skip to Main Content

David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution: Nietzsche and the Modern Philosophical Revolution

David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution: Nietzsche And The Modern Philosophical Revolution

Thus Spake Zarathustra

Philosophy can only be lived, not explained, as the powerful concrete­ness of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra makes clear. The limit of aphorism is reached in the vividness of character. Zarathustra is born at the end of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science through words that are repeated as the opening of Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra (1883), almost as if the personification developed by the author had taken over the literary enterprise. Now it is Zarathustra who speaks, not Nietzsche, and it is this intensity of inspiration that accounts for the impact of the work.

In every respect this is a work of transformation. From its burning incandescence, Nietzsche will return to the more reflective philosophical implications, but now with an irreversible clarity of pur­pose. After Zarathustra, the authority of existence has displaced all other claimants. It is the end point of the aspiration for a rebirth of tragedy from which Nietzsche had begun, because now life has itself supplied its tragic personification. Zarathustra speaks not only with the voice of authority, but with the authority of a voice.

Curiously, however, we yield to its power because it trades on an Old Testament resonance already familiar. Does this suggest the derivative character of Nietzsche’s repre­sentation? Or does it indicate that even the prophetic voice conveyed its authoritative source indirectly?

Such are the intriguing questions toward which Nietzsche points, although he does not provide us with a means of resolving them. He may well have thought that with Zarathustra he had found a more originary source that carried him beyond the biblical horizon, for Zarathustra is affiliated with Zoroaster, the creator of the Persian spiritual movement of light and dark who of necessity must also have transcended them. Surely the key to the Zoroastrian identification is that Zarathustra is beyond good and evil, refusing to be bound by their parameters as the embodiment of a life that can engage in the struggle between them only because it always remains prior to them.25

Annihilation to Permit Unfolding Life

The message of his own eternity is the valediction that sustains and structures the speeches of Zarathustra. Self-discovery and self-proclama­tion are one as Zarathustra descends in the opening of the work to dwell among men. No matter the Persian derivation of his name, we are left in no doubt that the pattern of his public ministry is supplied by the Christ against whom he measures his truth.

The revolt against God that really gets under way in The Gay Science here comes into focus as a critique of Christianity. “Is not pity the cross on which he is nailed who loves man? But my pity is no crucifixion” (Zarathustra, Prologue, § 3). Zarathustra is the one who overcomes the lovelessness of pity to proclaim the joyful good news of the overman. The journey of transfiguration on which Zarathustra is engaged is at the same time the work of redemption that affirms the eternity of time.

Nietzsche has reached the culminating point of his work, in which the symbols that had emerged in isolation can now be grasped in their mutuality. Where all previous moralities, including the Christian one, had set limits for themselves and thereby brought exis­tence to a halt, Zarathustra announces the annihilation of all values that enables the life of creation to unfold endlessly.

Undoing the Limits of Christianity

The limits that hitherto had been set by Christianity must be exploded if the power of life, the will to power, is to stream forth. In place of love of the neighbor he extols the love of the friend, “the creating friend who always has a completed world to give away” (Zarathustra, I, “On Love of the Neighbor”). Zarathustra muses that the Hebrew who died on the cross might have recanted in favor of this teaching of giving without even contemplating the cost (I, “On Free Death”). “Verily, such a gift-giving love must approach all values as a robber; but whole and holy I call this selfishness” (I, “On the Bestowing Virtue”). Ever outstripping its own attainments, “a gift-giving virtue is the highest virtue.”

The disciples of Jesus became, like all disciples, believers in him rather than in themselves and thereby proved how small their faith was (I, “On the Bestowing Virtue”). By the end of the first book, as Zarathustra departs from the town of the Motley Cow to which he had been attached, the divinity within has surpassed all other external divinities. “Dead are all gods: now we want the overman to live –on that great noon, let this be our last will” (I, “On the Bestowing Virtue”).

Forgetting Slight Charity

As Zarathustra withdraws again to his cave, the emergence of the over­man requires the death of God. “But let me reveal my heart to you entirely, my friends: if there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god! Hence there are no gods” (II, “On the Blessed Isles”). Creation, “the great redemption from suffering,” necessitates the absence of cre­ator gods. As yet, however, it is no more than the cry of revolt. Necessity from the side of the human will cannot determine reality, for it is only if it is a divine necessity that the twilight of the gods actually happens. It is not enough for Zarathustra to deny God; God must nihilate him­self.

Has God become a divine impossibility? That is the question toward which Nietzsche draws near and explains why the centrality of Christian­ity grows, for it is in Christ that the innermost personhood of divine love is revealed. The crisis of metaphysics is specifically a crisis of Christian theology, of the failure to see that “if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm” (II, “On the Pitying”).

The Forbidden Luxury of Self-Awareness

It is only when God is pictured in this way that the problem becomes clear, for His all-seeing pity not only overshadows man but eats away at the very essence of God himself. “Thus spoke the devil to me once: ‘God too has his hell: that is his love of man.’ And most recently I heard him say this: ‘God is dead; God died of his pity for man'” (II, “On the Pitying”). Divinity has drained away when the demand of love has outstripped his static relationship to man.

Now we sense, with Nietzsche, that love does not permit the luxury of self-awareness but goes on to sacrifice even itself in the name of love. Beyond pity, love does not seek a relationship to the other, but rather the full self-overcoming of the other. “‘Myself I sacrifice to my love, and my neighbor as myself”–thus runs the speech of all creators. But all creators are hard” (II, “On the Pitying”).

The love that is ever bringing forth surpasses the love that loves from its own benevolence. We see in Nietzsche the impact of the great seismic shift from a conceptual metaphysics to a metaphysics of existence that can never be contained in any of its expressions. He is the point at which the philosophical revolution reaches its theological apex. The conventionally pictured God of Christianity is rendered obsolete when love has ceased to be a fixed quantity.

