Nietzsche: Of Love, Trees, and Religion

Reading Nietzsche is not always the easiest thing to do. He is the okra of philosophers, and his moments of lyricism are offset by yawpish moments like this one from “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life”:

Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again: and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. Man may well ask the animal: why do you not speak of me of your happiness but only look at me? The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say – but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so that man could only wonder. But he also wondered about himself, that he cannot learn to forget but always remains attached to the past: however far and fast he runs, the chain runs with him.” (translated by Peter Preuss)

No points for the Mise-en-scène, but Nietzsche is just about to make an important point: namely, that unlike the animals, we are self-conscious creatures who are attached to the past: “However fast we run, the chain runs with us.” The chain is memory. Just when we think we’ve shaken it, “the spectre comes back to disturb the calm of a later moment.”

Nietzsche’s “No” to history comes from the schoolhouse, where the young are subjected to the givens of a catalog, offered up as facts, but are really nothing more than the concrete of national prejudices, the residue of wounded pride, battles won, ground gained. His contempt for history taught and learned this way is exquisite: he laments how facts, “rolled into ugly clumps,” are then thrust out as food for the youthful soul. Who can blame the thirteen year-old for resisting it by showing “a blasé indifference [to history]” from boyhood on. (ADHfL, 41, 42).

I was pondering this way of doing history in connection with a project I am working on, a history of Christian ideas about marriage. The subject is timely since the opponents of civil same-sex unions almost always have a relatively high view of the “institution of matrimony” that was not at all typical of the Church of the first eleven centuries. It is odd to me–or perhaps not odd at all–that in the century when marriage is at its most optional and vulnerable as a sacred compact, its sanctity–or at least its traditionally “high” social status–is being invoked by the very people who have been excluded from its grace.

Nietzsche did not think that the history of a subject was a good means of settling disputes about a subject. Many of the people I know, when they tell me they “like history too,” especially my hair-cutter, will then go on to say they collect World War II paraphernalia, or quarters, or pottery from the Old Queen’s reign. What they really like are relics that tie them to events from the past–for whatever reason. But all the relics in the world, and all the histories of warfare from Marathon to Waterloo do not explain or solve war, or (assuming a distinction) marriage. That is why Nietzsche worries about the packaged certainties offered to schoolchildren as a history of their nation, or religion, or family pedigree. That kind of history is almost always designed to shape minds and bend wills, rather than strengthen them. It is one of the reasons, and perhaps in some sections of America the only reason, that school boards still take an interest in how history is taught. They mean our history.

Peter Preuss, the learned translator of the works of Nietzsche’s Untimely Observations (from his early period) boils it all down to what three post-Kantian philosophers were trying to say in different ways: As the self-conscious animal, life is not something that happens to man. It is something he creates: “Life is a task.” Hegel turns this task into something sublime;Kierkegaard turns it inward; Heidegger sees it as preparation, a quest for authentic Being. Nietzsche, more radically than any of the others, sees human life within history. The bit above, about the animals, is his way of saying that human beings are historical in a way that animals are not: “Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, human or divine,” and unlike the animals “he produces his own nature,” at least in part.

“History is the activity of producing that nature within the limitations of [his] situation. History is the record of this self production. It is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into a present which anticipates the future. With a total absence of this activity, man would fall short of humanity. History is necessary.” (Preuss, Intod. 1, 2)

One can quibble with Nietzsche’s emphasis on the existential role of history. Is all history biography? Can general principles ever be educed from individual records, from the products of self-discovery or self realization? Is there any role at all for Nietzsche’s ogre, the “disinterested scholar.”

The clue is the between-state that we find ourselves in, as being not the children of a higher being, not endowed with rights of any sort (at least none that matter), purely–like our animal brethren–natural and materially wrought, but with a power to remember, symbolize and shape the past. This means of course that history can never be thoroughly demythologized because its earliest form is the compact between memory and story. The story itself is not what the “modern,” self-confident scientific history of Nietzsche’s day was offering. The source-based work of scholars like von Ranke, which periodized and typified history and offered “solutions” to conundrums like the history of the renaissance papacy, was of no interest at all to Nietzsche, who hoped that the scientific methods of his day would be seen as a kind of superstition.

