority of the righteous. For his is a challenge that few Christians are prepared for. Nietzsche does not claim that the primary sin of religion is that it has an imaginary object at its centre. His insults – and he is the great master of the insult – rise way above the flying spaghetti monster jibe. Indeed, he is remarkably indifferent to the question of God’s existence. Rather, Nietzsche thinks religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a corruption of the human spirit.

Even if it were all true, he would be against it. In essence he thinks Christianity is wickedness – though he wouldn’t put it quite that way because he argues that it is precisely concepts like wickedness that are the source of the problem. And here is one of the big ideas in his On the Genealogy of Morals (OGM) that I shall be exploring in the following weeks.

It ought to be said, Nietzsche would have hated almost everything about the project of blogging his great work. He would have hated the democratising everybody-has-their-say power of the Internet. He would have hated the left-leaning politics of the Guardian. He would have hated the idea that I, as a Christian priest, was presuming to interpret his words. As he warned:

The greatest haters in world history, and the most intelligent, have always been the priests: – nobody else’s intelligence stands a chance against the intelligence of priestly revenge. (OGM I:7)

And he didn’t have too much time for the English either. All of which should give the reader the highest degree of suspicion about my line on things – which is precisely the way Nietzsche would have wanted it. After all, as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously put it, he was one of the three great “masters of suspicion” (the others being Marx and Freud).

One other note. Perhaps the most tiresome thing about Nietzsche is that he has groupies, those who hang on his every word as if he were re-writing holy writ. “May your name be holy to future generations” said his friend Peter Gast at Nietzsche’s funeral. This deification of Nietzsche often takes the form of obsessing about the details and minute nuances of interpretation – just like evangelical Bible study at its very worst. In contrast, my interest is not in offering a definitive reading of the text, or in undertaking anything academic, but to use a more journalistic style as a springboard for some of the great questions that Nietzsche explores: Where does morality come from? Is Christianity a religion of hatred? Is Christian morality the revenge of the weak against the strong? What is the purpose of asceticism? Are priests the great manipulators?

So what, then, about Nietzsche himself? It’s no surprise he grew up a terribly pious little boy. His father, a Lutheran clergyman, died when Friedrich was only five. His mother wanted him to grow up just like his dad. It was a role he played throughout his early years. Kids at school teased him for being the “little pastor”. At that time he was writing some of the most cringe making evangelical poetry one could ever imagine.

You have called,
Lord, I rush
With circumspection
To the steps of your throne.
Glowing with love,
Your glance shines into
My heart so dearly,
So painfully:
Lord, I come.

All this piety continued to the first year at university, where he won the preaching prize, after which he lost his faith. From then on in, Christianity was the enemy.

What is important to note about this childhood is that it orientates Nietzsche so very differently towards the whole question of God than, for example, the way that most modern atheists tend to approach things. Contemporary popular atheism follows philosophers like David Hume in presuming that the most fundamental question to address is whether or not God exists. It is the stark simplicity of this question that gives much of the debate between believers and non-believers is boo/hurrah quality. It is this binary approach that makes religious culture wars so dull and so fractious.

The religion that Nietzsche was brought up with starts somewhere else entirely. The first question is not so much “Does God exist?” but rather, something like “How are we saved?”. Christianity isn’t dodgy philosophy but, as it were, corrupt existentialism.

In short, Nietzsche sets out to save people from the idea that they stand in need of salvation. And this means that he is not just against God, but against anything political, moral, environmental, etc that offers itself for the salvation of human beings. The paradox of Nietzsche’s work is that he too is offering a narrative of salvation – salvation from salvation itself.

So much for the preliminaries and scene setting. Next week we will dive into the text. My aim in all of this is get Nietzsche to lead us into a rather different conversation about faith than the rather sterile one that we have been having for some years. As a Christian, I have always found Nietzsche a very effective astringent against false or lazy faith. I hope that unbelievers can use him in just the same way too. For Nietzsche offers self critical vigilance for all.

