Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 3 “The Religious Mood”)

It’s impossible to think about Western civilization without the Bible. Western art, literature, music, philosophy and even science have all been heavily influenced by biblical themes. There are many stories in the Bible which shock modern readers. The story of Abraham being told by “an angel of the Lord” to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of them. What kind of man would kill his own child? There’s a whole category of people who reject the Christian religion because this “Book” has some seriously flawed people in it and they feel the Bible was written for a different time and place. It shouldn’t be used as a guide for living in the modern world. So these folks are openly hostile toward Christianity. But a second category of people accept the flawed models in the Bible as reflections of their own lives and the lives of everyone else they know. These are believers who see the Bible as a guide for navigating the real world - not the world as we wish it was but the world we really live in. And believers don’t think human nature has changed all that much since ancient times. A third category of people don’t care one way or the other. They go about their daily lives from cradle to grave and the Bible doesn’t make a big influence on them at all. These folks just shrug off religion and get on with life. Then there’s Nietzsche.

Many people reject religion because they think it leads to fanaticism and war. They argue that religion makes people too aggressive. But Nietzsche rejects orthodox Christianity for a different reason. He thinks it makes people too weak. Nietzsche believes that only the strong survive and that’s the way it should be. He says that “Among men, as among all other animals, there is a surplus of defective, diseased, degenerating, infirm, and necessarily suffering individuals… What, then, is the attitude of the two greatest religions (Christianity and Buddhism) to the surplus of failures in life? They endeavor to preserve and keep alive whatever can be preserved; in fact, as the religions for sufferers, they take the part of these upon principle…” By nurturing misfits and other “defective” people Christianity has really weakened the society we live in. Nietzsche’s brand of philosophy is to do away with good deed-doers and replace them with a more vigorous and heroic race of men. Society should therefore focus on developing its strongest members. The weaker members should exist only for the further development of the stronger. This will advance the cause of philosophy and improve human nature as Nietzsche conceives it. The Will to Power is the prime motivating force for this philosophical outlook. It’s exactly backward from the Christian religion, which teaches that the stronger folks should take care of the weaker ones. Self-sacrificial love is the prime motivating force for the Christian religion. These two views could hardly be farther apart in the ends they hope to achieve.

Ironically the means are similar in some ways. Nietzsche likes physical energy and action but he also recognizes that a Super-Man needs to go off and be alone sometimes so he can think and contemplate life. Nietzsche acknowledges the value of meditation when he says that “outward idleness or semi-idleness is necessary to a real religious life…” Catholic Trappist monks agree wholeheartedly with this concept and make “semi-idleness” a major part of their daily routine. They call it Lectio Divina – holy reading. Trappists practice “idleness” by their devotion to this Lectio Divina. But they also balance idleness with physical labor; sometimes hard physical labor. So their days consist of three major activities: Prayer, Work, and Study. For Trappist monks prayer isn’t the “soft placidity” that Nietzsche thinks it is. For them prayer (Opus Dei or “God’s Work”) is, in fact, the most important thing they do. It’s so important that they get up every day at 3:00 a.m. to chant the Psalms. Is this the kind of life Nietzsche calls weak?


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