Stanley Cavell crafted the phrase “truth in foul disguise” to describe Nietzsche’s analysis of Christianity. Stephen Mulhall’s new book, Philosophical Myths of the Fall, takes Cavell’s phrase as a clue to the interpretation of the supple dialectical stance toward Christianity adopted not just by Nietzsche but also by two other German philosophers, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, who together constitute the three most influential philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century.
Mulhall’s rich and generally compelling argument could, I suppose, be classified as a version of the secularization thesis concerning modern philosophy. In his famous Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers, Carl Becker argued that Enlightenment philosophers were not nearly as independent of Christianity as they claimed. They replaced an other-worldly paradise with a socially constructed heaven in this life. For Mulhall, anti-Enlightenment German philosophers are suspicious of any final transformation, offered by either infused faith or rational engineering. Although they suggest remedial strategies, they focus less on redemption than on the fall and less on philosophical reason than on myth.
To put it more precisely, Mulhall’s view is that these philosophers “preserve a version of human nature . . . as structurally perverse or errant and yet redeemable from that fallen state,” but they also “refuse to accept that such redemption is attainable only from a transcendental or divine source.” Indeed, the entire notion of redemption is a problem for these thinkers, especially Nietzsche and Heidegger, for whom Christian redemption is at best a diversion from knowledge of our true condition and at worst a fundamental cause of our alienation. Still, Mulhall sees all three thinkers as coming round to some version of human restoration, of at least a partial overcoming of our structural perversion.
Mulhall raises two sorts of questions about these philosophical myths. The first concerns the extent to which the accounts of human descent are parasitic upon purportedly repudiated Christian ways of understanding the human condition. The second has to do with the dubious efficacy of any remedies that, refusing a transcendent response, appeal to the same human condition that they describe as inherently fallen and turned against itself.
By far the most interesting chapter in the book is the one on Nietzsche, who famously argued that the road to modern nihilism is paved by Christian theology as it insists on seeing this life as void of significance except as a means to another world, transcending this one. But Nietzsche, who at one point describes his task as translating man back into nature, offers his own myth of the fall. It has its roots in the Jewish and Christian slave rebellion in morals, a rebellion that—in its celebration of meekness, chastity, and humility—inverts the noble values of antiquity. In contrast to the pagan attitude of generous gratitude in the face of nature, Christians are suspicious of nature, seeing it as deceptive, tempting, and infected with sin. For Nietzsche, humanity’s fall consists precisely in its acceptance of the Christian myth of the Fall. Nietzsche’s account of our need to be rescued from the Christian account of sin and redemption “turns out to reproduce rather than transcend a paradoxical structure of Christian thought.”
While some contemporary interpreters of Nietzsche might find this surprising, it is doubtful that Nietzsche would. In its revaluation of the values of antiquity and its accentuation of ascetic self-overcoming, Christianity anticipates the value-creating artistry Nietzsche prizes. A wonderful passage from Beyond Good and Evil captures the seriousness with which Nietzsche takes Christianity: “So far the most powerful human beings have still bowed worshipfully before the saint as the riddle of self-conquest. . . . The powerful of the world learned a new fear before him; they sensed a new power, a strange, as yet unconquered enemy—it was the will to power that made them stop before the saint. They had to ask him—”
Like Nietzche, Heidegger’s major works involve sustained interrogation of Christian doctrines. Indeed, Heidegger’s own teachings on ecstatic temporality and dread owe much to such Christian thinkers as Augustine and Kierkegaard. Mulhall offers an illuminating comparison with Kierkegaard, for whom no single choice or series of choices, much less the capacity itself of choosing, can confer meaning on human life; instead, a sense of purpose can be provided only by something outside my life that can be related to it as a whole. Kierkegaard calls this the Absolute, or God. To relate absolutely to the Absolute is not to treat God as a thing or a substance, as one more, albeit the highest and best, item on a list of goods or values. Our relation to God reveals at every moment our own incompleteness, the way in which we are inherently enigmatic to ourselves, since we are maintained in existence by an intimate relation to what is Wholly Other. The danger with equating God with the wholly other is that God becomes no thing or nothing. And this provides a nice transition to Heidegger. Not God but death is, for Heidegger, that in relation to which we can grasp our existence as a finite whole. In our being toward death, authenticity is established as relatedness to our own nullity. In his descriptions of alienation, diversion, boredom, and dread as well as in his insistence that mortality is the key to authentic self-knowledge, Heidegger recasts Christian themes of our fallenness.