The Anti-Theologian Becomes a Theologian

But, we are inclined to ask, is this not the truth, perhaps the truth of the truth, of Christianity? Grounds for suggesting this are to be found in Nietzsche’s own recourse to Christian formulas, like “love of the neighbor as oneself,” in order to specify his critique of Christian theology. Did Nietzsche understand himself to be engaged in an intra-Christian critique? Or was he tied to the self-image of its destroyer?

We might recall that prophets have always come to bring a sword, not peace, and that the path of creation lies through the destruction of our own self-enclosure. Moreover, the destruction is never the end but the prelude to the movement of creation that is the eternity of life itself.

But the most crucial evidence of Nietzsche’s Christian genealogy, to borrow his own term, is his insistence that the critique emerges as a self-critique. If we take him at his word, this means that what emerges is at once a negation and a transcendence of Christianity that is possible only from within what it contains.

It may be that we have been too much captured by the received conception of Nietzsche as the great anti-theologian to stop long enough to consider whether this is possible without also being a great theologian. Even Nietzsche gives little hint of such self-awareness, but it is just possible that he would also not have been too surprised by it.

Christianity Found in the Eternal Return

A far stronger case for Nietzsche’s transformed Christianity can be made in the discovery of the eternal return, the culmination of the trial of Zarathustra that unfolds in Book II. I am inclined to interpret the famous “Night Song” with its complaint about ever giving without receiving as a stage through which he must pass rather than as an expression of Nietzsche’s deeper ambivalence.26 The episode occurs in the context of several other explorations of the tension of existence as overcoming, as the inexhaustible will to power, that is nevertheless tempted to halt before the will to truth that creates “a world before which you can kneel” (II, “On Self-Overcoming”).

Zarathustra is even tempted to succumb to the vision of the Soothsayer that “all is empty, all is the same, all has been” (II, “The Soothsayer”), a formulation that reminds us how far Nietzsche really is from nihilism. The unsellable will to life within him saves Zarathustra from this despair, at least to the extent that he can be a bridge to the future. He can grasp what redemption must be, but he has not yet apprehended it. “To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’–that alone should I call redemption” (II, “On Redemption”).

The Movement of Overcoming as Eternal Return

Like Augustine before his conversion, he can see what he must do but is incapable of doing it because the spirit of revenge, “the will’s will against time and its ‘it was'” (II, “On Redemption”), has not yet been removed. That is the effect of the great epiphany of Book III, the acceptance of the eternal return, with which Nietzsche brought the first edition to a close.

The buildup to it is no accident. Eternal return is the very summit of Nietzsche’s thought, which has tested the limits of his readers as well. The notion espoused by Kaufmann, for example, that this represents Niet­zsche’s belief in the scientific necessity of everything recurring, is surely among the flattest interpretations. It fails to do justice to the full mean­ing of the overcoming by which the eternal return is reached, or regards it as a merely external challenge.

As the teacher of the eternal return, Zarathustra is hardly the propounder of a wacky pseudo-science.27 Rather he is the one who has grasped that the movement of overcoming is itself an eternal return. To the extent that the will to overcome requires the departure from all that was, it cannot take place unless it is already a movement outside of time. The moment is eternal. It may be renewed endlessly and thus generate time, but the condition for its possibility is that it transcends time.

The Inner Dynamics of the Will

Kant, we recall, was the first to draw our atten­tion to the impossibility of locating the will within space-time causality so that the mystery of the relationship remained indecipherable. Nietzsche has now carried the speculation further by shifting attention from the space-time context to the inner dynamics of the will willing to go beyond itself. The eternal return is thus not a postulate about the external con­ditions in which we find ourselves but the inward reality disclosing its nondisclosure. In this sense the eternal return is a leap of specification toward what makes possible yet can never itself be a possibility.

This does not preclude Nietzsche’s explanation of the moment as the point from which eternities stretch in either direction and therefore generate the return and departure of everything endlessly. In many ways Nietzsche, too, struggled to keep the inward meaning of the eternal return in focus, for it was no piece of information but the lodestar of his thought.28 By means of the eternal return he was finally able to understand the will to power and the overman in whom it was most fully realized. All willing aims at the eternal return because it seeks to will eternally. “Wants deep, wants deep eternity” (III, “The Other Dancing Song”).29

To Redeem What is Past

The will that seeks to rest in the finitude of the moment is the per­version of willing because it wills its own annihilation. Now Zarathustra has found the affirming redemption he had in the previous part only glimpsed. “To redeem what is past in man,” he now proclaims with con­viction, “and to re-create all ‘it was’ until the will says, ‘Thus I willed it! Thus I shall will it’–this I called redemption and this alone I taught them to call redemption” (III, “On Old and New Tablets”).

Redemption is not itself a past but the eternal present of all willing that for that reason can never be contained in a moment. If “man is a bridge and no end,” the movement of life can be sustained only by that which can never be included in it, because it is the inexhaustible source of the movement. The eternal is thus beyond purpose. Now Zarathustra can affirm the cri­tique of all teleology at a far deeper level for it is the nonteleological, the eternal return, that saves the will to life from self-suspension. “‘By Chance’–that is the most ancient nobility of the world, and this I restored to all things: I delivered them from their bondage under Purpose” (III, “Before Sunrise”).

Realizing Good Beyond Good and Evil

The way of the creator, which is hard and cruel, is made possible only by the refusal to acknowledge any way as the way (III, “On the Spirit of Gravity”). He has been freed from the conceit of the knowledge of good and evil. “I disturbed this sleepiness when I taught: what is good and evil no one knows yet, unless it be he who creates” (III, “On Old and New Tablets”). Indeed, it is precisely what is called evil, the selfishness of the will to power, that is the means of realizing the good that is itself beyond good and evil.