In his later work, especially Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche would return to the theme of history in a more pessimistic way. But even in the early work he is concerned with its power: “Unrestrained” history–a pure historicism that pulls no punches, leaves no myth unploughed and nothing to be guessed at, is “always annihilating.” It is a drive unto itself, a drive for explanation. It is inherently destructive, “for if no constructive drive is active behind the historical drive, if one does not destroy and clear away so that a future already alive in our hope may build its house on cleared ground, if justice alone rules, then the creative instinct is enfeebled and discouraged.”

History can express this destructive drive in any direction, toward any object susceptible of historical study: marriage, art, the history of nations, morals, literature, warfare.

But of the subjects over which history can wield its authority, none is more vulnerable to destruction, Nietzsche thought, than religion. Perhaps that is because religion belongs to the genealogy of history (as it does to science and philosophy). Whatever Nietzsche would later think about the process of destruction, his early work finds a kind of piety and regret close to the surface:

“A religion, which is to be transformed into historical knowledge, a religion which is to be thoroughly known in a scientific way, will in the end also be annihilated. The reason [for this] is that the historical audit always brings to light much that is false, crude, inhuman, absurd, violent, [such] that the attitude of pious illusion in which alone all that wants to live can live is necessarily dispelled. Only with love, however, only surrounded by the shadow of the illusion of love can man create. That is, only with an unconditional faith in something that is perfect and righteous.” (38-9)

Hence the dilemma. History is necessary. But for creativity to operate, so must love.

It comes down in the long run to what you are willing to ignore, pass over, or forgive for the sake of creativity which is rooted in the illusion of love. It isn’t that history (or science) can’t chop religion down to size: it can, because it has the power and the tools to do so. It’s a question of whether–in chopping away at the trees to clear the field–you have a house to build or simply enjoy the sound of an axe as it bites the wood.

17 thoughts on “Nietzsche: Of Love, Trees, and Religion

  1. You always capture things so incisively and have a profoundly beautiful way of expressing them. History will annihilate religion if it’s critical and not embellished with glorifying interpretation, but as Nietzsche points out, we have no bare facts, only interpretations. If only histories of the war could dispose of war but they are always packaged interpretations. Maybe we need to ‘let go’ of history as any indication of history, and love the story, as story. Or appreciate the story and let it go. I have found Nietzsche immensely difficult to read – and he is so tragic, I have always needed to purify my own soul after getting lost in his words, to wash away his pain.


    • This essay brings to mind Camus’ observation on history…

      “It is true that we cannot “escape history,” since we are in it up to our necks. But one may propose to fight within history to preserve from history that part of man which is not its proper province.”

    • And the next question, and possibly the most difficult, is what is that part of the human that is not the province of history. Does such a thing exist at all?

      • In 1964, in the midst of the Free Speech events at Berkeley, my class on Camus and other Modern Spokesman met one evening at a TA’s home for discussion. One point was that the arrow of flight, the journey, and not the destination, was what was most important. That is to say, it was the story of the individual, the history, that was important.

        Today, I sat reading Bill Nye’s comments from the Humanist of the Year award: “Science is the best idea we’ve had so far. It could change, right? Got a better idea? Bring it on.”

        Perhaps that is the part of the human that is not the province of history. Science is, in some sense, outside the individual’s story. And, from what I know, history is the story of individuals.

