Ruthless Navel-gazing

I was reading Nietzsche’s notebooks the other day when a phrase brought me up short. He characterizes the early Christians as “verlogenen kleinen Mißgeburten von Muckern.” This is so over-the-top as to defy translation. My first attempt, admittedly toning him down quite a bit, is “dishonest, petty, misbegotten hypocrites.” Kaufmann is more direct: “lying little abortions of bigots.” And this is not just private ranting that gets cleaned up substantially for public consumption; for publication, in Antichrist he says “kleine Mißgeburten von Muckern und Lügnern” which is far kinder: “little abortions of bigots and liars.”


Most of Nietzsche’s religious issues are really alien to me. For one thing, his revulsion at certain things never made sense to me quite because I do not experience revulsion much. Some have hypothesized that this is what causes the divide over gay marriage for example–if you don’t have visceral revulsion at certain sexual acts, the whole issue “makes no sense” as a moral issue, where moral issues are about kindness, honesty, promise-keeping, fairness, etc. So to feel revulsion at anything is strange to me, but apparently this is far less unusual than I would’ve guessed (i.e., visceral disgust at things one morally disapproves of).

Also, we tend to think that the moral failing of dishonesty requires express misrepresentation to manipulate another, but Nietzsche’s conception of honesty is much more stringent—requires something like the absence of negligence, a kind of thorough diligence and willingness to confront facts in the teeth of one’s own tendencies to denial or wishful thinking. His peculiarity is that negligence about accuracy and unwillingness to confront one’s own wishful thinking is something he considers dishonest. I have only gradually realized that this is a rather odd perspective for most people. It seems extravagant to call a wishful thinker a liar. But that is exactly how he thinks about such things. And the result is that his moral reaction to certain religious phenomena is far harsher than any other Enlightenment anticlerical; usually Enlightenment anticlericals will criticize religious leaders for lying in the ordinary sense, and characterize the people being lied to as fools or innocent victims, but Nietzsche is much harsher because he thinks the ordinary religious person is guilty of the moral failing of self-deception, and he is quick to call them “liars” when he’s on a tear about this.

It is odd the same way that it would be odd if I showed up at a Truther or Birther conspiracy theory fan meeting and called the people there “liars.” But that is what Nietzsche would do, because he thinks that wishful thinking is intellectually irresponsible, and being intellectually irresponsible is a form of dishonesty. And dishonesty fills him with visceral revulsion. All this is, if you think about it, rather idiosyncratic, however entertaining we may find it.

There is some temptation to think that in his critique of religion Nietzsche is saying things that many people would agree with, either factually or morally, but that he expresses himself in a ridiculously hysterical fashion, perhaps because of his own psychological problems. Though I don’t rule that out, I find that people who react to Nietzsche that way do so usually because they misunderstand him. Tentatively, the approach I take is Davidsonian in another sense: if Nietzsche were right about the facts as he understands them, and if we shared his moral framework, his reactions are not hysterical at all, but perfectly appropriate. This hypothetical stance helps to focus attention on what makes Nietzsche interesting: his factual beliefs and moral commitments are really different from ours. But rather than see him as being extravagant in the expression of reasonable judgments we share, we have to accept that his judgments are not always ours. He thinks wishful thinking is revolting; I merely find it pitiable if that.

Also, Nietzsche has some really unusual factual beliefs about the history and especially the psychology of Christianity and Judaism, which are quite speculative and often wrong. But if matters were as he claims, and if one had his impossibly stringent standards of intellectual integrity, then many religious phenomena would rightly elicit the kind of outrage he expresses. But: his standards are too stringent, and, ironically, a lot of his factual beliefs mistaken (or at the very least, not proven). One should be very careful to not make him more “reasonable” than he actually is. He is not reasonable by our lights about a lot of things, and this drives his word choices and his style.

In the end, Antichrist and the notebook material associated with it are among the worst stuff he ever wrote, and his enthusiasm for the former wildly wrong. His images of the Jews are oftentimes the crudest antisemitic stereotypes (why we have collectively lost the capacity to see this is an interesting question for another day), and his innovation consists largely in thinking that Christians and Jews are more alike than one might’ve thought. His moral judgments are perfectionistic in the pejorative sense because he had very little personal life and so could devote himself narcissistically to self-perfection by his lights while other people have jobs to do, children to raise, and don’t have the time or the energy or the need for navel-gazing, however “ruthless”. And so when he turns to ordinary people, and the absence of this ruthless navel-gazing that their religious attachments and commitments evidence, he sees “Jews” and that makes him want to vomit.

As a moral model, I would suggest that this leaves something to be desired.


One comment on “Ruthless Navel-gazing

  1. Pliny the Elder says:

    As you already know, I have always been a bit baffled at the affection that many folks, especially on the ostensible Left, feel for Nietzsche. I think that now there is a new problem, encouraged though not caused by technology. A lot of folks split their time between social networking sites like Facebook where, as far as I can determine, the primary activity is (electronically) patting each other on the head, and discussion sites where they (electronically) yell at eahc other. Reasoned discourse this is not. Accordingly, the concept of authentic, intellectual disagreement at a fundamental level is not something that comes naturally to the current generation (or its immeduiate predecessor). Most people thta I meet under 40 assume that at some basic level we all agree and damn the contrary evidence. (Notice how folks were shocked when the Israeli government admitted a child for emergency surgery where the (Jewish) doctor had donatred his service and the mother tells reporters that her hope is that the child becomes a suicide bomber. Why onearth would anyone be shocked? Because the idea that there exist folks who have that type of goal for their children is unthinkable (to us)!) Nietzsche says many things that border on unthinkable (to us) so we enterpret them away. Handy, but not very honest (by Christian or Nietzshean standards. There is, of course, no hope.

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