From “Butcher,” Tom Chiarella, Esquire, September 2008:
One morning, tossing trim onto the tray, he turned on the grinder and said: “Look, the rule is, if you feel anything tug, anything at all, you hit the button and run.” He poked the rubber-covered stop button with his thumb. We stood in the walk-in, the compressors humming like a train. “You put your hands in the air and you run,” he said, “like a little girl. I’m as serious as a sock. This stuff will humble you. Get away from it. You always run away from trouble in a butcher shop.”
Nietzsche’s most sustained account of the west’s great death-traditions is in one of his last works, aptly titled The Anti-Christ. The work offers a relatively detailed Nietzschean account of Jesus’s own psychology, and how his teachings were transformed into a means for suppressing life’s instincts. We can provide a brief sketch of the account. Jesus, according to Nietzsche, was timid and over-sensitive by temperament. He found conflict and confrontation deeply disturbing and frightening. So he developed a “turn the other cheek” response to his enemies, yielding anything to everyone, promising that on a day coming soon none of these tribulations would matter and everything would be replaced by a kingdom of heaven. More than that: Jesus found ways to insulate himself from all the pains and horrors of the world, and turn each and every moment into a little miracle, a feeling for the closeness of heaven, which is the permanent refuge from real life. Jesus found a way to keep the arms of the Father around him at all times, protecting him and sustaining him, so that his joy could not be removed by any earthly power. It was, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “an infantilism that has receded into the spiritual” (A, 32).
Of course, Jesus was killed, but his followers did not share his temperament. (“There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” Nietzsche writes memorably (A, 39).) They instead, like most human beings, sought after earthly power. But they ran immediately into a problem: Jesus eschewed any pursuit of power, and counseled disengagement with the political world. What to do? In a cognitive flip of values that continually astonishes Nietzsche, the followers of Jesus decided that the way of Jesus was in fact the route to true power, the road to “living abundantly.” Contradictory though it may seem, the life of earthly servitude is in fact the life that God will richly reward. The virtuous life is the one that devalues pursuits of earthly pleasures, wealth, power, and prominence. The “good” person is the one who subordinates all drives to a single drive: the drive to serve the Church and its head, Jesus Christ. Through this servitude, the follower will raise himself higher than earthly powers and principalities, and reap rich rewards in heaven. The servant will be the master. What feels good is really bad. What feels powerful is really weakness. What feels wise is really folly. To live for Christ is to be dead to the world. Indeed, the very symbol for eternal life is a man dying on a cross. It is as perverse as a system of values can possibly be, Nietzsche thought.
This Christian reversal of life’s values did increase the earthly power of a certain class of people — the priests, who were so kind as to take the dangerous temptation of power upon themselves in the interest of instilling true piety among the members of the church. So even in this twisted reversal of life’s values, the will to power continues to flourish, in a somewhat underhanded way. There are individuals who continue to seek and gain power through the church, that is, by promulgating and enforcing the set of values which themselves denigrate the will to power. It is a familiar form of hypocrisy between the message and the motives of those delivering the message. Someone gets rich by selling books which tell people not to be materialistic. Someone manages to attract attention to themselves by appearing not to care if others notice. Someone tries to cause a revolution in his culture by writing books which loudly proclaim their own “untimeliness.” And so on. Life will always find a way to pursue its own agenda, even through a set of values which themselves explicitly devalue life’s values. The church was lead by men who were, by life’s standards, quite strong indeed. “The values of the weak have the upper hand because the strong have taken them over to lead with them…” Nietzsche writes in a note (LN, 15 ).
But if this is so, one may object, then what is the problem? Aren’t life’s values being promoted, though in an indirect or even subterranean way? If power and flourishing are the highest values, according to Nietzsche, how can he criticize the advance of Christianity, which in a certain way has enjoyed unparalleled success in gaining power and flourishing throughout western culture? Isn’t it a force Nietzsche should respect and admire?
