On the “Art of Jesuitism”

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., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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