The emergence of good from evil, which Nietzsche had earlier discerned, can now be recognized as more than it appears to be, for good and evil are the unspecifiable moments of an unreachable eternal return. The long Western preoccupation with purpose is over when purpose has become eternal.

We live in the eternity of purpose that makes all purpose possible. Nothing stands higher than this glimpse of what cannot be glimpsed, as Nietzsche recognizes in assigning it the status of divinity. Now we under­stand the death of God more profoundly as a requirement from the side of divinity itself. God’s pity for man may have been the cross on which he died, but it was also the means of the divine resurrection. A bounded divinity is no divinity at all.

The Proliferation of God

There is no twilight of the gods, Zarathustra insists; instead “they laughed themselves to death.” This happened when one of them in a moment of forgetfulness proclaimed himself the only God there was. “And then all the gods laughed and rocked on their chairs and cried, ‘Is not just this godlike that there are gods but no God?'” (III, “On Apostates”). It has become laughable that the one God would assert an exclusive prerogative of divinity but would not rather see his nature poured forth over all creation. Conserving one’s substance is the very opposite of what constitutes divinity.

We are close here to the heart of Nietzsche’s thought as he sought not only to purify Christian morality, but the very foundation of its theology. No God would proclaim the jealous word that “there are no other gods but me.” Instead, God would freely dispense his divinity to all who were willing to take it upon themselves through continuing the divine overcoming of self.

The pro­liferation of gods is ultimately not just a necessity from the side of human self-transcendence; it is the very outpouring of life that is the mark of divinity itself. None of this is, of course, any longer a matter of theology, as if we could stand outside the movement of divine outpouring and com­prehend it, but our own participation within it. Virtually the last word of Part III is Zarathustra’s admission that life has become “dearer to me than all my wisdom ever was” (III, “The Other Dancing Song”).

“On the Higher Man”

The fourth part of Zarathustra (privately printed and circulated in 1885) is, despite the vividness of the different characters encountered, something of a coda to the radiance of the eternal return. This is the part in which Zarathustra encounters his disciples, those who have in various ways been seeking him, although the arrested stages of their development often prevent them from realizing this. In many ways this is still about Zarathustra, since the personae represent different stages of incomplete­ness on the way to the overman.

The two kings are in search of the higher man, who alone can give kingship its truth. The leech is the “conscien­tious in spirit” who has not driven his conscientiousness far enough. The magician turns out merely to be an actor, portraying an ascetic of the spirit without the asceticism of honesty. The retired pope connects the death of God with the piety of Zarathustra that would not let such a God live.

The ugliest man murdered God but ended by despising himself and could not find the strength to overcome man. The voluntary beggar has given away all his riches but has still not learned “the ultimate and most cunning master-art of graciousness” (IV, “The Voluntary Beggar”). Finally there is the shadow who has followed Zarathustra’s breaching of all limits, “nothing is true, all is permitted” (IV, “The Shadow”), but still cannot lay hold of the reality of life itself.

None of them can find the higher man, because they have not realized, as Zarathustra has, that he is already within his own cave. The folly of Zarathustra’s mission had been to think the higher man could be proclaimed. “And as I spoke to all, I spoke to none” (IV, “On the Higher Man”), a remark that provides the subtitle of the work.

It is only when he returns to find them returning to piety that he realizes they have found their own way, for it is a “festival of the ass” they have invented as the first mark of their own self-overcoming. Now they can begin to share with Zarathustra the meaning of the eternal return. Joy, the movement of life, does not seek results but the movement that is itself eternally. “For all joy wantseternity” (IV, “The Drunken Song”).

Beyond Categories of  Thought

With Zarathustra Nietzsche had at last found his voice; the remain­ing works would constitute variations on the interrelated themes he announced there. This was especially the case with the next book, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), which, as he wrote to Jacob Burckhardt, “says the same things as my Zarathustra, but differently” (quoted by Kaufmann, Preface, x). Now he sought to explain what Zarathustra could present by living it, and to the extent that his message is the defectiveness of all categories for life, Nietzsche too encounters the limits of language.

These are not just the “prejudices of philosophers,” as the opening set of aphorisms suggests, but the impossibility of comprehending the existen­tial setting of thought. It is Nietzsche’s efforts to think beyond the limits of thought that renders these last works so impenetrable. The elevation of the subject over his thoughts, as identified by Descartes, has ceased, for “a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes and not when ‘I’ wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think'” (§ 17). We do not have thoughts; it is rather thoughts that have us. Nietzsche’s own philosophical symbols must be read in this way as efforts to identify what lies beyond the boundary of consciousness because it provides the fecundity of what emerges in consciousness.

The “will to power” is thus neither a will nor a power but the source of both. Nietzsche introduces it here as a warning against “superfluous teleological principles” (§ 13) that reify the very movement beyond itself that constitutes all teleology.30 Higher than truth for every philosopher, therefore, stands the will to power by which life is gained in transcending it. “Truth” is only a stage, while life is that by which it is held and therefore the truth beyond “truth.”31 A scholar is, in Nietzsche’s view, someone indifferent to truth; a philosopher lives toward the beyond of truth (§ 6).

Is Truth Worth More Than Appearances?

We are entering a new era when the philosophical revolution overturns the priority of reality over appearance that has virtually defined the tra­dition.32  “It is no more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than mere appearance; it is even the worst proved assumption there is in the world” (§ 34).

With Kant we might wonder how such a principle might be proved except in terms of itself. But Nietzsche has gone further in locating the issue within existence, as life that perpetually generates perspectives that cannot be comprehended without stepping outside of life:

“Let at least this much be admitted: there would be no life at all if not on the basis of perspective estimates and appearances; and if, with the virtuous enthusiasm and clumsiness of some philosophers, one wanted to abolish the ‘apparent world’ altogether–well, supposing you could do that, at least nothing would be left of your ‘truth’ either. Indeed, what forces us to suppose that there is an essential opposition of ‘true’ and ‘false?'” (§ 34).

