What Nietzsche calls Christianity is, in fact, a twisted form of the Judeo-Christian faith. Of course, there are people who use humility as their trump card, their piety to blackmail others, their meekness to manipulate, and their obedience to secretly dominate. Perhaps this is all the Christianity young Nietzsche saw in his Protestant pastor father’s home?
The pandemic has prompted me to seek new methods of communication, so a friend has encouraged me to create a “Deep Dive”—a six-week online course digging into the sources for my book, Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness. The first half of the book considers the roots of rage in the thought of Nietzsche, Max Scheler, and Rene Girard.
To prepare for the deep dive, I’ve been re-reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, and it makes me wonder how much of Nietzsche’s philosophy has been swallowed by gullible readers simply because of his blustering, passionate style. He writes with a combination of great erudition and passion, but because his end point is nihilism, it is all “the tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The bee in Nietzsche’s bonnet is what he calls the “slave revolt of morality.” Put simply, the aristocrats and rulers always showed humanity what was good because they were strong, noble, intelligent, true, and bold. Their prosperity and power proved they were good. Their health and wealth confirmed their superiority. But the Jews, according to Nietzsche, upended this simple, obvious form of morality. Because they were slaves, they were driven by ressentiment—not your ordinary resentment because Johnny got a bigger piece of pie or Sally won the race you wanted to win—but deeply rooted resentment that had festered for ages and turned not only sour, but poisonous.
This ressentiment drove first the Jews, then the Christians, to turn their tragedy into a triumph—their gloom into their glory. They were the noble ones, not their overlords. They were the truly good people, and their masters were therefore obviously evil. Thus humility, meekness, obedience, and submission replaced hubris, power, accomplishment, and dominance as the true virtues.
Nietzsche spits on this revolution in morality; thus, in chapter fourteen of his polemic he splutters with frustrated rage:
‘I think people are telling lies; a sugary mildness clings to every sound. Lies are turning weakness into an accomplishment, no doubt about it—it’s just as you said.’—Go on!—’and impotence which doesn’t retaliate is being turned into “goodness”; timid baseness is being turned into “humility”; submission to people one hates is being turned into “obedience” (actually towards someone who, they say, orders this submission—they call him God)… his inevitable position of having to wait, are all given good names such as “patience”, also known as the virtue; not-being-able-to-take-revenge is called not-wanting-to-take-revenge, it might even be forgiveness (“for they know not what they do—but we know what they are doing!”)
They are also talking about “loving your enemies”—and sweating while they do it.’—Go on!—’They are miserable, without a doubt, all these rumor-mongers and clandestine forgers, even if they do crouch close together for warmth—but they tell me that their misery means they are God’s chosen and select, after all, people beat the dogs they love best; perhaps this misery is just a preparation, a test, a training, it might be even more than that—something that will one day be balanced up and paid back with enormous interest in gold, no! in happiness. They call that “bliss”’…. ‘They are now informing me that not only are they better than the powerful, the masters of the world whose spittle they have to lick (not from fear, not at all from fear! but because God orders them to honor those in authority)—not only are they better, but they have a “better time”, or at least will have a better time one day. But enough! enough! I can’t bear it any longer. Bad air! Bad air! This workshop where ideals are fabricated—it seems to me just to stink of lies.’
It must be said that Nietzsche has a point. He has grabbed an idea and is shaking it as a terrier shakes a slipper. Not only is he shaking it; he’s growling and gnawing at that slipper… but it is only a slipper, or, to be more precise, not so much a slipper as a slippery character. Nietzsche doesn’t know it, but he’s wrestling with an octopus in oil.
For the genealogy of morality is not so simple as all that. Max Scheler came along with his book Ressentiment and revealed that it is all much more complex and darker than Nietzsche understood. It is certainly true that some people have inverted morality out of resentment and rivalry. Who has not known the pious woman who would wreak her revenge by vowing to “pray for you”? Haven’t we all known the self-righteous man who proves his superiority by his obsequious inferiority? Anyone experienced with church life will recognize the church lady who stakes out her territory and dominates everyone by being their helper. What about the woman who (as C.S. Lewis quipped) “lives for others and you can tell the others by their hunted look”?
What Nietzsche calls Christianity is, in fact, a twisted form of the Judeo-Christian faith. Of course, there are people who use humility as their trump card, their piety to blackmail others, their meekness to manipulate, and their obedience to secretly dominate. Perhaps this is all the Christianity young Nietzsche saw in his Protestant pastor father’s home. Was his sole experience of Christianity such a stuffy, neurotic, hypocritical, twisted, and diabolical sham?
Did he never see the authentic Christianity of the saints or experience the vital paradox of Paul who wrote, “it is when I am weak that I am most strong”? Did he never hear of Christians singing in jail, joking with their executioner, and crying out “Viva Christo Rey!” in the face of the firing squad?
Nietzsche missed a crucial aspect of Christianity that Jesus said would only be “revealed to the little ones” and that quality might be called “graced joy” or “confidence in providence.” Mary’s Magnificat does not read as a polemic of resentment or a subtle exercise in one-upmanship. Her son’s Sermon on the Mount does not read as a bitter diatribe or a manifesto for revolution. Both documents, the whole New Testament, and the writings of the saints surge with a quality the uninspired cannot see—an otherworldly strength and positive spirit that is free of all resentment, self-pity, or the blame of others.
Nietzsche or his devotees will no doubt respond, “Ah yes, but that just goes to show how very subtle the slave revolt of morality really is! They believe the lie themselves so profoundly that they are able to parade their inferiority as your so-called ‘joyful abandon’ and ‘trust in divine providence!’ This only goes to show how very pervasive and insidious it really is.”
But when we get to that level of argument, we are in the labyrinth mind of the conspiracy theorist who says about the lack of evidence for his theory, “That only goes to show how effective they were at the cover up!”
The fact is, Nietzsche’s slave revolt in morality is nothing more than a clever idea which, upon examination, only serves to explain a distortion of morality rather than its true genesis. Where then does the knowledge of good and evil come from? Its genesis is in Genesis. By virtue of the free will they were given our first parents made a choice, and simply by making a choice they decided that one thing was better than another, and so the seed of morality was planted in their minds which eventually blossomed into a full realization that to walk in the Creator’s way was good, and to walk in their own path led to destruction.
After setting up his straw man of the slave revolt in morality, Nietzsche had to set up his superman as the answer. Goodness was not faux meekness, despicable servility, and obsequious humility. It was to be found in the strength, dominance, nobility, purity, and beauty of a master race.
And we all know how that story ended.
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