Friday, August 14, 2009

How Nietzsche's Pietism Overturned His Darwinism

As Nietzsche fell into madness at the beginning of January in 1889, he wrote and mailed a series of letters. A letter to Peter Gast was only one sentence: "Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy." It was signed "The Crucified." Other letters were signed "Dionysus."

To many readers, it seems odd that Nietzsche--the self-proclaimed "Antichrist" who announced the death of God--would use such religious imagery and identify himself with Jesus and the god Dionysus. We might dismiss this as only a manifestation of his madness. But the signs of religiosity appear throughout Nietzsche's early and late writings. For example, in the Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche professes his "faith" in the belief "that all is redeemed and affirmed in the whole." And he declares: "Such a faith is the highest of all possible faiths: I have baptized it with the name of Dionysus" (ix.49).

One doesn't see this religiosity in the writings of Nietzsche's "middle period." In Human, All Too Human and Dawn, he strives for a Darwinian philosophy based on a scientific history of evolution. Rejecting all metaphysical and religious philosophy grounded on the idea of a cosmic teleology of eternal moral order, Nietzsche works from the thought that "everything has evolved: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths" (HATH, 2). Even though there are no eternal truths, a properly historical science can discover the "humble truths" of historical development.

Nietzsche believes that modern science continues the skeptical spirit of the Socratic tradition. He acknowledges, however, that most human beings cannot live the skeptical life of a Socratic "free spirit," because they yearn for transcendent truths and transcendent values that are absolute and eternal. Religions such as Christianity satisfy the transcendental longings of human beings to be redeemed from ordinary earthly existence so that they can feel an ecstatic rapture in the prospect of entering an eternal realm of perfect bliss. In Human, All Too Human, he speaks of this need for redemption as an "artificial" or "acquired" need that was cultivated by the Christian church in the Middle Ages, and he suggests that a future society might eliminate this need while serving "the common true needs of all men" (HATH, 27, 476). But Nietzsche also indicates that this need for redemption has become so strong that even those who believe themselves to be atheists are moved by the religious desire to find some transcendent satisfaction through art. Those who might otherwise be considered atheistic free spirits enjoy music (such as Wagner's operas) that stirs religious feelings without requiring belief in religious doctrines. Indeed, romantic art in general shows "the magic of religious feeling" as the modern artist appeals to those who have given up religious beliefs but who still yearn for religious ecstasy through art (130-31, 150-53).

But then, as Nietzsche began writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1883, he seemed himself to fall under "the magic of religious feeling." In Human, All Too Human, he had warned against the "cult of the genius," based on the "religious or semi-religious superstition that these spirits are of superhuman [ubermenschlichen] origin," and that they have some deep insight into reality (164). But then Zarathustra proclaims the "superhuman" or "overman" as the redeemer. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche looks to "the redeeming human of the great love and contempt," to "this human of the future who will redeem us from the previous ideal," and he foresees: "this bell-stroke of noon and of the great decision, that makes the will free again, that gives back to the earth its goal and to man his hope; this Anti-Christ and anti-nihilist; this conqueror of God and of nothingness--he must some day come" (II, 24).

In his middle writings, Nietzsche came under the influence of Darwinian science, which overturned the romantic metaphysics and religiosity of The Birth of Tragedy and the Untimely Meditations. But, then, beginning in 1883, he returned to some of the religious and metaphysical propensities of those early writings. In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, he had warned that scientific history--and particularly, Darwinian evolutionary history--was dangerous to life, because this "science of universal becoming" denied the eternal meaning of life as supported by belief in a cosmic teleology. He indicated that there were only two possible antidotes to this intellectual poison. The "unhistorical" antidote would require forgetting history and enclosing one's cultural life within a bounded horizon. The "suprahistorical" antidote would depend on "the powers that lead the eye away from becoming towards that which bestows upon existence the character of the eternal and recurring, towards art and religion." The problem is that science "sees everywhere things that have been, things historical, and nowhere things that are, things eternal; it likewise lives in a profound antagonism towards the eternalizing powers of art and religion." And thus science "robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal" (4, 9-10).

After going through his middle period devoted to historical or evolutionary science, Nietzsche in his later writings returned to his earlier fear of science as subversive of life as he looked to "the eternalizing powers of art and religion" as the only way to restore meaning to life.

In Lou Salome's book on Nietzsche--the first book on Nietzsche's writings--she explained this history of his writing as showing his struggle with a "religious drive" that he could never shake off. On the one hand, he denied the God in whom he had devotedly believed in his Lutheran household. On the other hand, he needed to replace that orthodox religion with a new religion of Dionysus and the Overman. She thought that only in his middle writings--during the time of his deep friendships with Paul Ree and herself--did Nietzsche achieve a position of scientific skepticism free of religious ideas.

In Bruce Benson's recent book Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith (2008), Salome's reading of Nietzsche as tormented by the conflict between his religious longings and his denial of God is deepened and made more precise. Benson shows how Nietzsche moved from the Christian Pietism of his youth to the Dionysian Pietism of his philosophic works. Far from being godless, he moved from one god to another.

