The Catholic Thing
Nietzsche: An American Icon? Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Tuesday, 06 March 2012

In the early twentieth century, the pronouncements of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were admired and championed by many prominent American secularists including Clarence Darrow, Walter Lippmann, Jack London, H.L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, Margaret Sanger, and Upton Sinclair. Mencken proclaimed that Nietzsche was “the greatest individualist” since Adam. O’Neill and London described him as their “Christ.”

In the recently published, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Idols, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen explains that Nietzsche was chic with Greenwich Village bohemians and the anti-egalitarian crowd because he hated Christianity, democratic government, and the middle class. One reviewer of the Rosenhagen book hailed Nietzsche as the thinker who “helped Americans to acquire a better sense of cultural identity and, as a culture, a higher level of intellectual maturity.”

For the life of me, I cannot figure why Americans would fall for Nietzsche’s warped Weltanschauung or how he “inspired rapture devotion.”

Nietzsche (1844-1900) was the son of a Lutheran minister, born in Prussia, and educated at the University of Bonn. He taught classical philology at the Swiss University of Basel before resigning due to illness in 1879. During the next decade, he wrote a series of philosophical works including his most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1889, at only forty-five, Nietzsche had a mental breakdown and spent the remainder of his life in an insane asylum.

He argued that human nature was determined by primitive forces, namely the will to power, whereby each human being defines his own personal order and creates the values that determine all his actions. The will to power is “the innermost essence of being,” not one’s soul made in the image of God.

For Nietzsche there is no God. (“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!”) God is merely the delusional expression of future hopes; a mere value judgment to give meaning and stability to one’s life.

Nietzsche correctly concludes that without God there can be no absolute standards, no right or wrong, no salvation, no afterlife, no objective or eternal truths. If there is no God, only our own values or feelings matter: “Truth,” Nietzsche declared, “is that sort of error without which a particular type of living being could not live.” Truth becomes whatever one “wills.”

Nietzsche opposed the rational idea of life characterized by the Greek god Apollo. He preferred Dionysius, the god of instinct and emotion. The dynamic, adventurous aspects of life supersede order and rationality. Power supersedes truth, and thought is a slave to the will.

Consequently, Nietzsche foresees a Zarathustra descending from the mountain to preach a new religion in which the dead God is replaced by an Übermensch – the Overman or Superman who creates his own values and goals.

The Superman’s essential quality is strength, meaning his will. He has a strong personality and is master. He lives dangerously, seeks conflict, which is the essence of life. The Superman loves suffering. According to Nietzsche, pain and suffering bring out greatness. 

                Nietzsche by Curt Stoeving (1894)    

The weak succumb to suffering; the strong grow by it. Cruelty, conflict, war are to be encouraged not eliminated. The Superman is also proud; he knows he is superior and a law unto himself. Nietzsche refers to this state as the “transvaluation of all values.” 

Only this superman can provide hope for the future of mankind. Only this superman can eliminate the key institution that is responsible for the existence of mediocrity: Christianity.

Nietzsche despises Christianity because it was an obstacle to the rise of the Superman. It undermines man’s faith in himself, limiting his powers and dignity by notions of sin, wretchedness, humility. The Christian is governed by “slave morality.” 

Nietzsche condemns Christianity because it renders life on earth relatively unimportant. It emphasizes the next world and promotes the cult of mediocrity. Since Christianity preaches that all men are equal in the eyes of God, the powerful must occupy a lower status than is rightfully theirs.

To succeed, Nietzsche’s Superman must destroy Christianity and declare a new dawn for humanity. The end of Christianity Nietzsche prophesized, would lead to an active nihilism. Supermen who have rejected absolutes will then take the next steps necessary to destroy the remaining remnants of Western civilization particularly democratic forms of government that “represent the disbelief in all great men.”

Why have many American ideologues found attractive a philosophy that Camus described as “the will to power taking the place of the will to justice”? Some embrace Nietzsche because they view him as the logical successor to transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the Concord illuminati. 

Emerson, like Nietzsche, maintained that man must reject organized religion and government and rely on private judgments and emotions. He called the person who is to lead the revolt against authority, the “oversoul.” Emerson’s oversoul proclaims: “every will to which we do not succumb is a benefactor.” Nietzsche’s Superman shouts, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Other prominent Americans admired Nietzsche because he despised democracies that gave the “herds” a say in their governments and respected equality. And they are still among us, those who consider themselves the only ones fit to govern – not because they love the downtrodden or have useful experience, but because they perceive themselves as measurably smarter than the public at large. Society will only benefit from their counsel. 

But our religious tradition wisely reminds us that smart is not the same as good. Nietzsche provided some of the framework for the twentieth century’s fascist horrors. Yet he continues to have a following in America as if all that never happened. 