Rev Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney. He was formerly a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. His books include Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (Routledge, 2002)

Meet Dr Nietzsche: Response to comments

Eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s replacement for the last judgment

November 2008 14.29 GMT

For me, the most interesting thread of comments generated by my intro to this Nietzsche series was that concerning the eternal recurrence. However, as this series is based around an exposition of the Genealogy of Morals, and as the eternal recurrence plays little role in this work, it is not something I had planned to address. But Geoff01 and the others are quite right to insist upon its significance for Nietzsche’s wider thought (though I am going to need a lot more persuasion to see the point of the Kaballah interpretation).

For those unfamiliar with the eternal recurrence, its clearest exposition is probably this one in The Gay Science:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

I don’t think that Nietzsche was really interested in suggesting that time is actually circular, nor in offering any sort of cosmological thesis about the structure of temporarily. Rather, I think he invented it as some sort of test to determine whether a person is fully able to affirm himself or herself. What this thought experiment challenges is whether you can be so lacking in regret that you would will your life the same way again and again. In other words, the eternal recurrence poses the question as to whether you would judge your own life to be a success or a failure.

In a sense, it is all about the reintroduction of something akin to ultimate judgment that was eliminated with the death of God. It’s a bit like the suggestion that every moment of your life is being filmed and that once the film is made you will be made to watch it again and again on a loop. How then would you react to this suggestion? This idea re-introduces some sense that there is judgment bearing down on one’s every action. But, cleverly, it does this without any sort of judge other than oneself.

More controversially: the death of God eliminated the idea of some despotic divinity judging human beings and weighing down upon them as some oppressive force. But with this weight gone some began to speak of the unbearable lightness of being, as if with the absence of God, and thus with the permission to do anything and everything, life seemed to lack the gravitas of ultimate significance. The eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s way for the self to generate its own gravitas in the absence of God. For many atheists, such a thing doesn’t need doing and represents a form of nostalgia for the dead God.

On the Genealogy of Morals part 2: The slave morality

In the second part of our series on Nietzsche, we examine his belief that Christian doctrine is hatred dressed up as love

In the first essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (OGM), he lays out his famous accusation: Christianity is the religion of the downtrodden, the bullied, the weak, the poor and the slave. And this, precisely, is why it is so filled with hatred. For there is nothing quite as explosive as the sort of bottled up resentment that the oppressed feels towards their oppressor. It’s all there in the Bible.

Consider Psalm 137. It begins with the cry of an enslaved people:

By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’

Such circumstances are a breeding ground for fantasies of violence and revenge. And so the Psalm concludes: ” … happy shall be he who takes your children and smashes their heads against the rock.” For Nietzsche, this frustrated anger is the essence of Christian morality. It is the very engine of the church. Christianity is a religion of hatred.

Nowhere is this more obvious, Nietzsche insists, than with the invention of the idea of hell. For hell is a fantasy of the weak that enables them to imagine compensatory revenge against the strong. Evidencing this, he points to Aquinas who wrote that “the blessed in the heavenly kingdom will see the torment of the damned so that they may even more thoroughly enjoy their own blessedness.” The whole theological architecture of heaven and hell is, for Nietzsche, the product of “hatred” dressed up to look like love.

But the vengefulness of the pious slave goes a great deal further than simply twisting the idea of God into an instrument of revenge. For Nietzsche’s contention is that the very origins of morality itself – and secular morality just as much as its Judeo-Christian predecessor – can be understood as springing from the same impulse. Socialists beware: he thinks this is your story too.

Don’t look for proper history here. In a sense, Nietzsche is re-narrating the myth of the fall. In the beginning, so he says, there was nothing much wrong with the notion of God. Yahweh represented a culture at ease with itself and its prosperity. The festivals of religion were about exuberance, the means by which life was to be celebrated. But then came slavery and deportation into exile. And with this, the whole idea of God was re-imagined. Instead of being an expression of abundant confidence, God was transformed into a vehicle for desired revenge.