The life of truth is yet beyond any truth comprehended, but it is this unattainable truth that enables Nietzsche to recognize the finitude of all truth. I am inclined to conclude that the closely connected paragraph that begins, “Whatever is profound loves masks” (§ 40), is to be taken in this sense and that this is an important guide to Nietzsche’s lan­guage.

The terminology of the “will to power,” “the overman,” and so on is not so much intended to deceive as to draw us into the hiddenness of life. Over it all is the warning that what is disclosed is already dead. Life can never really yield to the pessimism of reconciliation “with whatever was and is, but wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity” (§ 56).

The Dwarf Animal of Equal Rights

Where Christianity still lived in relation to a false eternity beyond the now, modern society had collapsed everything into the immediacy of “the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims” (§ 203). Nietzsche’s conscious­ness of his historic task is accentuated by this realization as he portrays the “genuine philosophers” who look toward the future and turn their “hammer” on the past.

“Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a legislation, their will to truth is–will to power” (§ 211). They resolutely reject the dream of the modern world, which is the abolition of suffer­ing, because they recognize its deadly implications. “In man creature and creator are united” (§ 225); an excess of pity for the creature indicates an absence of pity for the creator. Such is the choice confronting the modern world. Either it must sink below even the Christian level in its quest for reassurance or it must advance beyond the substitutes through which it has sought the same security.

Unlucky to be Appropriated by the Nazis

Germans have retarded the evolu­tion beyond themselves by turning aside to “fatherlands,” while the Jews alone have displayed the necessary endurance, although they cannot give birth to the future. Without a social carrier, Nietzsche nevertheless feels compelled “to touch on what is serious for me, the ‘European problem’ as I understand it, the cultivation of a new caste that will rule Europe” (§ 251).

Nietzsche’s unlucky endorsement by the Nazis still prevents us from rec­ognizing the extent to which he rejected the position of a German thinker in favor of expressing a unifying vision for Europe (§ 256). But it may also be that we are not yet ready for his vision of “what is noble” as accept­ing “with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings.”

The difficulty is indicated by the extent to which the preceding statement is often interpreted as endorsing such mass destruction, whereas it is for him really only a test of the limit of our love of life. Will European or modern man have the faith to sustain a life that lives beyond itself?

“Their fundamental faith simply has to be that society must not exist for society’s sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being” (§ 258).

Nietzsche concludes with doubts about the capacity of his works to intimate what is great and can only in the “Aftersong” invoke the appearance of “the guest of guests,” Zarathustra.

Our Lingering Metaphysical Faith

For Nietzsche, life, the life of Zarathustra, has become the means of knowledge rather than the other way around. He goes on in the fifth book of The Gay Science (1887), “We Fearless Ones,” to explore what this suspension of knowledge really means. If all forms of knowledge, theo­logical and moral, must be rejected as an obstacle to life, what are we to make of the faith that still grounds this movement?

“We godless anti-metaphysicians” are compelled to recognize that “it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests” (§ 344) and wonder, if we are truthful, as to what the value of truth is. This is the:

“relentless, fundamen­tal, deepest suspicion concerning ourselves that is steadily gaining more and worse control over us Europeans and that could easily confront gen­erations with the terrible Either/Or: “Either abolish your venerations or–yourselves!”

The latter would be nihilism; but would not the former also be nihilism? That is our question mark” (§ 346).33 The way to confront the crisis, he now realizes, is to follow out the priority of life up to the realization that knowledge always fails to account for its source.

No Organ for Knowing Truth: Overturning Tradition

A solitary person, Nietzsche explains, would never even develop the need for con­sciousness but would find himself sufficiently absorbed in the business of living. What emerges into consciousness must therefore be only the small­est and most superficial generalization of the uniquely personal richness of life beneath it:

“This is what I consider to be true phenomenalism and perspectivism: that due to the nature of animal consciousness, the world of which we can become conscious is merely a surface-and sign-world, a world turned into generalities and thereby debased to its lowest common denominator” (§ 354).

Nietzsche rejects the long-standing philosophical distinction between appearance and reality. “We simply have no organ for knowing, for ‘truth'” (§ 354). With this profession Nietzsche has, as Heidegger notes, overturned the millennial Western conception of meta­physics.34

Moreover, he recognizes this as the truth of the modern world, in which we have all become actors and not builders (§ 356), despite the great efforts of the German philosophical tradition to forestall it. They were, in Nietzsche’s judgment, only “delayers” (§ 357).35 This was finally the error of romanticism, that it sought a new fixity where none can be found and betrayed its own source in a pessimism of weakness rather than of strength.

A Question for Every New Creation

Now Nietzsche insists on asking the question of every new creation whether it “was caused by a desire for fixing, for immortalizing, for being, or rather by a desire for destruction, for change, for novelty, for future, for becoming” (§ 370). We can no longer ground this preference for becoming over being, because “the human intellect cannot avoid see­ing itself under its perspectival forms” (§ 374), but that does not prevent us from living within this unknown infinity of interpretations.

Even when we have become “good Europeans” who have left behind the insularity of the Germans, we are far from being driven by our unbelief:

“No, you know better than that, my friends. The hidden Yes in you is stronger than all the Nos and Maybes that afflict you and your age like a disease; and you must sail the seas, you emigrants, you too are compelled to this by–a faith” (§377).

No Being Behind Doing

The consciousness of proclaiming a new faith marks all of Nietzsche’s works after Zarathustra, and it is important to read them in connection with this common project. They tumble forth in close proximity, as Niet­zsche indicates on the title page of On the Genealogy of Morals (1887): “A Sequel to My Last Book, Beyond Good and Evil, Which It Is Meant to Supplement and Clarify.”

By focusing on the positive purpose, we can avoid becoming distracted by the powerfully negative critiques that they also contain. This is particularly the case with the Genealogy, whose analysis of ressentiment as the root of conventional morality has often caused us to forget the extent to which genealogical analysis was only preliminary to what could not be analyzed.

