Asaf Bartov (ijon) wrote,
Asaf Bartov

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Nietzsche on Religion and Authority

In Beyond Good and Evil1, chapter 3, paragraph 60, Nietzsche writes:

The philosopher [...] will make use of the religions for his work of education and breeding, just as he will make use of existing political and economic conditions. The influence on selection and breeding, that is to say the destructive as well as the creative and formative influence which can be exercised with the aid of the religions, is manifold and various depending on the kind of men placed under their spell and protection.
Nietzsche's philosopher is not a man studying or writing about philosophy; he is someone who lives philosophically, who employs philosophy in his actions and his outlook. I state this possibly obvious observation because I think it is necessary for a reasonable interpretation of the above quotation. Nietzsche, like Marx, considers religion a powerful tool wielded by the few over the many. He proceeds to expand on some examples of such use of religion:

For the strong and independent prepared and predestined for command, in whom the art and reason of a ruling race is incarnated, religion is one more means of overcoming resistance so as to be able to rule: as a bond that unites together ruler and ruled and betrays and hands over to the former the consciences of the latter, all that is hidden and most intimate in them which would like to exclude itself from obedience; and if some natures of such noble descent incline through lofty spirituality to a more withdrawn and meditative life and reserve to themselves only the most refined kind of rule (over select disciples or brothers), then religion can even be used as a means of obtaining peace from the noise and effort of cruder modes of government, and cleanliness from the necessary dirt of all politics.
I'd like to ignore Nietzsche's notion of "predestination for command" for now, and consider his claim that strong individuals may use religion to subjugate others, by entering a contract with their subjects based on religious terms. He observes that the ruled surrender their autonomy over their own consciences, and I find that it is a strikingly powerful phrasing of a fact I otherwise acknowledged about believers in religions that include moral codes. Pondering this, I think that the facts of history bear out this observation: many priests (using the term generally, i.e. including rabbis, imams, and other clerical titles) have certainly exerted considerable earthly power based on their role within the religious framework with relation to those affected by this power, and more interestingly, many people seem to have come to terms with the subjugation of their conscience to other individuals. This is probably easier to justify by the suggestion that it is to some principle (idea, entity) that you subjugate your conscience, obscuring the fact that ultimately you are placing yourself under a fellow mortal's judgement.

Nietzsche also suggests that exerting religious authority over a select group of individuals (as distinct from "the masses") may be an effective way of ruling a small group without "the necessary dirt of all politics". I wonder how likely a scenario this is, i.e. how likely it is that someone should seek to create such a group and to gain rulership over it for the sake of rulership while avoiding politics. Can you think of supporting evidence or of counter-evidence? Nietzsche can:

Thus did the Brahmins, for example, arrange things: with the aid of a religious organization they gave themselves the power of nominating their kings for the people, while keeping and feeling themselves aside and outside as men of higher and more than kingly tasks.
I'm very ignorant of eastern religion altogether. Can someone offer some insight on the veracity, or at least likelihood, of this example? I know the Brahmins were a separate caste, but I wonder whether they truly considered themselves, probably not publicly, superior to kings.

But Nietzsche finds value in religion for not-so-strong people, too:

In the meantime, religion also gives a section of the ruled guidance and opportunity for preparing itself for future rule and command; that is to say, those slowly rising orders and classes in which through fortunate marriage customs the strength and joy of the will, the will to self-mastery is always increasing -- religion presents them with sufficient instigations and temptations to take the road to higher spirituality, to test the feelings of great self-overcoming, of silence and solitude -- asceticism and puritanism are virtually indispensable means of education and ennobling if a race wants to become master over its origins in the rabble, and work its way up towards future rule.
Nietzsche considers religion worthwhile insofar as it promotes what he considers advancement, self-improvement of individuals leading to an improvement of society (actually, he insists on 'race'), toward an educated, noble ideal. The religion Nietzsche mostly had in mind, one assumes, is Christianity, with its hierarchy and training process, and he finds that these help to realize potentials of greatness in individuals. I know far too much about the medieval church, for example, to subscribe to this claim so easily. What distinguishes a trainee priest from an apprentice cobbler? Why is one's will to self-mastery better cultivated than the other's? Is it because of the content of the religious work? Surely not -- Nietzsche presents a very instrumental approach to religion here, and implies that the actual claims to spiritual value made by religion are meaningless to the adept who sees through it. Is it because of contingents of the religious occupation, such as the celibacy of Catholic priests?

Even accepting, for the moment, Nietzsche's ideas of greatness, I wonder whether he is right in praising asceticism and puritanism, both subscribing to self-denial (flagellation, mortification, fasting, etc.) in varying degrees, as "virtually indispensable" means to his end. It seems a little inconsistent with Nietzsche's contempt for "squareness" and his vivid exclamations in favor of spontaneity. Then again, Nietzsche never touted consistency as an important virtue in thought.

Proceeding to the lowliest in Nietzsche's eyes:

To ordinary men, finally, the great majority, who exist for service and general utility and who may exist only for that purpose, religion gives an invaluable contentment with their nature and station, manifold peace of heart, an ennobling of obedience, one piece of joy and sorrow more to share with their fellows, and some transfiguration of the whole everydayness, the whole lowliness, the whole half-bestial poverty of their souls. Religion and the religious significance of life sheds sunshine over these perpetual drudges and makes their own sight tolerable to them, it has the effect which an Epicurean philosophy usually has on sufferers of a higher rank, refreshing, refining, as it were making the most use of suffering, ultimately even sanctifying and justifying. Perhaps nothing in Christianity and Buddhism is so venerable as their art of teaching even the lowliest to set themselves through piety in an apparently higher order of things and thus to preserve their contentment with the real order, within which they live hard enough lives -- and necessarily have to!
The New Testament teaches that Jesus preached: "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth", and Nietzsche finds this to be an admirable manipulation of 'ordinary men', whom he describes quite harshly in this paragraph, by the individual wielding religion (Jesus, or the gospel authors, in this case), supporting his earlier observation. Nietzsche obviously has no use for the ordinary men as peers of any kind, and instead condemns them "for service and general utility", and even forbids them to exist for any other end. He recognizes the value of religion for these people, in making their wretched lives bearable, by creating a psychological scheme of their own roles in the world that would be acceptable to them. This is indeed very close to Marx's view of religion, but quite far from Marx's opinion of ordinary men.

I am reminded of a constant question I ask when I read philosophical texts: does one size fit all? If so, how? If not, what sorts of people does this philosophy deal with, what sorts of people is it useful for? What about the rest? Many philosophical ideas and assertions strike me as singularly un-universal, and I am frustrated by their incompleteness. For instance, Aristotle thinks that man's end is a life of contemplation and reason. Does he think that this is a Spartan slave's end, too? Does he think it's a woman's end, too? This is obviously very simplistic, due to my relative ignorance in philosophy. But getting back to Nietzsche, I wonder what he advocates "ordinary men" should do. Does he have no philosophy for them? Is he content with offering advice, guidance, and provocation to his "free spirits", his "philosophers of tomorrow"? I guess there's only one way to find out... Read more Nietzsche, of course.

Comments on this post are especially welcome.

1 I quote from an online edition, for convenience, translated by Helen Zimmern and published 1909-1913.

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