Nietzsche on the Prejudices of the Philosophers

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are — how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness — but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of rank, who are more honest and doltish — and talk of ‘inspiration’); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’ — most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract — that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’ — and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.

— Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche and Christian Anarchism

While working on a paper over Nietzsche to be used as my writing sample for graduate school applications, I sort of happened into writing the following section on certain points of convergence between Nietzsche and Christian anarchism.  To be sure, Nietzsche was no Christian, and his relationship to anarchism is up for debate, but he had some interesting things to say about the relationship between Jesus’ teachings and the political ramifications therein.  I have not included the portion of this paper on Nietzsche’s ideas regarding the will to power, which surely cast a great deal of light on his critique of Christianity, but suffice it to say that it was precisely because he saw Jesus as the teacher of a “typical socialist doctrine” that he found said teachings so repugnant.  For Nietzsche, morality was commensurate with strength, and immorality with weakness.  Christianity, socialism, anarchism, and similar moral doctrines were, according to Nietzsche, born out of ressentment–a way for the weak to punish the strong and validate the morality of meekness, mildness, self-sacrifice, etc. as opposed to the morality of the strong, who valued self-determination, self-mastery, self-overcoming, etc.  There is much more that could be said on this, but hopefully this will serve as a sufficient prelude to the following.

[…]

One final point deserves consideration: it is worthwhile to the mind of the present author, to point out what was mentioned above that it is a mistake to see Nietzsche as positioning himself as “The Antichrist”.  As it happens, Richard Schacht has argued in a recent issue of The Journal of Nietzsche Studies that translating the work The Antichrist under that particular title is inaccurate and misleading.  In the original German the title is Der Antichrist, which seems to leave little room for debate concerning the English translation.  However, according to Schacht, Walter Kaufmann, who translated the work, as well as dubbed Nietzsche himself as “Antichrist”, “knew that, in German, the word “Christ” means “Christian” rather than (Jesus as) “the Christ” (which is “Christus” in German)”[1].  In actuality, it was not so much Jesus whom Nietzsche was opposing as it was “the Christianity of St. Paul and his kindred spirits”[2].  To be sure, Nietzsche was no follower of Jesus—though he thought well enough of Jesus to believe that the teachings found in the gospels are what they are simply because Jesus, though free from the domination of the religious establishment, was simply young and immature in this freedom, and would have outgrown and subsequently renounced his early teachings had he lived longer[3]—but he also believed Paul to have essentially betrayed Jesus in founding what was to become the Christian religion.  Indeed, “In Paul”, Nietzsche wrote, “was embodied the opposite”[4] of Jesus.  Conversely, according to Nietzsche, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross”[5] suggesting here a use of the term “Christian” as the practitioner of Jesus’ teachings, of which the church was certainly not comprised.  Nietzsche makes this point with such pronouncements (not so unfamiliar to 21st century ears) as, “The Church is precisely that against which Jesus preached”[6], “’Christianity’ has become something fundamentally different from what its founder did and desired”[7], and this scathing remark:

Christians have never put into practice the acts Jesus prescribed for them, and the impudent chatter about “justification by faith” and its unique and supreme significance is only the consequence of the church’s lack of courage and will to confess the works which Jesus demanded.[8]

Interestingly enough, there is an increasing number of Christians who would fully agree with Nietzsche that the church has betrayed Jesus’ teachings.  Indeed, throughout church history, there has been an insistent minority of what we might call “back to basics” Christians, who advocate a return to an honest reading of Jesus’ teachings and a Christian life that is characterized by one’s attempts to follow His teachings, no matter how difficult or inconvenient–a characterization that has, it seems, been totally lost on the institutional church.  And Christian anarchists, in the tradition of thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, and Jacques Ellul, who understand the specifically political ramifications of Jesus’ teachings and the subsequent betrayal thereof by the church, could almost—mistakenly, of course—embrace Nietzsche as one of their own for passages such as the following:

Primitive Christianity is abolition of the state: forbids oaths, war service, courts of justice, self-defense and the defense of any kind of community, the distinction between fellow countrymen and foreigners, and also the differentiation of classes . . . The gospel . . . [is] . . . the news that a gateway to happiness stands open for the poor and lowly—that all one has to do is free oneself from the institutions, traditions, guardianship, of the upper classes: to this extent the rise of Christianity is nothing more than the typical socialist doctrine.[9]

