11/03/2005

A Confession

I have a confession to make. I read Nietzsche for fun. I know what you're thinking: doesn't Nietzsche represent the antithesis of Christianity? Well, yes... let me 'splain.

Nietzsche's works are about as anti-Christian as it is possible to be. His most popular quote (in Christian circles, at least), "God is dead", is among his less inflammatory statements. As a result, I credit him with completely desensitizing me to all anti-Christian rhetoric. Anger clouds judgment, so it is beneficial to be able to argue (especially over something you feel passionately about) in a calm, collected manner. Nietzsche helped me to do this.

Nietzsche's assault on Christianity (and all value systems, really) is not an argument in any traditional sense of the word. When I first met him, I was tempted to try refuting him point by point. This is a frustrating task because he gives you precious little to go on by way of premises and conclusions. In a way, refuting him was too easy. But that is because it entirely misses the point – it is trying to get Nietzsche to play a game he refuses to play. He is presenting a myth, not an argument, and the power of this myth is more important to Nietzsche than it's truth-value.

That is what I enjoy most about Nietzsche: his ability to craft a compelling narrative. C.S. Lewis was right when he said "Nietzsche was a better poet than a philosopher. I give Plato superior marks on both papers"[1] (with the possible qualification that Nietzsche never intended to do philosophy in Plato's sense), but it is hardly an insult to say that his myths (i.e., poetry) are not as good as Plato's. Nietzsche presents the reader with this fascinatingly cohesive alternate picture of reality: human history understood entirely as will to power, and Christianity as the worst thing that could have happened to the human spirit.

The mythic quality in Nietzsche allows me to approach him with a more relaxed attitude than I would, say, an atheist arguing for the irrationality of Christianity. Nietzsche doesn't really present arguments (that he intends to be taken seriously), so reading him is a much more laid-back experience.

I suppose I might still be offended by the place Christian theism has in Nietzsche's universe, but to be honest I have trouble taking him seriously for long enough to be offended. Who really believes this stuff? Parts of Nietzsche's philosophy, certainly, have been adopted here and there (by Freud, post-modernism, etc.), but few if any people have adopted him wholesale. At any rate, I find the Christian narrative much more compelling than the one Nietzsche is peddling. The God-man simply trumps the ├╝ber-man in terms of narrative power. G.K Chesterton has done a good job of presenting Christian-truth-as-myth, in Orthodoxy and elsewhere, in a way that engages Nietzsche squarely on his own terms and, I think, wins.

And that's why I like Nietzsche so much: precisely because he's so wrong. It takes a lot of intelligence and creativity to re-interpret reality and all of human history in a way that is both amazingly internally consistent and amazingly false... and the result is fascinating.


[1]The quote is a paraphrase from memory. I was unable to locate its source. Although I am pretty sure Lewis is the author, and it sounds like something he would say, I can't be positive because my memory has been known to play nefarious tricks on me. In any cause, someone said it because it's too smart for me to have come up with.