The Catholic Thing
On the "Art of Jesuitism" Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 27 November 2012

In paragraph 206 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche discusses “Jesuitism.” He does not like it. What was Nietzsche talking about? Nietzsche always has a point, even in his most bizarre aphorisms – to wit, #132: “One is punished most for his virtues.” If we recall what Christ said about who would be most persecuted, this paradoxical aphorism seems right on target. Truth and virtue are, in fact, “punished.”

In Nietzsche’s Preface, democracy and “Jesuitism” were viewed with some contempt. Christianity was the “Platonism of the masses.” It tried to give everyone the nobility that Plato reserved to the few. This combination only produced a “tension” in the souls of European men. This inner tension should lead to a revolution to rid us of the silly effort to make “herd-men” (democratic citizens) noble.

Also, in Nietzsche’s view, Jesuits, with their once infamous liberal theory of probabilism, and democracy, with its theory of equality, have prevented this explosion. They explained that whatever the people do is really all right. Little difference exists between the highest and the lowest. Such a position is directly opposite to Nietzsche’s view.

In the chapter devoted to “We Scholars,” Nietzsche explains something that many of us have wondered about, namely, “Why do scholars cause so much trouble?” He responds: “The worst and most dangerous thing of which a scholar is capable comes from the instinct of mediocrity which characterizes his species.” That is quite an amusing observation. The species of scholars, who think they are so high and eloquent, are really sophists, petty and mediocre.

Then Nietzsche adds: “Jesuitism’ of mediocrity. . .instinctively works for the destruction of the uncommon man and tries to break – better still – relax every bent bow.” The “bent bow” is an image of the tension caused by getting rid of nobility and the superman who must be produced to save us from such mediocrity that scholars, democrats, and Jesuits dream up.

       The Ill Nietzsche photographed by Hans Olde (1899)

As far as I can tell, the “Jesuitism” of mediocrity refers to the historic Jesuits who, in their schools, wanted to educate even the masses to the level of the noble. In Nietzsche’s view, this effort was an illusion. They were not rising up but dumbing down. “For relaxing – with consideration, with indulgent hand, naturally, relaxing with importunate pity; that is the true art of Jesuitism, which has always understood how to introduce itself as the religion of pity.” Why does pity come into this analysis?

In Greek tragedy, pity was the decent reaction in the audience on beholding undeserved suffering and punishment. Christianity itself is a religion that understands pity. Pity is one of our reactions to Christ on the Cross. Pity, for Nietzsche, however, is a weakness. It was this pity that prevented the cleansing of the weak and incompetent that kept the unfit in the world. In this sense, it is a very modern attitude.

In reading Nietzsche, it is a mistake to write off a flamboyant or shocking position as if it had no point. We should endeavor to think like Nietzsche, if only to see what bugged him. “Jesuitism” was still a lively issue in his mind towards the end of the nineteenth century. Eric Voegelin said, in fact, that we have nothing new in the twentieth century. We have only carried out into reality in the twentieth century and, I would add, in the twenty-first century, aberrant ideas that were already formulated earlier and crystalized in Nietzsche.

The “pity” of the Jesuits, as Nietzsche saw it, fuels the possible raising the minds and culture of at least some ordinary people so that they could understand noble ideas and practice aristocratic virtues. In #287, Nietzsche asks in fact “What Is Noble?” This need “for” the noble is an “act of faith,” as the noble does not yet exist in Nietzsche’s time. The passage ends dramatically: “The noble soul has reverence for itself.” Nietzsche knows that this “order of rank” smacks of the “old religion.” He implies that he himself is worthy of this reverence.  

In a chapter entitled, “What Nietzsche Hated,” in his Nietzsche, Crane Brinton wrote: “The doctrine of immortality as it appears in Christianity is for Nietzsche one of the most diabolical of priestly inventions. Believers are not promised that pity, self-abnegation, charity, asceticism will bring them success in this world. They do not turn the other cheek to get caresses, but blows. By the ingenious device of the Kingdom of Heaven, they are promised the complete fulfillment of their crudest desires in an after-life.”

Nietzsche, modern man that he was, insisted on the primacy of this world, such as it is. In a paradoxical way, so do Christianity and “the true art of Jesuitism.” The world contains things to be pitied. The noble soul has reverence for what in any immortal soul God has created.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Other Joe, November 27, 2012
You are amazed I speak your language? I was educated by the black robes. Once I was a noble savage. Now I blog to the despair of some and the amusement of a few. But the time of my book learning was before the deluge. Nobility was not yet scorned. Now many of the Jebbbies think like Nietzsche and know all too well what was bugging him.

