Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Antichrist: Part One

With The Antichrist Nietzsche, at last, gets down to the business of crafting his “great task”, intended as the culminating work of his life. It is almost universally agreed upon that this book was originally intended as the first of a four-volume magnum opus to critique basic western values and advocate a revaluation for higher (elitist) culture with greater personal creative freedom and expression.  As is pointed out below, after its completion Nietzsche came to consider this singular work as the sum and the whole of his masterwork - personally, I see this as indicative of his mental decline and increased delusional thinking. 

“Throughout 1888 Nietzsche regards himself as 'at war', engaged in a spiritual 'war to the knife' against 'the present', but more specifically against the German present; against German chauvinism and anti-Semitism and the decay of its culture.  On September 30 he finished fashioning one of his major pieces, The Antichrist (or The Antichristian – the German has both meanings), which at the time he regarded as Book I of the projected four-book, masterwork (now re-titled Revaluation of all Values). By mid-November, however, he had come to regard it as constituting the totality of the masterwork.  This makes it an important document, in a sense, Nietzsche's last will and testament.

The Antichrist is an uneven work in both tone and content.  Some passages, the accounts of the historical Jesus, for instance, are as fine as anything he wrote.  But others amount to little more than a rage against Christianity that goes on much too long and says nothing that has not been said before.  The subtitle, 'A Curse on Christianity', added at the last moment as Nietzsche was dipping into insanity, captures the quality of his rage.  Gone is the former judicious weighing up of Christianity's 'pros' and 'cons'; in its place is simply the crude judgment that Christianity is 'the greatest corruption conceivable'.

“The essential thing about Christianity, writes Nietzsche, is its Jewish origins.  It was the Jews that invented 'slave morality', the 'morality of ressentiment.  Originally invented in the Babylonian Exile, it was subsequently adopted by the Christians in the early Roman Empire.  The Antichrist now proceeds to offer an account of the origin of slave morality in ressentiment which, since he refers us back to that, he clearly believes to be no more than an expansion of the account presented in the Genealogy's first essay.

“Originally, then, we now learn, slave morality was just theater. A 'noble lie' that the Jewish priests used to disempower their Babylonian oppressors.  By encouraging and validating the decadent instincts of the nobles, they persuaded them to transfer their allegiance from 'm  aster' to 'slave' morality and so cease their oppression.” (Young, page 510)

Curtis Cate sees three pillars to Nietzsche's attack on Christainity: “The three main thrusts of this new work were Nietzsche's contentions that Christianity, far from representing a radical 'break' with official Judaism, was essentially a morbid perpetuation of Jewish 'defeatism'; that its founder Jesus Christ, remained a baffling psychological enigma; and that what seems to have been his teaching was from the outset vulgarized and distorted by his insufficiently sophisticated disciples and, with the help of the former rabbi, Paul, transformed from an incipient form of neo-Buddhism into a seditious instrument of social agitation against the Roman Empire.” (page 528)

Young is more specific: “Crucial is the fact that The Antichrist is talking about, not the Christian revolt against the Romans, but Judaism's revolt against the Babylonians. Nietzsche portrays these early Jewish priests as, though naturally resentful of their oppression by their Babylonian masters, not infected by the poison of ressentiment. The reason they are not, evidently, is that they do something - something effective - about their oppression, and so 'assuage', vent, their ressentiment....They view their oppressors as enemies, to be sure, even hate them, but they do not poison their souls with the unvented hatred that is ressentiment.

“When we return to the later Jewish priests, however, the Christian ones, the story is very different.  What makes it different is the fact that the Christian priests internalized slave morality: what for their predecessors was mere 'theater' is for them the ultimate truth.  And that demands, of course, that one 'turn the other cheek'; it forbids them the practice of health-restoring revenge.

“The crucial contrast, then, is between the priests of Judaism and the priests of Christianity.  That The Antichirst calls 'Jewish priests' healthy while the Genealogy calls 'Jewish priests' sick is not a contradiction since the former focuses on priests of Judaism while the later focuses on priests of Christianity.  The Antichrist is, I think, making this point when it says that, while priests of Judaism are 'the opposite of decadents', 'the Christianity of Paul is a movement of decadence.” (page 511)

Cate agrees: “It was from the religiously 'polluted' soil of a theocracy directed by cringing bigots, a 'totally unnatural ground', that Christianity arose – like a blighted plant.  A revolt against a fatally corrupted, decadent form of religion is apt itself to be flawed in its very origins, and this, Nietzsche argued, was what happened to Christianity.  The revolt against the established order against the dominant priesthood, assumed a wildly utopian form, in the course of which the humblest and poorest elements of society were explicitly exalted (the reference here is to Christ's 'Sermon on the Mount'), while the key collective notion of a 'chosen people', which had hitherto provided the people of Israel with a strong residual sense of identity and cohesion, was allowed to evaporate into a totally unrealistic notion of individual perfection ('the Kingdom of God is within you').” (page 529)

