Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Part 3

The title of this section is “What is Religious?” As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading the Kauffman translation, but you can find a full translation online by Ian Johnston here.

The chapter starts with Nietzsche pondering how challenging his topic is, the “great hunt” for knowledge of the human soul, which he compares to a “primeval forest.”

He writes,

What is wrong with sending scholars into new and dangerous hunting grounds, where courage, sense and subttlety are in every way required, is that they cease to be of any use precisely where the “great hunt,” but also the great danger, begins: precisely there they lose their eye and their nose.

To do it, a seeker has to have an improbable mix of qualities, both a “profound, wounded, and monstrous” conscience, but also “bright, malicious spirituality.” As often happens, Nietzsche determines he’s the only one who can get the job done. Section 45 ends with a characteristic Nietzsche joke:

But a curiosity of my type remains after all the most agreeable of all vices — sorry, I meant to say: the love of truth has its reward in heaven and even on earth,–

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is, um, pretty thoroughgoing. He refers often in this part to Pascal in particular as an exemplar of everything that is wrong with Christian thought. As per usual, he doesn’t pull his punches, as phrases such as “a continual suicide of reason”, “a sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.” One thing to keep in mind about Nietzsche is that he often reserves his harshest criticism for people he admires. Although I know little about Pascal (and can find, surprisingly, nothing in the secondary literature on Nietzsche’s view of Pascal) I know enough about Nietzsche that he wouldn’t name check him unless he was important to the development of his own ideas.

You might know Pascal — the 17th century mathematician and Catholic philosopher — from his wager, an argument for not God’s existence, but for believing in God’s existence. you can read more more on Pascal’s wager in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, and Christian morality, is complex, but what he does in this part is try to historicize and contexualize it. He doesn’t accept the story Christianity tells about itself (the story in the New Testament), but looks at it skeptically: where did this phenomenon come from? How has it functioned? Who benefits? What are its effects? when I teach Nietzsche, I tend to gloss over (actually, it’s more accurate to say I pray students don’t ask me about) some of his, erm, “broad brush” histories. I just don’t know how to evaluate claims like, “It seems Catholicism is much more intimately related to the Latin races than all of Christianity in general is to us northerners…” or “It is the Orient, deep Orient, it is the Oriental slave who revenged himself in this way on the Roman”). I would need to know a lot more about how philologists were trained in the nineteenth century to understand how he came up with this way of looking at history. But I do appreciate, at least, the unusually historical approach he takes (unusual for a philosopher anyway). To take just one example of this kind of observation, in Section 58, Nietzsche observes: “Has it ever really been noted to what extent a genuinely religious life … requires a leisure class…”

Although I recognize that one of the things Nietzsche really admired in the pre-Socractics was their tendency not to separate out normative inquiries from “scientific” ones (moral philosophy and natural science are both crucial for understanding humanity), I tend to situate most of what Nietzsche is saying in such passages, his “histories”, in the context of his belief that truth is just one of many values, and in the context of the overriding normative goal in his writings, which is to identify, pathologize, and reject the reigning Judeo-Christian morality.

Christianity offers one “ideal” — see the phrases I quoted above — but there is another ideal:

the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo — not only to himself but to the whole play and spectacle … [“da capo” = “from the beginning”, a musical direction]

Here Nietzsche references his doctrine of eternal recurrence, the idea that the higher types affirm their lives and the world so completely that they would relive them again in exactly the same way. From Nietzsche’s point of view, this is the very opposite of the Christian doctrine that says we should long for an ultimate release from this world and an entrance into heaven. I think Nietzsche’s view of Christianity (as a “longwinded revenge on life”) is pretty unfair in this respect.

I should note that it would be wrong to say he celebrates the atheists of his day. He felt that secular morality was so infused with religious ideas, that the atheists were just as timid and life-denying in the end as the Christians.

In the later parts of this section Nietzsche offers the kind of critique of religious belief for which he has come to be best known: its function as a kind of psychological balm.

It is the profound, suspicious fear of an incurable pessimism that forces whole millennia to bury their teeth in and cling to a religious interpretation of existence; the fear of that instinct which senses that one might get hold of the truth too soon, before man has becomes strong enough, hard enough, artist enough.

(It might seem odd to see the word “artist” there, but Nietzsche felt that creativity was a chief characteristic of the higher men. The ability to create, oneself and the world, is a major expression of life-affirming power.)

On this view of Christianity, piety is a “fear of truth”. He goes on to say,

For ordinary human beings … religion gives an inestimable contentment with their situation and type, manifold peace of the heart, an ennobling of obedience, one further happiness and sorrow with their peers, and something transfiguring and beautifying, something of a justification for the whole everyday character, the whole lowliness, the whole half-brutish poverty of their souls. Religion and religious significance spread the splendor of the sun over such ever-toiling human beings and make their own sight tolerable to them.