There is no genealogy of actions that spring from strength; it is only the reaction that seeks to avoid action that gives rise to a gap between thought and deed. Nietzsche, we might say, sought to eradicate ulterior motives whose intervention perverts the meaning of action. It was for this reason that he took aim at the notion that morality could be separated from its realization, as if there were a pre-moral moment in which a free choice was exercised in favor of good or evil:

“But there is no such substratum; there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed–the deed is everything” (I, § 13).

The existential truth of action is gained, as Zarathustra showed, in life rather than through the devious interpositions of thought. “We are unknown to ourselves” is the opening statement of the Genealogy, and the remainder of the book is intended to forestall every attempt to look for self- knowledge other than by living it out. When morality has become existential, existence is its only guide. That is why the fate of the few who carry existence farthest must interest us vastly more than the many who have merely sought to avoid it.36

Christianity Spawned by Irredeemable Debt

By being turned into an “animal with the right to make promises” (II, § 1), such vigorous and forceful individuals who lived completely in the present found their existence deferred. Bad conscience had split them in two. They could no longer be who they were, as the very power that had previously been directed outward was now internalized against themselves.

Ultimately the debt incurred by their missteps could not be discharged, and the idea of an irredeemable debt mounted to the point of devaluing all existence. It was at this stage that the “horrifying expedient” that constituted the genius of Christianity burst forth:

“God himself sacrifices himself for the guilt of mankind . . . the creditor sacri­fices himself for his debtor, out of love (can one credit that?), out of love for his debtor!” (II, §21).

The Redeeming Man of Great Love and Contempt

Nietzsche’s insight into the existential truth of Christianity has reached a new height, one almost indistinguishable from Christianity except for his reservation that it only “afforded temporary relief for tormented humanity.” He did not want to be bought off by any palliative remedy. His own faith in redemption would not permit it. We might even say that the growing specificity of Nietzsche’s rejection of Christianity in these late works is directly connected with the increas­ingly redemptive turn of his project.

Nietzsche sought the redemption Christianity could not provide, and its first tantalizing glimpse had been vouchsafed to him in the figure of Zarathustra, who from that point on grounded his faith in its coming. He knew that “the redeeming man of great love and contempt” must come some day, so that “he may bring home the redemption of this reality: its redemption from the curse that the hitherto reigning ideal has laid upon it” (II, § 24).

But would the Antichrist not suffer the same fate of unreality as the Christ from whom he had been derived? Could the existential tension beyond good and evil be sustained if Zarathustra were no longer anticipated? Is Nietzsche’s own faith merely a variant of the “ascetic ideal”?

Overcoming the Ascetic Ideal

The lengthy treatment of the ascetic ideal in the third essay seems to provide a basis for grappling with these questions. Nietzsche was very conscious, as he had indicated in The Gay Science, that he was still driven by a faith not too dissimilar from the one he rejected. “They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth” (III, § 24). Or was he like the scientists whose self-subordination to truth had merely fur­nished the latest refuge for the ascetic ideal?

Was he the only one who saw the problem?”From the moment faith in the God of the ascetic ideal is denied, a new problem arises: that of the value of truth” (§ 24). Unless we can see that truth itself has become the great danger, we will end, Nietzsche foresaw, by worshiping “the question mark itself as God” (III, § 25).

Atheism is not the antithesis of the ascetic ideal but this ideal in its purest form–”it is the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God” (III, § 27). In contemplating this awesome spectacle of Christianity’s self-overcoming, Nietzsche is brought to the limits of “my problem, our problem.” Its formulation appears to be its own sufficient answer: “what meaning would our whole being possess if it were not this, that in us the will to truth becomes conscious of itself as a problem?” (§27)

A Final Acceptance of Existence

But this is no longer an intellectual problem, one more hiding place for the ascetic ideal as a further variant of the will to truth. Now Nietzsche can leave the question in its inconclusiveness because it marks the beginning of a final acceptance of existence as the only viable horizon for human consciousness. The momentousness of this last step is indicated by the announcement of a new literary project, The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values (1883-88), on which he intends to embark. No doubt it would be an expression of the truth of life as forever exceeding the life of truth.

It was not that Nietzsche ceased to believe in truth, indeed to pursue it, but that he now recognized that he could not contain it. Rather it was life that provided the unsurpassable boundary of truth and thereby the only possibility of glimpsing it. Truth can never be made our ideal, for it always arises from a context of life that lies outside of it. It is only by living life in the full amplitude of joy and suffering, not by willing “against life” (III, § 28), that we have any access to the glance of truth along the way.37

Christ Who Has Become Wholly Inward

The writings that follow [Zarathustra], for all of their streaming intensity, do not break new ground. Nietzsche has reached the life-affirming philosophy that can no longer be contained in the “concept-mummies” (Twilight of the Idols, “‘Reason’ in Philosophy,” § 1) hitherto produced by philosophy. He now sees that his own initial question about the value of life, whether it is worth living, is an “unapproachable problem” since it presupposes we can take up a position outside of life. “When we speak of values, we speak with the inspiration, with the way of looking at things, which is part of life: life itself forces us to posit values” (“Morality as Anti-Nature,” § 5).

He can now allow himself to contemplate the distance he has traveled, in The Twilight of the Idols (1888), which he originally titled A Psychologist’s Idleness. We note, too, that it is the idols who have fallen, not the gods, to whom we are still close in the task of redeeming the world (“The Four Great Errors,” § 8). From that perspective Nietzsche can issue a series of acute observations on the familiar topics of art, marriage, society, Germany, the Greeks, and so on. He has reached a capacity for penetration that renders these among his most arresting formulations.