      • Dave: Bill Nye the ‘science guy’ is a strange choice for Humanist of the Year, or perhaps it’s just that I don’t think he’s much of a humanist. I’m not sure I’d choose his quotation as a response to Camus’ dilemma. His atheistic anti religious stance is more akin to that of the ‘new atheists’ I think, than the atheist contexts of Nietzsche and Camus. The popular American science guy’s claim to comedy fame seems to be won by his laughing at people rather than creative humour, although I suppose the ridiculous big bow tie is amusing especially as it’s generally crooked. I’m not sure I’d want him to teach my children. Nevertheless, doesn’t science too become history tomorrow? I don’t agree either that history is only the story of individuals. Societies play a large part for a start.

    • Friedric Nietzsche’s certain understanding of Jesus with his idiom the kingdom of God must be made a comment,
      “What is “the good news’? That true life, eternal life, has been found — it is not something promised, it is already here,it is within you: as life is lived in love, in love without substraction, exclusion, without distance. Everyone is the child of God — Jesus definitely claims nothing for himself alone — and as a child of God everyone is equal to everyone else.
      Jesus’ faith dosen’t prove itself, either by miracles or by rewards and pomises, and least of all by ‘scripture’ (as NT “proved” the Christ of faith): it is, as every moment, its own miracle, its own reward, its own proof, its own ‘Kingdom of God’.
      In the whole psychology of the ‘Gospel’ (of Jesus) the concepts of guilt and punishment is lacking;
      also the concept of reward. ‘Sin’ (all basic tenets of Christiaity)– any distance that separates God and man — is abolshed; prescisely this is the ‘good news’. Blessedness is not promised, is not tied to any conditions: it is the only reality.
      The deep instinct for how one would have to live in order to feel oneself ‘in heaven’. to feel ‘eternal’ while in every other condition one certainly does not feel oneself ‘in heaven’; this alone is the psychological reality of ‘redemption’ — A new way of living, not a new belief. The kingdom of heaven is a condition of the heart — not something that comes ‘above the earth’ or ‘after death’.The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept –The kingdom of God isn’t somthing tht one waits for; it has no yesterday and no tomorrow, it dosen’t come in ‘a thousand years’ — it is an experience that takes place inside the heart, it is everywhere, it is no-where.”

      • However irreconsilable some of Nietzsche’s beliefs, like “superman” and that men should obey their will to power irregradless of the consequences, teachings used by dictators Hitler and Mussolini, in spite of all, his understanding of the teachings of Jesus with his idiom the Kingdom of God, stands as one of the most insightful of any like interpretation I am aware of amd one which I take to be the content of his statment: “an unconditional faith in something that is perfect and righteous”. This clearly reflects the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson one of his mentors.

      • Joe,
        I cannot let go of Letting Go of Jesus. However belated, I am compelled with deepest concern to attempt further comment. Your statement “Jesus as an ethical teacher has to go the way of his divinity and miracles – I am saying what I think is historically true in terms of the way history deals with its own – we leave him at the door of the church – as one unknown”. This has a final dogmatic sense, however, your October 10 comment “I myself cannot let go in the sense of leaving history behind”, may yet say the door is not fully closed. I want to challenge your “to let go’s” by arguing from your essay Nietzsche: Of Love Trees and Religion.
        But first Camus’ statement: “It is true that we cannot escape history since we are in it. But one may purpose to fight within history to preserve from history that part of man which is not its proper province.” It is this fight which I attempt. That part of man which is its proper province relates to the history of sense perceived events, but sense perceivd knowledge is not the extent of reality, there is that integral thought, beyond all sense perception, lacking which our thinking must fail. It is integral thought which is that part of man (which is only within consciousness – Plato’s ideas) that is not the proper province of history. Jesus with his idiom the Kingdom of God was about integral thought, the ultimate solution to the human condition, God-man relationship, Ultimate Concern. In spite of the extent to which history has corrupted Scriptural credibility, history can yet take us to the Scriptural source for apostolic witness, but history cannot interpt its meaning – this is not its peoper province.

