At the outset of On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche reports that his polemical book of pseudo-history, pseudo-anthropology, and pseudo-psychology is an exercise in knowing ourselves. We cannot simply investigate morality and Christianity, as if these were topics we could entertain with dispassionate detachment as we do biological specimens or mathematical equations. No, according to Nietzsche, our commitment to a moral frame of reference penetrates to the depths of our soul. We are invested in the value of values, the moral significance of morality, and, as we are participants in a culture profoundly shaped by Christian ideals of self-denial and self-sacrifice, what we think about these ideals entails a judgment about ourselves. To inquire into the origin and value of morality is to peer into the hidden recesses of our ambitions and fears, our longings and loathings—to know ourselves.
Here, then, at the very beginning of Nietzsche’s work, we encounter the eccentric, even paradoxical trajectory of his polemical ambition: a strange and perplexing arch of rhetoric and logic that causes many commentators to misread the Genealogy of Morals —and the entire modern critical project.
Nietzsche knows very well the deepest concern of his freethinking readers: If I hand over my mind, my life, and my soul to God, how then can I retain my uniquely valuable individuality? What is so remarkable, however, is that Nietzsche does not give a conventionally modern, reassuring answer. Over the course of his rhetorically vertiginous analysis of the sources of morality, he slowly reshapes the expectations of his readers and guides them toward a deeper question, perhaps the deepest existential question of them all: Is it possible to have a distinct individuality, a soul to which I might be loyal, if I do not finally say with Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but thine”?
Nietzsche’s tract was clearly intended as a brief against Christianity. The Christian ethic of “pity, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice,” he insists again and again, deforms and destroys the human spirit. Under the spell of self-denial, we view natural exuberance and its impulse toward positive achievement as evil desires to be cut out of our souls by the harsh demands of righteousness. In the place of a noble strength, Nietzsche claims, the existential logic of Christianity encourages weakness, sickness, and ugliness. This unnatural moral system, which has bewitched Western culture for so long, leads to the spiritual exhaustion and despair he labels “nihilism.”
Nevertheless, he seems to offer hope to those who share his desire to move out from beneath the shadow of the cross. We need not think ourselves helpless before the dehumanizing forms of our inherited Christian morality. We can attain an intellectual self-mastery through “a critique of moral values,” and in so doing “the value of values themselves” can “be called into question.” This requires “a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances” under which Christian morality and its self-sacrificing imperatives came to dominance—the genealogical project.
It all seems quite familiar. We are to “think critically.” Yet—and here we find ourselves suddenly and violently thrown out of our conventional stances as objective inquirers—in his prefatory remarks, Nietzsche immediately suggests that our commonplace assumptions about critical inquiry are complacent and self-serving. He accuses his readers of naive illusions. Getting to the bottom of the moral impulse will not be a simple matter of clear thinking, something one can reserve for the lecture hall. Instead, Nietzsche warns that his inquiry traverses “quite novel questions” that will take him to a distant and hidden land. Questioning the value of values, especially the value of self-denying moral and religious commitments, is an all-involving, dangerous project.
As Nietzsche warns his readers, we are to go with him across the high mountain ranges of genealogical inquiry only if we are willing to endure pain and suffering. To think fearlessly about the value of values, we must deny our weak impulse to live amid the platitudes of our age. We need to discipline ourselves and renounce comfortable conclusions, not the least of which is the easy belief that critique will liberate rather than limit, the reassuring assumption that seeing the truth about the human condition brings us to the open plains of a new moment in human history rather than thrusting us back even more deeply into our inherited past.
Nietzsche is so convinced that his readers will lack the power of self-denial necessary to follow his analysis that he digresses to defend himself. Any troubles readers might have understanding the Genealogy of Morals, claims Nietzsche, are simply signs of weakness: We will not follow his logic to the end because we recoil from the pain that the conclusions inflict on our cherished self-images as modern men and women. Only an ascetic such as Zarathustra can go far enough and deep enough into the inner springs of our moral nature to understand the bewitching power of ascetic ideals. Only someone disciplined by the severe heights can sacrifice himself to the vocation of prophesying a self-created life without commanding truths. It is a puzzling paradox, one that challenges our complacently critical age.
The opening is the most famous part of the Genealogy of Morals, the section most likely to be read in an undergraduate survey course. This is no accident. Essay one is structured with narrative simplicity. It reads like the usual sort of historical critique of tradition that fills bookstores these days. And it seems to issue in a clear rejection of the life-denying consequences of Christian morality—again, common postmodern fare. But even essay one defeats the simplistic notion that we can escape from self-denial in an easy, life-affirming way.
