Nietzsche: A Primer

I suppose we all have guilty pleasures. 

One of mine (one of several, actually) is reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.   I can pretty much sit down, day or night, with any one of his works and be rather—at least intellectually, if not spiritually—a happy man.

Yes, I very much know he was somewhat crazy, descending into a greater and greater madness until his death, so symbolically in the last year of the nineteenth century, 1900.  I also know how much he loathed republicanism, liberalism, Stoicism, and Christianity (well, really just Catholicism) and things that matter most to me.  Still. . . .

In many ways, though, he was the greatest of all nineteenth-century men.  Think about his competition for even a moment or two.  Of the five most influential thinkers of the western world in the nineteenth century—Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, and Nietzsche—he was the most interesting, the most-well rounded, and the one with the most depth. 

Certainly, some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century—such as Paul Elmer More, Eric Voegelin, and Henri de Lubac—respected and feared the ideas of Nietzsche, recognizing their significance for the modern and post-modern world.

He also, for better or worse, will continue to influence cultures, individuals, and peoples for centuries to come, in ways the other important thinkers of the nineteenth century probably will not.  In many ways, the entire modern and post-modern obsession with power comes from Nietzsche, whether those tools who espouse theories of power (race, class, gender) realize this or not.

For the purposes of this post, here are three of Nietzsche’s most important ideas.

First, the mad philosopher claimed that all modern drama in western civilization stemmed from the conflict found in the mythology of Apollo (order) and Dionysius (chaos).

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics were we have succeeded in perceiving directly, and not only through logical reasoning, that art derives its continuous development from the duality of the Apolline and Dionysiac; just as the reproduction of species depends on the duality of the sexes, with its constant conflicts and only periodically intervening reconciliations. These terms are borrowed from the Greeks, who revealed the profound mysteries of their artistic doctrines to the discerning mind, not in concepts but in the vividly clear forms of their deities. To the two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we owe our recognition that in the Greek world there is a tremendous opposition, as regards both origins and aims, between the Apollo arts of the sculptor and the non-visual Dionysius art of music. These two very different tendencies walk side-by-side, usually in violent opposition to one another, inciting one another to ever more powerful birds, perpetuating the struggle of the opposition only apparently bridged by the word “art”; until, finally, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic “will” will, the two seem to be coupled. [Source: Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy]

While this is too extreme and Manichean, Nietzsche makes a fine point, and it’s difficult to dismiss our own modern Hollywood culture without, at least to some degree, realizing that he understood a fundamental aspect of who and what we were to become in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Second, Nietzsche considered Catholicism to be the greatest enemy yet invented and imposed upon the nobility of man.  It’s most important representative, he feared, was Pascal.

Faith, as early Christianity desired, and not infrequently achieved in the midst of a skeptical and southerly free–spirit world, which had centuries of struggle between philosophical schools behind it and in it, counting besides the education intolerance for which the imperium Romanum—this faith is not that sincere, austere slave–faith by which perhaps a Luther or a Cromwell, or some other northern barbarian of the spirit remained attached to his God and Christianity; it is much rather the faith of Pascal, which resembles in a terrible manner a continuous suicide of reason—eight to half, long–lived, wormlike reason, which is not to be slain at once and with a single blow. The Christian faith from the beginning, is sacrifice: the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self–confidence of spirit; it is at the same time’s objection, self–derision, and self–mutilation. [Source: Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil]

His father had been a Lutheran pastor, but Friedrich had rejected not only the faith of his father, but he also rejected all Protestantism because it was insufficiently pagan.  Catholicism, he believed, represented the only true Christianity.  Lutheranism and Protestantism were merely halfway houses between Catholicism and full-blown paganism. 

At one very powerful point in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche imagines what an Epicurean god might do if he gazed long enough upon 1,900 years of Catholicism.

If one could observe the strangely painful, equally course and refined comedy of European Christianity with the derisive and impartial eye of an Epicurean god, I should think one would never cease marveling and laughing; does it not actually seem that some single will has ruled over Europe for eighteen centuries in order to make a sublime abortion of man?  He, however, who, with opposite requirements (no longer Epicurean) and with some divine hammer in his hand, could approach this almost voluntary degeneration and stunting of mankind, as exemplified in the European Christian (Pascal, for instance), would he not have to cry aloud with rage, pity, and horror: ‘Oh, you bunglers, presumptuous pitiful bunglers, what have you done!  Was that a work for your hands?  How you have hacked and botched my finest stone!  What have you presumed to do!’ –I should say that Christianity has hitherto been the most portentous of presumptions.  Men, not great enough, not hard enough, to be entitled as artists to take part in fashioning man; men, not sufficiently strong and far-sighted to allow, with sublime self-constraint, the obvious law of the thousandfold failures and perishings to prevail; men, not sufficiently noble to see the radically different grades of rank and intervals of rank that separate man from man:–such men, with their ‘equality before God,’ have hitherto swayed the destiny of Europe; until at least a dwarfed, almost ludicrous species has been produced, a gregarious animal, something obliging, sickly, mediocre, the European of the present day.

Finally, Nietzsche himself believed that his ideas had taken him, mystically, into another universe or plane of existence, confirmed later, at least as he believed it, by a vision of Zarathustra, a pre-Christian Persian priest and prophet, within and next to him.  Henri de Lubac has done the best job of exploring this side of Nietzsche in his Drama of Atheist Humanism.  And though he despised Catholicism, Nietzsche even believed his collected writings to be a fifth Gospel, obviating those of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  He, Nietzsche, then, believed he would serve as a “rival and successor to Jesus,” espousing the myth of the Overman, and transcending the limitations of good and evil.

Well, nobody’s perfect. . . .

2 thoughts on “Nietzsche: A Primer”

  1. “To the two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we owe our recognition that in the Greek world there is a tremendous opposition”

    So that’s where Rush’s Hemispheres cover comes from.


  2. Beyond Good and Evil is one of my favourite books by Nietzsche. Keep in mind that he was a proto-postmodern existentialist. Essentially, he questioned the motive of the metanarratives behind the disciplines you cite. So to say he despised, say, Catholicism, is to miss the point that he was suspicious of any such construct. Later, this became postmodern canon, as it were. Eventually, Foucault deconstructed a lot of historical texts and noticed the common thread of power and came to the conclusion that everything distils down to power relationships, so whenever you encounter a narrative, say, Catholicism (or Republicanism or Marxism), you just need to ask yourself who benefits (from the perspective of power ), and you’ll understand why the story is ‘written’ (or has manifested) the way it is. The Catholicism, it’s obviously the institution of the Catholic church, for Republicanism, it’s the elite (literally) in power, and for Marxism, it’s the worker.

    Poor Nietzsche’s madness can be attributed to his contraction of syphilis, and as Hitler was a failed artist, Nietzsche was a disgruntled musician, a situation that had an effect on his worldview.

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