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Nietzsche and the Nietzscheans: Shaping the Culture of Death

“And if my philosophy is a hell,” wrote Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900), “I will at least pave the way to it with good sentences.” This facile reduction of the moral person to his words elevates human art above human life. In the Christian perspective, the human being is more worthy than what he can make—including his words. But no thinker in modern times harbored a more virulent and venomous hatred for Christianity than Nietzsche.

Nietzsche sought to be freed from anything that would bind him to his fellow human beings or to God. Such a misguided understanding of freedom—which interprets participation with others as belittlement—is really a form of alienation. Nietzsche found refuge in words, not in acts of love. “There is no one among the living or the dead,” Nietzsche wrote, “with whom I feel the slightest affinity.” Alexander Nehamas’s Nietzsche: Life is Literature posits that Nietzsche thought of the world as a literary text and of people as literary characters. This represents a true deprivation and impoverishment of the self and can produce only a culture of death. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II states:

In seeking the deepest roots of the struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death” . . . [we] have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and man. (EV 21)

Without God and man, the individual becomes a caricature and begins to crumble.

I Have Killed the Law

Nietzsche claimed that his tool for philosophizing was the “hammer” and that he was “dynamite,” celebrating the grandeur of power. Yet this kind of thinking belongs to the realm of make believe and inevitably delivers Nietzsche to the shores of desolation. In Daybreak, he wrote:

I am consumed by doubts, for I have killed the Law. . . . If I am not more than the Law, then I am the most abject of men.

In an 1888 letter to Franz Overbeck, he made this painful confession:

Lonely and deeply suspicious of myself as I was, I took, not without secret spite, sides against myself and for anything that happened to hurt me and was hard for me.

The importance he attached to himself and his art goes beyond exaggeration. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche commented on Zarathustra:

This work stands alone. Do not let us mention the poets in the same breath. . . . If all the spirit and goodness of every great soul were collected together, the whole could not create one of Zarathustra’s discourses.

This inflated evaluation of his own work stands in striking contrast to the dying St. Thomas Aquinas’s assessment of his entire body of writing as “mere straw” (videtur mihi ut palea). Nietzsche, on the other hand, concluded that his Zarathustra was “the greatest gift mankind” has ever received.

Narcissistic self-absorption and a complete disregard for others are not qualities that are congenial to the making of a good philosopher. His ethics is actually classified as “anethics” (the absence of ethics). One may argue that Nietzsche is really only a “personality” in the modern sense, but he is widely accepted as a philosopher and thus as a thinker who should be taken seriously and perhaps even imitated. That Nietzsche has been highly influential is not in dispute, though Western culture has not yet come to terms with the fallout produced by what one scholar called “the detonation of his most volatile ideas.”

To Be a God

The “fallout” should not be difficult for anyone who views the drama of life from a Judeo-Christian perspective to comprehend. Pride precedes a fall, and Nietzsche’s pride was monumental. He preferred his truth to objective truth, which he often rejected as “ugly.” He gleefully called himself the “Anti-Christ” and authored the “God is dead” movement. Nietzsche believed that he could determine what is good by himself through the sheer power of his will.

The sin of our primal parents was the proud desire to be equal to God. In becoming God, so they thought, they would have the power to determine what is good and what is true and would not need to obey God or conform to what he said was good. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche makes the same mistake:

The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges “what is harmful to me is harmful in itself”; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things; it is value-creating.

Nietzsche identified passionately with the noble mind, the ?bermensch (Overman), the hyper-individual immune to cultural conditioning. The zenith of all ambition is to be god in the absence of God. To be a self that towers above everything and lives without pity is the destiny of the noble mind. What the noble mind chooses is good—simply because the noble mind chooses it.

Because I Said So

Nietzsche was eager to admit something that people who identify themselves as “pro-choice” prefer to remain silent about—namely that choice is good not because of the inherent goodness of the object chosen but by virtue of the sheer power of choice. In this regard, pro-choice advocates agree with Nietzsche that something becomes good simply because we choose it—exhibiting a colossal pride that claims personal choice to be self-justifying. Promoters of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage are reluctant to recognize their Nietzschean roots. It is still embarrassing to admit that one’s choice is good simply because “I chose it” and not because it affirms what is good in itself. No one wants his own dignity to be determined by the caprice of another; even those who emulate Nietzsche cannot abide the presence of other Nietzscheans in their midst.