Within a page he can dispatch the defining paradox of liberal institutions, which “cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained” (“Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” § 38). He can pinpoint the fatal flaw of his erstwhile mentor with newfound accuracy. Schopenhauer perpetrated “the greatest psychological counterfeit in all history” by interpreting the most life affirming in art and heroism as the deepest expression of the will to negate life (§ 21).

Nietzsche could now look back and see that his own trajectory had not been the Schopenhauerian one of searching for release from life but that of finding its deepest affirmation, which he first encountered in the Dionysian festivals. “Here the most profound instinct toward the future of life, the eternity of life, is experienced religiously–and the way to life, procreation, as the holy way” (“What I Owe to the Ancients,” § 4).

The psychology of the tragic poet was not about reaching a point above life but finding the point within it that enabled him to say yes to all. It was in this transcendence of all values that Nietzsche could say that “The Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values” (§5). At this point Nietzsche dropped the previously announced title Will to Power and made what had been its subtitle the title of the new work, The Revaluation of All Values. It is difficult to assign any definitive signif­icance to this revision, but it does suggest that he wanted to emphasize the completion of the Zarathustra epiphany.

Anti-Christ or a Kierkegaardian Anti-Christian?

His final book, The Anti-Christ (1888), was to have been the first essay in this project, which was intended not so much to advance Nietzsche’s own thought as to complete the transvaluation of all previous values. The importance of The Anti-Christ lies in the deeper understanding of Christianity it con­tains and thus of Nietzsche’s relationship to it. In retrospect the work is essentially a clarification but one that would be difficult to attain without it. Several earlier passages could be cited to demonstrate the distinction he develops between Christ and Christianity, but few would have the trenchancy of his observation here that “in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross” (I, § 39).

The distinction is an important one because it helps to explain both his invective against Christianity and the sympathies that would attune his project to the figure of Christ. While the affinity with Christ should not be given too much weight, the ambiva­lence was sufficiently important to be built into the title. Der Antichrist can be translated just as appropriately as The Anti-Christian, while the subtitle developed from An Attempt at a Critique of Christianity to A Curse on Christianity. Nietzsche comes in many passages remarkably close to Kierkegaard’s insistence that a Christian today must anathemize Chris­tendom.38 Indeed, what seems to arouse his “blackest melancholy” is the mendacity of modern Christians whose self-congratulation masks their utter failure to grasp what following Christ must mean (I, § 38).

It was the church that since the beginning turned the redemptive good news of how Christ lived into the redemption that became available to all who merely believed. “Evidently the small community did not understand the main point, the exemplary character of this kind of death, the superi­ority over any feeling of ressentiment” (I, § 40).39  Only “we spirits who have become free” (I, § 36) have the capacity to understand what nineteen centuries of Christianity have missed, that there is no immortality worthy of the name but the immortality exemplified by the way one lives.

Living in Truth But Dispensing with Dogma

When Christianity has become wholly existential, it must jettison all dogmatic formulations as false. In pushing the implication of existential truth to this extreme, Nietzsche has brought to light one of the most enduring tensions of Christianity. Whether fidelity to the imperative of existence in truth would not also require dogmatic expression as the means of ensuring its transmission is a question he does not consider.

But the fact that we can raise it suggests that there are even for great thinkers dimensions that simply cannot arise within their thought world. Perhaps those of us who are less affected by the animus that drove Niet­zsche or, in a parallel fashion, Kierkegaard, may be able to make the necessary adjustments that would save the nineteen centuries of history so brusquely dismissed.

For the teacher of the eternal return it is, for example, a little unbelievable that the same insights have not previously occurred. Indeed, the whole history of philosophy and Christianity might be reconstructed as the history of this tension between the formulated truths and the truth of “living life.” Awareness of the tension is unlikely to have escaped human notice in that long historical struggle, just as its explication now is unlikely to abolish it. Doctrinal definitions and disputes have always sought their authorization in the way of life they claimed to defend but could never contain.

Correlatively, it was always by transcending the merely verbal expressions that the living reality of faith was ever realized. The radically existential thrust of Nietzsche’s thought, forswearing any conceptual content, runs the perennial danger of dog­matic recapture that is virtually unavoidable when a literary enterprise constantly denies itself. In the absence of any terminology to identify what one is positively about, the only guide to interpretation consists of the targets of one’s critique. Even for Nietzsche it became difficult to explain himself.

Nietzsche the Deepest Witness to Christianity?

Nowhere was this more problematic than in his tortu­ous relationship with Christianity, which, he insisted, merely followed the path along which Christianity overcame itself. But what was the character of such a self-overcoming if not a self-deepening? To the extent that the critique arises from within Christianity, it cannot lead outside of it.40

Nietzsche was clearly aware of the extent to which he was driven by the same faith he critiqued both in metaphysics and in Christianity. His medi­tation carried him a considerable distance but, in the case of Christianity, rarely back to the admission of his own Christian derivation. Without car­rying it to a conclusion, he left the tension plainly visible for all to see, even though few have had the temerity to confront its shocking implica­tion.

Could the most notorious critic of Christianity have been its deep­est witness? The suggestion is audacious enough to have at some point brushed Nietzsche himself, although he gives little evidence of it even in the voluminous notebooks he left behind. The notebooks really provide source material for the published works, which they confirm in various ways but do not advance beyond.

What he does do, however, is make the issue visible in the text, not only by severing his critique of Christianity from his admiration for Christ, but also by rooting his rejection of God in God himself:

“That we find no God–either in history or in nature or behind nature–is not what differentiates us, but that we experience what has been revered as God, not as ‘godlike’ but as miserable, as absurd, as harmful, not merely as an error but as a crime against life. We deny God as God” (I, § 47).

At one level this can be read as the failure to find God, but because it is a rejection, it is more than that. “If one were to prove this God of the Christians to us, we should be even less able to believe in him” (§ 47). Proof of a Pauline external God has become incredible in light of the truth of God he knows within himself.