It was the Jews who, rejecting the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = blessed) ventured, with awe inspiring consistency, to bring about a reversal and held it in the teeth of their most unfathomable hatred (the hatred of the powerless), saying:

Only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the only ones saved, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble and powerful, you eternally wicked cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you will be eternally wretched, cursed and damned. (OGM 1:7)

With slavery, all values are reversed. “Blessed are the poor” says Jesus. Everything vibrant and life-affirming is redescribed as “bad” so as to undermine the authority of the strong. Morality is a put-down. And with this revolutionary redescription, Nietzsche contends, humanity degrades itself. Humanity withers.

It may be worth nailing the jibe that Nietzsche was antisemitic. Certainly, his talk of “the Jews” in the above reference will make many of us squirm. And his famous friendship with Wagner and the fact that he became Hitler’s favourite thinker do nothing to ease this discomfort. Yet, the truth is, Nietzsche loathed antisemites. He thought them vulgar and often said as much. In Beyond Good and Evil he muses: “It would perhaps be a good idea to eject the antisemitic ranters from the country.”

Despite the fact that all this is widely accepted by scholars, many who read Nietzsche still experience some residual anxiety that his celebration of the powerful and his denigration of the weak has proto-Nazi overtones. In OGM he speaks approvingly of the “magnificent blond beast avidly prowling around for spoil and victory” in contrast to the “failed, sickly, tired and exhausted people of whom today’s Europe is beginning to reek”. This is not a reference to Jews. Even so, I think Nietzsche apologists have been far too indulgent of his celebrated rhetorical flamboyance. This sort of language stinks.

But although there are several occasions when the modern reader will want to hold their nose whilst reading Nietzsche, it is worth persevering. For there is much here to ponder, not least the familiar idea that those who are bullied and abused in one generation can often turn into the bullies and abusers of the next. With Nietzsche, this thought becomes the guiding thread of cultural history. The impact of suffering cascades down the generations, finding its way into all aspects of life, cultural and psychological. Yes, he is out to expose the vast weight of poisonous anger that lurks behind that hideous evangelical smile. But his ambition is much greater than this. For Nietzsche contends that Judeo-Christianity has shaped European culture to such an extent that the inversion of values that it promotes has permeated the entire way we see the world. When things are this far gone, a simple declaration of “the death of God” will do little to change things. In fact, it may simply mask the root of the illness. For Nietzsche, atheism is no simple prophylactic against slave morality.

On the Genealogy of Morals, part 3: The birth of the übermensch

In the third part of our series on Nietzsche, we examine how he came to blame the church for all mankind’s self-hatred, and to see violence as the only cure

10 November 2008 12.40 GMT
The story thus far in Nietzsche’s mythical account of the creation of morality is that slavery leads to hatred on the part of the oppressed. That, roughly speaking, was part I of On the Genealogy of Morals. But what becomes of this hatred when the downtrodden are no longer oppressed but are liberated, set free to get on with their lives? What happens to all that bottled-up anger? This leads us to part II of OGM where Nietzsche’s highly stylised pseudo-history takes an inward turn, charting the creation of guilt and what he calls “bad conscience”.

A society that has been founded up the suffering of the slave is not easily able to throw off the deep psychological scars of its origins.

The sufferers, one and all, are frighteningly willing and inventive in their pretexts for painful emotions; they even enjoy being mistrustful and dwelling on wrongs and imagined slights … they rip open the oldest wounds and make themselves bleed to death from scars long since healed, they make evil-doers out of friend, wife, child, and anyone else near them

Thus, a society built on suffering is dangerously unstable, constantly on the look out for others to hold responsible for the creation of its pain. Even when human beings are “enclosed within the walls of society and peace” the power of ressentiment gnaws away, setting people against each other in a toxic brew of accusation and counter-accusation. The revengefulness of the victim has a remarkable staying power over time, stubbornly outlasting the circumstances of its birth.

For politicians and the ruling class, such a society is hell to manage. And here the church comes in. For the priest has a remarkable way of protecting society from itself. His answer to the question of responsibility is that we are all responsible for our own suffering. There is no one to blame but ourselves. Thus the anger and bitterness of ressentiment is turned inwards. The priest is “the direction changer of ressentiment”, refocusing the destructive hatred that was incubated in slavery back on the self. Here is Nietzsche’s account of how sin and guilt enter the world.