Nietzsche begins by describing what he wants readers to imagine as the ambiance of antiquity. Two moralities operate. An aristocratic morality affirms as good the achievements of powerful men and the excellence of superior human beings. Badness is just an afterthought; it is simply the absence of strength, power, and excellence. For this reason, Nietzsche sees aristocratic morality as essentially active and life-enhancing. The strong are free to give expression to their superior qualities, and they do not worry themselves about the badness of the weak, except as a condition to be avoided.
The opposite of the aristocratic morality is what Nietzsche calls slave morality. Unable to be excellent, the mediocre reverse the values of life. Slaves turn the natural domination of the strong over the weak into wickedness; success becomes a form of sin, and creative achievement indicates prideful selfishness. The slaves are motivated to effect this transvaluation of values because it allows them to celebrate their fates as spiritual achievements. Craven submission to the stronger, greater man becomes humble obedience—or it even gets transformed into “love of one’s enemies.” Slave morality turns weakness into a virtue: “Blessed are the meek.”
Nietzsche is well aware that history has already formed us to accept and affirm the slaves’ life-denying precepts. Whether Christian or not, almost everybody, by Nietzsche’s reckoning, endorses some form of slave morality. He is surely right, both of his own time and today. We presume that a good person subordinates self-interest to the demands of the common good. We think that we should pity the weak and make sacrifices to care for those less capable, accomplished, and powerful. Our egalitarian ethos requires us to denounce claims to superiority.
But how could this have happened? How could this deliberate self-weakening have become such a powerful moral ideal? To answer this question, Nietzsche posits a moral revolution perpetrated by a cabal of conniving priestly conspirators. “With the Jews,” he writes, “there begins the slave revolt in morality: that revolt which has a history of two thousand years behind it and which we no longer see because it—has been victorious.”
The revolution refers, of course, to the spread and eventual triumph of Christianity in the ancient Mediterranean world. By Nietzsche’s analysis, Christianity did not succeed on the basis of its martyrs or doctrines. Instead, Christianity expressed a subtle psychological dynamic that has bewitching power: ressentiment.
Whether or not we can determine Nietzsche’s motives for using a French term, the psychological process of ressentiment should be familiar. The strengths and benefits that others enjoy are not goods at all. They are signs of moral weakness and spiritual deformity: greed, pride, luxury, and so forth. In this way, reports Nietzsche, “the venomous eye of ressentiment” destroys strength, excellence, beauty, achievement, and nobility with its transvaluing lie: Strength is weakness and weakness is strength.
As Nietzsche tells the story, the dynamics of ressentiment define the life-denying trajectory of slave morality. The noble man is purely active and creative. He meets obstacles and adversaries and tries to overcome them, but always for the sake of the good sought. In contrast, the child of ressentiment is reactive, derivative, and full of anxious denials and accusations. He is “ill-constituted, dwarfed, atrophied and poisoned.” The world of slave morality is created by the power of hatred, Nietzsche’s rhetoric insinuates—the hatred of all that is strong, well constituted, and living. Within the logic of slave morality, goodness has no substantial reality; it is pure negation, “not evil,” which really means “not strong” or “not powerful.”
Ressentiment sets up an impossible situation. “To demand of strength,” writes Nietzsche, “that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.”
This absurd demand, thinks Nietzsche, is the germ of nihilism. Slave morality trains us to hate the natural exuberance and creativity of the human animal. Our instincts, drives, and urges, all of which press us outward to act on and find our satisfactions in the world, become powers to be denied, suppressed, and tamed. As a result, Nietzsche suggests, we become disgusted with our own human condition. Under the influence of slave morality and its demand that strength become weakness, “the sight of man makes us weary—what is nihilism today if not that?—We are weary of man.” Christian morality wishes to emasculate the potency of the human will. This great project of redefining strength as weakness ends in an enervated, paralyzed moral exhaustion: If only I could be . . . not me.
And yet, as Nietzsche himself admits, the subtle psychological dynamic of ressentiment is profoundly creative: It somehow managed to remint strength as weakness and weakness as strength. The historical influence was remarkable. The aristocratic desires of wellborn Romans gave way to a desire for an ascetic heroism. Christianity triumphed. To be able to move so many—indeed, to be able to move the strong themselves—indicates that slave morality has its own kind of conquering strength, however unnatural.
