Monday, 31 May 2010

"The Anti-Christ" by Friedrich Nietzsche

"The Anti-Christ" by Friedrich Nietzsche: A Review

This book contains one of the strongest and most powerful attacks which Nietzsche ever made on the Christianity of his age and the moral values held by society at that time. It is still important today because many the points he make still have validity, and they illustrate a way of thinking that is violently antithetic to the idea of a caring society with respect for "human rights".

He opens his attack by condemning Christianity for devaluing reason by "teaching men to feel the supreme values of intellectuality as sinful, as misleading, as temptations". As an example, he cites Pascal. Pascal wrote a treatise on conic sections at 16, and invented the theory of probability and the hydraulic press. In 1654, he underwent a "mystical" conversion to Christianity and thereafter gave up his scientific endeavours; Nietzsche considers him to be "the most instructive of all sacrifices to Christianity." Nietzsche's comments are still of value today, as forms of Christianity such as Roman Catholicism sometimes still demand "obedience of the intellect", as do many of the varied religious cults which have sprung up.

Aside from this, Nietzsche also attacks Christian belief for being manifestly unreal; he observes that it consists of: "nothing but imaginary causes ('God', 'soul', 'ego', 'spirit', 'freewill'): nothing but imaginary effects ('sin', 'redemption', 'grace', 'punishment', 'forgiveness of sins')." It can be seen here that Nietzsche is arguing from the standpoint of absolute empiricism. This position is coherent, even if it means jettisoning much "traditional morality" as well. But what does he suggest should take its place?

In place of moral considerations, which Nietzsche considers rooted in Christianity and "decadence", he puts a philosophy of power. "What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases - that resistance is overcome." It can be seen that there are close affinities between this and the ideology of Nazi Germany. What could better sum up its spirit than this: "Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war." But this poses a problem for the materialist. If you discard "traditional morality" because it has no empirical base, what is to stop the idea that "might is right"? If you take the first step, the second follows as a matter of course, and Nietzsche scorns the cowardice of those who fear to take it.

This ties up with Nietzsche's criticism of those Christian values which have led to "active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak..". He sees one result of this in "the poison of the doctrine 'equal rights for all'". Why does he so vehemently attack this? He argues that such an idea brings everyone down to the same level, and will not permit high ideals. As always, he takes this to its conclusion, and does not hesitate to say that "no one any longer possesses today the courage to claim special privileges or the right to rule." We may be opposed to such a position, but it must be admitted that it has a certain strength in its empiricism which the idea of 'equal rights' does not (especially when it is taken as "natural" rather than a moral demand).

This is an a thought provoking book. Nietzsche is a thinker who so often describes the rationale of "men of power" in the many dictatorships of the world today, particularly those of Africa and South America. In this way, it is still most pertinent for us today.


Rob Kent said...

Re "This book contains one of the strongest and most powerful attacks which Nietzsche ever made on the Christianity of his age and the moral values held by society at that time."

Whatever one's opinion on this book, Nietzsche makes it clear that he is attacking Christianity per se, from its origins, not just the church in his day.

His theory is that the religion has its social origins in ressentiment, a resentment against the ruling classes, and that it deliberately targeted the poor, weak, and vulnerable in society because they were the ones who had suffered most at the hands of their rulers and were a fertile recruiting ground for a religion that wanted to take power. And how that religion took power, eh?

In his view, it was a religion for the rabble, in his terms, the people least qualified to run the world.

He had the same response to the 1848 revolutions. He wasn't a great democrat but I think it's unfair to smear him with the Nazi brush, as has been done so many times. His sister was a fascist and anti-semite who supported Mussolini and Hitler. Unfortunately she became responsible for Friedrich's work and reputation after his death and it is her who associated with Hitler. Nietzsche would have laughed at those little dictators. The Nazis also adopted a Hindu symbol as their logo, without undermining that religion.

"Nietzsche was bitterly opposed to the racist project from the start, declaring he wanted "nothing whatever to do with this anti-Semitic undertaking... if it fails, I shall rejoice".

His concept of power involves transcendence of it - that is, you became a better human being by transcending yourself. He hated tyrannies and mocked authority.

He was a revolutionary thinker and, in the end, a crazy guy. But his historical and psychological insights were profound and revolutionary.

Freud and Jung were largely responsible for starting the smear campaign against him. They were scared by the clarity of his insight into bogus systems of thought. They also spread the rumour that his madness was caused by syphilis caught in a brothel, which may or not be true, but the interesting thing is why they felt such a great need to destroy his reputation.

There is some brilliant and original thought in his whole body of work. You have to read it with gloves on, but it definitely repays study. One of his earliest works, "The Birth of Tragedy" is a brilliant analysis of the origin of religion and tragedy in mankind's naked terror before the inexpicable and arbitrary power of nature and the universe.

For more on Nietzsche and his sister, see this article.

TonyTheProf said...

yes Nietzche believes he is attacking Christianity per se, but there is very little evidence of that in the same way that, for instance, Tom Paine does in the Age of Reason. In fact, his understanding of Christianity is a Manichean and polemic exaggeration, and his condemnnation of Soctrates as a decadent proto-Christian shows how totally superficial his exegesis is.

In fact his theory of ressentiment also is historically inaccurate. Christianity took on a mantle of power (and the vices of Rome) because Constantine saw it as a unifying force, and made it a State religion; that was the event which changed it.

