Ever since I was in college, Friedrich Nietzsche has long fascinated me, although I’ll admit it right now: I couldn’t understand him 85% of the time. After struggling through his various works like Beyond Good and Evil, The Anti-Christ, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and The Twilight of the Idols, all I had really come away with was a handful of very insightful and insane quotes, and an odd sense in my mind that there was something really penetratingly genius in Nietzsche that somehow always slipped beyond my reach and back into the ramblings of that madman.
A few Christmases ago, I purchased a short introduction by Lucy Huskinson on the philosophy of Nietzsche, and for the first time in my life I felt like I actually “got” him…sort of. What I realized was that all of Nietzsche’s most famous, most controversial, and most influential teachings and concepts simply will stay incomprehensible to you unless you try to understand them against the backdrop of the Modern-Enlightenment-influenced 19th Century European Christianity. If that makes absolutely no sense to you, don’t worry. Hopefully, I’ll be able to explain things better over the next few posts.
In the 18th Century, the Enlightenment swept through Europe. At the risk of over-simplifying things, the world seemed to be divided into two camps. First, there was the “old world,” that was characterized by monarchies, irrational superstition, and religion. Then there was the “new world,” that was characterized by democracy, reason, and science. It was around this time that the very term “medieval” was invented. It was a propaganda term that sought to denigrate the time in Europe when the Catholic Church wielded the most influence. That time was “the dark ages”—why? Because the Catholic Church was in charge! There was no learning, no advances, no logic or reason, because blind, superstitious religion snuffed out any sort of independent, rational thought!
Of course, such a characterization of Europe during that time is completely false. It is shockingly tragic to find that most people even today still think that. What does that prove? That the masters of 18th-19th century propaganda did their job well, and that 20th-21st century people—the grandchildren of the so-called “Enlightenment” are still buying it.
With the Enlightenment, there came an attack on religion in the name of reason. It was at this time that modern biblical studies was born. Hosts of biblical scholars (mostly from Germany) proceeded to attack the credibility of the Bible and the veracity of the traditional Christian faith. But what had happened in France (namely, the Reign of Terror) had no doubt scared the rest of Europe enough to put on the breaks to such violent revolution…at least a bit:
“Yes…” said the 19th century children of the 18th century Enlightenment, “…the Bible isn’t ‘true.’ Yes, the Bible isn’t reliable. Yes, the Church is outdated and wrong about its teachings about Jesus and God; BUT NO…we don’t have to discard Christian morality! Reason tells us that there probably was a God who created the world. But with all its natural laws, it works like a machine, and therefore God really isn’t needed in the created order. Therefore, there is no ‘revelation’ in the Bible. God hasn’t ‘revealed’ to us what is morally right. We can use our reason to figure that out. Indeed, science and reason and democracy will usher in a new, more enlightened, kinder, gentler religion.”
Such a view caught on like wildfire…even in major portions of the Church throughout Europe. This was the Victorian Era. The Christian religion that was accepted in society was one that preached (1) mental adherence to a handful of theological propositions, and (2) good behavior for the betterment of society. It was institutionalized liberal Christianity—and it was this trend that Nietzsche railed against.
Now Nietzsche was by no means a “secret Christian” who was merely speaking out against the 19th century neutered heresy of Christianity. When he says he hates Christianity, we should take him at his word, but we should also realize that his venom was directed at a kind of Christianity that many Christians like Soren Kierkegaard and others saw equally as abhorrent. In short, Christians today can actually learn a lot from Nietzsche. For he saw the way 19th century “quasi-Christian” Europe went about viewing reality, and prophetically pronounced judgment on its weak, hollow, and superficial worldview. Unfortunately, much of modern Christianity has unwittingly bought into the overall arching narrative of the Enlightenment, and thus feels threatened by Nietzsche’s condemnations. And perhaps it should feel threatened…for Nietzsche violently shakes things up, and anything that is not strong enough will crumble.
Will to Power/Will to Truth
One of Nietzsche’s fundamental criticisms of the modern world in general, and the modern version of Christianity in particular is that people are self-imprisoned slaves to the need to feel secure and safe. Reality is so chaotic, that most people cannot deal with it, and so “…many of us need and desire permanent structures of meaning, and that this need drives us towards projecting illusory structures on to the flux of reality in order to hide its meaningless nature” (3).