(Pssst! He was crazy)
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 27, 2012
Maybe Niche had in mind Pascal’s jibe in “Les Provinciales,” where he says of the Jesuits, “you will easily see that, if they had none but the looser sort of casuists, they would defeat their main design, which is to embrace all; for those that are truly pious are fond of a stricter discipline. But as there are not many of that stamp, they do not require many severe directors to guide them. They have a few for the select few [Ils en ont peu pour peu]; while whole multitudes of lax casuists are provided for the multitudes that prefer laxity. 'It is in virtue of this 'obliging and accommodating, conduct,' as Father Petau calls it, that they may be said to stretch out a helping hand to all mankind."
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., November 27, 2012
If Jesuits today, as Old Joe says, think like Nietzsche it is not beucase they have actually read his workds. Huge numbers of supposedly educated Catholics, relgious and laymen alike, function intellectually, or perhaps just nuerologically, in witch's brew of Modernism in which it imposssible to know what set of enticing errors ends and another begins. They would all shirek at the idea of being called Soccial Darwinists, even though that is the only perspective that can come from their naturalist assumptions. What niether they nor poor gld Nietzsche could pin down was just exactly what makes a man or his atributes nobel. Must nobility not concsist in doing God's will? Are not virtues the strenghts that enable one to do God's will? Then a peasant could be as nobel as a prince, and that is something that would bug a fellow with aristoractic pretensions. And he hinted in his letters that he was also bugged that believing the erros of that era robbed him of the Christan faith that must have been a comfort to his ancestors. Many of our brighest today are still bugged as hell by that.
written by Ib, November 27, 2012
I read a lot of Nietzsche as a young man, including "Thus Spake Zarathustra" when I was 14. I also read a spate of Ayn Rand around the same time. Nietzsche, of course, is much more forbidding and paradoxical than the Russian novelist, but it cannot be denied that in some ways Rand is a female miniature of the German philologist. It was in reading a contemporary of Nietzsche, William James, that I was able to grasp the limitation and error of the German's thought. It was James who in "Varieties of Religious Experience" dismantled Nietzsche's approach to religion, revealing how shallow it was in its analysis, and how empty it was in its rhetoric. One passage, poking directly through Nietzsche's pose, is this:

"The mood of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche... though often an ennobling sadness, is almost as often only peevishness running away with the bit between its teeth. The sallies of the two German authors remind one, half the time, of the sick shriekings of two dying rats" (p 36).

Perhaps more on-topic, it must be noted that St. Ignatius Loyola, though plenty tough ascetically himself, was not really a rigorist when it came to other souls. Of course, any degree of spiritual rigor seems difficult today, in our age of slackness. Wanting to bring all to Christ, many times in the past Jesuits have adopted unconventional means that had surprising and sometimes negative reactions from the Magisterium and/or the faithful. The Chinese Rites is perhaps the most well known example, but probabilism, Molinism, the Reductions of Paraguay, and many others might be cited. Given the grand scale of what the pre-suppression Jesuits attempted, Nietzsche's carping seems singularly peevish. After all, in writing books meant for a broad readership as he did, rather than wissenschaftlichen Monographien, he was himself relaxing the standards of German philology and philosophy. But I suppose he would have exempted himself from any accusation of Jesuitism by playing the Zarathustra/Overman card.
written by Randy, November 28, 2012
"By the ingenious device of the Kingdom of Heaven, they are promised the complete fulfillment of their crudest desires in an after-life."

I think he has Christianity confused with Islam here and the eternity with 40 virgins. Christianity offers a beatific vision. That is not about our crudest desires. It is about our most noble desires.
written by Chris in Maryland, November 28, 2012
Amen to Randy on his point. That N could state that union with God is a crude desire shows some real sloppy work/thinking on his part.

Our problem is that we are all immersed in the derivative, secondary echoes of this 19th C junk culture, where characters such as N are given gigantic status, but almost no one ever really gets direct contact with the actual thoughts/utterances of these characters. It seems they are accorded a status that exceeds what they merit.
written by Moncler kids vests, November 28, 2012

The spirit to whom Milton is praying was the actual vehicle through which God created the universe.
written by Gail Finke, December 01, 2012
This musing on Nietzsche reminds me of the seeming paradox that bothers so many modern people: If God will judge people who have never been told about Jesus according to their natural state, why tell them? Why make them bad Christians (who will almost certainly go to Hell) rather than good pagans (who presumably have better chance of not going to Hell)? This idea makes many people wring their hands, because it also implies that you should not tell ANYONE the truth about Jesus. That way they can never fail as Christians. They just MIGHT succeed at righteousness on their own, but if not God can hardly blame them.

Nietzsche seems to say something similar: Why try to give more people the eduction the nobility and the supermen are entitled to, when it will (presumably) be dumbed down and mediocre and they will just remain dull and stupid anyway? Why not leave people in their natural, "herd" state and let the nobility and supermen arise inevitably?
written by Stan J, December 01, 2012
Gail Finke -
And why should the conscientious bear the guilt of spiritual negligence?
Any gold digger will tell you that within tons of silt will be found an occasional nugget.
written by SteveRR, December 08, 2012
It may be better to understand Nietzsche's thoughts on this in On the Genealogy of Morality.
Don't even put Rand and N. on the same planet let alone the same room.
For all of the anti-N's... just look around today... see if he did not accurately predict the future over 100 year ago.
If you would like some fresh insight on BGE - certainly give Maudemarie Clark's new book a look - it is brilliant.
I think they are also mistaken in reading N.'s idea of 'relaxing the bow' - they should look to Plato's Bow and Lyre.
written by Kamausim, December 24, 2012
Concurring with "N" So as not to bring out the deprivation of masses of knowledge they could have naturally acquired its noble not to inform them. As there no perfect christians the goal should to realise good pagans whose concience isn't irked by judgement day.

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