Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (1999)
Travis J. Denneson
In his book, The Antichrist, Nietzsche sets out to denounce and illegitimize not only Christianity itself as a belief and a practice, but also the ethical-moral value system which modern western civilization has inherited from it. This book can be considered a further development of some of his ideas concerning Christianity that can be found in Beyond Good and Evil and in The Genealogy of Morals, particularly the idea that the present morality is an inversion of true, noble morality. An understanding of the main ideas in the latter works are therefore quite helpful in understanding and fully appreciating the ideas set forth in The Antichrist. One of the most important of these ideas is that Christianity has made people nihilistic and weak by regarding pity and related sentiments as the highest virtues. Here, just as in the Genealogy, Nietzsche traces the origin of these values to the ancient Jews who lived under Roman occupation, but here he puts them in terms of a reversal of their conception of God. He argues that the Jewish God was once one which embodied the noble virtues of a proud, powerful people, but when they became subjugated by the Romans, their God began to embody the "virtues" (more like sentiments) of an oppressed, resentful people, until it became something entirely alien to what it formerly had been.
Further in the book, after Nietzsche devotes a few passages to contrasting Buddhism with Christianity, he paints a picture of the Jesus of history as actually having lived a type of "Buddhistic" existence, and lambastes Paul particularly for turning this historically correct Jesus, vis-à-vis, Jesus the "Nazarene," into Jesus the "Christ." Also, Nietzsche argues that the Christian moral and metaphysical principles he considers so decadent have infiltrated our philosophy, so much that philosophers unwittingly work to defend these principles even when God is removed from the hypothesis. The purpose of this paper is to expound and assess some of these important reproaches that Nietzsche raises against Christianity, in order to glean from them those elements which can be considered to have lasting significance. It should also be noted that The Antichrist is a predominantly aphoristic work, so this paper will not attempt to tie these ideas of Nietzsche’s together into a coherent system. To do so, in my opinion, would not do Nietzsche justice. Instead these ideas will be presented and examined as they appear in the work–one by one and loosely associated.
Nietzsche begins by criticizing Christianity for denouncing and regarding as evil those basic instincts of human beings which are life-preserving and strength-promoting. In their place, Christianity maintains and advocates values which Nietzsche sees as life-negating or nihilistic, of which the most important is pity.
In Section 7, Nietzsche writes:
Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious.1
Pity, according to Nietzsche, is nothing less than the multiplication of suffering, in that it allows us to suffer along with those for whom we feel pity. It depresses us, sapping us of our strength and will to power. It is interesting to note that the German word for pity itself, Mitleid, literally means "suffering with" (leid = pain, suffering + mit = with). So to feel pity for someone is to simply suffer along with them, as Nietzsche sees it. It also promotes the preservation of those who nature has selected for destruction, or in other words, those who Nietzsche calls "failures." This preservation of failures, he argues, makes the overall picture of life look decadent, in that it becomes filled with weak and retrograde individuals. Pity, then, has a twofold effect for Nietzsche, since it both multiplies suffering and also leads to the preservation of those who would cause us this suffering as the objects of our pity. Ultimately, pity is nihilism put into practice, according to Nietzsche, since it makes life simply seem more miserable and decadent and therefore more worthy of negation itself. Nietzsche does not really develop this conception of pity any farther. As it stands, it seems to be rather problematic. Does his conception of pity mean to include compassion and sympathy as well? Can these words be used interchangeably? The German word for compassion is Mitleid as well, so it is possible that Nietzsche is using them interchangeably. The German word for sympathy, however, is Mitgefühl, which means "feeling with." Perhaps Nietzsche is confusing pity with compassion and sympathy. Pity would seem to have a more negative connotation, in that it is a suffering-with that does not achieve anything; a waste of emotional energy toward those who are beyond help, in other words. Sympathy and compassion, as I understand the terms, seem to lean more toward having an understanding (a "feeling-with") of what someone is suffering through and also being in a position to help that person. I take Nietzsche to be using (maybe misusing) these terms interchangeably, however, since he uses the word sympathy (Mitgefühl) in other works in very similar contexts.