The only way to prevent the return of Nietzsche’s world view in new guises and to preserve our great democracy is to reassert what gave our nation strength at its birth: a firm belief in human beings as made in the image of God.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Frank, March 06, 2012
Son of a Lutheran minister eh? Well this might make some sense. I know I know, this might seem "close to the edge" but being an ex-Lutheran, Missouri Synod (Teutonic flavor of Lutheranism), I think I understand Nietzsche’s beliefs might be a possible rebellion to his Father.
written by Dave, March 06, 2012
Some embrace Nietzsche because they see him as a logical successor to Emerson. Some embrace him simply because they love power and lawlessness: they see in him a justification for understanding freedom as "I get what I want because I want it and I'm strong enough to take it." Sadly enough this is the view of freedom that is running rampant in our society, with all its ill effects. It lies at the heart of the widespread admiration for those who "get away with it." t lies at the heart of the conflict between races and ethnic groups. It lies at the heart of the conflicts between men and women, too, as the understanding that marriage is mutual self-surrender out of love for and in benefit to the opposite and that courtship is a testing and preparation for this mutual self-surrender falls ever by the wayside. Were we to rid our society of this pestilential view of things, life here would become much calmer, more orderly, and more peaceful. The price is surrender not only of one's rights, in some cases, but, more importantly, of one's wants, for everything that one wants is not necessarily good, and the life of virtue is meant to help us measure things correctly, give others what they are due, persist in the good whatever the cost, and forego those things that distort our measure of reality and our performance within it.
written by Sherry M., March 06, 2012
Thank you, Mr. Marlin, for this particularly timely article. Hopefully, people will have "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" what is happening in our country today.

Your last line regarding human beings as made in the image of God is reflected today in the words of Michael Cook over at Mercator Net. His intro to today's articles talks about Christian churches being the ultimate democracy: young and old, strong and infirm, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, etc. - all equal in the sight of God.

Hopefully, people will be able to see through today's "power politics" to understand that "survival of the fittest" would do away with the weak, the vulnerable, and anyone considered by the few to be less than worthy. What a difference between God's world of love and that of Nietzsche's ilk.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 06, 2012
Nietzsche did not exactly spend "the reaminder of his life in an insane asylum" after his 1899 breaksown. He had times of relative sanity during which he was cared for at home by his sister and entertained his friends with his imporvisations at the piano. (At least you did not repeat the story that he had intentionally infected himself with syphilis! Yes I hard that one on EWTN.) His poison continuoues to flow into our national bloodstream preciselty becuase of its rejection of Christ. I have written here before of an active duty
US Navy chaplain (Protestant) who uses N's The Anti-Christ as a text for a class he teaches to military officers. This young minister in uniform used that book not as a way that Chrstians should NOT think but as model of ehtical thiking. The same man calles himself a neo-Marxist! At first glannce it might seem that the ideas of the one who most loudly denounced egaliitarianism could not mix with those of a Marxist, but the both have in common a hatred of God. That is what "liberation theology" is really all about. To say it again, the seeds of the errors spread by both Marx and Nietzsche were sown long before either man was born, but it wan't until the late nineteenth century that those ideas were linked with political structutres that could give them muscle. Now they rule. Thank you, Geroge Marlin, for shining your light on this today.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 06, 2012
I forgt to point out that the name of none other than Theodore Roosevelt belongs on the list of prominnet Americans who found inpsiration in Nietzsche's writings.
written by Sam Rocha, March 06, 2012
You, sir, have a very poor understanding of Nietzsche.

I suggest you read a short primer by Christos Yannaras, "On the Abscence and Unknowability of God," to see a better vision of his apophatic thought.

Nietzsche's philosophy, like Emerson's, is neither narcissistic nor is it relativistic. More importantly, he frames the modern condition in a prophetic way that cannot, I think, be ignored.

During his Catholic period, Max Scheler wrote a wonderful critique of Neitzsche's theory of "ressentiment" in a book by the same title. He does not reject Nietzsche outright, and he actually shows the fecundity of his thought, and the limits of the his religious imagination.

This is a much better way to engage Nietzsche, I think.
written by JB, March 06, 2012
@Sam Rocha: Mr. Marlin may not have encapsulated Nietzsche as expertly as you might.

But there is a big difference between what some say, and what others take them to mean. That is true with Nietszche. While he may have meant what you say he meant (and I'm not going to attempt to argue with you on that point), those in the public sphere who admire him have taken his words and his thoughts to mean something much more akin to what Mr. Marlin has stated in this article.

And that is dangerous for a society that is premised on the belief that "all men are created equal and have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
written by Tony Esolen, March 06, 2012
Nietzsche's brittle and unpleasant American admirers show what happens when a legitimate admiration for the aristocratic is divorced from the revelation that all men are made in the image and likeness of God.