Part of the reason that this refocusing of ressentiment works is because it helps the politicians keep society quiet. Instead of blaming each other, the individual blames himself or herself, folding hatred back upon itself and generating self-hatred instead. It is as if Nietzsche has a sense that the suffering and resentment generated by oppression has to be discharged somewhere. The church manages of persuade people to discharge all that poisonous energy back upon itself. In this way the church makes itself indispensable to the powers that be at the same time as poisoning society with wells of self-destructive energy.

Fascinatingly, some have argued that what is being proposed here – albeit in Nietzsche’s characteristically hyperbolic style – is nothing less than an account of the origins of the inner working of the self that anticipates the ideas of Freud and his work on the unconscious. Nietzsche scholar Keith Ansell-Pearson claims that Freud’s “Civilisation and its Discontents is in many ways a psychological reworking of the Genealogy of Morals.” Both thinkers develop a sense of some subterranean self operating out of immediate view, and both believe this hidden self to be the product of an act of repression – though with Nietzsche it is violence and suffering that lies at the heart of the ‘unconscious’ rather than sexual desire.

The main task of Nietzsche’s thought, then, is to rid human beings – and Europeans specifically – from the nihilistic power of self-destructive hatred that is the church’s true gift to the world. To this extent he regards his philosophy as an exercise in liberation, an act of salvation even.

Yet his prescription for dealing with ressentiment shows Nietzsche at his least convincing. His answer is effectively: better out than in. Better to express one’s anger and bitterness than to keep it bottled up inside. For by expressing it, one discharges all its destructive energy. Thus he prefigures much cod psychobabble about the need we have to express ourselves and express our inner natures. But in contrast to much psychotherapy, there is little safe or suburban about Nietzschean therapy, he is not proposing a gentle “talking cure”. Rather the location for his therapeutics is more the battlefield than the couch. In order to discharge one’s ressentiment one must become like a marauding Viking or Homeric hero, an artist of expressive violence. This is the notorious übermensch, the atheist holy man:

Some time, in a stronger age than this mouldy, self-doubting present, he will come to us, the redeeming man of great love and contempt … This man of the future will redeem us not just from the ideal held up till now, but also from the things which have to arise from it, from the great nausea, the will to nothingness, from nihilism, that stroke of midday and of the great decision which makes the will free again, which gives earth its purpose and man his hope again, this antichrist and anti-nihilist, this conquerer of God and nothingness – he must come one day …

On the Genealogy of Morals, part 4: Is Christianity cowardly?

Nietzsche holds Plato responsible for providing the philosophical foundations of Christianity, and with it, a fear of change

17 November 2008 11.00 GMT

We godless anti-metaphysicians, still take out fire from the blaze set alight by a faith a thousand years old, that faith of the Christians, which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth and that truth is divine.

(On the Genealogy of Morals, III)

There is always a lot going on in Nietzsche’s writing, multiple targets being shot at, out-of-sight positions being undermined. And one of his most popular targets is Plato, the thinker Nietzsche holds most responsible for providing the philosophical foundations of Christianity. So despite the fact that Plato is something of a background figure in On the Genealogy of Morals (OGM), understanding his overall attack on Plato is vital in working out much of what is going on.

So what is it about Plato’s philosophical project to which Nietzsche so strenuously objects? According to Nietzsche, Plato is driven by the desire to protect the values of the rational Athenian world from the ravages of time or invasion by the forces of moral anarchy. On this reading, Plato’s fear is that the logical order of his world would one day be overcome by the forces of chaos that raged away beyond the boundaries of the city-state. In order to do this he seeks to articulate a permanent sense of human value that is immune from the vagaries of change and chance.