Indeed, Tolstoy argues essentially the same in The Kingdom of God is Within You when he writes, “Christianity in its true sense puts an end to government. So it was understood at its very commencement; it was for that cause that Christ was crucified.”[10]

Furthermore, Nietzsche writes:

Whoever says today: “I will not be a soldier,” “I care nothing for the courts,” “I shall not claim the services of the police,” “I will do nothing that may disturb the peace within me: and if I must suffer on that account, nothing will serve better to maintain my peace than suffering”—he would be a Christian.[11]

The difference, of course, between Nietzsche and the Christians who would agree with these isolated statements is that Nietzsche sees such a “typical socialist doctrine”, which panders to the weak, as fundamentally flawed, for reasons elucidated above, whereas the Christian obviously thinks otherwise.  It is true that Nietzsche was opposed to the state, as he understands Christianity to be, and his writings have enjoyed considerable influence among anarchists[12], but when he refers to Jesus as “that holy anarchist”[13]—which is now the title of a Christian anarchist book[14]—he was not seeking to be complimentary.  Why and to what end the state is to be opposed is, for him, entirely different from the classical anarchist cause.  As Walter Kaufmann says in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist: “It is for this reason that the State becomes the devil of Nietzsche’s ethics: it intimidates man into conformity and thus tempts and coerces him to betray his proper destiny”[15].  Such a position is considerably more popular among individualist anarchists in the tradition of the German anarchist, Max Stirner.

[…]


[1] Richard Schacht.  “Translating Nietzsche: The Case of Kaufmann.”  Journal of Nietzsche Studies 43.1 (2012): 69-85.  P. 70.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Walter Kaufmann.  Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.  4th ed.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.)  342.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche.  The Antichrist.  The Portable Nietzsche.  Ed. and Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1982). 617.

[5] Ibid. 612.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche.  The Will to Power.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.  (New York: Random House, Inc., 1968.)  101.

[7] Ibid. 114.

[8] Ibid. 113.

[9] Ibid. 123.

[10] Leo Tolstoy (2011-07-12). The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Trans. Constance Garnett.  (New York, 1894.)  Kindle Edition. 177.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Will to Power.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.  (New York: Random House, Inc., 1968.)  125.

[12] John Moore and Spencer Sunshine (eds.).  I Am Not A Man! I Am Dynamite! Nietzsche and the Anarchist Tradition. (Brooklyn: Autnomedia, 2004.)

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche.  The Antichrist.  The Portable Nietzsche.  Ed. and Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1982). 599.

[14] Mark Van Steenwyk.  That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity & Anarchism.  (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012). Kindle Edition.

[15] Walter Kaufmann.  Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.  4th ed.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.) 158.

A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte

“True atheism”, J. G. Fichte writes in Divine Government of the Universe, “unbelief and godlessness in the real sense, consists in calculation of consequences” (1).  In other words, Fichte seems to be saying that it is not so much one’s abstract beliefs, but instead how one lives (which is, of course, the truest way to learn what one believes – how do they live?), and if one lives as a utilitarian–calculating consequences–Fichte would call her an atheist.   Why exactly this is the case will be considered shortly. Fichte also rejects the notion of an infinite, personal God who exists separately from our world.  His argument may be summarized thusly: When God is understood as a being that has a personality, self-consciousness, will, etc. He/She/It is no longer something completely transcendent, for such characteristics “can be employed only if what they refer to is limited and finite” (2).  After all, it seems that a necessary condition of my having a personality is that there are characteristics which differentiate me from every other individual: there are certain traits and combination of traits which no one else has and vice versa.  Furthermore, my having a specific personality, with such-and-such a trait and without such-and-such other trait obviously necessitates that in virtue of this I am not (qualitatively) infinite.  So, Fichte would say, for me to say that God also has a personality just as I do, is to create God in my own image, which, according to Xenophanes, is precisely what we humans tend to do, and precisely why our “gods” tend to not be godly at all, but merely human creations. (3)

It is also worth commenting on the above qualification of Fichte’s understanding of the name “God” necessitating qualitative infinity.  Spinoza would agree; Leibniz would not.  For this reason, Fichte’s arguments must not be initially applied to all religious conceptions of God as such.  Perhaps this is the best way to understand the concept of God, but it must be allowed that it is an open question.  Some (such as Leibniz) would reject outright the notion of God’s qualitative infinity and instead affirm His/Her/Its quantitative infinity.  But such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present paper.

