(All quotations from Nietzsche, unless otherwise stated, are from the edition of The Antichrist published by Haldeman-Julius in 1930)
“There have been many great attacks upon Christianity, strong and effective in their different ways, and one hesitates to distiguish any one of them by the superlative ‘greatest’, but if I were to use this superlative – especially with respect to sheer blasting force of inspired denunciation – I should apply it to The Antichrist of Friedrich Nietzsche….0ne is not only impressed intellectually, but one is thrilled and moved to the depths by the splendid, sweeping fervour of his attack.”
It is with these words that the renowned American freethinker and publisher, E. Haldeman-Julius, begins the introduction to his 1930 edition of The Antichrist. That Nietzsche is anti-Christian – that is, anti÷the Christian Church – is apparent to anyone who has read him. The question I want to ask, however, is he really anti- Christ as he claimed to be? Before giving my answer it may be useful to briefly outline the way in which Nietzsche viewed Christianity.
Nietzsche does not primarily concern himself with the usual questions regarding the dating of the Christian gospels, their consistency or inconsistency, or whether Christ did or did not exist. In other words, the validity of the documentary evidence for Christianity. Nor does he concern himself with the arguments for or against the existence of God, although he calls himself an atheist. He adopts what he describes as a “psychological” approach which revolves around the question: Does Christianity enhance or depreciate life? He writes:
“What is good? – everything that increases the feeling of power, the will to power, and power itself, in men. What is evil? – everything based in weakness. What is joy? – the emotion of power increasing, of a resistance overcome. Not contentedness, but more power! Not peace at any price, but war! Not ‘goodness’, but more ability!….The weak and the misbegotten shall sink to the ground: that is our humanitarian slogan; and they should be helped to sink. What is the most harmful vice? – pity, shown to the misbegotten and the feeble -Christianity.”
Nietzsche argues that the attacks made upon Christianity up to his time have not only been timid but false. Christianity is a crime against life and the problem of its “truth” is of no value unless it leads to a consideration of the validity of its morality.
Christianity attempts to reverse natural selection. The Christian is a sick and degenerate individual who tries to thwart the natural course of evolution and wants to make the unnatural into law. He seeks to preserve the physiologically botched, those who are weak, and to strengthen their instinct to preserve each other. Those who do not regard this attitude as immoral belong to the same sickly crowd.
“Genuine love of mankind,” he writes, “exacts sacrifice for the good of the species: it is hard, full of self-control because it needs sacrifice.” He adds:
“Neither as an ethical code nor as a religion has Christianity any point of contact with………..things as they actually are. It is concerned with purely fantastic causes…and purely fantastic effects. It communes with purely fantastic creatures…it professes a fantastic science, a fantastic psychology….this world of pure fantasy is to be differentiated, to its disadvantage, from the world of dreams, for the dream-world at least reflects actuality, whereas the other falsifies, slanders and denies actuality.”
All religion is born of fear, but the Christian religion is essentially a product of servile mentalities. The slaves were in fear of their masters and wanted revenge for their inferiority. Christianity sprang from their resentment and had as its aim the undermining of the confidence of the ruling castes by means of guilt-inducing ideas of sin and pity. It was a levelling doctrine like its offspring socialism. The result of this triumphant slave revolt was the destruction of the intellectual accomplishments of the ancient world. The scientific method, the art of reading, the sense for fact – all were in vain. They were “buried in a night. Not trampled to death by German and other heavy feet! But brought to shame by crafty, stealthy, anemic vampires. Not conquered – merely sucked dry!”
Nietzsche ends The Antichrist with an idictment of Christianity as “the one great curse, the one intrinsic depravity, the one black impulse of resentment, for which no subterfuge is too vile, or too furtive, or too underhand, or too mean. I say the thing is the one indelible blot on the achievement of man….”
Despite the fierceness of Nietzsche’s indictment, however, his case against Christianity is incomplete. As Benjamin de Casseres has pointed out: “The Antichrist….is an evasion. It was a tremendous onslaught -the greatest ever made – on Christianity. But Christianity and Christ are identical.” (I Dance With Nietzsche) Nietzsche, in fact, lets Christ off lightly, focussing his hatred on St. Paul whom he regards as the real intellectual founder of the Christian creed. Nietzsche accuses Paul of sacrificing “the Saviour; he nailed him to his own cross.” He even blames the disciples for possessing the “most un-Christly desires for revenge,” as if the numerous threats of hell and damnation attributed to the Christ of the New Testament could be construed as anything else but a very Christly desire for revenge! Later he claims that these threats were “put into the mouth of the Master” by “these trivial people.” And in another place he complains that “The character of the Saviour, his teaching, his way of life, the meaning of his death, and even the sequel to his death – were all altered until nothing in the record even remotely approximated to fact.” Just what this alleged “fact” was and how he knew it differed from “the record” Nietzsche does not say. Indeed it would seem that here he was contrasting his own private fantasy about Christ with the public fantasy of the Church.
