Nietzsche: Prophet of Doom (Part 1)

Introduction
What follows is important and relevant for individuals, society, and the world. The water is deep at places but must be forded for us to get to solid ground. The world, I fear, is in a swamp of uncertainty, but the water is rising, every day the need for solid ground is more apparent but harder to reach. Wade through this with me, and perhaps we can find something solid to build upon. Something that will stand through the next wave, whatever that wave may be. As we set out, we will use Friedrich Nietzsche as our marker, though he is no North Star, he helps us map the mire.

First, we should know some about Nietzsche. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15th, 1844 and died on August 25th, 1900. Nietzsche lived a sickly life and died at the age of 55 of pneumonia.[1] Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran pastor. “Nietzsche’s uncle and grandfathers were also Lutheran ministers, and his paternal grandfather, Friedrich August Ludwig Nietzsche (1756–1826), was further distinguished as a Protestant scholar.”[2] Nietzsche faced many difficulties from a young age. His father died when Nietzsche was only four years old and just six months after the death of his father his younger brother died.

Nietzsche must have been gifted intellectually from a young age. For example, he composed piano, choral, and orchestral music as a teenager. He also received a good education at a first-rate boarding school. As a teenager, he read “David Strauss’s controversial and demythologizing Life of Jesus Critically Examined[3] and it had a big impact on him. Early on Nietzsche considered himself devout, he was even called “little preacher” when he was young, but eventually, he would deny the faith, though at first not publically.[4]

Second, it should be understood, that in my mind, Nietzsche’s ramblings are closer to rhetoric than to philosophy. Nietzsche often employees ad hominem arguments and attacks a person (e.g. the Apostle Paul[5]) rather than their arguments. Nietzsche also seems fond of constructing straw man fallacies for his argumentative flame.

Third, Nietzsche wrote in a very unique and even enjoyable style. However, his lack of precision in writing is dangerous; people can construe his writings in many ways, and they have. There is much disagreement over Nietzsche and his work, which must to a large degree, must be because Nietzsche seems to have communicated often more like a poet, using words to paint, and not as much for precision.[6] It is true that Nietzsche at times is very hard to discern and it is also true that his body of work is large and there is much disagreement upon what place Nietzsche’s unpublished work should play in Nietzschean scholarship. However, all that being the case, Nietzsche is still responsible for what he wrote and the way he wrote.

Yannick Imbert has said,

In the history of Western thought, Nietzsche most likely holds the distinction of being the most misunderstood and misrepresented philosopher. Understanding him represents a particular challenge for Christians, given Nietzsche’s radical criticism of anything related to Christianity. Let us consider more closely the philosophy of the so-called father of nihilism.[7]

________________

[1] See e.g. D. Demelsoet, K. Hemelsoet, and D. Devreese, “The neurological illness of Friedrich Nietzsche,” 9-16 in Acta neurologica Belgica (April 2008).

[2] Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Edward N. Zalta (Fall 2016 Edition)(https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/#Life1844 accessed on December 5th, 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “From his early boyhood, Nietzsche was expected to follow the family tradition and become a minister himself. As late as 1864, when he studied classics and theology at Bonn University, he seems to have adhered to his family’s expectations (if no longer wholeheartedly). When one year later he finally dropped theology, he proved a family crisis” (Jörg Salaquarda, “Nietzsche and the Judaeo-Christian tradition,” 90-118 in The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997], 92).

[5] E.g. Nietzsche says, “In Paul is incarnated the very opposite of the “bearer of glad tidings”; he represents the genius for hatred, the vision of hatred, the relentless logic of hatred. What, indeed, has not this dysangelist sacrificed to hatred!… The life, the example, the teaching, the death of Christ, the meaning and the law of the whole gospels—nothing was left of all this after that counterfeiter in hatred had reduced it to his uses. Surely not reality; surely not historical truth!… He simply struck out the yesterday and the day before yesterday of Christianity, and invented his own history of Christian beginnings… The figure of the Saviour, his teaching, his way of life, his death, the meaning of his death, even the consequences of his death—nothing remained untouched, nothing remained in even remote contact with reality. Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence—in the lie of the “risen” Jesus… The figure of the Saviour, his teaching, his way of life, his death, the meaning of his death, even the consequences of his death—nothing remained untouched, nothing remained in even remote contact with reality. Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence—in the lie of the “risen” Jesus… What he himself didn’t believe was swallowed readily enough by the idiots among whom he spread his teaching.—What he wanted was power…” (Nietzsche, The AntiChrist, par. 42).

[6] So, Alvin Plantinga has said, Nietzsche “writes with a fine coruscating brilliance, his outrageous rhetoric is sometimes entertaining, and no doubt much the extravagance is meant as overstatement to make a point. Taken overall, however, the violence and exaggeration seem pathological; for a candidate for the sober truth, we shall certainly have to look elsewhere” (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000], 136).

[7] Class notes from Yannick Imbert’s lecture in “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought” on Oct. 12th, 2016.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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