To address this difficulty, Nietzsche spins his tale of dark machinations. Christian morality did not win in a fair fight against the aristocratic morality of Greco-Roman culture. Victory was the result of a Jewish conspiracy, a priestly plot to displace the noble morality of the strong with the slave morality of the weak.
The simple-minded moralism of contemporary readers likely motivates readers to cringe. Is Nietzsche venting tired, old anti-Semitic prejudices, tales of Jewish conspiracy that have been only too often believed in the modern era? But the jab is a sucker punch. Nietzsche is mocking his readers rather than enlightening them. His basic commitment to power and the primacy of the deed (“the deed is everything”) overwhelms any attempt to explain away the victory of Christianity. “Consider,” he writes, “to whom one bows down in Rome itself today.” Victory reveals strength, and “Rome has been defeated beyond all doubt.”
Ultimately, we are wrong to read essay one as a straightforward attempt to unmask the real history of morality so that we can throw off the shackles of hate-infected Christian morality and recommit ourselves to the good, life-affirming Greeks. Nietzsche could never be so naive. A few well-chosen metaphors, a dash of historical analysis, some appeals to neutral scientific (“instinct”) and medical (“health”) terms cannot transport us to enlightenment like a comfortable express train taking commuters home after a long, difficult day at the office.
Nietzsche was not a contemporary college professor retailing fifty-minute lectures to young students as so many stops on the itinerary of intellectual and moral self-possession. Nietzsche did not think we could simply adopt critical poses, poses (as his faux-historical evocation of a Jewish conspiracy suggests) often rotten with prejudices made all the more dangerous because sanctified with the latest academic theory, and fancy ourselves thus free to think independently about a moral tradition that has dominated Western culture for two thousand years. Nietzsche eventually went mad, but he was never a fool.
To be sure, Nietzsche takes the basic dichotomy developed in essay one seriously: “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome.” He thinks that the deepest question we face as a culture is the structure of our moral imaginations, the value of our values. Shall we live under the sign of the cross (Judea) or shall we live simply for the sake of what we can do and impose on the world (Rome)?
But, as the preface foreshadows and the final sections of essay one make clear, Nietzsche wants to destroy our illusions about how we can go about answering this kind of question. He wants to puncture our modern illusions of objectivity, our reassuring assumption that cultural and moral sickness can be shed like a snake’s skin, our easy optimism that we have the capacity to choose and redirect our lives and our culture on the basis of rational analysis and well-intentioned judgment.
All these applications of “critical thinking,” itself an emasculating assault on the strength of convictions that energize the will, are epiphenomena of slave morality. Thus, Nietzsche ends essay one by recounting the whiggish history of our supposed triumphs over superstition, priestcraft, and tyranny—the Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution. He labels them moments of redoubled ressentiment. They were not heroic and noble achievements of the human spirit. They were further and deeper Judean triumphs.
Only in essay two does Nietzsche provide his readers with a patient, theoretically cogent account of how and why we ever came to imagine that we should live for the sake of something other than ourselves.
The answer he gives is a naturalized form of Augustinian anthropology. Our impulse toward self-denying moral effort arises out of our instinctual lives. Our hearts are restless. Our lives are not governed by the need for survival; instead, human personality is most deeply formed by a creative desire to be and do something more. We cannot honestly know ourselves unless we acknowledge that we live as creatures of ambition.
Like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Nietzsche pictures a state of nature that allows him to describe what he takes to be the inner springs of human personality. In our original condition, we are happy, and our happiness stems from a capacity for forgetfulness, what Nietzsche calls a “positive repression” of time and the burdens of finitude. A competitive environment, however, puts pressure on lives. Only the strong can afford the luxury of forgetfulness, for they can ward off the blows of others at every turn. The weak, in contrast, require memory. They need to navigate through life prudently, and the signs of danger must be carefully fixed in their memories.
Nietzsche’s account of the transition from forgetfulness to memory involves lurid descriptions of brutal punishments. He observes, “Man could never do without blood, torture, and sacrifices when he felt the need to create a memory for himself.” When the powerful demand the services of the weak, their commands must be burned into our bodies so that they will be remembered. “Pain,” he notes, “is the most powerful aid to mnemonics.” As human societies become more complex and hierarchical, the need for memory increases, and this gives rise to a ritualized economy of pain, punishment, and suffering.