In a study of philosophical myths of the fall, the inclusion of Nietzsche and Heidegger, whose writings constitute a sustained and passionate confrontation with Christianity, is not surprising. Wittgenstein’s inclusion is, however. The section on Wittgenstein begins with the opening reflections from the Philosophical Investigations, in which Wittgenstein comments on Augustine’s account from early in the Confessions of the way we learn a language. All words are names that refer in non-controversial and reasonably direct ways to objects and activities in the world. For Wittgenstein, by contrast, learning to use words is not a matter of linking up isolated terms with discrete objects but of participating in what he calls language games, the practice of learning how go about living and acting in certain contexts.
At least in his major works, Wittgenstein never speaks of a cosmic fall, but he does describe in much less dramatic terms a systematic and mysterious dislocation of human language, thought, and action from the framework or language games in which they are embedded. Here the fall involves a sort of cognitive dislocation, the illusion that we can think and live “beyond or outside language games.” Modern skepticism and the philosophical project of justifying knowledge arise equally from this illusion. Mulhall wonders, how did we fall into “such confusion to begin with”? How to explain or even describe this inexplicable lapse? In Wittgenstein’s therapeutic remedy, by which we are liberated from the illusion that human knowledge can achieve an unconditioned foundation, Mulhall detects a similarity to Augustine for whom we are able to attain our true nature by relation with a particular person whose words make our re-orientation possible. The moment of grace occurs not with the philosophical solution to intricate epistemological problems but with the “vanishing of the problem.” This involves a “spiritual idea of accepting the world’s independence of our will, of accepting our own finitude.”
One of the problems with Mulhall’s account is that, of the three philosophers studied in the book, only Nietzsche, in his account of the transition from noble to slave morality, offers an explicit narrative of what we might term the transition from a pre-lapsarian state to a post-lapsarian one. Indeed, Mulhall himself seems given to a sort of Heideggerian reading of the fall as woven into the very fabric of human finitude. Human beings are, on his reading of Christianity, “necessarily, essentially sinful before God.” He adds, “In apparently conceiving of the familiar facets of embodiment . . . as manifestations of the Fall, of our falling away from our paradisal selves, it constitutes a libel against the body.”
This makes Mulhall’s Christianity look gnostic or neoplatonic, according to which embodiment itself constitutes a lapse, an imprisonment within the physical realm. In terms that he associates with Kierkegaard, Mulhall depicts the mystery of sin: A sinful act cannot be explained, for sinful acts presuppose sinfulness and sinfulness presupposes sinful acts. However difficult it may be to conceive of an original sinful act performed by an innocent human being, that teaching is central to Christian orthodoxy. As Paul Ricoeur stressed some years ago in his magisterial book, The Symbolism of Evil, the “Adamic myth” distinguishes guilt from finitude and “sets up a radical origin of evil distinct from the more primordial origin of the goodness of things.”
Apart from the discussion of Wittgenstein, many readers will not find much novelty in Mulhall’s insistence upon the dialectical indebtedness of Nietzsche or Heidegger to Christianity. The dependence has most often been acknowledged in the form of a complaint that, despite their own stated goals, both Nietzsche and Heidegger remain too tied to western metaphysics or to grand narratives of the sort boldly proclaimed in Christianity. Nietzsche detected in Enlightenment secularists the residues of Christian morality, the extirpation of which would require a direct confrontation with nihilism. Then, in Nietzsche’s eschewal of metaphysics, Heidegger detected a metaphysics. Returning the favor, French commentators discovered in Heidegger’s overcoming of metaphysics—what else?—a lingering metaphysics. Endless deconstruction ensues.
Mulhall’s re-opening of issues of fall and redemption is not so much a re-construction of a specific answer as it is a re-articulation of the germane questions and a re-thinking of possible responses. Mulhall simultaneously puts into question the adequacy of the philosophical myths and raises the prospect of re-considering the Christian account. The chief deficiency in the philosophical myths is that their suggested remedies appeal to “merely human sources of therapy or emancipatory help”—and thus they offer no real hope for the overcoming of our condition. They deprive us of the “joy of being wrong.” For Mulhall, their very mimicking of decidedly religious ways of thinking about the human condition re-opens the question of religious truth. Mulhall rightly concludes that “such a reorientation of our contemporary sense of cultural possibilities” would be “no small thing.”
Thomas Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture and dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.