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The Problem with Nietzsche

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Published on: October 21, 2014

Man is very well defended against himself, against his own spying and sieges; usually he is able to make out no more of himself than his outer fortifications.  The actual stronghold is inaccessible to him, even invisible, unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead him there by a secret path.

Friedrich Nietzsche


In this passage from Human, All too Human, Friederich Nietzsche introduces the notion of the human subconscious and the implication that authenticity, honesty with oneself about Reality, is bound up with breaking down our own self-delusions and repressions.  This is the cornerstone that Sigmund Freud began to build on in his theoretical psychology in which religion is a human construction for dealing with existence in an essentially unrealistic, even dishonest way. 


For Nietzsche what it leads to is his Super Man and the dialectical notion that mankind is achieving a whole new consciousness incarnate in Nietzsche himself.  Friedrich is supposedly tearing down the walls of a phony cultural fortress built out of the artificial substance of religion.  He is the anti-Christ arriving due to the force of a kind of Hegelian, not Darwinian, evolution to liberate us from the chains of religion.  Nietzsche believed he was a whole new form of finally authentic human consciousness.


However, from a Christian point of view there is nothing new here.  Nietzsche is just the same old natural man, attempting out of his natural vanity to deny his moral transcendence of nature, his freedom to at least strive toward God’s image instead of declaring his own godhood.  And the advantages of doing the former rather than the latter have been so apparent to most people throughout history that only the basest inauthenticity could deny it. 


As the reader probably knows, Nietzsche went mad.  For him it was his inevitable crucifixion for our sakes.  For most of us, it was just his embarrassing personal problem.  For Christians, the “traitor” is actually our best friend, the Holy Spirit, bringing us to true self-awareness and confession.  This is the standard of rationality.  For Nietzsche the traitor is a new psychology, actually a friend as well, but it does not lead to authentic self-awareness and confession.  It is a new and very powerful tool for avoiding authenticity by fundamentally confusing its true nature.  It is satanically clever.   It is not existentialism.  It is more rationalism (read rationalizing).


Nietzsche did understand something that Christians need to understand — that liberal reason, liberalism itself, was dead as early as the late nineteenth century.  We can agree that liberalism is an unnatural account of both reason and human nature, and naively self-undermining.  This is the stage on which Nietzsche believes he can act out the liberation of mankind. 


Liberalism had already argued that science, not Christianity, was the literal description of Reality.  God was already culturally dead when Nietzsche got there.  Nietzsche intended to complete the project by overturning the traditional morality which was based on God.  But the inconsistency in Nietzsche, the reason why he is not a truly postmodern thinker, is that he cannot recognize that his own view of reason and authenticity is not, of necessity, universal.  Nietzsche remains ironically, and inconsistently rationalist.  He thinks that religion is the suicide of reason.  This implies that he cannot recognize the postmodern relativity of reason.  Neither can his libertarian heirs today.


With the postmodern age in full swing, we understand that scientific realism (the notion that science literally describes reality) is the suicide of reason.  Nietzsche himself doubted the metaphysical veracity of science, but he was never smart enough to work out a coherent tradition.  His thinking was aphoristic, meaning lazy.  He believes that he is himself the one and only incarnation of reason, of the new consciousness.  But this is nothing but romanticism, a fantasy, from a truly postmodern point of view.  All accounts of reason are tradition-bound, including Nietzsche’s account.  His is just one competing language game about reason. 


This is the authenticity which Nietzsche failed to achieve, at least with any consistency.  It is a humble conclusion which might have liberated him from his own increasingly isolated and bizarre fantasy.  It would have led him to real philosophy — an examination of how competing paradigms of language work, instead of a dream in which he had transcended them all as some kind of concrete universal; an absolute in himself.


There is a huge difference between lying to oneself, consciously or subconsciously, and exercising a very self-aware faith in the face of ambiguous evidence.  What it means to unpack the subconscious and deal with it rationally is not something that either Nietzsche or Freud can dictate scientifically, because both religious faith and scientific faith have entirely different accounts of reason and the nature of man, for which there is no absolute correction.  It is philosophy.  It is tradition.  There is no universal subconscious which can be unpacked in a universal way, in terms of universal reason, leading us to one universal account of authenticity; one account of what it means to be honest with oneself. 


In suggesting that there is essentially one account of authenticity provided by reason, Nietzsche becomes, ironically, something like a modern rationalist, not an original postmodern thinker.  Faith, for a Christian, is, in fact, a striving toward self-awareness and therefore confession.  It is Nietzsche’s own fantasy which is fraught with bad faith — an incapacity to face his sin, his personal ugliness.  It is God who expects us to be honest with ourselves, not Nietzsche and Freud.  Without God’s exhortation we have little reason to do so.  But this is not to say that everyone who calls himself a Christian gets this.  To be sure, everyone who calls himself an atheist cannot possibly get it.


The atheist, as a naively rationalist and reductionist modern thinker, does not understand that it is just as logically and contingently possible that one might construct a naturalistic, atheistic vision of Reality because one is terrified by the intuited Reality of being completely dependent upon a very real and omnipotent God, as that one would construct a theistic vision of Reality because one’s natural contingency. Once again, this is so very apparent. 


But no one has a direct intuition of Reality.  Christianity is rooted in history.  Science is rooted in mere phenomena.  Authenticity cannot be rooted in some direct, romantic intuition of Reality, unless that reality is our own subjective moral nature.  And this is where Christianity wins.  If all authenticity can be is an honest response to our own human image, our own moral dispositions, we can safely conclude that orthodox Christianity is the most morally integrating confession on earth.  Neither atheists nor theists are reacting to any direct awareness of Reality.  The Christian gets his information about Reality from historical revelation.  The atheist thinks he gets his information about Reality from science.  He is terrified by the postmodern critique of science in which it cannot possibly offer a literal description of Reality.


As a matter of practical fact, all competing traditions start with a fundamental commitment to some understanding of subjective moral authenticity as the standard of rationality.  Reason cannot be separated from our values and goals.  Nietzsche is illustrating how his completely relative view of authenticity, rooted in his personal ambitions, becomes his completely relative standard of rationality.  And this is the naiveté, posing as sophistication, that modern “objectivist” libertarians like Ayn Rand and H.L. Mencken have inherited.  It is as dead as Nietzsche.   

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