We get more of Nietzsche’s take on the way religion created a reversal of values, turning what he views as natural human “good” or “excellent” into a kind of religious or moral “evil” in Section 62:

Stand all valuations on their head — that is what they had to do. And break the strong, sickly o’er great hopes, cast suspicion on the joy in beauty, bend everything haughty, manly, conquering, domineering, all the instincts characteristic of the highest and best- turned-out type of “man,” into unsureness, agony of conscience, self-destruction — indeed, invert all love of the earthly and dominion over the earth into hatred of the earth and the earthly — that is the task the church posed for itself and had to pose, until in its estimation “becoming unworldy,” “unsensual,” and “higher men” were fused into a single feeling.

The effect — over 19 centuries — was to turn man into a “sublime miscarriage.” With the Christian view of “equal before God” holding sway, Nietzsche concludes, “a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred, the European of today__”

I’ll conclude here, but note that it can be a challenge — not a bad experience, just complex — to teach Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity to a room of undergraduates, several of whom are Christians. One trick is getting everyone to remember that everyone in the room is subject to the critique, just in virtue of being 21st century Americans.

3 responses

  1. The effect — over 19 centuries — was to turn man into a “sublime miscarriage.” With the Christian view of “equal before God” holding sway, Nietzsche concludes, “a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred, the European of today__”

    I’ll conclude here, but note that it can be a challenge — not a bad experience, just complex — to teach Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity to a room of undergraduates, several of whom are Christians.

    I generally agree with him there. I think organized religion is a cattlepen and something we’re meant to evolve away from, toward a less constrictingly paternalistic view of life (and afterlife.)
    I think a philosophy course should be required in the first semester of college. College is supposed to be an eye-opening experience, anyway, and it’s healthy for people who have adhered to rigid viewpoints throughout childhood to be exposed to ideas that will widen the world for them and test the strength or weakness of the faith their families have instilled. I didn’t finish college, myself, and find Nietzsche extremely challenging to comprehend (when I comprehend at all), so your commentary is a big help in making sense of it.


  2. I’ve been really enjoying these posts! I haven’t been reading along, I must admit, so these comments are from memory.

    As for this particular post, whenever I read Nietzsche’s view of Christianity I always think to myself, “What were you reading, man?” I’d seriously like to know who beyond Pascal because it often occurs to me that Nietzsche has a peculiarly insular and late 19th-century, middle-class German understanding of Christianity–which I’m sure he’d be distressed by. That is, I think his assessment is both true and untrue. Partially, this is because Nietzsche himself tends to write philosophy like a mystic and partially because a lot of his ideas are quite compatible with the more heterodox theologians. Do you know how much Nietzsche was influenced by Kierkegaard? He was, wasn’t he, if I recall correctly. Which may explain why some of Nietzsche’s ideas fit in so well with certain interpreations of Christianity, despite his criticism of it. I also wonder how much this criticism was connected to his general contempt for German middle-class lifestyle?

    My general sense is that Nietzsche is struggling with Platonism and the ladder of forms in much of his criticism of philosophy. Since Christianity was profoundly influenced both by Aristotle and Plato, the problems of philosophy infected a lot of theology and doctrine. So I guess my question is: how is Nietzsche’s criticism of religion related to his criticism of philosophy? They seem to me to be essentially the same, even if deployed differently.

    These are so interesting! I’m looking forward to the next one.


  3. @lazaraspaste: Glad you are enjoying them! I actually did not think N was influenced by K. K wasn’t translated into German. I will see what my secondary source have to say. But of course you are right that they took up the same problems.

    The critique of philosophy and religion are almost the same (with the caveat that I work in moral philosophy so my focus is on the normative component, not so much the metaphysics or epistemology). The secular moral philosophy Nietzsche critiques from Kant onwards, he sees as a direct outgrowth of Judeo-Christian morality, which he sees as an outgrowth of Socrates’ terrible influence. When I teach Nietzsche, I think of his target as one Morality, with different incarnations in different eras. I focus on certain core commitments of this Morality which Nietzsche sees as a thread running through it. I know that this is a very selective reading of the history of philosophy — Hume, for one, doesn’t fit in well — not to mention Eastern philosophy — but Nietzsche painted with a “broad brush.

    Oh, and definitely, he did not see his own autobiography as nearly as salient in his own philosophy as in that of others. You give a great example in his socio-economic status, and as someone who works in bioethics, I can’t help but think about Nietzsche’s prolonged personal physical suffering when he praises the value of suffering to the higher men.



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