The Enlightenment, if not quite dead on arrival, began to fall apart very shortly thereafter. The French Revolution offered a bloody testimony to the limits of reason as a foundation for building a new society. The Romantics pointed to the ineradicable importance of the deeper longings of the human heart. Hegel identified a key flaw in Kant when he highlighted the importance of historical consciousness. And then came the Demolition Man, Friedrich Nietzsche. No-one before him (with the possible exception of DeSade) had dared to lay bare with quite such drama the bogus foundations on which the Enlightenment had built its ethics. As his famous Madman in The Gay Science pointed out to the polite atheists in the market square, you cannot slay God, unchain the earth from the sun, and carry on as if the moral and social codes which depended upon God could continue unaffected. To slay God was simultaneously to assume the obligation of being god oneself—a prospect which should inspire awe and terror.
Given Nietzsche’s aggressive atheism and contempt for Christianity, why should Christians give this self-proclaimed antichrist a second glance? First, as noted above, he is the man who calls the Enlightenment’s bluff in a devastating manner; and second, his understanding of human psychology is oddly consistent with certain strands of Christian thought, much as it would have disgusted him to have that pointed out.
These two points emerge in the pages of Sue Prideaux’s new and eminently readable biography, I Am Dynamite— a title derived from Nietzsche’s own claims about his significance in his autobiography, Ecce Homo. For readers wanting deep engagement with his philosophy within a biographical framework, Rudiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography is a sharper work, but those wanting a taste of Nietzsche the human being will be better off with Prideaux’s excellent volume.
Central to the narrative is the relationship with Richard Wagner. Having lost his father (a Lutheran pastor) at a young age and having emerged in his early twenties as a precociously talented classical philologist, Nietzsche came to the attention of the great composer and a deep friendship developed between the two men. This was critical for Nietzsche’s philosophical development—like Wagner, he was deeply influenced by the work of Arthur Schopenhauer. In Wagner’s operas, he found the supreme balance of the Dionysian and the Apollonian—the ecstasy of the group and the balanced form of the individual—something which he argued in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, that the artistic world had not seen since the interplay of chorus and tragic heroes in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
Nietzsche ended up repudiating both The Birth of Tragedy and Wagner. Prideaux is excellent on the latter point—much has been made of Wagner’s increasing preoccupation with Christian themes (most evident in Parsifal) as driving the two men apart, but Prideaux offers a more mundane (and in many ways, more human) reason: Wagner and his wife, Cosima, wrote a letter to Nietzsche’s doctor, speculating indiscreetly on the source of his ill health, which, when Nietzsche discovered it, effectively destroyed the friendship.
Wagner was nonetheless to haunt Nietzsche for the rest of his life, being the subject of a number of critical essays and likely providing at least some of the inspiration for the figure of the Sorcerer in Thus Spake Zarathustra. He was ultimately less of a friend and more of a surrogate father figure, with all of the dark ambiguities such a relationship can embody.
For Nietzsche, life post-Wagner was essentially that of the lonely itinerant, physically and intellectually. Dogged by ill-health, infatuated with a number of brilliant women, most notably Lou Salomé, frustrated by poor book sales, Nietzsche cuts a lonely figure for much of his subsequent sane adult life, with only the radical theologian, Franz Overbeck, providing any kind of consistent and stable friendship. Finally, the complete mental collapse and decade of insanity under the watchful eye of mother and then sister add a tragic note to the whole. The man who saw so clearly the dark, irrational Dionysian impulses of human nature ends up, it seems, overwhelmed by them. Genius is not liberated by such, it’s merely reduced to the level of a dependent child.
Prideaux has a light touch with his philosophy—she does a fine job of showing how Nietzsche’s aphoristic style was in part the result of his frequent bouts of illness. On the question of whether the megalomaniacal claims of Ecce Homo are a self-conscious satire of the essentially egocentric genre of autobiography or the first signs of impending psychological collapse, she is suitably agnostic. She mentions the key themes—the idea of eternal recurrence, the Superman, the Will to Power, and the genealogical approach to morals—all of which have influenced more recent philosophers. While she does not reflect in depth on any of these, one thing is clear from her treatment: the popular idea that Nietzsche is a nihilist is misplaced. That he believed human life lacked transcendent significance did not mean that life was not worth living. The challenge for each individual was to create their own meaning, to make themselves a work of art, to live every second of every day as if it was of infinite value.
Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘eternal recurrence’ is important here. Oddly, Prideaux spends little time reflecting on this concept even while she makes much of the emotional moment he has his insight on this point as he pauses at a rock along the shores of Lake Silvaplana in the Alps. In brief, this was the idea that every moment of life should be lived as if it would recur an infinite number of times throughout eternity. Scholars debate whether Nietzsche thought this would literally happen; it seems more likely that he considered it a hypothetical point to drive home the existential urgency of life. To Nietzsche, this was (rightly!) a terrifying prospect, filling every second with the imperious demand to create one’s own meaning, to make the moment count. One might also add that it collapsed any notion of teleology or purpose into the present—something which surely resonates in our own era where the immediate pleasure of consumption (be it in terms of material goods, entertainment, or sex) seems to be prioritizing the present at the expense of any future. Whether Nietzsche envisioned the amusement park or YouTube as the great fulfillment of the imperative of the eternal recurrence is highly debatable; but it is hard to argue that the denial of any grand meaning to life, the universe and all that, has ultimately led not to human beings transcending themselves but to demeaning themselves in an ocean of trivial pursuits.
