Friedrich Nietzche’s Ecce Homo lays waste to centuries of an ethic of inhibition and restraint. Intellectually brutalized, bloodied, and tortured, the nineteenth-century philosopher presented himself in his final and last words to a world he wanted to overthrow. Behold the man. To be more accurate, behold the demon.
In his mockingly titled autobiography and final published work, Ecce Homo (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche presented himself as the prophet of modernity. His father a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche rejected all that he had inherited in terms of faith at age twelve and dedicated himself to destroying the morality and ethics of Judaism and Christianity. As any Catholic knows, especially during the Lenten season, “Ecce homo” comes from Pontius Pilate’s presentation of a brutalized, bloody, and tortured Jesus to the bloodthirsty crowds of Jerusalem. “Behold the man,” Pilate stated.
No one should underestimate Nietzsche’s own vision of himself with the title. Intellectually brutalized, bloodied, and tortured, the nineteenth-century philosopher presented himself—in his final and last words to a world he wanted to overthrow. Behold the man. To be more accurate, behold the demon. To be sure, the man could write, the man could think, and the man could tell a great story. But, he was also descending into madness, and it is difficult—even for those who love Nietzsche—to know if one should take him seriously or not in the autobiography. His hubris is so over the top at times, that even his greatest supporters cringe when trying to give this book context.
While I am no lover of Nietzsche or his many words, I am a qualified admirer, even if rather disgusted at myself for so being. In Nietzsche, I find the anti-Christ made clear, his words direct and honest, his purpose driven and honed. In much the same way I read a little too readily horror fiction or rubberneck at a highway journey gone terribly wrong, I read—not just from time to time, but quite often—the various works of Nietzsche. As with a ghastly novel or ghastly moment of reality on America’s roads, I always want to shower and read something uplifting after reading Nietzsche.
In his own career as a philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche did all in his power to destroy the ethics and morality of the Judeo-Christian system. An avid opponent to Judaism and Catholicism, Nietzsche gave some (but only minimal) credence to Protestantism, but only because, he thought, Protestants more pagan in the Viking sense than Catholics. It was the lingering will of the Nordic that Nietszche admired. The Catholic—all-too-Latin, too soft, too sensuous—was not only a “worm,” but a worm capable of making other men worms as well.
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 marvelling 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, nor 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 last a dwarfed, almost ludicrous species has been produced, a gregarious animal, something obliging, sickly, mediocre, the European of the present day.
Though somewhat humorously presented, Nietzsche found nothing humorous in this sublime abortion of man.
Consequently, Nietzsche saw himself as the prophet of modernity, the man who would tear down nineteen centuries of Catholic morality, ethnics, habits, norms, mores, and rules, all imposed to make men less than nature intended them to be.
As Henri Du Lubac has noted in his brilliant Drama of Atheistic Humanism, Nietzsche had a love-hate relationship with Jesus. At one level, he believed his writings collectively to be a sort of fifth gospel, but, at another level altogether, he believed himself the incarnation of God the Holy Spirit. In Ecce Homo, he explained his importance.
In my lifework, my Zarathustra holds a place apart. With it, I gave my fellow men the greatest gift that has ever been bestowed upon them. This book, the voice of which speaks out across the ages, is not only the loftiest book on earth, literally the book of mountain air,—the whole phenomenon, mankind, lies at an incalculable distance beneath it,—but it is also the deepest book, born of the inmost abundance of truth; an inexhaustible well, into which no pitcher can be lowered without coming up again laden with gold and with goodness.
Its importance? It lays waste to centuries of an ethic of inhibition and restraint. The book, Nietzsche thought, liberated man from all of the shackles the Jews and Catholics had placed upon man, making him wormlike, soft, and malleable.
“I am not a man,” Nietzsche assured his audience in 1886. “I am dynamite. And, with all that there is nothing in me of the founder of a religion—religions are affairs of the rabble.” As a purveyor of hard truths, he continued, he is, for all intents and purpose, the anti-saint.
And I am notwithstanding, or rather not notwithstanding, the mouthpiece of truth; for nothing more blown-out with falsehood has ever existed, than a saint. But my truth is terrible: for hitherto lies have been called truth. The Transvaluation of all Values, this is my formula for mankind’s greatest step towards coming to its senses—a step which in me became flesh and genius. My destiny ordained that I should be the first decent human being, and that I should feel myself opposed to the falsehood of millenniums. I was the first to discover truth, and for the simple reason that I was the first who became conscious of falsehood as falsehood—that is to say, I smelt it as such.
Ultimately, Nietzsche claimed, he is the destroyer of the past. “I am the first immoralist. I am therewith the destroyer par excellence.” From the publication of Zarathustra, he continued, the world changes and man may never again avoid the choice between Christian morality and human morality.
The unmasking of Christian morality is an event which unequalled in history, it is a real catastrophe. The man who throws light upon it is a force majeure, a fatality; he breaks the history of man into two. Time is reckoned up before him and after him. The lightning flash of truth struck precisely that which theretofore had stood highest: he who understands what was destroyed by that flash should look to see whether he still holds anything in his hands. Everything which until then was called truth, has been revealed as the most detrimental, most spiteful, and most subterranean form of life; the holy pretext, which was the “improvement” of man, has been recognised as a ruse for draining life of its energy and of its blood. Morality conceived as Vampirism…. The man who unmasks morality has also unmasked the worthlessness of the values in which men either believe or have believed; he no longer sees anything to be revered in the most venerable man—even in the types of men that have been pronounced holy; all he can see in them is the most fatal kind of abortions.
When we today look at the state of modernity, we find few women or men intelligent or learned enough to be Marxists, Darwinians, or Freudians. Yet, everywhere we look, we see the destruction wrought by Nietzsche. Families collapsing, the liberal arts perverted, and sexual mores so extreme as to be non-existent. Whether Nietzsche was somehow the cause or merely the prophet of such horror is beyond the scope of this essay to explore. Yet, it is clear that of the greatest (as in most important, not morally best) nineteenth-century thinkers, Nietzsche stands as the most relevant to our current crisis of culture.
Consider, for a moment, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous statement about meaning: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” At its heart, how is Justice Kennedy’s pronouncement not a merely modern and middle-class way of restating Nietzsche’s proclamation of the past as a shackle, good only for destroying, thus allowing the true self to define his (or her) place in existence?
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche” (1906) by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.