As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum brilliantly describes it in her book The Fragility of Goodness, Plato’s philosophy is an attempt to articulate human life without the fragility that comes with the exposure to chance. In contrast, the poets of Greek tragedy had described human beings whose lives were undone not through any fault of their own, but because they were exposed to contingency, to bad luck and chance. For Plato, such tragedy required a philosophical response. Thus he sets out to eliminate all aspects of human life that expose us to change – famously, our emotional life and our physical existence. Instead, we find release from contingency and chance if we index our lives to that which is beyond the physical, to an unchanging and eternal truth. This is the realm of the forms.

The details of Plato’s defence of this metaphysical realm need not detain us here. But the closeness of this idea to some key ideas of Christian philosophy is evident. I often reflect upon this reading of Plato when I stand at the crematorium and sing: “Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me.”

The story of how this sort of essentially philosophical thinking came to merge with the parables of an itinerant preacher from Galilee is a book in itself. With the Roman takeover of Christianity, the essentially Jewish marrow of early Christian thought was traded for a version of Platonic philosophy. Thus the substance behind Nietzsche’s jibe that Christianity is little more than popular Platonism.

Nietzsche objection here is that the whole invention of metaphysics, as described by Plato and followed by the Christians, comes about because of Plato’s fear of change. Essentially, metaphysics is fancy intellectual cowardice. Why? Because it is generated precisely because Plato seeks some fantasy release from the challenges of human fragility rather than having the courage to fight for the values that he believes need defending. Instead of standing firm at the barricades of reason against the forces of moral chaos, he elevates the source of human value into the heavens, thus apparently projecting it from change and chance. For Nietzsche, this otherworldliness is simply a reflection of Plato’s failure to face with courage the way things really are.

And it is not just Christianity that gets infected with this moral cowardice. Philosophy itself is thoroughly imbued with precisely the same spirit:

You ask me of the idiosyncrasies of philosophers? … There is their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the idea of becoming, their Egyptianism. They think they are doing a thing a favour when they dehistorisise it, sub specie aeterni – when they make a mummy of it. All philosophers have handled for years have been conceptual mummies; nothing actual has escaped their hand alive. They kill, they stuff when they worship, they’re conceptual idolaters – they become a mortal danger to everything they worship. Death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth, are for them objections – refutations even.

(from The Twilight of the Idols)

The basic point is that western philosophy generally and Christianity in particular has founded its thought upon the idea that change is a bad thing and thus that for human life to be valuable it must be rooted in something fixed and unchanging and eternal – ie God. But what Nietzsche points out is that anything that is not able to change is, by definition, dead. And thus that the Christian/Platonic worldview is essentially a celebration of death dressed up to look like the opposite.

God degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! In God a declaration of hostility towards life, nature, the will to life! …In God nothingness deified, the will to nothingness sanctified.

(from The Antichrist)

Since Nietzsche, a great deal of theological elbow grease has gone into trying to re-imagine a Christianity shorn of its Platonic sub-structure. The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, is right when he says that “the church in the west has for many years allowed Plato to beguile it away from the true pilgrim path.”

Yet putting Christian theology back on track, without the Plato, seems to many an almost impossible exercise given the extent to which these two have grown together over hundreds of years. But how difficult can it really be? Christianity was originally a Jewish peasant religion, with no understanding of, or vague interest in, the metaphysical categories we happily read back into the Biblical stories. Jesus had never heard of Plato. And the God of the philosophers is nothing like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Which may be why the best place to begin the reconstruction of a post-Platonic Christian theology is with the Reformation cry of “back to the Bible”.

On the Genealogy of Morals, part 5: Breaking the cycle of conflict

Nietzsche points to hatred in the Christian breast, but doesn’t appreciate that it is the byproduct of a victory over real violence

 24 November 2008 11.04 GMT

The thinker that has done most to mount a defence of Christianity against Nietzsche’s ferocious onslaught in On the Genealogy of Morals (OGM) – actually, not so much a defence as a counter attack – is the brilliant French sociologist René Girard. Girard critically examines Nietzsche’s central contention that Christianity is a religion of sublimated vengeance or ressentiment and contents that although Nietzsche is half right about Christians he remains dangerously naive about violence itself.