III. God Types
To Nietzsche, the Christian conception of God is one of the most decadent and contradictory of any type that has ever been conceived. In Section 18, he writes:
The Christian conception of God–God as god of the sick, God as a spider, Godas spirit–is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained onearth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descendingdevelopment of divine types. God degenerated into the contradiction of life,instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration ofwar against life, against nature, against the will to live! God–the formula forevery slander against "this world," for every lie about the "beyond"! God–the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!2
Nietzsche is interested in showing how the God of Israel, that is, the God of the Old Testament, was at the time a God of a very proud, powerful Jewish people. This is a healthier conception of a God than the Christian one, according to Nietzsche, in that it was the Jew’s own God–for them only. This God was conceived of as a being to whom a proud people could give thanks for their power and self-assuredness, and it was a manifestation of the Jews’ own self-proclaimed virtues. The ancient Jews ascribed both the good and the bad to their God, and in that respect it was consistent with nature, both helping and harming. When the Jews found themselves oppressed by Rome during the occupation of Palestine, however, with their freedom, power, and pride stripped from them, their God required a change which was reflective of their predicament. Instead of having a God which embodied the noble virtues of a proud, powerful people, as it once did, the God of the Jews developed into one which embodied the sentiments of an oppressed, resentful, and powerless group. It became a God of a people who were trying to preserve themselves at any cost, even if that cost was the inversion of their own noble values. They transformed their God into a God of the weak, the poor, and the oppressed, making a virtue out of the necessity of their own condition. Want of revenge on their enemies, by any and the only means possible for them–psychologically– prompted the Jews to elevate their type of God to the point at which it became a God for everyone. That is to say, that their God became the one, true God, to whom everyone was held accountable. It also became a God which was all good, incapable of doing anything harmful, while the God of their enemies and oppressors became evil–in effect, the Devil. This is a very unhealthy type of God, according to Nietzsche, in that it "degenerates step by step into a mere symbol, a staff for the weary, a sheet-anchor for the drowning; when he becomes the God of the poor, the sinners, and the sick par excellence, and the attribute "Savior" or "Redeemer" remains in the end as the one essential attribute of divinity. . ."3
A God such as this can thus have an appeal to any group of people who are in a state of subjugation. But unlike the pagan Gods of strong, proud people, this type of God, as Nietzsche points out, remains in the state in which it was conceived (a God of the sick and weak), despite how strong of a following it receives. And it receives such a strong following because those who are from the ghettos, slums, and hospitals of the world, are the masses (There was no middle class in ancient Palestine; there were only the more elite subjugator and the subjugated masses). The God for "everyman" is attractive to those who live in conditions of powerlessness and misery, in that it allows them to deny their present existence in favor of a better one which is to come, in an appeal to a "redemption" in a world beyond. Therefore, this God-type becomes a life-denying one, in that it represents a denial of "this" life, as opposed to the healthy yes-saying, life-affirming, consistent-with-nature God of the ancient Jews. This particular type of God is therefore one which is ultimately nihilistic, involving the denial and rejection of the world and everything in it as sinful and decadent. Nature, flesh, and instinct thus become more and more devalued until they reach a point at which nature is seen as a cesspool, the flesh is mortified, and instincts are put in terms of evil "temptations." The concept of God continues to "deteriorate," as Nietzsche terms it, until what ultimately remains is a conception of God as "pure spirit," or in other words something entirely immaterial and non-corporeal, and this is held up as an ideal form of existence. Nietzsche simply thinks of this idea of pure spirit as pure "nothingness," in that it is merely an absurd, contradictory-to-nature postulation. To him, it ultimately represents nihilism and nothing less.
