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Nietzsche on Religion and Authority - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
February 11th, 2002
09:43 pm


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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exclude itself from obedience; and if some natures of such noble descent incline through lofty spirituality to a more withdrawn and meditative life and reserve to themselves only the most refined kind of rule (over select disciples or brothers), then religion can even be used as a means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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(7 comments | Leave a comment)

Date:February 11th, 2002 01:27 pm (UTC)
I have Beyond Good and Evil; but that's going to have to wait until I can get through my current Walter Kaufmann edition of The Portable Nietzsche. I'm still trying to make sense of parts of Thus Spake Zarathustra myself. I'm currently trapped in chapter four, unable to understand the larger picture he's trying to present when he explains to the villagers how to become the overman. I theorize that he wants us to embrace true spiritual freedom that is not constricted by the cruel Judeo-Christian god, and to ultimately discover humanity - contradictions and all.

There're a few opposing ideas in here, but I don't think Nietzsche would have it any other way; he knew what he was up to.
Btw, I just checked my version of Good and Evil and nowhere saw the text you were quoting. I have the Kaufmann edition, as opposed to the Zimmern edition, which explains things.
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Date:February 12th, 2002 04:05 am (UTC)
A friend who has read most of Nietzsche recommended that I begin with Beyond Good and Evil, and someone else noted that Thus Spake Zarathustra is entirely allegorical, and sometimes just enigmatic, and is therefore not a good introduction to Nietzsche, albeit perhaps his most powerful work. Maybe beginning with other books will work for you, I don't know.

Do you mean that your text is entirely different, or is it just (understandably) phrased differently by the different translators? If it's different, what does your 3rd chapter paragraph 60 say? I thought the paragraph numbering is canonical.
Date:February 12th, 2002 09:57 pm (UTC)
I'd suggest purchasing the Walter Kaufmann's Portable Nietzsche, since it covers a large amount of his texts in (apparently) a chronoligical format. A note about Zarathustra: Thus Spake Zarathustra was written with the intent of having it be a new bible for the modern day world, and thusly it's written in a similar manner. There's a lot to it though. It's not the kind of text you read once or twice through and then discard for the next book in the pile. You don't just 'read' the great philosophers; you dedicate your life to them. And if not your life, then a hell of a lot of time.

Whereas editions are concerned - the edition you apparently have is an older version of 'Beyond Good and Evil,' and there may be differences in font size and format (I have a trade paperback version by Walter Kaufmann), and my edition dates circa 1989. In this edition, chapter 3, page 60 begins at the top of the page with the last four lines from chapter 45, and then goes onto 46:

'The faith demanded, and not infrequently attained, by original Christianity, in the midst of a skeptical and southern free-spirited world that looked back on, and still contained, a centuries-long fight between philosophical schools, besides this education for tolerance given by the imperium Romanum...'

Now, chapter 61, on page 72, begins 'The philosopher as we understand him...' which is the section you're referring to in your post. Why the discrepancy I don't know. I haven't dug into this yet; I'm still elsewhere with Nietzsche. But I hope this helps nonetheless.
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Date:February 13th, 2002 07:19 am (UTC)
I wrote "paragraph 60", not "page 60". Obviously page numbers differ according to edition and translation, but paragraph numbers should not, I think.

As for your comment about the intended nature of Zarathustra: I am suspicious and critical of all philosophy. Therefore, I prefer to read some argued claims by Nietzsche and make up my mind about his value as a thinker, before submitting to his manipulative rhetoric in works that are too literary to be called just philosophy. I will certainly read Zarathustra at some point in the future, but I hope to come to it with a rich context for Nietzsche's outlook and opinions, and to resist his manipulations and try to glean profundity from the text, without succumbing to distractions and to appealing fallacies.
Date:February 13th, 2002 06:40 pm (UTC)
I submit that the paragraph misinterpretation was my fault. I didn't pay that much mind, and interpreted them as one and the same.

As far as Nietzsche, or philosophies in general are concerned: Philosophies can be like fads; they come and go within a few weeks or months. Explore them, attempt to understand their greater meaning. Try them out like various fads. It's fun to be a philosophy whore. Either way, the value in philosophy is in the exploration itself. I see no reason to be suspicious and critical of *all* philosophy. All you need do is to read the material, understand it's historical relevance (and to also have an understanding of historical context - something many fail to do) and to attempt to understand the material to the best of your facilities.

