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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

What is Religious

Do not let this happen to you, you who are weak and whose fate depends on a single movement of the scale. And do not be like those people who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way, and, when every clear and distinct hope has left them in their adversity, turn to what is blind and vague, to prophecies and oracles and such things which by encouraging hope leads men to ruin.
(The Peloponnesian War, Book Five, 103: The Melian Dialogue)

The advice given by the Athenian commander to the leaders of Melos reflects a view of the world which Nietzsche understands and approves, though it is not one shared by Christians. This view of the world might be called "the school of hard knocks." When the Athenians invade the island of Melos, they do not waste any time trying to justify their position in terms of morality:

Then we on our side will use no fine phrases saying, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done us - a great mass of words that nobody would fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.
(Book Five, 90)

This outlook represents a position that Thrasymachus argued before Socrates in Plato's Republic. In other words, justice is the will of the stronger. For many people, it is accepted as the natural order of things in a world that Hobbes described as a continual state of "war of all against all." Darwin arrived at a similar position by analyzing the struggle within nature whose only morality might be expressed as the survival of the fittest. In political terms, it has been promulgated by Machiavelli and Hegel as a kind of no nonsense "realpolitik" view of how power is manifested in human society. Obviously, it is a belief not original to Nietzsche, and its supporters can be found in all phases of contemporary life, from libertarian philosophy to pragmatism.

Nietzsche singles out Christianity for abuse because he believes it encourages false hope within human society. Instead of preaching mercy and forgiveness, we need to be powerful and ruthless, otherwise our enemies will take advantage of our weakness. Is he wrong? Before answering this question, you ought to consider what assumptions you already hold about the world you live in. Is it, in fact, a good world where justice prevails and the good are rewarded, or is it a fallen world, as Christians see it, a mere playground for the devil. If you believe it is a good world, then how do you account for the presence of evil? What about the Holocaust? How is that possible in a good world? These kinds of questions arise in any discussion of theodicy, which is how philosphers and theologians deal with the problem of evil. Of course, Nietzsche would say this is all nonsense. There is no good or evil in the world other than what we ourselves make of it. You don't have to be an atheist to arrive at this position. Since 1517, Catholics and Protestants have spent hundreds of years slaughtering each other over questions of dogma, not to mention other religious conflicts involving Jews and Muslims, or Hindus and Buddhists.

Nietzsche doesn't have much good to say about any religion, but he has a special animus for Christianity: view of all that the "spiritual men" of Christianity, for example, have so far done for Europe! preserve all that was sick and that suffered--which means, in fact and in truth, to worsen the European race...cast suspicion on the joy in beauty, bend everything haughty, manly, conquering, domineering, all the instincts characteristic of the highest and best-turned-out type of man, into unsureness, agony of conscience, self-destruction--indeed, invert all love of the earthly and of dominion over the earth into hatred of the earth and the earthly--that is the task the church posed for itself and had to pose, until in its estimation "becoming unworldly," "unsensual," and "higher men" were fused into a single feeling.

Obviously, Nietzsche feels that Christianity has a harmful, even fatal effect on the society of men. For him, it means nothing less than a renunciation of the natural instincts and power of men to achieve greatness. In that sense, Christianity acts as a kind of poison whose debilitating effects are passed down from one generation to another until we become a race of pygmies, "...a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred, the European of today--."

In Part One, "On the Prejudices of Philosophers", Nietzsche accused philosophy of propagating a myth, an irrational search for "truths" that only Plato could take seriously. The problem of both philosophy and religion is that they substitute platitudes for reality. What do we know of "things in themselves" or "essences" or "holy ghosts" or "free will" or "soul"? For Nietzsche, these are nothing more than metaphors, or allegories which are better left to poets and lunatics. Thus, as Nietzsche would say, the human soul is nothing but bad philology. A misuse of language. Such abstract ideas have intruded upon and supplanted a more useful knowledge of human will power, the instincts and impulses that guide our daily life. Instead of praying to divine entities and planning for our future in heaven, we ought to be paying more attention to this world which is the only world we have available. The "free spirit" which Nietzsche invokes is the man who stands alone, unattached to others and unwilling to enslave his desires to any dogma or institution. Like Achilles or Caesar, he is high-spirited, confident, vigorous, fearing no one, and bowing to no one. He is fully aware of his mortality but never complaining or pessimistic. To put it simply, he is no whiner. He takes his pleasure where he can, and makes no excuses or apologies.

The superior man never concerns himself with the opinions of others, especially not his inferiors. Morality is but a creation of the weak to compensate for their inability to face death. As far back as Aristotle, the superior man recognized that humanity is not equally gifted, or brave or strong. Some of us are natural leaders, others are followers. All men may be mortal, but some are terrified at the prospect of death, while others accept it as a natural event. The Greeks and Romans believed that any man who surrendered in battle to save his life must be a natural slave. That is because for a slave, survival is the highest good. He will happily surrender his dignity in order to preserve himself. But other men will never give up their freedom in order to remain alive. That is a slave's bargain. Aristotle called slavery a natural condition for some men, while others are born to be "masters." Later, the master-slave dichotomy was something that Hegel explored in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Nietzsche deplored Christianity because it substitutes meekness for the natural superiority of stronger men. He called the French Revolution "the last great slave revolt." For Nietzsche, democracy is the language of slaves. It is the curse of the modern world, the great leveler of humanity.

Instead of the natural distinctions that nature imposes on life, democrats and Christians turn everything upside down. They empower the weak over the strong, the cowardly over the brave, the ignoble over the noble, the foolish over the wise, the menial over the exceptional. What Nietzsche objects to most is modern life itself, the tendency for individuals to be absorbed by the crowd, for institutions to dominate over men, for ideas (the flatulence of the mind) to castrate vitality, for kindness to smother boldness, for comfort to replace innovation, and conformity to strangle nobility. In other words, Nietzsche calls for the elevation of men as individuals, and the recognition that a belief in equality is a fatal disease which afflicts not just our generation, but our entire civilization.


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