In the hope that the above sketch of what Fichte rejects about the notion of God has been deep enough to do so, we will move on to what it is that Fichte affirms concerning God.  Fichte writes, “This is the true faith: this moral order is the Divine which we accept.  It is constituted by acting rightly.  This is the only possible confession of faith: to do what duty prescribes” (4).  Very clearly we once again find Fichte affirming faith in God as a way of acting as opposed to an abstract belief concerning metaphysics.  He goes on to state that the “moral world order is identical with God” (5).  The moral world order is, according to Fichte, acting according to one’s conscience out of a pure, Kantian sense of duty, with no consideration for the consequences–consideration which is not moral in any meaningful sense, but simply utilitarian. Thus, the utilitarian denies the moral world order–God–and is therefore an atheist.

So, God is morality and morality is God.  Sound familiar?  According to the New Testament, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (6).  Similarly, John D. Caputo seems to apply a Fichtean concept of God to this verse: “…love is a how, not a what” (7), which means, furthermore, that “God”, too, “is a how, not a what” (8).  For Caputo, this how is unconditional love, and for Fichte, it is acting out of a Kantian sense of moral duty.  So, in this sense, God is more accurately understood as a verb as opposed to a noun.  This is what Caputo refers to as a “theology of event.”

In a way, to the mind of the present writer, this understanding of God makes beautiful sense, and, in another way, is still quite elusive and mysterious.  But perhaps this mystery too is part of the beauty – after all, according to Caputo, “Religion is for lovers” (9).  The question of whether or not this particular notion of God is plausible is admittedly sticky, for, before it can be addressed, certain preliminary questions regarding the probability of the existence of a God, and the question of which religious texts (if any) are held to contain the true writings concerning the nature and actions of this God must be answered.  Does it jive, for example, with the aforementioned passage from 1 John?  In a way, yes, but such a passage must not be extracted from its context; for, according to the tradition in which the author was writing, God does exist as a personal being, and became as personal as possible when He/She/It appeared in the form of a man (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth).  Nevertheless, John is saying quite simply that God is love, which might suggest that he saw Jesus as pure love manifested in human form.  All of this seems to suggest that God is not reducible to a personal being, in the way that, say, I am – for I am and always will be only a noun; I cannot become a verb.  But, according to this interpretation, God can.

However, this also calls into question Fichte’s notion that God must be understood as a qualitatively infinite being.  If God is love, as John says, He/She/It cannot, by nature, also be hatred.  Indeed, to allow our metaphysical abstractions to devolve into something like “Pure Being”, thinking this will defend us from the danger of a less-than-infinite God, will actually, in leading to the purest abstraction of being as such, simultaneously result in nothing.  Pure being is presumably so irreducible, so beyond the pale of particularity, that it is at the same time nothing.  Quite often, it seems, folks who think themselves incredibly pious feel the need to affirm the qualitative infinity of God in order to avoid any sentence beginning with “God cannot…” despite the contradiction.  But the contradiction is not necessary, according to 1 John.  There are such things as intrinsic impossibilities, which do not necessitate that one deny God’s omnipotence or infinitude, if this is in fact what one is hoping to defend. As C.S. Lewis explains:

His [God’s] omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk about God. (10)

And this applies equally to Fichte’s God: if God is morality, God is necessarily not immorality, rendering Him/Her/It less than qualitatively infinite. It seems that Spinozistic pantheism is the only option for one who wants to affirm the qualitative infinity of God, but Fichte is clearly not arguing for Spinozism here.

One final point: I think Fichte offers an interesting insight into the common usage of the name, God (albeit, given an almost ironic reading). There seems to be a tendency to tack God onto our moral statements in order to give them legitimacy. Think about it: “My opinion is (X)” carries considerably less weight than “God said (X)”. Consequently, when we have strong moral beliefs on a certain issue, we find a way to spin it as the word of God, rather than our own, fallible opinions. And in this way, we do seem to conflate the idea of God with our own conscience and almost end up (unintentionally) agreeing with Fichte. And in so doing, “God” becomes nothing more than what the ideal being who perfectly embodies our personal moral views would look like. Thus, the soldier sees a warrior God, the pacifist a God of nonviolent love, the traditional soul (so to speak) a God of conserving tradition and maintaining proper authority, and the progressive soul a God of liberation and freedom from oppression.

