Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

There’s been some discussion about the similarities between Nietzsche and Strauss here lately so I thought I’d make a brief comment of my own on the subject. While it’s often the case that comparative studies of the two focus on the possibility that they shared nihilistic conclusions, I’m going to try to distinguish the two on the basis of their views of Christianity in light of the fundamental problems posed by modernity.

Let’s start with Nietzsche. Nietzsche famously announces the problem of modern nihilism in Judeo-Christian terms: the “Death of God” signifies the double problem that science has sundered the connection between reason and goodness and has undercut the metaphysical support for our purposive meaning as human beings. Now that we can no longer in good conscience believe in God or the moral tradition he ontologically underwrites, man is confronted by the abyss of his own radical insignificance. Nihilism itself is not necessarily bad—in a note from 1887 Nietzsche distinguished between a “passive” and an “active” nihilism, the former which is identical to “decadence” and the latter which is a “masterful force of destruction”. In fact, the onslaught of nihilism presents a grand historical opportunity since it “purifies” us—this is how Nietzsche can happily classify the eternal return, the core of his response to the modern crisis, as the “most extreme form of nihilism”. The discovery that Being is nothing other than Becoming, or to put it in the language of physics, that rest is nothing other than a disguised version of motion, is the precondition for the recognition of the “Innocence” of Becoming, or the moral indifference of the cosmos to man.

The problem for Nietzsche is a resuscitation of man in light of the self-abnegating consequences of the Enlightenment—he has to somehow combine the fact of radical cosmic insignificance with radical self-celebration. The problem is not to devise some “individualistic morality” but to ground an aristocratic “rank ordering” of human beings.  The difficulty of this project can be seen in the obvious contradiction between what is usually considered the twin pillars of his thought—the will to power and the eternal return of the same. The will to power emphasizes the fact of human choice which seems eliminated by the determinism of the eternal return; as Lowith puts it, Nietzsche attempts to combine cosmological completeness with individual creativity. As becomes clear in his later writing, the will to power is almost entirely exoteric unless one reinterprets it only as a statement about the reduction of world to the random fluctuations of force—the reinterpretation of Being as Becoming necessarily destroys not just the act of willing but the willful agent behind all creativity. Nietzsche understands that a radically impersonal cosmos cannot account for the existence of real personal beings, and is not content, following to Rousseau, to simply accept the free human being as a mysterious accident. As Nietzsche points out himself, the intellectual “probity” paradoxically inherited from Christianity requires that the ruthless logic of radical skepticism be carried to its final conclusion: the rejection of both a personal God and of genuine freedom.

The problem of Christianity for Nietzsche is essentially the same as the problem of Platonism at its core—Christianity is a “decayed Platonism” or “Platonism for the masses”. One synoptic way of encapsulating the many problems Nietzsche identifies with Christianity is to look at it through the lens of temporality-Christianity devalues human life by relocating all value in eternity. To put this in quasi-Hegelian terms, the meaning of all individual existence is a function of the individual’s participation in the Absolute. The challenge for Nietzsche is that the positing of the Superman as the height of human existence seems to contradict his intransigent opposition to any Idealism that creates dualistic split between “what is” and “what should be”—Nietzsche wants to combine the striving for better that necessarily accompanies the legitimacy of any natural hierarchy without negating our actual historical existence or introducing a trans-historical frame of reference. The trick of the eternal return is to declare the historical actuality of the future and therefore retain its immanence—the Superman is not an ideal but rather a real figure who has been and will be willed again. The eternal return, then, is a repudiation of the Christian view of eternity that results in “other-worldliness”—Nietzsche demands an eternity that maintains the unity of time and of this world.

For all his often incendiary rhetoric vilifying both Christianity and religion, Nietzsche makes clear his respect for it a profoundly spiritual expression of the will to power that has, in many ways, elevated mankind. In Beyond Good and Evil , Nietzsche mocks the modern scholar as inferior to the religious type he characteristically condemns and in The Gay Science notes that the Enlightenment struggle versus the Kingdom of Darkness was often the struggle of small-souled versus deeper, more impressive men. Nietzsche borrows from Christianity its themes of self-transformation and redemption, and attempts to substitute the divine Creation of the cosmos with the self-creation of man. Still, such willful creativity can only be a dream and in the absence of any stable or ordered conception of Being metaphysics must be replaced by rhetoric or art. The highest being for Nietzsche is not the philosopher who pensively contemplates eternity or the saint who worships God but the poet-warrior, a “Ceasar with the soul of Christ”, who basks in his own contingent and historical particularity and deifies himself. So while Christianity understands its doctrine as the truth Nietzsche understands his own revolution as a salutary myth—the difference, from Nietzche’s perspective, is that his lie ennobles rather than debases human life and that he offers it with eyes wide open.

Nietzsche borrows from Christianity those parts of humanity that are destroyed by the victory of Enlightenment science, or as he puts it elsewhere, the victory of scientific method over science. The freedom and greatness of the individual and the enormous significance assigned to personal creation are all vitiated by the reduction of man to matter in the infinite void—what began as the quest for mastery consummates itself in self-effacement. Nietzsche’s project is the transformation of this stultifying nihilism into the requisite condition for the transvaluation of all values—he disingenuously presents chance, which is the rhetorical mask for necessity, as the ground of creative freedom. For Nietzsche, creation is necessarily preceded by destruction, and his reckless and revolutionary poetry aims to hasten the demise of the modern project to usher in a new age, and maybe even new Gods. It might be the case, though, that Nietzsche is even more dependent on Christianity than he supposes, and maybe more modern as well: a pair of central criticisms offered by Strauss.

Part Two on Strauss and his response to Nietzsche will follow shortly.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles