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Julian Young’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion, Part 1

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Part 1 of 2

Julian Young
Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Julian Young’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion is a tremendously exciting yet meticulously scholarly work, which overturns a century of Nietzsche interpretation, (primarily but not exclusively Anglophone) and re-roots Nietzsche solidly in the late 19th century “Volkish” environment – and hence, one could argue, solidly in the 21st century realm of Neo-Pagan – New Right – National Anarchist thought and activity.

Julian Young is something of a rare bird among modern academics. First, he writes straightforward prose. Second, though a professional philosopher (at the University of Auckland), he takes seriously many figures still considered suspect by academia, such as Heidegger, or marginal, such as Schopenhauer.

More importantly, he takes them seriously on their own terms, not contemporary fashions, and is concerned to defend them from the most egregious of their detractors. Among his previous books, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art is an example of expounding the unfashionable, while Heidegger, Philosophy, Nazism shows him in the defensive mode. The latter book argued that Heidegger’s philosophy was “quite compatible with modern social democracy” at least in the sense of not committing one to taking the road to Auschwitz. The present book combines both talents, and might have benefited from a title along the lines of “Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion and Politics, and Why They are not a Threat to Liberal Democracy.”

It was Walter Kaufmann, over 50 years ago, who rescued Nietzsche from the scrap heap that the victorious Allies were consigning anything remotely connected to the Nazi régime. (Tomislav Suni? calls this “The Origins of Political Correctness”). In doing so, he created a portrait of Nietzsche as reclusive philologist devoted exclusively to elitist psychology and philosophical niceties, which was as much a distortion as earlier attempts to present him as a proto-Nazi ideologue. To this day, almost all Anglo-American interest in Nietzsche, positive or negative, takes him to be either promoting the needs of an intellectual, physical, or aesthetic elite (with or without “ruthless” domination of the herd, or what Bernard Williams called his “bloody-mindedness”) or else contributing to the ongoing discussion of ethical individualism in Oxford common rooms.

But as Young acidly observes, On the Genealogy of Morality, a middle-period work where Nietzsche was at his most “philosophical,” did not wash up, in English, on Brighton Beach in the 1950s. Young intends to return Nietzsche to his proper context: a social and religious reformer in the mode of the 19th century German Volkish movement: “conservative, past-oriented,” but certainly not National Socialist (pp. 4–6). Think Stephan George rather than Heidegger.

Thus, while for Anglo-American academics and pop culture Nietzsche is some kind of “ethical individualist,” for good or bad, and definitely an atheist (mostly for good), Young, after marching his students through Nietzsche’s entire canon for a graduate seminar, formed an entirely different image. In a preview of his clear and methodical style, Young states his thesis right up front: Nietzsche’s thinking is “…communitarian thinking in the sense that the highest object of its concern is the flourishing of the community as a whole. And second, it is religious thinking in that it holds that without a festive, communal religion, a community—or, as Nietzsche frequently calls it, a “people” [the word Nietzsche uses, we will see, is “Volk”] —cannot flourish, indeed cannot properly be said to be a community” (p. 1). Nor is the social totality “…valued for the sake of higher types. Rather, the higher types are valued for the sake of the social totality” (p. 3). This social totality will be hierarchical by nature, and, far from crudely nationalistic, it will fit into a cosmopolitan world community, modeled on the medieval Church but with a non-dogmatic, pluralistic structure that more like contemporary National Anarchist theorizing

Characteristically, Young begins not with Nietzsche, but with Schopenhauer’s essay “On Man’s Need for Metaphysics;” not only because Nietzsche called him “my first and only educator,” but also because Young thinks Schopenhauer is correct (p.10). For all three philosophers a religion has “four central . . . features: a solution to the problem of [my] death, a solution to the problem of pain, an exposition and sanctioning of the morality of a community of believers, and [it does all this by the community-making authority conjured up through] a sense of mystery” (p. 13).

Young then turns to Nietzsche’s first major publication, The Birth of Tragedy (BT). BT is obviously about ancient history, but since Nietzsche himself tells us that history is only interesting as a “polished mirror” he is really writing about his own time—and ours. Since Young’s thesis is that there is an enduring continuity in Nietzsche’s life work, a focus on this first publication can serve to give the flavor of what Young has found in each succeeding book.

For Nietzsche, the tragic drama was born when the Greeks domesticated (or “spiritualized”) the raw, violent intoxication of the Dionysian mystery cult, creating a public religious festival (less a stuffy, elitist night at the opera than a rock festival or football match, and with tickets paid for by the state!) that answered to the four requirements of a successful religion. How did they achieve this triumph?

To explain this, we need to take a step back. Nietzsche identifies three possible responses to the religious problem.