Young summarizes Nietzsche's perspective on the historical, human Jesus: “The real, historical Jesus, Nietzsche claims, had nothing to do with ideas of sin and punishment. Afflicted by a neurotic oversensitivity to suffering, he preached a doctrine of universal love, of never resisting, always 'turning the other cheek'. Presumably the suffering, here, is the suffering of division, of enmity.  If one loves, forgives, everyone then whatever they do they can never be one's enemy. Nietzsche calls this a kind of hedonism, closely related to Epicurianism.  Both Jesus and Epicurus are decadent, on the grounds, evidently, that they lack the will that craves 'victories' and therefore 'enemies'. They lack, in a word, the will to power.  (page 511)

“The real Jesus was no metaphysician, had no supernatural beliefs whatsoever.  For him, 'the kingdom of heaven' is a 'state of the heart'.  Jesus taught by parable and by example.  His death was not an expiration of human sins but rather the ultimate demonstration of his doctrine of nonresistance, He was, in short, a kind of Buddhist, Buddhism being also a non-metaphysical life-practice engendered by hypersensitivity to pain.” (page 511 – 512))

“In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death, Nietzsche continues, the traumatized disciples asked: who killed him? The answer was: the Jewish upper classes.  Gripped by ressentiment, they quickly began to misunderstand Jesus as a radical opponent of the Jews.  Jesus's death could not, therefore, be the end of the matter: there would be a 'second coming', judgment and punishment.  This is the torch soon passed to that 'priestly tyrant' Paul, who, welding Jewish notions of judgment to Plato's metaphysics, invented Christianity as we know it: original sin, a supernatural heaven and hell, an all-powerful judge, and Christ's human vanity, the idea of personal immortality. This proved the trump card in the spread of Christianity.” (page 512)

R.J. Hollingdale interprets Nietzsche's critique of the birth of Christianity this way: “The heart of Jesus' doctrine, Nietzsche maintains, is the adjuration to total pacifism, and the doctrine must have been the expression of a certain state of being: a morbidly exaggerated sensitivity to suffering.  If this state were at all general in men, whatever value mankind has produced – indeed, 'mankind' itself – would never have appeared, since the evolution of the higher has been brought about by conflict, between individuals and within individuals, within one 'soul'.  He therefore feels entitled to call Jesus a 'decadent', partly on physiological grounds – i.e. he thinks that Jesus' nervous system must have been pathologically excitable – and partly on the more general ground that his doctrine, if universally followed, would lead to the decay of mankind.  Secondly, he criticizes the Christian Church, not because it institutionalizes the teachings of Jesus – which it self-evidently did not do – but because it was a reversion to a primitive miracle-and-salvation religion of the kind Jesus himself had left behind.  Freed from the excessive rhetoric of The Anti-Christ Nietzsche's objection to the religion of the Western world can be seen to rest on rational grounds and to follow from the premises of his own philosophy.” (page 209)

According to Young, Nietzsche declares eight fundamental objections to Christianity in The Antichrist.  They are: idealistic arrogance, promoting guilt and self-hatred, destroying all “life-enhancing instincts”, advocating equality for everyone, disguising hate as love with its belief in hell and damnation, modern Christian theologians promote “holy lies”, and finally Christianity has “cheated us out of the fruits of ancient culture.”

In this last criticism Nietzsche refers to both ancient India and ancient Rome.  Regarding the Hindu Law of Manu, which he apparently appropriated from the book written by his friend Paul Deussen in 1887, “...Nietzsche writes, was an attempt to '”eternalize” the supreme condition for a thriving life, a great organization of society'.” (page 513)

But this society, too, is not a perfect model for the future because it created slave morality through establishing an “untouchable” class.  “The same is true of a much finer example of the effort to 'eternalize' the conditions of the thriving life, the Roman Empire: 'In this society, the revenue of reason from long ages of experiment and uncertainty should have been invested for the greatest long-term advantage, and the greatest, richest, most perfect crop should have been harvested'. (page 514) But it did not turn out that way because, according to Nietzsche, the slave morality of the underclass corrupted Rome from within.

Nietzsche proclaims that “every healthy society” contains a hierarchy of types of people based upon their “psychological type.”  A healthy society produces philosophically spiritual people are above all other types. Young points out that this reasoning is seems like “plagiarism” from Plato's Republic.  But there is a difference: “For Plato, the reason philosophers must rule is that they alone have knowledge of the 'Forms': the eternal and perfect paradigms of justice and virtue, knowledge which is the prerequisite of being a wise ruler.  But Nietzsche dismisses this 'true world' as a 'fable'.  And so he offers something else as a condition of leadership:

“'The highest caste – which I call the few - being the perfect caste also has the privilege of the few: this includes being [exemplary] models of happiness, beauty, goodness on earth.  Only the most spiritual human beings are allowed...to be [morally] beautiful: only among them is goodness not a weakness...'The world is perfect' - this is how the instinct of the most perfect speaks, the yes-saying instinct.
'
“If one rejects democracy, as both Nietzsche and Plato do, if one believes – to call a spade a spade - in dictatorship, the question arises of how to ensure it is a benevolent dictatorship.  Plato's answer is not available to Nietzsche since the Forms are a myth. More broadly, it seems to me, Nietzsche does not believe that the most essential thing to good politics is any kind of cognitive expertise....What we need are leaders who are genuinely 'good', those in whom 'goodness is not a weakness', those who are 'the kindest' and who 'treat the average more delicately than they treat themselves or their equals'.” (page 516)

“Nietzsche argues that the fatal design flaw in both the society of Manu and in the Roman Empire was the creation of a 'Chandala' class: by allowing the development of an alienated underclass both societies sowed the seeds of their own downfall.  He needs, therefore, to be able to demonstrate that his own future society is free of this design flaw.