        Now to Nietzsche, his quote: “A reigion which is to be transformed into historical knowledge, a religion which is to be thoroughly known in a scientific way will in the end be annihilated. The reason for this is that the historical audit always brings to light much that is false, crude, inhuman, violent, such that the attitude of pious illusion in which all that wants to live is necessarily dispelled. Only with love, however, only surrounde by the shadow of the illusion of love can man create. That is only with unconditional faith in something that is perfect and righteous”. See the above coment for Nietzsche’s explication of his faith.

        I take the above to be Nietche’s commentary on traditional Christianity, his deep lament over hisory’s inability to credibly report this ultimate revelation of Jesus so creatively explicated in his faith statement.
        The Jesus tradition has been transformed into histroical knowledge: the Jewish common sense Pauline kerygma: all men inherit an irresistible urge to sin, God, obligated to maintain His justice, cannot forgive man without the proper sacrifice which no mere man can offer. Jesus a semi-god, not of human procreation thus sinless, by his death offered the proper sacrifice – now God can in justice accept sinful man forgiving his sins. Thus to transform the revelation of Jesus into historical knowledge. Paul the primary “audit” brings to light much that is false, etc. It is within this Pauline context that the real Jesus has been corrupted, robbed of real significance, even to the extent of raising the doubt if he ever was.
        Again I make reference to the March 24, 2009 letter which by strange happenstance ended up as comments to your essay The Importance of the Historical Jesus: A Jesus Project Quodblet. as a reconstruction of the Jesus tradition. I believe it connects the essential dots to serve as a frame of reference for the path to the real Jesus. I dare a brask question: Can we afford to remain part of the problem, stuck with an over critical

    • Steph, I must challenge your October 28th reply to Dave as beeing seriously false. Not only have you misinterpreted Nietzsche’s statement, but to make the implication in any sense that Nietzsche is atheist is flately false. Read again “as if for the first time” my September 3rd comment: Nietzsche on Jesus. However erratic some of his belif, just here he is an indisputabe believer. Further read my November 10 comment for my understanding of both Camus’ and Nietzsche’s statements. If I am missing something kindly reply.

      • Must you? I specifically mentioned “atheist contexts”. I differentiated this from contemporary atheism. But I do not wish to engage in debates. Life is precious, time is precious, so be blessed that yours is too.

  2. drdave,
    you make reference to Bill Nye’s comment: “Science is the best idea we’ve had so so far — ” forces me to wonder if you have read “Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists”. The concluding paragraph of the Introduction: According to their view: “physics deals with shadows, to go beyond shadows is to go beyond physics, to go beyond physics is to head toward meta-physics or mysticism – and that is why so many of our pioneering physicists were mystics, The new physics contributed nothingg positive to this mystical venture, except spectacular failure, from whose smoking ruinss the spirit of mysticism gently arose”.”

  3. Kurt Vonnegut once said..”Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”
    Science is fine and marvelous, but like any tool it can be used for destructive purposes. It hasn’t put an end to our unending violence, only refined and honed the techniques of destruction. And scientists have been taken in by all sorts of lunacies…like the practice of lobotomies and the defense of Eugenics.
    As Mr. Hoffmann has observed…”Putting Science in God’s throne doesn’t make the diktats humane, it just changes tyrants.”

  4. Nietzches’ cynicisms of Christianity, like most men, tend to be built upon a life of “observations” not “participations”. To opine about the “Kingdom of God” without experiencing it as a citizen is one of the problems with some men who WRITE history. Passion is “between the sheets” ( going at it ), not sitting beside the bed smoking a cigarette and watching someone else “go at it”, yes? It is more enjoyable to listen or read the remarks of men who have LIVED life ( religious experiences with substance concerning the kingdom concept/reality) than to waste good beer wondering why they had so much time to sit and write about it. Moses taught, “Love thy neighbor as thyself..”, but Jesus taught, “Love your neighbor even as I have loved you and lay my life down for you…”. Loving someone from the vantage point of self is much different than to “love selflessly”. I wonder if Nietzche ever had the priviledge of that lind of love ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s