Translation? Let me put it this way: the reality of life is like a violent storm at sea, and people are clinging to leaky life rafts, all the while trying to convince themselves that the leaky life raft isn’t really a life raft at all, but rather an impenetrable ocean-liner. Why? Because it makes them feel better to believe that there is security and structure to life, than to own up to the fact that life is a chaotic mess. This kind of thinking is what Nietzsche calls the will to truth. It is a way of life that clings to the illusion of certainty: instead of having the courage to own up to the fact that you’re clinging to a leaky life raft, you have “gone to your happy place” on that fake ocean-liner in your head, and you have convinced yourself that that ocean-liner is really going to one day cross the sea and get to an even more fixed destination, if only you really believe it to be so.
Now, let’s say you really were in a life boat with a group of other people at sea, and there were a couple of people who “had gone to their happy place”—in reality, of what value would they be to the rest of the people in the boat? Probably not much. In fact, they might actually be a hindrance. If they are so convinced that their “truth illusion” is certain, they might end up trying to prevent anyone from actually navigating the life raft through the chaotic sea.
Such is what Nietzsche calls the will to truth. Not only does it not fully acknowledge the reality of the chaos of life, but it ultimately claims that the “truth” about life itself comes from a place outside of that very life—hence, it is the illusion of a weak person who can’t take on reality. And it is dangerous because that weak person attempts to impose his illusion of a ready-made “truth” on others, regardless of the reality of the circumstances of life.
In contrast to the will to truth, Nietzsche argues for the need of the will to power. Hutchinson defines it this way: “Will to Power seeks to enable the tension and creative dialogue between opposites, ‘like wrestlers of whom sometimes the one, sometimes the other, is on top,’ so that a multitude of perspectives and values are sought and played off against each other, which, in turn, inspires further ideas and values” (4).
Translation? Life is chaotic, multi-perspectival, and in a constant state of struggle. It is, if you will, an on-going wrestling match. And therefore, there really is no such thing as “fixed/absolute truth.” The truth of something depends on the situation. For instance, the “truth” regarding shooting a man because he looked at you funny and shooting a man who has broken into your house and is making a bee-line you’re your children’s room with a machete obviously depends on the situation. In the first instance, we understand that act to be immoral and wrong, whereas in the second instance, we understand it to actually be a moral act, because you are defending the lives of your children. And it is the various situations within human existence that actually force us to play such “truths” off each other, in order to get a better understanding of reality.
For Nietzsche, the essential difference between the will to power and the will to truth is this: although the will to power challenges us to embrace the uncertainty and chaos that is life, it also proclaims, “The door to infinite possibility and fullness of life is open!” The will to truth, on the other hand, not only denies that life is chaotic, it hands out a ready-made “cheat sheet” of all the answers you need in life! But then, if all the “answers are there,” what is the point of living your life? As Hutchinson states, “To be strong and powerful…is not to dominate life but to master our response to the strife that life presents. It is to create out of chaos and…even to dance on the edge of the abyss. By contrast, the will to truth is weak precisely because it seeks to dominate and control life by imposing structure and purpose upon it” (9).
Simply put, will to power is the power of creation, development, and what Nietzsche calls, “great health,” whereas will to truth is delusion, nothingness, and ultimately living death. The value of life is in the living of it, not in the acceptance of a ready-made definition as to what it should be.
Now, it is historically true that many of Nietzsche’s key concepts were taken by Hitler and the Nazis and twisted to suit their own fascist ends. Admittedly, Nietzsche was so cryptic and all over the map, that it is easy to see how one could take his teaching to justify atrocities and mass killing. In fact, in his novel, Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s main character, Raskolnikov, attempts to live out this “will to power” and become a Nietzschean “superman” by rising above society’s “ready-made morality” and he ends up killing an old woman at the beginning of the novel. Throughout the entire novel, though, Raskolnikov is haunted by his conscience—he realizes that murder really is wrong, and that one cannot simply make up one’s own morality.
Come back tomorrow to see me take Nietzsche walking on the Sea of Galilee.