“Each of the three castes has, he says, a kind of happiness specific to itself....An 'average' type, for instance, would be 'crushed' by the burden of leadership and ascetic life-style that is the happiness of the spiritual type: 'life becomes increasingly difficult the higher one goes – it gets colder, there are more responsibilities'.  For the average, those with average desires and abilities, 'being average is happiness'.  For one born in an 'intelligent machine', a 'wheel' in the system, living the life of a wheel (or cog) is happiness.  This is a principal objection to socialism – it makes those it purports to benefit unhappy, 'undermines workers' instincts and pleasures, their feelings of modesty about their little existences'. 'Injustice', concludes Nietzsche, endorsing, exactly, Plato's definition of justice as everyone's adhering to the station in society to which they are, by nature, suited, 'is never a matter of unequal rights but it is a matter of claiming “equal” rights'.” (page 517)

“Healthy societies of the past have had, then, gods who allowed them, in one way or another, to celebrate themselves.  'There has never been a [successful] people without a religion' he writes in his notebooks; 'culture' means 'the gods'.  And a healthy society of the future will be the same: 'Almost two thousand years a no new god!' he laments.  That we have had only the same old 'mono-theism' says very little for Europe's 'skill in religion'.

“Notice the gesture, here, towards Greek polytheism: since Judaism, like Christianity (and Islam), is monotheistic, Yahweh will not, in the end, count as an ideal god.  Since the principal function of healthy gods is to be exemplary embodiments of the virtues of the community, and since Nietzsche insists that virtue, like happiness, is relative to one's station in the social totality, there must be, in the end, no 'one size fits all' kind of god but rather, as in Greece, a plurality – and presumably a hierarchy – of gods.

“The return of the 'Greek' gods in and through the rebirth of Greek tragedy was, of course, the aspiration of Nietzsche's first book.  With respect to the gods, it is clear, nothing essentially has changed.” (page 518)

“To make a hero of Jesus! […] Our whole concept, our cultural concept 'spirit' had no meaning whatever in the world Jesus lived in.  To speak with the precision of the physiologist a quite different world be in place here: the word idiot.” (A, 29)  While in some ways Nietzsche admires Jesus the man (...only Christian practice, a life such as he who died on the Cross lived, is Christian” A, 39), he nevertheless finds him more idiotic than heroic.  But what exactly inspired this rather crude name calling?  Cate explains:

“In writing these devastating sentences Nietzsche was clearly referring to Dostoevsky's novel, The Idiot - the pathetic story of a kindly, mystically inclined Russian prince (Myshkin), who ends up looking like a simpleton in trying to be kind-hearted and benevolent, in trying to love and love like a genuine Christian.  And indeed, a little further on, Nietzsche explicitly regretted that there should not have existed among Jesus's contemporaries a man of Dostoevsky's acute psychological insight, capable of fathoming the baffling complexities of his personality and exposing the crude naivete of his followers.  What Jesus really was, Nietzsche suggested, was a supreme irrealist, quite possibly the greatest irrealist the world has known and, for that very reason perhaps, the only absolutely genuine Christian there has ever been.  For, unlike Moses or Mohammed, who had their feet firmly planted on the ground and who were quite specific in their social recommendations, Jesus brought a message of 'glad tidings' that belonged to no specific time or place, that was atemporal and asocial.  Any 'Christian', eager to follow in the footsteps of the Master in the naive belief that the Kingdom of God is within one, ends up living in a religio-autistic world, totally severed from everyday reality.  This inner world is inherently 'subversive' in that it owes allegiance to no established institution, whether Church or other.  In this way the human individual is partly 'deified', divinized, delivered from the 'normal, natural' bonds of society.  This was the basic Christian element underlying Rousseau's political philosophy. Man is born free (because the 'Kingdom of God' is within him), but in the wicked world of everyday reality, he is everywhere in chains.  Normal, collective 'society' is thus demonized.

“When it became a faith, Christianity was transformed into something radically different: not a life of 'blessedness' as it is actually experienced here and now, as much as a belief in life as it ought to be lived with an eye to future rewards and punishments to be distributed in a radiantly celestial or darkly hellish future.” (Cate, page 530) 

It should be noted that, as with many of his previous works, Nietzsche's “psychological” reconstruction of “history” was inspired by his background in philology. But, his musings are often completely conjectural, without the benefit of empirical data or historical facts to back them up.  His interpretations as presented in The Antichrist are little more than astute observations leading to factually unsupported conclusions.  This does not diminish the power and application of his philosophy.  It merely emphasizes that the specifics of Nietzsche's interpretation of history are not founded in historical research but are, rather, free-form deductions that support his vision of the revaluation of the present to build a stronger future.  

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