These claims of Nietzsche’s are difficult to argue against, because Nietzsche does not really use much in the way of an argument here to arrive at these claims. Here is where one must have already read his Genealogy of Morals in order to better understand what is going on in these passages. The Genealogy actually does have a sustained argument for claims that are intimately related to the ones above that are found in The Antichrist. This argument deals with how the slave class (Jews), out of hatred and resentment, got their revenge on the noble class (Romans) by shaming them into accepting the slave class’ morality. This is one of Nietzsche’s most important claims, and it is essential to an understanding of The Antichrist. Nietzsche argues for this claim in the Genealogy by giving an account of the origins of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil’. In their etymological senses, the terms "moral" and "ethical" mean literally "common" and "ordinary." The etymological origin of the word "good," according to Nietzsche, reveals that it once meant "privileged," "aristocratic," "with a soul of high order," etc., and that "bad" originally meant "common," "low," and "plebeian." Even the German word schlecht, which means "bad," is akin to schlicht, which means "plain" or "simple." Furthermore, the words schlechthin und schlechtweg literally mean "simply" or "downright." This was the language of the aristocratic upper classes in classical times, whom Nietzsche calls the noble, or master class. The word "bad" was used by the master class, without any moral or ethical connotations, simply to refer to and differentiate themselves from common people, whom Nietzsche refers to as the slave class. The master class called themselves "good" due to their apparently superior social standing, or in other words, "good" was simply a term for those things which they were: fierce, proud, brave, and noble. The lower class, or the slave class, on the other hand, developed their own moral language, which is that of the language of "good" and "evil." The anger and hatred which the slave class had for the master class had no outlet, or in other words their anger was impotent, due to their physical and political powerlessness. Nietzsche calls this the anger of ressentiment. The only way the slave class could get their revenge on the master class was to accept nothing less than a complete revaluation of the master class’ values. The Jews, who epitomized the "priestly" way of life, according to Nietzsche, were the ones who began what he calls the "slave revolt in morality," which inverted the "aristocratic value equation (good=powerful=beautiful=happy=beloved of God)," to make a good out of their own station in life, and an evil out of the station of their enemies–the objects of their impotent anger and revenge.4 The slave class accomplished this effect by turning "good" and "bad" into terms which not only made reference to one’s political station in life, but also pointed to one’s soul and depth as a person.
Thus, the language of "good" and "bad," which was originally used for the purpose of amorally denoting one’s station in life, was revaluated into the language of "good" and "evil," in which what is "good" is common, ordinary, poor, and familiar, and what is "evil" is damnable, unfamiliar, cruel, godless, accursed, and unblessed. In effect, the master class, over the last two thousand years, has been "poisoned" and shamed by the slave class and its language of "good" and "evil" into accepting the inversion of their own noble values, and thus the morality of the slave class, namely that which is "common," "ordinary," and "familiar," is the one which prevails today. From the above argument, it is easier to understand how Nietzsche claims that the subjugated Jews transformed their once yes-saying God into the nay-saying God of ressentiment and hatred. This argument seems to ring true in many ways, but it is nevertheless based on the psychological presupposition that human beings are always seeking power and mastery over others, or in other words, that they are always exerting their "will to power," as Nietzsche calls it. In this way, Nietzsche sees the Jews as cunningly having found a way to regain power over their oppressors psychologically by shaming them with the use of the language of good and evil. This assessment goes for what is to follow below as well.
IV. The Buddhistic Jesus?
As he demonstrates in sections 20-23, Nietzsche is careful not to confuse Buddhism with Christianity in his criticisms. Though he believes that both religions are nihilistic and decadent, he regards Buddhism as a far healthier and more realistic approach. In contrast to the Christian, who is always trying to avoid sin, the Buddhist’s main goal is to reduce suffering itself. The latter does not fall in to the same trap as Christianity does, according to Nietzsche, in that it does not carry with it any moral presuppositions. It has long abandoned them, seeing them as mere deceptions. The Buddhist is therefore not engaged in the practice of moralizing and making judgments about others. A Buddhist achieves this reduction of suffering by living a passive, non-compulsive lifestyle. He does not become angry or resentful, no matter what transgressions someone has performed against him. Neither does he worry about himself or others. He takes measures which will help him to avoid exciting his senses, while the Christian, on the other hand, does just the opposite through living an ascetic lifestyle and maintaining an emotionally charged relationship with his God through prayer. The Buddhist, in his avoidance of suffering, simply aims to maintain a steady peace, calm, and mildness in his lifestyle and temperament. It is a very important point that in pursuing this aim, the Buddhist actually succeeds, whereas the Christian does not succeed in removing sin, and is thus always in a state of wanting "redemption" and "forgiveness," never attaining the "grace" of God which he so desires. The Buddhist is therefore able to achieve a sort of peace and tranquillity on earth.