Nietzsche, were he here, would tell you himself: he wasn't a writer; he was a philosopher. While he did begin his work as a philologist, he progressed ultimately to the state of a philosopher. I would argue that he is a philosopher whose ideas are of primary importance to the modern day world. He is well completed by Allan Bloom, who wrote the novel 'The Closing of the American Mind' (I highly recommend it).

Your post indicates that you're approaching Nietzsche with preconceived notions of who he was and what he wrote. You cannot approach his work (nor anyone's, for that matter) with that sort of mindset. Put away your preconceived notions and (as I did) accept that you know nothing. This is the way you must approach the text if you are even slightly serious about understanding [and reading] his works.
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Date:February 18th, 2002 12:53 pm (UTC)
Perhaps 'suspicious' sounds a little strong to you. I meant that I am wary of the lure of beautiful notions or appealing theories, but not that I question the value of philosophy per se. To me, there is no contradiction between being 'suspicious' and critical of philosophy and undertaking a serious inquiry into a given idea or theory's historical context and significance.

Nietzsche may not have considered himself a writer, but he certainly employs the wiles of a fabulist in Also sprach Zarathustra, and even in bits and pieces of Beyond Good and Evil. There exists a beautiful myth about Plato's dream wherein he becomes a swan, chased by hunters unsuccessfully, which Simmias interpreted to mean the impossibility of capturing the spirit of Plato. Whoever invented this fable was successful: I had heard of it when I was seventeen (I was reading some Plato at the time, too), and I liked it so much that I signed my messages "hunting the swan that forever runs" for a long while. So in his appealing story, he has made me adopt the view that Plato's spirit (let's treat 'spirit' as meaning 'thought' here) is incredibly elusive, and ultimately impossible to capture, this without giving me sound arguments to support this position. I read Plato quite differently today, and I believe I am in a better position to appreciate his 'spirit', when it is profound and also when it is a bit manipulative, or when it puts up a hollow argument.

I must admit that your last paragraph inconveniences me. I don't understand how you make these absolute statements about what "is the way" while urging me to "put away preconceived notions and accept that you know nothing". Can I truly put away all of my preconceptions? Can you?

I am very much interested in what Nietzsche has to contribute to my philosophical journey, but I will not be able to benefit from his thoughts in a vacuum. I must compare them to and contrast them with my own notions, as well as my ignorance (I certainly don't have firm opinions or even feelings about all of the subjects Nietzsche discussed), and then apply my critical faculties to his presuppositions, his arguments, and his conclusions. I certainly expect to benefit from some fallacious statements and bad arguments of Nietzsche's as well as from his sound theses and brilliant arguments.

This is the approach I take in my earnest but not necessarily rigorous inquiry into philosophy. I can't adopt the approach you suggest on the basis of your assertions alone. Can you support it with arguments?
Date:February 18th, 2002 02:01 pm (UTC)
Prior to this semester when I approached Nietzsche, I knew little of him except Kubrick's reference to him in 2001: A Space Odyssey (through the opening piece 'Thus Spake Zarathustra.') Like yourself, I was ignorant of Nietzsche's works and ideas. And as yourself, I certainly consider myself a better person because of what I've learnt up to this point. While you are correct in asserting that a basis for comparison is needed when reading Nietzsche (or any serious philosopher), I would argue that it is nonetheless possible to approach a philosopher with an ignorant mind. I certainly do believe that I did just so when I chose to take a philosophy seminar on Nietzsche.

The point of contention here between us is such: I adopt both the ideas of Nietzsche as I understand them when I read his works, and the interpretations of my professor, (who, it is worth noting, has several degrees, both in philosophy and divinity) and contrast those two arguments with my own views, developing or otherwise. Therefor, with all due respect, when I speak on the subject, I owe my professor the respect of taking his words more seriously than those of someone who is only four years my senior.

That doesn't stop me from considering your points of view by any means, and I hope I haven't given you that indication.
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