If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have Nietzsche, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
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Recently I’ve been tucking into Nietzsche’s Beyond good and evil. I first read Thus spoke Zarathustra, but found it quite riddlesome and esoteric. Nietzsche seems to speak a lot more straight-forwardly here, and with a lot less righteous decrying against humanity’s stupidity to this point (his critique is a lot more peaceful and shows some understanding).
One particularly seductive piece of insight Nietzsche employs is his term ‘will to power’, by which he interprets existence. Basically he’s saying that everything we do is done out of a motivation, a will, if you will, for power, which is more important to beings than mere self-preservation. The popular example (which I know not whether it has its origins in Nietzsche or the commentators) is that a martyr gladly embraces death out of a will to power, the will to eternal life. But maybe this isn’t an accurate enough example. If a martyr really believes they will live eternally then this is still an expression of will to self-preservation. Will to power can be examined more surely in someone who has no hope of life after death, say someone who believes they will cease to exist in their entirety, bar a lifeless body, on the point of their death yet chooses to give their life for the sake of another. If Nietzsche were to read into this situation the will to power, I’m guessing he would say something about how in the last few seconds of that person’s life they gained a sense of power in knowing that their sacrifice would preserve another’s life just that little bit longer. This, then, is what Nietzsche says on Christian love:
There is nothing for it: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour, the entire morality of self-renunciation must be taken mercilessly to task and brought to court[…] That they give pleasure — to him who has them and to him who enjoys their fruits, also to the mere spectator — does not yet furnish an argument in their favour, but urges us rather to caution. So let us be cautious!
(Beyond good and evil, p.64, 2003 Penguin edition, emphasis original)
It really depends what you mean by power… The word translated here as ‘pleasure’ is just another way of terming the benefit of love for the one who loves, which Nietzsche points out. Whatever word you may use, pleasure, power or something else, the crux of this German’s point cannot easily be overlooked, and this is the interpretation to which I can reduce it: Complete selflessness is impossible as it is always in response to a desire within the self. And with this emphasis, Nietzsche summarises the history of morality with a vision for a new morality. His vision seems somehow to prophetically herald modern psychology:
Throughout the longest part of human history — it is called prehistoric times — the value or non-value of an action was derived from its consequences: the action itself came as little into consideration as did its origin[…] Over the past ten thousand years, on the other hand, one has in a few large tracts of the earth come step by step to the point at which it is no longer the consequences but the origin of the action which determines its value[…] men became unanimous in the belief that the value of an action resided in the value of the intention behind it[…] today, when among us immoralists at least the suspicion has arisen that the decisive value of an action resides in precisely that which is not intentional in it, and that all that in it which is intentional, all of it that can be seen, known, ‘conscious’, still belongs to its surface and skin — which, like every skin, betrays something but conceals still more? In brief, we believe that the intention is only a sign and a symptom that needs interpreting, and a sign, moreover, that signifies too many things and which thus taken by itself signifies practically nothing.
(pp.62-63, emphasis original)
I’ve made some omissions because the passage is quite lengthy. This means you’ve missed out on the terms: ‘pre-moral’ for actions evaluated by their consequences, ‘moral’ for their intentions, and ‘extra-moral’ for the complexity behind the intentions. If you didn’t get that, Nietzsche seems to me to be basically saying that there is such a range of forces acting upon us and within us that to judge an action by its intentions is a gross oversimplification. As he contemplates the will, “Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only as a word” (p.48). When we are loving towards others, there seems to be an almost infinite amount of factors acting with us to bring about that love. This means not just factors within ourselves but also physical/environmental factors acting upon us. If they are lovable, yes that helps; if they are especially unlovable then that may be the very factor that makes them lovable, as a kind of challenging response to Jesus’ words “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47 NIV)¹
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Now that Nietzsche has so eloquently pooed on the Christian campfire, how can love still be possible? But to that I say, to what extent have you stuck your theological crowbar between the poles of love and individuality? In other words, why do we necessarily need to have pure motives to love? A year or so ago I undulated into some spiritual despair regarding not actually wanting to spend time in prayer and other devotional activities. I was disillusioned with my own depravity. How could I be a Christian if my natural desires overpowered my spiritual ones? Why not be true to myself and face who I really was? A good friend (who will remain nameless) gave me some words of wisdom that resonated with me. Reflecting on a relationship with a pretty special person, my friend told me, “We have a lot of great times, but we also have not so great times. Sometimes when my partner wants to spend time together, that person is the last person I want to see at that moment, but I know I need to do it for the sake of our relationship”². And this is the honesty with which we must approach love.
In the wake of Nietzsche’s critique on morality, it wouldn’t be completely smart to attempt an evaluation of every single factor acting upon our each and every action. This only shows our desire to justify ourselves. What would be smarter would be to acknowledge the inherent selfishness and introspective mystery in everything we do, and then to go beyond it, to make a double movement back to the pre-moral, where actions are evaluated by their consequences. In so doing we embrace all three stages of Nietzsche’s morality: We act humbly as we do now and acknowledge that we have good intentions and bad intentions, all the while confronting these; we examine ourselves as the bearers of a complex will in a world of complex forces; and finally, we self-defeatedly seek consolation from our selfish intentions by focussing now on what our actions produce.
I don’t want to undermine the challenge to spiritual introspection and a pure heart that Christianity poses, but I do want to note that this is sometimes disarming. Whether your work for the kingdom is in part motivated by an interest in the light at the end of tunnel, your societal image, or a desire to prove to your parents that you’re something rather than nothing, etc, all you can do is acknowledge. Yes, seek to overhaul your desires, but yes, also soldier on in spite of the knowledge your selfishness.
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¹Jesus’ appeal to rewards, which seems to be so often overlooked, possibly as a response to the negative conceptions of Christianity as a selfish practice to ensure your own eternal life, can be read with a kind of Nietzschean irony: We can’t escape our desire for rewards so why not embrace it?
²It might sound awkward because I’ve removed all references to gender