Girard’s main area of interest is in the relationship between religion and violence. His work looks at the ways in which violence often becomes self-perpetuating, one act of violence eliciting a mirrored response: thus the idea of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. For Girard, the teachings of Christ are an attempt to break this wheel of revenge. Instead of the endless reciprocity of eye for an eye, forgiveness breaks the cycle, revenge is forsworn and violence not answered back in kind.

The day after 9/11, Rowan Williams, who was caught up in the attack on the world trade centre, was phoned up by a Welsh speaking journalist. In his book Writings in the Dust, he describes that his first reaction was to wonder in which language to respond to the journalist, a reflection that immediately turns to what language in which answer back the terrorists. Is violence really “the only language they understand” he asks, his thoughts turning back to ask about the role of forgiveness.

It is a classic piece of Girardian writing.

Forget, then, the idea that forgiveness is some sentimental means of the victim thinking well of those that have done them harm – often this is impossible. Rather, Christian forgiveness is much more practical and empirical: it’s about not answering back in kind, not returning violence with more of the same. In essence, it represents a stubborn refusal to act in the same way as the violent other, it is a refusal to become like them.

This emphasis on forgiveness thus throws itself directly in the path of Nietzsche’s charge of ressentiment. Because forgiveness refuses the satisfaction of vengeance it generates ressentiment. So Nietzsche is partly right. Yes, there are huge wells of anger that form within the Christian imagination. Yes, the instinct for vengeance is not spirited away by the Christian act of forgiveness. If you punch me and I choose to forgive and not to punch back, there will still be an emotional consequence of living with the lingering anger that has not been discharged in action or revenge.

Nonetheless, Girard argues, the very fact that Christians have chosen to forgive and thus not to answer violence directly with violence is itself already a huge victory. He puts it thus:

Ressentiment is the interiorisation of weakened vengeance. He [Nietzsche] sees ressentiment not merely as the child of Christianity, which it certainly is, but also as its father, which it certainly is not. Ressentiment flourishes in a world where real vengeance has been weakened. The Bible and the Gospels have diminished the violence and vengeance and turned it into ressentiment not because they originate in the latter but because their real target is vengeance in all its forms, and the succeeded in wounding vengeance not eliminating it. Ressentiment is the manner in which vengeance survives the impact of Christianity.

(from Nietzsche versus the Crucified)

In other words, Nietzsche is brilliant at diagnosing the hidden hatreds that lurk within the Christian breast, but he does not appreciate that these hatreds are themselves the by-product of a victory over real violence. Ressentiment is the collateral damage of forgiveness.

For all his philosophical machismo, Nietzsche was remarkably naive about the reality of violence. For him it was almost a game. Consider this telling account of how Nietzsche received his duelling scar from a university rival: “We had a very animated conversation about all things, artistic and literary and when we were saying goodbye, I asked him in the politest terms to duel with me.” The fight was described thus:

It scarcely lasted three minutes, and Nietzsche’s opponent managed to cut a low carte at the bridge of his nose, hitting the exact spot where his spectacles, pressing down too heavily, had left a red mark. Within two or three days out hero had recovered, except for a small slanting scar across the bridge of his nose which remained there throughout his life and did not look at all bad on him.

It was only because Nietzsche treated violence a bit like a game that he could think of violence as a cure for ressentiment. Girard puts it thus:

He did not see that the evil he was fighting was a relatively minor evil compared to the more violent forms of vengeance. He could afford the luxury of resenting ressentiment so much that it appeared a fate worse than real vengeance. Being absent from the scene real vengeance was never seriously apprehended.

The truth is, Christianity takes violence a good deal more seriously than Nietzsche himself, despite his fancy rhetoric and insightful analysis.

