Nietzsche’s most sustained account of the west’s great death-traditions is in one of his last works, aptly titled The Anti-Christ. The work offers a relatively detailed Nietzschean account of Jesus’s own psychology, and how his teachings were transformed into a means for suppressing life’s instincts. We can provide a brief sketch of the account. Jesus, according to Nietzsche, was timid and over-sensitive by temperament. He found conflict and confrontation deeply disturbing and frightening. So he developed a “turn the other cheek” response to his enemies, yielding anything to everyone, promising that on a day coming soon none of these tribulations would matter and everything would be replaced by a kingdom of heaven. More than that: Jesus found ways to insulate himself from all the pains and horrors of the world, and turn each and every moment into a little miracle, a feeling for the closeness of heaven, which is the permanent refuge from real life. Jesus found a way to keep the arms of the Father around him at all times, protecting him and sustaining him, so that his joy could not be removed by any earthly power. It was, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “an infantilism that has receded into the spiritual” (A, 32).
Of course, Jesus was killed, but his followers did not share his temperament. (“There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” Nietzsche writes memorably (A, 39).) They instead, like most human beings, sought after earthly power. But they ran immediately into a problem: Jesus eschewed any pursuit of power, and counseled disengagement with the political world. What to do? In a cognitive flip of values that continually astonishes Nietzsche, the followers of Jesus decided that the way of Jesus was in fact the route to true power, the road to “living abundantly.” Contradictory though it may seem, the life of earthly servitude is in fact the life that God will richly reward. The virtuous life is the one that devalues pursuits of earthly pleasures, wealth, power, and prominence. The “good” person is the one who subordinates all drives to a single drive: the drive to serve the Church and its head, Jesus Christ. Through this servitude, the follower will raise himself higher than earthly powers and principalities, and reap rich rewards in heaven. The servant will be the master. What feels good is really bad. What feels powerful is really weakness. What feels wise is really folly. To live for Christ is to be dead to the world. Indeed, the very symbol for eternal life is a man dying on a cross. It is as perverse as a system of values can possibly be, Nietzsche thought.
This Christian reversal of life’s values did increase the earthly power of a certain class of people — the priests, who were so kind as to take the dangerous temptation of power upon themselves in the interest of instilling true piety among the members of the church. So even in this twisted reversal of life’s values, the will to power continues to flourish, in a somewhat underhanded way. There are individuals who continue to seek and gain power through the church, that is, by promulgating and enforcing the set of values which themselves denigrate the will to power. It is a familiar form of hypocrisy between the message and the motives of those delivering the message. Someone gets rich by selling books which tell people not to be materialistic. Someone manages to attract attention to themselves by appearing not to care if others notice. Someone tries to cause a revolution in his culture by writing books which loudly proclaim their own “untimeliness.” And so on. Life will always find a way to pursue its own agenda, even through a set of values which themselves explicitly devalue life’s values. The church was lead by men who were, by life’s standards, quite strong indeed. “The values of the weak have the upper hand because the strong have taken them over to lead with them…” Nietzsche writes in a note (LN, 15 ).
But if this is so, one may object, then what is the problem? Aren’t life’s values being promoted, though in an indirect or even subterranean way? If power and flourishing are the highest values, according to Nietzsche, how can he criticize the advance of Christianity, which in a certain way has enjoyed unparalleled success in gaining power and flourishing throughout western culture? Isn’t it a force Nietzsche should respect and admire?
To some extent he does; just the fact that Nietzsche has selected Christianity as his most important opponent says something about how impressed he is by its power. But at the same time he sees Christianity as the least effective means for promoting the flourishing of life’s values. “Christianity,” he writes, “has cheated us out of the harvest of ancient culture” (A, 60). He is grateful to the men of the Renaissance for attempting to rescue the glorious expressions of power in ancient culture from the suppression of death-worshipping Christian zealots. But Luther and the Reformers rallied to the cause and found new means for strengthening the church’s hold over European culture and, in effect, killed the Renaissance. In doing so, they put a stranglehold on life; Christian morals became if anything even more severe, and the normal and natural ways of expressing life’s flourishing were judged as thoroughly sinful. Nietzsche’s worry was not that Christianity will somehow exterminate the will to power. That could never happen. His worry instead was that the joy and strength that comes from a healthy flourishing of human drives becomes nearly impossible to enjoy, when Christianity has its way. The cost is aesthetic, intellectual, philosophical, political, and even moral, in a Nietzschean sense. Christianity is by its very nature a sickness, a striving against the instinct of life.
It is as if the organizers of a marathon convinced all the runners that speed is evil. You could still have a race — sort of — but what a pathetic bore it would be! Runners would shuffle along, keeping an eye on one another, and chiding those who start to get ahead. The “winner” would be the one who failed to go slower than anyone else. At some point, an exasperated bystander might cry, “Enough of this! You are built to run! There is no sin in that! What on earth is holding you back?” That person is Nietzsche.
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