Nietzsche may not have a deep inner sense of God but he has enough to know that a reified God is a fraud. The revolt he announces is not against the inner idea of God but against its external deformation, for the whole force of Nietzsche’s cri­tique is derived from the heightened awareness of what God must be. We begin to understand more clearly why Nietzsche was compelled to turn to Christianity in his last work. Even when he could not fully recognize it, the inexorable thrust of his quest for a life without ressentiment led him to affirm unconditional love as the only one worthy of the name.

The existential truth of Christianity can require even the abandonment of God. Could it be that Nietzsche reminds us, no doubt in his idiosyncratic way, of the cry of Jesus forsaken: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mt 27: 46; Ps 22: 1)? Given the profound self-consciousness of the philosophical shift he had inaugurated, it is perhaps not so surprising that it should entail an equally radical rethinking of revelation.41

The Supreme Will to Power: Imposing Being on Becoming

That focus on the status of his own insight is what accounts for the strikingly lucid formulations that pepper the last Notebooks (1885-88). In part they are composed of material he had discarded, but they also contain fragments from which a whole new phase of his reflection might have sprung. Gone is the uncertainty about his metaphysical faith in truth, to be replaced by the realization that all faith is a movement beyond itself.

The paradoxical structure of existence can now be accepted because it is no longer a theoretical problem; it is rather the boundary glimpsed from within the movement by which existence is sustained:

“The view that truth is found and that ignorance and error are at an end is one of the most potent seductions there is. Suppose it is believed, then the will to examination, investigation, caution, experiment is paralyzed: it can even count as criminal, namely as doubt concerning the truth” (Will to Power, § 452).

The pursuit of truth requires the nonattainability of truth. It is because Nietzsche himself is no longer concerned about the tendency of the highest values to “nihilate” themselves, no longer sees it as doubt concerning their truth, that he can embrace it as the indispensable means by which we can exist.

He is very close to the insight of Schelling that the world is made possible through the withdrawal of God, which also implies that revelation means the withdrawal from revelation. But Nietzsche has arrived at this metaphysical insight through a far more thoroughly existential meditation. His has been the struggle to overcome ressentiment, to go beyond metaphysical revolt to the life-affirming being of becoming. Now he could find the language to express this because he was confident that it could no longer be confused with a theoretical statement.

It is with all the awareness of the revolutionary significance in the history of Western philosophy that he can now pronounce, “To impose upon becoming the character of being–that is the supreme will to power” (§ 617). The entire theoretical stance with its orientation toward a world of constancy has been displaced in the realization that it is incon­stancy that has furnished all possibility. “That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being:–high point of the meditation” (§ 617).42

Beauty Making Life Possible: An Enduring Clarity

But Nietzsche is no longer concerned that the ap­proximation will be taken for identity. The eternal return is not the sur­reptitious return of being; it is its definitive elimination from existence. Even though he still uses the language of metaphysics to bring about the eradication of metaphysics, insisting that the advent of being would have brought about the termination of becoming (§ 1062), the deno­tation has become entirely existential.

Truth and its problem of faith in another realm can be dismissed when there is no truth beyond the exis­tence it makes possible. In one of his most memorable dicta, reminiscent of the long odyssey from The Birth of Tragedy as well as the long mod­ern preoccupation with the privileged position of art, Nietzsche can now provide a summation. “We possess art lest we perish of the truth” (§ 822).

Far from the desiccated effeteness of “art for art’s sake,” art has achieved its redemptive promise when it has become a way of life (§ 853). Beauty is not only our connection and our consolation in existence, but the means by which we respond to the pull of existence. That is its deepest meaning. It is not the products, the works that soon become obstacles to their own reception, but the life that is made possible.

Art for Nietzsche is, like truth, morality, and faith, a revelation of what cannot be revealed. With this realization the existential revolution in modern philosophy has reached a clarity that cannot easily be lost. That achievement is the fruit of Nietzsche’s single-minded meditation and the reason the arc of his influence extends all the way to the present.



25. Remarkably little curiosity has been evinced in the vast secondary literature on the precise lineage of the name “Zarathustra.” It is almost as if the spell of Nietzsche’s literary creation has blocked further investigation of its genealogy. But, of course, there is such a historical descent and Nietzsche sought to reveal it through the name itself. The Persian prophet Zoroaster was selected because he was the one who first erected morality on the basis of a metaphysical distinction between good and evil. No longer merely opposing forces in the cosmos, good and evil were defined by their transcendent character:

“I have not been asked, as I should have been asked, what the name of Zarathustra means in my mouth, the mouth of the first immoralist: for what constitutes the tremendous historical uniqueness of that Persian is just the opposite of this. Zarathustra [the original Persian prophet] was the first to consider the fight of good and evil the very wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition of morality into the metaphysical realm, as a force, cause, and end in itself, is his work . . . . Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality; consequently, he must also be the first to recognize it.”

“Not only has he more experience in this matter, for a longer time, than any other thinker–after all, the whole of history is the refutation by experiment of the principle of the so-called ‘moral world order’ -what is more important is that Zarathustra is more truthful than any other thinker. His doctrine, and his alone, posits truthfulness as the highest virtue; this means the opposite of the cowardice of the ‘idealist’ who flees from reality; Zarathustra has more intestinal fortitude than all other thinkers taken together. To speak the truth and to shoot well with arrows, that is Persian virtue.–Am I understood?–The self-overcoming of morality, out of truthfulness; the self-overcoming of the moralist, into his opposite–into me–that is what the name of Zarathustra means in my mouth.”

Ecce Homo, “Why I Am a Destiny,” § 3. For a fine summary see Paul Corey, “Speaking Immorality through the Mouth of a Moralist: The Irony of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra,” paper delivered at the American Political Science Association annual meeting, 2006.

26. For a different take see Voegelin, “Science, Politics, and Gnosticism,” Modernity Without Restraint, in Collected Works, vol. 5, ed. Manfred Henningsen, 265-68.