Nietzsche’s famous statement that “there was only one Christian and he died on the cross” is yet another example of the reverential way he approached the Christ myth. Even such an ardent Nietzschean as Oscar Levy admits that “We are confronted here with a weakness in the strong mind of Nietzsche who, with all his deep insight, was more of an anti-Christian than an anti-Christ and who had, from his ancestral stock, a remnant of veneration for the Saviour in his blood.” (The Idiocy of Idealism)
But there is more to Nietzsche’s reverence for Christ than the influence of his ancestral stock. If “Christ” is taken as a symbol for the “redemption of mankind” then Nietzsche would have felt a strong affinity with him, for he too wished to redeem mankind with his gospel of the Superman despite his statement in Ecce Homo that “The very last thing I should promise to accomplish would be to ‘improve’ mankind. I do not set up any new idols: may old idols only learn what it costs to have legs of clay.”
Here, for example, is the messianic Nietzsche in full flight:
“Ye lonesome ones of today, ye seceding ones, ye shall one day be a people: out of you who have chosen yourselves shall a chosen people arise – and out of it, the Superman.
“Verily a place of healing shall the earth become! And already is a new order diffused around it, a salvation-bringing odour – and a new hope!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra)
This Salvationist strain in Nietzsche’s thinking was clearly brought out in The Philosophy of Nietzsche by Georges Chatterton-Hill:
“Those who represent the Overman as an incarnation of selfishness are grievously mistaken. It is not his own pleasure that the Overman seeks, but the justification of eternal Becoming, which is the eternal world process….the redemption of humanity through suffering, through great and intense suffering. And out of this intense suffering emerges precisely that supreme object and work of art which is the Overman, who by his deeds shall justify all that which is miserable and pitiable in life, and raise it to a pinnacle of beauty. The Overman modelled in the school of suffering shall in turn reflect his own glory on the whole of life: and life viewed in the wondrous light shed on it by the glory of the Overman shall be redeemed and affirmed and sanctified and justified.”
It is a characteristic of all religious and messianic doctrines that they demand the submission of the individual to some supra-individual entity or goal. The Christian views the individual as an instrument of his God, the Marxist views the individual as an instrument of the Dialectical Process, and Nietzsche, in his turn, views the individual as an instrument for the realization of the Superman. Having declared “the death of God” he became obsessed with the problem of finding a new goal for “mankind”. His answer was the creation of the Superman. The godless were to have a new god.
But I would ask why does my life need to be “justified” and “redeemed”, “purified” by suffering, and the creation of the Superman? To me, all this is simply the old Christian rubbish given a new coat of paint. One of the reasons that I am an atheist is because I reject any belief that demands I serve it. I want my beliefs to serve me. If I am told by Nietzsche that Christianity is a servile creed, a permanent whine from those who are not strong enough to face reality, then I agree with him. But if he goes on to say that I must live my life for the coming of the Superman, I then classify his words in the same category as I do those of the Christian and his Christ: mystifying spookery! I live my life for my sake, not for the sake of a goal set by someone else and transcending me. Nietzsche himself aptly observed that
“The man of faith, any kind of ‘believer’, is necessarily subservient to something outside himself: he cannot posit himself as an end, and he cannot find ends within himself. The believer does not really belong to himself, he is only a means, he needs to be used, and he needs someone
to use him. His instinct accords the highest place to a morality of abnegation; and everything within him – his prudence, his experience, and his vanity – prompt him to espouse this morality. Any kind of faith is an expression of self-denial, and of estrangement from self…”
Had Nietzsche taken his own words to heart and applied them to his own faith he would have freed himself from all religion. Then indeed he would have been more than anti-Christianity, he would have been anti-Christ.
(Since writing the above I came across the following passage in -another work by Benjamin de Casseres: The Muse of Lies. Although de Casseres was an ardent admirer of Nietzsche what he writes supports my theme:
“Nietzsche’s doctrine of the ‘Eternal Return’ was best illustrated in himself, for he preached the ideal of sacrifice and a living for a ‘Beyond’. He was the last great Christian. The will to create the superman, the Beyond-Man, orders one even to sacrifice one’s friends, says Nietzsche in one of his aphorisms. Is this not the ecclesiastical furor par excellence? Can you not see the cowled fanatic in that? Can you not smell the fagots and the pitch-pile? Can not we nihilists and mockers see the psychologic germ of the new Torquemada in that sacrificial admonition? The Eternal Return! Indeed thou wert a Return, o thou dancing, Dionysian forerunner of an Inquisition.”)