This idea is vital, in that it relates directly with Nietzsche’s conception of the historical Jesus. Nietzsche paints a picture of the Jesus of history as being a true evangel, which means that he did not subscribe to the concepts of guilt, punishment, and reward. He did not engage in faith, but only in actions, and these actions prescribed a way of life which Nietzsche sees as rather Buddhistic. The evangel does not get angry, does not pass judgment, and neither does he feel any hatred or resentment for his enemies. He rejected the whole idea of sin and repentance, and believed that this evangelical way of life was divine in itself, closing the gap between man and God so much that it is God, according to Nietzsche. Therefore, he saw prayer, faith, and redemption as farcical, instead believing that the "kingdom of heaven" is a state of mind that can be experienced on earth by living this type of peaceful, judgment-suspending existence, free from worry, guilt, and anger. Nietzsche argues that this was the life of Jesus and nothing more, and this way of life was the "glad tidings" which he brought. In Section 35, Nietzsche writes:
The "bringer of glad tidings" died as he had lived, as he had taught–not to "redeem men" but to show how one must live. This practice is his legacy to mankind: his behavior before the judges, before the catchpoles, before the accusers and all kinds of slander and scorn–his behavior on the cross. He does not resist, he does not defend his right, he takes no step which might ward off the worst; on the contrary, he provokes it. And he begs, he suffers, he loves with those, in those, who do him evil. Not to resist, not to be angry, not to hold responsible–but to resist not even the evil one–to love him.5
This conception of Jesus is entirely alien to the one which the church has given us. For the creation and dissemination of this misconception, Nietzsche blames Paul. He also blames Jesus’ immediate followers as well. Once Jesus had been executed, according to Nietzsche, his followers could not come to grips with the shock of his sudden loss. Filled with a want of revenge, they wanted to know who killed him and why. They determined that the rulers of the existing Jewish order had killed him because his doctrine went against that order. Not wanting his death to have been in vain, they saw him as a rebel against the Jewish status quo in the same way that they saw themselves as such. In this way, argues Nietzsche, his followers completely misunderstood him. The truly "evangelic" thing to do, he says, would have been to forgive his death instead, or to die in like manner without judgment or need of vindication. However, Jesus’ followers, resentful about his loss, wanted vengeance upon those of the existing Jewish order. The way that they accomplished this vengeance is the same as the way in which the Jews exacted their revenge on their Roman oppressors. They considered Jesus to be the Messiah of whom they were foretold by Jewish scripture, and in this way they elevated him to divine status–as the Son of God (since he referred to himself metaphorically as a "child of God"). Faced with the question of how God could allow Jesus’ death to occur, they came up with the idea that God had sent down his own Son as a sacrifice for their sins, as a sacrifice of the guiltless for the sins of the guilty, even though Jesus himself refused to engage in feeling guilt. They then used the figure of Jesus and their misunderstanding of his doctrine of the "kingdom of God" for making judgments against their enemies in the existing Jewish order, just as the Jews themselves had turned their God into something universal for the purpose of passing judgment on the Romans:
On the other hand, the frenzied veneration of these totally unhinged souls no longer endured the evangelic conception of everybody’s equal right to be a child of God, as Jesus had taught: it was their revenge to elevate Jesus extravagantly, to sever him from themselves–precisely as the Jews had formerly, out of revenge against their enemies, severed their God from themselves and elevated him. The one God and the one Son of God–both products of ressentiment.6
The figure of Paul, according to Nietzsche, exacerbated this misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings even further. In fact, that is an understatement. In this elevated figure of the crucified Jesus, Paul, with his "priestly" instincts, saw a way to gain power by forming "herds," as Nietzsche puts it. He completely rewrote the history of Jesus’ life and Christianity for his own purposes, adding the doctrines of the resurrection, the immaculate conception, and the idea of personal immortality as a reward. Nietzsche attributes Paul’s efforts to the hatred and ressentiment of the priestly class, and refers to Paul as the "dysangelist," or in other words, the "bringer of ill tidings." After Paul, the life of Jesus had been turned into something completely alien and antithetical to what it actually was. Again, this theory of Nietzsche’s rests on the assumption that humans are in essence motivated by a will to power. Historical evidence concerning the historical Jesus is quite lacking in Nietzsche’s account; rather it relies on a psychological profile of those who participated in this historical scene. However, this psychological analysis seems to present a scenario that is at least conceivable–especially more so than the idea of an immaculate conception and a resurrection. I think Nietzsche takes the Buddhistic element of Jesus too far, however. He provides too specific of an account of Jesus’ lifestyle and philosophical persuasions without any evidence. It is still quite possible that Jesus could have simply been a more noteworthy rebel against the Romans and the Jewish status quo. More historical evidence would seem to be in order, but Nietzsche’s account still remains very compelling without it. Its profound significance lies in the fact that in it, Nietzsche has the courage and honesty to show us what, in his and every non-Christian’s eyes, is far more likely to have been the case.