Nazism is always the specter at the Nietzschean feast, and Prideaux is careful to address this—she acquits him of the charge of anti-Semitism, pointing the finger for his misrepresentation on that point squarely at his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who did indeed hate Jews and took effective control of Nietzsche and, crucially, of his literary estate. In case the reader fails to identify her as the villain of the piece, Prideaux includes a picture of the Führer looking suitably sad at Elisabeth’s funeral in 1935.
Yet questions remain for me on this score. Only a simplistic view of Nazism can either blame or exonerate Nietzsche completely from any positive connection to the movement. He may not have been an anti-Semite, and may have been vehemently opposed to German nationalism, but other Nazi traits are clearly there in his writings, most notably his disdain for democracy and his contempt for the Christian ethic of humility and weakness.
Then there is the figure of Martin Heidegger, who drank deeply at the Nietzschean well, helped mediate his thought to the twentieth-century, and whose relationship to Nazism was most interesting—and not in a good way. Yet he merits only the briefest of mentions by Prideaux. Nazism cannot be reduced to nationalistic racism, even though these were central elements of its ideology; and by the same token, Nietzsche cannot be excised from the Nazi family tree simply because he is innocent on those specific charges.
So why should a Christian read Nietzsche? Two reasons. First, his genealogical approach to morals, with its emphasis on ressentiment (to use his favored French term) contains more than a grain of truth. Ressentiment for Nietzsche is the seething resentment and anger which slaves have for their masters. It denotes impotence, but also has a distorting effect on ethics in the sense that it slowly but surely works to give weakness the moral high-ground. In this way, the language of ethics is frequently manipulative, used to disguise bids for power by the weak over the strong. What Nietzsche therefore does is raise the question of self-awareness and self-criticism when it comes to ethical engagement. We live in an era of identity politics and, wherever one stands on issues such as social justice, gay rights, etc., there can be little doubt that the political rhetoric of our time seethes with the therapeutic anger that derives from precisely the ressentiment Nietzsche identifies. This does not mean that the content of the concerns being expressed is necessarily illegitimate, but it demands that we reflect on why the concerns are being expressed and what kind of language and moral logic is being used. Any Calvinist who believes in total depravity should have no problem in seeing this, not simply in others, but above all in themselves. Indeed, nothing is more manipulative in Christians circles than the cynical deployment of the language of godliness to make ourselves feel more important than we are and to disarm and delegitimize opponents and to cover or justify unacceptable behaviour with a patina of piety. The furor about Christian support for the candidates of the 2016 election is one obvious example: to claim that voting Trump or voting Hillary had the quality of a biblical imperative is simply to use the Bible to justify that which one approves and to demonize that which one does not approve. Life is so much easier when all those with whom we disagree can be dismissed as sinful apostates. The reality of the voting booth in 2016 was more complicated, a balance sheet of morality and immorality, and comparatively trivial in the grand scheme of human history. Christians could perhaps do with a good dose of Nietzschean genealogy within their own circles, both to make them aware of their own capacity to manipulate and their own tendency to make themselves into the centerpiece of the historical drama of the cosmos.
The second area is that of the Madman’s challenge. For all the claims of men such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker (that morality can be built on naturalist premises) Nietzsche represents a resounding Nein! One cannot slay or even merely silence God and then claim an objectivity for one’s ethics, as Kant and company had done. To remove God from the picture is not like discovering that unicorns do not exist; it is a move of comprehensive metaphysical significance. On this point, Nietzsche presents a far bigger challenge to atheists than to Christians.
This also offers Christians a perspective from which to judge our current cultural moment. In many ways, the moral chaos we see is the outworking of the death of God; but it could also be understood as an increasingly desperate attempt to avoid the Madman’s challenge. (For example: gay marriage undoes the biblical notion of the marriage as grounded in the relationship of Christ and the church but still seeks to justify itself within a moral framework.) Euthanasia and abortion are both presented as moral stands with universal significance. For all of the moral iconoclasm around us which appear to be Nietzschean, we simply do not live in a world which yet thinks of itself as beyond good and evil; rather, we inhabit a world which constantly attempts to preserve the notion of transcendent moral norms even as it abandons the traditional content that such have typically been understood to involve. Nearly 150 years after the Madman first rushed into the town square, the polite atheists still stand around thinking that they can rely on the basic categories of the moral framework whose foundations they have already annihilated.
This brings us to the final ironic paradox that was Nietzsche the man. Like so many other philosophers, his life stands at odds with his philosophy. Schopenhauer, the great theorist of renunciation, loved his wine and his women. Sartre, the man who argued that existence precedes essence, was a committed and self-righteous Marxist, even as the premises of his existentialist philosophy could not support the universalizing of his own individual political choice which such demanded. And Nietzsche, the man who despised empathy and the ethics of weakness he saw in Christianity, was in his personal relationships often a kind and sentimental person. That he suffered his definitive nervous breakdown while trying to protect a horse—a horse!—from being beaten by its owner in the streets of Turin is the final irony from the man who preached the Will to Power. Human nature, made in the image of God, seems rather hard to defy, however sophisticated the rationales for doing so may be and however passionately they are advocated. Even Nietzsche, the great Demolition Man of western thought, still preferred in his practical daily life to shelter within its ruins. This is perhaps the greatest lesson to be drawn from Prideaux’s very readable book.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.