It is not my intention to offer the above thoughts in a cynical tone. I sincerely hope that “God” is not simply a result of a Nietzschean will to power, as it were–or, more specifically, ressentiment–driving the weak to find a “metaphysical higher ground”, so to speak, over the strong by saying that it is actually an absolute authority over and above all of us which is the source of my personal moral beliefs. Such a god would be a reactionary concept and nothing more. Perhaps that is the case, but I’d like to think it is not. But then again, perhaps I am simply a naive romantic. If it is not the case, however–if we can speak of God in a meaningful sense as removed from our own ideals–how do we do so? How can we look at the concept of God outside of our cultural context? I think it was Gadamer who said something to the effect of, we cannot escape our cultural context and all of the biases that come along with it; the best we can do is recognize our biases as such and do our best to move beyond them. I think the same applies here. I may never know for sure if my concept of God is authentic or received, but I think that simply recognizing that and striving for the authentic is the best place to begin.

Notes

1. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, On the Foundation of Our Belief in A Divine Government of the Universe. Translated by Paul Edwards, reprinted in Nineteenth Century Philosophy, eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1997), 21.

2. Ibid., 22.

3. Xenophanes writes, “But mortals think that gods are born, and have clothes and speech and shape like their own . . . But if cows and horses or lions had hands and drew with their hands and made the things men make, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, cows like cows, and each would make their bodies similar in shape to their own.” (Early Greek Philosophy, Trans. and Ed. Jonathan Barnes, (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 43.)

4. Fichte, 21.

5. Ibid., 21.

6. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 1 John 4:16b

7. John D. Caputo, On Religion.  (New York: Routledge,  2001), 134.

8. Ibid., 135.

9. Ibid., 2.

10. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 18.

Determinism and the Destruction of Truth

My basic problem with determinism is really quite simple: if, by some cosmic, cultural, or historical forces, I am externally determined to do and believe all that I do, it follows necessarily that my belief in determinism derives from the same. And in that case, I cannot assume any greater truth value in my belief in determinism than in another’s belief in libertarianism or compatiblism, as these beliefs are the result of forces outside of our control, rather than our ability to seek the truth (which seems to be impossible given determinism). For this reason, while I think that an interesting philosophical case can be made in favor of determinism (see, for example, Spinoza or Schopenhauer–not to mention cultural relativism, psychological egoism, and much of post-structuralism and postmodernism, which appear to appropriate Nietzsche’s idea that “a “thing” is a sum of its effects” (I), meaning that I do not exist in any meaningful sense, but instead that my sense of self is constructed by external factors), in the end I find it to be self-referntially inconsistent.

And, as it happens, the same applies to theological determinism. If it’s true that God has predetermined me to be a determinist,  then, again, I can posit no truth value in that belief. After all, the Armenians and open theists and process theologians would presumably be similarly determined by God and so we could not possibly say who was right and who was wrong–again, the entire enterprise of seeking truth is undermined. Nor could the truth be found in the Bible, for, presumably, if I were to interpret the Bible as teaching that God predetermined everything, I must concede that my interpretation of the Bible was predetermined. Hence, my beliefs being the result of God’s predetermined will rather than my own ability to seek truth, I have no reason to assume that my beliefs about God or my biblical interpretations are true (I). Again, God must also have predetermined the Armenians and open theists and process theologians to hold their respective beliefs, which means that God necessarily predetermines at least some people to hold wrong beliefs! Who’s to say who was predetermined to find the truth and who was not? (This similarly has profoundly problematic moral implications–i.e, God causes us to “sin” (a word that no longer has meaning apart from what God says–think Euthyphro Dilemma) and to not believe in God and then punishes us for doing what we could never choose to do or not do!)

One final point: if it is true that all of our actions, decisions, beliefs, etc. are determined by causal forces not our own, whence comes the concept of freedom? At the very least it seems strange that, should determinism be true, we should possess such concepts as determinism and freedom at all.

I certainly do not deny that there are many complex factors that contribute to our holding the beliefs that we do, but it seems to me to be the case that if determinism is true, it is at the same time necessarily not true, for there is no “truth” of which we can meaningfully speak–there is only what is determined.

Notes

(I) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.  New York: Random House, Inc., 1968.  Print.

(II) The common objection that critiques of theological determinism focus too much on the philosophical debate and not enough on the biblical debate (which, as it happens, is not true–see Greg Boyd) is severely undermined by this point. Surely we must establish–philosophically–whether or not it is possible to arrive at a true interpretation of the Bible at all before we can begin the discussion of the content of the interpretations themselves.