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Portrait_of_Friedrich_NietzscheI suppose we all have guilty pleasures.

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

Yes, I know he was somewhat crazy, descending into a greater and greater madness until his death–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.

For better or worse, he 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. The entire modern and post-modern obsession with power comes from Nietzsche, whether those who espouse theories of power (in terms of race, class, or gender) realize this or not.

For the purposes of this essay, 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 where 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 births, perpetuating the struggle of the opposition only apparently bridged by the word “art”; until, finally, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic “will,” the two seem to be coupled [Source: Nietzsche’s 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. Its 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’s Beyond Good and Evil].

His father had been a Lutheran pastor, but Friedrich not only rejected the faith of his father, but also 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 coarse 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. . . .

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15 replies to this post
  1. Ha! What an ending!! My Hillsdale English prof, Dr Robert Rice, always dismissed Ayn Rand as “a penny-whistle Nietzsche!”

  2. Nietzsche is only dangerous because his aphoristic and poetic form is so accessible to lay persons without even a fraction of the classical education Nietzsche had.

    Every sentence he wrote is layered with meaning perceptible to a philologist, yet so easily and readily abused by impatient men who would have all of Nietzsche’s bluster without learning languages and slouching over old books.

  3. I am somewhat pleased and shocked at the same time that you have produced such and article.
    I say this partly because as the late Jonathan Bowden has argued, Nietzsche is the Right Wing thinker of the future, and I think I agree with him therefore I may no longer be on the Right. From my view the Right is purely ideological (at least in its most true form proposed by Julius Evola and Nietzsche.) I am also rather puzzled that you forgot to mention my homeboy Kirkegaard, were you excluding Christian thinkers intentionally?

    • The Reason I say this is because, the Centre Right (Libertarians and Burkean Conservatives) in my view will eventually run out of intellectual steam, because they are simply being dishonest with themselves. The New Left and even the Old Left (to a certain extent) don’t understand what the The Left is at it’s core not utopia or even progress,Left is simply the eternal idea that equality and the sanctioning of equality is morally good for the world. Leftists need to think hard about the promotion of equality, just as the Right needs to understand what it really is:an Ideology.

    • I am puzzled as to why anyone would call Nietzsche a “right-wing thinker.” He was not really a political thinker, and I don’t know what would be “right-wing” about his thought.

      • Nietzche was clearly a Radical Reactionary, he was not a Righ Winger in The Christian sense but he wanted to return the older aristocratic morality of pre Christian Europe. (Please look up Jonathan Bowden on Nietzche at YouTube and he will explain this much better than I can.)

  4. Having discovered FWN as a Freshman in High School, I can assent to his intoxicating power of language and ideas. (It may perhaps be a truism nobody should be allowed to read Nietzsche until they are at least 40 years old.)

    On his own, what he wrote was frightening. It is a scandal he was misused by his sister and adopted by the Nazis (if they had actually read him, his books would have been burned also.)

    As Mister Rieth notes, his thought is so deep and layered, it is easy to misinterpret. But to mention him and Ayn Rand in the same breath is both insulting to his memory and an assignment to Rand of an intelligence she never displayed.

    I always wanted to name my dog ‘Nietzsche’, but my wife says nobody would get it.

  5. Seems like the 19th century produced a Twin Towers of Evil, Nietzsche and Karl Marx. Both hated Christianity and produced ideas responsible for millions of murders.

  6. I would include Nietzsche as one of the great towers of evil. Even when he’s not objecting to moral truths, his thinking sounds shoddy. His aesthetics doesn’t sound all that profound to me. Rather simple. I see no reason to glamorize the man or hold his ideas up as great. For my money, the greatest thinker of the the 19th century was Dostoevsky.

  7. Perhaps I’m missing something, but how can it be that Protestantism is a more pagan version of Christianity than Catholicism? After all, we know that the Council in Rome with Emperor Constantine was an attempt to reconcile Proto-Catholic doctrine with existing pagan customs and beliefs. We know further that the Protestant Reformation was a reaction against the perceived excesses of the Church, and radical forms of Protestantism like Puritanism sought to perge/purify the church of everything seen as coming from the devil. In “The Antichrist,” Nietzsche states,

    “by it
    Christianity would have been _swept away_!–What happened? A German
    monk, Luther, came to Rome. This monk, with all the vengeful instincts
    of an unsuccessful priest in him, raised a rebellion _against_ the
    Renaissance in Rome…. Instead of grasping, with profound thanksgiving,
    the miracle that had taken place: the conquest of Christianity at its
    _capital_–instead of this, his hatred was stimulated by the spectacle.
    A religious man thinks only of himself.–Luther saw only the _depravity_
    of the papacy at the very moment when the opposite was becoming
    apparent: the old corruption, the _peccatum originale_, Christianity
    itself, no longer occupied the papal chair! Instead there was life!
    Instead there was the triumph of life! Instead there was a great yea to
    all lofty, beautiful and daring things!… And Luther _restored the
    church_: he attacked it…. The Renaissance–an event without meaning, a
    great futility!–

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