Still, moral ideals cannot be explained by the external pressure of social practices and the manipulation of Pavlovian pleasure and pain responses. Fear gives rise to prudence, Nietzsche observes, but it cannot explain the desire for righteousness. The oversupply of moral energy that turns inward and acts on the instinctual life of the human creature must be explained, and Nietzsche posits a limitless source of psychic energy, which he famously calls our will to power.
It is this creative, dominating impulse that drives “the strong” toward the self-exaltations of “goodness.” Caged by fear of punishment, creative freedom turns inward. “Those fearful bulwarks,” writes Nietzsche, “with which the political organization protected itself against the old instincts of freedom—punishments belong among those bulwarks—brought about that all those instincts of wild, free, prowling man turned backward against man himself.” Conscience, with its self-limiting, self-sacrificing dynamics, proves paradoxically to be the inwardly turned expressions of the instinct of will to power. Slave morality expresses inwardly all the outward, aristocratic qualities that Nietzsche had championed in essay one.
Freud’s theory of the superego makes a similar move, postulating that our mental images of good and evil are energized by the repressed erotic potency of the id. The very sources of transgression are redirected toward the self-denying project of moral perfection.
Freud was a cool rationalist. He regretted the intensity of traditional morality, because he thought its self-denying force unnecessarily harsh. In its place, he advocated a temperate management of the circulation of transgressive desire and repressive discipline. But in order to support this therapeutic project, Freud evaded the deeper question: What triggers and sustains the dominance of the superego? He described imprudent moral idealism and religious fervor as forms of collective psychosis, and he explained the origins of personality with carefully tailored myths of primal Oedipal violence.
In marked contrast and with much greater analytic honesty, Nietzsche pushes forward. The engines of history and culture must be the desires, actions, and personalities of the strong—and this includes the reality of moral and religious self-denial. Thus, at this crucial juncture, Nietzsche formulates what he takes to be the deep paradox of culture—that strength should choose self-limiting weakness and call it glory.
Not only does Nietzsche formulate the paradox, he resolves it. Our animal natures encourage us to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Yet we possess a drive that transcends the limited ambitions of pleasure and pain. The will to power wants to create and dominate. The soul, like radioactive material driven inward under pressure, reaches critical mass, and the human animal becomes a moral agent.
Homesick for the wild, the instinctual zest for life that characterizes the will to power turns to the soul itself as an unexplored territory to be conquered. We declare war on our instincts. As our carnal selves fight back against the project of carving up the psyche into good desires and wicked desires, we become for ourselves a dangerous place of adventure. We live an outward life dedicated to survival, but our inward lives are a mysterious wilderness. In this way, the will to power fills its creative needs by formulating the distinction between good and evil—and applying it with relentless force to itself.
The inner struggle, the agonistic formation of the soul, allows Nietzsche to explain the positive allure of slave morality. We conquer ourselves with an artistic cruelty and “secret self-ravishment” that would make any Greek warrior proud. As the creative freedom of the will to power reaches its goal—domination of instinct itself—we give ourselves the greatest gift of strength, which Nietzsche identifies as forgetfulness. We wear the hair shirts of spiritual discipline to defeat our bodies, and in so doing we forget that we are animals with physical needs and desires. We live with indifference to our weak flesh, ignoring its demands just as the noble strongmen of Nietzsche’s imagination were indifferent to their weak slaves, indulging them now and again in gestures of magnanimity but never counting them or their needs as relevant to the ideal life. Instead of conquering others, we conquer our souls.
Nietzsche views this inward turn as inevitable. No slave revolt or Jewish conspiracy was necessary. Rome defeated herself. Surrounded by glorious achievements and dominating the known world, the greatest soldiers and statesmen were slaves to the glory of past heroes. Under these conditions, should we be surprised that the great souls of late antiquity felt the attractions of ressentiment?
Nietzsche helps us picture Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor, saying, “My forefathers may have conquered the world, but I have conquered my humanity!” He exercises the ultimate prerogative of the strong by forgetting his worldly past and glorious legacy so he can concern himself with himself. Outward success drove the Roman aristocrat toward the inner adventure of self-discipline in the service of a divine truth. Thus does the morality of self-denial emerge out of the breasts of the strong, not as an inexplicable capitulation to the weak, but as a creative and heroic form of life.
No doubt Nietzsche regards our bondage to self-denial, our lives in the thrall of a desire to love and serve God, as a “bad fate.” In this sense, he is properly read as a patron of the postmodern rebellion against the domineering demands of truth. But, unlike so much contemporary pious posturing about difference and diversity, Nietzsche will not countenance any easy, self-deluding alternatives.
Essay three thus involves an extended demonstration of what Nietzsche correctly anticipates will be the one truth that his readers cannot bear: the inescapable power of self-denying moral ideals. Nietzsche surveys the standard modern methods of self-liberation from the narrow way of faith: art, philosophy, humanistic studies, politics, and even atheism. In each instance, he shatters illusions. Covert forms of Christianity, they are all the more unappealing because of their self-protective blindness and uncreative mendacity.
The coda for essay three is straightforward: The human will needs a goal. Is this so difficult to understand, asks Nietzsche? We want to make something out of our lives; we want to add up to something. But do we really understand what it means to “make something of our lives,” to achieve something “worthwhile,” to choose something “meaningful,” to create something “beautiful”? Do we realize how difficult it is to have an ambition or a goal that does not require us to sacrifice our individuality, our polymorphous instincts, our spontaneous freedom? Do we really know how hard it is to make something of ourselves without cutting into ourselves, carving and sculpting with disciplinary strategies of self-denial? Do we not see that wanting to be something—anything—involves obedience to an ideal? Modern fantasies about post-Christian ways of life make men and women into the most deformed of all possible creatures: ignorant slaves of slave morality.
Take, for example, Nietzsche’s two digressions into art and philosophy. Both have served as modern alternatives to Christianity, and both promise their followers a purpose free from the degrading necessities of obedience. As Nietzsche shows, neither can deliver.
Art for art’s sake, devotion to form, discipline of voice, clarity of vision, all defined and redefined in endless discussions of artistic integrity and purpose—this and more defines the artistic vocation. As Nietzsche observes, the atmosphere of urgency gives art its ascetic character. Our painting must render what is real. Our poetry must serve the muse. “The musician himself” must become “a kind of mouthpiece of the ‘in itself’ of things, a telephone from beyond.” The composer is a “ventriloquist of God.” The listener is no less subservient. We must put ourselves entirely at the disposal of the music. “Not my will but thine” remains as the covert imperative.
Nietzsche finds Wagner emblematic. One can hardly accuse Wagnerian opera of cold formalism and constrained expressive range. Yet, according to Nietzsche, Wagner’s late embrace of Christianity was entirely in keeping with the logic of all art, which is characterized by a will to power expressing itself as self-denial. We can build new temples to art (museums, concert halls); found new monasteries of art (conservatories, artist colonies, studios); fund new programs (writers’ workshops, endowments for the arts, musical competitions); we can even refashion the funding of art, education, and practice to serve moral and political ideals (urban art projects, AIDS tapestries, agitprop theater), but we cannot escape from the self-denying trajectory of art. The artist serves art. Wagner only followed his vocation back to its source.
Nietzsche’s treatment of philosophy follows the same pattern. Philosophy is, at root, a project of purification, and philosophers are punctilious priests enforcing codes of mental cleanliness. Indeed, Nietzsche links philosophers to the clergy when he observes that all philosophers criticize fame, princes, and women. This teasing equation reflects Nietzsche’s insight into the disposition toward truth that philosophy encourages. We are to obey her severe demands. Plato sought to root out temptations by eliminating poetry, sublimating sexual love, rejecting the comforting myths of traditional religion, and encouraging a steely resistance to the blandishments of wealth and the threats of political power. To become philosophers, we need a capacity for self-denial and a willingness to serve the truth.
The same holds for the larger project of modern, critical education. We must question our dearly held pieties. We need to discipline ourselves to step back and coolly examine our presuppositions. Nietzsche sees the spiritual effect. Guided by the modern critical project, “we violate ourselves nowadays, no doubt of it, we nutcrackers of the soul, ever questioning and questionable.” The conclusions may contradict Christian doctrine, but the underlying knife of self-denial cuts as deeply as ever. “We experiment with ourselves,” Nietzsche observes of the modern atmosphere of critique that contemporary professors continue confidently to impose on credulous college freshman, “in a way we would never permit ourselves to experiment with animals and, carried away by curiosity, we cheerfully vivisect our souls.”
As ssay three concludes, Nietzsche’s rhetoric gains momentum. He wants his readers to see the awesome power of Christianity, and so he writes, “Where is the match of this closed system of will, goal and interpretation? Why has it not found a match?—Where is the other goal?”