As a child, Nietzsche was shaped by Lutheran Pietism, in which Christian faith is understood as a matter of the heart rather than the head, because to have a right relationship with God one must have a childlike trust in God that does not depend upon doctrinal propositions. As an adult, Nietzsche rejected Christian Pietism, because he denied the Christian God. But his Dionysian religion is a kind of Pietism in requiring a childlike trust in life, a joyful acceptance of life that allows him to say "yes and amen" to life.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche affirms: "Eternal life, the eternal recurrence of life; the future promised and made sacred by the past; the triumphant yes to life beyond death and change; true life as collective survival through reproduction, through the mysteries of sexuality. . . . All this is signified by the name Dionysus: I know no higher symbolism than this Greek symbolism, the symbolism of the Dionysian rites. In them, the deepest instinct of life, the instinct for the future of life, for the eternity of life, is experienced religiously--the very way to life, reproduction, as the holy way" (x.4). Nietzsche's Dionysian religion is pietistic in the sense that it requires a change of heart--perhaps through music and dance--that will allow him to say "Yes and Amen" to everything in life, which would be "an ecstatic affirmation of the total character of life" (WP 1050).

Benson succeeds in laying out the character of Nietzsche's Dionysian Pietism. But one major weakness in his book is that he fails to contrast this religious longing as it appears in Nietzsche's early and later writings with his evolutionary science as it appears in his middle writings. Salome sees this contrast, as Benson does not. And so Salome shows how Nietzsche might have freed himself from religious mysticism if he had adhered to the scientific stance of Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of the Gay Science.

Did Nietzsche really become a faithful follower of Dionysus? In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes Dionysian rapture: "Singing and dancing, man expresses his sense of belonging to a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the brink of flying and dancing, up and away into the air above. His gestures speak of his enchantment. . . . he feels himself to be a god, he himself now moves in such ecstasy and sublimity as once he saw the gods move in his dreams" (BT 1). Franz Overbeck reports that in the early days of Nietzsche's insanity, he danced and improvised music at his piano, telling his friends that he could only express his feelings in music.

Perhaps Nietzsche did finally achieve ecstatic union with his god Dionysus by giving up his reason and being swallowed up in madness.


Anonymous said...

The last paragraph seems to imply the possibility that N.’s insanity or dementia might have been provoked by his thought (but perhaps you don’t really mean this).

And as a caveat to this comment let me note that I am no expert on the study of N.’s illness, and realize (as a physician) that most if not all of the attempts to give diagnoses to historical figures are highly conjectural at best.

That said, certainly patients with mental illnesses that include periods of psychosis (schizophrenia and bipolar d/o primarily) are often hyper-religious during their periods of psychosis. Their hallucinations often involve super-natural type figures, as well (demons, goblins, extraterrestrial aliens, etc.). What relation their prior interests have to their hallucinations is an interesting question.

N. was a bit old to develop the above diseases, however, and his course (form what little I know) seems more suggestive of a neurodegenerative disorder where he ended up uncommunicative and with some degree of paralysis. Candidates for his illness that I understand have been suggested include dementia due to syphilis, pre-mature frontal lobe dementias, multi-infarct dementia, space-occupying lesions, etc. In my experience (and am unaware of any good data on this), there is minimal relation of a patient’s thought and demeanor with advancing dementia to their pre-morbid personality – i.e. an ornery person may become a rather happy and pleasant demented patient, and vice versa. At the very least, the pre-morbid state is a poor predictor of the demented state.

The romantic (and rather pre-scientific) notion that N.’s philosophy or longings drove him to insanity strikes me as unlikely. Could it drive him to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or some other, related, mood disorder? Perhaps. Some patients with severe depression do develop a catatonic pseudo-dementia. That would not fit well with the paralysis, however.

One difficult question, it seems, is how do scholars interpret his later work knowing that his illness was around the corner, and how much is attributed to a failing brain? Do you have an opinion?


Larry Arnhart said...

I agree with you. I should not have suggested that Nietzsche's insanity was somehow caused by his philosophic thought.

I suspect that neurosyphilis is the most likely cause.

Some scholars speculate that his insanity was merely simulated as a way of carrying out his Dionysian conception. But that seems implausible to me.

Even by Nietzsche's standards, the grandiosity of his last book--ECCE HOMO--is so extraordinary that one might suspect that his mental breakdown was beginning to influence his writing at that point.

Troy Camplin said...

The syphilis argument is suspect -- since one doesn't linger on for 11 years after onset. Nietzsche would likely have been the longest-lived case in history.

Be that as it may, has it occurred to you that Nietzsche may have thought that Dionysus and Jesus were one and the same? A God who is the son of God from a human woman. Wine a central part of worship. Etc.

I see Nietzsche as a systems theorist, struggling to find the language and metaphors to explain the concepts.

Are you familiar with the work of Don Beck and Christopher Cowan -- Spiral Dynamics? In it they develop an emergentist, systems view of human psychological and social development. They describe two tiers of development, with various levels within the tiers, and the 2nd tier being exponentially more complex than the 1st tier. I have wondered if Nietzsche entered the 2nd tier, ahead of anyone else (someone has to be first, after all), and being the only one at the time, went mad.

A conservative, Nietzschean, Darwinian? I'm glad I found the other one.