For a very nice literary rejoinder, I'd recommend Francois Mauriac's novella, "A Kiss for the Leper."
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 06, 2012
@Sam rocha: Nietasche correctly concluded that if the cosmos does not exist by an act of the Will of a Creator there cannot be either absolute evil or absolute good. That is what we call relativism, shich is a kind of brach one grsaps at deparately before falling into outright nihilism. What else was Hietzsche writing about in his letter to Franz Overbeck, "My life is now lived that someone will show me that my own truths are incredible." How simple it would have been to have gotten on his knees and sought foregivenss rather than cast himsefl as "Dionysius versus the Crucified"? So old Fritz had some insights into resentment, and he even wrote some very readable tings about music. But in the end must we not ask if the horors of the 20th Century, including some being perpetrated now have come into being without his utter rejction of Christ, something about which he lied. Yes, remember that although his contemporaries recall him as quite pious when he was young he later denied being an atheist on the grounds that it had never occurred to him that God did exist. It is still not too late to pray for his torutred soul. Has anyone else ever seen an eerie similairty to that famous piciture of N. and his mother with the Pieta?
written by markrite, March 07, 2012
If Thos. C. Coleman jr. would slow down when he's entering his thoughts into his computer we'd probably all know what the pith of his thought is.But his last post is inexcusable. What exactly were you tying to say, Thomas?
In any case I doubt that EWTN had it wrong when they allegedly stated that Nietzsche "intentionally infected himself with syphilis"? Isn't that the sort of thing that those who, like Nietzsche, believe in living life "on the cutting edge" do? Kind of similar to the Hollywood actor who bragged that at celebrity gatherings he enjoyed the public though surreptitious doing of lines of coke, getting off on the thrill of doing such under the noses of everyone? I don't see much contradiction there, especially when the author of the piece on Nietzsche avers that he loved living in some kind of a daring "superman" mode? Interesting post by Mr. Marlin
written by Carl, March 07, 2012
Why are American intellectuals always in love with writers who are mentally defective and who see the world through the most depressed and base values?
written by Fred, March 07, 2012
Markrite, Typos aside, Mr. Coleman has a good point, at least in his first sentence. Morality as a covert assertion of will to power and assertion of will as the only morality simply is relativism and narcissism, despite Mr. Rocha's attempt to claim otherwise. And those positions are clearly stated by Nietzche. The very title of one of his books is Beyond Good and Evil. I'd like to see more detailed and specific support for his thesis from Nietzche's work from Mr. Rocha.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 08, 2012
Sorry for the many typos, ladies and gentlemen. My point to Mr. Rocha is that Nietzsche's view of the world and of the origin and nature of morality has to lead first to relativism, because a universe devoid of intent is devoid of meaning, and that relativism then many sliding into nihilism. One simply cannot arrive at any moral absolutes if one imagines that the universe exists by itself and that morality, as Nietzsche argues in the Geneology of Morals, grew out of soical and biollgical necessities, as so many modern people imagine. Whether Nietzsche intended for his writings to have the horrible conquences that they did we cannot know. In reesponse to Carl I would like to suggest that is is hardly only Americans who are so in love with the morally diseased writers that have dominated the literary and philosophical landscapes since the dawn of the Romantic era, the very era when men began to make gods of themselves.
written by Sam Rocha, March 09, 2012
I'll stick to the two sources I made reference to earlier: Max Scheler's "Ressentiment" and Christos Yannaras'"On the Abscence and Unknowability of God."

In former we find Scheler defending Christianity against Nietzsche's litany of assaults in "Geneology of Morals," with particular attention to N.'s notion of ressentiment. Scheler's core rebuttal to N. is simple, but true: N. does not understand Christian caritas. (I actually think that elsewhere we might find a defense for N. on this, but not in "Geneology of Morals.")

In the latter we find Yannaras using N.'s famous and misunderstood declaration "God is dead" in "The Gay Science" as a way to situate and understand the modern condition and the need for an apophatic approach to theology.

In both short books I think we see engagement with N. that is fruitful, critical, but done in a spirit that avoids all this popularized nonsense from the virulent atheists and the pious theists. In other words the total rejection of N. here is kin to the total acceptance of him by atheists who do not read him but like what they think he is saying. (N. would HATE so-called "New Atheists," by the way.)

N. is worth reading by people who want to understand HIM and his world, first and foremost, and from there might begin to see beyond. Any other reading is another form of willy-nilly postmodernism.

For one, N. is a beautiful writer with a serious concern for the role of beauty in the life of the person. As someone concerned with both aesthetics and education, I find his work useful for my own attempts to advocate for the Catholic imagination in the public square. (I am giving a talk titled "Life, Death, and the Catholic Imagination" this month at Franciscan University of Steubenville, my alma mater.)

The way N. writes about reading, for example, is deeply Catholic, eucharistic even. N. is also a big advocate for a particular form of classical education.

My main point is that using N. in these predictable, ongoing culture wars is getting old and bespeaks a tremendous lack of imagination from the most imaginative intellectuals I know: Catholics. Let Mr. Bloom keep the anti-N. diatribe (in "The Closing of the American Mind") and let's look to something more in the line of Mr. Macintyre's treatment in "After Virtue" and the (shorter) books I've mentioned above. I could even share a short response piece I've published on the matter (on reading, that uses and is critical of N.).

Otherwise, this whole popularized affair becomes something, ironically, verging on the relativistic. We surely don't want that now do we?
written by Paul Turner, October 02, 2013
This article is laughable. The ideas here attributed to Nietzsche are not to be found in the works of that profoundly insightful man. There must be many Catholics who have read and thought deeply about Nietzsche before rejecting some or all of his ideas. This article does nothing to advance the discussion and reads instead like simple-minded propaganda that the Vatican would surely be embarrassed to endorse.

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