Friedrich Nietzsche and the Underhanded Pursuit of Heroism
Cliff Williams Department of Philosophy Wheaton College Wheaton, Illinois 60187
Cornerstone Festival Bushnell, Illinois July 2009
“Each of us, first as a child and then as an adult, clings to an irrational belief in our specialness” (Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy, 96).
Friedrich Nietzsche lived in Germany from 1844 to 1900. Although he left the Christian faith that he grew up in and became vehemently anti-Christian, his books contain numerous insights useful for Christians, either because they are true or because they prompt us to probe further than we are accustomed to. He is especially good at noticing the underhanded ways in which people pursue heroism in moral and religious ways.
Nietzsche as being like an Old Testament prophet
In his book Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Eerdmans, 1993), Merold Westphal asserts that there is a “profound parallel between the critique of religion in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and the critique of religion found in the Bible” (10). “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (Isaiah 64:6). “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matt. 23:27). Nietzsche asserted, Westphal says, that “the virtues of the Christians are splendid vices. They are splendid because they represent no small spiritual achievement; but they are doubly vices, first because they mask a self-centered will to power that by their own criteria is the essence of immorality; and second, because in hiding this fact from themselves and from others, the votaries of these ‘virtues’ engage in systematic self-deception and hypocrisy” (246).
The real motives of our virtues, according to Nietzsche
(a) Mercy: “This self-overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself—mercy; it goes without saying that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man” (GM, II, #10).
(b) Self-sacrifice: “The feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbor, the whole morality of self-denial must be questioned mercilessly and taken to court. . . . There is too much charm and sugar in these feelings of ‘for others,’ ‘not for myself,’ for us not to need to become doubly suspicious at this point and to ask: ‘are these not perhaps—seductions?’” (BGE, #33).
“Anyone who has really made sacrifices knows that he wanted and got something in return” (BGE, #220).
(c) Justice: “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’” (GM, I, #14).
“It causes us no surprise to see . . . attempts often made before . . . to sanctify revenge under
the name of justice” (GM, II, #11).
(d) Love: “‘And love?’—What? Even an action done from love is supposed to be ‘unegoistic’? But you dolts!” (BGE, #220).
In general, Christian virtues spring from revenge and resentment, according to Nietzsche: “Moral judgments and condemnations constitute the favorite revenge of the spiritually limited against those less limited . . . malice spiritualized” (BGE, #215). “The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values. . . . While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself . . . , the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors” (GM, I, #10).
The real motives of Christians, according to Nietzsche
(a) Christianity is hostile to life: “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life. Hatred of ‘the world,’ condemnation of the passions, fear of beauty and sensuality, a beyond invented the better to slander this life, at bottom a craving for the nothing, for the end, for respite, for ‘the sabbath of sabbaths’—all this always struck me, no less than the unconditional will of Christianity to recognize only moral values, as the most dangerous and uncanny form of all possible forms of a ‘will to decline’ —at the very least a sign of abysmal sickness, weariness, discouragement, exhaustion, and the impoverishment of life” (Attempt at a Self-Criticism, #5).
(b) The values of the church are inverted: “Stand all valuations on their head—that is what they had to do. And break the strong, sickly o’er great hopes, cast suspicion on the joy in beauty, bend everything haughty, manly, conquering, domineering, all the instincts characteristic of the highest and best-turned-out type of ‘man,’ into unsureness, agony of conscience, self-destruction—indeed, invert all love of the earthly and of dominion over the earth into hatred of the earth and the earthly—that is the task the church posed for itself and had to pose, until in its estimation ‘becoming unworldly,’ ‘unsensual,’ and ‘higher men’ were fused into a single feeling” (BGE, #62).
“From the start, the Christian faith is a sacrifice: a sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation” (BGE, #46).
(c) Christianity is based more on fear than gratitude: “What is amazing about the religiosity of the ancient Greeks is the enormous abundance of gratitude it exudes: it is a very noble type of man that confronts nature and life in this way. Later, when the rabble gained the upper hand in Greece, fear became rampant in religion, too—and the ground was prepared for Christianity” (BGE, #49).
(d) Christianity promotes self-torture: “This man of the bad conscience has seized upon the presupposition of religion so as to drive his self-torture to its most gruesome pitch of severity and rigor. Guilt before God: this thought becomes an instrument of torture to him” (GM, II, #22).
“The suffering are one and all dreadfully eager and inventive in discovering occasions for painful affects; they enjoy being mistrustful and dwelling on nasty deeds and imaginary slights; they scour the entrails of their past and present for obscure and questionable occurrences that offer them the opportunity to revel in tormenting suspicions and to intoxicate themselves with the poison of their own malice: they tear open their oldest wounds, they bleed from long-healed scars, they make evildoers out of their friends, wives, children, and whoever else stands closest to them” (GM, III, #15).
The true way to be a hero, according to Nietzsche
The ideal person: “Whoever has . . . looked into, down into the most world-denying of all possible ways of thinking . . . may just thereby . . . have opened his eyes to the opposite idea: the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being” (BGE, #56).
Virtues: “Honesty, supposing that this is our virtue from which we cannot get away, we free spirits—well, let us work on it with all our malice and love” (BGE, #227). “The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval” (BGE, #260). “In the foreground there is the feeling of fullness, of power that seeks to overflow, the happiness of high tension, the consciousness of wealth that would give and bestow: the noble human being, too, helps the unfortunate, but not, almost not, from pity, but prompted more by an urge begotten by excess of power” (BGE, #260). “To live with tremendous and proud composure. . . . And to remain master of one’s four virtues: of courage, insight, sympathy, and solitude. For solitude is a virtue for us, as a sublime bent and urge for cleanliness which guesses how all contact between man and man—‘in society’—involves inevitable uncleanliness” (BGE, #284). “What is noble? . . . It is not the works, it is the faith that is decisive here, that determines the order of rank—to take up again an ancient religious formula in a new and more profound sense: some fundamental certainty that a noble soul has about itself, something that cannot be sought, nor found, nor perhaps lost. . . . The noble soul has reverence for itself” (BGE, #287). “I should actually risk an order of rank among philosopher depending on the rank of their laughter—all the way up to those capable of golden laughter” (BGE, #294).
True Christian heroism: We are all “special” because God loves us.
Quotations from Nietzsche are from Beyond Good and Evil (BGE) and The Genealogy of Morals (GM) contained in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1995). Numbers refer to sections, not pages.