V. Lastly: Theologian’s Blood
Nietzsche is also concerned with how deeply these decadent Christian values have ingrained themselves in our social practices and presuppositions. He especially laments how it has infiltrated the study of philosophy, particularly German philosophy. As Nietzsche argues in Sections 8 through 12, he sees modern philosophy as having "theologians’ blood in its veins":
It is necessary to say whom we consider our antithesis: it is the theologians and whatever has theologians’ blood in its veins–and that includes our whole philosophy.7
Nietzsche argues that Christianity has poisoned philosophy with this nihilistic rejection of the body in favor of pure spirit. He compares the idealist philosopher with the priest, in that the former reduces everything in the world to idea, so that the physical world does not really exist. Figures such as Georg Hegel have done exactly this sort of thing, and Nietzsche is especially critical of German philosophy, both for its idealist tendencies and its conception of morality–both of which can be traced to this theologian’s instinct. Nietzsche blames Germany’s heavy Protestant tradition for the corruption of philosophy, and he criticizes Kant especially for being the latest, "greatest" philosopher to continue this corruption. Kant denies that the physical world can be apprehended directly (the world of noemenon) by the senses, and in this respect he is not a strict idealist, but rather a phenomenalist. What is meant by this is that all we can perceive are phenomenon, which appear to us as ideas, and the physical (noemenal) world is something which we can never directly observe. Kant’s system does not deny that the physical world exists, but it denies that it exists as we know it, and that is enough for Nietzsche to criticize him. One can understand, however, how Nietzsche sees the theologian’s blood running through Kant’s veins, in that Kant sees the physical world as mere phenomenon–as phantom reality. Nietzsche also criticizes Kant for finding a way to maintain an a priori justification for morality–the Christian morality–while removing God from the picture, namely the Categorical Imperative. Nietzsche rejects this system as one which turns people into automatons. He claims that a virtue must be one of a people’s own invention, not an abstract "duty" in-itself, which must be followed universally for its own sake. If a people does not follow its own virtues and do its own duty, he argues, it will perish. What Nietzsche seems to be getting at here is that people simply do what they need to do to thrive and preserve themselves, and as explained earlier, different people find themselves having to adapt to different circumstances, such as the Jews did under Roman occupation. Their virtues and duties had to change according to their situation. This is what Kant means when he says that "Kant’s categorical imperative endangered life itself!"8 Nietzsche then goes on to denounce Kant’s deontologicalism itself:
An action demanded by the instinct of life is proved to be right by the pleasure that accompanies it; yet this nihilist with his Christian dogmatic entrails considered pleasure an objection. What could destroy us more quickly than working, thinking, and feeling without any inner necessity, without any deeply personal choice, without pleasure–as an automaton of "duty"? This is the very recipe for decadence, even for idiocy. Kant became an idiot. And this man was contemporary of Goethe! This catastrophic spider was considered theGerman philosopher–he still is! 9
Kant, in this way, also goes against nature with his system of morality, according to Nietzsche. It is simply a Christian God’s "Thou shalt" disguised by a secular, a priori philosophy, or as Nietzsche would see it, it is borne of the theologian’s instinct. Any philosophy student can see where Nietzsche gets these ideas from, and in most respects, he seems to be right about this. However, not all of the nihilistic elements of philosophy have their roots in Christianity. Western philosophy has a fundamental inheritance from Plato, who also, as Nietzsche is surely aware, rejects the physical world. He does this not because he thinks of it as sinful, but because he thinks it is ultimately only shadows of reality. Instead, Plato favors the world of the Forms, in which the Forms are paradigms of all objects and concepts that can be found in the physical, sensory world in which we presently live. Plato favors this other world because the physical world is in a constant state of flux, he argues. And since we cannot have knowledge of something which is always changing, as he claims, there can be no real knowledge of anything in the physical world. Knowledge then, for Plato, can only be possible in this other world through contemplation of the Forms, since these Forms are unchanging. Therefore, western post-Socratic philosophy began with a rejection of the physical world, and this rejection also constitutes a large, if not major source of the nihilism in western philosophy about which Nietzsche so often complains.
1 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist. Reprinted in The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin. 1954. pp. 572-573.
2 Ibid. pp. 585-586.
3 Ibid. pp. 584.
4 Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Ecce Homo. Kaufmann, Walter. Ed., Trans. Random House. 1967 (Vintage Books Ed. 1989) pp. 34.
5 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist. Reprinted in The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin. 1954. pp. 608-609.
6 Ibid. pp. 615-616.
7 Ibid. pp. 574.
8 Ibid. pp. 579.
9 Ibid. pp. 578.