First is the Apollonian, the keyword of which, Young suggests, is “image.” As an interesting aside, Young notes that Nietzsche actually uses “dream” as the keyword, but in latter writings abandons it as unsuitable; apparently, Nietzsche was what we today would call a lucid dreamer, aware, while dreaming, that he was beholding a dream (p. 17). He seemed to think everyone dreamed the same way, but what he really means by “dream” here is a conscious artistic product, not an ephemeral delusion.

Apollonian art, epitomized by Homer, justifies the terrors of existence by using “focus” and “perspective” to present our life as beautiful images, an idealized life that even the gods share; “the ultimate theodicy!” (De Benoist would agree with Nietzsche that the tormented, other-worldly figures of Christian art, such as El Greco‘s, are alienating because they live lives we cannot share). Nietzsche uses the example of soldiers battling in a painting, where we are aware not of blood and death but only the beautiful rendering of the horses. Today one might think of such movies as Beowulf or 300, where computer-perfected human images tear each other apart without any real suffering.

And that is the problem; by eliding “how it feels to be on the inside of loss, injury and mortality” (p. 19) the Apollonian has no real answer to my death; it is, as Heidegger would say, inauthentic.

Enter, presumably from the barbarian East, the Dionysian, epitomized by the image-less arts of music and dance. Its keyword, Young notes, is Rausch, “intoxication.” (Young, however, doesn’t seem aware that some researchers in the history of entheogens have speculated that Nietzsche’s casual reference to intoxication is the first recognition by a modern scholar of the role of drugs in the Greek Mysteries.) It is “a transcendence of everyday consciousness in which we overcome individuality and so, of course, the mortality that attaches to it” (p. 21).

While Apollonian art created this-worldly beauty, the Dionysian experience, through music and dance (in tragedy) and drugs (in the Mysteries) brings the spectator to a state of transcendence—though not, as in Schopenhauer, transcendence to an other-worldly state, but a state of identification with the world process itself. (Pantheism, if you will, though one might also compare it to Evola’s virile affirmation of the will in contrast to Christianity’s “womanish” flight from the world.) It is a state where “my” death is irrelevant, and pain and suffering occur as parts of a divine process or even play.

Ironically, the “pure” Dionysian state, though a kind of “we’re all one” pantheism, could, and often enough did, result in violence and chaos. After all, if we’re all one, who’s injuring whom? Even murder, when called “human sacrifice,” could be precisely “an affirmation of the supra-individual identity” (ibid.).

Moreover, both Dionysian modes—apathetic “my kingdom is not of this world” withdrawal and furious ecstasy—are incompatible with individual assertion and competition; thus the most fully developed forms of “the original male lust for struggle” (BT 21), from athletic games to the state and warfare, are short-circuited. (Although Nietzsche had been a colleague of the matriarchal ethnologist Johann Jakob Bachofen in his Basel days, he seems here to anticipate the rival theory of human culture arising from the primitive male band or Männerbund preferred by Volkish writers from Hans Blüher to Baron Evola to Alisdair Clarke.)

Without such striving, no hierarchy will be created or maintained; if there is no “other,” there cannot even be a “homeland” (as New Rightists have emphasized). While the Apollonian fails the individual, the Dionysian cannot fulfill the other half of Schopenhauer’s requirements: there will be no community.

The Greek stroke of cultural genius was to reject both the Apollonian folk festival and the Dionysian mosh pit by combining both in the tragic drama. How did the “tragic effect” work? Apollonian images, the mythological characters and plot, serve to tame, or dilute (like their preferred intoxicant, “mixed wine”) the Dionysian effect of the chorus. The “noble deception” is that “the tragedy concerns only the fate of an individual in a world of individuals” (p. 25; or as we would say, “It’s only a movie”). Instead of apathy or anti-social ecstasy, the spectator of the tragic drama, not subject to the overwhelming effect of the “pure” Dionysian state, can return to normal life, within the polis, but still with his spirit renewed by a milder Dionysian ecstasy and even equipped with Apollonian “role models” from the enacted mythology. As Plato insisted, the liberation from the Cave is not completed until one returns and brings the news to one’s former prison mates.

And the crucial addition of the Apollonian element, the delight in suitably crafted and edited figures of beauty, ensures that the spectator does not abandon the world, and society; indeed, the drama provides exactly the kind of role models that Nietzsche says as essential for creating a flourishing society where hierarchical positions (and Nietzsche believes any vital society is hierarchical) are determined by struggle, forming a natural or biological aristocracy. Providing these models for human emulation is the role of myth, which answers to Schopenhauer’s requirements of community-forming ethics and mystery.

Thus, in the Greek Festival, the two elements, Apollonian (first creating and thereafter celebrating, through mythological drama, a people or Volk) and Dionysian (overcoming pain and fear through ecstatic identification with the world-process) combine to fulfill the personal and communitarian needs that Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and our author believe to be the task of religion.

How did tragedy die? One word: Socratism: “the conviction . . . that human reason, especially science and its offspring, technology, has in principle the capacity to solve every human problem. (p. 15) along with a positive “joy in ‘unveiling‘” (p. 28). One might think here of the currently popular cult around the works of what Theodore Dalyrymple calls “The Neo-Atheists” such as the philosophers Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, the biologist Richard Dawkins, and even the besotted Neo-con Christopher Hitchens.