27. See Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 326-28. To be fair to Kaufman, however, it must be recognized that Nietzsche provided more than a little justification for the purely scientific interpretation. There are passages in the notebooks in which he recounted his excitement at having discovered the mathematical necessity of eternal return in the physical universe. But he carefully avoided including any of this specula­tive physics within the published works, sensing that it would directly conflict with the rejection of propositional metaphysics.

Rudiger Safranski has provided a more sensitive account in Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, trans. Shelley Frisch (New York: Norton, 2002), ch. 10, “Eternal Recurrence and the Gay Science.” Bernard Reginster gives an incisive analysis of the range of interpretations that have been proposed for Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return. See his Affirmation of Life, ch. 5. He takes the affirmation of life as the key to unlocking Nietzsche’s thought. “And so, the ethics of power, which defines good in terms of activity and precludes a permanent, once-and-for-all satisfaction, rep­resents a paradigmatic way to live up to the distinctive requirement of the doctrine of the eternal recurrence” (15).

One can only smile at the innocence with which Reginster and much of the literature takes the Christian understanding of eternity to be “a life free from change and becoming” (227) without further comment. St. Thomas defines eternal life as “the simultaneously whole and perfect possession of interminable life” in his nuanced discussion in Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 10, a. 1.

28. Heidegger gives full weight to this recognition. See Chapter 5.

29. Laurence Lampert has perhaps best articulated the central significance of the eternal return in his Nietzsche’s Teaching: An Interrelation of “Thus Spoke ‘Zarathustra” (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986): “The blessing of eternal return permits mortal man to be at home on the earth under the open sky, and it permits the return of gods who consecrate the world of mortals. Eternal return is the teaching that lets being be” (176).

30. Nietzsche himself references Spinoza here, but he could just as easily have pointed to the analysis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. For an account of his reading of the latter see Hill, Nietzsche’s Critiques, ch. 3, “Early Nietzsche and the Critique of Judgment.”

31. “Perhaps nobody has ever been truthful enough about what ‘truthfulness’ is.” Beyond Good and Evil, § 177.

32. “Shouldn’t we be standing on the threshold of a period that would be designated, negatively at first, as extra-moral? Today, when we immoralists, at least, suspect that the decisive value is conferred by what is specifically unintentional about an action, and that all its intentionality, everything about it that can be seen, known, or raised to ‘conscious awareness,’ only belongs to its surface and skin–which, like every skin, reveals something but conceals something more?” Ibid., § 32.

33. It is noteworthy that Nietzsche acknowledges here the coinage of the term “nihilism” by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons (1862). See Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche.

34. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Gesamtausgabe, 6.1, 589-94/Nietzsche III, 154-58.

35. “But the oddest thing is: those who exerted themselves the most to preserve and con­serve Christianity have become its best destroyers–the Germans.” Gay Science, § 358. One wonders, of course, if this makes Nietzsche, who points it out, the preserver of Christianity?

36. “But grant me from time to time–if there are divine goddesses in the realm beyond good and evil–grant me the sight, but one glance of something perfect, wholly achieved, happy, mighty, triumphant, something still capable of arousing fear! Of a man who justifies man, of a complementary and redeeming lucky hit on the part of man for the sake of which one may still believe in man!” Genealogy, I, § 12.

37. This insight into the uncontainability of truth is one toward which many interpreters of Nietzsche grapple without fully recognizing what they have reached. A large part of the reason for this failure is the profound unfamiliarity with the kind of philosophizing it entails. See, e.g. the lengthy “case study” of Nietzsche’s conception of truth in Simon May, Nietzsche’s Ethics and His War on “Morality” (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), pt. 2.

38. “If one were to look for signs that an ironical divinity has its fingers in the great play of the world, one would find no small support in the tremendous question mark called Christianity. Mankind lies on its knees before the opposite of that which was the origin, the meaning, the right of the evangel; in the concept of ‘church’ it has pronounced holy precisely what the ‘bringer of the glad tidings’ felt to be beneath himself- one would look in vain for a greater example of world-historical irony.” Antichrist, § 36; see also §§ 37-41.

39. Max Scheler’s recognition of the significance of Nietzsche’s naming of ressentiment is still worth reading. See the excerpt from his book in Robert Solomon, ed., Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 243-57.

40. For an account of Nietzsche that parallels this suggestion see Giles Fraser, Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (London: Routledge, 2002).

41. It is this tragic character of Nietzsche’s relation to Christianity that I earlier tried to bring out, especially by way of its clarification with the parallel trajectory of Dostoevsky. See After Ideology.

42. Stephen Houlgate has contrasted the analytic reading of Hegel as escaping metaphysics with Nietzsche’s apparent embrace of an antimetaphysics of life that remains entangled in the categories of metaphysics. No doubt this accurately reflects the limits of the analytic retrieval of idealism. Nietzsche and, significantly, Heidegger lie beyond the pale. The difficulty with this reading is that it fails to recognize the extent to which the analytic meditation is already implicated in a metaphysical relationship and the degree to which the reflections of Nietzsche and his successors took their beginning from that realization. Even the analytic overcoming of metaphysics is a move within metaphysics. See Houlgate, Hegel, Nietzsche and the Criticism of Metaphysics.


This excerpt is from The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Reviews of book are as follows: James V. Schall, Brendan Purcell, Thomas Heilke, Glenn Hughes, Henrik Syse, and Rouven J. Steeves.

David WalshDavid Walsh

David Walsh

David Walsh is the Chair Board Member of VoegelinView, President of the Eric Voegelin Society, and Professor of Political Science at Catholic University of America. He is the author of a three-volume study of modernity: After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (Harper/Collins, 1990), The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Missouri, 1997), and The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge, 2008). His latest book is Politics of the Person and as the Politics of Being (Notre Dame, 2015).

Back To Top