Reading Nietzsche: Obviously Something the Guardian Staff Didn’t Do

On October 15th of this year, Google’s homepage featured a picture of Nietzsche to mark the 169th anniversary of his birth, and apparently the choice was somewhat controversial, prompting several publications to write quick biographies of the iconoclastic philosopher. All of the summaries I read are inaccurate and unlettered high-school-book-report-level pieces, including even the ones on major sites, such as this one on The Guardian‘s. Here’s how it starts:

Google’s latest doodle marks the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher widely remembered for his rejection of Christianity, declaration that “God is dead” and often cited influence on Nazism.

Never mind that the quote needs an Oxford comma, we start right away (as should be expected, really) with the suggestion that Nietzsche was a precursor to Hitler. I guess when he wrote “the stronger the State, the fainter is humanity” and “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles—this is the end of German philosophy,” he was just kidding around, to throw freethinkers off his sub rosa plan for world domination?

Also, I would like to point out that the Nazi Swastika is a stylized medieval cross—a cross. On to the next point…

The piece continues:

In one of the central strands of his thinking, Nietzsche argued that the Christian system of faith and worship was harmful to society because it allowed the weak to rule the strong. In effect, he contended, it suppressed the will to power which was the driving force of human character.

Nietzsche wanted people to reject misguided Christian morality and become “supermen”, while harbouring fears that, without God, the future of mankind could spiral into a society of nihilism.

Nietzsche did spend a lot of time early on attempting to unravel the mystery of why Christianity came do dominate Western thought, and in the Genealogy of Morals, among other works, tried to demonstrate that “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” emerged from the justifications of a culture that was being dominated and occupied, mostly by the Romans. In order to legitimize their condition, the early Christians espoused and spread the philosophical reversal of their material condition; that is, their real-life suffering would, in the end (or after the end, to be precise) grant them entrance into an eternal kingdom, where they would enjoy the privileges and honors of full celestial citizenship, leaving the Romans to rue their blind cruelty.

This idealogical role reversal makes perfect sense, and may have very well given subjugated people the morale needed to persevere under the weight of the Roman yoke. But then, through a series of (dare I say) miraculous events, Christianity came to dominate Western culture, as Constantine’s legions spread it at the tip of the sword. But even as it’s been reformed and sliced into infinitely redundant factions, and has been in many ways ameliorated by a welding to modern science and common-sense rationalism, it still carries with it the indelible stamp of its lowly origin: it’s a worldview based on a hatred of the material world, a rejection of the natural human condition—and human body, and the worship of suffering itself, in large part as a portal to an otherworldly empire.

That, in brief, is the beginning (but certainly not the end) of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity. Christianity does not “allow the weak to rule the strong”, since that phrase doesn’t make any sense. What it does allow is the justification of repression, and the delusion held among the repressed that their slavery is a welcomed deliverance ordained by God himself.

The postulations that humans are inherently sinful, that this material reality—Earth—is a place drenched in misery, ugliness, and meaninglessness, and that at the same time another, better world awaits—these are the core problems with Christianity (wrote Nietzsche, as I write now in total agreement). Nietzsche was an enemy of Christianity because its fundamental tenets espouse a hatred of human (and non-human) life.

As Orestes says to Zeus in Sartre’s The Flies:

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you—but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. Nature abhors man, and you too, good of gods, abhor mankind. …As for me, I do not hate you. What have I to do with you, or you with me? We shall glide past each other, like ships in a river, without touching. You are God and I am free; each of us alone, and our anguish is akin.

Nietzsche’s response to this “anguish” was not for people to become “supermen,” which at the outset should be noted is a mistranslation of the word Übermensch, which means “over-man,” a word Nietzsche clearly used in tandem with his writing on the theme of “going under.” The over-man is able to, well, go over: to rise above the herd mentality, above self-doubt, above the tendency to believe in or yearn for supernatural escapes, above the all-too-human relinquishment of responsibility and agency—as Orestes does in the aforementioned play.

The journey to rise above is a personal, individual one: a quest for self-mastery—and not, as is connoted by the sloppy term “supermen,” a eugenics project, the social engineering of a police State where everybody is forced into ideological (and physical) capitulation.

But don’t just take my word on this; read Nietzsche!

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