There is an important rider to all of this, however. For quite a lot of Christian theology has little place for forgiveness. The evangelical doctrine of penal substitution, for instance, argues that human beings are saved through a process whereby the violence that is due to human beings (because of human disobedience) is instead discharged upon Jesus: thus, the cross. He “pays the price of sin”. This nasty and pernicious theology is built around the idea of a holy lynching and forgiveness plays little part. Of course, Jesus himself taught that religion ought to be reconstructed around the idea of forgiveness rather than blood sacrifice. Even so, penal substitution simply perpetuates the grim ideology that blood is able to wash away blood. Clearly, this was the way in which the Christian George Bush responded to 9/11. This sort of Christianity – if Christianity it is – I have no wish whatsoever to defend.

On the Genealogy of Morals, part 6: Superman goes mad in solitude

Nietzsche’s will to power leads him in the end to an unbearable loneliness

1 December 2008 11.00 GMT

“To thine own self be true”, says Polonius in Hamlet. Yes, but what is our true self? Is it something deep within our psyche waiting to be discovered? Or, as Nietzsche would have it, is it something the must be created in the first place? Is our “true self” found or made?

Part of Nietzsche’s importance is that he marks an important stage in the development of western individualism. Many begin this story with this rise in Protestantism and the idea that human beings are individually responsible for their relationship with God. Of course, one can take it back much earlier – to the stoics, for instance – but in breaking with the more communitarian instincts of Catholicism, the Protestant revolution charged the faithful to look after their own dealing with God. And this, in turn, led to an explosion of individual piety, shaping the experience of millions, including Nietzsche’s own family background.

Nietzsche’s work is a secularisation of this revolution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was spot on when he said that “It was only out of the soil of the German reformation that there could grow a Nietzsche.” But going way further than the Protestants who so decisively influenced him, Nietzsche tasks the individual with the responsibility of actually generating his or her own individuality. Thus not “be who you are”, à la Polonius, but “become who you are”. We must become our own authors. And this task of self-authoring becomes, for Nietzsche, a tremendous spiritual displacement, entirely atheistic of course, but one which tasks the individual with designing and affirming themselves with no reference to others. As I have mentioned in a previous post, this is where the eternal recurrence comes in.

When this spiritual discipline of self-authoring is going well Nietzsche thinks of himself as a hero, as Zarathustra. This is the Nietzsche of myth, striding out over the mountain top. But when it all goes badly, he collapses in on himself. In this passage, Nietzsche is so terrifyingly alone that he imagines himself to be two persons, so that one can comfort the other:


The last philosopher I call myself, for I am the last human being. No one converses with me beside myself and my voice reaches me as the voice of one dying. With the beloved voice, with thee the last remembered breath of human happiness, let me discourse, even if it is only for another hour. Because of thee I delude myself as to my solitude and lie my way back to multiplicity and love, for my heart shies away from believing that love is dead. I cannot bear the icy shivers of loneliest solitude. It compels me to speak as though I were two.


For some this is a reductio of Protestantism itself, the empty climax of that terrible experiment not to recognise any authority outside of one’s own heart. In other words, some use Nietzsche is exhibit (a) in the case against Protestantism.

But there are other readings of Nietzsche’s “failure” notably, I think, the brilliant observations of the Belgian feminist thinker Luce Irigaray. For Irigaray, the problem with Nietzsche’s self-authoring is that it is basically womb-envy. Addressing Nietzsche, she writes:

… to give birth to your desire itself, that is your final thought. To be incapable of doing it, your final ressentiment. But how will you find material to produce such a child? And going back to the source of all your children, you want to bring yourself back into the world. As father? Or child? And isn’t being two at a time the point where you come unstuck? Because to be a father, you have to procreate, your seed has to escape and fall from you. You have to engender suns, dawns, twilights other than your own. But in fact isn’t it your will, in the here and now, to pull everything back inside you and to be and to have only one sun? And to fasten up time, for you alone? And to join up all in one perfect place, one perfect circle, the origin and end of all things.