To some extent he does; just the fact that Nietzsche has selected Christianity as his most important opponent says something about how impressed he is by its power. But at the same time he sees Christianity as the least effective means for promoting the flourishing of life’s values. “Christianity,” he writes, “has cheated us out of the harvest of ancient culture” (A, 60). He is grateful to the men of the Renaissance for attempting to rescue the glorious expressions of power in ancient culture from the suppression of death-worshipping Christian zealots. But Luther and the Reformers rallied to the cause and found new means for strengthening the church’s hold over European culture and, in effect, killed the Renaissance. In doing so, they put a stranglehold on life; Christian morals became if anything even more severe, and the normal and natural ways of expressing life’s flourishing were judged as thoroughly sinful. Nietzsche’s worry was not that Christianity will somehow exterminate the will to power. That could never happen. His worry instead was that the joy and strength that comes from a healthy flourishing of human drives becomes nearly impossible to enjoy, when Christianity has its way. The cost is aesthetic, intellectual, philosophical, political, and even moral, in a Nietzschean sense. Christianity is by its very nature a sickness, a striving against the instinct of life.
It is as if the organizers of a marathon convinced all the runners that speed is evil. You could still have a race — sort of — but what a pathetic bore it would be! Runners would shuffle along, keeping an eye on one another, and chiding those who start to get ahead. The “winner” would be the one who failed to go slower than anyone else. At some point, an exasperated bystander might cry, “Enough of this! You are built to run! There is no sin in that! What on earth is holding you back?” That person is Nietzsche.
I just wrote this this morning, and am hoping to get some feedback on it. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory:
This distinction, between the life-affirming and the life-denying, is the basis for Nietzsche’s revaluation of values. To get a sense of how this revaluation works, imagine somehow being put in charge of some intergalactic zoo filled with all kinds of animals, including human beings. It is your job not just to provide natural habitats for the animals, but to showcase each species’ abilities and talents. Your employers, for whatever reason, want to see the most powerful specimens of all the species. When it comes to human beings, what will you do? You will have to examine what capacities for strength each human being has. Your concern is not simply physical strength, but intellectual and emotional as well. You will try to cultivate humans who are cunning, brave, unpredictable, stealthy, creative, tough, patient, and unrestrained by “dos” and “don’ts”. They will be at times violent and mocking. If the exhibit is to showcase all strengths, your humans should be artists as well, creating works that stand as emblems for the species. In all, you will want to know all the capacities humans can have, and find ways to strengthen those capacities in your specimens as much as possible. You will want to diminish and eliminate any signs of weakness, timidity, fear, stupidity, and passivity. Your sole standard will not be “Is this what God or the Church would approve?”, but instead: “Is this a strength?”
I recently read this great little book by Leszak Kolakowski. He is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers: he’s amazingly learned, and he takes a bemused, skeptical stance toward the human ability to plumb The Great Deep, while at the same time admiring the many attempts to do so. A representative quote: “In all the universe man cannot find a well so deep that, leaning over it, he does not discover at the bottom his own face.”
Here’s the blurb for the book:
Can nature make us happy? How can we know anything? What is justice? Why is there evil in the world? What is the source of truth? Is it possible for God not to exist? Can we really believe what we see? There are questions that have intrigued the world’s great thinkers over the ages, which still touch a chord in all of us today. They are questions that can teach us about the way we live, work, relate to each other and see the world. Here Leszek Kolakowski explores the essence of these ideas, introducing figures from Socrates to Thomas Aquinas, Descartes to Nietzsche, and concentrating on one single important philosophical question from each of them. Whether reflecting on good and evil, truth and beauty, faith and the soul, or free will and consciousness, Leszek Kolakowski shows that these timeless ideas remain at the very core of our existence.
I think I already knew most of what he covers, but I really enjoyed his style. I don’t know of a better introduction to philosophy, or a recap of what you may already know.
Here is the Wikipedia entry on Kolakowski.
This article by Jonathan Haidt seems to me the most sensible thing ever written on the political divide in the U.S. (Thanks to Mike for the pointer.)
I was reading a post about the great philosopher Thomas Nagel, who recently published an article arguing that Intelligent Design should be taught in school, since it is in fact “science,” though it is bad science. Indeed,very bad science. Anyway, the poster was wondering if Nagel had “jumped the shark,” a phrase which I had not yet encountered. So I Wiki-ed it, and found the etymology very funny. Here is a hint:
And here is the Wiki article.
And here is the post discussing Nagel.
Nephew Nathan and friend Flavia visited us from California, and Ben led us on a killer ride: straight up “Lord have mercy!” hill, and (as if that wasn’t enough), then straight up to “Pope Sweet Jesus!” summit. We then rode home and recuperated. Then Nathan, Flavia, and I rode up Blacksmith Fork canyon, which is really a lovely ride. They have each won the Calfornia Cup, so I had a teensy bit of diffuclty keeping up. But they were kind and patient, and we had a great time.