For Nietzscheans, choice is not subordinated to life; life is subordinated to choice. This marks the distinction between the culture of death and the culture of life. The culture of death is a choice for power over love, for the strong over the weak. “Choose choice,” advise self-identified pro-choicers, but this philosophy excludes them from a world of objective values that would inspire a real love for life.

Nietzsche illustrates the infallible goodness of the valuation of the strong in his infamous image of birds of prey devouring defenseless lambs. There is nothing blameworthy about the viciousness of the birds. They are simply enacting their nature. Who they are, for Nietzsche, is the measure of what is good.

True nobility accepts with quiet resignation the arduous tasks that are presented to the noble person. Pride, on the other hand, the deadliest of the deadly sins, always desires more than is possible; the proud man craves undue praise, unwarranted powers, and impossible achievements. He dwells in a world of fantasy that can lead a person into madness.

If There Were No God

In 1862, on his Easter vacation, the seventeen-year-old Nietzsche wondered “how our view of the world might change if there were no God, immortality, Holy Spirit, or divine inspiration, and if the tenets of millennia were based on illusions.” This thought generated Nietzsche’s philosophical agenda for the rest of his career and was made manifest when he announced the death of God. The God that Western man had created, Western man had now put to death. Only an abyss remained, in which only the strongest could resist the temptation to despair and heroic individuals could by dint of sheer willpower. With Nietzsche’s pronouncement, optimistic philosophies of the past were replaced by nihilism.

Despite the utter bleakness of the nihilistic picture that Nietzsche paints, it has attracted a wide circle of admirers. Its appeal lies in its call to heroism, the challenge of creating oneself in a milieu of chaos, staring into nothingness and finding the courage to be.

The Virtue of Selfishness

Among the multitude of intellectuals and artists who replicated, in one way or another, the mind of Nietzsche, is Ayn Rand. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Ayn Rand Institute zealously promotes abortion (“The embryo is clearly pre-human; only the mystical notions of religious dogma treat this clump of cells as constituting a person”) and assisted suicide (“rational self-interest”). At the same time, it attacks, with equal zeal, religion, volunteerism, and any kind of alliance that would presumably diminish the noble and lofty stature of the pure individual. For Rand, “altruism is the root of all evil.” The rejection of participation in the lives of others, though, is self-isolating and ultimately self-destructive. As a cultural movement, it exhibits signs of social pathology.

Rand’s holy trinity was “rationality, individuality, and capitalism.” Atlas Shrugged contains a pivotal scene in which a trainload of passengers dies in a tunnel accident. The narrator, speaking for Rand, enumerates the philosophical errors of the victims, pointing out how each one failed to achieve rationality. Passages like this exemplify Rand’s social Darwinism, something she shared with Nietzsche. He was a proponent of child labor and approved of Basel’s policy of working children over twelve up to eleven hours a day. He approved of the education of workers but believed that the pertinent consideration was whether their “descendents work well for our descendents.”

Barbara Branden, Rand’s biographer, suffered from severe panic attacks and telephoned her “friend” of nineteen years for help during one. Rand’s response was less than helpful: “How dare you think about yourself instead of me?” Such complete disregard for the needs of others is at the core of her philosophy. In her most explicitly philosophical work, The Virtue of Selfishness, she warns that “if civilization is to survive, it is the altruist morality that men have to reject.” Rand felt that the “virtue of Pride“—the quality whereby an individual amasses “self-made wealth” and forges his “self-made soul”—was a better goal.

The inevitable corollary of replacing the moral categories of good and evil with the non-moral categories of strength and weakness is disdain (even contempt) for the lowly, the sick, and the poor. In Nietzchean philosophy, weakness is more iniquitous than wickedness.

Spiritual Grandeur

Nietzsche and Rand, like Karl Marx, are utopians, but the noble character—the self-made man—is unattainable. This explains their contempt for Christians, who enjoy a “communal grandeur” or a “spiritual grandeur.” Nietzsche was angered by Christianity’s victory over the Roman Empire, seeing it as the triumph of the sick over the healthy, the lowly over the noble.

Neither Nietzsche nor Rand had any understanding of the spiritual strength Christians find in communal love and the strength they receive from God. They did not appreciate the personal value and inherent dignity that is evident or hidden in each human being. By ignoring the image of God, they depersonalized and despiritualized their own image of self. The result was singularly unattractive.

Human beings, of course, are not mere individuals; they are persons with individual uniqueness and communal responsibility. Friedrich Nietzsche personifies the stark God-less emptiness that is associated with modernity, a quality that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel acidly appraised as “Good Friday without Easter Sunday.”

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