cross-post: Friedrich Nietzsche as anti-prophet

What I find intolerable about the current year is the mindless, self-righteous, hysterical, ceaseless moralizing–just reading the word “justice” makes me sick. So I thought it would be a nice time for Nietzsche, and in particular reading Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals with my distinction between priestly and prophetic religion in mind. Recall, priestly religion consecrates an existing order, while prophetic religion critiques and alienates from it. Nietzsche himself does not make this distinction–he uses “priest” and “priestly” rather indiscriminately–but I think it helps clarify his writing. For example, the slave morality critiqued in the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals is clearly not quite the same thing as the ascetic morality critiqued in the third, and these correspond roughly to prophetic and priestly modes, respectively.

What is distinctive, indeed thrilling, about Nietzsche is not that he attacks religion (that’s what’s boring and conventional about him), but where he attacks it, on the very quality that Christians and atheists agree is good and in fact argue only over who exemplifies it best. I mean, of course, the prophetic quality: “speaking truth to power”, confronting the powerful, compassion for the weak and suffering. Nietzsche sees all of this as a mask for resentment, hatred for the strong and happy, the frustrated will to power of sick, warped souls. He also points out, as we often do here, that the speakers-of-truth-to-power are themselves the power, and have been for a very long time. Nietzsche hates prophetic religion almost as much as I do.

His critique of its priestly aspects must be more subtle. The resentment of life’s losers seeks a scapegoat. The role of the “ascetic priest” is not to stoke or express this urge to blame and punish but to redirect it inward as guilt and contrition. Insofar as this inhibits outward scapegoating, Nietzsche acknowledges its usefulness, but he argues that it can never cure the losers’ spiritual sickness, but must make it worse. The will to punish and limit oneself is still an expression of the will to power, but an unhealthy one because turned inward.

The “ascetic” priestly ideal is deeper and more subtle than most realize; Nietzsche accuses scientists and atheists of espousing a particularly pure form of it insofar as they would still subordinate themselves to an objective standard of truth. Nietzsche does not believe in an absolute truth, only multiple perspectives, and the philosopher’s job is to pick–or, better, to create–one.

One might regard Friedrich Nietzsche as the first and greatest of the anti-prophetic atheists (a very small minority of atheists, but the most philosophically interesting), who, in order to resist the alienation from the world taught by the prophets, defend the world by rejecting anything that might be thought to transcend it, any outside standard that could be invoked to condemn it. The idea of eternal recurrence is a spiritual discipline–can you accept the world as it is enough to embrace the thought of it recurring forever? The atheist anti-prophets are able to be less inhibited and go farther than religious anti-prophets (meaning, primarily, Catholics); the latter don’t wish to criticize those Old Testament fanatics. In fact, the atheist anti-prophets go too far. Without standards of truth and morality that transcend–if not the world, at least us–it’s hard to see what grounds one has to object to the triumph of slave morality and its sickly, hatred-filled partisans. Have they not proven themselves stronger than the happy and noble blonde beasts and their will the more indomitable?

2 Responses

  1. indeed. those who are faithful to the Nietzchean will-to-power dogma very well end up as sacrificial victims to their newfound Moloch. sometimes even willingly so, see Hemingway. i’ve read Nietzche himself was a sickly individual. would he have accepted Aktion T4 on himself? even then, the flaw is clear: if he indeed wanted to accept the world as it was, he’d have accepted God and the prophetic and the ascetic – who can’t live without the other.

  2. I’ve been thinking about priestly religion vs. prophetic religion; you’re clearly inclined towards the priestly (I am too), but it seems to me that what we really need now is a prophet, or prophets, but ones that denounce the prophetic religion and demand a return to the priestly. That may seem strange, a prophet against the prophetic, but it lines up with my reading of the Old Testament. The prophets preached a return to proper priestly religion (among other things), and it seems they would have been happy to live in a world that didn’t need prophets.

    I guess I could say that we need true prophets, not the multitude of false prophets that we’ve been getting.

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