One practically feels Nietzsche’s relief when he comments on the stratagems of the serious Christians who submit to traditional disciplines—for here, at least, Nietzsche feels as though he has at last come “face to face with the actual representative of seriousness.” At least they know what they are about. Rising to the challenge of a genuine, dangerous adversary, he utters shrill denunciations to convince his readers that the self-denial of these Christians is demonic and destructive. “The ascetic ideal has not only ruined health and taste, it has also ruined a third, fourth, fifth, sixth thing as well—I beware of enumerating everything (I’d never finish).” Christianity has had “monstrous and calamitous effects.”
And yet, as quickly as Nietzsche brandishes his rhetorical sword, he seems to fall into the despair of a warrior suddenly aware that he has been deserted by his cowardly comrades. All the supposed alternatives have failed to escape the gravitational pull of the cross. Essay three races impatiently through science, cultural study, historical analysis, social activism, even atheism itself. These are simply further pale echoes of Christianity, comical when not pathetic.
Science is a busy world of conferences and publications, career advancement and technological gadgets. When physical science puts on airs and claims to defend intellectual integrity and experimental rigor, it reveals its religious character as a strict disciplinarian. “This ‘modern science’—let us face the fact!—is the best ally the ascetic ideal has at present.” The human sciences—sociology, modern history, anthropology, psychology—are equally characterized by an “insistence on intellectual cleanliness,” and these disciplines “still have faith in truth.”
Self-conscious atheism reinforces rather than overcomes the logic of confessional submission. “Unconditional honest atheism (and it is the only air we breathe, we more spiritual men of this age!) is therefore not the antithesis of [the ascetic] ideal, as it appears to be,” Nietzsche writes. “It is rather only one of the latest phases of its evolution, one of its terminal forms and inner consequences.” In fact, atheism may be the most extreme form of self-denial. It is a frenzied perfectionism of the intellect that “forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” Saying no to dogma in obedience to pure reason still involves saying yes to the logic of self-denying service to the truth.
The wild swings of rhetoric of the final pages of the Genealogy of Morals drive home the lesson in self-knowledge Nietzsche promised to deliver—and warned we would resist. Modernity has not lived up to its ambitions. The cross endures.
In the final section, he even suggests that the cold facts of our fragile humanity make self-denial the only real alternative for a human life that does not simply give up in despair. “To repeat in conclusion what I said in the beginning,” the final line declares, “man would rather will nothingness than not will.” We would rather live for an otherworldly ideal than abandon ourselves to enslavement to the fickle instincts of our decaying bodies. We would rather consume ourselves in fires of self-imposed moral discipline than simply live and allow ourselves to be slowly, inexorably consumed by the cruel ravages of time.
Nietzsche was a strange and complicated man. He clearly despised Christianity and yearned for a form of human life that is creative, free, and fully developed. Yet his most lucid and disciplined investigation into the dynamics of faith ends with a mockery of modern alternatives and a grudging affirmation that the human animal was made to worship, serve, and obey. For if we leave our lives simply as we find them, he suggests, then we are doomed to live a nihilism deeper and more threatening than the most unworldly and aggressive asceticism—life without will.
Nietzsche’s almost unwilling final affirmation of the ascetic impulse echoes St. Augustine’s basic insight into the human condition. Our hearts are restless. The human animal wishes to give itself to something higher. It is a need more basic than our instinctual urges. It is a nature more fundamental than everything our age wishes us to affirm as natural.
Our restless hearts suggest that the real dangers of the present age are not to be found in an open-ended, nihilistic non-judgmentalism that encourages us to imagine our world devoid of compelling truths. Such possibilities are abroad, but, as anyone who has been exposed to our educational establishment knows, it requires the constant infusion of disciplinary energy to keep young people from actually believing something.
Instead, if Nietzsche is right, the danger we face may be idolatry. Deprived of a God worth worshiping, we will find substitutes, even to the point of prostrating ourselves before birds or animals or reptiles that our modern minds have transformed from graven images into shrill moral imperatives and brittle political causes.
The last century’s graveyards testify to the reality of this danger. Turned away from something truly greater than ourselves, we do not come to rest in a modest loyalty to humanity. Instead, as Nietzsche’s and Augustine’s insights into the human condition warn us, we fall into a devotion to subhuman primal powers that reward our service with debasement.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.