But basically, there was only one person who was most qualified to run the world in Nietzche's eyes -
the self-effacing person who said "Why I am a genuius"

Nietzche was not a nazi, but his philosophy of might is right; his denigration of other races - not just Jews - Russians, English, Greeks, and his harking to a German philosophy purged of concepts like mercy, in favour of "Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger." certainly helped seed the roots of Nazism.

Rob Kent said...

If Nietzsche was anything, he was not superficial, either in his scholarship or his thinking.

He couldn't have been a Nazi because he died in 1900 but it is merely a smear to associate him with them. The Nazis were a gang of crooks who hijacked the State, using anything they wanted to cobble together into an ideology to justify their criminal activities. Nietzche's books were banned by German conservatives in the 1890's and he was considered to have had a bigger influence on French and American anarchism than on right-wing ideologies. Some of the early theorists of Zionism were Nietzscheans - 'Martin Buber went so far as to extoll Nietzsche as a "creator" and "emissary of life"'.

It is doubtful that Hitler ever read Nietzsche but if he had tried, he would have found little to please him. N. took the piss out the Germans more than he did any of the other races you mention. I don't think he ever said 'might is right'. Schopenhauer's philosophy was the 'will to live', in a Darwinian sense; N's was the will to power in an individual sense - animals behave in a non-Darwinian way in order to be powerful. They die young in displays of combat and exhibit behaviour that makes them vulnerable to attack and hampers them (Peacock feathers) just to express their power and status.

The whole tone of N.'s philosophy is antithetical to the Nazi project, which mainly took its coordinates from late German Romanticism and the Volk movement. In fact, writers like Herman Hesse and Jung are bang in the middle of that ideology and reading Jung and his witterings about Wotan and the Nordic gods reemerging and revitalising the German spirit is like reading a poster for Hitler. As Thomas Mann wrote in his diaries in around 1937, 'Why is this fool still wittering on about the soul, the spirit, and 'psycho-pomps' when people are being dragged to their death?' (quoted from memory).


Rob Kent said...

part 2:

N. was not an anti-Semite. Hitler's anti-semitism was mainly a Christian invention:

'On April 26, 1933 Hitler declared during a meeting with Roman Catholic Bishop Wilhelm Berning of Osnabrück:

"I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the Church, and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions."

The transcript of this discussion contains no response by Bishop Berning. Martin Rhonheimer does not consider this unusual since for a Catholic Bishop in 1933 there was nothing particularly objectionable "in this historically correct reminder".' (

For virulent anti-semitism, go to a good Christian poet such as T.S. Eliot, many of whose essays are today unreadable for that reason. He only toned it down when he saw how it played out with his good friend Ezra Pound who ended up in prison and then in an asylum because his obsession with anti-semitism put him on the wrong side in WWII.

N. was a shy, retiring person, unlike the persona he projects in his books. He certainly didn't want to rule the world but he was very clever. Of course, one of the great paradoxes with him is when did he start going mad or, more pertinently, when did his books start going mad? Like Jonathan Swift, you are always asking yourself, 'was he mad when he wrote this'? It's a big philosophical question that gets to the heart of what we believe about madness and reason. Foucault wrote about it in various places, especially in 'Madness and Civilisation'.

N. is still an interesting philosopher, worth studying. He was also a humorist and much of his work is mischievous in tone. It's tainted by its time. I'm surprised you didn't mention his misogyny: 'When you go to meet a woman, take your whip.' In reality, Nietzsche was a pussy around women, personally kind and generous.

Concentration camp kommandants read Zen buddhism to help them concentrate on their job at hand and listened to Beethoven to raise their spirits. Nobody is responsible for their 'followers' or what happens to their works once they leave their pens.

TonyTheProf said...

Regarding Nietzche and women, he was evidently a sadomasochist - "you're going to women, don't forget the whip", which can be seen in the posed photo with Paul Ree, and Lou Salome - the men are pulling a cart, and Lou is driving them with a whip.

He was also at one time close to Richard Wagner and the women who lived with Wagner and was later Wagner;s wife, Cosima. After the friends split, it is notable that his philosophy turns against the German romanticism, rather vide versa. In many ways, his philosophy is rooted in these and other life experiences.

While there is no direct connection between Nietsche and Nazism, and he would probably not have been in sympathy with its aims (although he died decades before), Nazism could draw upon powerful currents in his work for extermination of the unfit, e.g.:

"The sick are the great danger of man, not the evil, not the 'beasts of prey.' They who are from the outset botched, oppressed, broken those are they, the weakest are they, who most undermine the life beneath the feet of man, who instill the most dangerous venom and skepticism into our trust in life, in man, in ourselves…Here teem the worms of revenge and vindictiveness; here the air reeks of things secret and unmentionable; here is ever spun the net of the most malignant conspiracy – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the sound and the victorious; here is the sight of the victorious hated."(The Genealogy of Morals)

Rob Kent said...

Ah, those German public schools and what proclivities they bred!

N. believed that master morality in history was better than slave morality but both of them were inadequate. He wasn't advocating master morality as a method for his time.

That is why his planned work was called 'Toward A Revaluation of All Morals'. The 'Antichrist' was only the first in the series, in which he analysed both those modes of culture.

The later works were intended to show how our civilisation could get out of that dichotomy. Unfortunately he collapsed into insanity before he could write them, so we'll never know what exactly he had in mind.

Having said that, N. liked aphorisms, in which case you have to take them as read. Many of them make you feel uncomfortable, like the passage you quote.