For the Socratic, things can only be beautiful if they are rational. The spectator was brought down from the ecstatic chorus to a seat in the theatre; only commonplace, “real” events were portrayed, and only a crude “comedy” dealing with conniving slaves and adulterers could thrive. (From The Magic Flute to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Mythological role models, ecstasy and mystery were all lost.

Although all three attitudes are illusions, and thus equally ungrounded, we are fortunate that the Socratic refutes itself. Thanks to “the extraordinary courage and wisdom of Kant and Schopenhauer,” Nietzsche affirms, we now know that reason, confined to appearances, cannot reveal the ultimate nature of things. (Today we might prefer to make a similar argument in terms of neuro-physiology). It follows that cultures of atheism, lacking access to ultimate answers, are inherently unstable, prone to disintegrating in the wake of extraordinary traumas; if 1776 were more than just a Broadway musical and the Constitution truly sacred, would September 11th have led to the Patriot Act?

It would be interesting to hear Young’s reaction to the work of the sociologist Phil Zuckerman, whose argues in such works as Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment that far from being an essential part of a good or even functional society, religion is actually itself a symptom of societal malfunction; given a certain level of social well-being, religion fades away as unnecessary (thus, the high levels of atheism in advanced social democracies like Scandinavia, versus the highly religious, and highly socially insecure, United States).

Nietzsche, I suspect, would just mutter something about “the Last Man,” and note the sterility of their culture (Zuckerman, interestingly, is also an expert on suicide in Scandinavia) although he would also find it hard to accept American’s Christian individualism as not just globally dominant but as good.

In general, though, Nietzsche thinks the problem with modern culture is not its social fragility but that it is degenerate, having moved from Christian slave-morality through “neo-atheism” to nihilism. Unlike the vibrant culture of Athens, made possible by mythological drama that provided glorified figures that “shone” and served as role models and goals for healthy, community-benefiting striving, modern society finds itself in the paradoxical situation of having an elite for whom nothing is “shining” (as in the boredom and triviality of post-modern “cultural appropriation,” multi-culturalism and irony) and a populace for whom everything, and thus nothing, is “shining” (the cult of celebrity and “stars” of “what’s new”).

The salvation of modernity lies in a return to the Hellenic, the rebirth and re-fashioning of Greek religion, the most accomplished form of European paganism. As Nietzsche says in Ecce Homo: “Some call [BT] the ‘Re-birth of tragedy’.”

Most scholars would more or less go along with this as an account of Nietzsche’s early work, culminating in The Birth of Tragedy. Where Young comes into his own is what follows: a systematic examination of all of Nietzsche’s published books and essays, to display the continuity of his religious and communitarian thought: refined, experimentally questioned, extrapolated, but never finally abandoned. (Young wisely abides by Nietzsche’s wishes and avoids the more bizarre and unacceptable working formulations published as the infamous Will to Power.)

In the works starting with Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche is usually presented as having abandoned his romanticism for a tough-minded naturalism. For Young, however, we see Nietzsche “trying on” Socratism (scientism/atheism/naturalism) as a human lifestyle choice. Aphorisms on the ruthless individual breaking the fetters of social convention are smoothly glossed as pertaining only to the rare “free spirit,” the random mutation, who is valued, not for his selfish “novelty” or self-aggrandizement, but only for his unique contribution to the continuous evolution of society—Ezra Pound’s command to “make it new”—which remains Nietzsche’s constant focus.

While academic philosophers themselves have been the first to say that what Nietzsche writes in this period doesn’t seem much like philosophical argument (except the aforementioned Genealogy of Morals) Young is right in emphasizing that Nietzsche remained faithful throughout his career not to Plato’s dialectic (which he a symptom of Greek decadence) but rather to Plato’s medical model, diagnosing the diseases of the soul and reading them writ large in society, predicting their course, and offering diagnoses that vary somewhat, but all converging on ways to create and maintain what we might call great societies.

Here one recalls J. G. Ballard. Trained as a physician, and somewhat uncomfortably pigeon-holed as a “sci-fi” author, Ballard has written a long series books that are essentially social experiments addressing the question of how people and societies will react under either great environmental or social catastrophes; or, more recently, how modern societies can survive with peace and prosperity but without religion. On the latter question he seems to agree with Nietzsche: neo-atheism and radical individualism is no sound basis for a society.

In Nietzsche’s works of this period the naturalistic pose is shown to be inadequate by his weak and inauthentic remarks on death. Nietzsche’s naturalism cannot be truly lived, because it cannot satisfy Schopenhauer’s metaphysical need. But this is not because it is naturalistic (as opposed to otherworldly); it is made unlivable by its assumed positivism, the dogma that the world can only be known from the scientific viewpoint.

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