Nietzsche seeks to be “born again” wholly from his own spiritual recourses. For Irigaray, this is of a piece with Nietzsche’s manifest fear of women. He wants to be his own father and mother, the sole author of himself. He wants to do away with the need for others in his heroic act of self-creation. But what he never understands is that the creative energy necessary for self-creation can only come through interaction with that which is outside of oneself. Self-creation is bound up with the other. Self-creation requires reciprocity. Tragically, Nietzsche is so locked up in himself, he is cut off from the sources of creativity. Holed up in his “azure isolation”, the dream of Zarathustra withers to a pathetic and empty death.

On the Genealogy of Morals, part 7: Nietzsche contra dogma

The search for truth cannot simply be the product of some machine that churns out truths once the mechanism has been set

8 December 2008 11.00 GMT

The phrase “the death of God” is now firmly associated with Nietzsche and with a certain sort of atheistic recital. Yet, in one way, this is quite peculiar because the phrase itself, and the thinking behind it, began as an expression of mainstream Christian witness. Thus the Lutheran hymn-writer Johannes Rist wrote around 1641:

O great distress! God himself lies dead. On the cross he died, and by doing so he has won for us the realm of heaven.

And way back in the 4th century, someone like Tertullian could write that “It is a part of the creed of Christians that God did die and yet he is alive for evermore.” In other words, the death of God has historically been understood as a reference to Christ on the cross, not the advent of unbelief. Nietzsche knew this to be the case perfectly well. Indeed, what is most fascinating about Nietzsche is that he does not claim for his atheism the pristine rationalistic puritanism that is so widespread amongst the current crop of militant unbelievers. Thus:


The practical indifference to religious things in which he was born and raised is as a rule sublimated in him into a caution and cleanliness which avoids contact with religious people and things … and how much naivety, venerable, childlike and boundlessly stupid naivety is there in the scholar’s belief in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the simple unsuspecting certainty with which his instincts treat the religious man as an inferior and a lower type which he himself has evolved above and beyond.


I find Nietzsche endlessly fascinating because he is one of the few thinkers able to offer a new sort of debate about God. The contemporary debate, characterised by the vitriolic intensity and downright nastiness of much comment on religious subjects is, too often, simply a battle between clear-eyed believers who would regard any acknowledgment of alternative perspectives as a damnable heresy to be stamped out by invective and insult. Of course, religious people have been doing this for centuries. But there is a certainly an atheist equivalent. This intellectual puritanism is at its worst amongst those whose atheism is “scientific” – for those for whom an argument is either scientific or it is not an argument at all.

Of course, much of this debate is sheer intellectual masturbation. It makes little difference. Atheists are not going to convince believers, nor vice versa. But for the sake of a little more intellectual honesty, Nietzsche provides a powerful and imaginative attack upon faith that does not rely upon pretending that faith is without its reasons nor that atheism is an easy shortcut to a rational solution for all the world’s moral ills. Nietzsche asks religious believers to recognise their own capacity for atheism and for atheists to face the religious imperatives even within their own lack of faith. Here, for instance, is Nietzsche doing precisely that:


‘What do I hear!’ the old pope said at this point, pricking up his ears; ‘O Zarathustra, you are more pious than you believe, with such an unbelief! Some god in you has converted you to your godlessness … although you would be the most godless, I scent a stealthy odour of holiness and wellbeing that comes from long benedictions: it fills me with joy and sorrow.


It is not so much the quality of Nietzsche’s argument about faith that is so important as the way he goes about it. Crucially, Nietzsche insists that truth requires first a training in truthfulness. That is to say, the search for truth cannot be simply the product of some machine that churns out truths once the mechanism has been properly set. In contrast, Nietzsche recalls us to the role of self-critical honesty in the search for truth. And that being fully honest means entering a complex and uneven terrain where influences, prejudices, doubts, histories, loves, emotions, politics, experiences all jostle for a fair hearing. There is no one systematic rationality that can accommodate all of this.

This is not a ruse to persuade atheists to acknowledge that they might have the teensiest doubt in their own position. It is a call to a deeper engagement with the issues of faith. For the boo-hurrah approach to religion has become intellectually stagnant and, as a consequence, emotionally poisonous. Nietzsche is an emissary from the world of unbelief who can call us all out from our intellectual trenches.